Eastern Conference Preview: Ranking the teams in Tiers

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The Eastern Conference is stacked. And deep.

This may be the best Eastern Conference we have seen in decades, which means not only are good teams going to struggle to make the playoffs, but good rosters will end up missing even the play-in. The East is at least 11 deep with teams dreaming of the playoffs this season.

Let’s break down the Eastern Conference by tiers. To be clear, these tiers are based on said team’s ability to win the title, not simply where they will fall in the regular season standings. For example, the Heat or 76ers could easily grab a top-two seed in the East, they will be good regular season teams, but they have playoff questions to answer.

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Milwaukee Bucks
Boston Celtics

Anything short of the Eastern Conference Finals will disappoint these teams. Milwaukee has continuity, strong defense, and the best player in the world in Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks just need to stay healthy (they might have returned to the Finals if Khris Middleton hadn’t sprained his knee), but an adjustment on defense to take away a few more 3-pointers wouldn’t hurt. Still, this is the core of a team that won it all in 2021 and could do it again.

Boston has depth, continuity, athleticism, and defense (especially once Robert Williams III gets healthy and returns to the lineup) — everything that led them to the Finals last season. The only question (the thing holding me back from picking them to win it all… but that’s for next Monday) is how they respond to Ime Udoka being out and Joe Mazzulla being in as coach. Maybe the Celtics don’t miss a beat, but Udoka helped them find their identity last season and was fantastic in leading them to the Finals. That’s no small thing to replace.

FRINGE CONTENDERS (WE HAVE QUESTIONS)

Philadelphia 76ers
Miami Heat

Both of these teams can not only finish top two in the regular season, but they also have rosters good enough to be serious title contenders — if they can answer questions (there just bigger questions than with the Bucks and Celtics). The 76ers big question is James Harden in the playoff spotlight — he has a history of wilting in big moments and having bad games when his team needs him most. Sixers GM Daryl Morey upgraded the supporting cast this season, it’s good enough, but now the pressure falls to Harden to live up to his potential in the playoffs. Also, Joel Embiid‘s streak of unfortunate injuries in the postseason needs to end. Health is one of the concerns with the Heat as well, but the bigger question is at the four, where they will need to fill the steady postseason hand of P.J. Tucker. Is Caleb Martin up for that?

EDGE OF THE FRINGE CONTENDERS (WE HAVE LOTS OF QUESTIONS)

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets have so many big, pressing questions they deserve their own category: Does Ben Simmons accept his role and fit with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving? Is Irving fully committed? (It’s a contract year, I expect he will be dialed in.) Is Nic Claxton enough at center? Can this team get stops? However, Durant asked the big question about this team, and it sounds like even he doesn’t know the answer:

PLAYOFFS OR BUST

Toronto Raptors
Cleveland Cavaliers
Atlanta Hawks

These three teams are likely fighting for the sixth seed and avoiding the play-in, or at the very least getting the seventh or eighth seed so the path out of the play-in to the playoffs is simpler.

For the Cavaliers and Hawks — teams that made bold moves in the offseason — a step forward into the playoffs feels imperative. Atlanta added Dejounte Murray, giving Trae Young an All-Star-level backcourt mate who can both be a disruptive defender and can keep the offense humming when he sits. The Cavaliers traded for Donovan Mitchell to put next to the fast-rising Evan Mobley plus All-Stars Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen. The Cavs may have the best young core in the NBA, but how fast can they come together?

Out of this group, I’ll take Toronto to get the sixth seed. The Raptors have their All-NBA player in Pascal Siakam, a star on the rise in Scottie Barnes, and a deep roster filled with long, switchable, athletic players — guys Nick Nurse uses in an aggressive system unlike any other team in the league. The Raptors are tough to play against, they are my pick to get the fifth or sixth seed, but they don’t feel like a threat to win it all.

PLAY-IN TEAMS

Chicago Bulls
New York Knicks
Washington Wizards

These teams have playoff dreams but are likely headed for the play-in — and one could even miss that.

