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A Reassessment of the Top of the Eastern Conference

Six contenders have emerged in the East about a quarter of the way through the season. To understand where they’ll go from here, we need to look at what each team has to prove.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the full run of the regular season, NBA teams can only build and break. It’s within that space that the Warriors once evolved to their fullest, pushing the game forward one light-minute at a time. And it’s within that same space that the title aspirations of the 2019 Celtics dissolved to passive-aggressiveness, both on the court and behind the scenes.

The best way to understand any team is to understand what that team has to play for. And nothing reveals whether a team has more to lose or more to gain than 82 games, each its own telling reflection. Those games show off the systems that work and lay bare those that need work. And this season, what teams do with those games just might help make sense of the huddled standings at the top of the Eastern Conference.

Six teams in the East have managed to distinguish themselves, but among them, four are within a game and a half of each other. All six teams, collectively, are 50-3 on their home floor, dominant within their comfort zones. What separates them is the meaning of the games they have left to play.

Consider the Bucks, who would happily skip ahead a few months, if only they could. There are some small matters for Milwaukee to attend to over the next four months, but this is a team that traded away Malcolm Brodgon in the offseason and picked up right where it left off anyway, only to then lose Khris Middleton to a thigh contusion and carry on for weeks without missing a beat. This machine kills flotsam. The East is full of it; the Bucks will roll through Cleveland, Atlanta, and Chicago while leaving nothing in doubt. Then, when the time comes for a more serious contest against the Raptors or Pacers, Giannis Antetokounmpo and friends will treat them as credible threats worthy of being picked apart.

Milwaukee has won 11 straight games in a conference where only a handful of teams have won 11 games at all. It has both the highest margin of victory in the league and the easiest remaining schedule. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer could spend half his days between now and the playoffs parsing every intricacy of his reserve wing rotation—poring over film of every second of basketball that Sterling Brown has ever played, hand-mapping the genome of Donte DiVincenzo—and still have ample time to spare. The key to the Bucks’ success in the regular season is how seriously they take it. It’s an ideological trademark of the Giannis era. There are only so many games and opponents worthy of Milwaukee’s full effort and concentration in December. An entire season must feel like an inconvenience when you’re already the East’s most inevitable team. Unless Budenholzer wants to start making diagrams with straws, there just isn’t any alternative.

That notion must seem so foreign to the Sixers, who have more to puzzle out in the coming months than any other plausible championship contender. What ails Philadelphia is conceptual; before the season, Sixers coach Brett Brown told John Schuhmann of that managing this particular offense is both his “greatest responsibility” and “greatest challenge.” There will always be tension between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, given their overlap in effective range, and the players around them—while quite talented—are far from straightforward. Josh Richardson has some qualities in common with JJ Redick, his Philly predecessor, but makes sense for the team in different ways (as a more varied creator, for example, rather than relying on a hand-off from Embiid). Few players in the league have Al Horford’s feel for passing through the clutter of an offense, though that rarity in itself means that new teammates need time to follow along.

None of which has stopped the Sixers from winning seven of their past eight games, or from playing well enough on balance to keep pace in the standings. A good week is all that separates Philadelphia from a second or third seed, and even now they’re on pace for 57 wins. Concern about the team should be clarified. Most teams—particularly in the East—don’t have the size to hold their ground against the Sixers or the creativity to work around them. What must give Philadelphia pause, however, is the incontrovertible evidence of the 2019 playoffs. Even as the roster has turned over, the same liabilities that made the Sixers one of the worst offenses in the second round of the playoffs persist in some form.

But if not for a charmed, series-clinching jumper from Kawhi Leonard, Philadelphia might have still trudged on to the conference finals. A vicious defense that eats rebounds is frightening enough to potential opponents. Sorting out the offense—which has been consistently mediocre to this point—would turn a contender into a monster. It’s notable, at the very least, for a quarter of the season to have come and gone without much specific progress in that regard. Even with some smaller factors breaking in the Sixers’ favor (like Matisse Thybulle’s contributions out of the gate or Furkan Korkmaz’s most confident basketball of his career), the biggest riddle remains unsolved.

Winning should never stand in the way of a team being honest with itself. Toronto was 39-16 last season when it traded Jonas Valanciunas, principally, for Marc Gasol, who scored less and rebounded less while changing the character of the team for the better. Roster dynamics are subtle business—which makes it all the more challenging for teams like the Celtics and Heat (both 14-5) to know where they really stand. Boston could be every bit as good as that record would indicate and still flawed in some way not consistently captured by regular-season basketball. It’s easy for a team to disguise its pressure points in December, particularly when they take care of the ball (as Kemba Walker teams do) and defend well across the board. An organization could trust in this. Or, it might find that a center rotation of Daniel Theis, Robert Williams, and Enes Kanter strains credulity in a deep playoff run. It is possible to be a good and useful player without being quite good or useful enough for a contender’s demands.

