NBA: Top 5 Contenders in the Eastern Conference
The 2023 NBA season is only a few days away from tip-off, which means it’s time to analyze the top teams in contention to come out of the Eastern Conference. Who are the elite teams in a conference that has only produced four champions since 2013?
1. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks had arguably the biggest offseason acquisition during the 2023 offseason by trading for seven-time all-star and NBA 75th team member point guard Damian Lillard. Lillard spent eleven seasons with the Portland Trailblazers (’12-’22) and led them to eight playoff appearances that included a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2019 (lost vs. Warriors). As a result of the trade for Lillard, the Bucks lost three-time first-team All-NBA Defensive Team member Jrue Holiday (now with Boston), who was a critical piece in Milwaukee’s 2021 NBA championship victory.
Alongside Lillard is two-time league MVP forward Giannis Antetokokounmpo, who is coming off his seventh consecutive all-star appearance (’17-’23) and four consecutive All-Defensive first-team selections (’19-’22), respectively. Forward Kris Middleton returns for the Bucks as he approaches his twelfth season, as he has earned three all-star nods and was the second option in the Bucks’ championship win.
Milwaukee finished the 2022 campaign as the Eastern Conference’s number one overall seed (58-24), but fell to the eighth-seeded Miami Heat in five games in a first-round shocker. The Heat became the fifth team in NBA history to knock off a No. 1 seed as the No. 8 seed, respectively. Antetokounmpo did miss games 2 and 3, but the Bucks were still favored to advance. Now with the core of Lillard, Middleton and Antetokounmpo, the expectations for Milwaukee are championship or bust.
2. Boston Celtics
The Celtics since 2018 have appeared in four Eastern Conference finals (’18,’20,’22, ’23) and an NBA finals berth (2022), which is due in large part to the tandem of forwards Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Tatum has established himself as one of the league’s best players. In 2022, the former Duke Blue Devil averaged 30.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists and earned his second consecutive first-team all-nba selection. Brown is coming off his first selection to an All-NBA team in 2022 (second-team all-NBA) by averaging 26.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists, respectively.
Boston acquired forward Kristaps Porzingis via a three-team trade that also featured the departure of veteran Celtics guard Marcus Smart. Smart had the reputation of being the heart and soul of the Celtics and being their best defender (won 2022 Defensive Player of the Year). Despite the shocking trade of Smart to the Memphis Grizzlies, Boston acquired Holiday from Portland to finalize their roster ahead of the 2023 season. Holiday brings veteran leadership, high basketball IQ and most importantly defense that Smart delivered. Porzingis’s style of play compliments Brown and Tatum, as he can stretch the floor with his ability to shoot from outside the paint which opens the lane for the two all-star forwards to attack the basket.
The Celtics were the number two seed in 2022 (57-25) and made the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat in a losing effort. The Heat jumped out to a surprising 3-0 lead over Boston, but Boston clawed back to even the series 3-3 with game 7 at TD Garden. Tatum and company had a chance to become the first team in NBA history to come back from a 0-3 deficit, but Heat forward Jimmy Butler (28 points) and the Heat closed out the series with a lopsided 103-84 victory.
Boston has been knocking at the championship door the past five seasons, will 2023 finally be the time the door opens?
3. Philadelphia 76ers
76ers center Joel Embiid, who is the reigning NBA MVP, is still aiming to take Philadelphia to their first conference finals appearance since 2001. Embiid averaged 33.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists while having shot 54.8 percent from the field in 2022. Embiid’s co-star and former league MVP guard James Harden returns to Philadelphia reluctantly, as he has expressed issues with 76ers General Manager Daryl Morey and the front office. Harden reportedly wanted a long-term lucrative extension with Philadelphia, but due to Harden’s slight decline in play, the 76ers were unwilling to sign the extension. The three-time scoring champion hasn’t played in the preseason, as the 76ers play their last preseason game against Atlanta this upcoming Friday.
