The NBA's post-deadline pecking order in the East
BOSTON -- When the NBA season kicked off and the Celtics were supposed to kick everyone’s butt from Day One, we knew that there would be three or four other teams that might be in the picture for Eastern Conference supremacy.
A slow start dug Boston a hole it's still trying to climb out of, while the remaining top four teams in the East have all bolstered their rosters at (or shortly after) the Thursday trade deadline to best compete for a spot in the NBA Finals.
Their moves, coupled with the Celtics’ desire to stand pat, have at a minimum tweaked the Eastern Conference landscape with a win-it-all-now mindset taking shape.
So, how different is the Eastern Conference now?
As one Eastern Conference scout told NBC Sports Boston on Friday, “I like the moves made by Philly. They got better without disrupting their core.”
Another scout in the East felt Toronto was the big winner among East teams at the trade deadline by acquiring Marc Gasol from Memphis.
As for the Celtics?
“Any move they made at the deadline would have likely done more harm than good,” one scout told NBC Sports Boston. “They built this team to come out of the East. You know Danny doesn’t care what other teams do. He knows even with the moves made by others, his team is still going to be there and there’s probably nothing they could have done that could change that other than make it less likely by doing a deal that hurts their team chemistry.”
So what’s the pecking order in the East?
5. Indiana Pacers
They have to be included in this list because record-wise (36-19), they are right there very much in the mix. Watching them play, they remind me of last year’s Boston Celtics team in the playoffs as they continue to find ways to compete and win some games despite being without their best player Victor Oladipo (ruptured quads injury, right knee) for the rest of the season.
The addition via the buyout market of Wes Matthews will certainly help soften the loss of Oladipo, but Pacers fans (and we so love you all for the ‘LeBron’s gonna trade you’ chants earlier this week) will be greatly disappointed if they think Matthews will come in and deliver at a level comparable to Oladipo.
Matthews isn’t just coming in to fill the shoes of a key player for Indiana; we’re talking about an all-star, a player who has steadily climbed the ladder of respect to where Oladipo is now considered one of the better guards in the NBA.
So, the addition of Matthews will allow Indiana to remain competitive, but the talent and depth of the Big Four in the East will keep them from making up much if any ground lost by way of Oladipo’s injury.
3B. Philadelphia 76ers
Here’s the thing. I absolutely loved the moves made by Philadelphia at the trade deadline. Folks gave them a lot of props nationally for going out and getting Tobias Harris, one of the more underrated borderline All-Star types you’ll find in the NBA. He has the talent and scoring ability to bring a dimension to that Sixers lineup they could definitely benefit from.
And the trading away of Markelle Fultz and adding Jonathan Simmons, I believe was one of the more sneaky-good pickups during the trade season.
So for me, the issue in Philadelphia is no longer about talent. And while their depth isn’t quite where they would want it to be, it’s still good enough to where they can manage the game for what will be on paper at least, one of the best starting fives in the NBA.
But my issue is two-fold: chemistry and coaching.
Philly added a player in Harris who is used to being the No. 1 or No. 2 option in terms of scoring the ball.
With the Sixers, he is at best - at best - the third option.
That means he’s going to have to do more of the little things, something that’s a lot easier said than done particularly when you’ve shown yourself to be able to score at a good clip in the NBA.
And that brings me to coaching.
I thought Brett Brown did a nice job with the Sixers last season and has been pretty solid this year as well. But he has a glut of high usage talent to work with now that’s going to take some time to gel if at all.
That could potentially lead to them losing some games here in the early going where chemistry/player combinations play a role in the defeat.
Can Brown navigate this significantly upgraded roster to continue winning even with the addition of Harris?
Because there’s uncertainty in those two critical areas - chemistry and coaching - I have to give another team a slight edge and that team is...
3A. Boston Celtics
Losing at home to the Los Angeles Lakers is not a good look for a team that’s still trying to dig itself from under an early-season hole, to be among the top two or three teams in the East. The Lakers loss aside, the Celtics have been playing some of their best basketball of the season lately. And it shows where progress is most visible - wins.
Boston (35-20) has won 10 of 12, with contributions coming from starters as well as bench players.
The Celtics have played their best against the elite teams in the East, but lately, they have done a much better job of beating the teams they’re supposed to (again, that Lakers loss stands out like a pre-teen pimple), and establishing a strong home court presence.
And the main reason why I give them a slight edge over the Sixers at this point is that they have better chemistry, players are performing at a more consistent level and they’re doing this while still maintaining a clear, undeniable and substantial amount of room for improvement.
While chemistry and coaching are concerns with the Sixers, my biggest concern with the Celtics is health.
Yes, it’s an issue of concern for all teams for sure.
But for this team to have the kind of finish to the season that they’ve envisioned, it is going to take an across-the-board team effort because as we talked about earlier, the Eastern Conference’s top teams have all gotten stronger and by and large, a little deeper.
Good health is the only way Boston can combat those changes.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo is having an MVP-worthy season as he keeps the Bucks atop the Eastern Conference standings. He is getting outstanding play around him in the form of fellow All-Star Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe.
And the addition of Nikola Mirotic gives them a space-creating big with tremendous long-range shooting ability who played a major role in the New Orleans Pelicans getting out of the first round of the playoffs last year. However, injuries have limited him to just 32 games played this season (out of 55).
There is indeed a lot to like about the Bucks and what they have going on right now.
But as good as they have been, you have to wonder, is there another level by which they can elevate their team’s overall play.
Mike Budenholzer has done a fantastic job and should be on the short list of Coach of the Year candidates. The way he has opened the playbook to make this a dynamic team offensively and a legit, grind-it-out team on defense has indeed been impressive.
There’s no question these players are driven by their playoff series loss to the Boston Celtics last season, a series that ended with the Celtics prevailing in seven games.
But you have to wonder in their efforts to assure that they have home court advantage, will they have enough left in the tank to enjoy similar success in the postseason?
1. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors have been the best team in the East for most of this season, and I believe that’s where they will be record-wise, going into the playoffs. They have steady, reliable leadership at the point in Kyle Lowry with a solid backup to him in Fred VanVleet.
They have a frontcourt that blends size with strength and muscle that creates mismatches for them offensively, while still maintaining a certain discipline on defense.
There’s Kawhi Leonard, arguably the best two-way player in the NBA whose arrival in Toronto has been nothing short of a success story for both him and the franchise.
Also, the Raptors should benefit from the schedule of their remaining games.
According to tankathon.com, the Raptors have the weakest remaining schedule in the NBA. By comparison, Milwaukee has the fifth-weakest schedule while the Sixers’ remaining schedule is the 12th easiest.
The Celtics are at the opposite end of that spectrum with the fifth-toughest remaining schedule.
Still, what really puts them over the top in my mind during the regular season, is the addition of Gasol.
The things that Gasol does well - pass out of the block, defend and rebound - are all transferable talents that fit in quickly regardless of who else is playing on that respective team.
So, they should hit the ground running quickly with Gasol.
And when you throw in their schedule, it should not surprise anyone if the Raptors finish the regular season as the top seed in the East.