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Two-Man Game: NBA Eastern Conference Power Rankings

In a season already full of surprises, Philadelphia, Boston and Milwaukee lead our NBA power rankings for the Eastern Conference.

Giannis Antetokounmpo by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Two-Man Game: NBA Eastern Conference Power Rankings

Estimated Reading Time: 21 Minutes

Welcome back to another exciting edition of Two-Man Game! This week, we’re rolling out our NBA power rankings for the top five teams in the Eastern Conference, but first, we’d like to establish a simple fact: the NBA landscape has changed, perhaps fundamentally.

The past two decades were an utter nightmare for the Eastern Conference. Our teams feared nothing more than a trip to California. The West stood astride the league, a giant in both power and performance, superteams more numerous than cacti.

Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons by Keith Allison by CC BY 2.0

This season, things could be different. Gone are the days of unquestioned Western Conference dominance. With the rise of Philadelphia, Boston, and Milwaukee, along with the precipitous decline of Golden State, the East may finally be able to hang with the West.

It only took a few slick front-office moves, a handful of key injuries, but we’re looking at a completely new dynamic. With the young season fully underway, it’s time to take stock, and we’re starting with the Eastern Conference. It’s shaping up to be an exciting season. We’d love to hear your takes as well, so let us know what you think in the comments!

1. Philadelphia 76ers

Danny: The Sixers are huge this year; Steve will be the first to confirm that I say this every day. Philly is long at every position, a forest of limbs in the paint.

Defensively, Philadelphia’s in permanent beast mode and that will not change. It will be up to other teams to stop their frail offense, forcing turnovers and converting on fast-break points.

During the offseason, the Sixers made some seriously impressive moves, picking up a true veteran in Al Horford (we miss you terribly, Al), as well as adding Tobias Harris and Joshua Richardson to augment their offensive efforts. Obviously, the Sixers had to lose Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick to make a lot of this happen, but it seems like they’re doing alright for themselves at the start of this season.

The way I see it, Philadelphia’s continued success will rest upon Simmons’ ability to shape the offense. This could go either way for the Sixers, as Simmons is pretty inconsistent at the helm.

But as a lifelong Celtics fan, I know what Al Horford can do for an offense. I think he’s one of the best decision-makers in the league, and coach Brett Brown would do well in having his crew play through Al more consistently. With Horford as the starting unit’s leader, I think the offense could truly hum; Al may well be the best passing big man in the league.

Joel Embiid kind of seems like his own entity, making decisions without regard for the rest of the team. That could really hurt these guys in the long run, but we’ll see how they develop.

At this point, Philadelphia’s record is 7-3. Though they don’t have the best record in the East (no no, that spot belongs to our volcanic C’s), the season is young and they will make waves sure enough. The chemistry in Philly isn’t set yet, so it’s just a matter of time before they really erupt and figure out how to use their assets accordingly.

Steve: Danny is correct; every time we talk about the Sixers, he emphasizes the importance of their height and length. Height begins at the center position, and Embiid is a legit 7’, but I think Ben Simmons is the real difference-maker in this regard. At 6’10”, Simmons represents freakish size and power for a guard.

In the Sixers’ opening matchup against Boston, we saw the team’s length in full effect. Philadelphia was dominant on defense, a +21 in rebounds and +5 in blocks, holding the Celtics to 93 points on 36.7% shooting. A similar story played out in the Sixers’ matchup against Minnesota; Philadelphia outrebounded the Timberwolves 56 to 34, with a total of 16 bounds on the offensive glass (Minnesota was held to 95 points in the contest). Philly’s defense is for real, and it’s led them to a respectable 7 – 3 record.

When the Sixers run into trouble, their offense is to blame.

Philly lost its first game of the season on Monday, November 4, a 109 – 114 defeat at the hands of the rising Phoenix Suns. Even in this matchup, Philadelphia’s perimeter defense was impressive; the Suns shot 11 for 28 from the 3-point line, markedly worse than their field goal percentage overall, a healthy 53.2%.

Again, that’s a credit to Philly’s length, but it’s also a testament to their grit; the Sixers made multiple efforts throughout the night, closing out to shooters on the perimeter. Philly lost this game at the free-throw line, making only 12 of 20 attempts at the stripe, but they were also careless with the ball, good for 20 turnovers on the night.

While Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons garner most of the press, I think the Sixers will live and die by Tobias Harris, at least so long as Josh Richardson sucks on offense. Harris represents Philadelphia’s only true threat from the perimeter; Simmons has yet to attempt a three-pointer this season, and given the choice between Embiid from distance and Embiid from close range, opponents will always prefer the three ball.

Harris, meanwhile, is off to a mixed start; he’s shooting a career-high field goal percentage, but most of those makes are coming from two. Over the first six games of the season, his mark from three is actually well below the league average. Given Simmons’ decreased production, I can easily see trouble in Philly’s future.

