1. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors sit atop the Eastern Conference standings and have exceeded expectations in doing so. After breaking through in 2016 to win their first playoff series and reach the conference finals, the Raptors have been on a steady rise ever since. With the Cavaliers and Celtics expected to finish in the top two of the Eastern Conference, the Raptors were seen by many as a lock for the third seed.
But as both teams have had their struggles throughout the season, the Raptors, under Head Coach Dwane Case,y are playing on another level and deservedly hold the top seed in the East. DeMar DeRozan has had a phenomenal season, leading the team in points, but it has been the form of big men Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas which have been major contributors to Toronto's success.
The Raptors can still easily finish as the top seed, while a top-two spot seems almost a certainty unless they have a steep decline in form.
2. Indiana Pacers
After losing Paul George in the trade period, the acquisition of Victor Oladipo has seen the Pacers occupy the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers were predicted to be closer to the lottery picks than a playoff spot with the loss of George, who was the team’s best player for several years. However, Oladipo has been a revelation for the Pacers, sitting in the top five for the team in all of points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, and leading the team in both points and steals.
On the back of Oladipo’s breakout season, the Pacers have been able to rediscover form from past seasons which saw them become a contender in the playoffs. But it’s not just Oladipo who’s the main reason for their rise, it is also the consistent performances of Bojan Bogdanovic, Domas Sabonis and Myles Turner who have all contributed to their successful campaign.
The Pacers only sit three games clear of the eighth-seeded Miami, so their fortunes may well turn for the worse in the blink of an eye. But their form this season will likely see them claim a surprising postseason berth.
3. Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers were predicted to miss out on a playoffs spot entirely, yet find themselves nestled comfortably amongst the seeded teams in the Western Conference.
Damian Lillard and C. J. McCollum have been at their usual best once again, both leading the team in points and averaging above 20 points a game. Jusuf Nurkic’s contribution should not be overlooked, either. Nurkic leads the team in rebounds and blocks, and is averaging just over 14 points a game.
The Blazers keep delivering season after season. Given they have two potent scorers in Lillard and McCollum, who are arguably one of the best one-two punches in the entire league, coupled with Nurkic in the middle, it is hard to see them missing the playoffs.
4. Chicago Bulls
Many had the Bulls winning just the 20 games this season, yet they’ve already done it. Sitting in 12th in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls have surprised a lot of pundits. That's in large part to the form of players like Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine, who have helped the Bulls exceed expectations.
Markkanen has shown he is a superstar of the future. His silky shooting and persistent hustle thas impressed fans and observers alike. LaVine and Kris Dunn, both acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade, have also been massive for the Bulls, and as young as all three are, they show that the Bulls have a lot of upside.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers were thought by many to be a team that would sneak into the playoffs in a ‘weak’ Eastern Conference. However, after 56 games, the Sixers are sitting in sixth spot in the East and are only three games behind the third seed. Not only that, they're only now stringing some consistent performances together, which many thought wouldn’t be a common occurrence with such a young squad.
Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have been one of the best duos in the league this season, with Simmons still the favourite to take out the Rookie of the Year. The Australian has exceeded expectations in his rookie season, being a true all-round monster on both ends who instantly improves his teammates when on the court. Embiid, too, has been phenomenal in his near injury free campaign, leading the team in points, rebounds and blocks.
The 76ers look set to compete in the playoffs, and may even score home-court advantage if they keep up their current form.
Which team has been the largest surprise packet this season? Comment below!