With six teams – the Atlanta Hawks, intense heat, Charlotte Hornets, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers – separated by only three games, one can only guess how the lower half of the east will develop with just over a month in the regular season.
For teams like Heat and Celtics, who met in the conference finals of last season and entered the 2020-21 season with championship wishes, avoiding the warm-up round is the top priority.
Which team should be considered the favorite to break out of the traffic jam and finish 4th and home advantage in the first round of the playoffs? Which potential play-in matchup would create the most drama? Should Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and the star-studded nets are considered a lock to reach the NBA finals?
Our NBA experts deal with the most important questions about the playoff pursuit of the Eastern Conference.
1. What are you observing most closely in the east by the end of the regular season?
Tim Bontemps: Who ends with the best record in the conference? The race between Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Milwaukee for the top seed in the east is having a massive impact. Most obviously, anyone with the best record gets a home advantage in the east playoffs – a significant advantage for Philadelphia, which has dominated the home for years (and now like many other arenas is bringing fans back into the building again).
Bobby Marks: Whether Miami and Boston can both avoid the play-in tournament. Last year’s conference finalists are part of a group of five teams in areas # 4 to # 8, separated from each other by only two games. If either of the two falls into the top six, they will be faced with an elimination scenario prior to the start of the first round of the playoffs. Despite sitting outside the top 6, the Celtics are 7-3 in their last 10 games and had their most impressive win of the season on Sunday in Denver.
Kevin Pelton: The race for number 1. I know it is now seen as gauche to take care of the seeding, but the top spot in the east not only conveys home advantage through the conference finals, but also the ability to avoid against until then to play one of the other top 3 teams. It’s a huge asset this year worth tracking for the top three teams.
André Snellings: I watch who gets into the playoffs with full speed. The top three teams have been struggling with injuries all season and the Nets in particular have not yet seen their entire team play together. But for the top three, if they make it into the playoffs in good shape, they should be prepared to make deep runs.
Brian Windhorst: Health. This is such a problem, and the past 10 months of tolls are popping up everywhere. Injuries shape the title race every year, but this season it feels tougher. This could be due to which team can avoid calf injuries. I’ve never seen them again.
If Joel Embiid is healthy, he’ll put MVP caliber numbers for the 76 in first place. Rich Schultz / Getty Images
2. Who is the fourth best team in the east?
Bontemps: The heat takes away the honor that no one seems to take hold of. Miami has never been quite this season, but at full strength I like the combination of skill and depth of heat on either end more than that of the Celtics or Hawks, the other two teams most likely to finish on the fourth seed.
Pelton: I go with miami. While I don’t expect a repeat of last year’s impressive run to the NBA Finals, I think the playoff heat can find enough insult to keep up with their top 10 defense. Because of their combination of star talent, experience and depth, Miami has, in my opinion, the best chance of making the conference semifinals outside of the top 3 in the East.
Sniff: The Heat are the next strongest team in the east. They’ve been there before, are a stubborn group and play a defensive style of play that has proven to be strong in the playoffs. They also rank fifth in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) among the Eastern teams, just behind the top three.
Grades: This is more about an elimination process than a reward for standing out, but the Heat is my fourth best team in the east. While looking more like feed for the first round for most of the season, the Heat are playoff tested and give back many of the faces they lost in the NBA finals last season. They also strengthened their close-of-trade list with the supplements of Trevor Ariza, Nemanja Bjelica and Victor Oladipo (despite his last injury).
Windhorst: Miami. The heat record really stands at 22-14 because that’s exactly what they are when Jimmy Butler Plays. He transforms them. He’s having a great season and Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro I’ve played better lately too. I wouldn’t get past them if Butler is right.
3. Who is the best player in the east?
Pelton: Joel Embiid. “Best player” is a surprisingly charged question. I would have preferred it for the regular season with 82 games Giannis Antetokounmpo or James Harden for their superior durability. In the playoffs, Kevin Durant could certainly regain that title. But if I had to win a game today, Embiid would be my choice.
