For a generation, being a quality Eastern Conference team has meant guaranteed passage into the NBA postseason.
Unlike its Western counterpart, where good teams routinely have been left out of the playoff picture, the East — since the Charlotte Hornets reentered the league in 2004, bringing the NBA to its current 30 teams — has seen a below .500 team make the playoffs eight of those 18 seasons and a four-win gap between the average fourth-best team in each conference, and a five-win gap between the average eighth-best team.
Those days, however, are over.
Teams will routinely have stretches like the one the Toronto Raptors are enduring to open 2022-23: seven consecutive games against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat (twice), Philadelphia 76ers (twice) and Atlanta Hawks.
“The East,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said with a smile, “is not for the faint-hearted.”
Over the first week of the season, ESPN was in attendance for six games featuring six of the seven teams in ESPN’s win-loss projections: the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors.
Here is what we learned about each contender as they begin to navigate what should be a season-long gauntlet to the playoffs.
When asked to break down Boston’s early season play, several league scouts and executives pointed to Brogdon’s immediate impact.
“He’s exactly what they needed,” one East scout said after watching Boston play.
Brogdon, whom the Celtics acquired from the Indiana Pacers in a trade this summer, has shown an ability to create offense after attacking the heart of the defense, all while being able to hold up as part of Boston’s defensive schemes.
Case in point: In the first quarter of Boston’s season-opening win over Philadelphia, Brogdon grabbed a defensive rebound, pushed the ball upcourt and hit Grant Williams for a 3-pointer on one possession, then caught a ball on a swing in the corner, attacked James Harden and got rim to the rim for a layup on the next.
For all of the understandable focus on Stephen Curry‘s offensive brilliance during the Golden State Warriors‘ six-game triumph in the NBA Finals, the truth is the Celtics lost that series not because they failed to contain Curry and the Warriors’ weapons, but because the Celtics’ struggled to put up points of their own. Boston’s 105.6 offensive rating in the Finals would have tied the Detroit Pistons for 28th during the regular season.
Only Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown could be relied upon to create shots for themselves. Adding another high-level creator in Brogdon, who averaged 19.1 points and 5.9 assists last season for the Pacers, takes a significant burden off of their All-Stars’ shoulders. His 3.3 assists per game so far is twice as many per game as the man he’s replaced in Boston’s rotation, Payton Pritchard, averaged during last year’s playoff run.
Cleveland Cavaliers: What is the solution at small forward?
Even though Darius Garland has been out for all but the first half of Cleveland’s first game due to a left eye injury, the Cavaliers have looked like the contender they were billed to become after dealing for All-Star Donovan Mitchell, who slid into Cleveland’s offense with three straight 30-point games.
Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley have, as expected, walled off the paint. And Kevin Love has remained a walking 3-pointer coming off the bench.
The lingering question surrounds the small forward spot in Cleveland’s starting and closing lineups next to Mitchell, Garland, Mobley and Allen.
Initially, Caris LeVert, who had a strong preseason, got the nod. But while LeVert has taken on a bigger creation role with Garland out, averaging 6.3 assists per game, he’s shooting 3-for-24 on 2-pointers and opposing scouts and executives question whether his lack of defensive ability is the right fit next to Mitchell and Garland.
Meanwhile, Isaac Okoro, the fifth pick in the 2020 draft, has shot 3-for-12 from the field and missed all six triples he’s attempted. Dean Wade is the closest approximation to what Cleveland got from Lauri Markkanen last season, but Wade is still working his way back from a preseason ankle injury.
While Allen and Mobley are Cleveland’s anchors, when the Cavs face the elite, big, star wings in the East — Tatum, Brown, Harden, Jimmy Butler and Khris Middleton — there isn’t a clear answer for how they’ll attempt to slow them down. It’s a situation worth monitoring up until the Feb. 9 trade deadline.
Miami Heat: How Bam goes, they go
As the Heat hosted the Celtics, and then the Raptors twice, a familiar trend emerged: Miami would build a lead with star big man Bam Adebayo on the court, then almost immediately give it back when he went to the bench.
In Friday’s loss to Boston, Adebayo was plus-20 in a game Miami lost by seven points. He was plus-5 in each of the two contests against Toronto on Saturday and Monday, games the Heat won by three and lost by eight, respectively.
Across those three games, Adebayo was off the court for a total of 35 minutes, 40 seconds. In those minutes, the Heat were outscored by 42 points.
That pace is untenable over an 82-game season, but with P.J. Tucker now in Philadelphia, Miami’s front line is a work-in-progress.
“Everybody is trying to catch a rhythm, trying to figure it out,” Adebayo said after the loss to Boston.
