By: AJ Douglas
As the NBA reaches its third-quarter mark in the season, a little post trade deadline anarchy has kept us glued to League Pass. The entire season thus far has basically been a two-horse race between the Warriors and the Cleveland Lebrons (erm, Cavaliers). It still might be, for that matter. But thanks to a couple opportunistic deadline moves, a historic scoring stretch by an unlikely 5’9” point guard and a whole lot of grit this two horse race has at the very least turned into something much more interesting.
The Warriors will undoubtedly reel from Kevin Durant’s MCL sprain. Without his scoring ability and newly found rim protection prowess, Curry and Klay will have to revert back to their 2015-16 form to stay atop the West. However, Durant will be back for the playoffs barring a setback, which means the Warriors won’t be hurting for too long. The Rockets and Spurs will surely be gunning for the #1 seed but even if they get it, nobody in the conference is well equipped enough to take down a fully healthy Warriors squad. The East as it stands may be more interesting. Yes, the Cavs still sit comfortably with a 3 game hold on the top spot. But with LeBron averaging just over 37 minutes a game this year thanks to a lack of depth, the Eastern Conference Championship looks to be much more interesting this year especially considering that the Celtics, Wizards and Raptors have all been hitting their stride post-trade deadline. Let’s take a look at the three teams shooting to dethrone the Cavs and send the NBA world into chaos.
At this time last year, the Wizards had just lost their 31st game of the season against the Cavs to send their record below .500, the tandem of Bradley Beal and John Wall couldn’t find their fit with each other and most correctly assumed they wouldn’t see the playoffs despite having one of the best point guards in the NBA running the show. Compare that to now as the Wizards come off their 36th win of the season. Wall and Beal have turned into a two-headed monster, outscoring opponents by nine points per 100 possessions when on the floor together and having career years in the process. In addition, Otto Porter has burst onto the scene, shooting from beyond the arc at a clip of over 45%. 45%! This team is young, but has a real edge to it. John Wall has always played with a chip on his shoulder, and the chip seems to have rubbed off on Beal and Porter making for an entertaining and hungry team who just might be able to out-hustle the top teams in the East.
A month ago, the Raptors looked to be the same good team that wasn’t good enough to do anything super impactful in the context of the playoffs. But after a few nifty moves that landed them Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, the Raps may have the versatility they have so desperately needed for the past two seasons. Ibaka allows them to stretch the floor and play small if they need to match up, while Tucker provides them with one of the best defenders in the league. On both sides of the floor the Raptors have gotten exponentially better through this trade, not to mention the locker room presence that two high-caliber veterans can bring. Add these two onto a team that already boasts a top form DeRozan (28/5/3 this year) and we may be looking at a tough elimination at least, and a bona fide playoff danger at best.
As much as it pains my cold, dead Lakers heart to say, the Celtics have evolved throughout the season to become an absolute force led by Isaiah Thomas’s historic performance. Scoring at a clip of 29 a game and adding six assists on top of that, Thomas has begun to creep into the conversation of the most prolific sub-six foot players ever. Whether that performance will carry on into the playoffs remains to be seen, but Thomas has earned all the recognition he gets and has led this Celtics team to places many thought were years away. Add the crafty coaching of Brad Stevens and a top notch set of role players in Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley and Jaylen Brown and all of a sudden the Boston Celtics look like the most fit challengers of anyone in the East. Wednesday’s 103-99 win over the Cavaliers might just have been a look into the crystal ball of the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals and if this game is any indication, we all better start firing up the popcorn. This Thomas led team plays with a massive chip on their collective shoulder and any team that can rotate players like the C’s can while remaining disciplined and pesky on the defensive end can’t be counted out of any playoff game, no matter the opponent.
With these three teams along with the LeBron-led Cavs, the Eastern Conference looks to be chock-full of talent leading into this year’s playoffs. It remains to be seen if any of these teams have enough in the tank to remove the Cavs’ stranglehold on the East, but none of the teams listed look to be going down easy this year.