In recent history, the Eastern Conference has been criticized for its lack of competition compared to the Western Conference. At this point in the season, however, the upper half of the conference’s teams are in hot competition for playoff seedings. As we enter the final stages of the 2017-18 season, the league can expect many lower seeded playoff teams in the East to make a hard push for the playoffs, while the top few teams scramble in an effort to clinch home court advantage.
At the top of the crop currently are the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, the only two Eastern teams with 40 or more wins. Currently, Boston is half a game behind the Raptors, who have one of the league’s most cohesive and deep bench units. Though Boston’s coach, Brad Stevens, is a definite candidate for Coach of the Year, his team will have to make a concerted effort to beat Toronto in the two final games they play against them in the spring. Another definite player at the top of the standings is the Cleveland Cavaliers who, despite being tied with the Raptors for the second seed last year, are six games behind the second seed this year.
This leaves the Wizards and the Pacers as the fourth seed and fifth seeds respectively. The Pacers are a half a game behind Washington, who is a half a game behind the Cavs in turn. The Wizards have been without John Wall for nearly a month, but have managed to go 8-3 since losing him. Until Wall is back, they’ll need to rely on first time All-Star Bradley Beal, who is having a career high in every major statistical category.
After losing Paul George, the Pacers were labeled as probable lottery fodder. The unpredictable explosion of All-Star Victor Oladipo skyrocketed them to the fifth seed. Though he may be able to surprise us again by forcing Indiana into an upward push to home court advantage, Oladipo has been an outlier in terms of output, and so the rest of his team will have to play their best basketball to help him.
Toward the bottom of the seedings is where things get interesting. The Milwaukee Bucks, 9-4 since firing Head Coach Jason Kidd, are the East’s current sixth seed. The trio of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe are leading the team with a combined 65.1 points per game, more than half of the team’s average nightly total of 105.2. The Bucks’ success relies heavily on both Malcolm Brogdon’s healthy recovery from a quad injury and Jabari Parker returning to form after returning from an ACL tear that happened last February. After nearly a full year out, Parker has come off the bench in all eight games he has played this season. Hopefully, for the Bucks, he will soon reach his 20 points per game output of last year to bolster the team into a higher seed.
After the Bucks come the Philadelphia 76ers at the seventh seed, who hope to reach the playoffs this year for the first time since 2012. For a young team, Philadelphia is defying expectations as the league’s fifth-best defense. They are ranked third in assists and fourth in rebounding, but also commit the most turnovers of any team — a staggering 17.3 per game. The 76ers are unique in their being lead by a second-year player, Joel Embiid, who is averaging shy of 24 points per game with 11 rebounds. Embiid is pushing his team up the Eastern Conference standings while attempting to cement himself as one of the league’s best big men in the wake of DeMarcus Cousins’ season-ending injury. The team’s next best player is rookie Ben Simmons, who averages 16.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game while leading all rookies in triple-doubles.
If the 76ers cut down on turnovers and maximize their defense, they could improve on their February tear (8-2 this month). Keep in mind that this is all without injured 2018 number one pick, Markelle Fultz. The highly anticipated rookie combo guard would be the icing on the cake for the 76ers first playoff berth in five years, should they make it that far.
At the end of the playoff seedings are the eighth-seeded Miami Heat. Though the Heat have first-time All-Star Goran Dragic on their roster, this team is notable for its lack of star power, instead owing much of their wins to team play and Eric Spoelstra’s coaching. No one player on the Heat is averaging 20 points per game or more, but eight players are averaging double digits in scoring. Dragic is the current leader at 17.4 points, while Hassan Whiteside is averaging a double-double — 14.2 points and nearly 12 rebounds per game. The Heat’s success this season will rely heavily on Spoelstra’s coaching, as well as unselfish team basketball. With Dwyane Wade returning from his year and a half long stints with the Bulls and Cavaliers, greater experience and veteran presence may guide this team into the playoffs.
Finally, just outside the current seedings and itching to get in, are the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons have most recently entered the news because of their blockbuster trade to gain Blake Griffin. Pairing Griffin with Andre Drummond has produced a twin towers frontcourt presence — Drummond is averaging 15.1 points and a mindblowing 15.7 rebounds this year, while in his ten games with the Pistons, Griffin has averaged 20 points, 7.2 rebounds, and a career-high 5.4 assists. The Pistons also include Reggie Jackson (14.6 points and 5.5 assists), who has been injured since December and isn’t expected to return until March.
Because the Pistons traded Avery Bradley in the Blake Griffin trade, the team lacks consistent volume shooting from three. Because of this, the team’s offense will mostly revolve around the Griffin-Drummond frontcourt pairing, but will it be enough to bring them into a low playoff seeding?
With the Pistons scratching at the bottom, nine teams are currently fighting for playoff seedings. At the top are the East’s true contenders, battling for home-court advantage in the playoffs, while those in the bottom half are just trying to make the postseason. While some teams are perennial playoff presences and others are newcomers, all of them are competing for what will surely be a competitive Eastern Conference showing.