The Most Interesting Players In The Eastern Conference For The Second Half Of The Season

The NBA returned from the All-Star break on Thursday night, and on Friday, 20 teams are going to play their first game since the league took its annual midseason break to watch good players shoot threes and dunk. While we can’t say for sure, we can predict with some certainty which 10 teams are making the playoffs or the Play-In Tournament in both conferences, although the races in the East and the West for positioning are as tight as ever.

In the East, the Boston Celtics are probably going to get the 1-seed barring something completely insane, while the Chicago Bulls and the Atlanta Hawks are in a spot to jostle for 9th and 10th down the stretch. And then, basically everything else is up in the air — only 6.5 games separate the Cleveland Cavaliers in second and the Miami Heat in eighth.

With so much still needing to be sorted out, we took a look at which players deserved to be watched more closely than the rest in the race for positioning in the East.

Darius Garland

Here’s a question: Can the Cleveland Cavaliers win the Eastern Conference? As of right now, they’re in second place without much of a chance of getting the 1-seed (they’re seven games behind Boston). They’re also two games up on the Milwaukee Bucks and three games up on the New York Knicks in third and fourth, and they have the best record in the league since the calendar turned to 2024. Their defense is going to be very good as long as Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley are playing (Isaac Okoro shooting almost 40 percent from three helps immensely, too), while Donovan Mitchell has played at an MVP level and has thrived in a more ball-dominant role.

Still, it’s Garland who might hold the key to the entire thing. He’s a theoretical perfect fit as a guy on a team that embraces ball movement and letting it fly from three, but he’s only shooting 34 percent from behind the arc and Mitchell’s emergence as the lead ball-handler during his time away from the team with a fractured jaw has forced an adjustment period since he came back at the end of January. Garland is talented enough to figure things out and, while this is a small sample size, started to find his jumper in the four games before the All-Star break. The Cavs are already a dangerous team in the playoffs, but if Garland can get into a rhythm, look out.

Damian Lillard

Good luck trying to figure literally anything out about the Bucks. They fired Adrian Griffin with the hopes that Doc Rivers would fix their defense. The good news: They’ve taken a step forward on that end, as the team is 10th in defensive rating since Rivers took over. The bad news: Their offense is horrible, ranking 23rd on that end of the floor in that same period. And amid all of this, the team’s superstar offseason acquisition has been flat-out not good enough on offense. During Rivers’ time as coach, Lillard has played in eight games (including, to be fair, all three of their wins). He’s averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game while shooting 42.1 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from three. In the 43 games he played before that: 25.3 points, 6.8 assists, 42.3 percent from the field, 34.5 percent from three.

He’s getting to the free throw line a ton and is lights out once he gets there, which has helped, and good things tend to happen when he’s on the floor with at least one of Giannis Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton. Still, he has to shoulder a big burden on that end of the floor, and any hope the Bucks have of competing for a championship involves him being one of the 10 or so best offensive players in the league. If there is good news, it’s that everyone in Milwaukee seemed to understand that patience was necessary to get things humming, and that was before the coach got fired midseason. They might be the team to watch most closely in the, say, first five games out of the break.

Everyone on the Knicks who is hurt

New York legitimately goes 10 deep, knocked the trade deadline out of the park, and can absolutely bully teams on both ends of the floor when they’re cooking. The problem: The team is insanely injured right now, as three starters (OG Anunoby, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson) are all out and have no clear timetable to return — Anunoby hopes to be back before the playoffs start from elbow surgery, Randle might need season-ending shoulder surgery, Robinson’s potential return from ankle surgery is up in the air. New York has managed well without Robinson thanks to Isaiah Hartenstein (whose achilles gave him some issues before the break, but looks to be alright), but his return would certainly be welcomed nonetheless.

They really need to get Anunoby and Randle back, though, and can make a run in the East if those two are playing and firing on all cylinders alongside Jalen Brunson. That’s especially the case if they can get the second or third seed — right now, they’re in fourth (i.e. they’d play Boston in the conference semis), but are three games back of second and one game back of third. Getting healthy and making a push for the 2-seed, thereby giving them homecourt through the first two rounds, would be gigantic.

Joel Embiid

Hey, here’s an easy one. It’s unclear when Embiid will be able to return to the Philadelphia 76ers after injuring his meniscus at the end of January. There’s a very delicate balance Philly has to strike here: Bring Embiid back too early and risk him aggravating the injury. Bring him back too late and risk him not getting into any sort of a rhythm before the postseason rolls around … or risk falling into the Play-In Tournament, as they’re only 1.5 games up on the Orlando Magic for the 7-seed in the East. It’s tough, because if he plays and looks like himself, the Sixers are a championship-caliber team. Of course, “if he looks like himself” has long been the question for Embiid come playoff time, so Philly’s chances of making it out of the East — particularly if they can settle into a spot where they’d avoid Boston until the Conference Finals — are entirely dependent on the guy who looked like he had a chance to cruise to a second-straight MVP through the first 45 or so games of the season coming back and doing just that.

Pascal Siakam

Milwaukee, New York, and Philadelphia all have injuries to star-level players they need to sort through in the coming days and weeks. Indiana, meanwhile, is going into the second half of the year with a healthy Tyrese Haliburton and a healthy Pascal Siakam. We know how good Haliburton is as he’s made a leap into being one of the best players in the league, while Siakam has generally hit the ground running since his trade from Toronto, a snug fit on a team that was crying out for a player who could impact the game on both ends of the floor like him. When those two are on the floor together, the Pacers are scoring a ridiculous 124.2 points per 100 possessions and boast an effective field goal percentage of 62 percent, which is insane. The usual disclaimer applies, though: Indiana has to be able to get stops. Siakam making his impact felt on that end would be huge, and since acquiring him, the Pacers are 20th in the league in defensive rating. They’re allowing 2.1 fewer points per 100 possessions since Siakam came on board, which is a step in the right direction, even if their offense isn’t quite as lethal as it was. Still, as long as Haliburton plays, we’re confident the offense will be fine.

Terry Rozier

Miami’s offense has been in the mud all season, and the idea behind giving up one of their ultra-valuable future first-round picks was that Rozier would be able to provide a shot in the arm. That just did not happen prior to the knee injury that is keeping him out week-to-week — in 299 minutes over 10 games before he went down, the Heat were scoring 6.2 points worse per 100 possession when Rozier was out there. No one has ever felt good about writing off Miami, and I’m certainly not doing that here, but having another option on offense — whether it’s as a scorer, shooter, or playmaker — would make life considerably easier on Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, and Bam Adebayo heading into April. Worth noting: Miami has the third-easiest schedule in the league down the stretch, with nine of their final 27 games coming against the Pistons, Wizards, Blazers, and Raptors.