2. Boston Celtics

Steve: Our beloved Celtics are 8 – 1 on the young season, having dropped only their opening game against the Sixers. Since then, Boston’s gutted out tough wins against the East’s most competitive franchises, including the Bucks and the Raptors. We’ve also cleaned up (at home and on the road) against a dismal Knicks team, and taken care of business in Cleveland.

All in all, it’s been a great start to the year, but as a dedicated Green-Teamer, I’m contractually obligated to have my concerns. Thankfully, Kemba Walker isn’t among them; after two rough starts to begin the season, Walker’s proven his clutch credentials over and again, becoming the league’s ninth-leading scorer in the fourth quarter.

Kemba’s averaging a career-high 26 points per game, but what I’m most impressed by is his consistent effort on defense.

I’m also impressed (immeasurably so) by Grant Williams, a player who always seems to be in the right place on defense. Williams’ instincts are right on target; if he can learn to finish around the rim, he’ll be a killer. After a disappointing start, Carsen Edwards broke out of his funk against Cleveland, scoring 13 points on 5 for 6 shooting. In time, this bench could be nasty.

Jayson Tatum worries me, but that’s not new. To improve, he’s got to learn how to finish through contact; as it stands, he sort of flails towards the rim and loses the ball most of the time. On the bright side, he seems to be settling for fewer long-range twos, a shot he favored last year to disastrous effect.

Gordon Hayward took yet another step forward in Boston’s tilt against Cleveland, matching his career high in points at 39 while pulling down 7 rebounds and dishing out 7 assists. He looked good in his next game, too, then broke his hand crashing through a LaMarcus Aldridge back screen in Boston’s game against San Antonio.

While Hayward’s injury is severe enough to keep him out for at least six weeks, I don’t think it’ll stop Boston’s momentum. The Celtics are deep at the wing position, featuring two of the league’s most-impressive young forwards in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. I think the young guns will come up big in Hayward’s absence.

On that note, Jaylen Brown is poised to emerge as a true two-way threat; over the past two games, we’ve already seen he can carry the scoring load for this team on any given night.

Enes Kanter has also returned to the line-up; we missed him particularly in the first game against the Knicks, who killed us on the boards.

That’s why we’ve decided to put Boston over both Toronto and Milwaukee in our power rankings. The team isn’t whole by any stretch, yet they’ve managed to break two of the Eastern Conference’s superpowers, including last year’s champions. The Celtics are on an impressive run, but we still haven’t seen what this team is truly capable of.

Danny: During Saturday night’s Spurs matchup, we witnessed yet another tragedy; Gordon Hayward fractured his left hand.

Thankfully, it’s just the fourth metacarpal, and he’ll be back soon (about six weeks), but Hayward’s injury brings a tear to my eye. Knowing how hard he’s worked to return to fighting shape after his last injury, I can only imagine how Gordon must be feeling. Not to mention how he’s dominated on both sides of the floor.

This must be a crushing blow for the G-man, though he’s already shown us that he’s capable of anything. I hope he can keep his head up during the recovery, because he’s on his way to another All-Star season. Get better soon, my fellow Hayward.

Though this is surely a setback, I don’t feel like Hayward’s injury will change the Celtics’ chances. This team is resilient, filled with dogs who can rise to the challenge and pick up the slack; they just need to rally and fight until Hayward’s return.

Kemba has been incredibly impressive with 24.5 PPG, but he’s surprised me most on the defensive end. I had no idea he would be this good on D. Looking at his tenure in Charlotte, I actually thought he would be a weak point in Boston’s defensive system, but he has shown true efficiency in these first 9 matchups, and is surely a contributing factor to our 5th place defensive rating. Kemba’s a very patient player, and I think this quality will continue to affect the young ballers on our team in positive ways.

Steve and I feel the same way about Jayson Tatum. I love Taco Jay, but his shot selection and finishing skills have been worrisome in seasons’ past. Monday night’s Mavericks matchup at home was a good example of these tendencies, as we saw Tatum go 1 for 18. He frequently lost the ball during finishing attempts and seemed let frustration get the best of him each time he had possession.

I feel that a lot of Tatum’s problems can be solved with patience and maturity. The season is very young, but I can see Tatum’s growth in these areas. He’s trying, and I’m impressed, but he has to keep pushing to take the right shot and muscle to the rim. Tatum is a long-term build-around piece for the Celtics; I’d love to see him evolve this season.

Jaylen Brown, on the other hand, is a stud. He deserves every cent of his $115 million four-year contract extension, and I don’t want to argue about it. Jelly’s stats are self-explanatory and he is getting tougher by the game. I am on the Jaylen-Brown-train till I die.

Marcus Smart is the heart and soul of the Cs. He swoops, he dives, he slashes, he drives. Marcus constantly puts himself in harm’s way, taking several shots to the groin and face so far this season. He has the defensive prowess to make him one of the best in the league. I recognize that his offense remains a work in progress but he always seems to splash the tide-changing three-pointer.

We’ve got wings, we’ve got forwards, but the main problem for us this season is at the center position. With that said, I’m really loving the work our big men have been doing thus far. With Kanter out over the past couple weeks (great to see him back on Monday night), others have had to stand up. Robert Williams is coming into his own, logging 6 blocks Saturday night against the Spurs. Daniel Theis has been holding it down under the rim, too, though his shot has been more inconsistent than in years past at just 36.8% on the season. I’m not saying we can comfortably protect against the bigger teams in the league, but I’m impressed so far.

If the team is healthy, I think these guys can make a great playoff run. On to the next!

3. Milwaukee Bucks

Steve: The Bucks have jumped out to a 7 – 3 start on the season, good for third place in the Eastern Conference behind Boston and Miami. As expected, Milwaukee has cleaned up against weak teams, including the Magic and Cavaliers, but also proved resilient in close wins against the Rockets and Clippers (despite underwhelming performances in both contests from erstwhile-scorer Khris Middleton).

Given poor three-point shooting, the Bucks’ recent win over LA was impressive, though it’s worth noting the Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard. I think a complete Clippers roster would have taken this game, but it’s nice to know Milwaukee can still find success even when one of their main offensive threats (Middleton) isn’t playing well.

Needless to say, Giannis leads the team, both statistically and in spirit; outside of an underwhelming start in Cleveland, Antetokounmpo is averaging a near triple-double over the first eight games. Giannis is nearing the ideal of a “complete” player with career-high averages in assists (7.6), rebounds (14.3) and points (29) per game.

The idea that Antetokounmpo is actually improving upon his MVP-worthy play of last season should scare everyone in the league.

After a sluggish start, the Bucks have also benefited from improvements at the point (apart from the struggles of veteran Wesley Matthews). Eric Bledsoe is rounding into form, with back-to-back games at 20 points or more.

George Hill is less consistent, but he’s also playing sporadic minutes; in time, he’ll likely prove an adequate replacement for Malcolm Brogdon’s offensive output.

That’s all well and good, but I can’t shake the feeling that the Bucks don’t have what it takes.

Milwaukee is a constellation of mid-sized planets revolving around the burning hot sun of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Brook Lopez is serviceable, if unspectacular, at center. Middleton has his nights, but he can flounder. George Hill is most assuredly past his prime, if he ever hit it at all. Kyle Korver is good at one thing, and one thing alone.

Giannis may well be spectacular, but I don’t see any of his teammates transcending their individual limitations to achieve something great this season. I think the Bucks will remain good, but merely that. That’s enough to reach #3 in our power rankings, but no higher.

Danny: Yet again, Steve has hit the nail on the head. Nice, Steve. Aside from Giannis being a modern Hercules out there, I don’t think this team has what it takes to win it all. Controversial, I know, but the Bucks just don’t impress me as a well-rounded team. Sure, they’ll be in the Playoffs, but I don’t sense they’re in true fighting form. And that’s coming from someone who truly enjoys watching them play! There’s this feeling I just can’t shake that they’ll fall apart.

Chock-full of old timers, inconsistent shooters, and the underwhelming Lopez twins, the Bucks’ front office has left space for them to fail. A lot can go wrong on a team that relies on a single superstar to triple-double every night. Say Giannis goes down, or has to miss a crucial stretch of the season – the Bucks are basically screwed. I know I’m not making any friends with that analysis, but it’s how I feel.

The Bucks’ solid defense will be a useful weapon against balanced offensive threats. Right now, they are a top 5 defensive team with a rating of 102.9.

That’s impressive (the Celtics are ahead of them with a fresh 102.4 rating), but the season is young and there are many other teams in the East competing hard. Mike Budenholzer has some well-oiled rotations that should help the Bucks stay where they are in the rankings. They’ll be in the Playoffs for sure, but I’m a little undecided as to where these guys will actually end up.

4. Toronto Raptors

Danny: Even with Kawhi departing for sunnier skies during the offseason, the Raptors are a cool team. I love Pascal Siakam, Fred Vanvleet is a certified baller, and Kyle Lowry is a tried and true veteran. They even have two star big men in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, veterans with multiple abilities.

Siakam is having an amazing start to his season and there has been talk that he’s already on his way to a second campaign for Most Improved Player (that’s legit, his growth each season has been shocking). Shooting 26.3 PPG with nearly 10 rebounds is no joke.

These guys have real grit. They’re similar to the Celtics in that each player puts team before self. These games have been some of my favorite to watch so far (especially their upset win against the Lakers).

