National Basketball Association

Are the Philadelphia 76ers or Brooklyn Nets the team to beat in the East?

April 2

There is an arms race going on atop the Eastern Conference standings, and it's happening between two Atlantic Division rivals.

The Brooklyn Nets (34-15) and Philadelphia 76ers (33-15) currently occupy the top two spots in the conference's standings and are separated by only half a game heading into Friday's action.

And with each passing game, it seems increasingly likely that these two are destined to collide in the playoffs with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.

The Nets have formed the NBA's latest "superteam" with the additions of veteran forwards Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge to a roster that already included two former MVPs in Kevin Durant and James Harden, as well as perennial All-Star Kyrie Irving.

But while they appear stacked on paper, they have yet to be whole for an extended period of time this season.

Durant (29 PPG) has missed 30 games due to health and safety protocols and a hamstring injury, but the Nets have still managed to go 22-8 in his absence. And Aldridge, who signed with the Nets on March 28, has yet to play a game for Brooklyn.

That record, in addition to the revival of Griffin, has Chris Broussard labeling the Nets as the team to beat in the East.

"Are you watching Blake Griffin? He looks rejuvenated with the Nets, he's dunking, he's throwing no-look passes," Broussard said.

While Griffin has had his moments with the Nets, notably a 17-point outing against his former team, the Detroit Pistons, the Nets' catalyst in Durant's absence has been Harden.

Brooklyn is 27-9 since acquiring Harden from the Houston Rockets, as he has once again placed himself in the MVP conversation, as Nick Wright explained on "First Things First."

"If he continues to be 44, 10, and eight once a week, at some point he is eligible in my eyes to overcome what happened in Houston," Wright said.

Harden is averaging 25.9 points per game along with a league-leading 11.1 assists.

But the Nets aren't alone in fighting through adversity without their leading scorer. The Sixers have had to deal with the same problem.

Philadelphia center Joel Embiid might have been the MVP front-runner before suffering a bruised knee in a March 12 victory over Washington. But even with Embiid out, the Sixers have managed to stay afloat, going 9-8 in the 17 games since. Embiid's eventual presence is the main reason Wright believes the Sixers are still the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.

"They have no one to guard him. At the deadline, they decided to add LaMarcus Aldridge, who is a bad defensive player. He's not going to slow Embiid down," Wright said.

When Embiid has been on the floor, he has been a handful for teams this season with averages of 29.9 PPG and 11.5 RPG. 

His return will be a boost to what is already a talented roster that includes guard Ben Simmons and forward Tobias Harris. Simmons is coming off of his third straight All-Star selection, and Harris is having a career year, averaging 20.5 PPG while shooting 51.7% from the field.

Both the Nets and Sixers also have championship experience in key parts of their rosters. 

Durant and Irving have been to the Finals a combined six times, with three championships between them. Meanwhile, the Sixers have Danny Green and Dwight Howard, who were members of the Los Angeles Lakers 2020 championship team.

The determining factor in who comes out of the East could come down to the health of these teams' best players – Embiid and Durant.

If both are at full strength, it could be the recipe for an epic Eastern Conference playoff series.

May the best team win.


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