Thursday, May 26, 2022

Ranking Eastern Conference contenders after the trade deadline: Bucks still on top, followed by Sixers, Nets

After weeks of speculation and intrigue, the 2022 NBA trade deadline finally arrived on Thursday, and it was even more wild and unpredictable than we could have imagined. Here’s just a quick recap of some of the top-line items in case you aren’t caught up:

And that doesn’t even include some of the smaller deals, or moves that were completed earlier in the week. In short, the league looks a lot different than it did a few days ago. The Eastern Conference, in particular, went through a massive shake-up with the Nets and Sixers blockbuster. And with the top eight teams in that conference currently separated by just 5.5 games, it’s going to be a mad dash to the end of the regular season. 

As the dust settles on deadline day, let’s reassess the different tiers of contenders in the East.

The Champ: Milwaukee Bucks

  • Record: 35-22
  • Position in Eastern Conference standings: 4th (1.5 games out of first)
  • Big deadline move: Four-team trade in which they sent out Donte DiVincenzo (to Kings) and got back Serge Ibaka (from Clippers) and two second-round picks (from Pistons)

Things have not gone to plan for the Bucks this season. Most notably, they’ve been decimated by injuries and COVID-19. Brook Lopez hasn’t played since opening night and is still out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery. Meanwhile, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have been limited to 29 games together. The defense hasn’t been quite as good, in large part due to Lopez’s absence, and they’ve put it on auto-pilot mode at times. 

For all the problems, though, they’re still sitting in fourth place in the East at 35-22, just 1.5 games behind the Miami Heat. And when the big three have been healthy, the Bucks have been downright dominant. They’re 23-6 when Giannis, Middleton and Holiday all play, and boast a plus-13.5 net rating with that trio on the court. In addition, they’ve addressed their biggest weakness by trading for Ibaka. He is admittedly not the healthiest guy himself, but he fits in perfectly with what they like to do on both sides of the ball, and they won’t need him to play heavy minutes — especially if Lopez comes back. 

Giannis is making a push for his third MVP in four seasons and is arguably the best player in the world at the moment. Also, perhaps more important than anything, the Bucks are the defending champions and have all the confidence and experience that comes with reaching the pinnacle. 

They have the belt and someone is going to have to come and take it from them. 

The main contenders: Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets

76ers

  • Record: 32-22

  • Position in Eastern Conference standings: 5th (3 games out of first)
  • Big deadline move: Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks to Nets for James Harden

We’ll talk about these two teams in tandem for obvious reasons. After speculation heated up in recent days, they finally completed the blockbuster trade everyone was waiting for: James Harden to the Sixers for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks. 

For the Sixers, the Ben Simmons saga is finally over, and they have a true second superstar to put next to Joel Embiid. It wasn’t cheap — Curry had been awesome for them, Drummond was a solid back-up big, they gave up two future firsts and are likely going to hand Harden a massive extension — but the upside is obvious. 

Simmons hadn’t played all season and was notorious for shrinking from the moment in the playoffs. Harden, on the other hand, is one of the best offensive talents in the league and is not only a much better fit next to Embiid but is immediately the best player the big man has ever played with. Embiid has almost single-handedly dragged the Sixers to a 32-22 record this season with some truly spectacular performances. Imagine what he’ll be able to do now that teams also have to worry about Harden. 

The Sixers are not a perfect team, and health is always going to be a concern, but with (a presumably highly motivated) Harden on board, they are a real threat to make it out of the East. 

Nets

  • Record: 29-26

  • Position in Eastern Conference standings: 8th (6.5 games out of first)
  • Big deadline move: James Harden to the Sixers for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks 

Things are a bit more complicated on the Brooklyn side. The best ability is availability as the old cliche goes, and the Nets aren’t quite sure when any of their stars are going to be available. Kevin Durant is sidelined until some time after the All-Star break with a knee injury, Simmons is going to need time to ramp up and it’s not clear when he’ll first play with the team and Kyrie Irving can only play in select road games while he remains unvaccinated. The longer that remains the case, the bigger the problem becomes for the Nets. They’ve already lost 10 games in a row to fall to 29-26 and would be in the play-in tournament as things stand. 

Beyond that, we don’t know exactly how this trade will work on the court. For all the issues with the previous big three, we knew that they absolutely crushed teams when they were able to play together. Will this new group be able to do the same? Maybe? Probably? But we don’t know for sure, and they aren’t going to have much time to get acclimated before the playoffs. 

In theory, it could be great. Brooklyn is probably the best situation for Simmons. There’s plenty of spacing, two offensive savants that will allow him to never shoot again if he doesn’t want to and he’ll be on a contender without being the focal point of media attention. Simmons also gives the Nets a much-needed defensive anchor, and is younger than Harden, while Curry and Drummond provide vital depth. At the same time, Simmons’ flaws didn’t magically disappear, and he hasn’t played in an NBA game in eight months. Plus, the Nets are going to have to combine all these new pieces on the fly.

With a healthy Durant, there’s no question the Nets have the talent to win it all this season, but it’s hard to have too much faith in a team that’s been so chaotic. 

In the mix: Miami Heat

  • Record: 36-20

  • Position in Eastern Conference standings: 1st
  • Big deadline move: None

The Heat have the best record in the East, and are tied for the fifth-best net rating in the league (plus-4.6), so perhaps it’s a bit unfair to have them in the third tier — especially considering they’ve reached this point despite rarely being at full strength. Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and Bam Adebayo have all missed at least 13 games, and they’ve played together just 18 times. 

