Can an Eastern Conference Contender Separate Itself From the Pack After the NBA All-Star Break?

    The 76ers, Bucks, Pacers, Raptors and Celtics have undoubtedly established themselves as the class of the Eastern Conference this season. But will any one

    February 13, 2019

    The 76ers, Bucks, Pacers, Raptors and Celtics have undoubtedly established themselves as the class of the Eastern Conference this season. But will any one of those teams be able to prove itself as the clear-cut favorite when the regular season starts to heat up after the NBA All-Star break?

    [RELATED: How Mike Budenholzer Turned Giannis Into the NBA’s Best Player]

    Philadelphia 76ers

    Philadelphia swung two major deals this season, landing two-way star Jimmy Butler in November and Tobias Harris at the trade deadline. In both moves, the 76ers sacrificed draft picks and young players in order to compete this season and have looked strong with their new starting lineup.

    In 53 minutes together, Philadelphia’s starting group (Harris, Butler, JJ Redick, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid) has a +14.3 net rating. The team is 2-1 in three games with the new-look roster, including wins over the playoff-bound Nuggets and the LeBron James-led Lakers and a close loss to the Celtics. The group will have 25 games, including Wednesday’s contest against the Knicks, to keep ironing things out barring injuries. Philadelphia will also have to integrate Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis into their rotation.

    The 76ers are 3-8 in games against the Bucks, Raptors, Pacers and Celtics this year, which could be a slight concern given the team’s desire to go “all in” this season. But if you’re a member of Philly’s front office and hear that stat, you counter by pointing out the East’s best teams have seemingly cannibalized each other this year.

    Team Combined Record vs. Eastern Conference’s Top-Five Teams
    76ers 3-8
    Bucks 6-3
    Pacers 4-6
    Celtics 7-3
    Raptors 7-7

    Toronto Raptors

    Perhaps this 7-7 mark through the first two thirds of the season pushed Toronto to trade for All-Star Marc Gasol. The Raptors have just one more game remaining against the teams listed in the above group, so we won’t get to feel Gasol’s true impact until the postseason. If Gasol can develop serious chemistry with Kawhi Leonard, Toronto could be the team the East wants no part of in April and May.

    Boston Celtics

    Boston is surging after an early season slump, but Kyrie Irving’s day-to-day injury status after straining his knee does create some cause for concern — especially when you consider his recent injury history. The Celtics need a quality playoff run so they can give Irving, whose future in Boston is in doubt, the best pitch possible during free agency this offseason. One bright side for the Celtics is that they’ve performed well against other contenders in the conference and will get five more opportunities after the break to judge their progress against the East. One note on Boston’s 7-3 mark: six of those wins were at home. Of the Celtics’ five remaining games against contenders, four are on the road.

    Indiana Pacers

    After Victor Oladipo’s season-ending injury, many expected the Pacers to plummet down the standings. While Indiana lost four straight games after losing Oladipo, they then won six straight — a winning streak they hope to keep going Wednesday against Milwaukee. The Pacers, who could head into the All-Star break as the hottest team in the conference, have five more cracks at the East’s top teams this regular season.

    Milwaukee Bucks

    Speaking of Milwaukee, the Bucks are sitting at the top of the conference thanks to the best player in the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo and the front runner for Coach of the Year in Mike Budenholzer. They’ve gone 6-3 against the top teams in the conference and have five more games against the group, including Wednesday’s matchup with Indiana. Milwaukee already owns the tiebreaker for the top spot over Toronto due to its 3-1 mark against the Raptors. This puts the Bucks in the driver’s seat for home court advantage throughout the NBA Playoffs.

    Only 6.5 games separate the Bucks and the Sixers, who hold the first and fifth spots in the conference, respectively. Because the top of the East is so loaded, every one of the aforementioned squads will be fighting to avoid the #4 vs. #5 seed line so that they don’t have to face a legitimate challenger in the first round of the playoffs. While the 76ers currently have the worst combined record against the rest of the Eastern Conference contenders, we’ll soon find out which franchise establishes itself as the team to beat in the East.

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