The Eastern Conference is as competitive as ever as we make the turn past the All-Star break and playoff basketball is right around the corner. This is the part of the season where we see the contending teams separate themselves from the pack, and which teams are going in the opposite direction. So let’s start in the Eastern Conference and break down which teams are poised for a deep playoff run and which teams aren’t.

Contenders

Eastern Conference Contenders: Bucks, Heat, 76ers, and Nets.

Milwaukee Bucks

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Starting with the defending champs, Milwaukee. There is no surprise here. The Bucks had a slow start to the 2022 season but have won six out of their last 10 games giving them the fourth seed in the east. They are third in the league in total rebounding and fourth in three-pointers made. Coming off their first championship in 50 years, the Bucks are primed again for another deep playoff run.

Giannis’ Greatness

One of the newest members of the 75th Anniversary Team, Giannis, is proving why he is deserving of that list time and time again. On the season, the Greek Freak is averaging 29 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 assists. As a result of another stellar year, he has put his name at the top of the MVP race once again. Since the year 2019, these are his accolades: two-time MVP, one DPOY, one championship, and one Finals MVP. It is a stretch that only a handful can say they did the same. If Giannis’ numbers stay the same, it will be the sixth straight year he will have averaged 27/10. He is a once-in-a-generation player and is the engine that is carrying this well-oiled Bucks team.

The Others

As we have seen in recent playoff runs, teams got to have more than one guy. Luckily for the Bucks, they can turn to many options when needed. Khris Middleton has been steady for this team, dropping 19 points on over 43 percent from the field. Opposite of Middleton, maybe the most underrated two-way player in the league: Jrue Holiday. The emergence of Bobby Portis, who just came off a career-high shooting percentage from beyond the arc. They added to their depth by getting Serge Ibaka at the deadline. The Bucks are one of, if not the most complete team in basketball, and are looking to do something that has not been done since the Warriors: repeat.

Miami Heat

by Couper Moorhead HEAT.com Posted: Nov 03, 2021

I was debating putting Miami as a dark horse because of the deadline trades between Philadelphia and Brooklyn, but the Heat are keeping things rolling and are definitely a slept-on contender in the East. The Heat have the second seed in the East at 38-21.

The Heat Culture

The lineup of Butler, Lowry, Adebayo, Robinson, and Tucker has only played 17 games together and still they own the second-best record in the east. If that doesn’t represent Heat culture, then I don’t know what does. They just seem to find a way to get it done, even when their best players aren’t available.

A New Big Three in South Beach

Not quite the hype or talent when the LeBron, Bosh, and Wade Big Three had, however, up to this point it has been just as effective. Miami made their splash in free agency receiving Kyle Lowry from Toronto, to get that point guard they always needed since Jimmy Butler came to South Beach. Now the Heat have that Big Three to go along with guys like P.J. Tucker, Tyler Herro, and Markieff Morris, the Heat are a concern for a lot of teams. Also, not to forget, Victor Oladipo is soon to make a return. With the Heat led by Jimmy Buckets, don’t be surprised if in June we see the Heat representing the East.

76ers/Nets

Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Well, the Big Three of Irving, Harden, and Durant went 13-3 and is no longer, a new Big Three, sort of, has formed in Brooklyn. The 76ers and Nets made big news at the deadline and shook up the east as we knew it.

The Nets received Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks. While the 76ers acquired James Harden and Paul Millsap. Now, there is no doubt that these two teams have the most talent in the Eastern Conference and if healthy we should expect a 76ers vs Nets ECF.

For the Nets, they gain more defensive versatility and much-needed depth. With scorers like Mills, Curry, Durant, and Irving surrounding Simmons, he can do what he does best: facilitate. As a result, Simmons won’t have the need to feel to score with those guys around him and get to play a more natural game for him.

For the Sixers, they get their number two star in Harden to play alongside MVP front runner Embiid. That high pick n roll with Embiid and Harden will definitely be special to watch. This is the first time for both guys having a player at that caliber at the center and point guard position. Both teams are in clear win now mode, and we’ll just have to wait to see if it pays off.

