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Make the Case: Who Wins the East?

The NBA’s Eastern Conference is more confusing than ever. We make the cases for five teams to ultimately finish on top.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Eastern Conference is a mess this season, just not in the way most expected. The Hawks and Bulls have successfully sunk to the bottom, and the rest of the conference is one collective shrug emoji. Through three weeks of play, the three best records are owned by, in order: the Celtics (without a potential All-Star), the Pistons (?), and the Magic (???).

Is this all a long con before the Cavaliers surge to the NBA Finals for a fourth straight year? Or is the East primed for a new champ? Five of The Ringer’s NBA writers make the case for five different teams to win the East this season.

Boston Celtics

Jonathan Tjarks: The Celtics may not even need Gordon Hayward to be the favorites out East. After losing their first two games without their prized free agent, Boston has reeled off nine straight wins without him. The Celtics are a fairly complete team with the best point differential in the league (plus-9.1) through the first three weeks of the season. The pick-and-roll between Kyrie Irving and Al Horford is the centerpiece of the offense, while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in Hayward’s absence. Even with so many new faces learning how to play with each other, they already have the no. 1 rated defense in the NBA.

Boston has the pieces to match up with any team in the conference. Brown and Tatum gives the team two athletic wings who can defend multiple positions, while Marcus Smart is one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA. Aron Baynes isn’t flashy, but he’s exactly the type of burly interior defender the Celtics were missing last season. They can play small with Horford at the 5 and switch screens, and they can play bigger with Horford and Baynes together. Brad Stevens has done more with less throughout his time in the NBA, and now he has a roster with the flexibility to play any style of basketball.

The Celtics also have more depth than the other Eastern contenders, with seven different players averaging at least nine points per game. Stevens will be able to mix and match his different players to keep games close, and they can count on Kyrie’s ability to consistently make impossible shots to pull out wins in the fourth quarter. Boston is an exciting young team that will only get better as the season progresses. Now imagine how good the Celtics will be with Hayward.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Chris Ryan: Channing Frye thinks the Cavs suck right now. He plays for the Cavs. Dwyane Wade dreams of a day when the Cavs starters get mad at the Cavs reserves for blowing a lead. He comes off the bench for the Cavs. Ty Lue thinks the Cavs should be embarrassed. He coaches the Cavs (for now). J.R. Smith is having his worst shooting season. He is the shooting guard for the Cavs. Kevin Love was supposed to step up and be the no. 2 option on offense this season, and the most notable thing he’s done so far is check himself out of a game due to stomach cramps and shortness of breath. The Cavs have the league’s worst defense. Defense wins championships. They rank 25th in 3-point shooting percentage in a 3-point-crazy league. And, most ominously, on Monday night, LeBron James posted this to Instagram:


A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

He is the Cavs.

This is bad. No doubt. It’s the worst start LeBron has experienced since his rookie season, and that team had DeSagana Diop and Ricky Davis. The other good teams in the Eastern Conference are no longer asking for permission to compete. Cleveland is as vulnerable as it’s been since LeBron’s return. Nearly every personnel decision the Cavs made over the summer appears have been the wrong one: They missed out on Paul George and Jimmy Butler; it appears they not only lost the Kyrie Irving trade in terms of return, but Cleveland went so far as to outfit Boston, its conference rival; Dwyane Wade is great at parties, but his arrival and flitting between the starting five and the bench has apparently wrecked the depth chart; Derrick Rose is averaging less than two assists per game and is on a minutes restriction; Isaiah Thomas is talking trash on Twitter (I respect it, but it’s not really doing much for the team) and is on an even more severe minutes restriction; Jeff Green is on this roster.

And I am buying all your Cavs stock. Here’s my PowerPoint presentation:

I don’t know whether LeBron is staying in Cleveland past this season or not. I don’t know if he knows. I don’t know if this roster is constructed because of him or in spite of him. I don’t know whether he listens to Lue, likes Love, or cares about J.R.’s ego.

I do know that this season, and especially that Wizards game, seems deeply personal to him. Personal in the sense that it was a rebuttal to Charles Barkley’s accusation that the Cavs avoided the top seed in the East last season to avoid the Wizards. Personal in that the game happened just as people were starting to sing more loudly from the Was Kyrie Right to Leave hymnbook. It’s personal because for the first time in a long time, people are doubting him.

The Cavaliers will go to the Finals because LeBron has gone to the past seven Finals and I cannot possibly bet against that. Maybe the reason the George and Butler deals didn’t work out is that everyone knows LeBron is gone at the end of the season. But maybe they can deal Love or the Brooklyn pick and get back in this thing, reinvigorating the team and making a 1994–95 Rockets-style run to the Finals. There are plenty of reasons this is the end of the Cavaliers reign. There’s one very good one why it’s not. And that’s all I really need.

Milwaukee Bucks

Justin Verrier: I wanted to pick Charlotte for this exercise. I carved out space on Hornets Islet in preseason and was only emboldened by their strong performance to open the regular season (without their second-best player, no less). Kemba Walker is an All-Star. Dwight Howard, back in the friendly confines of a sleepy market, looks like a high-functioning NBA player. Jeremy Lamb looks like a functioning NBA player. I was ready to dive in. I was ready to live my truth.

