State of the Eastern Conference after first half of NBA season: 76ers, Nets, Bucks emerge as top contenders

The past few months have been, without a doubt, some of the strangest in NBA history. But now, the first half of this season has come to an end, and on Sunday the league’s best players will convene in Atlanta for the 2021 All-Star Game — a one-night event that many aren’t thrilled about for a number of reasons. 

That will be the only action until next Wednesday, which is when the second half of the season will begin. The regular season will run through May 16, with the play-in tournament set for May 18-21. Then it’s time for the playoffs, which will last from May 22-July 22 and finish in time for the Olympics. 

Ahead of the rest of the season, here’s a look at where things stand in the Eastern Conference:

The top contenders

Philadelphia 76ers (24-12): The 76ers enter the All-Star break in first place in the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2001. That also happens to be the last time they made the Finals. It obviously remains to be seen if they’ll repeat that feat, but with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in this sort of form, they have a good chance. Embiid is playing the best basketball of his career and has emerged as a leading MVP candidate, while Simmons has taken on the challenge of shutting down the opponents’ best players and could be up for Defensive Player of the Year. 

Brooklyn Nets (24-13): With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving finally healthy, Brooklyn was already a contender heading into the season. Then they added James Harden and boasted arguably the greatest collection of offensive talent ever assembled even before reportedly signing Blake Griffin. If their defense was even halfway reliable they would be runaway title favorites, but as it stands they have some real issues on that side of the ball. In fact, they’re the only team in the league that is top-five in offensive rating and bottom-five in defensive rating. 

Milwaukee Bucks: (22-14): Milwaukee had a massive offseason, signing Giannis Antetokounmpo to his supermax extension and trading for Jrue Holiday. There were other changes as well, but they haven’t resulted in the usual regular-season dominance. Their offense has been electric, but the defense is much less secure and overall things have felt disjointed. But as the past few years have shown, regular-season performance doesn’t mean much with this team. Whether or not they show up in the playoffs is all that matters at this point. 

Likely playoff teams with questions to answer

Boston Celtics (19-17): Add the Celtics to the list of teams that haven’t had things go their way over the past few months. Their four best players — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart — have only played 28 minutes together due to injuries and Tatum is still dealing with the after-effects of COVID-19. The good news is they’ve managed to turn things around the last week or so and closed the first half on a four-game winning streak that has them back up into fourth place. 

Miami Heat (18-18): After a surprise trip to the Finals last season, the Heat find themselves at .500 heading into the All-Star break. But like many teams in this range, that’s due more to injuries and COVID-19 absences than some major drop-off in form. Case in point, they’re 4-10 without Jimmy Butler and 14-8 with him in the lineup. That’s about a 51-win pace in a normal 82-game season, which is pretty much exactly where they were at last season. If they’re healthy, no one will want to play them in the postseason. 

Toronto Raptors (17-19): Each team has dealt with problems to some degree this season, but no other team had to pick up and move their operations to a different country. Unsurprisingly, the Raptors got off to a putrid start during the initial adjustment period, but after the first few weeks, they started to look like their old selves again. Unfortunately, right as they were making their move up the standings, they were hit by a COVID-19 outbreak that ended the first half of their season on a sour note. 

In the mix

New York Knicks (19-18): Earlier this month, videos on social media showed Knicks fans going absolutely wild on the streets outside Madison Square Garden after the team reached .500 and briefly sat in fourth place in the East. If that doesn’t tell you how the past two decades have gone for them, nothing will. New coach Tom Thibodeau has them locked in on the defensive side of the ball, first-time All-Star Julius Randle is in the midst of a breakout season and rookie Immanuel Quickley has become a fan favorite in record time.  

Charlotte Hornets (17-18): The Hornets had the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, which was their highest selection since 2012, when they took Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. This time they selected LaMelo Ball, and the early returns suggest he’s going to make sure they don’t pick that high again for a long time. He’s running away with Rookie of the Year and has helped turn the Hornets into one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in the entire league. They have a legitimate chance at ending their playoff drought which stretches back to 2016. 

Indiana Pacers (16-19): Early on there was a lot of optimism about the Pacers and for good reason. New coach Nate Bjorkgren led them to a 6-2 start, Myles Turner was blocking everything in sight and they were really humming on both sides of the ball. These days, not so much. Some of the sheen has worn off and they’re realizing there are major challenges that come with making wholesale stylistic changes. Especially during a pandemic season which allows for less practice and on-court time than ever before. 

Chicago Bulls (16-18): The Bulls made some major changes ahead of the season, but the biggest story so far is one of internal development. Zach LaVine has grown into one of the best pure scorers in the league and will be heading to his first All-Star Game this weekend. With LaVine leading the way, the Bulls are on pace for their best season since 2017, which was the last time they made the playoffs. There’s still a lot of work for them to do, and it might end up taking a trip to the play-in tournament to get there, but the postseason is once again in reach. 

Atlanta Hawks (16-20): Atlanta’s decision to go all-in during the offseason always seemed a little ambitious with how young their core was, and injuries to key players have made it difficult to assess exactly where this team should be at. Or, at least from the outside anyway. The front office was frustrated enough to fire coach Lloyd Pierce, though that was likely an attempt at saving their own jobs rather than anything egregious on his end. In any case, the Hawks are hanging around the back-end of the playoff race due to the state of the East. 

Washington Wizards (14-20): Nothing went right for the Wizards to start the season. The big offseason trade where they swapped John Wall and Russell Westbrook looked like an instant mistake, they got off to a 3-12 start and had six straight games postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak. But Bradley Beal is leading the league in scoring and they closed the first half on an incredible 8-3 run that included wins over the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets (twice), Trail Blazers and Celtics. All of a sudden they’re right in the mix at the bottom of the pitiful Eastern Conference playoff picture. 

Lottery bound

Orlando Magic (13-23): This has been a tough season for everyone in terms of injuries and absences, but what the Magic have dealt with is just on a different level. Jonathan Isaac hasn’t played at all after tearing his ACL in the bubble, Markelle Fultz tore his own ACL after eight games and Aaron Gordon has missed over a month with a sprained ankle. All told, 12 different players have missed a combined 193 games, and as a result, their streak of playoff appearances will likely come to an end. 

Cleveland Cavaliers (14-22): The Cavaliers got off to a promising start, and Collin Sexton’s one-man show against the Nets is still one of the best performances of the season. However, things have gone south since then, and they’re now second-to-last in the Eastern Conference — pretty much right where everyone expected them to be. There are some promising young players in Cleveland, but they are in the early stages of a project that will take many years to complete. 

Detroit Pistons (10-26): Handing Jerami Grant the keys to the offense has actually worked out better than most were expecting, and rookie Saddiq Bey has been shooting the lights out from 3-point land, but those are about the only bright spots for the Pistons this season. They’re in such an early stage of their rebuild that they haven’t even finished tearing everything down, and it’s going to be a while before they climb out of the lottery. 

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