The Eastern Conference is deeper than it’s been in the last thirty years, with six teams, including the Bucks, Heat, 76ers, Bulls, Celtics, and Nets, all viable options to win it all this season. The 2021-22 east coast renaissance is being driven by the overabundance of highly skilled players who play next to the Atlantic Ocean.
Our 2021-22 Eastern Conference rankings were challenging to whittle down to only ten players. Tough decisions were made. Up-and-coming stars like Darius Garland and LaMelo Ball missed the cut, while more established All-Stars, Khris Middleton and Jaylen Brown, were also left off our list.
Below are our Eastern Conference top-10 player rankings.
10. Jarrett Allen
Jarrett Allen is averaging 16.1 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 1.6 APG, and 1.3 BPG in 2021-22, numbers that aren’t exactly impressive. Hell, Allen didn’t even make the initial cut for the NBA All-Star game in the crowded Eastern Conference, only sneaking in after James Harden pulled out of the contest with an injury. Jarrett Allen offers us one of those instances where traditional statistics only tell a quarter of the story.
Jarrett Allen could be the best overall defender in the NBA this season. He’s easily the most dominant high-volume rim protector in 2021-22, handling the lane on the less fun end better than his more famous counterparts throughout the league.
Here’s a breakdown:
Jarrett Allen is allowing opposing players to shoot 48.6% from within 6 feet of the rim this season.
Rudy Gobert is allowing a 51.8% clip at the rim.
Anthony Davis is allowing a 55.1% mark at the rim.
Myles Turner is allowing opposing players to shoot 55.9% at the rim.
Jakob Poeltl is letting opposing players hit at 57.1% at the rim.
Jarrett Allen was anchoring the Cavaliers’ fourth rated defense before he went down with a fractured finger, playing impressive inside-out D. He not only altered dozens of shots at the rack nightly but used his excellent side-to-side agility to stymie opposing wings and guards on switches out on the perimeter. This season, the Cavs have suffered injuries up and down their roster but were hanging on to a top-6 seed out west behind Allen’s play on the less fun end and Darius Garland’s improved playmaking skills. Now that Allen is sidelined indefinitely, Cleveland is already slipping. They are only one game ahead of seventh-place Toronto to avoid the play-in.
9. Trae Young
The pick and roll is the go-to offensive move in the NBA, a play type that forces opposing defenses into difficult decisions and is nearly impossible to stop against Trae Young, the best pick and roll ball handler in the NBA.
Trae Young leads the league in pick and roll possessions as the ball handler with 14.4 per game, and he has a very solid 50.2 effective field goal percentage off those play types. Young features an excellent array of moves around his screener, including a sweet stop-go dribble, a killer crossover, and a stutter-step shake. When teams send two players at Young to stop his penetration toward the rack, he’s a precision passer with 23.3 assist points created (4th in the NBA) off mostly soft lobs to the rim or bounce passes in the lane to his rolling center. When teams drop back toward the basket, cutting off Young’s slashes to the rack and his ability to dish out a pretty pass to his 5, he’ll pop from the mid-range where he’s connecting on 47.0% of his shots from 10 to 16 feet and 48.5% of his attempts from 16 feet to the arc.
There are no weaknesses in Trae Young’s pick and roll game, which alone makes him one of the best offensive players in the Eastern Conference, but this season the Hawks point guard is shooting a career-high, 37.8% from deep. And that’s not off spot-up looks; Young is taking 6.7 pull-up three-pointers nightly and making a league-high 2.5 of his attempts.
Trae Young’s combination of pick and roll skills, vision, and off-the-dribble three-point shot-making could make him the best offensive player in the Eastern Conference and the entire league. Still, wins matter, and Young’s Hawks are at 34-34, fighting to make the play-in tourney. Defense also matters, and at 6-1, 164-pounds, the former number 5 pick has trouble containing his man on the less fun end.
8. James Harden
James Harden’s play has fallen since his peak when he won three consecutive scoring titles between 2017 through 2020 for the Houston Rockets. Harden’s slippage isn’t a matter of circumstances either. It’s true, The Beard’s first team this season, the Brooklyn Nets, was full of turmoil. Kyrie Irving has been in and out of the lineup because of New York COVID regulations. Durant has also played in only 40 contests due to injury, and sharpshooter Joe Harris has missed nearly the entire season after an ankle injury.
