John Collins, Hawks vs. Zach LaVine, Bulls

The Eastern Conference Bloodbath is Coming: Part 1

This year has been the most competitive Eastern Conference season in recent NBA memory, and we’re gearing up for some breathtakingly high-stakes playoff basketball. Half the conference (delusional or not) believes that they have a chance to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals or beyond.

The Bucks and Nets started this season with NBA championship hopes. The Heat and Bulls made massive moves in the offseason to get into that conversation. The Cavaliers have been one of the season’s best stories, and they made a big trade to bolster their playoff run. The 76ers have a top-two MVP candidate in Joel Embiid and made one of the biggest deadline trades ever to go all-in on chasing a championship this year. The Hawks were in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals and hoped to be even better this year. The Celtics have ridden an absolutely hellacious defense to a nine-game winning streak, and people forget that their core has been to three Eastern Conference Finals in the last five years.

That’s eight teams (without even mentioning the Raptors and Hornets) who think they can make it to the ECF. Only four can advance to the second round, and a couple of them might not even make it out of the play-in tournament at this rate.

All this is to say: some excellent basketball teams will be sent home as early as April. It’s going to be a long offseason for at least half of the teams below. Let’s figure out who is most likely to make some noise and who’s only kidding themselves as we look at what Hater and Lover have to say.

Today we’ll look at the first four teams in alphabetical order; part two comes on Friday.

Atlanta Hawks

Hater’s take: Atlanta just had to make a run to get into tenth place in the East. They’re likelier to miss the play-in entirely than to get into the real playoffs! What are we even talking about here?

Center Clint Capela has looked like a shell of himself defensively, and the team ranks 28th in the league at stopping opponents from scoring. If defense wins championships, the Hawks would be underdogs in a toilet bowl.

Lilliputian point guard Trae Young may be having a lovely season, but the dude has publicly said that the regular season is “boring!” That’s solid leadership, right there.

Last year’s Hawks went on their magical run after the coach everyone hated was fired, and key players got healthy. They aren’t canning their coach after last season’s success, and everyone’s already pretty healthy, so there’s no magic bullet for their mediocrity this year.

Plus, the team’s two best players (Young and stretch-four John Collins) hate each other! This beef isn’t precisely Shaq and Kobe, but it’s not a good vibe in Atlanta.

Listen, Lover, would you bet on these guys to beat Brooklyn in a play-in tournament? Would you honestly take them over Toronto or Charlotte?

Lover’s take: Well, I’m not a betting man, so I don’t have to answer that question. The playoffs are about star power, though, and Trae Young is having an incredible season. He’s top-five in points and assists and top-ten in advanced metrics like PER and WAR. I can make a credible case that he could be the best player in any number of potential play-in and first-round matchups.

Young proved last season that he could excel in a frenzied playoff setting against the best the league has to offer. In addition, his supporting cast has finally found their stroke recently after being ice-cold the first few months of the season.

De’Andre Hunter gives them a big two-way wing who can hit from outside and lock up the opponents’ best perimeter player, and he missed most of the playoffs last year.

Nobody can stop this team from scoring. Who needs defense when you have the second-best offense in the East? And the vibes have gotten much better since the Hawks jettisoned a poisonous Cam Reddish to the Knicks (and somehow received a first-round pick in return!).

Even I, the Lover, don’t really think the Hawks will make much noise in these playoffs…but I thought the same thing last year, and look at what happened then.

Boston Celtics

Hater’s take: UGH. I wasn’t even planning on giving a take on the Celtics, but their recent winning streak and rise through the Eastern standings mean we have to at least mention them.

But why? This is a soulless basketball team. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are exactly the sum of their parts, with no synergy despite years of familiarity. Marcus Smart veers from inspirational figure to the Charlie Brown teacher on a nightly basis. New addition Derrick White is yet another combo guard who overlaps too much with Smart and can’t shoot.

Nobody on this team will be able to stop Joel Embiid (sorry, Al Horford) in a very likely first-round matchup.

This team is stale, and no trade around the margins will shake it up. They have two of the most talented scorers in the league, yet the offense is still just 18th overall. If I have to watch Jayson Tatum miss yet another contested midrange with fifteen seconds left on the shot clock, I might superglue my eyelids shut.

Lover’s take: The NBA has not noticed yet, but the Celtics are officially a force again. They have the third-best point differential in the league against top-ten teams, and they consistently rise to their opponent’s level.

For all the talk of stagnation and the lack of ball movement, Boston is about league-average in assists per 100 possessions, ahead of teams like Milwaukee and Toronto. The Jays have both shot considerably better in the last couple of months and been more willing passers – a winning combination.

