As I’ve taken mailbag questions on the Sixers over the last month or so, one of the most common questions I’ve received has been about Philadelphia’s place in the Eastern Conference hierarchy. What better time to discuss that than a completely dead period in the offseason?
For this exercise, we’re ranking in tiers. In most, if not all cases, I don’t feel strongly enough about the teams in those groups one way or another to individually rank them. Put it this way — I think there are two bonafide contenders, two teams with Finals potential if things go mostly right for them, and a talented group of playoff teams that I’m not as certain on this far out.
With the possibility of a Kevin Durant trade rendering all of this meaningless, let’s get to it.
Tier 1 — Real-deal contenders
For the back half of last season, the Celtics were either the best team in the league or real damn close, so long as you were able to put their miserable start to the season aside and focus on what they were doing night-to-night. The Celtics had not lost back-to-back games in months before dropping them to Golden State in the Finals, and that was a reflection of their level of play once the calendar flipped to 2022.
There is admittedly some more uncertainty in Boston than there was to end the season, as it’s too early to say whether Jaylen Brown will be thrilled about his name being floated in Kevin Durant trade rumors. But these Celtics have worked through discord and disfunction before, and they have an elite identity as a group, a terrific defensive spine to prop them up when things go south on the offensive end. And that’s without mentioning that they made one of the biggest additions of any team this offseason, scooping up Malcolm Brogdon for what looked like a fairly insignificant outlay. A deep team got deeper, whether they come up with a Durant trade this offseason or not.
I have concerns about their ability to repeat what they accomplished last season, starting with whether Al Horford can continue to dial it up and be an important two-way lynchpin for them once again. But as the reigning Eastern Conference champions deserve the benefit of the doubt for now, and until proven otherwise rest in the East’s top tier.
The Bucks were a couple of “What if?” developments away from being the representative for the East in the Finals for a second straight season, this time with a chance to defend their NBA title. What if Khris Middleton is healthy and available to play and Round 2 against a Celtics team he has historically had success against? What if the Celtics simply didn’t shoot the lights out in the decisive Game 7? That would have set them up for a meeting with a Miami team they’d waxed in the playoffs a year prior, and a potential Finals meeting with a Warriors team they’ve split the season series with each of the last four years (save for 2019-20, when Milwaukee won the only meeting).
There are only a few players who have a rightful claim to the best player alive title, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of them. So long as that is the case, the Bucks are going to be a miserable out in the playoffs. And as long as they remain a two-way force every single year, winning lots of games and sticking to a consistent identity, they will deserve to be considered one of the best teams in the league, let alone the Eastern Conference.
Last year’s second-round tilt between the Celtics and Bucks was widely seen as the decisive Eastern Conference series, with others going so far as to say the winner would ultimately take home the championship. That didn’t end up coming to fruition, but these teams have earned the right to view themselves as a cut above the rest.
Tier 2 — Contenders if things break right
Where you ultimately fall on the two teams in this tier hinges on a number of factors. Do you care about the team having the best day-to-day player, or the best playoff player? Joel Embiid is undoubtedly the former, having competed for the MVP award each of the last two seasons, but even if we justify it for health reasons, Butler has been the more consistent playoff performer. How much do you care about coaching? Erik Spoelstra is better than Doc Rivers by a decent margin, which ends up mattering more in the playoffs as teams grow familiar with one another. Miami’s formula has proven more resilient in the playoffs in recent years, which should not be tossed aside.
I am a bigger believer in Philadelphia’s depth now than I was last season, and that’s a severe understatement. De’Anthony Melton and PJ Tucker are difference makers on the depth chart, even if there are concerns about the money and years handed to Tucker. Danuel House Jr. isn’t the most glamorous name they could have signed using the bi-annual exception, but he has thrived alongside James Harden in the past and played some killer basketball for the Jazz down the stretch last season.
Most importantly, this is the time we can realistically expect a return to form from Harden if one is ever expected to come. He has everything to play for financially, his long-term future uncertain after he took a discount to help the Sixers this offseason. He’ll be further removed from the hamstring issues that slowed him down over the past year, with more chemistry to build between teammates he’s now at least semi-familiar with. Now is the time for Philadelphia to step forward and do what they have not done since 2001 — make a run to the Conference Finals.
They won’t be favored to do so, and there is a multitude of reasons to doubt their credentials. But if their top-end talent lives up to expectations and remains healthy in the months that matter, they have a puncher’s chance against anybody. That’s enough to put them here.
If any team has earned a bit of benefit of the doubt in the Eastern Conference, it’s the Heat, who always manage to pull role players out of thin air, stars out of disadvantageous cap situations, and results under the radar. A lot of people left them for dead after the Bucks smoked them in the 2021 playoffs, writing off their bubble run to the Finals as a fluke that wouldn’t be duplicated. They didn’t quite make it back last season, but they came close because they have something many franchises lack: an identity.
