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NBA Eastern Conference Tiers: Are Nets, Bucks in a class of their own? Have Bulls shown enough to be among elite?

Sporting News logo Sporting News 12/4/2021 Carlan Gay

Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Earlier this week, I updated my tiers in the Western Conference based on what we've seen through the quarter mark of the season.

Now, it's time to go through the Eastern Conference.

The Eastern Conference has been a pleasant surprise this season. The Nets currently have the best record, but there are a number of teams that aren't far behind them, including the Bulls, Wizards and the pesky Cavaliers. The Bucks have been on fire lately, but they got off to a slow start and were dealt some bad news this week — starting center Brook Lopez is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery.

With all that in mind, let's start with Tier 1. Is it Nets and Bucks still or have things changed?

Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): First of all, you just had to get the Lopez news in there, didn’t you…

Rafferty: You know me. Brook Lopez fan for life.

Gay: Yeah, the biggest.

As far as tiers go, I’m with you, Bucks and Nets are still in the top tier, BUT I’d like Miami to enter the conversation.

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Rafferty: I'm not mad at it. The Heat have had a weird season so far when you account for Jimmy Butler missing time, Bam Adebayo now being out and Duncan Robinson not being able to hit a shot, and yet I'm a firm believer in their defense, Kyle Lowry has fit in like a glove and if Tyler Herro is going to continue being the league's best sixth man, they're going to be pretty scary.

Also, when Butler has played, he's been awesome. Like, should-we-be-talking-about-him-more-in-the-MVP-race awesome.

Gay: Yeah, I think last year he should've been discussed more, and he's been even better this season.

To me, I think the nation will pay more attention to Miami in March. The Heat will be healthy then, they should be around the top of the East and I feel like they'll have a good seven or eight game win streak to just let us know they're gearing up for a deep playoff run.

With those three teams in Tier 1, getting that No. 1 seed is going to be crucial. It didn't quite work out the way the 76ers wanted it last year but I do believe avoiding a second round matchup with one of the other two in Tier 1 will be huge in May.

Jimmy-Butler-11092021-Getty-FTR © Provided by Sporting News Jimmy-Butler-11092021-Getty-FTR

Rafferty: Agreed.

Honestly, I feel like it should be Bucks and Nets in Tier 1, followed by Heat in Tier 2, but we can keep the three of them in a tier of their own for now. Besides, the next tier is where it gets interesting since there are only three games separating the No. 3 seed from the No. 11 seed in the Eastern Conference as of this writing.

I'm assuming we both have the Bulls in Tier 2, yes? If so, who else is joining them?

Gay: Wait, what do you need to see from the Heat to put them in Tier 1? Because they're already there for me.

Rafferty: Again, I buy their defense completely, but when push comes to shove, I worry about their offense a little.

That's not to say I don't have any concerns about the Bucks and Nets — losing Lopez is big for Milwaukee and Brooklyn is dealing with James Harden still working his way back and Kyrie Irving being away from the team —  but they both have a megastar on their team.

Gay: Didn't we just say they had an MVP candidate?

Rafferty: We did! Butler is fantastic and we aren't far removed from him carrying the Heat to the Finals, but he's not Giannis or KD.

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Gay: I never said he was, but like you said, he did lead a team to the Finals before. He has proven he can have big games on big stages. Lowry has too. So has Herro.


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Again, KD and Giannis are different gravy baby, but those three guys have proven they can get buckets in big spots. Which is why I ask what more you need to see, but we can move on to Tier 2...

Rafferty: I mean, look, we haven't seen this Heat team firing on all cylinders quite yet because of guys being in and out of the lineup and players like Robinson starting the season out slow. Also, there's a chance Adebayo is out for 4-6 weeks. I just have them a hair behind the Nets and Bucks right now, so I'm not going to fight you if you want them in Tier 1.

Gay: By the way, my Tier 2 actually doesn't include the Bulls...

Rafferty: LET'S GOOOOO! So who is in your Tier 2?

Gay: Right now, I have the Hawks, Celtics and 76ers.

I can't with good conscience put the Bulls in there when their best player (which I know is debatable) Zach LaVine hasn't played in a single playoff game. Like, not one. I need to see him in the postseason before I can confidently put them in Tier 2.

I know what I'm getting with a healthy 76ers team, Celtics team and Hawks team after last year. The Bulls I have no clue ... yet.

DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine are leading the Bulls back to the top of the Eastern Conference © Provided by Sporting News DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine are leading the Bulls back to the top of the Eastern Conference

Rafferty: Interesting. I'm with you on the Hawks. Trae Young is a stud and they proved what they're capable of last season. I can't quite get on the same level as you on the Celtics and 76ers. Not right now, at least. I just don't quite believe in this Celtics team and, I mean, the 76ers haven't had their second-best player at all this season and we still have no idea if/when that's going to get sorted.

Gay: Do you not believe in Joel Embiid? Or Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown?

I think I'm taking health into account here. If those teams are healthy, I have more trust in what I'm going to get out of them. And that includes the 76ers without Ben Simmons.

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Rafferty: In a vacuum, I agree that the 76ers and Celtics should be in this tier, but again, there's no resolution in sight for the Simmons situation, and Tatum and Brown have been very up and down to start this season.

Are we both just going to have to compromise a little here and have Hawks, 76ers, Celtics and Bulls in Tier 2? I'm not sure we're going to agree and we're once again splitting hairs for me.

Gay: Yeah, fine I guess the Bulls can live in Tier 2 now, but when they start sliding down the standings in February, I want them booted.

Rafferty: 

Time for Tier 3.

This is another interesting one. Who do you have?

Gay: Well, the Bulls.

Rafferty: We compromised, Carlan!

Gay: Yaya, I know.

I think the Hornets and Knicks live here. I'm not fully confident about it. Like I said, I'd have the Bulls here alone and then these other two teams a tier below, but here we are.

You know what, I'll add the Wizards here too.

Rafferty: ...can we add the Cavaliers as well?

Gay: Why not, let's add Duke in here too since it's Coach K's last year.

All jokes aside, I think I'm skeptical about the Cavs for the same reason I am the Bulls. None of their key players have played in the playoffs.

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Rafferty: I'm a little skeptical of the Cavaliers as well, but they've had a tough schedule to start the season and they keep picking up wins. Jarrett Allen has taken a leap, Evan Mobley is already a monster defensively and Darius Garland is looking like a future star. I think some of their early-season success is for real.

How about this? Let's go Hornets, Knicks and Wizards in Tier 3. In Tier 4, Cavaliers, Raptors and Pacers. That would leave Magic and Pistons in Tier 5 by themselves.

Gay: That I can agree with.

It will be interesting to see how things shake out the rest of the year. Styles are going to make the fights in the playoffs.

Rafferty: Look at us, agreeing on something. Anything is possible!

OK, so that means we have (in no particular order within the tiers)...

  • Tier 1: Nets, Bucks, Heat 
  • Tier 2: 76ers, Bulls, Hawks, Celtics
  • Tier 3: Hornets, Knicks, Wizards
  • Tier 4: Cavaliers, Raptors, Pacers
  • Tier 5: Magic, Pistons

You happy with that? I know we disagree with some of the teams at the top, but that seems pretty fair overall.

Gay: It's the closest we'll ever get to agreeing. Quick, let's run away before we argue over the font size.

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