Bulls fans may think they should be up a tier, they played like it when healthy last season, but Chicago starts this season without Lonzo Ball (which hurts their defense and transition), and with questions about whether DeMar DeRozan can replicate a career season at age 33. The Knicks will be better with Jalen Brunson running the point and RJ Barrett taking a step forward, but the rest of the East also got better, and this roster still has holes. The Wizards could break out of this group and make the playoffs, but they need a fully healthy Kriztaps Porzingis to do that, bet on that at your own risk.

One thing to watch with this group: If a team suffers a major injury or gets off to a slow start, will they pivot early to tanking and chase Victor Wembanyama instead of wins?

LOTTERY BOUND

Detroit Pistons
Indiana Pacers
Charlotte Hornets
Orlando Magic

These teams are thinking more Wembanyama than playoffs. The Magic have some impressive young talent led by No.1 pick Paulo Banchero (he’s the clear favorite to win Rookie of the Year), but they are young and will still learn some hard lessons. The Hornets will miss Miles Bridges, likely for the entire season, and LaMelo Ball for the start of it, and that is too big a hole to climb out of. The Pacers have real talent still on the roster, talent that can win games, which is why everyone around the league expects a Myles Turner and/or Buddy Hield tour sooner rather than later.

If one team is going to break out of this group it’s the Pistons, led by Cade Cunningham and impressive rookie Jaden Ivey, with some promising role players. They are the best of this group, and while it’s a young team learning on the fly they could surprise us all.

 

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.

Antetokounmpo talks about plans for his 28th birthday while holding Simpsons plush

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Happy birthday, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak turns 28 today.

After he dropped a casual (for him) 34-13-5 line in the Bucks’ win over the Magic last night, Antetokounmpo discussed his birthday plans. He’s not going out, maybe just dinner, playing with his kids, and once they are asleep… ya know.

I feel safe saying Antetokounmpo is the first NBA player to talk about birthday sex while holding a Homer J. Simpson plush doll.

If you’re asking, why the Simpson doll… why not? Bucks reserve forward Sandro Mamukelashvili won it at Universal Studios, brought it to the game, left it behind in the locker room and Antetokounmpo appropriated it.

In a world where most postgame press conferences are formulaic and filled with cliches it’s good to see a player willing just to be himself and have some fun behind the mic.

Watch Pacers rookie Nembhard drop 31, outduel Curry, lead Pacers past Warriors

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SAN FRANCSICO — Rookie Andrew Nembhard outshined the Splash Brothers on their home court.

Nembhard scored a season-high 31 points and added 13 assists and eight rebounds to lead the undermanned Indiana Pacers to a 112-104 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Monday night.

A second-round draft pick, Nembhard made a key 3-pointer with 4:26 to go and another jumper less than two minutes later.

“He was masterful tonight … 31 and 13, those are high lottery numbers,” coach Rick Carlisle said.

Indiana played without starting point guard Tyrese Haliburton for a second straight game as he nurses soreness in his left groin.

Klay Thompson scored 28 points and made eight 3-pointers, moving up the NBA’s career 3-point list on the six-year anniversary of his 60-point masterpiece against the Pacers.

Thompson finished 9 of 23, but Stephen Curry was held to 12 points on 3-for-17 shooting. Jordan Poole scored 23 starting in place of Andrew Wiggins, who sat out with tightness of the adductor muscle in his right leg.

“No matter what we do, it’s going to be hard to guard these guys. We had some good fortune with them missing some shots they may normally make,” Carlisle said. “But our guys played with a lot of presence to start the game. We were switching a lot and everyone was tied together.”

Nembhard hit five 3s while Buddy Hield added 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists as Indiana snapped a three-game losing streak with just its second win in six games.

Nembhard and the Pacers hardly looked like a team playing the second game of a road back-to-back.

“He was hoopin’ and I think that starts in the first half for us,” Golden State’s Donte DiVincenzo said. “The guards have to get into it a little bit more.”

Golden State had its 10-game home winning streak snapped.

Curry went 1 of 7 in the first half, missing all four of his 3-point tries and was 2 for 10 from deep overall. Curry finally connected from long range with 5:13 left in the third after missing his first five.

The Pacers, missing six players with injuries or illness, jumped out to a 22-12 lead as Golden State started 5 for 17.