At full strength, there’s no question this is a dangerous team. Kyle Lowry has been a huge addition, of course, PJ Tucker suddenly cannot miss from the outside and Tyler Herro is on his way to the Sixth Man of the Year Award. They’re the best 3-point shooting group in the league, they defend, they’re tough, they have a clear identity. If all goes right, this team has a real chance to come out of the East.

So, again, why are they in the third tier? For one, health is a major concern, even more so than other teams. This is an old core built featuring guys like Butler and Lowry who have notoriously struggled to stay on the court in recent years. They’ve missed a number of games already this season and there’s no guarantee they can make it through (at least) three grueling playoff rounds. In addition, the Heat don’t have elite talent on the level of Giannis, Embiid, or Durant, and that matters in the playoffs. 

A puncher’s chance: Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics

Bulls

  • Record: 34-21

  • Position in Eastern Conference standings: 2nd (1.5 games out of first)
  • Big deadline move: None

The Bulls made a number of big moves in the offseason, acquiring DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, but there were plenty of questions about how it would all work. Turns out, pretty well! DeRozan has been unbelievable, LaVine is putting together another elite offensive season and Ball and Caruso have formed a dynamite defensive backcourt. 

But like a few other teams, they have not been able to stay healthy. At one point, the number of players in COVID-19 protocols reached double digits, while Patrick Williams, Ball and Caruso have all suffered long-term injuries. That they’re still 34-21 and in second place in the East is a testament to DeRozan, who has put the team on his back at times, and unheralded players who have stepped up like rookie Ayo Dosunmu

While you cannot count the Bulls out, we need to see them healthy again before we truly assess their chances. And even then, it’s difficult to see them winning multiple playoff series against the teams ahead of them. In particular, their thin frontcourt rotation is going to be a major problem against the Bucks and Sixers. To that point, it’s worth noting that they’re 4-9 against the other top-eight teams in the East, and 2-5 against the top-five teams in the West. They also didn’t make any additions at the deadline. 

Celtics

  • Record: 31-25

  • Position in Eastern Conference standings: 7th (5 games out of first)
  • Big deadline move: Dennis Schroder, Enes Freedom and Bruno Fernando to Rockets for Daniel Theis; Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford and a first-round pick to Spurs for Derrick White

Now we turn to the Celtics, who have been one of the most confusing teams this season. They were downright terrible to start, prompting weeks of discussion on local and national media about whether they needed to break up Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown

That topic has been shelved following the team’s recent turnaround. They’re on a six-game winning streak and have won 13 of their last 17 games over the last month-plus. During that time they have a dominant 99.7 defensive rating and have surged up into seventh place in the East — just 5 games out of first. A softer schedule has helped, to be sure, but Tatum has broken out of his shooting slump, Marcus Smart is playing perhaps the best basketball of his career and they made some very strong deadline-day moves to acquire Derrick White and Daniel Theis. 

There are still plenty of questions about this team, in particular their offense, which has a tendency to shut down for minutes at a time. And much like the Bulls, it’s hard to see them getting past two or three of the Bucks, Sixers and Nets. But they have a true star in Tatum, and if they’re going to defend like this the rest of the way, then they’ll be a tough out come playoff time. 

The prospect: Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Record: 34-21

  • Position in Eastern Conference standings: 3rd (1.5 games out of first)
  • Big deadline move: Ricky Rubio, a first-round pick to Pacers for Caris LeVert

The Cavaliers have also exceeded expectations in a major way this season. Instead of gradual improvement, they’ve surged into the top half of the East standings and are well on their way to their first playoff appearance since LeBron James left for the second time in 2018. 

Darius Garland has come into his own, earning his first All-Star appearance; Evan Mobley is doing things on defense we’ve never seen from a rookie big man; Jarrett Allen is making the Nets look extremely foolish for trading him; Kevin Love looks rejuvenated; they have one of the best defensive units in the league. 

But it’s one thing to be a fun young team and one of the best stories of the season; it’s another to win the Eastern Conference. They’ve earned a spot in the discussion, but their inability to score is going to be magnified in the playoffs — even with the addition of Caris LeVert — and they don’t have a true superstar like some of these other clubs. 

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Sparring partners: Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Hornets, Atlanta Hawks

Let’s run through these teams rather quickly. 

Raptors

  • Record: 31-23

  • Position in Eastern Conference standings: 6th (4 games out of first)
  • Big deadline move: Goran Dragic and a protected first-round pick to Spurs for Thaddeus Young

The Raptors have been much better than expected. Everyone on the roster outside of (All-Star!) Fred VanVleet is apparently required to be exactly 6-foot-8, rookie Scottie Barnes has been awesome and they’re just really solid on both sides of the ball. They won’t be fun to play in the postseason if they make it, but they aren’t winning the East. 

Hornets

  • Record: 28-28

  • Position in Eastern Conference standings: 9th (8 games out of first)
  • Big deadline move: Trading Ish Smith and Vernon Carey to the Wizards for Montrezl Harrell 

Things were looking much better a few weeks ago for the Hornets, who have now lost six games in a row to drop to ninth place, and will be without Gordon Hayward indefinitely due to an ankle injury. Very fun team with LaMelo Ball leading the way, and trading for Montrezl Harrell will help address their frontcourt depth, but they aren’t consistent enough. 

Hawks

  • Record: 26-28

  • Position in Eastern Conference standings: 10th (9 games out of first)
  • Big deadline move: None

And finally, last season’s darlings, the Hawks. They have not been able to build on their Eastern Conference finals run, in large part because they simply cannot stop anyone. No one in Atlanta should be getting their hopes up, but they are 7-3 in their last 10 games, and after what they did in the playoffs a year ago they deserve a mention. 

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