The impending return of second-year big man Omer Yurtseven, who has been out with an ankle injury to begin the season but is with the team on its current three-game West Coast trip, should help. Yurtseven’s return would allow Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to sit Dewayne Dedmon, who had a net rating of minus-25.5 through four games.
It’s easy to forget, given the Bucks cruised to the East’s third seed last season, that starting center Brook Lopez missed virtually the entire regular season because of back issues.
If the first week of the season has shown anything, however, it’s that the veteran big man, who is in the final year of his contract, looks more than ready to go.
In last week’s season-opening win against Joel Embiid and the 76ers, Lopez provided an immediate reminder of why his singular combination of immense size — he’s listed at 7-feet and 280 pounds — and outside shooting touch is so integral to Milwaukee’s success.
Against the 76ers, Lopez hit four 3-pointers, blocked two shots and was a big part of Milwaukee holding Philadelphia to just 88 points.
“This morning, if you would have told us we were going to score 90 points and we’re going to win the game, I’d probably [have said], ‘No way,'” superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said after the Philadelphia victory.
“But at the end of the day, this is our goal. We want to be one of the best defensive teams.”
Having Lopez next to Antetokounmpo provides a massive wall for opposing offenses to navigate — he recorded six blocks and was a game-high plus-21 in Milwaukee’s comeback win over Brooklyn on Wednesday — while Lopez’s floor-spacing creates room for Antetokounmpo to work at the other end.
While Middleton remains sidelined following offseason wrist surgery, Lopez’s play was a reminder that if the Bucks have their four core players healthy — Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Lopez and Jrue Holiday — it’s going to be hard to pick against them in a seven-game series.
Through their opening five games, one word could be used to describe the 76ers: disjointed.
A team expecting to contend for a championship losing four of its first five games is bad enough, but what makes it even more concerning is how the losses are mounting.
Against Boston and Toronto, it was the 76ers getting routed in transition, outscored by a combined 53-19 margin in fast-break points across the two games. Against Milwaukee, it was a 5-for-24 effort from 3-point range while Joel Embiid went 6-for-21 overall and didn’t make a shot in the second half. Against San Antonio, Rivers admitted afterward that the 76ers didn’t play hard enough against an underdog opponent.
While individual players have performed well offensively — someone has scored at least 29 points in all five games, including Embiid going for 40 against San Antonio and both he and Tyrese Maxey scoring 31 against Toronto — there hasn’t been a game where this group has clicked.
Considering the four leading scorers (Embiid, Maxey, James Harden and Tobias Harris) all played plenty of games together during last year’s regular season and playoffs — Philly had the eighth best offense in the NBA after trading for Harden — the early offensive issues have been an odd development.
It’s what also makes the calls for more time to mesh — something Rivers, Embiid and Harden have stressed this season — confusing.
“It’s a fairly new team and it’s going to take time to get everyone on the same page,” Embiid told reporters after Saturday’s loss to San Antonio. “But we’ll be fine.”
In moments like these, it’s worth remembering that the 2013-14 version of the 76ers — the first “Process” team — won their first three games, including one against the Heat with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
That team finished the season 19-63. In other words: The season isn’t settled one week in.
But, let’s just say the 76ers should be feeling awfully lucky that the Phillies are in the World Series and the Eagles are the NFL’s lone unbeaten team.
Toronto Raptors: Why every game will be a fight
Here are the scoring margins in each of Toronto’s first four games:
Such is life for the Raptors. Toronto will all but certainly be among the league’s elite defensive teams, but without a clear go-to scoring option there will be plenty of times when this group struggles to put up points.
The result? Plenty of exciting clutch-time basketball — and plenty of late-game stress — for Raptors fans.
That’s not to say Toronto is uncomfortable in those types of environments. The team’s first two victories this season, over Cleveland and Miami, saw Toronto engineer fourth-quarter comebacks after slowly wearing down their opponents.
“We know we’ve got to guard, and create some offense out of our defense,” Nurse said after Monday’s win in Miami.
But nothing about how the Raptors play is easy. Unlike many of their competitors in the East, they lack the kind of go-to offensive option that can generate offense by themselves when the game slows down — though Pascal Siakam has been fantastic thus far, and should once again be a contender for an All-NBA spot if his opening week has been any indication.
But when Toronto is at its best, like during Wednesday night’s win over Philadelphia, the Raptors are winning by turning their opponent over and getting out in transition. Against Philadelphia, the Raptors turned 13 76ers turnovers into 21 points and held a 29-17 edge in fast-break points, including going 10-for-10 from the field in transition.
As a result, they won without ever getting in the kind of shot-for-shot situation that would’ve potentially tipped the scales in Philadelphia’s favor.