Everyone is in it to win it. The window is right now.
The 76ers traded for Jimmy Butler in November, then landed Tobias Harris the day before the trade deadline. The acquisition of two fringe All-Stars to pair with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons sent a loud message: The Sixers are here to win right now.
But hold on, Philly: slow down some. That was cute and all, but the East isn’t a one-horse race. In fact, the Sixers are only in fifth place in the conference. And three of the four teams in front of them made moves to improve their rosters, too:
- The Raptors traded Jonas Valanciunas, a struggling C.J. Miles, Delon Wright, and a second-round pick for former All-Star center Marc Gasol.
- The first-place Bucks pulled off a heist in broad daylight: they re-worked their Stanley Johnson trade with Detroit to send Johnson, Jason Smith, and a bunch of second-round picks to New Orleans — for Nikola Mirotic.
- The Pacers lost Victor Oladipo to injury for the rest of the season, but they got a stopgap by signing Wesley Matthews on the buyout market.
- The Celtics don’t look like themselves this season, and they didn’t pull off any blockbuster trades at the deadline. But they won the Anthony Davis sweepstakes by convincing the Pelicans to wait until the summer to trade him. If they keep Kyrie Irving then land Davis, they’ll be in the Finals forever.
The Eastern Conference was once LeBron James’ personal playground when he made eight straight NBA Finals appearances. But now LeBron’s out West, fighting for his playoff streak on a Lakers team that failed to trade for Davis.
The East is up for grabs, and everyone’s got a hat in the ring.
Who’s ruling the East, now?
It’s a question that doesn’t have an answer at the moment, and won’t have one until one team hoists the conference championship trophy.
The case for the Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the East. If James Harden is the MVP front-runner, The Greek Freak is right on his heels.
The Bucks have the best record in the NBA and look more dominant than ever before. They underwent a coaching makeover with Mike Budenholzer, they have a rim-protecting stretch-5 in Brook Lopez, and they have complementary playmakers to Antetokounmpo like Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Malcolm Brogdon.
Now, they’ve added Mirotic, an uber-aggressive three-point shooter. Niko trails play, and pelts defenses from downtown. He averages seven three-point attempts per game at a 37 percent clip.
A really good team just found a way to get a lot better without giving much up. Unbelievable.
The case for the Raptors
Toronto is a championship contender. Kawhi Leonard is playing MVP basketball (assuming we’re in a world where Harden’s double stepback move is illegal and Antetokounmpo doesn’t exist). He’s as complete a two-way player as you’ll find in this league. There are no holes in his game. He’s a super max talent destined for the biggest payout of his career.
Kyle Lowry is playing some of the best basketball of his career, too. OK, 14 points per game on 41 percent shooting is laughable, but Lowry is also averaging 9.2 assists. Whether he’s the same player in the playoffs remains to be seem.
The rest of Toronto’s roster is full of versatile players who can defend multiple positions, knock down threes, and make plays for other teammates. Gasol isn’t versatile, but like Lopez, he has worked himself into a three-point threat. He’s also a super competitor and rim protector. Toronto got better, even if only marginally.
The case for the Celtics
The Celtics were a game away from the NBA Finals before LeBron took their hopes and dreams and squashed them in his right fist. They seemed destined for the Finals the moment James left for Los Angeles.
But Kyrie Irving has been under scrutiny as soon as he started talking about his looming unrestricted free agency this summer. Gordon Hayward returned from injury but looks nothing like the All-Star Boston offered a four-year, $127 million contract. The remainder of the roster could get traded for Anthony Davis this summer. The chemistry that was there during the team’s playoff run last season is gone. Oftentimes, they seem to be “talent-ing” their way to victories.
Still, Boston has a bona fide killer at point guard and some super talented wings on the roster. The Celtics also have Al Horford, who’s done a phenomenal job of defending Joel Embiid. You can never count the Celtics out. They’re going to improve at the buyout market, too.
The case for the Sixers
Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid.
Name a better starting five in the NBA without using the Warriors. I’ll wait.
The Markelle Fultz injury forced Philly to be proactive about winning now, so they jumpstarted the process by trading their role players and assets for two fringe All-Stars.
The 76ers have the best lineup in the Eastern Conference. Philly, though, has no chemistry at this point. They’re figuring it all out on the fly, and Brett Brown has a tough job of managing egos.
The Harris trade, though, is a life saver. He’s a selfless star who has worked himself into becoming the ultimate glue guy. He’s going to space the floor and be a pressure release when Simmons or Butler can’t create for themselves.
The Sixers also have an opportunity to bury themselves in the luxury tax to keep this group together for the next four years. Both Butler and Harris become free agents on July 1. If they don’t re-sign, Philly can start over with max cap space in free agency.
Is there a case for the Pacers?
Not really, unfortunately, not after Victor Oladipo’s All-Star season ended way too soon.
The Wesley Matthews acquisition will help, but he’s not a star in this league — he’s competing for his next big contract.
Indy is a well-oiled basketball machine coached by Nate McMillan, and they should stay among the top five teams in the conference by the time the playoffs roll around. But they’re at the bottom of this totem pole of Eastern Conference powers. If the Pacers end up in a first round series against the No. 4 seed, their train ride could be over early.
The East has been a wild roller coaster ride ever since LeBron James left. The top teams see their window is now. The others are either competing for just a playoff appearance or building for a future five years from now.
The Tobias Harris trade shows just how competitive the top of the East is. The deal sparked a domino effect of smaller but equally as important moves. The conference’s response to the deal spoke for itself: We see you, Philly, but we’re not going anywhere.
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