There is no clear-cut favorite in the Eastern Conference to make the Finals right now. It’s simultaneously thrilling and unsettling. Seriously, how are you supposed to separate the Bucks, Sixers and Celtics? Boston came out of the gate incredibly strong, and while the C’s have cooled off, they are still top five in both offense and defense, the only team in the league with that distinction. Milwaukee is in first place despite missing Khris Middleton—its second-best offensive player—for most of the season. And Philly has been the hottest club of late, with Joel Embiid possibly taking hold of the MVP race alongside a rejuvenated James Harden.
The fierce competition at the top of the conference portends a fascinating postseason. Whichever team’s star emerges from the rubble will receive a massive legacy boost just for making the Finals. Here’s what’s at stake for each of the three favorite’s superstar:
Tatum was earning some well-deserved MVP buzz for being Boston’s best player during the team’s scorching start to the season. He’s one of only three players posting at least 30/8.5/4.5 stat line, along with Giannis and Luka Dončić. Still, the Celtics’ struggles of late have called into question their bona fides as contenders. Was the early season shooting a mirage? Can the frontcourt survive four playoff rounds?
As for Tatum specifically, his run to the Finals last summer was often heroic—his Game 6 in Milwaukee in particular—but was marred by his performance in the championship round, when his scoring and efficiency both tumbled dramatically. Another deep run would signify Tatum has fully rebounded from his series against the Warriors, and it would vault him into an even higher tier among stars. Tatum is rightfully well respected. Still, he’s rarely, if ever, mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Giannis and Embiid. (Even Kevin Durant seemingly regained top dog status over Tatum this year even after flaming out against the Celtics in the playoffs.) But Tatum would have a strong argument as the East’s best player if he’s able to lead Boston to another Finals. Seriously!
If Boston goes that far, Tatum would have more championship appearances than Embiid and Giannis combined, and most likely will have gone through one of them again to do so. They may be flying under the radar compared to earlier in the season, but the Celtics should be formidable in the playoffs. If Tatum once again outduels Giannis and/or Embiid, he can’t be considered a lesser player than either.
A Finals run—but more importantly a win—would kick off a true legacy conversation about Giannis. The Greek Freak is already widely considered by most observers to be the best player in basketball. He has a chance to end this season with two MVPs, two rings, and two Finals MVPs before turning 28. If that happens, the discussion wouldn’t be Is Giannis the best player in the world? It would be: Does Giannis have a chance to be one of the 10 greatest players ever? Five greatest? Three?
I don’t know how you put a ceiling on someone who is so dominant on both ends of the floor. Meanwhile, the Bucks have also added perhaps the most depth they’ve ever had around Antetokounmpo after last year’s team struggled following an injury to Middleton. If I was forced to pick a favorite, it would probably be Milwaukee for that reason. Another ring would cement Giannis as this generation’s defining superstar. Everyone else in the league will be chasing him and his accomplishments, especially as the LeBron/Durant/Steph Curry group seemingly ages out. In some ways, Giannis has the most to gain from a Finals run. Because if he wins, he’s not only the best player in the known universe right now, he has to start being mentioned among other era-owning legends.
Of the three stars on the three best teams, Embiid may need a championship appearance the most. He has been vocal in his displeasure about not winning MVP the last two seasons. And while Embiid has been deserving, he has a massive hole on his playoff résumé: A conference finals appearance, let alone a Finals one. There’s important context for why Embiid has not made it beyond the second round. The Kawhi shot and Ben Simmons’s meltdown against the Hawks were not really his fault. Still, for all of Embiid’s and Sixers fans’ furor over his lack of accolades, he hasn’t had as deep a playoff run as any of his chief rivals.
At this point, an MVP would be great for Embiid but it would not validate him as much as a strong showing in the Finals would. He needs to get the playoff monkey off his back. He needs to show he won’t be sunk by a fluke injury. If he really believes he’s the best player in the NBA, an MVP won’t prove it as much as finally achieving the playoff success typical with a talent of his stature. And if he loses? If he doesn’t make it past the conference finals? Then he opens himself up to ridicule as the star who cried MVP but couldn’t get it done when it really mattered. That may not quite be fair, but it’s the burden of being as wildly talented as Embiid is. The climb to the Finals will be especially difficult in the East this season. That means there’s more for him—and everyone else—to gain.