With one LeBron James no longer in the East, there has been an arms race. Boston, Toronto, Philly, and Milwaukee are all fighting to become the first non-LeBron led team to make win the Eastern Conference finals since 2011. Despite all four of these teams is better than they were last season, there can only be one. This was one of the tougher rankings to do all season but here we go.
*These rankings are based on projected playoff performance assuming all teams are healthy and are as currently constructed (any signings could move the needle in my opinion due to these teams being very close).
- Toronto Raptors
Deja Vu, or is it? For the past few seasons, Toronto has sat top of the East and has disappointed time and time again in the playoffs. This season, however, the team looks much different. The addition of Kawhi, the emergence of Siakam and recently acquired Marc Gasol have changed the feel of this team.
Toronto is a somewhat iso-heavy team ranking 16th in assists averaging 24.4 as a team but Gasol’s passing out the post should help with that slightly. Defensively Toronto ranks 8th, something else Gasol can help them out with. On paper, this Raptors team looks fantastic, but the game is played on the hardwood, not paper.
Toronto at times looks stagnant and when Kyle Lowry begins to fade they become heavily reliant on Kawhi. I’m not saying that this team goes as Lowry does, however, if they want to make the finals Lowry has to be at his best. His ability to create off the dribble and pressure opposing guards are detrimental to this team. Lowry is a +13 when the Raptors win and a -5 when they lose. The biggest difference out of everyone on the team.
Toronto could make some noise in the playoffs and if this were last season perhaps they’d make the finals but the rest of the East has gotten so good that it’s hard to imagine a team with Kyle Lowry being the second best player making the finals regardless of how good everyone else, including Kawhi, has been.
- Boston Celtics
It pains me to say this but I was wrong. Coming into the season Boston was the team I had coming out the East. They were one game away from making the finals last season without Kyrie or Hayward and had the makings of a serious contender.
That hasn’t been in the case this season. Boston currently sits 3rd in the Eastern Conference and Hayward hasn’t looked like his old self. With that being said however this is an extremely dangerous team still. Boston is slightly worse defensively this season however as a team they’ve averaged nearly 9 more points as a team and more assists as well.
Boston more so than any other teams listed are going to need homecourt if they wish to make the finals. On the road, Boston is 13 and 13 with every team stat drastically dropping. They’re +/- goes from +10.3 to +2.8, a huge margin.
Having Kyrie back will prove to be the difference. At times in the playoffs, Boston was unsure who was the closer and tended to go with the hot hand. That won’t be the case anymore and that could be the difference. Though I have them ranked third here don’t be surprised if Boston is the team that emerges.
- Philadelphia 76ers
Elton Brand and Sixers more than any other East team have really put their chips on the table this season. Dealing for Butler as well as Harris since the season started they might have the best 5 man lineup in the East. Simmons, Reddick, Butler, Harris, and Embiid is a ridiculous lineup made up of 4 all-star caliber players and one of the league’s best snipers in Reddick.
Though their best lineup might be the best in the East, their bench is very lackluster. Compared to Boston and Toronto Philly by far has the worst bench ranking 22nd while Milwaukee and Toronto are top 20 and Boston ranking 3rd. While it’s true that in the playoffs your stars get more minutes it’ll be interesting to see if Philly blows leads or can even mesh with the new additions they’ve made.
Philadelphia is a different team than they were last season. Their bench needs to show up in at least some games and Simmons can’t be held down like last season. The additions of Butler and Harris will be instrumental to this teams success as they’re the only 2 guys besides Joel who can really close a game out, something Philly lacked last season.
- Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee is different this season. I stayed up thinking about this but after their 148 point performance, it occurred to me that this the best team in the East. They have the highest win % in the league this season and have changed their entire scheme this year, and it’s paying off.
The Bucks currently rank 2nd in threes made and attempted, blocks, are 5th in assists, 1st in rebounds, and first in +/- at 10.2 beating out the warriors by 3.5. Only one team is top 5 in both offense and defensive rating. You guessed it, it’s the Bucks.
Beyond just that Giannis is without a doubt in the MVP conversation and the rest of the Bucks are playing at a great clip. The Bucks have 9 new players after adding Mirotic and Budenholzer has changed the overall scheme of this team. They play a much more modern style this year and the added shooters have allowed them to shoot and make more threes resulting in more space for Giannis operate.
This year is different for Giannis and the Bucks. Despite the fact that Giannis is yet to win a playoff series and expecting him to take this team to the finals seems slightly unfair this just feels like his year. The Bucks have put the league on notice and teams are finally starting to fear the deer.