Jeff Phelps: Examining the East’s Contenders, and Pretenders

It’s December 9, we’re almost a third of the way through the NBA season, and the top 12 teams in the Eastern Conference are separated by only 10 games.Jeff Phelps

Things could be tighter. The top 11 teams in the West are separated by just four games.

Oh the fun.

Let’s concentrate on the East. The top team in the conference — Boston — went to the NBA Finals last season. The current #2 team — Milwaukee — won the NBA title two seasons ago. We all know they’re both legit.

The rest of the top 12 in the East? Let’s take a look with our 1-10 “Contender or Pretender” scale. It goes something like this:

  • 10 = See you in the Finals
  • 1 = We’ll check back in a few years

Teams are listed by their place in the standings as of December 9. Same date for stats.


The Celtics were 4-3 in early November. Since then — 17-2. Hello Betty! Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have combined to average over 57 points a game, but the Celtics are also getting nice play from Malcolm Brogdon, Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Al Horford and Grant Williams. Joe Mazzulla looks like anything but a first-year head coach.

Contender or Pretender Rating: 9.5

2. MILWAUKEE BUCKS – 2 games back

No surprise — the Bucks are near the top of the conference standings. What should concern other teams — the Bucks are near the top of the conference standings and Khris Middleton has played only three games. Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging a career-high 32.1 points a game. The Bucks started the season with nine straight wins. Now that Middleton is back from his wrist injury, this team could get very hot again, and stay that way.

Contender or Pretender Rating: 9.5


Well isn’t the “Donovan Mitchell Era” is off to a fine start. Mitchell is averaging a career-high 29 points a game. More importantly, his field goal percentage of 49.6 is 4.7% higher than his best ever season, and his 3-point percentage of 42.4 is 3.8% better than his career best. Will the great shooting continue at those levels? Not likely, but it might not have to. The Cavs “Core Four” of Mitchell, Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen is a terrific group that will continue to get better. One issue may be depth. A bench crew of Kevin Love, Caris LeVert and Ricky Rubio — once he returns from his torn ACL –could be kick ass. Then again, the last time those three guys all played full seasons, Richard Nixon was thinking about running for a second term.

Contender or Pretender Rating: 7.5


This is the team that should scare the bejeebers out of the rest of the Eastern Conference. But, that’s been the general feeling in the league since Kevin Durant joined the Nets in 2020, and… well… never mind. Since joining the Nets, Durant has played in 116 of a possible 180 games. That earns KD a Gold Star for attendance, in comparison to his pal Kyrie Irving. For various reasons, Kyrie has played in only 121 of 252 games during his time in Brooklyn. Could you guys please just stay on the court so we can finally see what “scaring the bejeebers” out of a basketball team really looks like?

Contender or Pretender Rating: 8.5


Remember that great run the Hawks had when Nate McMillan took over for Lloyd Pierce in the 2020-21 season, the Hawks going 27-11 under Nate, then taking the Bucks to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals? Congratulations, you have a good memory. That Hawks team hasn’t really been seen since. Dejounte Murray has been a great addition and has played well, so it’s not on him. But so far, the Hawks don’t look ready for prime time. They have enough talent to change that, if the can get everyone onboard. Good luck with that.

Contender or Pretender Rating: 6.0


Yeah, Rick Carlisle can coach. The young Pacers, who were 25-57 last year and finished 13th in the East, are growing up. They had a great 9-2 stretch in late October/early November that put them on the map this season. Possible issue — only two of the Pacers’ top nine scorers are over the age of 25 — Buddy Hield (29) and Myles Turner (26). Really young teams rarely go deep. But 22-year-old Tyrese Haliburton looks like a real special player, and 20-year-old rookie Bennedict Mathurin has a chance to join that club.

Contender or Pretender Rating: 5.0


Interesting team. 48-34 last season, but knocked out in the first round by Philadelphia. This season, five players currently averaging at least 14 points a game. Pascal Siakam has become a tremendous NBA player. This isn’t the biggest team — only one player over 6-foot-9 — and perhaps that holds them back. But the Raptors are loaded with wings who can play. They’ll be a factor in the East.

Contender or Pretender Rating: 7.0


Of the 76ers first 24 games, Joel Embiid missed eight, Tyrese Maxey missed nine, and James Harden missed 14. That isn’t good. The Sixers “Big 3” has been together for only six games so far this season, and they won only two of those games. They were 14-7 in the 21 regular season games Harden played in last season, then were knocked out in six games by Miami in the Eastern Conference Semis. The Sixers haven’t completely clicked just yet with Harden. Here’s betting that will happen soon enough, and once it does, Philadelphia will be one of the top teams in the East.

Contender or Pretender Rating: 9.0


The Knicks haven’t been more than two games over, or three games under .500 this season. That’s the type of ho-hum consistency that might get you into the play-in tournament. Or it might get you fired, especially in New York. They have a nice trio leading the way. Julius Randle, Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett are averaging a combined 60 points a game, with all three scoring over 18 a game. But this crew doesn’t feel like it’s ready to be a major factor.

Contender or Pretender Rating: 4.0


Did the Miami Heat not get the memo? The one that told teams, “OK fellas, the NBA season is underway?” It’s odd to see the Heat just plodding along, winning a few, losing a few, hanging around play-in tournament position. Expect that to change. The Heat had the best record in the East last season with 53 wins, they have plenty of talent (when healthy) and they have Erik Spoelstra — arguably the best coach in the league. Look for the Heaters to be moving up, and soon.

Contender or Pretender Rating: 7.0


The Wizards looked slightly intriguing when they were 10-7 a few weeks ago. And… they’ve gone 1-7 since. Yikes. But they have three guys — Bradley Beal, Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma — averaging over 20 points a game. And they have… uh, they have… well…. uh…. they have three guys averaging over 20 points a game.

Contender or Pretender Rating: 3.5


The Bulls finished sixth in the East last season to avoid the play-in tournament. Not sure they’ll be able to avoid it this season. The Bulls haven’t hit any kind of a stride yet, and that’s despite pretty good health — their top six scorers have only missed a combined six games. Love DeMar DeRozan, and Zach LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic, and Billy Donovan… but guys, the gas pedal is on the right. Punch it and let’s get rolling.

Contender or Pretender Rating: 5.0

Jeff Phelps is the Co-Host of Baskin and Phelps on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland, and the co-host of the podcast, Basketball Gold with Fratello and Phelps, with former NBA head coach Mike Fratello.

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