The 2021 race to the Eastern Conference playoffs is getting tighter by the day. Assuming Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Milwaukee maintain their current place atop the standings, there are 9-10 ancillary teams who have aspirations of making the playoffs. With the addition of the play-in games, all of these playoff hopefuls have reason to believe that they not only have a shot at getting in but also winning a round or two. To make sense of these teams, I’m going to put them into tiers. These won’t be rankings or even predictions. The tiers are simply a way to observe and organize them as we enter the stretch run. First, let’s start with my least favorite tier…
Tier 1: Disappointing but talented…
This tier is reserved for the teams who made the playoffs last year but have been disappointing this season. Each of these teams is undeniably talented. Each team is also capable of making a deep run in the 2021 Eastern Conference playoffs. However, their performance so far this season has left a lot to be desired.
I really can’t express how much it pains me to put the Celtics here. The Celtics have been a model of inconsistency all season. One game, they play well and beat a top team, the next they lose 3 games in a row and the sky is falling. It’s been incredibly frustrating as a fan but I do see a bright side. This has been a season of transition for the C’s. Tatum and Brown are learning how to run a team and health has undoubtedly been a factor in the uneven play. Getting everyone back healthy and playing together consistently should even things in their favor. The Celtics have too much talent not to make a run and my faith is holding strong that it will happen.
It’s interesting to note that Miami and Boston both struggled to start this season after extended playoff runs in last year’s bubble. Following Miami’s run to the NBA Finals last season, they seem to be missing that bounce in their step that we saw in the bubble. Getting everyone healthy is a priority and unlocking the confidence of Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo again should help as well. The Heat also made what could be a huge move in trading for Victor Oladipo (if he can stay healthy). Like Boston, there’s too much talent here for the Heat not to make a move up the standings with an eye on repeating their run from last year.
The Pacers are an interesting case. On paper, they have a starting lineup that should work well together. Brogdon, Sabonis, Turner and TJ Warren are all solid players with skills that complement each other. Throw in Caris Levert playing his way back into shape and you’d think the Pacers would begin to pick it up. For whatever reason though, this team can’t string together enough wins. This particular tier is rife with talent and the Pacers are no different. However, if they expect to make a run, they’re going to have to win a couple of games in a row and reassert themselves as a team to be reckoned with. Especially with the teams below looking to leave them in the dust…
Tier 2: Surprising and Hopeful…
This tier is reserved for the teams who are pushing hard for a playoff appearance. They are young, hungry and they’ve already proved themselves worthy with the seasons they are having. Now’s the time to see if they can make the push to the next level by making the 2021 Eastern Conference playoffs.
Everyone’s favorite league pass team is poised to make their first playoff appearance since 2016. Losing LaMelo Ball to injury was a tragic blow and the Gordon Hayward injury is yet another in a long list of misfortune for the former Butler Bulldog. However, Buzz City may have enough talent to maintain its current course. Terry Rozier is having a career year and young guys like PJ Washington, Mile Bridges and Devonte Graham seem to be figuring it out. Regardless of whether or not this team makes a run, the future looks bright for Charlotte.
New York Knicks
I really can’t express how much it pains me to put the Knicks here. The hated New York Knicks could make the playoffs over my Boston Celtics and I think I just threw up in my mouth while writing that. The Knicks are tough, they play hard and they are a difficult opponent night in and night out. Julius Randle has played even better after making the All-Star team and Tom Thibodeau looks like he might have been the best front office decision the Knicks have made in years. There is a legitimate reason for optimism in the big apple. Having the Knicks in the playoffs is good for the NBA. Besides, could you imagine a Brooklyn/New York first-round series after the Knicks rip through the play-in tournament?
The Hawks could easily have been in the disappointing but talented tier with their start to the season. Ever since the coaching change from Lloyd Pierce to Nate McMillan though, the Hawks have been on fire. The young guys look like they’ve been unleashed and their free-agent acquisitions are finally starting to look comfortable. Going into the season, the Hawks were one of the most intriguing teams because of all the changes they made in the offseason. As we head into the stretch run, they look like one of the most dangerous teams as well. Nobody wants to see this team in a play-in situation but at this rate, the Hawks might avoid that altogether. Their position seems solid as opposed to the next 4 teams…
Tier 3: Outside Looking In…
It will be tough for these 3 teams to make a legitimate run in the 2021 Eastern Conference playoffs. However, with the play-in game format, nobody is truly eliminated yet. These teams are down but not yet out.
The Bulls made a blockbuster trade at the deadline for Nikola Vučević and now employ two NBA All-Stars. If anyone can make up some ground in the standings, it could be Chicago. Vuc and Lavine should immediately turn into a deadly NBA duo. The Bulls also have a good, young roster to surround their two stars. The question is, can they make the type of run needed to surpass the teams in front of them? It would have to be pretty special but it’s not out of the realm of possibilities. A couple of wins and some help from the teams in front of them and the Bulls will be in the mix.
The Raptors have been a perennial contender for the last 2-3 years. This iteration, however, is not the same team. Lowry, VanVleet, Siakam and company have done their best to maintain but it just seems like the deck has been stacked against them since the start of the season. They’ve had to play all their “home” games in Tampa Bay, they’ve lost a ton of talent to free agency and a tough start to the season might negate any late-season magic they can brew up. Despite all of that though, Nick Nurse is a top coaching talent and I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see Toronto creep up the standings and secure at least a play-in spot.
Washington Wizards/Cleveland Cavaliers
Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook are enough to put the fear of God in any team they face. Despite looking atrocious earlier in the year, Washington has appeared to right the ship and Westbrook looks like he’s heating up. Aside from their star guards though, I don’t think Washington has enough talent to really make any noise. The fact that they are in the conversation though after an 0-8 start is encouraging.
I’m putting the Cavs here as well because the Sexland duo has been fun to watch all season. I loved the trade for Jarret Allen and I don’t think anybody would want to see this Cleveland team in a play-in scenario. They would really have to make a historical run to put themselves in a position to make the play-in tournament though. Cleveland is coming though. Maybe not this season but they’ll be in the mix sooner rather than later.