For all intents and purposes, three teams are jockeying for the 1-seed in the Eastern Conference this season. While a handful of teams — up-and-comers like the Bulls, Hawks, Hornets, and Knicks or usual stalwarts hoping to catch fire down the stretch like the Celtics, Heat, Pacers, and Raptors — will do everything they can to crash the party after the trade deadline came and went, there is a clear gap between all of those teams and the trio at the top.
The Philadelphia 76ers have held onto the 1-seed while Joel Embiid has been out with a knee injury, while the Brooklyn Nets are a game and a half back and the Milwaukee Bucks are 2.5 back. Funny enough, the odds of winning a championship jumble that trio: The Nets are the favorites league-wide at +250, with the Bucks sitting pretty at +900 and the Sixers coming in at +1100 following the deadline.
It is impossible to predict with total certainty on March 27 what comes of all of this. It is incredibly plausible that any of these teams can come out of the East, both because of how wide open things are this season and because they’re all incredibly good — in various ways, the trio of stars all of these squads possess (Embiid/Harris/Simmons, Durant/Harden/Irving, Antetokounmpo/Holiday/Middleton) can give the others problems, and in a superstar-driven league, this is going to matter as we get to the postseason.
All of this makes the race for the 1-seed this year so much more important than it has been in recent memory. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic means we won’t know how home-court advantage will manifest — it seems hard to imagine that we’ll be able to safely see 17,000+ people into an arena any time soon — a case can be made that going all-out to get the 1-seed is the single most important thing that Brooklyn, Milwaukee, and Philly can do over the coming two months.
Yes, getting to host a potential Game 7 in the conference finals in your own building is a huge plus, regardless of whether big crowds are involved. But beyond that, the sheer ability to avoid the other two teams in the conference semis is such a huge potential boost to the 1-seed that the calculus that comes from resting players down the stretch is changed somewhat. Instead of Philly giving Joel Embiid an extra couple of games off, or Steve Nash going all-in on load management, the potential to avoid one another or the Bucks — instead getting, in theory, a far more manageable matchup against the winner of the 4/5 series — is itself a potential gigantic boost for a team’s hopes of making the NBA Finals.
Projecting out the remainder of the season, Tankathon notes that the Sixers have the easiest schedule of the bunch, with the good news for them being that only one of them — Saturday night’s trip to L.A. to take on the Clippers — occurs before Embiid is expected to return from his knee injury. All three teams play one another at least once before the season ends: Milwaukee plays both Brooklyn and Philly twice, while the Nets and Sixers square off once during a mid-April tilt in the City of Brotherly Love. And while we can only take so much out of regular season matchups, the teams have generally played one another close this season. The Bucks beat the Sixers by four in overtime earlier this month, the Nets beat Milwaukee by two in January, and while the season series is split, 1-1, between the two Atlantic Division squads, Philly outscored Brooklyn by three points over 96 minutes of action.
All of this is to say these are three very, very good teams that play one another pretty well, although we’ll certainly learn more as they continue to meet down the stretch. All three teams are in the top-10 in net rating, with Milwaukee being the best of the bunch and Philly being the best of the trio (and the entire league) over the last month. Brooklyn, meanwhile, is the farthest from their potential final form of the group, as the Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving grouping has only played 186 minutes together due to various injuries and absences. The biggest thing looming here is Durant’s absence with a hamstring injury that has held him out since Feb. 13, but Steve Nash seems optimistic his return is around the corner.
Regardless of when Durant comes back, all three of these teams are going to be dangerous in the regular season. All have at least 26 games left to figure out whatever tweaks need to be made and make a push for the 1-seed, which is very, very attainable for all of them. It is, with the trade deadline passed, the crown jewel for which all three teams are battling, because while playing Atlanta or Miami or New York is not easy, it is far more palatable of a second-round matchup than the 2 or the 3. It won’t mean a sure-fire berth in the NBA Finals, of course, but beating championship-caliber teams in the conference semis and the conference finals is extremely hard. At the very least, this, along with the fact that teams 4-10 are separated by 3.5 games and do not want to need to go to the play-in tournament to earn a playoff berth, will hopefully mean that the stretch run of the regular season in the Eastern Conference is as good as ever.