Thompson knocked down three straight 3-pointers – all from the right wing – to tie the game at 42 with 4:51 left in the second quarter before a Pacers timeout. Thompson also dished out an assist on Jonathan Kuminga‘s layup before his trio of 3s and nearly had another when Kuminga was fouled and made both free throws to cap a 20-2 run 3:40 before halftime.

Three things to know: On night of returns Harden rusty, Leonard hits game-winner

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) James Harden was rusty, Joel Embiid fouled out, 76ers fall to Rockets in 2OT

Philadelphia picked a soft landing spot for the return of James Harden, on the road against his young and struggling former Houston team, followed by coming home for seven in a row.

This was not what Doc Rivers and company pictured.

For example, remember Harden was going to be a minutes limit? Rivers had him out there for 38 minutes in a double-overtime game, throwing him back into the fire in the overtimes because he had little choice.

Harden made four 3-pointers but was understandably rusty after missing 14 games with a strained tendon in his right foot, and he was 0-8 inside the arc. He missed an open potential game-winner at the end of the first overtime. Still, he made some passes and a shot or two that reminded everyone what he can do when he gets his legs back under him — and why the 76ers need him.

Combine that with Joel Embiid feasting early on the undersized Rockets inside, and Sixers fans could see a path to a comfortable win.

However, the underlying problem that did them in was looming — Houston was attacking the rim, drawing fouls, and living at the line. The Rockets got 15 free throw attempts in the first quarter, a trend that would continue much of the night.

The Rockets hung around and hung around, getting 27 points from Jalen Green, while Kevin Porter Jr. added 24. And they kept drawing fouls, eventually fouling out Joel Embiid in the first overtime. When the Rockets hit a couple of 3-pointers to open the second OT, they took control and got the win, 132-123.

Harden’s return should eventually boost the 76ers bottom 10 offense, but what this team really needs is to get healthy (Tyrese Maxey remains out with a foot injury) and to string together a few wins. They start a seven-game homestead Friday against the Lakers (not the best time to catch Anthony Davis and company) and that would be a chance to right the ship. And get out of the play-in level they are at right now.

2) Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return, until the game was on the line

The Clippers followed the 76ers model for the return of their stars — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both returned to the lineup against an injury-plagued and struggling Hornets team. A nice soft landing spot…

That turned out not to be as soft as imagined.

As expected playing just his sixth game of the year, Leonard looked rusty in his return, starting the night 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

Then he hit two buckets in the final minute that got the Clippers the win.

The first was set up by an impressive hustle play from Paul George, who saved a ball going out of bounds to Leonard under the basket for a shot that tied the game.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner. That is vintage Leonard, using his strength to get to his spot and then calmly draining the shot.

If you’re looking for positives in Los Angeles, the Clippers showed some resilience and grit in getting the win. Leonard finished with 16 points and George looked sharper with 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. Clippers’ role players stepped up.

The Clippers need their stars to stay healthy and on the court, and to build some chemistry. Traditionally 20 games into the season we know who a team is, but this year’s Clippers are the exception to that rule. Their role players and a strong defense have kept the team’s head above water (14-11 on the season), but they need their stars back to turn around their 29th-ranked offense. Then we can see if they have the potential to be a threat in the West or not.

3) Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard outduels Stephen Curry, Pacers win

Yes, you read that right.

While Bennedict Mathurin has been the Pacers’ rookie garnering most of the attention (and some early Rookie of the Year talk), Andrew Nembhard has been showing out of late. Monday night he had 31 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and hit some key shots late to fuel the Pacers’ 112-102 upset win over the Warriors.

With Tyrese Haliburton out (groin injury), Nembhard — the four-year college player from Gonzaga who was taken No.31 in last year’s draft — showed he knows how to run a team and knock down a 3 (he’s shooting 42.9% from deep this season).

The Pacers also won because it was just an off night for Stephen Curry: 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting overall and 2-of-10 from 3. It felt like a night where the Warriors looked at the Pacers’ inactive list for the game — Haliburton, Myles Turner, Chris Duarte, T.J. McConnell, Daniel Theis, James Johnson — and thought they would cruise to a win. Do that against NBA players and you pay the price.

Because guys like Andrew Nembhard can flat-out play.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Today is Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s 28th birthday. What does he want? What are his plans? And why is he doing his postgame media session with Homer J. Simpson? There are a lot of questions.