Defensively, the Raptors are on par with the Celtics and Bucks and their offense can hum if Lowry and VanVleet are playing up to Siakam’s ability, which they often are. As a Celtics fan, these guys give me pause. I think they have the ability to jump out in front of several other teams in the East and surprise in the Playoffs. I’ll be watching them closely.

Steve: The Raptors have done fine so far, but their place at number four in our power rankings is more a testament to the weakness of the Eastern Conference than to the strength of Toronto.

To be fair, Kyle Lowry and his crew have beaten all of the teams they really should have – the Kings, Pistons, Magic and Bulls. But those were easy matchups against lackluster rotations, and the Raptors have so far fallen short against their real competition, Milwaukee and Boston.

It might not sound like it, but I’m actually higher on Toronto than I am on Milwaukee. The Bucks have set their hopes on a team of aging veterans; it’s not a recipe for long-term success. At least the Raptors have serious young talent.

Pascal Siakam is already a star; he’s averaging 25.6 points (almost 10 more than his average last year, in comparable minutes), grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out almost 4 assists per game. Meanwhile, OG Anunoby is developing into a promising role player, making outsized contributions on the glass and scoring consistently.

It’s a real shame the Raptors don’t have a young big man to soak up the wisdom of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, but I like their youth.

5. Miami Heat

Steve: This is probably a surprise to everyone, but we can’t overlook the Heat’s surprising start. Jimmy Butler is back (and averaging a career-best 7 assists per night), but the real news is that Miami doesn’t actually have to rely on him for big numbers. A remarkably balanced scoring attack has led the Heat to their outstanding 7 – 3 record; Miami’s roster currently includes 8 players who averaged double figures over the first six games. The team’s defensive effort is up-and-down, but what the Heat lack in stopping power, they more than make up for on the offensive end.

After an underwhelming 2018 – 19 season, Goran Dragic has emerged once again as a consistent scorer, thanks in part to an improved three-point percentage.

More than anything, though, it’s the reserves who have impressed so far this year. Rookie Tyler Herro has already proven himself a stud, putting up close to 16 a game, and Kendrick Nunn, the team’s leading scorer, looks even better, averaging two steals to fuel Miami’s run-and-gun play style.

Taking on a new role as a starting forward, Bam Adebayo is right on track in his development, accepting his new responsibilities with aplomb (and getting to the line on a regular basis). And after years of under-performance, Justise Winslow may finally have hit his stride, chipping in with nearly 15 points and 9 rebounds a game.

Erik Spoelstra’s always been a good coach, but this year, Miami’s front office has managed to assemble a team matching his talents, with exciting rookies and rapidly-developing role players.

Thus far, the Heat have come away with impressive wins against the Rockets (throttling Harden’s crew by 29 points) and the Bucks (an OT thriller highlighting Miami’s grit and perseverance). Two back-to-back victories over the Hawks prove they can compete convincingly against the conference’s lesser powers, both at home and on the road.

The future looks bright in South Florida.

Danny: The Miami Heat are 7 – 3 to start the season, beneficiaries of a start good enough to land at #5 in our power rankings. I don’t think that’s what anyone expected. When Steve and I were trying to work out our Top 5 we struggled with the fifth spot, but these guys have impressed.

With the exception of Jimmy Butler and maybe Goran Dragic, this team is filled with players the casual NBA viewer probably didn’t know existed prior to this season. I love the way these guys have been cooking. Steve is right about the rookies on this team. Herro and Nunn are crazy good scorers for first-year guys.

The Heat seem to be playing great in the clutch, pulling off some big wins that they may not necessarily deserve on paper. Two matchups stick out as games the Heat had no business taking: an OT win in Milwaukee is no small feat, and a nearly 30-point win over Harden and Westbrook’s Rockets is equally impressive. The rooks are pulling out some great tricks, adding to the Heat’s fast-paced gameplay.

I think the key to the Heat’s continued success will be Jimmy Butler. As good as some of these guys are, they need Butler to helm the offense better than he currently is. If Butler hits his stride and performs similarly to his stint in Minnesota, Miami could start to climb up the ranks. Let him get to the basket and pass him the ball when he’s hot; the young guys can back him up.

We’re stoked about this season and think these new team dynamics make for better basketball, with fewer blowouts and impressive upset wins.

Don’t agree with where we placed your favorite team in our power rankings? Let us know in the comments!

Separated by nine years, but joined at the hip, Steve and Danny Hayward grew up in Harvard, MA, a small town outside of Boston. Lifelong Celtics obsessives, this spunky tandem serves up hot takes on every aspect of the NBA. Steve is a writer, and Danny an actor. Qualifications few, but passion up the wazoo. Visit our websites below for more exclusive content: Steve: Danny: , @fromagemassage on IG.

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