With LeBron James finally gone from the East, the conference finally has some much-needed parity. Unlike the present bloodbath of a Western Conference, the East is composed of four contenders, with a significant drop-off from the eventual fifth seed onward. Though the Indiana Pacers are currently on a four-game win streak and own the third seed, by the season’s end they’ll likely fall to the fifth seed without Victor Oladipo.
As of right now, the competition between the top four teams is close. Milwaukee, Toronto and Philadelphia all bolstered their rosters prior to the trade deadline, and the Celtics are performing well lately with their already solid lineup. Save for the buyout market, playoff rosters are mostly set, so how does the top four stack up in the East?
1. Milwaukee Bucks
By standing and power ranking, the Bucks were first in the East prior to the deadline. They took a big leap at the deadline as well with their acquisition of Nikola Mirotic. While Milwaukee averages the second most points per game in the league, the bulk of it comes from their starters. Amongst starting lineups, the Bucks rank third in points per game, however, their bench ranks just 26th. Mirotic’s 16.7 points in just under 29 minutes of playing time should greatly improve their second unit. Moreover, the Bucks are second in the league in threes made per game, trailing only the Rockets. Mirotic could push them past Houston with his 2.7 threes per contest on 36.8% from deep.
In the new year, the Bucks have been the best in the East, going 16-3. For the season, they rank first in defensive rating, and fourth in offensive rating. Defense wins championships, and the Bucks ability to limit opponent’s scoring, combined with their offensive onslaught, makes them a tough matchup for any opponent.
2. Toronto Raptors
Prior to the deadline, the Celtics or 76ers possibly could be in this second slot, however, the Raptor’s acquisition of Marc Gasol makes their starting lineup tough to beat. Although the Raptors had to ship out Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and CJ Miles to acquire Gasol, the benefits of Gasol far outweigh those of the former three names. Wright’s 6.9 points per game on 43.3% shooting won’t be missed too much, and CJ Miles really has not been the sniper he was in the past, shooting just 31.4% from deep this season. Marc Gasol is a massive improvement over Valanciunas in both scoring, defense and ability to space the floor. Gasol also provides significant veteran leadership to guide Toronto through the playoffs.
The addition of Gasol should move Serge Ibaka to the bench, which will aid Toronto bench that ranks just 19th in bench points per game. Alternatively, Gasol or Siakam could come off the bench, but in either case, the Raptors bench scoring will improve.
3. Boston Celtics
While the names on the 76ers starting lineup are arguably better on paper, the C’s have a significant advantage through their bench. The 76ers were embarrassed by a Kyrie Irving-less Boston squad in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, and in convincing fashion to boot. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier looked great through last year’s postseason. With a year of significant playoff minutes under their belt, they should be even better this year.
Furthermore, Al Horford is a bonafide playoff vet, and Kyrie Irving has championship DNA flowing through his veins. The Celtics are an impressive 14-5 in 2019, and are 8-2 in their last 10. If they can keep up this level of play, it’s possible they pass Toronto for the two seed.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers made waves with their signing of Tobias Harris, which improved an already solid starting lineup. Philadelphia will miss the shooting of Landry Shamet, who put up 1.8 threes per game on 40.4% from deep. However, Harris and his two threes per game on 43.7% from downtown should compensate for this loss. Harris greatly improves the starting lineup’s spacing, which is necessary for a top team that ranks just 15th in threes made per game.
The main issue with Philadelphia is their bench, which ranks 25th in points per game. Rotations tighten up in the playoffs, however, the 76ers lack of solid bench contributors is concerning. The acquisitions of Jonathon Simmons, James Ennis and Boban Marjanovic do provide them with some reserve options, however, the team should be active in the buyout market to reinforce their second unit.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference
Featured image courtesy of Harry How/AP Images
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