Still, Harden faced similar chaos during his last season atop the scoring leaderboard in 2019-20. The Rockets shipped out their only viable center, Clint Capela, mid-season, long-distance marksman, Eric Gordon played in only 36 games, and The Beard shared the court with Russell Westbrook, a player with one of the highest usage rates in the league that year at 34.3%. Harden still poured in 34.3 points nightly, no easy feat, without his roll man and floor-spacing guard while splitting (literally) the offense with Brodie. During Harden’s prime, he would have gathered up his Brooklyn teammates, put them on their back, and led them through the muck to the victory.
James Harden is attempting 7.6 isolation attempts per game in 2021-22, down nearly double from his 2019-20 season when he averaged 14.1 isolation possessions nightly. His three-point stroke has also tumbled below league-average to 34.4% off 6.9 shots per game.
This season’s version of James Harden isn’t capable of putting up MVP numbers while menacing the entire league with his dribble-penetration, ability to draw fouls and pull up three-point bombs. The Beard is still averaging close to a triple-double this year with 22.5 PPG, 10.3 APG, and 7.9 RPG. And he’s still one of the best playmakers in the league, capable of collapsing opposing defenses with his dribble-drives and using his excellent vision to hit open teammates beyond the arc with one of the best drive-and-kick games in the league.
Harden is no longer the force he was a couple of years ago, but he’s still a top-20 player in the NBA. Number eight on our list feels right.
7. Zach LaVine
Zach LaVine has transformed from an electric rim slasher in his younger days to one of the best shooters in the league. This season, he’s shooting 39.5% from deep off 7.2 attempts per game, with only 2.6 shots coming off catch-and-shoot jumpers. Translation: LaVine is shooting nearly 40% from deep while mainly taking off-the-dribble jumpers, the most challenging shot in basketball. Deeper translation: LaVine has Stephen Curry-like gravity for the Bulls.
DeMar DeRozan is crushing it this season in Chicago and is a legitimate MVP candidate, but one of the primary reasons he’s blasted off is because of the mid-range space Zach LaVine is creating for him. LaVine’s ability to connect off-the-dribble from four feet behind the arc gives opposing defenses fits. He draws constant attention in this modern version of the NBA, where the rule seems to be: take away long-distance bombs and shots at the rim at all costs.
Zach LaVine is still excellent at the rim, shooting 71.5% from within three feet of the basket, and he’s stepped up his defensive effort as well. He’s holding his assignments to an impressive 45.7% field goal percentage throughout the season as a stabilizing force for the Bulls as excellent defenders Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso have missed time due to injury.
Overall, Zach LaVine is averaging 24.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, and 4.5 APG in 2021-22. He gives the Bulls the defensive bending force necessary to make noise in the playoffs.
6. Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Butler’s 2021-22 stats—21.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 5.6 APG, 1.8 SPG, 48.3 eFG%— don’t jump off the screen and shout, “Top-6 player in the Eastern Conference!”
That’s because Jimmy Butler doesn’t need to score 28 points-plus per game on this version of the Miami Heat. Butler has Tyler Herro, the runaway frontrunner for the Sixth Man of the Year Award by his side, dropping 20.9 points nightly off a 39.1% hit rate from deep and a full bag of off-the-dribble jumpers from mid-range. He also has Bam Adebayo lacing them up with him in the starting lineup, a player who is good for 19 points per game off runaway locomotive rushes to the rack. Kyle Lowry and Duncan Robinson also play their part on the Heat as two excellent offensive weapons, each with a sweet outside touch and solid finishing skills at the rim.
Still, Jimmy Buckets is the best player on the Miami Heat, the team with the top record in the Eastern Conference. He does whatever he must to snag a win. He’ll take on a playmaking role in one game, dishing out double-digit assists. In the next contest, he’ll abuse the opposing squad in the mid-range, dropping an easy 27 points off mainly isolation possessions, and he’ll round out his week by attacking the rim relentlessly against another team. And he always plays 110%, hard-nosed, I-want-to-break-you defense, slowing down the best offensive wings in the association nightly.
Jimmy Butler doesn’t focus on stat padding. He cares about winning, and few are better when it comes to making the playoffs. He’s found himself in the postseason 10 years in a row with four different teams, leading Chicago, Minnesota, Philadelphia, and Miami to the NBA’s second season.
During the 2019-20 postseason, Jimmy Butler showed the world he can be the best player on a championship-caliber team when he led the Heat to the finals before eventually succumbing to the Lakers. Butler has a better supporting cast this year, and his two-way, do-everything play makes the Heat legitimate threats to walk away with the chip this year.
