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NBA Fact or Fiction: The Eastern Conference is going to be a playoff bloodbath

·7 min read
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The Eastern Conference playoff field is wide open

The Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat are the clear favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference, according to BetMGM. No other team has better than 11/1 odds to make the NBA Finals. Yet, they are a tiebreaker away from all meeting each other on the same side of the bracket.

The Nets are currently in eighth place, in real danger of needing to survive the play-in tournament. Facing Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons, surrounded by shooters and former All-Stars, could be the prize for the Heat or Chicago Bulls, should they navigate their own injury issues to capture the top seeds.

The Bucks will face a brutal gauntlet just to get back to the conference finals, regardless of whether or not they have to play, say, the Sixers and Heat in the first two rounds. The Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors are no cakewalks, either. The Atlanta Hawks, who were tied 2-2 entering Game 5 of last year's conference finals against the Bucks, face the very real possibility of missing the playoffs.

This is going to be fun.

Giannis Antetokounmpo's Bucks and Jimmy Butler's Heat have each ousted each other in the past two NBA playoffs. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Giannis Antetokounmpo's Bucks and Jimmy Butler's Heat have each ousted each other in the past two NBA playoffs. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Four rotational players are currently out of Chicago's lineup with significant ailments, but DeMar DeRozan led the Bulls on a five-game winning streak to recapture a top seed. For now. They play a brutal schedule the rest of the way, but they will be hell to face in the playoffs if they can work Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso back into the fold before they get there. They are also five games from falling into the play-in tournament.

The records and ranks in offensive rating, defensive rating and net rating for the East's top eight teams:

  1. Miami (38-21): 111.9 ORtg (8th), 107.4 DRtg (6th), +4.5 NRtg (6th)

  2. Chicago (38-21): 113.4 ORtg (4th), 111.4 DRtg (20th), +2.0 NRtg (11th)

  3. Philadelphia (35-23): 111.0 ORtg (14th), 109.2 DRtg (11th), +1.9 NRtg (12th)

  4. Cleveland (35-23): 110.0 ORtg (19th), 105.8 DRtg (4th), +4.2 NRtg (7th)

  5. Milwaukee (36-24): 112.5 ORtg (6th), 109.4 DRtg (12th), +3.2 NRtg (9th)

  6. Boston (34-26): 110.3 ORtg (18th), 104.9 DRtg (2nd), +5.4 NRtg (4th)

  7. Toronto (32-25): 111.5 ORtg (10th), 109.8 DRtg (13th), +1.7 NRtg (13th)

  8. Brooklyn (31-28): 111.4 ORtg (12th), 111.2 DRtg (19th), +0.2 NRtg (17th)

Milwaukee is still the favorite to win the East. They have the talent and institutional knowledge to win three hard-fought rounds again. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have shown no signs of slippage in their 492 minutes together, outscoring opponents by 11.5 points per 100 possessions. The Bucks are 23-8 in games those three have started this season, but even they are not without their flaws.

There is still no timetable for center Brook Lopez's return from back surgery. The Bucks traded for Serge Ibaka, who missed the second half of last season for back surgery. Both could bolster the frontcourt depth around Bobby Portis, should they stay healthy, but Milwaukee's backcourt has been rendered even thinner.

The Bucks traded Donte DiVincenzo to acquire Ibaka at the deadline and lost Pat Connaughton to surgery on his shooting hand hours later. Veterans George Hill and Wesley Matthews are battling injuries, too. The reigning champions signed the recently waived DeAndre' Bembry just to round out the depth chart, and they are among the contenders pursuing Goran Dragic on the buyout market. None of these concerns may linger into the playoffs, but they also do not inspire supreme confidence in Milwaukee's ability to repeat.

On paper, James Harden fits seamlessly alongside Joel Embiid in Philadelphia, and Simmons complements Brooklyn's other stars, but we cannot predict how either team will coalesce until we see them on the court.

Harden has been a step slower on offense and two on defense, and the Sixers traded two rotation players to get him. Harden's latest hamstring injury will keep him out through the All-Star break, which gives the 32-year-old 23 games to maintain his health, play his way into shape and build better chemistry with Embiid than the five previous superstar teammates with whom he failed to reach the Finals over the past five years.

Durant and Irving have played 30 games together in their three seasons on the Nets. Durant sprained his left MCL and will miss at least half a season for a third straight year since tearing his right Achilles tendon. Irving cannot play home games for his refusal to meet New York City's vaccine mandate. Simmons expects to be mentally ready enough to play at some point after the All-Star break, but there is no way to tell how he will respond in his return to the game, and then the playoffs. Brooklyn could feature all three stars or none.

Miami is winless in five games against Boston and Cleveland and 1-2 against Toronto this season. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry have played only 21 games together, and Lowry will turn 36 years old before the playoffs. It is hard to argue these Heat are definitively better than anyone in the East playoff field.

The Celtics, Cavaliers and Raptors all may have gotten better at the deadline, respectively adding Derrick White, Caris LeVert and Thaddeus Young. Each team, including Miami, can field a deep eight-man rotation.

The most effective three-man lineups per 100 possessions for six of the Eastern Conference's top eight teams (acknowledging that we have yet to see the best three-man units for Philadelphia and Brooklyn):

  • Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown-Robert Williams (BOS): +19.5 (715 minutes)

  • Lowry-Butler-Adebayo (MIA): +12.6 (415 minutes)

  • Holiday-Middleton-Antetokounmpo (MIL): +11.5 (492 minutes)

  • Darius Garland-Evan Mobley-Jarrett Allen (CLE): +11.2 (679 minutes)

  • Fred VanVleet-Gary Trent Jr.-Pascal Siakam (TOR): +7.0 (799 minutes)

  • DeRozan-Zach LaVine-Nikola Vucevic (CHI): +6.2 (783 minutes)

FiveThirtyEight's statistical projections give Boston — owners of the East's top defense and winners of nine straight before Wednesday's undermanned loss to the Detroit Pistons on the back end of a back-to-back — the best chance to win the title of any team in the league The Celtics' starters, all of whom have been to a conference finals, are crushing opponents by 26.5 points per 100 possessions in 296 minutes together.

The FiveThirtyEight model has been met with mockery for giving the sixth-place Celtics the best odds of winning the East (33%). The site gives the second-place Bulls the sixth-best odds to win the conference (2%). That is how wide the variance is. Milwaukee is within two wins of first place and one loss of joining Brooklyn in the play-in tournament. Only five games separate the top seed from risk of missing the playoffs.

If I had to bet right now, my money is still on the Bucks in the East, but I would not be shocked to see the Sixers or Nets unseat them in the first round. Boston and Miami could play in a 2020 Eastern Conference finals rematch after both being destroyed in the opening round last season. It is anybody's season. All I ask is for Philadelphia and Brooklyn to meet at some point. Let the chaos begin, right after this All-Star break.

Determination: Fact

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach