Eastern Conference Contenders, Part II
Looking at Cleveland, Miami, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia
On Wednesday, we talked about the extraordinary race to win the East, something that virtually every single playoff team thinks they can do. We’ve already looked at Atlanta, Boston, Brooklyn, and Chicago. This is the second part of that story.
Hater’s take: Hahahaha, what? Why are we talking about the Cavs in a section about the Eastern Conference contenders?
The rotation players have little playoff experience to speak of outside of Kevin Love and, I guess, Rajon Rondo. The fact we’re even talking about Rondo as a rotation player is a bad sign in itself.
The Cavs are a great story with a fun, young core that will doubtlessly improve over the coming seasons. I want no part of this team in the 2025 playoffs, but none of their best players can even rent a car right now!
Cleveland has a severe lack of the two-way talent necessary for winning playoff games. Point guard Darius Garland is a rising superstar on offense but leaves something to be desired defensively. Forward Evan Mobley has been awesome on that end, but he’s a rookie with limited range and shot creation. Trade addition Caris LeVert is more likely to blow up their feel-good vibes with his ball-hoggery than make winning plays on defense.
The Cavs also can’t score. They’re 20th on the season in offensive rating and turn the ball over an alarming amount (understandable, given that Garland’s the only guy who can bounce the ball twice without dribbling it off his foot). Last I checked, scoring is important for the playoffs.
Lover’s take: You buried the lede: nobody can score on Cleveland! They’re fourth in defense and have an armada of vine-armed bigs and wings to throw at you. They’re too young to realize they should be scared.
Garland is your favorite player’s favorite player. His ascendance this season from intriguing prospect to deserving All-Star has been incredible to watch. Cleveland’s second All-Star, Jarrett Allen, is the exact kind of two-way center the modern NBA covets, and he can even create his own shot in the post when necessary. Rookie of the Year favorite Evan Mobley is already All-Defensive Team caliber, and his offensive instincts are growing each game.
New addition LeVert provides the off-the-dribble bounce that the Cavs desperately needed, and he’ll re-focus on defense and passing now that he’s in a competitive basketball situation. He’s also 6’7” and can credibly match up 1-3 defensively when needed.
Cleveland has suffered massive injuries and keeps rolling. They’re currently slated as a four-seed and should be battling for home-court advantage in the first round.
Just last year, we saw an Atlanta team that nobody believed in make it to the Eastern Conference Finals behind a transcendent young point guard, a versatile power forward, and a rim-running, shot-blocking center (sound familiar?). There’s no reason Cleveland can’t do the same thing.
Hater’s take: As good as they’ve been in the regular season, Miami doesn’t have the potential of some of the other squads on this roster. They’re deep in ways that make them an innings-eating machine, but that doesn’t translate to postseason success, where high-end talent matters much more. Do you truly believe a team whose leading shot taker is Tyler Herro (by more than two attempts per game!) can win a championship?
Herro and Duncan Robinson get attacked relentlessly on defense. I still chuckle myself to sleep every night watching Robinson helplessly contesting midrange after midrange against Khris Middleton in the playoffs last year, and Herro might be even worse.
Bam Adebayo looked shook in last year’s brief postseason stint, and Butler was eaten alive by a Bucks defense focused on stopping him. Whatever new point guard Kyle Lowry brings to the table, he doesn’t seem like he will be able to consistently get 20+ points, which this team will need.
The Heat have a negative point differential against top-ten teams, proof of their glass ceiling.
Championships are almost always won by teams with at least one top-five player, a man who can transcend basketball mortality to take on titans and not just survive, but thrive. The Heat simply don’t have a player who can do that.
Lover’s take: Ok, so, you said almost always. Miami has the rare ensemble team with virtually no weaknesses and a bevy of A-/B+ star power. While Jimmy Butler may not get as much respect as some of his peers, he dropped a 40-burger in the Finals just 18 months ago, and he might be a better player today.
They’re top ten in offensive rating, defensive rating, and rebounding on both sides. They draw tons of fouls and force a billion turnovers. They have two twenty-point scorers and six guys getting double figures. Outside of Butler and center Bam, practically everyone on the team can bomb.
Sure, last year looked bad against Milwaukee, but they stole rugged defender PJ Tucker from that same team, and he’s responded with his best offensive season in years (45% from three and surprisingly spicy passing and ballhandling! Where has this guy been?). They also added wily wolverine Lowry to direct the offense and irritate opposing players and refs.