Philadelphia has solid pieces surrounding the tandem of Harden and Embiid that includes guard Tyrese Maxey (averaged 20.3 points in 2022), forward Tobias Harris (ranked 50th in defensive win shares) and newly signed forward Kelly Oubre Jr. (averaged 20.3 points in 2022 with Charlotte).
The 76ers finished the 2022 season as the number three seed and fell to the Boston Celtics in seven games in the semi-final round of the playoffs. Philadelphia had a 3-2 lead and had the chance to close out the series with game 6 at home, but Tatum’s four timely three-pointers in the fourth quarter extended the series, which led to the Celtics winning the series 4-3 in Boston.
Can Embiid and a disgruntled Harden help elevate Philadelphia over the top? Or is it time for the 76ers to start anew?
4. Miami Heat
The Heat have made two NBA Finals appearances in four years under head coach Eric Spoelstra, who has established himself as one of the league’s greatest coaches. Spoelstra has proven to be able to lead a team to championship contention without a “super team” or multiple all-star players during their prime years ( Ex. 2010-2014 Heat, 2016-2019 Warriors).
Instead, the Heat’s core consists of defensive prowess forward Bam Adebayo, 2022 reigning sixth-man of the Year Tyler Herro and six-time all-star forward Jimmy Butler. Adebayo averaged 20.4 points and 9.2 rebounds as he earned his second all-star nod in 2022. Herro, who averaged 20.1 points and 5.0 rebounds, missed the entire postseason in 2023 due to breaking his hand during the first-round series against Milwaukee. Butler, who has been known to become one the league’s best playoff performers (see Game 5 against Milwaukee that closed out series), has helped Miami stay atop in the eastern conference playoff race.
Miami defeated the number 1 seeded Milwaukee Bucks, number four-seeded New York Knicks and the number two-seeded Boston Celtics en route to the NBA finals where they lost to the Denver Nuggets in five games. As the 2023 season looms, the Heat will be without forward Gabe Vincent (signed with the Lakers), who was a key piece in helping Miami reach the finals by averaging 12.7 points and 3.5 assists in the playoffs during Herro’s absence. The Heat fortunately retain forward Caleb Martin, who had a strong performance in the eastern conference finals by averaging 19.3 points, 6.4 rebounds while shooting 60.2 percent from the field and 48.9 percent from three-point range, respectively.
The Heat may not have the star power of Milwaukee or Boston, but under the tutelage of Spoelstra, who has an eye for talent and knows how to strategize with what he has (Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent and Max Strus were all undrafted players), Miami will always be in the fold along with “Playoff Jimmy”.
5. New York Knicks
The New York Knicks finished the 2022 campaign with a 47-35 record as the No. 4 seed and defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games before losing in the semi-finals to Miami in six games, respectively.
Former Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson averaged 24 points, 6.2 assists and shot 49.1 percent from the field in his first season with New York. Brunson’s numbers improved in the playoffs by averaging 27.8 points and 5.6 assists in eleven games, respectively. Brunson is due to have another impressive season and to further establish himself as one of the leagues best guards. Alongside Brunson is forward Julius Randle, who had another strong season in 2022 by averaging 25.1 points, 10 rebounds and four assists which earned him a spot on the third-team all-NBA, respectively. Randle underperformed in the postseason, likely due to an ankle injury he suffered (16.6 points per game on 37.4 percent shooting), but aims to bounce back as he is arguably the Knicks’ best player.
New York acquired former Warriors guard Donte DiVincenzo (reunites with Brunson, both played at Villanova) during the offseason, as he can be a strong contributor off the bench. Forward R.J. Barrett is approaching his fifth season with the Knicks, as he averaged 19.6 points and 5.0 rebounds in 2022, respectively. Barrett has the potential to be New York’s future cornerstone piece at just 23 years of age, but he has to improve his outside shooting (shot 31 percent from three-point range, career-low).
New York has a formidable core with Randle, Brunson and Barrett, but how far can this Knicks team go in the Eastern Conference?