This is not a revolutionary thought; Boston has been the subject of league chatter for months based on its perimeter surplus and interior needs. Success on the floor, however, has forced the Celtics to anchor any trade considerations differently. Mediocrity is a kind of freedom; it’s easier for a middling club to embrace change because so little is at stake. A team with the NBA’s sixth-best net rating will—and should—proceed more carefully before changing the balance of its roster. In reflecting on Boston’s fate last season with ESPN, Celtics president Danny Ainge confessed that the team’s 37-21 record at the All-Star break deterred him from making moves. Success on the floor cannot help but charge that conversation. “So that’s why I didn’t do any deals,” Ainge said. “But in hindsight, you know, I would.” The march of the season gives a team more information, but with it the room to talk in circles.

Miami has the same time for contemplation with an even more ambiguous dilemma. It’s not any one roster position that should worry the Heat, but a broader need for consolidation. It is possible for a roster to be too balanced; piling up 10 rotation-level players on any one team comes with diminishing returns, particularly when those players stretch their games and move the ball so much that they lose possessions in the balance. No team turns the ball over more often than the Heat, even though no single player turns over the ball all that much individually. The offense runs cleanest when Jimmy Butler is on the floor—not because he dominates the ball, but because highly talented players carry their own sense of order. For an organization with such specific taste in players, perhaps the long slog of a season is a means to wait out the most fitting candidate.

Where the Pacers fall in all this is an open question—one even the franchise itself can’t answer. A long regular season is most favorable to those who are left waiting. So much in Indiana depends on the return of Victor Oladipo, both in timing and in shape. Over the summer, team president Kevin Pritchard expressed a hope that Oladipo could be back in the lineup by December or January. Two recent developments suggest Oladipo is getting closer: In late November he went through full-court practices without restriction, and, over the past few weeks, the Pacers have periodically assigned Oladipo to their G-League affiliate in Fort Wayne for additional practice time. After almost a year of caution, Indiana’s best player is finally ramping up.

For a team in their position, the regular season couldn’t be long enough. Quad injuries (like the one Oladipo sustained) are notoriously fickle, which means that Oladipo could be due for controlled minutes and routine rest well beyond his initial return. Indiana has proved its resilience during Oladipo’s extended absence (most recently by overhauling the roster, loosening up their hypertraditional scheme, and still managing a capable defense), but withstanding the unpredictability of a recovering player is another matter entirely. In a devastating injury, the Pacers found a clarity of purpose and a need for makeshift solutions. Getting players in motion before catching the ball gave Indy a sort of stopgap dynamism. In lieu of any one offensive engine, the Pacers rely on several. With Oladipo’s eventual return, much of that will be wiped away. An entire team will need to redefine itself without knowing what to expect from the most critical element involved.

Indiana’s ongoing survival is a great story and a testament to the players and coaches who make the team work on a mechanical level. Nate McMillan has worked (relative) wonders. It’s just hard to see the Pacers’ success to this point as anything other than a placeholder—table-setting for an even more talented and complicated version of this team taking on the toughest remaining schedule in the league. What Indiana needs more than anything is the time to become itself.

To, in other words, draw on the sort of confidence and ease that have made the Raptors one of the best teams in the league.

Everything about Toronto’s season feels fresh, which runs contrary to the very idea of a title defense. After winning all that there is to win, championship teams are forced to scrounge for new motivation or scuttle along, satisfied. The Raptors found an entirely different path. Through Leonard, Toronto was able to win its first title in franchise history, validating the entire team in the process. Kyle Lowry could live the rest of his life knowing that his stubborn, brilliant brand of basketball was the stuff of titles. Pascal Siakam could wake up every morning knowing that his transformation had meant something. Gasol and Serge Ibaka, after years of wondering whether they’d ever get another real shot to win it all, could play out their careers in peace. Every Raptor came to the Finals with something to prove and left baptized in champagne to start again.

Leonard’s choice to sign with the Clippers took something substantial away from the Raptors as a team, but also spared them the staleness of attempting to run back the same squad. What was supposed to be a long, uneven season has turned into a perfect delight: an endlessly resourceful team emboldened by the fullness of its accomplishments. Lowry has been out for nearly a month without issue; Fred VanVleet just stepped in and became a star lead guard on command, propelling the Raptors to seven straight wins. In its latest, Toronto ran up a 40-point lead on Utah by halftime. Toronto also went without Ibaka for weeks, relying instead on Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and winning all the same.

It works not only because Siakam has made another jump (this time to the level of a functional superstar), but because the entire team seems to be above jockeying for shots or touches. Leonard left a vacuum that could have compromised the Raptors. Instead, it gave one of the smartest teams in basketball the opportunity to make each other better. Toronto doesn’t need the season to find itself and, despite the situational convenience of its contracts, seems genuinely too good to mull a roster-changing move. What’s time to a Raptor? A team like this knows exactly what they’ll be in the playoffs because it’s like they never really left at all.