At the start of the 2019-20 NBA season, it was believed the Eastern Conference would have some parity among its best teams, but most leaned on it being a two-team race to the top between the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers.
Well ... part of that has turned out to be correct, as the Bucks sit atop of the East - and the entire NBA - with a jaw-dropping 41-6 record, completely separating themselves from the field.
As for the 76ers, things haven't exactly gone as planned. Part of that is because of their own struggles and injuries, with the other part being that some of the other teams in the East are just flat out good - like, way better than anyone ever expected.
The result: a five-team log jam for the No. 2 seed, the draw being that whichever team finishes with the second-best record would avoid the Bucks until the last possible moment in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Each of these five teams - maybe with the exception of the 76ers - had their preconceived notions in the offseason as to why they couldn't contend with Milwaukee in the East. Most of these teams have now proven those notions wrong, showing that they're worthy of being in the conversation to represent the East in the NBA Finals this season.
Before we get in to how each team has proved everyone wrong, take a look at how the Eastern Conference standings are currently shaped out ahead of some important matchups in the coming days, like Raptors-Pacers (Feb. 5 and Feb. 7) and 76ers-Bucks (Feb. 6).
Now, let's turn to how each of the teams fighting for the No. 2 seed have proved their preseason doubters wrong...
Games back from No. 2 seed: 0
Preseason reason they wouldn't contend: Losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green
The defending champions were disrespected from the moment Leonard elected to take his talents to the LA Clippers.
Most expected them to be a playoff team, but they were hardly - if ever - mentioned as a true contender in the East. Over midway through the season, they stand alone in second place in the conference, which raises the question: why did we ever doubt this team?
Yes, their Finals MVP left and a key cog in Danny Green walked out the door alongside him, but the rest of the that championship roster is still intact.
Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam has filled his role as the team's go-to guy, something you probably could have predicted if you watched this 25-year-old closely enough last season. He's developing fast, which helped him earn a starting spot in the 2020 NBA All-Star Game.
Aside from his emergence, Kyle Lowry is having another fantastic season, which was rewarded with his sixth-consecutive All-Star bid.
Through a flurry of injuries to vital rotation players, this team has constantly stepped up to the challenge to keep their successful season moving along. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have been consistent veterans, Fred VanVleet has proven to be a starting guard in this league, Norman Powell has turned into one of the NBA's best bench scorers and a handful of other players are filling their roles perfectly, answering the call whenever head coach Nick Nurse needs them.
They play feisty defence and share the wealth on offence, playing through their two All-Stars with different players providing a jolt every time they take the court. It was a recipe for a championship last season, and that recipe has remained the same even without one of the best players in the league.
With a pair of matchups against the Pacers coming up, the Raptors will be put to the test to hold on to their current place in the standings.
Games back from No. 2 seed: 1.5
Preseason reason they wouldn't contend: Frontcourt depth, defence
The Celtics seamlessly replaced All-Star guard Kyrie Irving with All-Star guard Kemba Walker, but that wasn't necessarily their biggest void to be filled. Both of their defensive anchors from the past couple seasons moved on, as Al Horford signed with the 76ers and Aron Baynes was traded to the Phoenix Suns on draft night.
With very little size remaining on the roster, Boston's frontcourt depth and defence were immediately called into question.
Add to the fact that this group of players had an underwhelming season with astronomical expectations last year, and it's not a surprise that many doubted that they would be a real threat in the East.
After watching this team almost 50 games into the 2019-20 season, you can no longer find reason to doubt them.
The Celtics have ranked in the top-10 in defensive rating all season, with their current rating of 105.3 giving them the fourth-best defence in the league. Jayson Tatum's improvement on that end of the floor has helped prove the preseason naysayers wrong about this team, while Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown have also been consistent in shutting down opponents.
Tatum and Brown have emerged as one of the best young tandems in the NBA while Walker has been the team's engine, earning his second-consecutive All-Star start and fourth-straight All-Star bid.
Along with all of that, Gordon Hayward has shown flashes of being back to the player he was prior to his injury, nearly shooting 50-40-90.
As for their frontcourt, Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis have been more than serviceable in filling the team's biggest void. Kanter has the second-best net rating on the team and Theis has become a solid rim protector, averaging 1.5 blocks per game.
Their lack of size may still be seen as a limitation as it was a factor in their three losses to the 76ers, but the Celtics were able to bounce back with a key win against their rivals to avoid the season series sweep.
