The Most Important Player On Each Eastern Conference Team In The 2024 Playoffs

The NBA playoffs are finally here, and in the Eastern Conference, it sure feels like there’s one overarching question: Can anyone knock off the Boston Celtics? The team picked up the 1-seed in the East with a 14-game cushion over the New York Knicks, which swiped the 2-seed in a tight battle as the rest of the conference was bunched up together in the standings.

The good news is you can never fully predict what is going to happen in the playoffs, so while it seems like this is an inevitable march towards an NBA Finals appearance for Boston, anything can happen. Today, we’re taking a look at which players on each Eastern Conference team figure to have a significant impact on their team’s ability to make a run.

Boston Celtics: Kristaps Porzingis

Boston got Kristaps Porzingis for this exact reason during the offseason. Yes, it remains baffling that the Celtics were able to get draft capital back in a deal that saw them turn Marcus Smart into Porzingis, but above everything else, Brad Stevens and co. determined that acquiring the ex-Wizards big man would help get them over the hump — remember, their other big offseason acquisition, Jrue Holiday, was more of a case of the team pouncing when he became unexpectedly available.

Porzingis has rewarded that faith, as he’s been nothing short of unbelievable in the 57 games in which he’s appeared this year. His ability to stretch the floor, his hyper-efficient post-up game, and his rim protection have all been crucial as Boston has raced out to the best record in the NBA this season. In particular, his post-up game — which was a major source of criticism during his time in Dallas — has been a get out of jail free card when they just need a different dimension on offense. Boston’s long standing issue in the playoffs has been their offense getting bogged down in big fourth quarter moment. Whenever the first big challenge comes for the Celtics and they arrive in that kind of situation, they’re going to need Porzingis to help get them through it. Based on what we’ve seen all year, they should feel confident that he will show up.

New York Knicks: OG Anunoby

Here is one of the more insane stats of the NBA season: OG Anunoby has appeared in 23 games for the Knicks. They’ve won 20 of them. That is a 71-win pace! When he plays, good things happen for the Knicks. His ability to envelop opposing players on defense and provide some juice as a shooter and cutter are crucial to the way New York wants to play on both ends of the floor. And with Julius Randle out, the Knicks need as much help around Jalen Brunson as they can get on offense, or else they run the risk of having opposing defenses focus all their attention on the All-Star guard and mucking things up for him.

We can probably assume that Anunoby is going to do what he does on defense, where he is one of the very best players at locking dudes up and disrupting passing lanes. That’ll be especially valuable in the first round, where the Knicks will almost certainly throw anything and everything at Tyrese Maxey with the hopes of throwing him off rhythm and making it difficult for Joel Embiid to get the ball in his preferred spots. The proof is in the pudding on his ability to impact winning basketball, and now, Anunoby has to do it during the playoffs.

Milwaukee Bucks: Damian Lillard and Khris Middleton

We just don’t know what Giannis Antetokounmpo’s status is going to be going forward, as the Bucks have already ruled him out for Game 1 of their first round series against an Indiana Pacers team that has flat-out owned them this year (although all of those games took place by January 3). Even if he does play, Milwaukee would need the absolute best that Damian Lillard and Khris Middleton can provide at this point. During the regular season, that hasn’t always been enough — while it’s not a huge sample size, lineups with those two that do not feature the two-time NBA MVP are putting up 103 points per 100 possessions (the third percentile of all lineups, per Cleaning the Glass) and are allowing 120.8 points per 100 possessions (which is in the 15th percentile).

This would be cause for concern if Antetokounmpo was able to play 40 minutes a night, but the fact that he can’t play at all for some period of time makes this a potential five-alarm fire. Lillard has to be the guy they traded for, the one-man top-10 offense whose defensive shortcomings are just something you live with. Middleton has to be the connecting piece who has been a building block during their current run. Indiana is going to score in bunches even with Milwaukee’s step forward on defense since replacing Adrian Griffin with Doc Rivers, and if these two can’t help the Bucks keep up, that series could get weird very quickly.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Darius Garland

Donovan Mitchell just does not look like himself, as he’s dealing with a knee injury that has severely compromised his ability to take over basketball games. The Cavs will certainly hope the time off between his final regular season game and the start of the postseason will help him heal up, but no matter what, getting the very best of Darius Garland is critical. Garland’s a good player who has not lived up to his own standards this year — a sluggish start to the year beget an injury, during which time the Cavs changed up how they played, and upon his return, Garland has struggled to fully fit in.

