With the NBA trade deadline approaching on Feb. 7 and NBA All-Star Weekend coming up on Feb. 15, the playoff race is beginning to solidify and filter out the weaker teams.
The Western Conference is noted as being the stronger conference in the NBA, but halfway through the season, the Eastern Conference is showing that it is not meant to be taken lightly.
The top three seeds in the East are the Minnesota Bucks, the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics. All three teams collectively have combined for a 108-47 record through Jan.
Meanwhile, the top three seeds in the west, the Golden State Warriors, the Denver Nuggets and the Oklahoma City Thunder, have accumulated a 103-48 record through January. The Western Conference may be more star-studded, but the Eastern Conference teams recognize the opportunity to ascend the playoff race.
The Boston Celtics are a top five seed in the East, but their strong depth, good coaching and star power should have placed them higher in the rankings.
All-star point guard Kyrie Irving has created a distraction recently when he wavered about his upcoming free agency decision with recent comments, saying, “I don’t owe anyone shit.”
Young up-and-coming players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, veteran big-man Al Horford and efficient role players Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier give Boston one the most complete rosters in the East. Head coach Brad Stevens may still have some kinks to sort out for the next months leading up to the playoffs, because their performance so far has not matched up with their expectations heading into the season.
Toronto and Milwaukee sit atop the Eastern Conference with 37 wins apiece. Toronto is loaded with shut-down defender and elite scorer Kawhi Leonard, all-star point guard Kyle Lowry and lanky big men Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby.
Toronto has struggled as of late due to injuries and inconsistency, but by the time the playoffs come around, they should be healthy and ready to go. If Toronto were to win the Eastern Conference this season, they would mark their first conference championship ever.
Milwaukee trots out an experienced lineup, headlined by MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and all-star forward Khris Middleton. Antetokounmpo sits top three in scoring and sits atop the league with the highest defensive rating.
Milwaukee is a top-three team in three-pointers made, with Giannis’ playmaking opening up shots for his teammates and stretching out the floor. Center Brook Lopez set a career high in three-point efficiency as well.
The top three teams in the East, Boston, Toronto and Milwaukee all have their unique plan of attack. Boston’s depth makes them a threat to breakaway in a game, Toronto’s defensive length and tenacity can make opposing teams uncomfortable, and Milwaukee’s surging three-point efficiency and floor spacing has turned them into an offensive juggernaut.
Whichever team comes out on top in the Eastern Conference will have a tough task down the line, with Golden State essentially locked in to win the Western Conference.