NBA Contenders or Pretenders: Eastern Conferenceby John Devereaux January 17, 2022 0 comments
The Eastern Conference of the NBA is filled with teams with playoff ambitions. Teams that came out of the bottom of the barrel are now becoming postseason contenders. The NBA is filled with parity this season, as there is not a clear-cut team expected to win the conference. Teams have playoff aspirations, but not every team is a true contender. Some with competitive records halfway through the season are either true contenders to win the conference or they are pretenders in disguise.
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Atlanta is currently sitting below the playoff bubble with a 17-23 record. Injuries and a slow start have derailed their season so far. This team is still trying to make the playoffs, hoping to bounce back into the conversation before the season’s end. The Hawks are not a contender this season, and changes to the roster will have to be made before they can be reclassified into that category.
Atlanta has already made a major move, as they traded away guard Cam Reddish to the New York Knicks for a protected first-round pick and Kevin Knox. The team already announced that they will be starting a fire sale if the price is right for every player outside of Trae Young and Clint Capela.
Boston has the ability to be a contender, the team has the talent to be a top-three seed. The Celtics have started slowly, with Tatum and Brown going on small hiatuses from time to time for injury or shooting streaks. The team is still young, and with a rookie head coach, there is still a lot to learn from the franchise. This season is a wash for the team, but it had flashes of what they could be when healthy. Boston could be a dark horse towards the end of the season if the ball starts to consistently drop through the net.
The Nets are an obvious contender. They have arguably the best player in the NBA in Kevin Durant, and two elite guards surrounding him in James Harden and Kyrie Irving. Durant is in the MVP conversation this season, as he has been the most consistent player in the league. Offensively, the forward has been unstoppable, making the Nets the team to beat each night. Brooklyn’s starting five is the best in the NBA, but their bench is a bit lackluster.
As long as Durant, Irving, and Harden are available to play, this team can make a run for the title of champions for the Eastern Conference. Head coach Steve Nash has done a great job in installing waiver wire pick-ups into the lineup that keep the team afloat during these tough months. His ability to adjust a lineup has steadily improved and his call-making on rotations have been amongst the best in the league during this month’s stretch.
Charlotte is a year away from running the table in the Eastern Conference. LaMelo Ball is a stud, and is the best pick that the franchise has made since the Michael Jordan era began. Charlotte has a solid young core around Ball, which aims to provide needed help around their superstar. The team also has Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier who are veteran starters with playoff experience.
The main reason this team will not contend for the Eastern Conference title is their lack of an inside presence. The team traded for Mason Plumlee this offseason, but the move ultimately failed. Plumlee is not a rim protector, nor is he an offensive threat. Once the Hornets have a solid low post scorer and defender the team will be running the tables in the league.
DeMar DeRozan‘s comeback tour is officially in full swing. After a few seasons in San Antonio struggling to make a meaningful run towards contending, the shooting guard is revamping his career. As the new leader in Chicago, the guard has thrust the organization back to the No. 1 seed for the first time in nearly a decade. DeRozan’s performance is not the only reason for the team’s success as offseason acquisitions of former Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso are having career-best seasons.
The team has outperformed every expectation that was given them heading into the season. Many believed that they were a middle-of-the-road playoff team and that the offensive side of the ball would be a major flaw. This Chicago team might be the best team in the league, as each game is providing more and more proof of diligence.
Nobody expected the Cleveland Cavaliers to have this great of a start to their season. With questionable offseason moves and a front office that does not showcase a clear path to their rebuild, the team is still winning. Rookie center Evan Mobley has been incredible for the team and is the clear-cut Rookie of the Year. Mobley’s dominance is a key factor in the team’s early success.
Before Ricky Rubio went down with a season-ending injury, he was revitalizing his career. Rubio had never been an offensive player, outside of playmaking. This season with his new team in Cleveland, he was having career nights, and shooting the ball efficiently. This team is much better than everyone originally expected. However, they still lack bench depth and are in need of a more reliable point guard outside of Darius Garland.
