Two Dark Horse Contenders In the East That Could Go From Play-In To Conference Champions

Since Lebron James moved from the lake-side gloom of Cleveland to the tropical paradise of Los Angeles, the Eastern Conference has been up for grabs. James, between his time with the Heat and Cavaliers, came out of the East eight straight seasons. Since, we have seen the Toronto Raptors, who spent the previous decade in Lebron’s shadow, and a Jimmy Butler-led Heat team reach the finals.

This year is no different. The usual suspects are in the mix. The Embiid-led Sixers and Giannis-led Bucks sit at the two and three spots.

There are, however, some new faces at the top. In a new era of basketball glory in the Big Apple, the super team Nets and surprisingly successful Thibodeau-led Knicks sit at one at four.

Within the Eastern Conference standings, there is a great deal of turmoil that could create opportunities for some dark horse contenders to make a late move into playoff positioning. The Nets have rarely seen their stars all healthy at the same time. The Hawks, at number five, now have questions around Trae Young’s health after a grade two lateral ankle sprain against the Knicks. Miami, last year’s surprise conference champions, have been consistently mediocre all year, and are still hovering at .500 for their past ten games.

So who are these potential dark horse contenders in the East? Let’s take a look:

The Washington Wizards

In a piece I wrote before the 2020-21 NBA season, I made an unpopular prediction that the Washington Wizards were going to make some noise in the East. I went as far as to say they had a chance to make a run at the finals. For most of this season, that looked like pure comedy. However, the Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal-led squad has hit their stride at just the right moment.

Don’t look now, but the Wizards have won nine of their last 10 games and have climbed into play-in tournament territory at the tenth seed at 26-33. Westbrook and Beal look dominant together. Both can drop 30+ on a nightly basis. In their last game against the Thunder, Westbrook threw down a 37-point triple-double while Beal chipped in 33 in a 20-point shellacking.

Beal is just behind Steph Curry for second in the league in scoring at 31.1 points per game, while Russell Westbrook is once again averaging a triple-double at 21.9 points, 11.1 boards, and 10.9 assists per game. Beyond their two superstars, the team’s role players have chipped in admirably over this span, led by a sixth man and sharp-shooter Davis Bertans, Brazilian guard Raul Neto, and recent Toronto Raptor’s cut and current reclamation project Alex Len who has been a pleasant surprise filling in at the center position for Thomas Bryant.

If the playoffs started today, I would expect the red-hot Wizards to easily dispatch the Pacers and the winner of the Heat/Hornets matchup and escape the play-in tournament as the eighth seed in the playoffs. They would have the instant challenge of facing the juggernaut Brooklyn Nets in round one. Against a fully healthy Nets squad, it would be very difficult to give the Wizards a true chance in the series.

However, with Kevin Durant in and out of the lineup all season and currently nursing a bruised thigh, James Harden out with a hamstring injury, and Kyrie Irving handling personal issues throughout the year, it is entirely possible that the Wizards face off against one or two of the Nets superstars instead of the full trifecta. Should that be the case, the team with the momentum and the chemistry could easily take the series, and at this moment, that would be the Wizards.

Beyond the Nets, there is no truly dominant team in the East that the Wizards wouldn’t be able to challenge. The Sixers are a very good team but have been wildly inconsistent in the playoffs. The Bucks prove year after year that Giannis can’t do it by himself. The Knicks are playing very good basketball but have two fewer true superstars than the Wizards do.

Call me crazy, but if I was a betting man, I would strongly consider taking a shot and playing the +40000 odds that the Wizards go all the way. But, that said, I have never denied being crazy.

The Toronto Raptors

The Toronto Raptors have faced more adversity this season than any other team. They have had zero true home games, having been relocated to Tampa. They were hit harder than most teams by Covid, after a scare that took out nearly their entire coaching staff and most of their star players at one point.

However, a couple of late-season moves have them playing some of their best basketball of the season. The Raptors arguably won the Norman Powell trade, as Gary Trent Jr. has been outstanding since joining the team. He dropped a career-high 44 points against the Cavaliers and has averaged nearly 17 points per game as a Raptor while providing an upgrade defensively over Powell. They even seem to have finally found an answer at center, as recent signing Khem Birch, formerly of the Magic, has hit the ground running and found himself in the starting lineup.

The Raptors are also fully healthy for what feels like the first time all season. Their stars Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Kyle Lowry are finally consistently sharing the floor, and the team has won six of their last ten, including defeating a Kyrie Irving-led Nets squad on Wednesday.

However, unlike the Wizards, the Raptors are currently on the outside looking in. They sit at the 12th seed at 25-34, a game behind Washington for the tenth seed, 2.5 games behind Indiana for the ninth seed, and four games behind the Hornets for the eighth seed. With 13 games left in the regular season, they will need to keep every ounce of their current momentum going to make the play-in tournament.

However, they have the second-best record over their last ten games out of the seven to ten seed teams in the East. Mathematically they are very much still alive.

If the Raptors stay hot and battle their way into the play-in tournament, should they stay healthy, they would most likely have winnable matchups against the Heat, Hornets, Pacers, or Wizards. Like the Wizards, they would probably find themselves facing off against the Nets in the first round. They have already shown they can easily handle a short-handed Nets squad, though a fully healthy Brooklyn would be a true test. It will be up to the injury gods to determine how this match-up looks on paper.

Should they escape Brooklyn, they have shown the ability to beat any of the other teams in the East. They finished a game short of the conference finals last season in the bubble with essentially the same roster.

Keep a close eye on the standings over the next couple of weeks. If the Raptors stay healthy and keep up their winning ways, they could be a fun bet at +20000 as a dark horse contender.

In Conclusion

This has been a fascinating NBA season thus far, and I expect no different as we head into the playoffs.

Keep an eye on the Wizards and Raptors to make some noise during this sprint to the finish. They have the talent. They have the momentum. And they have the potential to win you a bunch of money in Vegas.