The Eastern Conference isn’t the same pool of parity as the West.
Five teams are at least 4.5 games up on the seventh-place Miami Heat, all but assuring the teams stay out of the dreaded play-in tournament. That means these teams can use the end of the regular season to figure out their remaining rotation questions.
We looked at the top four teams in the West last week and saw what questions they had to answer before the playoffs. This time, we look at the top five teams in the East.
Why five this time? Because five teams in the East have all but wrapped up a top-six seed and the New York Knicks have proven themselves worthy of conversation after nine straight wins.
Milwaukee Bucks: Who is the Fifth Player Closing Games?
As expected, the Bucks have had three players playing at a star level this year. But the unexpected part is that the third member of that trio is Brook Lopez and not Khris Middleton.
It’s not a stretch to call Lopez’s play at or near star level. DRIP, our handy catch-all metric that rates players based on box score, play-by-play and lineup data, rates Lopez as the 39th-best player in the league and the eighth-best defender among those with at least 800 minutes.
And the eye test says he’s not far behind that.
If Middleton can get healthy and produce the way he always does down the stretch, Milwaukee’s top-four players will be as formidable as they come. But the team goes from elite to championship favorite if it can get productive minutes from whoever closes games with this quartet.
Grayson Allen is the favorite to retain the fifth starting spot if and when Middleton gets back to starting (the Bucks have brought him off the bench in his return from injury), so he’s probably the favorite to get the most closing minutes out of the remaining options. He’s shot the ball well on 3s for 28 games now (45.0%), recovering from a cold December when he shot 31.1% on 3-pointers and 42.1% overall.
But Allen has been targeted defensively in the past and he hasn’t always made the best decisions in big moments. Allen isn’t a complete turnstile, but teams looking for any crack in the defensive armor of the Bucks definitely see Allen as exploitable come playoff time. Pat Connaughton has similar issues on defense, hasn’t shot it as well as Allen, and has seen his minutes dwindle a bit over the past month, so he’s unlikely to be the answer.
Bobby Portis is in the same role he’s always been in. He could close some games if he’s running hot, but his biggest value is in giving the bench unit some electricity and feasting on the proper matchups.
If the Bucks decide to go away from Allen, two veterans make the most sense: Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles. Crowder is probably the obvious choice for casual fans, as he’s the P.J. Tucker replacement, the deadline acquisition, and the best big defender of the group.
But Crowder’s still getting his legs under him after sitting most of the season. The Bucks are wisely taking their time getting him extended minutes (he’s only played more than 20 minutes once in his six games with Milwaukee). Will he be ready enough to give 30 or more effective minutes come playoff time? It’s going to be a challenge.
Milwaukee has played the slow game with Ingles as well, but he’s had the benefit of being on the team the whole season. His shooting comes and goes, but he brings an extra jolt of quick decision-making in the half court that the Bucks sometimes need. He’s never been quick and he’s even slower this year coming off injuries at 35, but he’s a smart team defender that funnels players where they should go. And if that means sending them near Giannis Antetokounmpo or Lopez, it’s usually good enough.
A wild card in these decisions is Jevon Carter. He’s almost certainly not going to be closing most games, but he’s a pest in the backcourt and has made enough open 3s that you can live with him on offense. He also makes the right play most of the time on offense. While Carter’s minutes may be lower for parts of the postseason, he’s almost certainly going to have “a moment.” And when he does, he may earn some bigger minutes down the line.
Boston Celtics: Who Rounds Out the Rotation?
The Celtics don’t have a ton of questions. They’re an elite offensive and defensive team and will enter the playoffs as one of the co-favorites in the East even though they’ve been scuffling recently as injuries have reared their ugly head.
Robert Williams III has gone down again, this time with a hamstring injury that will likely keep him out at least a week. And Malcolm Brogdon missed Monday night’s double-overtime loss to the Knicks with an ankle injury, although it doesn’t seem to be serious.
If everyone is healthy, Boston’s rotation has seven locks in Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, Williams III and Brogdon. One might assume Grant Williams is in there as well, but he was essentially benched by Joe Mazzulla on Feb. 23 against the Indiana Pacers and has had two sub-20-minute games since then. He played 44 minutes on Monday night, but Brogdon and Williams III were both sidelined.
Perhaps Mazzulla is sending a message, but it would be surprising if Williams wasn’t in the rotation in the playoffs. Even if Williams III comes back and is healthy the rest of the regular season, there have been enough injury problems that the Celtics will be wary of playing him monster minutes in the postseason. Grant Williams’ versatility comes in handy in the playoffs when everything is about adjustments. And his only competition for minutes would be Sam Hauser, who is a great shooter but unproven and likely a defensive liability in the playoffs.
