The Eastern Conference for a long time hasn't seen multiple sides on track to win 50-plus games. But this season it is panning out this way.
Riding behind the stellar MVP play of Joel Embiid and former League MVP James Harden, the Philadelphia 76ers putting themselves as serious contenders in a stacked Eastern Conference. Having begun 12-12 after a double-overtime loss to Houston on December 5, the 76ers have since gone 26-7. This is mainly because of Embiid dominating matchups in the paint with his favoured elbow jumper.
His one-two tandem with Harden has been picking defences apart with sheer ease. Unlike his playing days in Houston, Harden is deferring more to Embiid in clutch situations, though he can still take over games. This season more than most, the 2018 MVP is balancing his outside shooting (7.2 threes a game) by incorporating more mid-range shots - as he did in his first season in Houston in 2013.
Still his patterned stepback is on song and his dribble drives to the rim still cause opposing defences to foul sending him ot the foul line - despite taking the least amount of free throw attempts (6.4) since his final season in Oklahoma City in 2012. Now well and truly past his hamstring woes that hampered him in Brooklyn, Harden's in-sync chemistry with Embiid is the major reason the 76ers can make a deep playoff run. Not since the Allen Iverson has the franchise made a conference final dating back to 2001.
From using high pick-and-roll plays to sucking in the defence and kicking out to its three-point shooters in Georges Niang, D'Anthony Melton, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris - Harden's play is significantly more valuable than ever.
Since Coach Doc Rivers made the adjustment of relegating Tyrese Maxey from starter to the second unit against the Los Angeles Lakers on January 15, the third-year pro has been lighting it up. In his sixth-man role, Maxey is averaging 17.8 points on 46.3% shooting. Still his minutes haven't been significantly cut, thus allowing the 76ers have been using him in crunchtime situations with Harden at the end of games.
The dogged defence of P.J. Tucker will be of significant importance to Philadelphia's championship quest. His defence against Denver Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic in the January 28 matchup typified his ability to play on bigger matchups. The addition of former Charlotte Hornet Jalen McDaniels provides the side extra athleticism and length defensively. His size to guard against positions one to four is a valuable asset the 76ers desperately need.
For the 76ers to elevate further it needs Tobias Harris to elevate his production. Although Embiid, Harden, and Maxey is where the offence runs through, Harris deadeye jumper allows him to go under the radar.
Just when superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant would remain in Brooklyn for the long haul, they are no longer. Where it puts the Nets' title chances remains a mystery. After many bumps during his four seasons in Brooklyn, Irving requested a trade to the Dallas Mavericks. What would follow next be Durant's request for a change of scenery to the Phoenix Suns - team that had significant interest in him during the off-season. In exchange for its outgoing superstars, Brooklyn received Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, Mikal Bridges, and Cameron Johnson.
All four players who are seamlessly fitting into Coach Jacque Vaughn's system. Mentioning Vaughn's name, his coaching efforts would be rewarded with Brooklyn giving him a contract extension through to the 2026/2027 season. Its reward for effort having led the team to a 32-19 since former Steve Nash departed after a 2-5 start.
Whilst Brooklyn doesn't resemble the superstar status anymore, they've got solid players who constantly buy in. Brooklyn has seen Bridges hit his stride already - as he did when Devin Booker was out with a groin strain. Nic Claxton, despite being undersized for a Centre has made substantial leaps, putting himself into a contender for defensive player of the year.
At this stage, Brooklyn sits in the East's pecking order behind Cleveland, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Boston. However, if anything's for certain: the Nets' will have the underdog status tag.
Continuing on from last season's run to the NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics are scarier than ever before. Currently with the League's best record at 42-17, the green machine is showing no signs of slowing down. Behind the phenomenal play of MVP contender Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston has one of the best offences. Who says, the Celtics star duo can't mesh together? Those talks seem a distant memory from a year ago.
Whilst Tatum and Brown continue to blitz opponents, Boston has a handful of important contributors who emulate the team's success. Former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon has been outstanding in the role with his attacking drives to the basket and steady facilitation. Defensive Skipper Marcus Smart's return from an 11-game absence due to a right ankle sprain further strengths the Celtics switching defence, whilst the play of ageless veteran Al Harford, backup Centre Luke Kornet, sniper Sam Hauser, and Milwaukee's kryptonite Grant Williams gives Boston tremendous depth.