5. Jayson Tatum
During the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, Jayson Tatum supplied the Boston Celtics with some of the best shot-making in the league as he guided them to the postseason. Tatum began this year with a dud, his game dropping off a cliff. The Celtics found themselves under .500 heading into the new year. Then Taco Jay flipped the clichéd switch.
Over Tatum’s last 15 games, he’s come hard on both ends of the court, notching 29.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 4.5 APG, and 1.0 SPG while shooting 37.0% from distance and playing the best defense of his career. The Celtics have gone 13-2 during that span and are now 41 -28, only four games out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference with a real chance to finish the regular season with home-court throughout their first three rounds of the playoffs.
Throughout Tatum’s last 15 games, he is driving to the rack 10.4 times per game, making an excellent 55.7% of his attempts, squashing his bad early-season habit of jacking contested mid-range jumpers. And when the lane closes down and opposing teams dare him to launch an off-the-dribble 20-footer, he’s showing faith in his teammates by swinging the ball.
Jayson Tatum is averaging some of the best numbers in the Eastern Conference for the season at 26.8 PPG, 8.2 RPG, and 4.2 APG. Still, it’s his recent two-way play that has pushed his once floundering Celtics into a genuine title contender.
4. Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant’s overall shooting numbers throughout 2021-22 are the best we’ve ever seen. Compare KD’s statistics to Michael Jordan’s during his best-ranged shooting year in 1996-97 when he’d morphed from an uber-talented rim slasher to a more cerebral mid-post player.
Michael Jordan in 1996-97
0 to 3 feet: 52.4%
3 to 10 feet: 47.6%
10 to 16 feet: 49.2%
16 feet to 3P: 52.1%
Kevin Durant in 2021-22
0 to 3 feet: 78.4%
3 to 10 feet: 50.8%
10 to 16 feet: 51.4%
16 feet to 3P: 57.8%
KD crushes the GOAT from every zone, but perhaps you think MJ was never known as a pure shooter. He was more of an all-around demon whose playmaking, rim-attacks, and defense made him the best ever. Fair enough. Let’s compare KD’s 2021-22 numbers to the best jump shooter ever, Stephen Curry, during his unanimous 2015-16 MVP season when he joined the 50-40-90 club and became a legend.
Stephen Curry in 2015-16
0 to 3 feet: 69.6%
3 to 10 feet: 42.2%
10 to 16 feet: 44.7%
16 feet to 3P: 44.3%
Kevin Durant ruins Curry throughout every shooting zone, but from deep. You could argue Curry’s ability to hit at a high clip from six feet beyond the arc broke the rules of basketball and makes him the more impactful player. I disagree, but I wouldn’t argue too hard. That’s like debating who’d win a fight between Batman and Spiderman. However, you can’t look at KD’s percentages at the rim, inside the key, the mid-range, and beyond the arc, compared with MJ’s and Steph’s and say they were better top-to-bottom shooters. Durant’s numbers are far superior.
In 2021-22, Kevin Durant is the best pure offensive weapon in the league. He’s too tall and skilled, and his J is too pure for anyone to stop him heads up. Durant is also an excellent defender who can guard the perimeter and provide rim protection.
Durant has only played in 41 games this season because of a sprained MCL in his left knee, which pushes him down our list a bit. If KD had suited up for something like 90% of the Nets games, he’d be the league’s runaway MVP candidate and tops in our Eastern Conference rankings.
3. DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan is averaging 28.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, and 5.1 APG as the Bulls’ top dog, helping propel Chicago to the sixth-rated offense in the league. DeRozan’s teammate, Lonzo Ball, gets more press as an excellent passer/playmaking guard, but DeMar is the leading passer on the Bulls, with 13.5 assist points created this season. DeRozan is also the best mid-range player the league has seen in the last decade, easily leading the association in made shots between the key and the arc, and per PBP Stats, he’s tops in the NBA in unassisted two-point shots, notching 20.75 per 100 possessions.
DeRozan’s shot-making combined with his passing have the Bulls in genuine title contention this season, but what’s really shot him up our rankings is his clutch play throughout 2021-22. DeMar has led the Bulls to a 21-13 record in tight end game situations, and he’s nearly posting a 50-40-90 mark throughout his 115 total clutch minutes, averaging 51.4% from the field, 66.7% from deep, and 87.9% from the charity stripe. DeRozan is second in the league behind Joel Embiid in total points in clutch situations this season with a massive 129 buckets scored. Without DeRozan handling things in The Windy City amongst injuries to Zach LaVine, Lonzo Ball, and Alex Caruso, it’s easy to see the Bulls clutch record flipped from 21-13 to 13-21, which would drop Chicago from its current fourth seed in the Eastern Conference to a play-in spot.
