The end of the NBA’s annual All-Star break is a crucial signpost that signifies the beginning of the regular season’s homestretch.
Each team has 20 or so games left to play and this year’s race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference is shaping up to be one of the most exciting ones in recent history. The top eight teams in the East seem closely matched and all still have a shot at first place, which will give them the comfort of home court advantage at least until the Conference Finals.
The Chicago Bulls and Miami Heatcurrently lead the way with 39-21 and 38-21 records, respectively. In case of a tie the Heat own the tiebreaker at the moment since they have won the first two games of their season series. They have two more games scheduled for this campaign and this gives the Bulls a chance to even it up at two wins apiece.
It is difficult to bet against Miami claiming the top seed in the East given the success that they have achieved so far. Through the emergence of their second unit, they hardly missed a beat when their stars Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Kyle Lowry missed significant amounts of time over the season’s first half. They are now as healthy as they have been all year and should easily lock up at least a top-three spot by the time the postseason rolls in.
Chicago will have a much tougher climb given that they have yet to fully emerge from their own barrage of injuries to key players. DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic will have to continue shouldering much of their load and this has not been a problem at all for them so far.
By mid-March, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, and Pat Williams are all expected to return which gives them enough time to regain their rhythm before the first round of the playoffs.
Right behind these two East-leaders is a thrilling three-way tie between the Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, and defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. Philadelphia and Milwaukee are three games behind the Bulls while Cleveland is 3.5 games back which has all three of them well-within striking distance.
The Sixers will be a fascinating team to monitor over the next few weeks given their recent acquisition of 2018 NBA Most Valuable Player James Harden from the Brooklyn Nets. Harden and Joel Embiid, one of the leaders in this year’s MVP race, look like the best offensive tandem in the league on paper and it will be interesting to see how they mesh once they start actually playing together. The Harden trade is a win-now move for Philadelphia and the pressure is on for them to make this season count.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers have exceeded even their greatest preseason expectations and are playing with no pressure at all. Their young tandem of the 22-year-old Darius Garland and 23-year-old Jarrett Allen were recently rewarded for their exemplary play with their first NBA All-Star team selections.
Leading Rookie of the Year candidate Evan Mobley also received much-deserved consideration for a slot of his own, high praise for a first-year player, given his consistent level of production and skill that is akin to that of a veteran.
Everything that happens to Cleveland from here on out will only add to their pool of experience and help them down the road, but that does not mean that they will be an easy out in the first and even the second round of the playoffs.
The Bucks were once like these upstart Cavaliers and their journey culminated with last year’s run to the NBA title. Now free from the burden of having to prove themselves as winners, they have played with ease this season and look like they are just biding their time for when the games begin to matter.
Their team remains rather intact from last year and with Giannis Antetokounmpo continuing to look like one of the top, if not the best, players in the NBA today, these Bucks are automatically among the favorites to win it all.
A few games behind this five-team group are a pair of late-bloomers, in the context of this season at least, who turned it around after the calendar flipped to 2022. The Boston Celtics have banked on their elite defense to resuscitate themselves after a tumultuous start to the season.
They are only 4.5 games out of the top perch in the East and the sustainability of their recent run, which has banked on their defense more than anything else, bodes well for their chances to further climb up the standings.
Just a game behind the Celtics are the Toronto Raptors who are now in seventh place and hold the first play-in berth for the Eastern Conference. The Raptors have fed off their first-time NBA All-Star guard Fred VanVleet and embraced positionless basketball to bring them back in the hunt during a season that many expected to be a rebuilding one for them.
Toronto will be pressed to leapfrog at least one of the teams ahead of them in the standings in order to avoid the dreaded play-in tournament and this should only add to the drama of the next few weeks.
Now 2.5 games behind the Raptors and seemingly out of place are the Brooklyn Nets. Things took a turn for the worse when Kevin Durant suffered a knee injury in early January and they have now revamped their roster following the disastrous month-and-a-half stretch that ensued.
The Nets fell from first in the East at the end of 2021 to eighth place by the All-Star break and they have now replaced Harden with Ben Simmons who will join Kyrie Irving in a talented yet mercurial backcourt. Both Simmons and Irving caught headlines at the start of the season due to their unwillingness to make compromises with their teams. This forced them to miss a sizable chunk of the schedule (In the case of Simmons, the whole ‘21-’22 campaign so far) and their union is the latest plot twist in what has been an all-time entertaining year.
Durant is expected to return within the next few contests and if there’s any team that’s capable of winning their last 20 games of the season (23 for Brooklyn in this case), it’s this group. They still cannot be counted out of the race to the first seed and with New York’s vaccine mandate that prohibits Irving from playing home games expected to be phased out next month, they will be a match-up that every team will eagerly try to avoid in the playoffs.
The rest of the standings in the Eastern Conference are not as interesting as the battle between the top teams. The Charlotte Hornets, Atlanta Hawks, and Washington Wizards are in a neck and neck race for the last two play-in slots. However, the Wizards are likely to fall out of this picture given the season-ending injury suffered by their star guard Bradley Beal.
This means that the top 10 are relatively secure in the East and the only uncertainty remains is their positioning in the standings at the end of the regular season. The league seems to be wide open this season and the Royal Rumble in the Eastern Conference is the biggest example of that. It will boil down to which team peaks at the right time and it is not difficult to imagine any of these teams discussed above walking away with this year’s NBA championship.
Parity is something that the league has always strived for and, at least for these past few years, it looks like the NBA has finally figured it out.