Pretenders:

Eastern Conference Pretenders: Hawks and Knicks

Atlanta Hawks

KEVIN C. COX / GETTY IMAGES

After reaching the ECF last year before falling to the Bucks, the Hawks have taken a couple of steps back in 2022. They are currently 10th in the East, three games below .500. Even though their All-Star, Trae Young who is averaging 28 points and 9 assists, it has been tough sledding in the early going. Looking at the top of the East, I don’t know if there is a team in a seven game series that the Hawks could beat. Even with one of the easiest schedules remaining, it will be an uphill battle to reach a favorable seed for the Hawks.

Defense wins Championships

The Hawks better hope that the saying “defense wins championships” isn’t true this year. Despite having one of the most prolific offenses led by Young, the Hawks are incredibly bad on the other side of the ball. The Hawks have a 113 defensive rating. Putting them at the fourth-worst mark in the NBA. With offenses like Philadelphia, Chicago, Brooklyn in the East, the question is, can they stop them?

Knicks

Nelson Chenault USA TODAY SPORTS

The other team in New York has had one of the most disappointing first halves of a season as a big market team could have. The Knicks are currently the 12th seed and have Knick fans in shambles. After obtaining the fourth seed in the 2021 playoffs, the Knicks decided to run it back with basically the same team, with exception of picking up Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker, and we are seeing how that is turning out. With the chances of the Knicks making the playoffs slim, Knick fans can start making Photoshop pictures of NBA stars in Knick uniforms a little sooner this year.

Dark Horses

Eastern Conference Dark Horses: Bulls and Cavaliers

Bulls

Sporting News

Despite an abundance of injuries, the Chicago Bulls have the top seed in the East at 39-21. The Bulls made their big moves in free agency, acquiring, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, and MVP candidate DeMar DeRozan. Tim Hardaway Jr. earlier this season said the “Bulls are back.” Now implying the Bulls are back, would be saying they’ve returned to those 90s teams, who won several championships. These Bulls are definitely far away from that, however, they are one of the most surprising teams of the year. Despite all the injuries, they are still a top seed in the East and are expecting top four pick Patrick Williams to return before the end of the season. The Bulls definitely are in position to make a deep playoff run this season.

New Faces in the Windy City

A year after finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference, winning only 31 games, the new look Chicago Bulls are returning to their winning ways. With many inexperienced and young talent surrounding Zach Lavine, the Bulls struggled to find contributions outside of Lavine. What was looking like a long rebuild for Chicago fans, incredible front office moves, turned that narrative around. First, it was the acquiring of Magic center Nikola Vucevic. Then Arturas Karnisovas really went to work. Acquiring Ball, Caruso, DeRozan, and Jones Jr. From a rebuild to championship caliber in one offseason, the Bulls are no doubt back on track.

Potential Downfalls

With all the hype the Bulls have gained from their impressive first-half performance, there are some holes in their armor. Chicago has struggled this season guarding the pick n roll late in games, especially when Vucevic is involved in the action. Teams have been able to catch the Bulls in rotation or go right at the Chicago center without much resistance. Another question that has risen about this team is their depth, especially in the frontcourt. Outside of Vucevic, guys like Tony Bradley and newly acquired Tristan Thompson will have to answer the call. Whether you trust them or not, those are the guys. However, when Chicago is fully healthy, they are no doubt an Eastern Conference Finals contender.

Cavaliers

By Kelsey Russo 

We all know what a Cavs team post-LeBron looks like… right? Lottery team, winning 20 games, sounds about right. But not these Cavs. The Cavs are currently fifth in the East, trailing Chicago by 3.5 games for the one spot. Led by first-time All-Star Darius Garland, who has become one of the premier guards in the league. This is a young, hungry Cavs team who just added Caris LeVert and isn’t afraid of your favorite Big Three. Now when I say dark horse, they may not win it all, but they can cause problems to those title favorites and possibly strip their chances of being champs. But with their twin tower lineup of Allen and Mobley, they will be a handful to figure out come playoff time.

Forget Small Ball

We all know that the NBA is a copycat league. So when the Warriors were successful in their “small ball five” lineup, the rest of the league scrapped out their lineups and went small ball too. However, the 2022 Cavs have taken a different route. The Cavs go Garland, Okoro, Wade, Mobley, and Allen as a starting lineup. That’s 6’9″, 6’11”, and 7’0″ between Wade, Allen, and Mobley. This lineup has given teams problems all season long, then you add the premiere play of Garland and Okoro, its easy to see why this team is competing at a high level. It will be interesting to see how teams in the playoffs respond to this lineup, and how the Cavs respond as well.

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