DeMar DeRozan is a legitimate MVP candidate. He’s often single-handedly led the Bulls to victories in tight games, and the advanced stats love him. Inpredictable ranks DeRozan second in the NBA in its new (and very accurate) kitchen sink Win Probability Added metric, a mark that considers a player’s points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. DeRozan lands in the 94th percentile in Dunks and Three’s Estimated Plus/Minus, and he ranks inside the 89th percentile in Cleaning the Glass’s Expected Wins at +21.
Nobody wants to see DeMar DeRozan and the Bulls in a tight game during the playoffs because he’s been death in a mid-range jump shot this season, especially during clutch situations.
2. Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid didn’t come into the league with a unicorn label taped on his back, but in 2021-22 that’s just what he’s become, the NBA’s top unicorn, a genuine inside-out threat on offense who provides the 76ers with solid rim protection on the less fun end.
This season, Joel Embiid is tops in the league in post possessions at 8.0 per contest, offering up a basket-to-the-basket game that feels like it’s from the 90s. Embiid features solid-up-and-under-moves spins going both ways, and a baby hook shot.
Overall, Embiid puts opposing defenses in impossible situations. He’s hitting at a high clip across every level of the court, connecting on 74.3% of his shots at the rim, 44.2% from 16 feet to the arc, and 35.6% from deep. Combine his shooting with his inside footwork and agility in the midrange, and you have an impossible player to cover one-on-one. When you send help, his vision is just good enough (10.9 assist points created per game), he’ll make you pay by setting up his teammates with easy looks.
Embiid also has his 76ers inside the top-10 in defensive rating this season with his capacity to guard the paint. He’s defending 18.7 field goal attempts nightly while holding his assignments to 47.9% shooting from the field, both top marks in the NBA.
The 76ers season could have nose-dived without All-Star Ben Simmons in the lineup, but Embiid held his team together. He has Philadelphia nestled snugly inside the top-4 out east with a title on their minds. This season, Joel Embiid is a genuine MVP candidate and a millimeter away from being the best player in the Eastern Conference.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis hasn’t made the type of headlines that Joel Embiid has this season. The NBA has gotten used to his greatness, but here at Fadeaway World, we have taken notice.
Giannis leads Joel Embiid in nearly every statistical category:
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2021-22 Statistics:
29.7 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 58.1 eFG%
32.5 PER, 11.5 WS, 11.4 BPM, 22.93 kWPA
Joel Embiid’s 2021-22 Statistics:
29.9 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 4.4 APG, 51.9 eFG%
31.3 PER, 9.7 WS, 9.5 BPM, 21.60 kWPA
Giannis is 0.2 points per game behind Embiid and sweeps him in the rest of the traditional and advanced stat categories with one of the best Player Efficiency Ratings ever.
Giannis is second in the league in points in the paint at 15.4 per game, constantly collapsing defenses with his ability to two-step into the lane, creating dozens of open looks for his teammates nightly. He’s also the most versatile defender in the league, capable of switching off opposing centers down to guarding the 1 position.
Maybe you don’t care about stats. OK. Giannis’s Bucks are 42-26, a ½ game ahead of the 76ers in the Eastern Conference standings, and closing in fast on the Heat for the top spot. Giannis has suited up for three more contests this season than Embiid, and despite hanging a banner last year, he’s had no championship hangover. The Greek Freak goes 110% every night with an I-want-to-destroy-and-embarrass-you attitude.
Don’t sleep on the small market Bucks. Giannis is having another top-tier season, and he has an excellent shot at collecting another title.
The Eastern Conference Is Stacked
The 2021-22 Eastern Conference is stacked with excellent players.
Jarret Allen might be the best defender in the league this season. Trae Young is the best pick and roll player in the NBA. James Harden is still a top playmaker. Zach LaVine is the premier all-around shooter in the east. And Jimmy Butler’s two-way greatness drives opposing teams crazy.
The Eastern Conference top-5 is stacked with future Hall-of-Famers. Jayson Tatum is finally playing excellent D. Kevin Durant is putting up the best shooting numbers, and DeMar DeRozan is the best clutch player in the league. Joel Embiid and Giannis are neck-and-neck for the penultimate spot, with the Greek Freak’s ridiculous numbers and intensity giving him the edge.