NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Push

Following 8 years of LeBron James’ dominance, the NBA’s Eastern Conference has recovered. Instead of a one-man wrecking crew bulldozing through the weaker of the two conferences, the East has become a bloodbath, with several teams more than capable of coming out on top. A multitude of possibilities lie ahead in the concluding weeks of the regular season, and as is true for any NBA champion, health and luck will both be necessities. With only 2 and a half weeks remaining, here are the potential outcomes that lie ahead for the top Eastern Conference competitors.
(Note: These standings/records are as of March 26th)

Miami Heat: 47-27
In a season in which horrid luck regarding injuries has plagued the league, Miami has stayed afloat despite their own misfortunes. Head Coach Eric Spoelstra has become a prime Coach of the Year candidate, aiding in the orchestration of a fearsome defense. From the players’ side, Miami’s stacked defensive personnel alongside an ample amount of three-point shooters allows them to tear up opponents. Notably, of the rotational players that consistently take three-pointers, P.J. Tucker, Caleb Martin, and Max Strus all are shooting above 40% from three, and Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Gabe Vincent, and Kyle Lowry are all within 35-40% [1]. Miami’s personnel enables regular season success, but in the playoffs, the game tends to slow down, with championships being won by incredible half-court scorers. Spoelstra’s half-court offense heavily relies on dribble hand-offs creating space for three point shooters, but against switch heavy teams, which many playoff teams end up being, their offense tends to stall. All-Star Jimmy Butler’s isolation scoring provides assistance in times of stagnation, averaging 21.4 points per game while getting to the foul line 8.1 times per game, but inconsistency with his outside shot could damage the Heat, just as it did in their first round matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks in 2021 [2]. Tyler Herro’s ascension as the likely Sixth Man of the Year with his superb scoring in only his third season will provide a much-needed boost. For Miami to go further than before, they will need to find some halfcourt creation in pivotal moments, something they have failed to do in years past.

Philadelphia 76ers: 46-27
The Ben Simmons saga ended with Philadelphia’s best case scenario, with General Manager Daryl Morey acquiring former MVP James Harden. Morey leveraged the Brooklyn Nets poor standing with Harden due to his unhappiness with the team, pushing all the chips forward to land a former MVP alongside their current MVP candidate in center Joel Embiid. Philadelphia’s top 4 players may be the best top 4 across the league, with Harden, Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Tyrese Maxey paving the way for an absurdly dynamic offense. The 76ers have the talent to win it all, but they also have some intense crash-and-burn potential. Harden may have been an offensive engine at his best, but following a season in Brooklyn with nagging hamstring injuries, he appears a step slower, preventing him from being the all-mighty scoring machine he once was. While he remains an other-worldly floor general who can draw fouls like no other, he still is prone to struggling in the biggest moments. Across playoff game 7s in his career, Harden shoots only 37.4% total, 22.4% from three-point range, and averages 4.2 turnovers a game [2]. As for Embiid, while he may be one of the most dominant post-scorers in the league, with a dynamic offensive arsenal, he also has suffered in pivotal moments. Across all elimination games of his career, Embiid has shot about 42.2% total while averaging 5 turnovers a game [2]. Tobias Harris is suited well for a third-option role, yet just like Harden and Embiid, is prone to playoff disasters, as he shot an abhorrent 19/55 in the final three games in Philadelphia’s 2021 second round exit [1]. Tyrese Maxey has been a breath of fresh air with some change of pace speed for Philadelphia, but remains somewhat inexperienced in only his second season. Philadelphia’s depth is fairly weak outside of their top four. Finally, Head Coach Doc Rivers has self-destructed in the past, becoming the only coach to ever blow three 3-1 leads in a career [3]. Despite all this disaster fuel, Embiid and Harden are still way too skilled of a combination to count out. While much has gone wrong in the past for all parties, the 76ers remain way too talented for their expectation to not be finally concluding “The Process” with a championship.

Milwaukee Bucks: 46-27
The reigning champs remain a threat. Led by Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, All-Star scorer Khris Middleton, and do-it-all guard Jrue Holiday, the Bucks are poised to go on another deep playoff run. The loss of P.J. Tucker in the offseason who played solid defense on multiple elite scorers in the 2021 playoffs certainly hurts, but the continuity of their core provides a significant advantage over their opposition. Head Coach Mike Budenholzer saw his seat get awfully hot in the midst of Milwaukee’s 2-0 series deficit to the Brooklyn Nets in the 2021 second round, but championship teams have to overcome adversity, just as Milwaukee once did. Instead of being let go, Budenholzer remains at the helm of a battle-tested contender led by arguably the best player in the league in Antetokounmpo. Outside of their top 3, Milwaukee’s strength is its versatility. Against dominant interior scorers, Milwaukee can utilize Brook Lopez’s strengths as one of the better drop-coverage rim protectors in the league, as he averaged 1.5 blocks per game across the 2021 playoffs [1]. A Lopez-Antetokounmpo combination works due to Lopez’s respectable three-point shooting, as is true for the Bucks other two centers in Bobby Portis and Serge Ibaka who could also play alongside the former MVP. Against more perimeter oriented teams, Budenholzer can place Giannis as a center, and surround his big 3 with some kind of pairing of wings Pat Connaughton, Grayson Allen, Wesley Matthews, and Jordan Nwora. While all four lack the same defensive intensity brought by P.J. Tucker, they all have strengths of their own that could be played into, Connaughton and Allen as reliable shooters, Wesley Matthews as the more balanced 3-and-D wing, and Nwora who may be the most inconsistent, but provides some size along with his streaky shooting. While the versatility of Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast is a luxury, Milwaukee will still require another elite playoff run from Antetokounmpo in order to repeat.