Experience all the promotions of the 2020-21 season on ESPN, ABC and the ESPN app.
Sniff: Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the east. He can put more pressure on enemy defenses than anyone outside of James Harden, forcing them to design all of their units to seal him off and try to keep him off the edge. He’s also as good as a defense attorney as you can find at the conference. Durant is the top goalscorer, Harden is the best offensive player and Embiid is the best pure center, but Giannis is the best all round player.
Grades: There are only 21 games to work this season, but Kevin Durant has proven to be the best player in the Eastern Conference. In the small sample of games, the former MVP averaged 28 points at 52.8% from the field and career highs of 43.7% from 3 and a true shooting percentage of 65.7.
Windhorst: Durant is one of the greatest players of all time. Giannis is right there, of course, but Durant has two Finals MVP Awards on his shelf.
Bontemps: You could choose between Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kevin Durant and the answer would never be wrong, but I’ll take Embiid. He plays better than ever, is a foul drawing machine and the one player the other two teams in the east really have no answer to. That’s enough to give it the slightest edge over the other two.
Will Kyrie Irving and the Nets Superstars get enough reps before the playoffs? Justin Lane / EPA
4. Which East Play-In scenario would you most like to see?
Pelton: I am beautiful in the recording here: Let’s get Chicago, Indiana, Miami and New York in there and recreate the 1990s Eastern Conference playoffs, albeit likely with less fighting between the Heat and the Knicks.
Grades: A Knicks-Pacers game cannot be compared to the days of Reggie Miller and Patrick Ewing, but it would be the most fascinating of the possible matchups. The two teams have played three times this season, with New York winning the last two by a total of seven points.
Windhorst: It would be good for the NBA if the Knicks made it back to the playoffs, and it would be a huge boost for their fans. It would be a welcome sight to see them make the last 16 and get the playoff games back at Madison Square Garden.
Bontemps: A Knicks Bulls game would be pretty fun to watch. Two of the league’s glamor franchises, both of which have had tough times but had fun seasons, playing a good game to get into the playoffs, would be a great way for the league’s newest company to get attention . The drama of Miami or Boston, which fall into the play-in tournament, would also be interesting. This also applies to a rematch between Boston and Toronto from last year’s playoffs, although that’s not likely these days.
Sniff: I would love to see the wizards make it into the play-in game as their starting place could be electric in a win-or-go home scenario. Almost like the NCAA tournament, a hot backcourt like Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal this type of format might be fun to watch.
5. Select one to reach the finals: the nets or the field.
Bontemps: The field easily. And that’s not a blow to Brooklyn, which may be the favorite for getting out of the east. But if there are three teams that have a legitimate shot to get out of the conference and they are all together, why wouldn’t you take two risks on one? Given Brooklyn’s shaky health this season, I’ll be taking my risk with the field (but really Milwaukee and Philadelphia) to find a way past the star-studded nets.
Pelton: The field. Gonzaga’s defeat in the national championship game was the last reminder that “Team X or the field?” is a dangerous proposition, if a little less for a best-of-seven series. If you told me the nets were going to be number 1, I would probably pick them. But if Brooklyn has to potentially beat Milwaukee in the conference semifinals and Philadelphia in the conference finals with no home advantage for the latter series, then that puts me on the field.
Sniff: The field because I’m not sure if the nets are the best team in the east. Arguments could be made for each of the bucks and 76s in front of the nets, and the heat will be a challenge as well. The nets have serious question marks in the middle as well as in defense and on the boards, all of which make a difference in the playoffs.
Grades: I picked Brooklyn to make the NBA finals, and I’m not going to question my decision now.
Windhorst: The networks have the most talent, and I would argue that they also have the greatest margin of error with these three superstars. If they do it for no reason other than injury, it would likely be a disappointment.