The Eastern Conference is as loaded as it’s been in years (maybe ever?), with six to eight teams legitimately capable of making a run to at least the conference finals.
With the standings constantly changing and the All-Star break upon us, now is an ideal time to look at how the East may shake out, where the Celtics fit into the equation and how they match up with other contenders.
Here are my power rankings for playoff/play-in teams, based on both their current status and playoff potential (regular season record against them in parentheses):
1. Miami Heat (2-0) – Starting off with the Heat may elicit some headshaking, and that’s OK. That’s why we’re here, to have some fun and argue on the internet. Miami is the most complete team in the East, with a legitimate superstar in Jimmy Butler, an excellent supporting cast in Tyler Herro, Bam Abebayo, Kyle Lowry and Duncan Robinson and depth in Max Strus, P.J. Tucker, Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin. The Heat have NBA Finals experience, have one of the best coaches in the NBA in Erik Spoelstra and don’t have any glaring weaknesses. Miami is one of the few teams that can match the Celtics’ length and versatility defensively. Edge: Heat (slightly).
2. Milwaukee Bucks (2-1) – Much like the Heat, the Bucks are a well-rounded, polished team with playoff experience. It’s hard to repeat, but Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are arguably the best trio in the NBA, and Bobby Portis, Grayson Allen and Pat Connaughton when healthy give Milwaukee everything it needs. Plus, the pickup of Serge Ibaka is perfect and came at an ideal time with Brook Lopez still out. The Celtics have the pieces in place to pester Holiday and Middleton, but no one really has an answer for Antetokounmpo. Edge: Bucks (slightly).
3. Boston Celtics – After the loss to the Pistons, there’s no other option but to blow it up entirely and start from scratch. Jokes aside, a small setback shouldn’t overshadow what was otherwise one of the Celtics’ most captivating stretches in years. Whether the offense is cooking or not, the defense is almost always in a groove, and the closing lineup of Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams is lethal.
4. Chicago Bulls (1-1) – If you want the Bulls higher, feel free to leave a comment. They’re easily one of the most entertaining teams in basketball, and DeMar DeRozan is on a preposterous tear, but just about no one on their roster has legitimate playoff experience outside of a healthy Alex Caruso. Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic are ready for their moment. They still have a lot to prove. The Celtics have the advantage against the Bulls, as Tatum, Brown, White and Smart can all give DeRozan different looks and get in his face. Edge: Celtics.
5. Brooklyn Nets (1-1) – To be very clear, with a healthy Kevin Durant, a vaccinated Kyrie Irving and a basketball-playing Ben Simmons, this team is the most talented in the NBA. It’s not even that close. At the moment, though, with Durant injured, Irving unavailable for home games and Simmons getting acclimated, the Nets are still a big, fuzzy question mark. It could be scary if it works and scary in a different way if it doesn’t. If it does, don’t sleep on Patty Mills and Cam Thomas being x-factors in the playoffs. The Nets are one of the few teams in the NBA, when healthy, that simply has too much firepower for the Celtics to counteract. We’ll see if they ever get to that point. Edge: TBD.
6. Philadelphia 76ers (2-2) – Similar story, different characters. If James Harden gets cozy and meshes well with Joel Embiid, this team could absolutely win a championship. Everywhere Harden’s gone, though, it hasn’t unfolded the way that fan base hoped it might. Picking a James Harden team to win a championship is like picking a Tom Brady team to not win a championship (pre-retirement, of course). You don’t do it unless they give you a reason to, and they haven’t yet. Tuesday night’s blowout aside, this is a rather enticing matchup on paper. The Celtics have multiple people who can at least slow Harden and Embiid down. Edge: TBD.
7. Atlanta Hawks (1-2) – The Hawks are currently 9.5 games out of first and five behind the Celtics for sixth place, but they feature one of the most prolific players in Trae Young and one of the most dangerous offenses as a whole when everything is clicking. John Collins, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Clint Capela and DeAndre Hunter round out a very solid nucleus with tons of shooting, and Atlanta has seven players averaging in double figures. The Celtics and Hawks often have entertaining games, but the Celtics have the upper hand as long as Young doesn’t go too crazy. Edge: Celtics.
8. Charlotte Hornets (2-1) – There’s no denying it. Whether we want him to be or not, LaMelo Ball is undeniably electric. Terry Rozier is too, for that matter, in his own Terry Rozier way. Miles Bridges is also a candidate for Most Improved Player, and Montrezl Harrell was an excellent pickup at the trade deadline. The Hornets are basically built like the pickup team with frat bros that comes to the gym, makes you play their style and often ends up running the court for hours. They always seem to give the Celtics fits, but the Celtics are starting to figure out how to win games in the clutch. Edge: Celtics (slightly).
9. Cleveland Cavaliers (2-1) – Again, feel free to leave a comment if you want the Cavaliers higher. J.B. Bickerstaff has a compelling case for Coach of the Year thus far, and Evan Mobley has a strong argument for Rookie of the Year. Darius Garland is a walking bucket, Jarrett Allen has been superb and Lauri Markkanen, Caris LeVert, Rajon Rondo and Cedi Osman are solid pieces, but like the Bulls, the Cavaliers haven’t proven anything yet. Let’s wait and see how the next few months play out before we call them legitimate contenders quite yet. The Celtics’ ball movement and down-hill attack would wear the Cavaliers down eventually. Edge: Celtics.
10. Toronto Raptors (2-1) – The Raptors are one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Fred VanVleet is that dude, Pascal Siakam is proving the original him was the real him and Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher are all very intriguing young pieces. The Raptors are only going up, but their ceiling this season isn’t as high as some of the other teams in the East. The Celtics have more talent and would outlast the Raptors in a series. Edge: Celtics.