It’s never too early to take a look at the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. At least that’s the motto applied here. Nearly one month into the 2021-22 season, some teams have already begun to separate themselves, while others are still trying to find their footing. The play-in tournament obviously widens the pool of potential playoff participants, and at this early point in the season, no one is out of it yet.
With that being said, it seems pretty unlikely that either the Detroit Pistons or Orlando Magic will make a playoff run this season, as both are extremely young teams and on the lowest rung of the ladder on the climb to contention. Those are the only two teams in the East with a winning percentage below .300 at this stage of the season. While a playoff appearance might be a bit of a pipe dream for those two teams, it remains a realistic goal for the other 13 teams in the conference.
Below, you’ll find those 13 teams divided into three categories — legit contenders, threats, and playoff hopefuls– along with a brief explanation of why each team is slotted where it is. Contenders could conceivably come out of the East and make a run to the Finals, while threats could potentially pose a problem for the contenders, but probably wouldn’t beat any of them in a full seven-game series if both squads were at full strength. Playoff hopefuls will be in the mix for a postseason spot, and they might even snag one, but they’d be lucky to make it out of the first round. With that said, here’s a look at where we see each team fitting in at this point in the season.
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Milwaukee Bucks: Any list of true contenders in the East has to start with the defending champion Bucks. The Bucks have largely the same squad that they won the title with last season, which means they’re deep and experienced. They also have arguably the best player in the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo. They’ve gotten off to a bit of a slow start this season due to injury issues, but as long as they’re healthy come playoff time, they’ll be extremely tough to topple.
Brooklyn Nets: Like Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant is at the top of the “best player in the world” discussion, and as long as the Nets have him — and former NBA MVP James Harden — they’ll be in the thick of the contender conversation. Durant currently leads the league in scoring with 29.6 points per game, and he’s looked virtually unstoppable on the offensive end. Plus, if the Nets ultimately get Kyrie Irving back, or trade him for a solid return, they’ll become even more dangerous. Their overall depth could be cause for concern, but they have end high-end talent to contend, with or without Irving.
Miami Heat: The Heat made a Finals run two seasons ago, and after bolstering their roster over the offseason, no one would be shocked to see them back there again. Kyle Lowry appears to be an ideal compliment to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, and in Tyler Herro the Heat have the early Sixth Man of the Year favorite. Overall, they’re a deep, talented and well-coached team, and as such they poise a real problem for the rest of the East.
Philadelphia 76ers: After finishing with the best record in the conference last season, the Sixers got off to an 8-2 start this season before injury and COVID issues took a toll and they lost four straight without Joel Embiid. When he’s been on the floor, the Sixers have looked like a real threat, and even though he’s missed the past several games, Philadelphia still has the league’s highest-rated offense. They appear to be deeper than they have been in the past, and that’s without Ben Simmons. If he’s traded at some point during the season, they could become even deeper and more dangerous.
Chicago Bulls: The Bulls are a much improved team thanks to the offseason additions of players like DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. With Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and DeRozan, Chicago now has three legitimate offensive options, and some solid role players. They may lack the top-tier talent to make a title run, but at the very least their four-year playoff drought should come to an end.
New York Knicks: The Knicks addressed a major issue over the offseason by adding some ancillary perimeter scoring around Julius Randle. In Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, Derrick Rose and Alec Burks the Knicks now have several players capable of generating their own offense from the perimeter. They’ve gotten off to a slow start defensively this season, but assuming they figure things out on that end (they had the league’s fourth-best defense last season), they’ll be a very tough out.
Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks have started slow this season, but they did the same thing last year before turning things around and ultimately making it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. The roster is largely the same as the one that the team had last season, so similar success should be feasible.
Washington Wizards: The Wizards have been one of the the bigger surprise of the season so far. Only time will tell if they can keep up their hot start (9-3 through 12 games), but they certainly don’t appear to be worse off following the Russell Westbrook trade. Behind Bradley Beal, Washington’s next four leading scorers on the season are all new additions: Montrezl Harrell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Charlotte Hornets: Most of the teams in this section are a year or two away from true contention, and that appears to be the case for the Hornets. In LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges they have a couple of great young building blocks, and while they might not be ready to truly compete for a title this season, their playoff drought that dates back to 2016 could come to an end.
Toronto Raptors: The Raptors are a tough team, they’re well-coached and they get after it defensively. In other words, they’re one of the those squads that no team will really want to match up against in a seven-game series, even if they lack the top-tier talent to make a real run this season.
Boston Celtics: The Celtics look like a team in need of a change. They have some solid individual pieces, but the cohesion isn’t there. It’s never a good sign when players are calling out their teammates just a few weeks into a season. They’re good enough to make the playoffs as currently constructed, but not much more can be expected of them.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Cleveland hasn’t made the playoffs since LeBron James left for L.A. in 2018, but that streak could come to an end this season thanks to a promising young Cavs squad led by Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. Garland and Mobley both appear to have All-Star potential, and the team as a whole has been playing hard under J.B. Bickerstaff, especially on the defensive end (they currently have the league’s fifth-best defense). A return to the NBA Finals might be a few years away, but you have to start somewhere.
Indiana Pacers: It’s hard to get too excited about the Pacers given that the team is largely the same as it has been over the past few years — good enough to compete for a playoff spot, and possibly secure one, but that’s about it.
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