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Tiers on Tap: Evaluating the Eastern Conference After NBA Trade Deadline

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have the Celtics on top of the East.

The dust has settled on yet another frenetic NBA trade deadline, as teams position themselves for the stretch run. Although no major stars were dealt on or in the days leading up to February 8, a multitude of impact players found new homes. Seeing every team’s roster is now (mostly) finalized, it’s a good time to analyze where each team is on the totem pole. I’ll do that by splitting the eastern conference teams into tiers, ranging from the title favorites to the Pistons. Without further ado:

Tiers on Tap: Eastern Conference

Tier One: Banner or Bust

Boston Celtics

The Celtics had a championship-caliber roster before the trade deadline, and they still do now. They added Xavier Tillman and Jaden Springer for next-to-nothing, injecting youth and top-level defense into the rotation. How much either guy plays is up in the air. Neither of them projects to slot into anything more than a bench role, but there’s plenty of wiggle room there. Tillman’s size and athleticism make him a valuable piece against guys like Bam Adebayo and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Springer has shown the ability to hang defensively with the best of the best. At the end of the day, Boston will go as far as “The Jays” take them. Adding talent and versatility is nice, but doesn’t dramatically change the equation for the Celtics.

Tier Two: Larry O’Brien’s Outer Circle

New York Knicks

Don’t you dare tell Tom Thibodeau that defense is out of style. The Knicks are playing beautiful team basketball, and they’ve gotten All-NBA production from the ever-efficient Jalen Brunson. They brought in OG Anunoby in January, and with the trade deadline came even more good news. They’ll introduce Alec Burks and Bojan Bogdanovic this week; two offensive, cagey veterans who seem to have a good bit left in the tank. New York is a nightmare draw for any playoff team – they defend at a ridiculously high level and play together offensively. Brunson, Julius Randle, and the supporting cast form a formidable roster that’ll be difficult for anybody to beat four times.

Tier Three: Maybe They Will, Maybe They Won’t

Milwaukee Bucks

What is there to make of the Bucks? Newly minted head coach Doc Rivers is 1-5 since he took the reins, and is already making excuses for that record. Yes, they have the star power to compete, but their depth is concerning and their defense is awful. They only made one real move at the deadline – trading for Patrick Beverley, whose best days are behind him. The roster is old and oft-injured, and there is legitimate concern in Milwaukee. However, it’d be senseless to disregard a team with this much star power. If Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo can put it together when it matters, we’ll all be kicking ourselves for not taking the Bucks seriously.

Cleveland Cavaliers

At the time of writing, the Cavs are red-hot and have shot all the way up to 2nd in the East. Yes, they’ve played a weak schedule, but you can only beat who’s in front of you, and Cleveland’s done just that. However, there are some major question marks surrounding this team. Can Evan Mobley play alongside Jarrett Allen? Can either guy make a jump shot? Is the backline defense good enough to cover for the woeful guard defense? Can Isaac Okoro knock down threes consistently? Cleveland did nothing at the trade deadline to rectify any of those concerns, and they’re just 11-14 against teams above .500. They’re very talented, but it’s hard to see a deep run in their future without some major internal development. But, this is the NBA playoffs; win a couple games and prove me wrong.

Philadelphia 76ers

Philly is only here because of the uncertainty surrounding Joel Embiid’s knee. If he’s healthy, they belong a tier above; if he’s out for the season, they belong a tier below. Their deadline was interesting – GM Daryl Morey seemed unable to pick a direction, acquiring Buddy Hield but also dealing Jaden Springer and Patrick Beverley, each to Eastern Conference rivals. With Embiid set to miss at least a month, Philly will likely slide down the standings, and could very realistically wind up in the Play-In Tournament. If Embiid can come back fully healthy by the start of the playoffs, the Sixers have a puncher’s chance. Hield’s shooting makes him a nice partner for Embiid and adds to an already potent offense. If Embiid can’t come back or isn’t 100%, Philly might as well start vacation early.

Tier Four: The De-Militarized Zone

Indiana Pacers

All of the teams in this tier are in a weird gray area where a bad run of games could drop them into the Play-In Tournament, with Indiana being the best of the lot. The Pacers are enjoying their most exciting season in years, behind Tyrese Haliburton and a historic offense. The Pacers did the majority of their deadline work some weeks ago, acquiring Pascal Siakam to boost an already impressive roster. However, even after getting Siakam, are they really all in? In a puzzling move, they played the part of sellers on Thursday, trading Buddy Hield to Philadelphia for salary and picks. It’s unclear which direction Indiana wants to take this season, and it wouldn’t be altogether shocking to see them slip into the Play-In. You can easily see the flip side, though – Siakam could turn a corner, and Indiana could host a playoff series. Neither path is unthinkable.

Miami Heat

Acting like the regular season is some kind of joke and then laying waste to the postseason has become a Heat tradition in recent years. With that being said, I’ll never write these guys off until they’re dead and buried, but this season feels different. They don’t do anything particularly well and haven’t shown much of a desire to improve. They made their only deal last week, acquiring Terry Rozier for the aging, declining Kyle Lowry. Rozier’s lack of defense makes him a curious fit in Miami, and his volume scoring doesn’t seem to fix any of their problems. It’s entirely possible Jimmy Butler turns into Superman and the Heat make another run, but it’s just as possible their disappointing season ends in a play-in flameout.

Orlando Magic

Orlando stood pat at the deadline, opting to save their assets for the future. It was probably the right call; it’s hard to see anybody available at the deadline making them contenders. After a torrid start to the season, a beat-up Magic team has struggled a bit and find themselves in eighth. Orlando can still be a threat, though. A slow playoff environment should benefit them, and their excellent defense can keep them in any game. Stars Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner can win them games, and they notoriously match up very well with the Boston Celtics. Don’t rule out the Magic grinding out a win or two and pushing an Eastern Conference favorite to their limit.

Tier Five: Play-In Fodder

Atlanta Hawks

Atlanta was embroiled in trade rumors with virtually every player on the roster, but Thursday’s deadline came and went without a single deal. They’ve underperformed, as inefficiencies have consigned the Hawks to tenth in the East. Atlanta is not without talent – All-Star Trae Young has the offense scoring almost 122 points a night, and the team shoots over 36% from three. It’s their defense that’s been the predominant issue, ceding 124 points per game, tops in the Association. Still, I wouldn’t necessarily want to see Atlanta in a play-in game, or a full series. One or two bad shooting nights, and they can make you pay; just last season, this same Hawks roster pushed Boston to a tightly contested six game series in the first round. It’s unlikely that the Hawks go further than the play-in, but any team that can score like Atlanta won’t be a pushover.

Chicago Bulls

It’s yet another mediocre year for an expensive, aging Chicago Bulls team. Similarly to Atlanta, they were expected to be active at the deadline; just as similarly, they did nothing. It’s hard to see how this team improves from here; they have three rotational pieces under the age of 28, and two of them appear to have hit their ceilings. Chicago wasted yet another chance to hit the reset button, and at 25-27, there’s little hope for much more than a first-round loss. To make matters worse, GM Arturas Karnisovas seems convinced that this core can win. Hey, Bulls fans – at least DeMar DeRozan’s impending free agency will force some sort of change.

Tier Six: Waving The White Flag

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors finally committed to a full teardown, trading away most anything with a hint of value. Yes, this will make an already bad team even worse, but at least there’s hope going forward. Scottie Barnes was named to his first All-Star team, and they added Ochai Agbaji and picks to build around him. Kelly Olynyk was an interesting acquisition – he should help with Barnes’s development and he himself will fetch some more assets when the time comes. Toronto did a solid job trimming fat and preparing themselves for tomorrow, but this season is a wash.

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets, as a whole, have had a strange season. They’re directionless – they’re talented enough that ownership is refusing to rebuild, but not talented enough to compete. They had a relatively underwhelming trade deadline, bringing in picks and salary for Royce O’Neale and trading Spencer Dinwiddie for Dennis Schroder. This team has some good pieces (Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson), but they’re 7-21 in their last 28 and are nowhere near contention. They seemingly remain convinced that they can win with this core, and their stubbornness may cost them valuable time and assets in their building process. Brooklyn is “meh” – they’ll look ahead to the offseason as another failed season draws to a close.

Tier Seven: The Twilight Zone

Charlotte Hornets

Out of the three teams lucky enough to make this tier, Charlotte easily has the most going for it. They made several good deadline deals, shipping Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, and P.J. Washington for a decent haul. They have their centerpieces – star rookie Brandon Miller, who should see his responsibilities increase, and star guard LaMelo Ball, who already looks like a premier offensive engine. They own all of their picks and can add talent to that core this offseason. Yes, they’re awful this year, and they may well be awful again next year. However, the Hornets’ deadline activity has put them in a position to continue their rebuild smoothly and efficiently. There’s reason for optimism in Buzz City.

Detroit Pistons

We all heard about the losing streak, and head coach Monty Williams might not survive the offseason. Detroit made a handful of good moves at the deadline, shipping out veterans Alec Burks, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Monte Morris. For their trouble, they collected young, promising guard Quentin Grimes alongside a handful of decent draft picks and other assets. It’s not much, but they’re getting younger, which is the first step in a rebuild. They’ll see out the season and do their damnedest not to break the loss record in the process.

Washington Wizards

I could write for days about how badly the Wizards have botched every step of their basketball operations over the past eight years. (I touched on it here). Today, they find themselves barely ahead of the listless Pistons in the Eastern Conference cellar, and they have little in the way of assets or prospects to show for it. Jordan Poole is one of the worst contracts in basketball, Kyle Kuzma isn’t good enough to lead a team, and they failed to trade coveted guards Delon Wright and Tyus Jones before the deadline. The one deal they did make Thursday was solid, though. They fetched salary and a first-round pick from Dallas for Daniel Gafford, finally adding assets to build moving forward. However, there’s not much potential on the roster, and their rebuild (assuming it’s done properly) figures to take several years, at least. Dark days are ahead in the District.

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