The NBA Contender Picture On Month In: The Near Contenders (Eastern Conference)
The NBA gears have been turning for over a month now. In that time, we've accumulated almost a 20 game sample size on each squad, with their ultimate expectations wavering up and down like the stock market. After we covered what we believe to be the "clear contenders", we're now going to look at those teams that sit right at the edge of contention. The gap between true contenders and almost-contenders isn't even that wide, but there are pertinent questions that are big enough to consider them a step below.
The Boston Celtics are the closest team to contender status. It's somewhat surprising considering the fact that Al Horford isn't there anchoring the middle, but the elevated play of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward (when he was healthy), and Marcus Smart has risen the team's expectations. Not to mention, Kemba Walker has been every bit of the leader that they wanted Kyrie Irving to be. They sit at 11th in offensive efficiency and 4th in defensive. Whenever you crack the middle of the top ten in one category while hovering barely outside of the other, that's an unmistakably good sign.
Still, their best big men are the likes of Enes Kanter, Daniel Theis, and the solid, but unproven Robert Williams. Their perimeter players might be good enough for the big men not to matter as much come playoff time, but it's still unclear. There's a path for them to blossom into legit contenders by the time we hit January or February. For now, I'd still give the paint domination of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks an edge in an Eastern Conference Finals matchup.
The Toronto Raptors are another team that has many analysts eating a ton of early-season crow - myself included. People wondered if the Raps would even make the playoffs in lieu of Kawhi Leonard's departure. Maybe Pascal Siakam would have too much trouble adjusting to being the go-to guy. Perhaps this was the year where Masai Ujiri should just sell off Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka for assets.
Turns out that would've been moronic! Pascal Siakam is creeping into dark-horse MVP candidate territory as he has put the team on his back with absences from Ibaka and Lowry. His raw averages of 25.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game are pretty much in superstar territory. Fred Van Vleet has been stepping up in Lowry's absence as well (18.5 points, 7.7 assist per game). Lastly, their bench players like Rondae Hollis Jefferson, Chris Boucher, and Terrence Davis II have done an extraordinary job of playing above their averages to keep producing wins.
Thanks to them being in the East, they'll play more games against the conference's weaker competition. They'll likely finish out the year with a top-four seed and make at least the Conference Semi-Finals. The Conference Finals could be within reach too as long as Siakam keeps developing and the team stays healthy. This is a unit that is fresh off of a championship run, after all, so they all have that experience fresh in their minds.
But the same issue that exists with the Boston Celtics is present with the Raptors. The team's potency this year is a heartwarming surprise story, but we need a bigger sample size to determine if it's legitimate. The Raptors have taken care of business against bad teams as well as the league's upper echelon with wins against the Los Angeles Lakers, and Philadelphia 76ers, both without Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry. They've lost by ten to both the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks though. Time will tell if they're good enough to tango with the top squads in a seven-game series, but for now they should not be underestimated.
The Philadelphia 76ers started out as almost everyone's Eastern Conference title favorite. The Milwaukee Bucks got weaker with the departure of Malcolm Brogdon, and although the Sixers lost Jimmy Butler, they brought back Tobias Harris and gained possession of a longtime Joel Embiid stopper: Al Horford. Couple that with former Miami Heat point guard Josh Richardson and the Sixers had a gargantuan amount of height in their starting lineup.
The NBA season has exposed some of their flaws though. They started off the year going 5-0 before losing five of their next seven. They've somewhat steadied the ship by winning four of their last five, but questions about their championship viability still exist.
Some of their biggest weaknesses have been three-point shooting (16th overall), fouling too much (third-worst in the league in team personal fouls), closing games, and inconsistent conditioning/play from Embiid(a zero-point performance, raw averages down from last year). Many of these were predictable if you consider who they lost this off-season. Jimmy Butler was their go-to closer down the stretch last season and J.J. Redick was their best three-point threat in addition to being a steady, clutch veteran.
If they want to be serious title contenders, they need to do the obvious things like sink more threes and foul less. The tougher things are getting Joel Embiid in better shape than he ever has been, and having Ben Simmons truly implement changes into his game. He practices shooting outside shots every off-season, then comes back into the year and plays the same way he always has - aggressive in the paint and timid beyond.
It doesn't matter if he made his first NBA three the other day, what matters is that it took him this long to finally attempt one. Two full seasons and fourteen games. Yes, the role players need to step up, but if the stars don't, they won't get past the Eastern Conference Finals.
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