Breaking Down the 2022 Eastern Conference Free-For-All

The NBA’s Eastern Conference standings are proof that when you take your eye off the league for even one minute, let alone an entire week, much like a momentarily neglected toddler with a distracted parent, those 15 teams get into all kinds of trouble.

As of Thanksgiving Day, just three games separated the tied-for-second-place Miami Heat and Washington Wizards and the 12th-place Toronto Raptors with nearly a quarter of the season in the books.

Things both did and did not shake out a bit over the weekend thus far. Miami beat Chicago and Washington beat Dallas on Saturday night, bringing both teams within a game of the first-place Brooklyn Nets, who benefited from the Pace and Space Bump—whenever I write about a team in trouble, they catch fire and start winning games, the Nets’ lone loss since “Brooklyn Nets or Broken Nets” ran being a loss to the white-hot Phoenix Suns, on a 16-game winning streak as this goes to press—to go to 15-6.

On the other hand, however, the 13th-place Indiana Pacers, at 9-12, have effectively treaded water after a 1-6 start and stand just two games back of the eighth-place Atlanta Hawks. Only the utterly wretched Detroit Pistons (4-15) and Orlando Magic (4-17) don’t have some kind of reasonable path into at least the play-in games come April.

But at least the Friday and Saturday nights between when this article got announced and when it’s now going live did produce a little bit of a remedy for fans confused by the constant up-and-down in the standings. Charlotte, at 13-9, stands sixth, and they look like their 48-34 pace is going to set the standard for how good Eastern teams have to be in order to avoid the play-in tournament.

Granted, it might not be the Hornets themselves who get there—their defense is still atrocious and the Knicks and Hawks aren’t going to just roll over and settle for seventh and eighth if they can help it—but 48 wins seems to be the standard.

That’s not to say the East isn’t still a complete fustercluck, because the Philadelphia 76ers, if the season ended today, wouldn’t even be in the play-in tournament since they stand 11th…at 10-10.

Between seventh (the 11-9 Knicks) and 13th (those 9-12 Pacers), three teams—Cleveland, Boston, and the Sixers—are all 10-10.

This is, quite frankly, bananas.

And not just because a team could, depending on how the rest of the season breaks out, finish 41-41 and miss a playoff tournament with 20 out of the league’s 30 teams playing at least one postseason game.

This is bananas because at the same time last year, and the year before that, the East was so top-heavy and the flood of mediocre-to-bad teams so high up in the standings, that we were at risk of having the first season since 1980 where a team hosted a home playoff Game 1 without posting a winning record (the 41-41 Houston Rockets were the East’s 4 seed before they were realigned to the West when the Dallas Mavericks entered the league for the 1980-81 season, a year when a 40-42 Rockets team grabbed the 5 seed and made the Finals. What was in the playoff sauce back then, Houston?)

The East now has the opposite problem. There are the usual suspects as far as Finals contenders are concerned. Brooklyn is 15-6, Miami is 14-7, and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks have won six in a row to get to 12-8. There are the up-and-coming teams that might be as good as their early-season record or they might not—Washington at 14-7 and Chicago at 13-8, step forward. And it’s hard not to see one or both of the Knicks and Hawks—the former a team loaded with young talent, the latter the same way but with an Eastern Conference Finals appearance to their name from last year—making a run.

If anything, I’d bet on the Hawks because no matter how much I dump on him, coach Nate McMillan does have a tendency to get teams to come together in the regular season, he just lucked into awful coaches on the other sideline in last year’s playoffs, as Tom Thibodeau and Doc Rivers are even worse playoff coaches than he is.

What’s the point of all this? Well, the point of all this is that I can make my own projections about how I think the East is going to shake out. Of those 10-10 teams, I’m not sold on Cleveland’s backcourt, Boston’s contending window appears to have closed on them as Jayson Tatum hasn’t been the same since he got COVID (see his .087 WS/48 and 0.5 VORP through 20 games; he went from emerging superstar to good-but-not-truly-great), and Philadelphia is an emerging garbage fire as the ongoing Ben Simmons drama and Joel Embiid‘s inability to stay on the floor have them careening toward a disaster season.

Toronto, meanwhile, simply doesn’t have enough firepower—Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet do not a Big Three make, and they’re going to be stuck in Mediocrity Hell without guys like Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard around anymore. The Pacers are the Pacers—they’re my team, but when your best players are Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon and nobody can stay healthy, your ceiling is 35-40 wins—and, of course, the Pistons and Magic are the dregs at the bottom of the coffee pot.

I wish I could sit here and say I know how the East is going to shake out. I think I do—I’m still firmly of the belief that Brooklyn, Miami, and Milwaukee will in some order be the top three in the East when it’s all over and will produce two of the three conference finalists—but it’s not like the West, where it’s Golden State (17-2), Phoenix (17-3), and maybe Utah and the Clippers to surprise someone with everyone else—yes, even the Lakers—just fighting for the right to lose in the first round. The West has a measure of certainty with just enough intrigue to make it interesting.

The East, on the other hand, is a massive, glorious, wonderful, wildly entertaining train wreck, and I’m just as excited as everyone else to watch it ebb and flow as the season goes on. Heck, maybe the Pacers will take that 8-6 record in their last 14 games and steadily claw their way into the top six by going on a run later in the se…

…Naaah. I wish.