Derrick White might not be a floor spacer, but his addition to the Celtics means that they can field the best 1-5 defensive lineup in the league. Good luck scoring on White, Smart, Brown, Tatum, and center Rob Williams. The Celtics are an anaconda, squeezing the life out of their prey.

Tatum is a proven playoff destroyer, and if the defense can keep up this ridiculous performance in the playoffs, he might provide all the scoring they need singlehandedly. We said it earlier, but it’s worth reiterating: this team has made the ECF three times in the last five years, so they know what it takes. Their recent form suggests that they are peaking at the right time to make it four in six.

Brooklyn Nets

Hater’s take: Good job, Kyrie. You ruined everything, like (almost) always, and the team can’t win even on the road games where you do play (the Nets are just 4-12 in games Irving has played in this year).

Durant’s great, but he’s always hurt. Sniper Joe Harris is the Nets’ best non-superstar, and he’s apparently never going to play again.

Yeah, Harden was out of shape and being a cranky baby, but you just traded him for Ben Simmons, a guy who’s scared to shoot. Scared to shoot is generally not the descriptor you want in a game about shooting basketballs.

The Nets just lost 11 straight games. That’s a lot of losses for a team that thought it was a championship contender. It doesn’t matter who is missing; you can’t lose 11 straight games and still be considered a contender — Miami routinely starts Kroger baggers and wins anyway.

The Nets are currently the eighth seed in the East, and depending on when Simmons and Durant suit up, they may very well finish in the play-in tournament. Single-elimination games don’t leave much margin for error no matter how theoretically talented your paper roster is.

Lover’s take: Giggle all you want, but Ben Simmons is a perfect fit on this Brooklyn team. Having low-usage players is a great thing — that means that Durant gets to shoot more! Simmons’ defense and rebounding will be a massive boon to a Brooklyn team that has struggled with both and gives coach Steve Nash nearly infinite lineup flexibility.

This team was two inches away from potentially beating the Bucks last season with Durant only – so Ben Simmons and half of Kyrie should be more than enough backup.

Patty Mills and Seth Curry are two of the best long-range bombers in the game today. Picking up Andre Drummond in the Harden trade also gives the Nets their best option at the center position for most situations. He’s a hungry hippo for rebounds with active hands on defense and solid passing skills.

The Curry and Drummond additions to the Simmons-Harden trade were doubly impactful, as they take two important players away from potential opponent Philly.

There aren’t many trios that fit together better on both sides than Durant/Irving/Simmons. Durant was the best player in the last season’s playoffs, and he could easily replicate that feat this year. People may be laughing – but the Nets are no joke.

Chicago Bulls

Hater’s take: Despite a hot start, Chicago is who we thought they were: a talented scoring team who can’t get stops on the other end.

Offensively, despite their success, they have a worrying shot diet. Chicago takes almost 18% of its shots from the long midrange, traditionally the worst area to shoot from on the floor. That’s somehow 3% more than second-place Phoenix, a larger margin than between Phoenix and tenth-place Boston. Correspondingly, Chi-town also takes the second-fewest three-pointers. A couple of cold nights could easily spell an early end to Chicago’s dreams.

Defensively, teams live at the hoop. Chicago gives up 36.2% of shots at the rim, the highest mark in the league. The Bulls have some excellent defensive guards and wings, but basketball gods help them if Giannis or Joel Embiid comes to town for a seven-game series.

Lover’s take: When healthy, Chicago’s entire rotation fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. Despite your misleading take above, the Bulls have proven that you can create a sound defense around a pair of lockdown guards. Both Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso went down at the end of December. Before their injuries, Chicago was the eighth-best defense in the league!

The Bulls do give up a ton of shots at the rim, just like Cleveland; also like the Cavs, they actually do an excellent job of stymying those attempts. DeMar DeRozan is the only player in the regular rotation who is a below-average shot-blocker for his position.

DeMar’s value lies in the other direction. Nobody in the NBA has been better in fourth quarters, as proven by his bevy of game-winners.

Synergy Sports rated DeRozan “Excellent” or “Very Good” in pick-and-roll ballhandling, isolations, transition offense, post-ups, cuts, hand-offs, and moving off of screens. That’s practically everything (he’s merely “good” at spot-up shooting and offensive rebounds)!

Having a scoring virtuoso like DeRozan as a teammate has unleashed fellow All-Star Zach LaVine, who’s averaging 25 points per game on insane 48/40/87 shooting splits.

Having two high-efficiency, three-level scorers is a luxury no one else in the league enjoys (Brooklyn doesn’t count until Kyrie can play more games). It makes the Bulls absolute killers in crunch time, when possessions grind to a halt and having someone who can just get a bucket becomes instrumental.

I have been very impressed with what the healthy Bulls looked like this season. I’m not sure if the defense will hold up against elite competition, but I’m excited to find out.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.

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