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Which Team Will Win a Suddenly Crowded East Race?

The cases for and against each of the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference to make the Finals after a very busy NBA trade deadline

AP Images/Ringer illustration

With 25 or so regular-season games left, just five games separate the top seven teams in the Eastern Conference. And the Nets, the preseason betting favorites in the entire NBA, don’t even feature in that group because of an 11-game losing streak, but they’re still just seven games back.

Three different Eastern teams have reached the Finals in the three seasons since LeBron James journeyed west, and this year’s race is also wide open: All eight of these teams have unique strengths and could win a couple of playoff rounds; all eight of these teams also have glaring flaws and could lose early, especially if the playoff seedings land wrong. (Imagine emerging from the fray with the no. 1 seed, only to face Kevin Durant in the first round.) Given their expectations, at least some of these squads will end the postseason profoundly disappointed in their result—and one or two might not even qualify, because the high-scoring Hornets and still-dangerous Hawks won’t roll over in a single-game elimination format.

Now that the trade deadline has passed and rosters are set save for player buyouts, let’s look a little closer at the top eight’s chances to advance to the Finals, with the case for and against each one. Teams are ordered by the current standings.

Miami Heat

Why They’ll Win

The Heat have the East’s best record and its best net rating with garbage time removed, despite Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo combining to miss 44 games. Miami ranks seventh on offense and fifth on defense, according to Cleaning the Glass—now imagine what the team can do when fully healthy.

The Heat roster is balanced, experienced, and 10 or 11 deep with real contributors because of the emergence of Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Caleb Martin, and Omer Yurtseven. Tyler Herro is a near lock to win Sixth Man of the Year. Duncan Robinson’s shooting stroke has returned (41 percent from 3 in his past dozen games).

Why They Won’t

The Heat are trying to win in the modern NBA with a leading duo that can’t shoot: Butler and Adebayo are a combined 14-for-71 (19.7 percent) on 3-pointers this season. Because all the Heat players who shoot more from deep do so well, the Heat have the best teamwide 3-point percentage in the league, but dig a little deeper and it’s fair to wonder whether they’ll have enough spacing in the playoffs.

P.J. Tucker, for instance, leads the league with his 45.8 percent 3-point accuracy, but he still doesn’t command defensive attention despite that season-long hot streak. According to analysis of NBA Advanced Stats data, 81 percent of Tucker’s 3-point attempts this season have been “wide open,” which is the seventh-largest figure for the 224 players this season with at least 100 total attempts. So Miami’s main lineup contains three players with no shooting gravity.

When Butler, Tucker, and Adebayo all share the floor, the Heat are scoring just 108.6 points per 100 possessions, according to CtG, which ranks in the 28th percentile of all league lineups. Granted, they still have a healthy plus-8.0 net rating in those minutes because that group’s defensive chops are so extraordinary, but it’s a weakness that the right opponent can exploit. As a team, Miami turns the ball over a lot, but compensates for leaky ballhandling and imbalanced shooting by generating oodles of free throw attempts—but against an opponent like Cleveland, which forces turnovers and doesn’t allow free throws, the Heat could struggle to score.

Chicago Bulls v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Chicago Bulls

Why They’ll Win

Even amid injuries, the Bulls stubbornly stick near the top of the standings because of consistent play from their stars. And when healthy, the perimeter quartet of Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Zach LaVine, and DeMar DeRozan has excelled, placing in the 99th percentile with a net rating of plus-16.3 points per 100 possessions, per CtG. That group hasn’t played together in months because of injuries, but it works in theory as well as it does in practice: Ball and Caruso are terrific defenders who keep the ball moving on offense, while LaVine and DeRozan—the latter making a case for first team All-NBA—provide the points. Former no. 4 pick Patrick Williams, who has played just five games this season, is also expected back at some point and could provide a boost on the wing.

Why They Won’t

At some point, the injuries must mount too high: Right now, four of the team’s six most important players—Ball, Caruso, Patrick Williams, and most recently LaVine—are out. Asked after the deadline whether he’d had a wish list going in, Bulls executive Arturas Karnisovas responded, “My wish list was to get healthy.” Then LaVine flew to Los Angeles to see a knee specialist.

Moreover, even if the Bulls’ best all return before the playoffs, they will be hard-pressed to slow the big wings and centers who star for the conference’s other top teams. Would any Bulls fan feel comfortable entering a playoff series with Nikola Vucevic on Joel Embiid, or a rusty Williams on Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Javonte Green on Kevin Durant? Chicago held steady at the trade deadline instead of pushing for a Jerami Grant type, and now the matchup problems that always loomed over their postseason prospects remain.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Why They’ll Win

I wrote last month that Cleveland has a real shot at the East’s no. 1 seed, and all the same arguments apply for why the Cavaliers can win the conference this postseason, too, starting with the fact that they have a better point differential than more celebrated contenders like the Bulls, Bucks, 76ers, and Nets.

Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley give Cleveland the best interior defense in the league, and more broadly provide a unique challenge for opposing teams because of the rarity of a two-big alignment—to say nothing of Cleveland’s three-big front line when Lauri Markkanen is healthy—in the modern NBA. And Darius Garland’s breakout campaign has grown only more impressive after Collin Sexton’s and Ricky Rubio’s injuries; since Garland became the Cavaliers’ lone remaining lead guard, the only players with more per-game possession time than Garland are James Harden and Luka Doncic. Garland is averaging 21.3 points and 9.3 assists per game in that span.

Why They Won’t

Playoff experience is probably overrated—a dearth didn’t slow the Hawks or Suns last postseason—and reserves Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo have plenty, but Cleveland will pose an extreme test of that narrative, as the five starters have combined for a total career playoff record of 1-8 (all for Allen in Brooklyn).

Anyway, Cleveland has more potential problems than a first-time playoff adjustment. The offense tends to collapse without Garland—who’s currently battling a back injury—and while trade acquisition Caris LeVert theoretically addresses that problem, he isn’t the most efficient scorer or generous creator. Cleveland ranks just 20th in offensive rating, according to CtG, and that’s before playoff defenses utilize the extra time to key in on how to stop the Cavaliers’ specific, strange lineup. For as difficult as the Cavaliers will make it for top opponents to score, they might find just as many problems on the other end.

Philadelphia 76ers New Player Portraits Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Philadelphia 76ers

Why They’ll Win

The 76ers were in the thick of the Eastern race even before the trade deadline, and then they effectively swapped Seth Curry’s minutes for James Harden’s. We have many thousands of words you can read about how Harden and Embiid might fit together—but the 76ers’ strengths extend beyond that duo and fellow max player Tobias Harris. Doc Rivers has a number of options he can use depending on what the 76ers need in any given situation: sparkplug scoring from Tyrese Maxey, in-your-jersey defense from Matisse Thybulle, or 3-and-D reliability from Danny Green and Georges Niang.

Why They Won’t

In clutch situations (the score is within five points in the final five minutes) in his playoff career, Harden is shooting 38 percent from the field (50-for-130) and 23 percent on 3-pointers (14-for-61). The peak version of Harden never reached the Finals—so why would an older, less efficient version who’s out through the All-Star break with a hamstring injury? Harden is such a gifted offensive player that he’ll probably mesh with Embiid just fine, even without much time for them to jell before the playoffs, but it’s unclear how much of Harden’s lethargy with the Nets this season was due to waning motivation versus actual age-related decline.

The 76ers might have the best duo in the conference now, but that’s no longer true if Harden is a step slower or his shot is a touch less confident; a defender like Holiday or Butler or Marcus Smart could make him miserable throughout a series. Until Harden proves he’s back in form, the 76ers remain a theoretical threat rather than a full-on favorite.

Milwaukee Bucks

Why They’ll Win

When Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday all play, the Bucks are 23-6; their record falls to 12-16 when one or more sits. That trio has a plus-13.9 net rating, per CtG. There’s no need to get any more detailed than that: The Bucks are awesome when their three stars are healthy, and they’re still the team to beat in the East for that reason. The defending champion with the same core in place should be the favorite.

Why They Won’t

While the three stars are right, a lot else has gone wrong for the Bucks this season—with effects that could linger into the playoffs. Days after Milwaukee traded Donte DiVincenzo to Sacramento, Pat Connaughton went down with a finger injury that required surgery. Although Connaughton expects to return this season, any setback to his recovery would leave the Bucks perilously thin on the perimeter if they can’t add a prized buyout target like Goran Dragic.

Brook Lopez’s absence since the first game of the season hurts most of all, and it remains unclear when he’ll return from back surgery. Last season, the Bucks tied for third in shot quality allowed, according to Second Spectrum; this season, they’ve fallen to 19th, sandwiched between the Kings and Knicks.

Remove Lopez’s size and smarts from the middle, and Mike Budenholzer’s rigid defensive scheme is much less intimidating; there’s also less opportunity for Giannis to roam as the league’s most devastating help defender if Lopez doesn’t have the paint secure. The Bucks’ trade of DiVincenzo at the deadline brought back Serge Ibaka, but age and injuries have sapped the former block champion’s athleticism and production. The injuries to Milwaukee’s outer rotation give the stars a much smaller margin of error to repeat.

Boston Celtics

Why They’ll Win

Sure, a favorable recent schedule helps, but point differential is a stronger predictor of future success than record, and the streaking Celtics now boast the best point differential in the conference, at plus-4.8 per game.

Already a defensively oriented team—the Celtics are up to second in the league in defensive rating, per CtG—Boston doubled down at the trade deadline. Individual defensive stats are squishy, but trade acquisition Derrick White ranks fourth in the entire league in defensive impact this season, according to estimated plus-minus. Boston now employs two guards who rank in the top 10. Good luck scoring against the Celtics’ new closing five.

