This season has been a strange one to say the least, with the obvious impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic, as well as the shortened season and newly implemented play-in tournament to determine the seven and eight seeds in each conference. So, with the postseason quickly approaching let’s take a look at who the true contenders among the elite teams versus which teams are the ‘pretenders’. This will be a two-part article with this article covering the Eastern Conference and the next the West. Of course this is an opinion piece so take everything you read with a very large grain of salt.
Miami Heat: Pretenders
Like many people, I was shocked by the Heat’s dark horse run to the NBA Finals in the bubble last year. After finishing the regular season as the fifth seed, their defence, composure, and will to win was impeccable throughout their playoff run as they proved the doubters wrong, however the results of last season have brought about a different set of expectations for Miami. Unfortunately they have not been able to recreate that success this season. After battling injuries and COVID outbreaks, the Heat are currently sitting at seventh in the Eastern Conference. Miami will have to figure it out quickly if they plan on making a run at their first round matchup, otherwise a first round exit may be looming in their future. However, if the Heat can enter the playoffs healthy and mimicking their play from the bubble they may be prime for an upset. With Bam Adebayo playing the best basketball of his career and the leadership of Jimmy Butler this battle hardened squad isn’t the team you want to face if you’re at the top of the conference, but unless another miracle run takes place in South Beach the Heat are pretenders this year.
Boston Celtics: Pretenders
Both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum made great leaps for Boston this year, elevating their young games to the next level. Despite this, Boston has not had even close to the season that they had hoped for. So what happened to the Celtics? Before the season began they were my pick to represent the East in the NBA Finals, and now they’re the sixth seed coming off a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder that saw the Thunder’s 14-game losing streak come to an end. The Celtics appear to lack a true team identity this season. They are not an elite defensive team, ranking 12th in defensive rating despite the tools to clamp opposing teams. They also are not elite at the offensive end either, also ranking 12th in offensive rating. Though Boston does have the roster and the talent level to make a run similar to Miami’s in the bubble in 2020, the Celtics will certainly need to figure out their problems soon if they hope to make it out of the first round and be actual contenders to make the finals. As of now however, they are most certainly pretenders.
Milwaukee Bucks: Contenders
The Bucks are an elite team through and through, currently sitting at third in the Eastern Conference as well as 5th in offensive rating and 6th in defensive rating respectively. They also can lay claim to having the reigning DPOY and 2x MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo on their roster, though that hasn’t translated to a ton of playoff success in the past. However this season is different for the Bucks. They’ve overhauled their roster since that disappointing loss to Miami in the second round last season, adding the likes of PJ Tucker, Bobby Portis, and most importantly, Jrue Holiday. These acquisitions are what put the Bucks over the hump in my eyes. Portis brings depth to their bench while Holiday is an elite perimeter defender which will greatly help Milwaukee when the game becomes more half-court oriented in the postseason. He also brings playmaking ability that allows Antetokounmpo and Middleton more time off the ball. Tucker also adds some defensive minded depth to the forward position as well as an elite corner three shooter that can help space the floor for Giannis in half-court sets. The Bucks have paid their dues over the last few seasons and it feels as though this is the year that they can break through and make a serious run for the championship. Milwaukee is a contender.
Philadelphia 76ers: Contenders
The 76ers have a clear identity this season, they are a team that will bring it on the defensive end. Ben Simmons is making a serious case for Defensive Player of the Year helping to propel the 76ers defensive rating to second in the NBA. They also have greatly improved from a coaching standpoint after adding Doc Rivers to their staff as well as improved their depth. The addition of guys like Seth Curry and Dwight Howard (despite his new goon role) have helped the 76ers a lot, as Curry spaces the floor for Joel Embiid and Simmons and Howard allows the 76ers to still play an aggressive and athletic brand of basketball even with Embiid on the bench to rest. Also, how could we not mention the play of Embiid? He has elevated himself into a bonafide MVP candidate this season while dominating his opposition each and every night while averaging 29.8 points per game along with 11 rebounds. If the Sixers are going to continue contending for the title this year, it will be behind the play of the club’s star centre. The Sixers have been at the top of the conference all season and they are legitimate players for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Philly is a contender.
Brooklyn Nets: ???
It seems a little bit irresponsible to say that Brooklyn isn’t a contender just based off their record alone, which currently places them at first in the East. It may also seem irresponsible to say the Nets are pretenders simply because of their big three and the talent they possess. Due to these reasons, I considered the Nets as a wildcard that would depend on a few things. First off, Brooklyn has played just SEVEN games this season where Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving have all been active. Though this may seem like a testament to how well Brooklyn is doing despite this, I interpret it as a negative heading into the postseason. We’ve seen what a lack of chemistry has done in the past to elite teams come playoff time. It will certainly be interesting to see if the Nets can figure out how to successfully play and gameplan with their big three sharing the court at the same time, especially when Harden has not only missed the final portion of the season with an injury but also sustained setbacks in his recovery. As well, another big question I have surrounding Brooklyn is their defence and effort. The Nets rank 24th in defensive rating with just 10 games remaining in the season and their effort on that end of the floor is terrible at best. Brooklyn is simply trying to outscore their opposition every night, and they are doing that with a lot of success thus far, boasting the best offensive rating in the league. Their effort level will certainly go up when their season is on the line each game but can that increase in effort make up for a total lack of defensive game planning and good defensive players? As of right now, I’m extremely skeptical of Brooklyn but can’t quite say confidently that they are pretenders rather than contenders, but much like Miami last year, teams have a tendency to make me feel silly so let’s wait and see how it all goes down come playoff time.