Less than 10 games separate the top 12 teams in the East. Which team is best positioned to climb the standings?
Steve Aschburner: Maybe I’m just analyzing according to laundry at this point, but the Boston Celtics thrashing around at .500 or worse for much of this season has surprised me. Having two tremendous wings in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown somehow has turned into the my turn-your turn dead end of the unsatisfying Paul Pierce-Antoine Walker days. I get that point guard has been an issue and Al Horford is well past his prime, but Marcus Smart is tough, Robert Williams III is delivering in the middle and I simply assumed Brad Stevens taking his coaching chops upstairs meant he would replace or surpass them with his choice of sideline successor (Ime Udoka). I get it, they’re vertically challenged defensively, but I cannot believe this mediocrity is going to persist through the second half. Even a minor hot streak could jump them three or four spots in the conference standings.
Mark Medina: My choice is the Bucks. They will finish much higher than their current No. 4 seed as they reasonably absorbed every team’s best shot after winning the NBA title in 2020-21. Giannis Antetokounmpo has stayed in the Kia MVP conversation, while Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have remained reliable. Plus, there is a good chance that Brook Lopez will return at some point after recovering from back surgery.
No disrespect to the Brooklyn Nets’ top-heavy talent, or to “Heat culture” or to the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers suddenly becoming serious contenders. The Bucks have the best ingredients to sustain their potential. For the Nets, Kevin Durant is nursing injuries and Kyrie Irving remains a part-time player. The Heat have a good blend of star talent (Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Bam Adebayo) and young talent (Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro), but they don’t match the Bucks’ depth. And though the Bulls and Cavaliers keep proving they have not captured lightning in a bottle, they also are not playoff-tested.
Shaun Powell: The reasonable answer is Miami only because the Heat are now at full strength with the return of Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler from extended injury stretches. But, Miami is already in the penthouse because of the terrific job Erik Spoelstra and various role players did without those stars and therefore there’s nowhere to rise. Aside from the Heat, then it’s the Sixers, assuming Joel Embiid can stay on the floor — always an iffy proposition for him. Another reason to suspect the Sixers is that we can assume, slightly, that Ben Simmons will be traded before the deadline and help is on the way.
John Schuhmann: Cleveland. The Cavs are in sixth place at 27-19, but they have the point differential (+4.7 per game, best in the East) of a team that’s 31-15. If we were to use every team’s point differential to project its record going forward, the Cavs would finish tied (with Chicago) for second place at 51-31, three games back of Miami. But the Cavs also have the East’s easiest remaining schedule in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage (0.463). And when you take home-away (20 of 36 at home) and rest (more rest-advantage games than rest-disadvantage games) into account, it’s the easiest remaining schedule in the whole league. The Cavs are obviously missing Ricky Rubio, but they’re 22-9 when they’ve had Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen available and they’re pretty well-positioned to make a trade before the deadline.
Michael C. Wright: Atlanta is the team I’d like to see make that climb because the Hawks are young, athletic and way too talented to be struggling the way they are. We’re talking about an Eastern Conference finalist that brought back virtually everyone from the 2020-21 squad. So, the talent is there for the Hawks to make a move up the standings. It’s also encouraging to see players such as John Collins, Trae Young and Kevin Huerter expressing disappointment about the current state, making it clear Atlanta is grinding to right the ship. The recent trade of Reddish — which netted a first-round pick — only bolsters Travis Schlenk’s ability to swing a deal as the trade deadline approaches.
De’Andre Hunter is back after a two-month absence, and his return should help at least some on the defensive end. Clint Capela, meanwhile, could be back as soon as this weekend from his ankle injury after missing the last five games. Atlanta is a team full of players harboring that chip-on-the-shoulder underdog mentality, and you can bet the Hawks won’t just lay down for this second half of the season.
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