The NBA is close to making its return sometime during midsummer, just when we like it. With 22 teams being invited back to compete for the rest of the season, only nine of those will represent the Eastern Conference. With Washington being 5.5 games back from Orlando, it looks like the eight playoff teams are relatively set, barring a major collapse. Here are the X-factors that will be important for each of the top eight teams in the East.
8. Orlando: Markelle Fultz
Fultz is in the middle of his best season as a pro. His scoring, assists and steals are all at career highs. His shooting from the field at 47% is also a career best. While 25% from deep is not great, that improvement will come with time. For now, if Fultz keeps putting up these kinds of numbers at the point guard spot, Orlando is in position to make some noise.
7. Brooklyn: Taurean Prince
While Brooklyn has dealt with plenty of injuries and the usual Kyrie Irving drama, it still finds itself at seventh in the East. With a bunch of role players, guys have had to step up and play important roles. Prince, a prototypical 3-and-D player, has been a bright spot in his role for BK. As long as he is hitting threes and clamping down defensively, Brooklyn could startle some Eastern teams at the top
6. Philadelphia: Furkan Korkmaz
Outside of the viability of stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, shooting will be the main concern for Philly. With no more JJ Redick, Ersan Ilyasova or Marco Belinelli, new guys will have to step up. While Korkmaz is not that new, he has taken on an expanded role with the Sixers. He has shown he is capable of lighting it up with back-to-back 30 point games in February. Given the opportunity, Korkmaz’s shooting can help spark Philly.
5. Indiana: Victor Oladpio
While Oladipo, a two-time All-Star, is not the kind of guy you would normally see on this list, his health is the main reason why he qualifies. Missing most of the season while recovering from quad surgery, Oladipo was starting to find his footing once again in Indy. If his health can hold up and Oladipo continues to take small steps in the right direction, he can be a determining factor for the Pacers’ playoff run. If Indy struggles early, though, he might as well just call it a day.
4. Miami: Goran Dragic
Dragic has quietly transitioned into a sixth man role and the rest of the NBA seems to have totally forgotten him. With his 16 points and five assists off the bench, the Dragon is a veteran presence in the locker room alongside star Jimmy Butler. If Dragic continues his high production, then he can take on the lead guard role for a great second unit featuring Tyler Herro, Kelly Olynyk, Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder.
3. Boston: Enes Kanter
Kanter was a very underrated acquisition for Boston in the offseason. After Daniel Theis as the C’s starting center, there is not much depth on the front line in Beantown. For such a guard and perimeter-oriented team, Kanter can play a key role for Boston. Cleaning up the offensive and defensive glass while also being able to get a bucket in the post will allow Boston to have another threat on the court.
2. Toronto: OG Anunoby
Anunoby took on more of a bench role during Toronto’s 2019 championship run. With no more Kawhi Leonard, OG has transitioned into the starting small forward spot with no problem. Anunoby is putting up career numbers in the scoring, passing, rebounding, defense and shooting departments. With Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka taking on the scoring load, Anunoby can focus on being a 3-and-D player for Toronto.
1. Milwaukee: Donte DiVincenzo
After Bucks starters Giannis Antetokounmpo and Wesley Matthews, guess who is the third-best player in the entire league in terms of individual defensive rating? It’s Donte DiVincenzo. After an injury-riddled rookie year, the shooting guard has stepped up in both starting and bench roles whenever necessary. His shooting and scoring have improved, but his defense is where he makes his mark. In critical moments, DiVincenzo can be another 3-and-D weapon for Antetokounmpo.