Williams can solidify the rotation and ease Mazzulla’s concern by playing well down the stretch. And when the playoffs come, a peak Williams could join with Brogdon and White to create a lethal bench trio.
Philadelphia 76ers: How Much Does the Team Trust Tyrese Maxey?
Maxey is undoubtedly skilled. He’s a lethal shooter with a lightning-quick first step that makes him one of the very toughest closeouts in the NBA.
But Doc Rivers hasn’t always loved pairing Maxey, who is undersized, with James Harden. After starting the season entrenched in the starting lineup, Rivers benched Maxey in favor of the more defensive-minded De’Anthony Melton.
Then, last week, a funny thing happened. With Joel Embiid out against the Heat, Maxey started alongside Melton and Harden and led the team with 27 points. The 76ers won and avenged a loss to Miami two days prior.
Then, when Embiid came back the next game, Maxey remained in the starting lineup in place of Melton. And it seems he’ll remain there for now.
But what happens when the defense breaks down in the postseason? Will Rivers have a shorter leash on Maxey if two guards go for 40+ points like Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving did just last week? We know Harden isn’t coming out no matter how poorly he’s playing and the 76ers’ frontcourt depth options aren’t as good. If Rivers wants to switch things up, Maxey could be the fall guy in terms of minutes – even if he’s not the problem.
Rivers should consider giving Maxey a bit of a leash, though. As lethal as the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll is, Maxey’s ability as a spot-up player turned secondary ball handler against closeouts makes it that much more lethal. And his confidence and north-south ability give the 76ers a secondary perimeter option if Harden struggles in the playoffs again.
The bottom line is that teams don’t tend to get very far playing their best players fewer minutes. And Maxey is one of their best players. It’s not a perfect fit, but for the 76ers to upset either of the teams ahead of them, they need all the talent they can get on the floor at the end of games.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Can LeVert or Okoro Solve the Small Forward Problem?
Like the Bucks, the Cavaliers have one spot open in their closing lineup. Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen will all close, and the Cavaliers need a small forward to step up and take the last spot.
Cleveland’s defense has been the class of the East this year and should stay strong in the playoffs. Allen and Mobley are incredible down low, and Mitchell is having the best defensive season of his career.
The team has been strong offensively, but there are definite question marks – particularly at small forward. Caris LeVert plays the most minutes there and is shooting an acceptable 36.1% on 3s. But his efficiency inside the arc has tumbled as he’s shooting a career-low 44.5% on 2s. He’s averaging just 11.6 points on 10.1 field goal attempts per game, which is not efficient enough as a supporting option.
Isaac Okoro is efficient, but only because of his low usage. He’s shooting 44% on 3s since Jan. 1, which is second on the team among players who have taken at least 10 3s in that span. But he’s still taking less than three 3-pointers a game during that time, and teams are going to leave him open in the playoffs and dare him to make shots.
The best version of Okoro is more of the player the Cavaliers need with their starters. They don’t need volume scoring, just someone who is a good perimeter defender that can make open shots. It’s a make-or-miss league and that applies as much to Okoro as anyone else in the NBA. If he makes open 3s, the Cavs are a real threat in the East. If he doesn’t, and if LeVert continues to be inefficient, Mitchell is going to have to work his playoff magic just to give them a chance.
New York Knicks: How Many Players Does Thibs Trust?
The Knicks have been the hottest team in the league with nine straight wins, including a dramatic double-overtime win over the Celtics without Jalen Brunson.
Julius Randle and Brunson have starred and the addition of Josh Hart has given Tom Thibodeau someone he can trust off the bench, which is rare.
Every team’s rotation shortens in the postseason, but it might be tightened up even shorter for the Knicks. For one thing, it’s Thibs! Shortening rotations makes him happier than yelling “ICE!” In his team’s double-overtime game Sunday, he only played six guys for more than 11 minutes while Immanuel Quickley played a career-high 55. Jimmy Butler probably saw Quickley’s stat line and iced his knees just from the flashbacks.
In Thibodeau’s defense, the Knicks have a pretty clear top seven now with Mitchell Robinson back in the fold. Hart and Quickley are the most talented bench players and will get consistent minutes in the playoffs. Isaiah Hartenstein will likely get some backup center minutes, although Thibodeau doesn’t seem to fully trust him. He trusts Obi Toppin even less, whose minutes are down and might be non-existent come playoff time.
Get ready for Brunson and Randle to shoulder enormous minute burdens in the playoffs. R.J. Barrett will join them when he plays well and Hart will split the remaining wing minutes with Quentin Grimes.
Can the Knicks really get by with just seven guys? Unless Hartenstein or Toppin can earn Thibodeau’s trust as the season winds down, they might have to try.