Games back from No. 2 seed: 1.5
Preseason reason they wouldn't contend: Didn't make playoffs last year
It's hard to say that the Heat had doubters in the offseason because they weren't even a part of the conversation. After missing the playoffs, it was clear moves needed to be made and sometimes, quick turnarounds like this takes a little bit of luck, too.
Jimmy Butler would surely make them a better team, but very few could have seen this team progressing as rapidly as they have.
Bam Adebayo has emerged as one of the favourites for Most Improved Player of the Year, earning his first-ever All-Star bid. Butler has been the superstar this team needed. Goran Dragic has thrived in his move to a role off the bench. In-house talent Duncan Robinson has turned into one of the league's best 3-point shooters with over 150 makes on 43.8% shooting.
As for the luck I mentioned, that comes in rookie duo Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn. As the No. 13 overall pick, you could say that Herro is right on the track of a lottery calibre player. But Nunn, who went undrafted this past year, is in consideration for Rookie of the Year and is Miami's second leading scorer at 16.2 points per game.
Add in newly acquired versatile big man Meyers Leonard and other familiar faces like Kelly Olynyk and Derrick Jones Jr., and you have one of the hardest playing, well-rounded teams in the entire league.
They're aggressive on defence, shoot the 3-ball well and are nearly unbeatable at home, boasting a 21-3 record at AmericanAirlines Arena.
The No. 2 seed is important to this squad, because having home court advantage could be the difference between an early exit or a run to the Finals.
Games back from No. 2 seed: 5.0
Preseason reason they wouldn't contend: Wouldn't stay competitive with Victor Oladipo out
Last season when All-Star guard Victor Oladipo went down with a season-ending injury, the Pacers were counted out immediately. With Bojan Bogdanovic taking over as the team's primary scorer, they were able to stay in the playoff hunt but were swept by the Celtics in the first round.
Offseason acquisitions like Malcolm Brogdon, TJ Warren and Jeremy Lamb were expected to help keep this team alive until Oladipo's return after the season's midway point, but without their All-Star guard, leader and crunchtime scorer, the ceiling was set low for Indiana.
That was before anyone knew that Domantas Sabonis would burst onto the scene as a double-double machine, becoming one of the league's biggest forces in the paint while fine-tuning his playmaking skills all at the same time. His 37 double-doubles are tied for second-most in the NBA and the Pacers forward has earned his first All-Star bid, keeping things moving until their superstar could make a full recovery.
It was more than just Sabonis, though, as Indiana used a team effort to replace Oladipo's scoring production. They currently have a league-leading seven (!) different players averaging double digit points and they have a top-10 defence in the NBA, due in large part to their starting lineup of Brogdon, Lamb, Warren, Sabonis and Myles Turner, whose 98.4 defensive rating ranks sixth-best in the league among all five-man units (minimum of 150 min. played).
Oladipo's impact was already felt in his first game back, burying a clutch 3-pointer to force overtime in what became a win over the Chicago Bulls. The Pacers got their star back just in time, as they have back-to-back matchups coming up against the current second-place Raptors.
Games back from No. 2 seed: 5.5
Preseason reason they wouldn't contend: Expected contenders, but lineup problems
Not many people would have expected Philadelphia to be the last of these teams fighting for second place in the preseason. As previously stated, they were expected to be competing for the No. 1 spot with Milwaukee, but different injuries and fluidity issues with their lineups has set them back a bit.
Ben Simmons was terrific without Joel Embiid in the lineup. Embiid has been terrific whenever he can stay on the floor. Yet, the two haven't played their best basketball when sharing the court. Their offensive rating of 106.8 when they share the court is actually lower than their overall team offensive rating of 108.4. However, their 102.0 defensive rating would match them with the Bucks for the best defensive rating in the NBA.
If the 76ers are going to reach their full potential, they're going to have to find a way to make the Simmons and Embiid combination work on the offensive end. But luckily for Philly, of all the teams on this list fighting for the No. 2 seed, they're likely the least worried about avoiding Milwaukee for as long as possible.
They've only faced off once this season so far and it came in a Christmas Day blowout win for the 76ers. Their size and length on the defensive end was able to frustrate MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo, stalling the Bucks offence completely. Philly did have an outlier perimeter shooting performance, knocking down a season-best 21 3-pointers against Milwaukee - which was also a Christmas Day record - and while that won't happen every time, it didn't seem like they needed to rely on that to beat the top team in the East.
We'll get to see them go head-to-head three more times this regular season before a potential meeting in the playoffs, with their next matchup scheduled for this upcoming week.
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