The NBA’s Eastern Conference is a whole lot better this season—to the point that most of the competitive intrigue and potential for good teams being left out of the playoffs resides there. That’s a big deal. Stuff like that used to belong exclusively to the West.
Now, it’s the East with the monopoly on chaos, uncertainty and borderline-annoying depth of quality.
We know something for sure, though: The Cavaliers are the team to beat. Depth, star power and last year’s breezy run through the East half of the postseason remove most of the doubt there. And it doesn’t hurt that Cleveland hung around atop the conference through the first third of this season without a fully healthy roster.
But who’s next? Who’s nipping at Cleveland’s heals for conference supremacy?
To this point, the answer has changed on a weekly basis. First it looks like Atlanta. Then Toronto. Then Detroit or Orlando, Boston or Indiana.
Even Charlotte has been in the mix.
Can we split these teams into tiers and hopefully arrive at a true secondary threat in the ever-shifting East?
The “Nice Story But…Next!” Tier
Washington Wizards, New York Knicks
Washington is hovering around .500 again after some tough injury luck, and John Wall’s December has been about as dominant as any month he’s ever put together. But the Wizards were fortunate to win 46 games a year ago with a tiny differential, and Paul Pierce-as-power-forward was the only reason they made much playoff noise. The Wizards might have been in the conversation a year ago, when the East was weaker.
Not now, though.
The Knicks have overachieved to this point, and any team with Kristaps Porzingis is set up nicely for the future. But if you think this pleasantly surprising return to respectability means the Cavs are losing sleep over the Knicks, you’ve lost it.
The “They’ll Slip Eventually” Tier
Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons
Having only progressed to the second-lowest tier, we’ve already reached teams that will be legitimately disappointed if they don’t make the postseason. Clearly, the days of sub-.500 squads sniffing the playoffs are done in the East.
Orlando is the youngest group here, and it’s easy to see Nikola Vucevic leading the likes of Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, Tobias Harris and friends to some top-four seeds eventually. But not yet. There’s not enough shooting here, and the ugly truth is that the Magic don’t defend well at all with Vucevic on the floor.
The Hornets have impressively revamped their identity, swapping three-point shooting and ball movement for plodding pace and defense. But relying on Marvin Williams to sustain his resurgent season and Kemba Walker to keep knocking down threes (while not getting worked over on D) is a bit much to ask.
Detroit is a shooter (or three) away from really being taken seriously as the second-best team in the conference. Stan Van Gundy knows what kind of team he wants to build (see: 2008 Orlando Magic), and he’s done well in building a replica so far. But until the Pistons find enough marksmen to space the floor around a Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-roll, this team won’t be ready for prime time.
The “Chicago Bulls” Tier
That’s it. The Bulls get their own tier because they’re the most frustrating, up-and-down outfit in the conference. Are they the East’s second-best team or a dissolving mess that owes Tom Thibodeau an apology?
Yes to both, depending on what day of the week it is.
Good luck figuring out this deep, dysfunctional, talented, disappointing, focused, frazzled, confusing mess.
The “It Wouldn’t Shock Anybody” Tier
Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks have been as hot as any non-Cleveland team in the East over the last few weeks, and the Heat have all the star power in the world. Either team could wind up pushing the Cavs for the top seed. But this still isn’t the top tier of contenders, and there are a couple of reasons for that.
First, the East is complicated, and I have no idea what I’m doing.
Second, both squads have clear flaws.
Miami quietly struggles to score, and it has yet to solve the riddle of what to do with a dominant shot-blocker in Hassan Whiteside who actually makes its defense demonstrably worse. The Hawks, meanwhile, just don’t have the net rating you’d expect from a real threat. The high win total is nice, but their net rating of plus-2.9 points per 100 possessions (through games played Dec. 29) ranks seventh in the conference.
Still, nobody’d be stunned if either of these teams wound up trailing only the Cavs in the conference.
The “I Believe In You…So Far” Tier
Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers
Two versatile squads built in very different ways fill out the second-from-the-top tier, though, they’re built in very different ways.
Indy is built around a star in Paul George, and its transition to a three-point shooting, uptempo squad has been impressive. There’s a lot to like about a team that has flashed real pace and scoring chops while still holding onto the defensive legacy it established in years past.
Boston lacks a stud like George, but it makes up for that with ridiculous depth, defense and Brad Stevens’ top-notch coaching. It’s hard to know if the Celtics will make a move before the trade deadline this year, but adding a big name (and they’ve certainly got the assets to do it) could vault this club into the tier above.
These two teams feel stable, have big net ratings relative to their peers and boast the stopping power necessary to compete with anyone.
The “Real Threat? Maybe? I Think?” Tier
Call me crazy, but I just like this Raptors team.
Kyle Lowry is a legitimate star, DeMarre Carroll is as good a perimeter stopper as there is in the East (and he’s proven himself capable of logging big minutes as a stretch 4—vital in today’s NBA. Not only that, but Toronto has held steady without Jonas Valanciunas, just returned from a broken hand. And Carroll has missed time, too.
DeMar DeRozan is a nice option to have when you need shot creation after plays break down, and there’s plenty of depth with Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo, James Johnson and Luis Scola.
Look, a key injury here or a rough stretch there could wildly change the calculus in the conference. But this is our best guess through roughly a third of the season. Toronto has the highest offensive rating in the East, and no team in the conference posted a higher net rating in December.
The resume is there for the Raps to be the Cavs’ biggest threat. All they have to do is keep polishing it for another 50 games or so.