Also not forgetting former high-flyer Blake Griffin who can be counted on although not being the vintage All-Star during his Clippers days. With the Celtics list covering all areas as it pursues an 18th title, one player's production arguably carries the most weight. That is Robert Williams III aka "The time Lord".
Since making his season debut on December 16 against the Orlando Magic, after missing the first 29 games due to knee surgery, the 25-year-old's importance has further bolstered an already compact defence. His interior defence is causing opposing sides to carefully reconsider attacking the rim with his altering presence not far behind. Although Williams is coming off the bench, inserting him back into the starting unit is a must.
As teammate Derrick White said to sports media outlet Bleacher Report about his teammate, "He makes up for a lot of mistakes that we make." "He's a special talent defensively, always being there; he's athletic, long and affects a lot of shots around the hoop. You can take a couple of chances here and there because you got Rob behind you."
Williams' teammates understand the value he brings.
With all cylinders firing, Boston is better placed than 2021/2022 to go a step further.
New York Knicks
The team from the Big Apple has been by far one of the more complex teams to figure out. From barely having a winning record at Madison Square Garden, performing well on the road, riding an eight-game winning streak from December 5 to 21 to dropping its next five outings, the Knicks typify a yo-yo. Yet it sits seventh in the Eastern Conference (33-27), only half a game behind the sixth-place Miami Heat.
After a season ago stumbling to a 37-45 record, the Knicks have significantly improved in all areas. Julius Randle named to his second All-Star game is putting together a comeback campaign averaging 24.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 4.1 assists. At times during last season, Randle's reliance was too dependently counted upon. However, the valuable acquisition of Jalen Brunson has considerably taken the pressure off Randle.
After missing out on Donovan Mitchell, acquiring helped fill the team's void of having a point guard who can not only facilitate but generate his own offence. The Villanova product is ticking all the boxes. When it comes to crucial stages in games, Brunson's value has been on full display. From taking over on his way to a 40-point game against cross-town rivals Brooklyn to sinking Chicago in a December 15 overtime win by sending Alex Caruso on skates to hit a corner three. Brunson has been one of the main architects of why New York is six games over .500.
The move to prize Josh Hart from the Portland Trailblazers is an excellent addition by the Knicks to further shore up its defence. Hart fits perfectly in Coach Tom Thibodeau's defence-first system. Although being 6'4, he rebounds like a power forward/centre, which only adds to the Knicks' strong rebounding - ranking third (47) only behind Memphis and Milwaukee.
Getting starting centre Mitchell Robinson back will anchor the defensive interior, having not played since breaking his thumb against Washington on January 18. Imagine playing Hart alongside Randle and Robinson. It makes for a tough frontcourt to surpass. Add in the defensive work of Quentin Grimes - who gets the opposing best guard and the trademark floaters of Immanuel Quickley, New York has a bevy of options to count upon. And if R.J. Barrett can consistently get his jumper working, the Knicks are every chance of avoiding the play-in tournament and grabbing the East's sixth spot.
A rollercoaster to season's date best describes Toronto who currently sit at 28-31. Although All-Star Pascal Siakam is producing terrific numbers averaging 25.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 6.1 assists - the reliance on him is heavy. As the matter of fact has to be said - the Raptors have a solid core of players, but too often the over-dependency on isolation ball is glaring.
Adding to the fact Coach Nick Nurse plays his starters substantial minutes, Siakam (37.7), Fred Van Vleet (36.9), O.G. Anunoby (35.8), and Scottie Barnes (35.2). There is a Tom Thibodeau re-incarnation by Nurse to boatload the starters - the same strategy Thibodeau had when coaching Chicago and Minnesota.
Acquiring Jakob Poeltl for a second homecoming is a solid move considering the Raptors' need for a true Centre. The question remains can the Raptors advance past the play-in tournament and get into the playoffs having not missed out on postseason action since 2013?
The final 23 games will tell the story, with 13 of those on the road.