By Norm Elrod
(CBS Philly/CBS Local) — With the NBA All-Star Game fading in the rear-view mirror, and the NBA Playoffs looming in the distance, it’s time to talk contenders and pretenders. The Eastern Conference has four teams with a legitimate shot at making the NBA Finals, where they’ll probably find the Golden State Warriors waiting for them.
Three of those teams — the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers — shored up their rosters at the trade deadline. One team, the Boston Celtics, stood pat. All should find themselves with favorable first-round matchups.
How is the Eastern Conference playoff race shaping up?
Milwaukee Bucks (43-14)
Everyone knew the Bucks would be good this season. But leading-the-East, top-contender good? Giannis Antetokounmpo has blossomed into the dominant All-Star everyone suspected he would, averaging 27.2 points and 12.7 rebounds per game, with a net rating of 13.7. Coach Mike Budenholzer keeps the offense flowing through Giannis, opening up scoring opportunities for Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and others. Barring an injury to the Greek Freak, expect the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Toronto Raptors (43-16)
The Raptors faced some uncertainty coming into the season. DeMar DeRozan was shipped off to San Antonio in exchange for Kawhi Leonard. Dwane Casey, coach of the year last season, was deposed in favor of assistant Nick Nurse. Did this perennial contender do enough to get over the hump come playoff time? So far, so good. Leonard remains a force at both ends of the court. Scorers dot the lineup. And Pascal Siakam continues to develop, upping his game when the Raptors need an extra scoring punch. This team can keep up with anyone.
Boston Celtics (37-21)
What’s going on in Boston seems to be a whole lot of nothing, at least as far as this year’s playoffs are concerned. Kyrie Irving missed two games going into the All-Star break, both of which the Celtics won. The team is now 9-2 without their all-star guard (though mostly against non-contenders), and has shown the ability to win with a more team-oriented approach. Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and Jayson Tatum each put up at least 20 points in an impressive win over the 76ers last week. But the Celtics still belong to Kyrie, and he’s giving them 23.6 points and 6.9 assists per game, with a net rating of +8.9. Last year’s playoff run notwithstanding, their best chance of making the Finals must include him.
Philadelphia 76ers (37-21)
The process worked, and 76ers fans are enjoying another season of quality basketball in Philadelphia. A young core of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, along with veteran J.J. Reddick, solidified a competitive roster. And the additions of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris make the 76ers a dangerous team come playoff time. Embiid, averaging 27.3 points and 13.5 rebounds per game, is the leading scorer in a starting lineup in which every player averages over 16 points. As daunting as they are, the 76ers have only one win in their seven games against the other legitimate Eastern Conference contenders.
Indiana Pacers (38-20)
A knee injury ended Victor Oladipo’s season a few weeks back, and the Pacers have been holding on ever since. Oladipo’s leadership on the floor and on the stat sheet is missed, but the team is 13-9 over the 2018-19 campaign without their star. Bojan Bogdanovic and Myles Turner have both stepped up, averaging 22.1 and 15.9 points per game in February respectively. But their production down the stretch and into the playoffs won’t be enough. Look for the Pacers to slip to the fifth position and then be outgunned by the Celtics or 76ers in the first round.
Brooklyn Nets (30-29)
The Brooklyn Nets are a great story. They’re just not a great team, yet. After a 28-54 record last season, the Nets are on pace to finish above .500 for the first time in five years. And in a weak East, that might be good enough for the sixth seed. The Nets have managed to build a competitive team despite trading away the high draft picks afforded losing teams. D’Angelo Russell, averaging 20.3 points and 6.6 assists per game, is developing into one of the NBA’s better point guards. Lacking star power, the Nets have pieced together a roster of role-players that play well together, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris among them. The contributions come from all sides, which has helped them survive injuries. Their team game just won’t help them advance out of the first round.
Charlotte Hornets (27-30)
The Eastern Conference has eight playoff spots to fill, and the Hornets currently have the seventh-best record. Chances are high that this team makes the postseason with a losing record. Kemba Walker is enjoying this third consecutive all-star season, averaging 24.9 points per game and shooting 36.2% from three-point land. He’s about the only bright spot for a middling Hornets team. Jeremy Lamb kicks in another 15.2 points per outing, as the team’s second leading scorer, which isn’t enough. The Hornets are a sub-par shooting team overall, and a sub-par defensive team. Charlotte hasn’t won a first-round series since 2002, and it won’t happen this season.
Detroit Pistons (26-30)
The Pistons have the same record as the Miami Heat and hold the tiebreaker coming out of the All-Star Break. That’s enough to make them the current eight seed. It won’t be enough to matter come playoff time. Like the Hornets, the Pistons are only part of the playoff conversation because they play in the East. Blake Griffin, with 26.3 points per game, is a top-10 scorer, with Andre Drummond adding another 17.4 points, along with an absurd 15 rebounds. (For context, Drummond averages more boards than any remaining Piston does points.) Over the next couple months, the Pistons will battle the Hornets, Heat and Orlando Magic for the final two playoff spots and the right to lose in the first round.