Boston Celtics: 46-28
Boston has gotten hot at the right time. Halfway through the season, the Celtics were painfully mediocre, with a 20-21 record [4]. Defense has been the focal point of Boston’s turnaround. Since the All-Star break, Boston has had the third best defensive rating in the NBA, at 110.8 [2]. Head Coach Ime Udoka required some time for his switch heavy defensive scheme to catch on in his first year as a head coach, contributing to that slow start, and now to their defensive dominance. All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown shine brightest on the offensive end, but are more than capable defenders. Marcus Smart has been one of the better defensive guards for the past few years. Robert Williams’ shot blocking and switchability on the defensive end has provided a reliable anchor for Boston. The return of former All-Star Al Horford from a 2021 offseason trade provided a savvy addition to the squad, with his improved defense on wings being a revelation this late in his career. Offensively, Boston’s biggest strength can also be its fatal flaw: an overreliance on isolation scoring. When Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are clicking, their scoring dominance makes Boston appear unstoppable. When either one Boston’s All-Star pair has an off-night, their offense’s stagnation tends to not pay off as much, and Boston becomes increasingly more vulnerable. Additionally, while the addition of Derrick White in a trade-deadline move adds playmaking and defense off the bench from the guard position, Boston remains strikingly shallow, lacking the depth to match the best of the best. A blistering playoff run from either one of Tatum or Brown could send Boston back into the NBA Finals. A tendency to over-rely on isolation scoring in late game situations and a weak bench serve as serious question marks for Boston’s ability to contend, but as long as their defense remains this potent, Tatum and Brown can give them a chance in any playoff series.

While fifth through eighth place of the East is a step below the top four in terms of competitiveness, they all have strengths and weaknesses in their own respective ways that could contribute to potential deep playoff runs. For the fifth place Chicago Bulls, DeMar Derozan and Zach Lavine provide exceptional scoring that could lead an underdog playoff run. Nikola Vucevic serves as an inconsistent third option with some low post scoring and deep range shooting. Guards Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso are both great defenders, but they lack enough size to deter opposing teams’ best wings. While a Vucevic hot streak combined with Derozan and Lavine’s scoring could upset some contenders, more likely than not, Vucevic’s lack of mobility on the defensive end paired with a lack of reliable wing defenders sends Chicago out of the playoffs.
The sixth place Cleveland Cavaliers are falling apart at the seams due to a plethora of injuries, most recently a finger injury sidelining All-Star center Jarrett Allen. Inexperience and injuries will likely bounce Cleveland out in the first round, but Cleveland has a lot of dangerous off-the-bench scorers who could get hot in the duration of a playoff series in Caris Levert, Cedi Osman, and Kevin Love. An Allen return, a hot streak from one of the aforementioned microwave scorers, and some playoff magic from All-Star Darius Garland and rookie Evan Mobley could help the Cavs shock the world, even if the odds remain stacked against them.
The seventh place Toronto Raptors remain a defensive annoyance under Head Coach Nick Nurse. While Toronto lacks a singular superstar that most championship teams require, they’re still an incredibly well-oiled machine with an arsenal of good wing defenders. A return to All-Star caliber form from Pascal Siakam paired with 2022 All-Star Fred VanVleet have helped Toronto tremendously, but the organization still misses a reliable superstar scorer to depend on in the most crucial moments of the playoffs. While the Toronto front office seeks out ways to acquire that superstar caliber player in the future, for now, the Raptors look on an absurdly deep roster to make some noise in the playoffs.
In eighth place is the Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn has had as tumultuous of a season as possible. New York City vaccine mandates prevented All-Star Kyrie Irving from playing home games, former MVP Kevin Durant suffered a midseason knee injury that sidelined him for nearly two months, a botched ankle surgery saw Brooklyn lose three-point marksman Joe Harris for the season, and frustrations with the chaos of the season resulted in Brooklyn’s other former MVP in James Harden demanding out of Brooklyn before landing with Philadelphia. Additionally, former All-Star Ben Simmons joined Brooklyn in the Harden trade, but a recent back injury may jeopardize his season. Instead of living up to championship expectations, Brooklyn has imploded, falling to eighth place. Despite Brooklyn’s Shakespearean tragedy of a season, a recent New York city policy change will allow Kyrie Irving to play home games [6]. Additionally, Kevin Durant has been spectacular in the games he has played this season, averaging 29 points per game, 7.3 rebounds per game, 6 assists per game, on an ultra-efficient 52.5% shooting. While it likely is too late for things to finally go right for the Nets, a healthy Durant-Irving combination makes anything possible.

While the NBA has sought a return to normalcy after two seasons heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic, it has instead found something almost unheard of in the 2000s: a talented and competitive Eastern Conference. The 1-4 seeds may be the most likely to go on a run, but truly, anything could happen. What’s for certain in a league of uncertainties is that it will be fascinating to watch how the NBA playoffs pan out for the East.

[4] turnaround-summed-great-stat
[5] survey-on-finger-optimistic-of-return-before-playoffs-215105829.html
[6] performers-athletes-00019851