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What We Learned in Week 18 – Eastern Conference

We’re another week closer to the NBA Playoffs and Garrett Brooks is taking a closer look at the latest developments in the Eastern Conference.

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The Eastern Conference playoff race is heating up as the top three teams separate themselves from the rest of the pack. There’s a real battle happening at the back end of the playoff picture as well between the Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls.

In a week that saw teams get hot, teams go cold and shocking news come out, there’s a lot to unpack in terms of the latest developments in the NBA Eastern Conference.

The Philadelphia 76ers Are Ready to Contend

Following years of disappointing conclusions to their seasons, it appears the 76ers are finally maximizing the talent they have. In Doc Rivers’ first season leading the charge, the 6ers are atop the conference and have proven they can beat the NBA’s elite teams.

If it weren’t for significant time misses, Joel Embiid would have a very strong case for the MVP award. He spent this week showing why he could be a major problem for some of the league’s best teams in the playoffs.

In games against the Dallas Mavericks, Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers this week Embiid was a force in leading the 7e6ers to a 3-0 record. Across those three games, he averaged 37 points per game to go with 11.3 rebounds.

No one wants to face a healthy 76ers team in a seven-game series. Very few organizations have a sound structure in place to slow Embiid down, if that is even possible at this point. He’s doing it inside, outside and everywhere in between.

While many have too quickly crowned the Nets as the Eastern Conference champions, Embiid is on a mission to take them down. With the combination of shooters and defenders he has around him, there is no way they can be counted out.

LaMarcus Aldridge Retires Following Health Concerns

LaMarcus Aldridge decided to retire following a health scare on the court recently. He made a decision that was best for his family and future and everyone across the league is wishing him the best moving forward.

Given the sudden nature of his retirement announcement and the role he was set to play on the Nets, it’s easy to forget how special a player Aldridge was for many years. He had an incredible NBA career that deserves to be discussed and highlighted.

Selected 2nd overall in the 2006 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls, Aldridge was quickly traded on draft night to the Portland Trailblazers. By year number two in the league, the power forward was a force. That season he put up 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.

In nine seasons in Portland, Aldridge averaged 19.4 points per game and 8.4 rebounds per game. He had legendary playoff performances and cemented himself as a special player in the history of the franchise.

Following a change of scenery that saw him move to the San Antonio Spurs, Aldridge continued producing. He spent six seasons playing for the Spurs and continued to be a force on the offensive end.

Aldridge calls it a career after 15 NBA seasons in which he played 1,029 career games and made life miserable for defenders in every single one of them. Cheers and all the best to LaMarcus Aldridge as he moves on to the next chapter in his life.

The Bulls Floundering Post-Trade Deadline

The Chicago Bulls seemed to have a tight grip on a play-in tournament spot following the trade deadline. Their aggressive additions of players like Nikola Vucevic and Daniel Theis made their intentions clear. They aren’t looking to bottom out to rebuild; they want to improve now.

It’s not going according to plan. Following the additions to the roster, the Bulls have struggled mightily. At first, it could be chalked up to a tough schedule and little practice time for the group.

Now any reasoning for their play is just excusing not meeting expectations. Vucevic and Theis specifically have done exactly what they were brought in to do as individuals but it’s not paying off for the team.

Rookie Patrick Williams has seemingly hit the rookie wall. While not ideal, for some first-year players it is inevitable. The much bigger issue has been some of the team’s more experienced players, like forward Lauri Markkanen.

Markkanen has disappeared and seems to have no confidence since being moved to a bench role. His time in Chicago is limited, as he will hit restricted free agency this offseason.

Add in the unfortunate timing of all-star guard Zach LaVine entering the league’s health and safety protocols and everything lines up for a disappointing end to the Bulls 2020-21 NBA season.

Julius Randle the Star the Knicks Have Been Waiting For

Season after season, the New York Knicks are linked to top free agents but end up settling for less. That has now paid off for them, as Julius Randle, once considered a consolation prize for the organization, is becoming a star right in front of our eyes.

While he broke out early in the year and has been great all season, his recent play further proves nothing about what he has done as a fluke. He is playing a major role, alongside Tom Thibodeau, in bringing credibility and respect back to the historic franchise.

While obviously not a championship contender yet, the sky is the limit for the Knicks in the coming years. They no longer are pitching just a city to free agents; they are also pitching a roster and organization trending in the right direction.

Thibodeau is maximizing Randle on the court and it’s easy to see why players would want to join a nucleus of him, RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley and Mitchell Robinson. They also have picks stockpiled in upcoming drafts that will help them improve their roster.

The Knicks’ undefeated week is a continuation of their much-improved play this season. It was capped by a 44 point, 10 rebound and 7 assist performance by Randle against the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night.

Celtics Continue Odd Moves to Compete This Year

The Boston Celtics failed to make the big splash trade many anticipated at this year’s trade deadline. It was one way the team could better prepare themselves to compete with the games truly elite teams.

Even though they made one of the best value trades in the league when they acquired Evan Fournier, it was disappointing compared to what was needed to take the team to the next level.

In the buyout market, the team had dreams of adding the impact big they failed to acquire via trade but had no luck doing so. The best big men available chose teams expected to be in the NBA finals, with Aldridge joining the Nets and Andre Drummond choosing to join the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Celtics settled for forward Jabari Parker in a move that doesn’t move the needle much at all but could make them more entertaining to watch for many reasons. First of all, Parker doesn’t fill the biggest hole on the Celtics roster, which is a two-way center.

Second, it’s hard to see him getting very many minutes in a rotation featuring many more impactful players on both ends of the court. Parker’s greatest strength is on the offensive end with the ball in his hands, though the Celtics didn’t have much of a need for a forward who dominates the ball.

Garrett Brooks is a contributing writer for Basketball Insiders based out of Chicago, Illinois. In addition to multiple years of covering the NBA, Garrett has also spent time in live events, analytics, and on-court training.

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