For whatever concerns you have about Jimmy Butler’s mercurial personality, limitations of their role players on one end of the floor or another, being a member of the Heat necessitates a level of buy-in that not every player is up for. The ones who last are the reason they have consistent success as a franchise, which is a point in the favor of both Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley, overseers of the project in South Beach.
Do I think they got slightly worse this offseason? Yes. Losing Tucker to an in-conference competitor isn’t great, and the Heat did little else except bringing back their own this summer. But they have shown time and time again that they can unearth diamonds in the rough and get by even when it appears they’re on the downslope. Everyone (myself included) assumes Kyle Lowry is running on fumes at this point, which is usually when the Heat manage to work some voodoo magic and restore a player’s career. If not, I assume Victor Oladipo will build off of his playoff success and capture something close to his old form. There’s some luck, but there’s also a lot of sweat equity, and you can be sure the Heat will get the most out of what they’ve got.
Tier 3 — The rest of the playoff teams
I was one of Brooklyn’s biggest believers when I first saw Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving play together two seasons ago, and one of the people least enthused about their chances once the Irving situation went off of the rails last year. High-end talent only matters if the high-end talent is bought in and committed to sacrificing for the team, and as the Nets have found out the hard way, Irving marches to the beat of his own drum.
Where they end up when it’s all said and done hinges too much on complete unknowns. What do they get back for Durant? Do they trade Durant at all? What does Ben Simmons look like after a year off? Do they need to move Simmons as a result of rules restricting acquisitions of rookie max contracts? Too much to sort through, too much nonsense. I am fading them until evidence suggests otherwise.
Injuries distorted what I thought was a pretty good year for the Bulls overall. When Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso were both healthy, they simply had more outs as a group, capable of winning with individual offensive talent (see: Derozan, Demar and LaVine, Zach) or with disruptive perimeter defense. Ball missing the rest of the season from mid-January onward was a huge deal with them, as he served as connective tissue between a lot of their parts and helped make the whole thing go. Caruso was at least able to make it back in time for the stretch run, but ending up in a series against the Bucks was close to a worst-case scenario for Chicago.
I might slide them down further depending on Ball’s health, frankly, because they didn’t do a whole heck of a lot to improve this offseason. There have been some offseason rumors suggesting Ball might miss the start of next season, and if that’s the case for a meniscus injury that came with an initial 6-8 week timeline, it’s hard to feel optimistic about how it’ll go the rest of the way.
I think the Raptors are more interesting than they are good until proven otherwise. They have a tough, versatile group on defense that will make you miserable, but their halfcourt offense just isn’t good enough to take them all that seriously. A leap forward from Scottie Barnes might change that, but there are a fair amount of guys in the rotation that you’d just prefer to let fire away from deep, as you all saw for yourselves in the Sixers series.
They trade for Kevin Durant, and we can revisit this.
The Cavs were the team I was undoubtedly the most wrong about last season. I had high hopes for Evan Mobley and Darius Garland, the latter coming off of a strong close to the previous season, but my assumption was that they were trying to squeeze too many bigs into one lineup in a league discouraging that kind of team-building. Mobley ended up being such an impactful defender as a rookie that it alleviated a lot of those concerns, and Jarrett Allen was very, very good on top of that, so they at least had justification to play super-sized. That this all worked during a regression season from deep for Lauri Markannen is honestly pretty remarkable.
I’m still dubious of them long-term, as they’re short on useful wings and are heavily reliant on a small guard who got picked on when it really counted in their play-in loss to Atlanta. Collin Sexton is a huge X-factor whether he stays or goes, so hard to know just what to make of them yet. Don’t sleep on Ricky Rubio’s value to them, either.
I don’t have any idea what to make of the Hawks at any given time, so they lurk right here. At their best, they have some of the best firepower in the league, with Trae Young almost an elite offense by himself. There have just been a lot of weird signs and rumblings coming out of there that are hard to ignore. The constant cloud hanging over John Collins, for example, is such a strange phenomenon given his production and the impact he’s capable of making in a playoff format. They were a colossal disappointment last season and it honestly felt sort of wrong that they made the playoffs, but that’s the power of Young in a do-or-die format.
The Dejounte Murray trade is also a tough one for me. I think he’s very good and makes them better, though I’m not sure it’s the cleanest fit with Young and think it will take some time for either or perhaps both players to figure out how to help one another out. That trade was more about creating a long-term foundation than immediate dividends, I think, but we’re focusing on the landscape right now and not the next five years.
Tier 4 — Everybody else
No hipster team love from me. The Hornets were fun at times last year but have one of their better players from last season in serious legal trouble, the Knicks made a big splash but are still a move away from doing anything serious, the Pistons are every NBA hipster’s favorite team but have too far to go after winning just 23 games last season, and so forth. There’s some fun young talent at the bottom of the conference, and also the Wizards.
Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck
Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports