By Hocine LOUKKAF on 12/8/2018

We are used to see Toronto at the top of the Conference for some years before underachieving in the playoffs. But with Kawhi in town, Toronto doesn’t have that weak mentality anymore that led them to disappoint. The Bucks and Sixers have also started well and seems to be the most serious suitors.

#1 Toronto Raptors (21-6)

After questions about his motivation to play for the Raptors, Kawhi Leonard has shown right away why he was a top 5 player in the League (26.4pts 8.3rbds). He can count on his PG Lowry (14.2pts 10.1as) and a solid roster with plenty of big men like Ibaka (16.2pts 7.3rbds), Siakam (14.5pts 6.5rbds) or Valanciunas (13.2pts 7.4rbds). Toronto has lost only six games, including three in a row vs NOP, Detroit and Boston, Denver in a game where Lowry and Leonard combined 2/13 from three, and he last against an average Brooklyn.

#2 Philadelphia Sixers (18-9)

The Sixers were already good but by getting Jimmy Butler, one of the best two-way players in the League, they get a closer and somebody who brings experience to a young team. Since his arrival, the 6-5 guard has been his usual self (21.4pts 5.3as 3as 2st) scoring 38pts in each of his alst two games. Embiid’s role has changed since then with frustration rising during his last three games where he’s averaged only 15pts, far from season’s averages (26.3pts 13.3rbds). Simmons (15.3pts 9rbds 7.9as), the third member of this star trio, has been very good lately with 73% FG over his last five games. The Sixers will have tough matchups against Toronto and Boston on December 23 and 25 which could get them closer to Toronto.

#3 Milwaukee Bucks (16-7)

With Budenholzer and some new faces in the roster, the Bucks have changed their pace of play to become the best scoring team in the NBA. Giannis  (26.8pts 13rbds 6as) still leads the charge well helped by the trio made of Middleton/Bledsoe/Brogdon who average each at least 15pts 4rbds 3as. Lopez ‘11.5pts 4.3rbds 1.8bl) has bring some rim protection despite his weird profile as a center who shoots 70% of his shot from three and doesnt rebound well. The Buck have recently lost several games they should not have against the Knicks, Hornets and Suns. They play Toronto, Indiana, Detroit and Boston during the last two weeks and must show they’re a real contender in the East.

#4 Indiana Pacers (15-10)

Despite the injury of their best player Oladipo (21.4pts 6.6rbds 4.7as) during the last 11 games, the Pacers have kept their pace with seven wins in the process. Bogdanovic (16.3pts 49% 3pt) has had six 20+pts games to help his team winning while Sabonis and Turner are handling the paint (25pts 16rbds 3bl combined). The team is solid with vets like Evans, Collison or Young around Oladipo. The Pacers will play Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Toronto in the next two weeks.

#5 Boston Celtics (14-10)

Despite four wins in a row, the Cs are far from last year’s with losses against the Mavericks, Knicks and Hornets just before. The three-forwards lineup has been a failure and among these three forwards, Hayward and Brown seem to be the weak links (11.6pts 41% FG 25% 3pt for Brown, 11pts 42% FG 33% 3pt 3.5as for Hayward). Coach Stevens has decided to start them on the bench recently with Morris and Smart in the starting five. Hayward brings more versatility and it’s hard to imagine Brown being satisfied to start from the bench. Could Boston’s best option be to trade Brown for a rising PF. We’ll see how the Cs will work until the trade deadline. They won’t have much time to rest as they finish December with matchups against Philly, Houston, Memphis and the Spurs.

#6 Detroit Pistons (13-10)

Despite recent wins against Houston or Golden State, the Pistons still are very fragile and struggle to beat better teams as they lost the last three games including two home games. Griffin (25.2pts 9.3rbds 5as) and Drummond (18.1pts 15.3rbds) are only helped by Jackson who is far from being the most efficient PG (4as 2tos 39% FG). The roster is pretty average with a lack of a real outside scorer. Things won”t get better over the next ten days as they will play   NOP, Philly, Boston and Milwaukee. It will be hard for Detroit to improve the team with no valuable trade assets.

#7 Orlando Magic (12-14)

Like last year, Orlando has yet to find consistency with some interesting wins against Boston. Of course the lack of a strong starting PG as the spot is shared between a decent Augustin (10.3pts 5.3as) and a mediocre Grant (4.3pts 3.4as in 20min). While Gordon (16.6pts 7.7rbds) and Vucevic (21pts 11.3rbds 3.7as) are playing well, Fournier’s shooting struggle (15.1pts 31% 3pt with 6 attempts per game) are not helping Orlando’s case. Rookie Bamba (6.6pts 4.6rbds 1.3bl) is getting used slowly to the League and if the situation doesn’t get better, it will be time to question about tanking by trading Vucevic for example for  package to get  PG and a SF and letting Bamba learning from his mistakes.

#8 Charlotte Hornets (12-13)

Like Orlando, Charlotte has not been able to climb in the standings, recording losses against Atlanta, Chicago or Cleveland. Kemba has been irreproachable with 25.8pts and 6.2as including a 60pts outburst who ended up as a loss against the Sixers. Behind Walker and Lamb (15pts 5.6rbds), Batum (9.2pts 5.5rbds 3.4as) has slipped despite his 25mo dollars contract and the roster is full of average inside players (Zeller, MKG, Williams, Kaminsky, Hernangomez). In this turmoil, Bridges (7.9pts 4rbds) has displayed some interesting shooting and athleticism while veteran Tony Parker (10pts 4.5as) has been nice coming backing up Kemba.

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