Why the Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks and Miami Heat deserve your attention
For the majority of the NBA season, the Eastern Conference has been seen as a three-team race.
The Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, and Milwaukee Bucks have each taken turns staking their claim as the team to beat in the conference this year, with all three boasting deep and talented rosters filled with enough star power to fill an All-Star team.
But there are three teams right behind them in the standings who could very well impact how the Eastern Conference playoffs shake out.
All three are safe in avoiding the play-in round but their final seed in the postseason has yet to be determined.
But can any of the three pose a viable threat to the trio of contenders atop the conference standings?
Here are the reasons to keep an eye on the Hawks, Knicks and Heat as the regular season wraps up and the postseason begins.
Current record: 40-31
4th in Eastern Conference
The Hawks have clinched their first playoff berth since the 2016-2017 season and there are a handful of reasons to explain the turnaround of a team that finished 15th in the East last season to now potentially having home-court advantage in a first-round playoff series.
For starters, since firing Lloyd Pierce and naming Nate McMillan their head coach, the Hawks have gone 25-11 to surge up the standings.
They are also one of the deepest teams in the NBA, with nine players averaging at least 10 points per game.
The offseason additions of Bogdan Bogdanovic (16.3 PPG), Danilo Gallinari (13.2 PPG), and the midseason trade for Lou Williams (9.9 PPG), have not only bolstered the Hawks roster from a scoring perspective, but provided them with a much-needed group of veterans to complement their impressive stable of young talent.
And that stable of young guns is led by franchise point guard Trae Young.
Young was snubbed from the All-Star Game this season in the eyes of many, after making his inaugural appearance last season, and has furthered his case for being snubbed with his individual play and team success this season.
Young is averaging 25.5 PPG and a career-high 9.4 assists to go with career-high marks in field goal percentage (43.8) and free-throw percentage (88.7). His play has even earned him praise from one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game in Detroit Pistons legend Isiah Thomas.
Young might have missed the All-Star Game this season, but he could be in line for the last laugh with a playoff appearance, and, potential All-NBA selection.
New York Knicks
Current record: 39-31
6th in Eastern Conference
The Nets aren't the only reason to be excited about NBA basketball in New York, with the Knicks experiencing a surprising revival this season under the guidance of new head coach Tom Thibodeau.
They have taken on the identity of their defensive-minded leading man, slotting fourth in defensive rating in the entire NBA (107.9).
Randle was selected to his first All-Star Game this season, and is in line for an All-NBA selection, in what has been a career year for the seventh-year forward.
He is averaging career-highs in points (24.0), rebounds (10.2), assists (5.9), 3-point percentage (41.5), and free-throw percentage (81.0).
As for Barrett, the second-year guard has taken his game to a new level this season proving to be a steady secondary scorer for the Knicks (17.6 PPG), as well as a shooter that must be respected from distance, clocking in at 39.8% from 3-point range.
And then there is Rose.
Now, in New York, Rose is still proving to be more than capable of scoring points in bunches.
He is averaging 15.1 PPG and shooting 48.7% from the field and 40.9% from 3-point range in 33 games with the Knicks, and has even begun to garner love from the national media for Sixth Man of the Year honors.
Current record: 39-31
5th in Eastern Conference
In case anybody forgot, the reigning Eastern Conference champions are the Miami Heat.
To say that this has been a tough season for the Heat would be an understatement. Their core group of returning players, including Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic, Andre Igoudala, Tyler Herro, and Kendrick Nunn, have missed a combined 87 games this season due to injury or health and safety protocols in relation to COVID-19.
Add that to Victor Oladipo missing 20 games after being acquired in a trade with the Houston Rockets, and now being ruled out for the remainder of the season, and the Heat have struggled to find continuity this season.
That hasn't stopped Miami though, which still boasts one of the NBA's best defenses, ranking 10th in defensive rating (110.7).
They also feature some of the most quality depth across the NBA, with seven players averaging at least 9.3 PPG.
And if there is a silver lining to them being sixth in the standings, it is that they made it to the NBA Finals a season ago as the fifth seed, meaning starting the postseason on the road shouldn't phase the Heat, which makes them dangerous to any of the teams ahead of them in the standings.
For more up-to-date news on all things NBA, click here to register for alerts on the FOX Sports app!