Miami is a great team. The roster is built beautifully, as the depth chart has role players that can perform consistently off the bench. The concern of the team that puts them just below contention in the Eastern Conference is their overall health. Bam Adebayo has been out while dealing with a thumb injury since December. Jimmy Butler has missed some time with injuries, and Victor Oladipo is still out and has yet to make his season debut.
The Miami Heat can not win the conference if guard Max Strus and Center Omer Yurtseven are in the starting rotation. Another flaw of this team has been Kyle Lowry. Although he is still an elite playmaker and guard, he has been going through these stretches of games where he is not effective shooting the ball. There are too many games where he finishes with six or seven points, and he is showing a decline in his three-point percentage.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is continuing his dominance in the Eastern Conference. Fresh off his first championship, the Greek Freak is looking to go back-to-back. He is still an MVP caliber player, and when with the team he is capable of dominating the game by himself. This team is built to win, and with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday by his side, the Bucks will continue their dominance.
Milwaukee started slow, as they were flirting with a .500 record through the first 20 games of the season. Since then, they have been amongst the best teams in the league, particularly at home. The Bucks would have had a clearer spot as the best team in the Eastern Conference if Brook Lopez was healthy for them, or if they extended DeMarcus Cousins instead of letting him walk after his 10-day contract.
New York Knicks
The New York Knicks are the NBA’s biggest head-scratchers this season. The team is moderately healthy, as they have not missed their starting core for more than a few games. New York was supposed to be a solid team this year, as they acquired a few role players to boost their depth in the offseason. However, these acquisitions were in vain thus far as they have yet to pan out for the benefit of the team. Both former Boston Celtic guards Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier have been mediocre at best for the team.
RJ Barrett has been good but has not taken that next step in stardom, while every Knicks fan is still wondering if Mitchell Robinson is their center for the future. The team recently made a move to acquire Reddish from Atlanta. This move will help further the depth, and provide another wing to compliment Barrett. They are still far from contention when it comes to winning the East.
Although the team is in complete turmoil with the relationship of Ben Simmons, Philadelphia still has the talent to make a run for the title. Daryl Morey, the team’s President of Basketball Operations, is now throwing Tobias Harris on the trade block, thus adding another star up for grabs. Simmons and Harris have been key pieces to the team’s success the past few seasons, but with Morey just throwing out trades he is slowly ruining the team’s chemistry.
In spite of all the rumors and the absence of their star point guard, the 76ers have been winning games, led by center Joel Embiid. He has the capability to bring a franchise to the playoffs on his own. If Simmons were to come back (though it is confirmed that he will not), this team would be a frontrunner for the East. Role players such as Seth Curry, Tyrese Maxey, and Matisse Thybulle are stepping up, putting them in great shape for a deep playoff run.
Toronto is surprising the league, as they have been relatively competitive. After the departure of former star point guard Lowry, the team seemed to be headed into a rebuilding state. However, the emergence of rookie Scottie Barnes has helped the team stay competitive. Fred VanVleet has also stepped up this season, as he is having a career year. Even with these two players playing well, Toronto does not have the depth to make a deep playoff run.
The bench is lacking in offensive talent. Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher both have been underwhelming this season, which is causing the team’s bench to struggle. The team is in desperate need of a backup shooting guard and small forward. The trade deadline is a month away and President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri should be inquiring with other organizations to fill those needs.
To everyone’s surprise, the Washington Wizards have been relatively good this season. After a few mediocre seasons, the Wizards are starting to look like a playoff team. After trading away Russell Westbrook, Washington has become one of the most well-rounded teams in the league. Bradley Beal has struggled this season shooting the ball, as he is shooting 45 percent from the field and 28 percent from three which is a career-low. Even with Beal struggling shooting consistently the team has had other players step up.
Kyle Kuzma is the most notable player to take a step forward. The forward is averaging 15.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on 45 percent shooting from the field. Kuzma came over in the Westbrook deal along with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell. All three players have elevated since the trade and are a focal point to the team’s success. Even with this newfound success, the team is still a star player away from having contender hopes.
Main Image Credit: via David Richard, USA TODAY Sports