Then I watched this:

Giannis Antetokounmpo is, by several objective measures, the very best player in the NBA. That is obviously a neat thing to have on any NBA roster, but it’s particularly beneficial in a conference in which admission for elite status has plummeted to one transcendent talent. (To wit: The Knicks, a team that starts Jarrett Jack in 2017, are above .500.) The Bucks’ profile, especially after a recent three-game skid, reads decidedly mediocre: They rank in the league’s bottom third in net rating, and in the East’s bottom five in both win percentage (.444) and point differential (minus-3.1). But they have Giannis, and that alone serves as an in-the-conversation entry pass. Giannis is so good that the big “issue” emanating from the Bucks’ recent malaise is that he may be doing too much.

Indeed, the world constructed around Antetokounmpo has been … unaccommodating. For instance, why is a team built on a foundation of long athletes playing at a bottom-10 pace? Why does this roster have so many centers? Who is even their second-best player? These are all not-so-neat things to have on an NBA roster.

But the Bucks’ fungibility may also be their biggest advantage. Perhaps a coaching change can resuscitate the good vibes from the halcyon days of 16 days ago and snuff out the torches on Bucks Twitter. Khris Middleton, a career 39.8 percent 3-pointer shooter, will surely improve on his current sub-30 mark and provide some much-needed stretch. Jabari Parker’s return, health willing, may not outright save a lacking defensive unit, but a second impact offensive player could certainly ease the burden. And armed with Greg Monroe’s expiring contract, all of their future first-round picks, and incentive to get better sooner than later, Milwaukee is easily among the most likely suspects for an in-season upgrade.

The Bucks are not currently the best team in the East—far from it—but they are, appropriately, the one with the biggest upside.

Toronto Raptors

Danny Chau: A franchise that has been trapped in a three-year rerun of “good not great,” has, at the very least, shuffled the deck. Every Raptors game feels like an episode from Season 2 of The Good Place, with roles and priorities almost in a perpetual shuffle. And yet: The Raptors have the second-highest net rating in the Eastern Conference, all while the team’s best player has played at the level of a reserve.

The Raptors’ points of emphasis were set in the preseason: shoot the 3 and move the ball. Thirty-seven percent of Toronto’s total field goal attempts have come from behind the arc so far this season, compared to 28.9 percent last season. The Raptors are also merely a touch below league average in assist rate so far, as opposed to being dead last (without a close second) in each of the past two seasons. Meanwhile, minor injuries to their front line and a brutal start to the season from Kyle Lowry has forced coach Dwane Casey to experiment with his roster in ways that used to only happen when he was pushed against the wall in a postseason elimination game. Toward the end of last Sunday’s loss to the Wizards, the team trotted out a three-guard backcourt with DeMar DeRozan at the 4. The team’s second-most used combination (Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, C.J. Miles, OG Anunoby, Jakob Poeltl) has nary a starter, but it does have one of the best net ratings among Casey’s high-usage lineups. The season has forced his hand a bit, but it seems Casey’s finally letting loose.

This weird start is much more instructive than last season’s, when the Raptors flirted with the highest offensive rating in league history by letting Lowry and DeRozan take turns picking apart regular-season defenses. We are finally learning things we didn’t know about the team—and what might be possible moving forward. For instance, the Raptors are deeper than they have been in years, and they know it; the start to the season, thus far, has been about collecting data on who works best with whom.

What we’re discovering with the Raptors echoes what we’re seeing with the Clippers, the West Coast representative of postseason fatalism. For the Raptors to make it out of the East, they’ll have to take swings. We’re seeing it with how much burn Anunoby, a rookie, is getting in the fourth quarter as an omni-defense unto himself. We’re seeing it in the slow fade of Jonas Valanciunas, who has looked more compatible with the current NBA than ever before and yet is still unfit to play key minutes down the stretch (Jonas is the only player on the team with a negative on-court net rating). The times have finally come for Casey and the Raptors; if Lowry can forget about his unrequited love for San Antonio long enough to return to form, I think they still have enough talent to be the last Eastern team left standing.

Washington Wizards

Kevin O’Connor: There is only one worthwhile argument that Cleveland can make as the top team in the Eastern Conference: LeBron James. The Gordon Hayward injury severely limits Boston’s chances. The Raptors are taking 3s, but aren’t making many. Giannis Antetokounmpo lacks a complementary star in Milwaukee. There is no true favorite, and I’m not here to convince you otherwise. But without a true juggernaut in East, the door is open for the team with the most continuity and the most lethal backcourt: the Wizards.

John Wall and Bradley Beal can go off any night and they’ve learned how to effectively enhance each other’s skills. Wall is off to an unsteady start, but he has the track record to suggest a return to normalcy by the playoffs is likely. The better focus might be: Can any Cavs defender contain Wall? Though Wall scored only 13 points on 13 shots in Friday’s loss to the Cavaliers, he got to the rim at will and just missed some layups he’d ordinarily hit. It took a historic night from LeBron for the Cavaliers to hold on.

It’s not just Wall whom Cleveland would have to worry about, either. Beal is on the verge of breaking out, and Otto Porter has elevated his game to a higher level. The Wizards have immense lineup flexibility, with the ability to play big with Marcin Gortat or small with Markieff Morris at center. Morris, Porter, and Kelly Oubre have positional versatility to switch screens and the upside to lock down an opponent. The core players are also better complemented by the bench with Mike Scott and Jason Smith at forward and Jodie Meeks and Tim Frazier in the backcourt.

The Wizards could end up the Clippers of the Eastern Conference. But Los Angeles never saw an NBA Finals window this open. The East is vulnerable. The Wizards have the offensive muscle to pounce.