Even a compromised Mitchell is going to have the ball a ton during their first round series against the Magic, and when he has it, odds are he’s going to be guarded by Jalen Suggs, which is like having to deal with a million angry bees while you dribble a basketball. Garland absolutely has to be able to provide a spark on the offensive end of the floor as often as possible in this series and beyond, whether that’s as a scorer or an initiator. Orlando is going to try and drag the Cavs into the mud, and a big series from Garland could be crucial in preventing that from happening and helping Cleveland get to the conference semifinals.

Orlando Magic: Franz Wagner

Orlando’s defense is 100 percent good enough to win them at least one series — having to score on them looks like it’s a miserable experience, and they’re all huge and mean and bought in on that end of the floor. Whether their offense is good enough, however, is a completely different question, because at times it is ugly watching them try to score. We can say with some certainty that Paolo Banchero will have the ball in his hands a ton, and his ability to get to the free throw line in particular will be an important way for the Magic to generate offense.

But getting Wagner to find his shot would be gigantic. Entering this year, Wagner was a 35.8 percent shooter from deep on four attempts per game. In 2023-24, he shot 28.1 percent on 4.6 attempts a night. Among players who attempted at least 300 threes this year, no one shot the ball at a worse clip than Wagner. He’s gotten better as a scorer inside the three-point line, he’s a very reliable shooter from the charity stripe, and he’s an incredibly versatile player on defense. If he find his form again to be a threat from deep, the Magic legitimately can go on a run this postseason.

Indiana Pacers: Tyrese Haliburton

No player was hotter over the first few months of the year than Tyrese Haliburton, whose singular brilliance got the Pacers to the In-Season Tournament final. And then, he hurt his hamstring and played through that injury because he wanted to try and make an All-NBA team. His numbers weren’t as good down the stretch, but now, he gets a week to try and rest up before going into a playoff series against a team that he has absolutely owned this year — Haliburton averaged 27 points, 11 assists, and 5.8 rebounds per game and posted a 65.1 percent true shooting in five games against the Bucks.

A healthy Haliburton — even a 95 percent Haliburton — is an absolute nightmare to deal with, and midseason trade acquisition Pascal Siakam has shown to be exactly what the Pacers needed him to be as a running mate. The In-Season Tournament was his coming out party for a number of fans, and he now has the opportunity to shine on the biggest stage in the game. If he’s able to get his body right, it’s very possible we’re going to be watching the Pacers for more than just one round.

Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid

Boy, things just cannot be normal with Joel Embiid this time of year, can they? Whether it’s one of his teammates flaming out in spectacular fashion or an injury/illness that comes at the absolute worst time, there always seems to be something that keeps Embiid from reaching the same highs as the regular season. Of course, there’s a third thing here: Embiid just flat out hasn’t been good enough when the postseason has rolled around in his career. For a player who has a real case for being the best basketball player on earth, Embiid has never quite been able to impose himself on games the same way when the lights are brightest.

It’s a frequent Zach Lowe line, but the Embiid monster run in the playoffs is going to come at some point. It has to, he’s too good to not take over games this time of year. When he’s played this season, the Sixers have been one of the best teams in the entire league — they were 31-8 with him on the floor in the regular season, which would have put them on a 65-win pace. Embiid’s body seems to be in a good place, the team around him has been great with him this year, Nick Nurse is one of the most creative playoff coaches in the league, and they’re entering the playoffs on fire. There are no excuses, it’s his time.

8 seed: Coby White or Tyler Herro

While we still need to figure out who will earn the 8-seed, both teams face a similar issue: They face an insane uphill climb while trying to keep up with Boston’s offense in the first round. That’s especially true considering the fact that both teams will be without one of their most dangerous offensive players: Zach LaVine for the Bulls and Jimmy Butler for the Heat. A lot will be on the plates of White and Herro as a result, because while we have a pretty good idea of what DeMar DeRozan and Bam Adebayo will do — DeRozan as a scorer, Adebayo as a hub around which the Heat’s offense will run — they need someone who can score in bunches. That might not be enough to extend a series against the Celtics, but it’s their best shot.