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The NBA’s Eastern Conference is officially back

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At least it is at the top, where four teams can make legitimate claims for the crown.

Getty Images and USA Today Sports

When LeBron James went West in free agency, the Eastern Conference lost its main claim to legitimacy. There were few remaining stars and even fewer legitimate contenders. You had the Celtics, the Sixers, and maybe, like, the Raptors.

That all began to change when Toronto acquired Kawhi Leonard from the Spurs in mid July. Then, the Bucks busted out of the gate playing a supercharged version of Bud Ball, and the 76ers acquired Jimmy Butler from the Wolves, giving them three top-25 players.

While still nowhere near as deep in quality teams as the Western Conference, the East has four teams with the talent and ambition to make a run at the Finals. Throw in the extremely solid Indiana Pacers, and the conference boasts five teams who could make a run at 50 win-seasons.

Things tail off in a hurry after that, but the top half of the Eastern bracket is, dare we say, just as formidable as the one out West. With roughly 20 percent of the season already in the books, let’s take a look at how things stack up with this week’s List.

The Milwaukee Bucks are the only team in either league to rank in the top five in both offense (first) and defense (fifth.)

Giannis Antetokounmpo, is of course, the main reason for their success, as he’s become one of the early leaders in the Most Valuable Player conversation. Giannis still doesn’t have a reliable outside shot, but that matters little during the regular season, when he’s able to score at will around the basket.

Khris Middleton began to emerge as a secondary scoring star last season, and he’s become an efficiency monster when plugged into Mike Budenholzer’s system. Point guard Eric Bledsoe has also been quietly effective as a playmaker. The bigs are much better thanks to the addition of Brook Lopez, and there’s shooting everywhere.

It’s impossible to overstate Budenholzer’s importance in the equation, though. The Bucks had been something a novelty throughout the Giannis era, defined by funky tactics and long athletes running around trying to create havoc. Budenholzer has streamlined their approach and tightened up their basic principles. They play with a purpose and take care of the little details that tripped them up previously.

The key question — maybe the only question that matters for Milwaukee — is whether it will work in the playoffs. Budenholzer’s teams have a long history of regular-season success followed by less than inspiring postseason results. In particular, that defensive system that’s so rock solid in December and January has been picked apart in the postseason by teams who take advantage of their willingness to give up shots behind the arc.

The Raptors have their own tortured postseason history to contend with, but there’s a whole new energy around this team

The enigmatic Leonard has been absorbed into the lineup with nary a hiccup, and he has reclaimed his position as the best two-way wing in the league. He and fellow Spurs import Danny Green have solidified the defense and ramped up the shooting considerably.

Like the Bucks, the Raps are strong on both sides of the ball, ranking third in offensive rating and sixth on the defensive side. New coach Nick Nurse made the sensible, and overdue, decision to play Serge Ibaka exclusively at center, a move made possible by the emergence of Pascal Siakam as the full-time power forward. The Raps are long, lean, and mean.

Then there’s Kyle Lowry, who is older, smarter, and just as ornery. He’s remade himself as an assist maven with this group, averaging a career-high 10.4 dimes per game. The difference this year is that Lowry shouldn’t have to work quite so hard during the regular season, which in theory should keep him fresher for the rigors of the postseason.

Every year we say that things are different in Toronto and every year they remind us why they are so tormented. With Leonard in place and Siakam’s emergence, this year really should be different. The early returns have been encouraging.

Jimmy Butler reminded everyone over the weekend why he’s worth all the trouble

In an overtime victory over the Hornets, Butler snuffed out a Kemba Walker layup at the rim and then buried a game-winning three.

Butler really is that dude. He can go get it whenever he wants and he can run actions with Joel Embiid all night. He’s not a great three-point shooter, and the Sixers could really use more perimeter marksmanship, but they’ll take that tradeoff to get a player of Butler’s caliber. That he’s also a versatile defender who’s unafraid of taking on elite defensive assignments negates the loss of Robert Covington.

Dario Saric is somewhat tougher to replace, and the Sixers will attempt to do so with the veteran combination of Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala. Given the competition, a stretch four was redundant in some of their matchups anyway. (Like Boston, for example.) If ever there was a landing spot that made sense for Carmelo Anthony at this stage of his career, it’s Philly.

With Butler serving as an elite playmaker between Ben Simmons and Embiid, the Sixers are dangerous in ways they weren’t before. More importantly, they have a renewed sense of direction after shuffling through the first month in an awkward dance between their present and their future.

Second-year project Markelle Fultz has moved back to the bench, where he can be incorporated into the flow at a less pressurized pace. Additionally, with Butler in place, sharpshooter J.J. Redick has also moved back into the starting lineup, where he belongs.

The schedule is also very kind for the Sixers as they push forward. They have six of their next seven at home with only two games against teams with winning records. It may be January before we have a true sense of how Butler’s presence impacts the Sixers, but the soft schedule affords them the chance to win games while working out the kinks.

The Celtics, meanwhile, are in the midst of an identity crisis

With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back in the lineup, they are no longer the gritty, young overachievers who impressed everyone with their toughness and resourcefulness. Given Hayward’s struggles, their star power also appears to be significantly overstated.

Kyrie has been magnificent, but Hayward’s reintegration has been slow as he attempts to reinvent himself as a below-the-rim point forward after his awful leg injury. To that end, coach Brad Stevens shuffled his lineup and elected to start Aron Baynes on Monday, bringing Hayward off the bench.

We expected there to be continuity issues, and the schedule has not been kind with nine of their first 13 games on the road. Still, no one really expected the offense to be this out of sorts, or for the C’s to lack the requisite toughness to finish off games during this transition.

Their loss on Saturday against a struggling Utah team on the second night of a back-to-back was emblematic of a team searching for direction. Blowing a fourth quarter lead in Charlotte on Monday did nothing to quell the gathering storm. This team has issues.

As for the young stars in waiting, it’s been a mixed bag. Jayson Tatum has been occasionally great, but just as often frustrating as he goes hunting for his offense in the dreaded mid-range dead zone. Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier have both struggled to adapt to their lesser roles.

The gritty role players — Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart, and Baynes — have been generally excellent, but the balance is off from the team they were to the one they’re trying to become. Until the offense sorts itself out and the C’s develop some kind of continuity on that end, they’ll remain a mediocre team that plays well only in spurts.

Having found a star in Victor Oladipo, the Pacers are attempting to fill in the gaps with as many good players as possible

That’s not a bad roster building strategy, but it’s tough to win that way in the playoffs. It’s tempting to not take Indy all that seriously given their lack of star power, but this is a solid team that plays good defense and that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Of note is the emergence of Domantas Sabonis. The 6’11 forward is averaging 14-and-10 while shooting an absurd 68 percent from the floor. His .713 True Shooting Percentage is tops in the league and that’s while attempting just two shots from 3-point range. A throwback big man in every sense, Sabonis is nearly unstoppable around the basket.

The Pacers don’t score like an elite team and that may well be their undoing, but this is a good team that will give someone fits in the postseason.

The rest of the conference is a bit of a cluster. Kemba Walker is the East Coast version of Damian Lillard and the Hornets point-differential indicates a team that is better than its .500 record, although not enough to tilt the scales. The Pistons are decent and the Magic are pleasantly surprising. The Wizards are bad. Very bad.

But at the top, the East is interesting again, and that’s something.