The Warriors are as strong as ever, but after a flurry of moves (and one team notably standing pat), the EASTERN CONFERENCE has become a crucible for a true contender. Forget all you knew—this is what the top teams look like now
THE EASTERN CONFERENCE is alive, revitalized under the crush of the NBA's trade deadline. Everything we thought we knew about the East expired in a single afternoon. The concerns about the Raptors' bifurcated offense—one version dominated by forward Kawhi Leonard, the other built around ball movement—ceased with the arrival of a canny facilitator in 7'1" Marc Gasol. The first-place Bucks didn't have an explicit need for Nikola Miroti´c, but they could prove uncatchable by adding the stretch four. The 76ers traded for the best player of the lot, small forward Tobias Harris—and in doing so created a starting five that warps traditional matchups beyond recognition.
When three of the best teams in the conference (with all due respect to the Pacers, who won't be contending without Victor Oladipo) revamp their rosters in succession, and another, the Celtics, conspicuously stands pat, the internal logic of any sort of hierarchy falls apart. These are better, deeper and fundamentally different teams than they were a few weeks ago. Consider the Sixers. For months, opponents have scrambled their defensive assignments to check 6'10" point guard Ben Simmons with either a big wing or an actual big. This was possible because Philly's fifth starter offered an out; even a smaller guard could contain 6'9" Wilson Chandler.
Replacing Chandler with a scorer as proficient and diverse as Harris makes this entire notion untenable. The NBA is a guard's league, but what exactly is a guard to do against the Sixers? Stand in the way of a freight train like Simmons? Absorb the battering ram drives of the 6'9" Harris or 6'8" Jimmy Butler? Grab All-Star center Joel Embiid's leg and hold on for dear life? The best option available is to run an off-ball obstacle course with shooting guard J.J. Redick, a responsibility as challenging as it is thankless. Even that leaves some poor backcourtmate to be clobbered by an opponent well above his weight class. Teams around the league deftly choreograph their offenses to create just a single mismatch. Some nights, Philly will walk onto the court with four.
Opponents will have to completely rethink the Sixers, down to the nuts-and-bolts mechanics that make their steampunk offense work. We should too. Throw out the underwhelming point differential, the usual matchup counters, the old narratives. As the dynamics change within many of the East's top teams, the dynamics among those franchises must as well. Boston can't rely on its edge over Philly from previous encounters—including last spring's second-round win—just as Milwaukee can't draw too much from its 3--1 season series advantage over Toronto. The teams who shared that history are gone, swept away by the opportunity at hand.
What transpired at the deadline wasn't so much a chain reaction as mutual recognition. The East is really, truly open for the first time in almost a decade, in part because LeBron James, whose teams won the conference every year since 2010, staked a claim out West. Everyone realizes what exactly that means, which explains much of their angst and—in the case of the three who made big moves—urgency. Forget the inevitability of the Warriors. To even appear in the Finals is an achievement. It is a confirmation of process, a resonant message. An organization can draw years of good favor from that kind of run, especially from its own free agents.
The Raptors, who in their 24-year history have never been to the Finals, would love nothing more than to begin their pitch to Leonard this summer with a trophy presentation and a shower of champagne. The Celtics' postseason fate could either quiet the murmurs surrounding point guard Kyrie Irving's future in Boston or serve to amplify them. Although cornerstones Simmons and Embiid are just in their early 20s, the Sixers accelerated their time line when they acquired Butler in November. There will only be so many chances for Philly to take the conference while the 29-year-old is still in his prime (assuming, of course, that he re-signs this summer, when he is expected to opt out of his deal). Harris, himself, is proof—a trade acquisition from the Clippers that cost the Sixers four draft picks (two firsts and two seconds) even though he, too, can walk this summer. Proximity to the conference title makes it an acceptable risk.
Milwaukee's position is particularly tenuous in a world where Anthony Davis is engineering his way out of New Orleans. Time can fly for any rebuilding, small-market team fortunate enough to draft a superstar; there is great pressure not only to win as a proof of concept, but also to invest in a younger supporting cast whose continued development gives reason for optimism. In the NBA, these ambitions are largely contradictory. The Pelicans for years found themselves caught between them, which led Davis to request a trade midway through his seventh season. Milwaukee's MVP front-runner, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is currently in his sixth. Even the slightest parallels in their situations cannot help but trigger some anxiety in Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo is the Bucks' inroad to lasting relevance. To lose that could set the franchise back decades.
This is the kind of possibility that looms, even when the franchise player in question hasn't intimated any desire to leave. Keeping a superstar is restless business. It's motivation enough for a team already atop the conference to gamble on Miroti´c, another free-agent-to-be, for four second-rounders. This is a moment—not only for the Bucks, but for all of the East's contenders. It's the balance among them that puts the East up for grabs and the need for separation that now transforms their rivalries. The real season starts now.
"What transpired at the deadline wasn't so much a chain reaction as mutual recognition. THE EAST IS REALLY, TRULY OPEN for the first time in almost a decade."