Bam used his failures last season to get even better this season. Herro’s found another level offensively. Even though depth doesn’t matter as much in the playoffs, Max Strus, Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, Dewayne Dedmon, and eventually Markieff Morris give the Heat a bevy of two-way options at every position.
Despite having the second-most games missed in the league, this team has mowed down almost everyone in its path. Why would I doubt them if they’re all together and healthy?
Hater’s take: All the cool kids like to say that the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks are the logical choice to win the East this year. I’m not so sure.
Milwaukee got drubbed by Phoenix just a few nights ago in a Finals rematch with their stars all playing, then lost to a brand-new Portland team right after without Giannis. Shot-blocking, rainmaking center Brook Lopez hasn’t suited up all year, and super-sub Pat Connaughton (who’s played excellently this year) just hurt his hand and will miss most of the season.
The Bucks don’t have PJ Tucker around anymore to deal with opponents’ best wing threats. Their defense is just 11th in the league and 23rd over the last two weeks, closer to average than really good.
They would not have home-court advantage in a single round of the playoffs if the season ended today, and when the East is so chock-full of contenders, that could make a major difference.
Plus, they employ Grayson Allen, which, gross.
Lover’s take: First of all, Allen has only injured one player, the same number as Nikola Jokic, and nobody’s complaining about him.
The Bucks haven’t replicated the regular season dominance of their teams of old, but they have nothing to prove and aren’t sweating the small stuff. This team is battle-tested and has the confidence of a champion. Giannis may be the best player on the planet, Jrue Holiday is the most underrated guard in the league (it’s a joke he’s not in the All-Star game while shooting 41% from three and being a top-five perimeter defender), and surprise All-Star Middleton is the tried-and-true clutch scorer when they need a late jumper (just ask Duncan Robinson).
More than any of the other teams on this list, the Bucks are relatively matchup-proof, thanks to Giannis. It’s nice having a player who can guard all five positions at a Defensive Player of the Year level while simultaneously leading the league in scoring. Assuming Brook Lopez comes back for the playoffs, they can go big or small as the situation requires. They are still the defending champs until proven otherwise.
Hater’s take: To recap the trade deadline: Philly traded a one-of-a-kind point guard who routinely locks down the best offensive players in the NBA in Ben Simmons, one of the best shooters in league history in Seth Curry, a stellar backup big man in Andre Drummond (addressing a significant need for Brooklyn), and two first-round picks for a fat James Harden and a washed Paul Millsap. Cool.
It’s fair to wonder about chemistry issues between Harden and Embiid, given Harden’s love for dribbling and his issues with every star teammate he’s ever had. Embiid is used to receiving the ball when he demands it, but there will be plenty of times Harden will call his own number instead. Embiid’s willingness to buy in and crash the boards even when he’s frustrated will be a telling indicator of his attitude.
Harden’s also shooting the lowest three-point percentage of his career. Combined with the loss of Curry, there could well be a shrinkage of space for Joel to operate in.
Also, the elephant in the room that I, the Hater, will gleefully bring up: Joel Embiid has NEVER been healthy for a complete playoff run. Not once. Nothing the Lover below says will matter if the big man can’t stay on the court.
Lover’s take: Maybe that’s true, but Embiid’s been as healthy as ever this season, and he has generally been good in the playoffs when available. His previous playoff injuries were mostly unrelated and are unlikely to be replicated.
I’d argue Harden (who’s not fat! That’s just his body type!) has shown remarkable flexibility in playstyle throughout his career, and he has almost always been in the right when clashing with another star (even if he didn’t show it in productive ways). Harden’s shooting will inevitably bounce back now that he’s in the situation he’s always wanted to be in, and James has never had a chance to play with a dominant big like Joel.
Say what you want, but would you rather have Harden or the gaping roster hole where Ben Simmons used to be? Pretty clear choice to me.
Even post-trade, the 76ers have solid depth. Forward Tobias Harris has quietly been playing superbly since the new year started. He will be reinvigorated as the third offensive option, which has always been his sweet spot. With Harden setting up the offense, greased-lightning guard Tyrese Maxey can focus on what he does best: bucket-getting. The Sixers managed to hold onto both Matisse Thybulle, defender extraordinaire, and Danny Green, the ultimate three-and-D guy. They also have stretch-four Georges Niang and an admittedly-scuffling Furkan Korkmaz for a more offensive style.
However, it all comes back to Embiid. This Embiid is playing like the greatest NBA player on the planet. Even Harden has acknowledged that Joel is the guy, and I think both players realize their primes might be over sooner than they’d like. They will be motivated to maximize this opportunity.
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