For the better part of the last 20 years, the Eastern Conference has been known as the junior varsity division in comparison to the Western Conference. After the last of Michael Jordan’s championships with the Bulls in 1998, the Eastern Conference has won only seven times in the last 21 seasons causing many people to dub it as the “Leastern conference.” However, there are some real threats in the East this year. Teams like the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics and even the young Heat have shown potency to topple Western Conference titans in the regular season and feature some of the premier young talents in the league. With that being said, let’s make the lives of coaches easier by breaking down the weaknesses of every Eastern Conference team left in the race for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks need elite guard play and a secondary scorer from the perimeter to complement Giannis Antetokounmpo who is currently having the statistically greatest season ever in terms of the player efficiency rating (PER). PER measures a player’s per-minute productivity by factoring in components such as points, scoring efficiency rebounds, assists, turnovers and more. Giannis currently boasts a ludicrous rating of 31.90. For perspective, the average PER for an NBA player is 15.00 and Jordan’s greatest season only clocks in at 31.71. Giannis is quite literally a jump shot and a couple of championships away from being anointed as the king of the NBA. However, that’s a huge assumption.
Without a consistent shot, teams like last year’s Toronto Raptors have realized that the key is to just wall off the paint and defensively contest Giannis’ teammates. This defensive scheme severely limits Giannis’ options and stalls the Bucks offense. They need a secondary all-star playmaker and role players to step up and make big shots. Jordan had John Paxson and Steve Kerr, Kobe had Derrick Fisher and the list goes on. Bucks fans are counting on Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and others to play up to their talent when the lights shine brightest. That is where great teams are differentiated from the good ones and it is time for the Bucks to show the NBA who they are before potentially losing the Greek Freak in free agency.
2. Toronto Raptors
First things first, I have to give major props to the Raptors for still being in the playoff mix after losing Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers this past offseason. The emergence of Pascal Siakam as a star in this league has been incredible and we have seen a resurgent Kyle Lowry provide great veteran leadership to some promising young talent on the roster. Additionally, Fred VanVleet’s shooting ability has also been phenomenal night in and night out. This team competes on a nightly basis, has great team chemistry and defends as a unit. Subsequently, I want to draw attention to whom I consider the Raptor’s secret weapon. Allow me to introduce you to OG Anunoby.
This dynamic 23-year-old rookie out of Indiana University has developed considerably as a shooter, hitting the mark from long range at nearly a 40% clip while oftentimes defending the opposing teams’ best perimeter player. Earlier this season, Anunoby did a solid defensive job on LeBron James, resulting in a Raptors win and earning himself a spot as a starting lineup asset. In my opinion, the Raptor’s greatest weakness is their lack of size among their primary scoring threats and a lack of a true superstar to close out games down the stretch. Big physical wing defenders can really bother Lowry and VanVleet who rely on ball screens and step back jumpers to create space to shoot. This is a huge problem against teams like the Celtics, Bucks and Heat who have athletic versatile forwards on the wings. This lack of a two-way superstar wing player forces the Raptors to really play unselfish team basketball, but complicates matters for young players in high leverage moments.
3. Boston Celtics
The Celtics’ starting lineup is among the best in the NBA. It features rising superstar Jason Tatum who gives myself and others Kobe flashbacks, a stud wing in Jaylen Brown whose reliable scoring and defense has become something Coach Brad Stevens has come to count on late in games, a swiss army knife in Marcus Smart and All-Star point guard hailing from the Husky Pack Kemba Walker. The team’s most glaring holes lie in their lack of depth at the center position and the offensive ineptitude of the bench.
Daniel Theis is a solid player with high energy that does a lot of good things for the Celtics that don’t necessarily get recorded in the stat sheet, but he is undersized for his position. Furthermore, the Celtics have had issues when he gets in foul trouble because Enes Kanter, while he is a better offensive player, struggles mightily on defense. His lateral quickness and sheer physicality while defending the basket leaves a lot to be desired. This ability to patrol the paint will be key against any remaining team in the East and to face any team that represents the Western Conference in the finals. Additionally, where has the bench scoring been? Nearly every member on the bench had a negative plus-minus productivity rating in the regular season and the first-round series against the Sixers only confirmed how much of the scoring load is on the starters. The starters are young, but this has to improve going forward in the playoffs. A bench average of 24.5 points per game will not cut it against teams on the same talent tier as the Celtics.
Many of the members on the bench are young players that need time to develop and settle into their roles, but this will be a huge weakness for the team when playing in longer series. I believe that every potential Celtics series in the playoffs, granted they keep winning, can potentially go seven games. They’re going to have to be at the top of their game to have a chance, especially with the unfortunate loss of Gordan Hayward to an ankle injury.
4. Miami Heat
The Miami Heat are the exciting fan favorite sleeper threat of the East. This gritty Pat Riley team that has welcomed the services of All-Star Jimmy Butler with open arms has undergone a culture transplant that the young players have fully embraced. Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson have become the younger splash brothers, Kendrick Nunn can create his shot on anyone and Bam Adebayo has evolved into a great passing big man that can also defend all five positions while having possibly the single greatest first name in NBA history. The Heat’s biggest weakness is their defense, primarily surrounding rim protection.
With the departure of Hassan Whiteside to the Portland Trailblazers, the Heat do not have another player to patrol the paint. Bam is better utilized at the top of the key when the Heat play teams without a true traditional center. The lack of size on this Miami team makes their level of playoff legitimacy somewhat matchup dependent, so it is going to be a struggle defending the big bodies of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez. The real question is, will their prowess defending the three-point arc be enough to mask this weakness on the interior?