Top Defenders by Estimated Plus-Minus

Player Defensive Impact Per 100 Possessions
Player Defensive Impact Per 100 Possessions
Draymond Green +4.7
Gary Payton II +3.7
Evan Mobley +3.2
Derrick White +3.1
Alex Caruso +3.0
P.J. Tucker +3.0
Jarred Vanderbilt +3.0
Marcus Smart +2.9
Jarrett Allen +2.9
Rudy Gobert +2.7
Bam Adebayo +2.7
Matisse Thybulle +2.6

Why They Won’t

The Celtics and Cavaliers have nearly identical offensive and defensive ratings—they’re separated by 0.1 points per 100 possessions on offense and 0.3 on defense, per CtG—so they have nearly identical cases for and against, too. Which means: How will Boston score enough to compete with the Antetokounmpos and Embiids and Durants they’ll need to beat in the playoffs? Boston ranks just 27th in the proportion of shots it generates at the rim, per CtG, which is OK if a team has midrange mavens—the Suns rank 30th in rim rate—but a major concern otherwise.

The Celtics also have the worst group of 3-point shooters among all contenders. They’re at 33.8 percent from distance on the season, the worst mark for any team with a winning record, and it’s not as if Boston’s top players fare any better. In both games since the trade deadline, they used a closing lineup of White, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Robert Williams III; the best 3-point mark among that quintet belongs to Brown, at just 34.2 percent.

Toronto Raptors

Why They’ll Win

Toronto made the most on-brand trade of the deadline, adding 6-foot-8 Thaddeus Young to a roster overflowing with like-sized bodies: Eight of the 10 Raptors who have played at least 500 minutes this year are 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8, or 6-foot-9. The only exceptions are the sweet-shooting Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr., who are both hitting 40 percent of their 3s this season.

But the strange configurations Toronto draws up with that roster could make it a nightmare matchup in the postseason: The Raptors are a tremendously malleable group, all long limbs and swarming hands and fungible matchups throughout.

The most illustrative Toronto stat comes from the website BBall Index, which has tracked “defensive versatility” since 2013-14 by measuring “how often players spend on defense guarding players of different positions.” And Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes’s 2021-22 season ranks first on the whole list, among all player seasons with at least 1,000 minutes in the past eight seasons. BBall Index estimates that Barnes has guarded every position at least 17 percent of the time:

  • Point guards: 17 percent
  • Shooting guards: 17 percent
  • Small forwards: 22 percent
  • Power forwards: 20 percent
  • Centers: 25 percent

That kind of flexibility almost makes the Raptors’ defense matchup-proof. Even Embiid, the gargantuan center theoretically best positioned to punish Toronto’s lack of size, has admitted he struggles to beat Nick Nurse’s pesky traps.

Why They Won’t

There’s a recurring theme to this list, which is part of what makes the Eastern race so enticing. None of the teams, save maybe Miami, exhibits optimal two-way balance: The high-octane offenses can’t guard as well, while the stingy defenses can’t score. In Toronto’s case, the team generates the second-highest rate of transition opportunities in the league, per CtG, behind only the swashbuckling Grizzlies—but when forced into the half court, against set defenses, the Raptors rank only 25th in points per play.

The teams behind them in half-court offense? New York, New Orleans, Orlando, Oklahoma City, and Detroit. That’s not encouraging company.

Brooklyn Nets

Why They’ll Win

The rosy view for Brooklyn, post-deadline, is that a reengaged Ben Simmons is a perfect fit for the Nets. It’s not hard to envision a Warriors facsimile in Brooklyn: Durant as Durant, Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry as the Splash Brothers, and Simmons as Draymond Green.

And while the Nets sit in eighth place at the moment, with a negative scoring differential on the season, most of that damage has come with Durant hurt: Brooklyn was in second place and just half a game out of first when Durant sprained his knee a month ago. When he returns, so too will the Nets’ championship hopes.

Why They Won’t

Temper expectations for Simmons for now; he hasn’t played an NBA minute since last postseason, when he shot 34 percent from the free throw line. There’s a vast chasm between Simmons’s nebulous current status and peak Draymond Green. Throw in Irving’s continued part-time status, due to his refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, and Durant’s lingering injury, and the Nets have several legitimate reasons for concern.

At the very least, with Durant’s absence stretching longer, the Nets are probably the most likely team on this list to land in the play-in round and face the toughest path to the Finals. There’s a reason that no team seeded sixth or lower has reached the Finals since the 1999 Knicks—as, say, last season’s Lakers demonstrated, even a team with more talent than a typical no. 7 seed finds trouble when it’s thrust into an immediately difficult playoff matchup.

And the Nets’ particular problems could grow even worse, depending on matchups. Right now, the Raptors are the East’s no. 7 seed and the Nets are no. 8. If both teams stay there, Brooklyn would be without Irving for the entire play-in round because of the vaccination requirements in Canada and New York City.

In other words, in a fitting end to this exercise, the Nets offer the widest gap between ceiling and floor for any team on this list. They could rampage through the playoffs with three ascendant stars; they could also run back the plan foisted upon them by injuries in the 2021 postseason, when an overburdened Durant had to try to win by himself.

Stats through Sunday’s games.