For better or worse, the NBA is typically the most predictable of professional sports leagues. The best teams usually win and the best teams usually have the superstar players. Of course, it is not quite that simple. Detail matters and surprises do happen but in the Eastern Conference the overall story seems clear: LeBron James and the Cavs are the best team, Chicago is a bona fide contender, and everyone else ranges from decent to whatever it is the 76ers are.
This huge gap between Cleveland and the rest of the East makes figuring out rest of the top eight a tougher task. Should we really stress over getting the rest of the playoff teams correct? History won’t care whether Atlanta, Brooklyn, New York or some other tepid team is squashed in the playoffs but, for the moment, their fans do. So, let’s do our best to slog through this group and see what order we come up with.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: So much about the Cavs is fascinating. First, they are the class of the East and are unlikely to receive a major challenge until the NBA Finals but there are a ton of questions here to consider. Let’s run through the laundry list:
–Is there any reason to think LBJ won’t be LBJ? Not really. He’ll be 30 this season and is well within his prime. In reviewing his stats from the past few years, there are some very moderate concerns of early stage decline. For some reason, James had only 26 blocks last season, which 1/3 of what he did per minute the previous season. Losing the ability to block shots can be an indicator of athletic decline but James was ridiculously efficient offensively (career high .649% true shooting percentage) and got to the free throw line at a rate consistent with career norms. One has to wonder if LeBron consciously chose to conserve himself defensively last season. In either case, LBJ should still be the best player in the NBA this season.
-David Blatt? Apparently, James is open-minded about untested coaches. Blatt’s pedigree in Israel is quite impressive and, provided LBJ likes him, there shouldn’t be that much of a learning curve for a professional coach going from one league to another. Yes, most coaches do not succeed but most coaches don’t have LeBron.
-How will Love, Irving and Waiters mesh with LBJ? All three are going to lose a few shots playing with James but the question is whether they are the best complements for LBJ on the court. Kevin Love fits nicely with any team and there is no reason he won’t with the Cavs. Irving and Waiters, however, are in a different category. In the past, James hasn’t played with many guards who created their own shots. In James’ first Cleveland stint, he had Mo Williams (who could score a bit but wasn’t a traditional point) and spot up shooters like Daniel Gibson or Anthony Parker. In Miami, Dwyane Wade was given opportunities to score but the other guard were role players (Mario Chalmers and Norris Coles). This suggests that a supremely talented player (like Wade or Irving) could feel some slight decline in touches but should still be effective. Waiters is a different story. He needs the ball to be effective and just isn’t as good as Irving on pure talent. These facts, taken together, indicate that Waiters really fits in better as a scorer off the bench (assuming they don’t trade him for more of an off the ball guard).
-Which random and obscure NBA player will become well known by virtue of being on television a lot because he plays with LBJ? The answer is clearly Matthew Dellavedova.
2. Chicago Bulls: Can the return of Derrick Rose push this terrible offensive team into a serious contender again? Last year, the Bulls were 28th in the NBA in offensive efficiency and could not score at all in the playoffs. Now, they replace D.J. Augustin with Rose and the hope is that Rose and the Bulls will play like they both did in 2010-11 and 2011-12. When the Bulls were really good in 2010-11, Rose put up a 23.5 PER and the Bulls offense was 11th in the NBA. In 2011-12, Rose was about as good but he missed 27 games and the offense was even better (5th in the NBA), thanks to Carlos Boozer who was highly effective offensive player over that span.
Turning to 2014-15, the Bulls will need to fix the offense somehow. The easiest strategy would be by having Rose revert to star form and hoping that someone replicates the old Boozer level production. Neither event is impossible but neither is particularly likely. Rose hasn’t really played much since his injury during the 2012 NBA playoffs. When he did last play in the FIBA games, Rose looked rusty (he shot 14-40 from the field and 1-19 from three). Rose has looked solid this pre-season so far but last year he looked great in the pre-season and started out weak in the regular season before going out with more injuries. All this is a long way of saying that Rose is more likely to be a good player than an MVP candidate this year.
As for replacing the “good” Boozer of old, there are plenty of candidates. Pau Gasol was effective last year and, if his body can hold up, has a chance to be effective (he hasn’t played a full season since 2010-11 and will be 34). Nikola Mirotic also looks like a good offensive player and could help tilt the ledger to make the Bulls more offensively inclined.
The sum total is that the Bulls will be better offensively (they almost have to be) but the extent of improvement is really the issue. Even an average offensive team coupled with the Bulls defense is quite formidable in the East. While it isn’t likely that the Bulls will be more than adequate, the rest of the conference is weak and any improvement vaults them into a competition with Toronto for second best team in the East.
3. Toronto Raptors: In the summer of 2013, the Raptors finally acknowledged what was obvious…Bryan Colangelo’s time as GM was largely unsuccessful and it was time to turn the page on players who were not likely to be part of the next good Toronto team (Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon, Rudy Gay). The remaining core, led by Kyle Lowry, won 48 games (and the Atlantic Division). This 14 game improvement from 2012-13 was the surprise of the NBA season and Toronto is hoping consolidate its gains. The Raptors return the same core (Lowry, Demar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, and Amir Johnson) and add Lou Williams.
Is this enough to contend again? Bill James has mentioned a Plexiglass Principle, whereby teams that dramatically improve one season tend to regress the following season. The assumption of this rule is that teams that over perform against expectations do so mostly based upon unsustainable aberrations in performance and then regress towards the mean over time. A look at the 2013-14 Raptors show no such unsustainable efforts. For the Raptors, DeRozan and Lowry improved a bit offensively in 2013-14. Lowry is 27 and bounced his PER up from 17-18 range to 20 last season based upon a general overall improvement in all areas of his game. DeRozan, bumped from average (14.7 PER) to solidly above average (18.4 PER). But DeRozan improved in a sustainable way, because he went from almost no three-pointers made (24% before last year) to a regular poor shooter (.305%). That level of shooting should be repeatable. In all, the Raptors’ success looks largely real. They should be a second rung contender with the Bulls and better than the rest of the pack.
4. Washington Wizards: There is a lot to like about the Wiz’s Wall/Beal backcourt and they have effective big men in Nene and Marcin Gortat. The key change here is Trevor Ariza leaving town for Paul Pierce. Though Pierce was effective for Brooklyn last year, he was much better as a power forward and you do wonder if Pierce, at 37, can fill Ariza’s athletic swingman role. There is also risk that Pierce is at an age when he craters offensively, leaving the team with no small forward option at all (Otto Porter?). The hope is that Beal takes another big step forward offensively (quite possible) but even if he stays where he is, the Wiz are likely good for 45-50 wins.
5. Brooklyn Nets: Now things get murky. Six or seven teams could plausibly be shuffled through the last four slots in the East. How the Nets fit in the group belies the fact that whether they make the playoffs, Brooklyn’s grand plan is shot. The Deron Williams/Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett plan to complete for a title isn’t going to work and they have to scrap it and clear contracts and be ready for the next run of big free agents. With the cap likely going up significantly in the near future, the high payroll is no longer as urgent a problem. It is quite possible, that they could keep an overpaid Williams and still be able to offer a couple of max contracts in 2016 but dumping a few bad contracts couldn’t hurt.
On the court, Brooklyn will be just another decent team. Assuming reasonable health, the Nets seemed ensconced in adequacy. They don’t have any major weaknesses and there is some upside here if Brook Lopez comes back healthy and Mason Plumlee improves but management surely didn’t talk of adequacy when they spent the big bucks the last few years.
6. Miami Heat: Even without LBJ and aging Dwyane Wade, the Heat have more than enough talent to be in the mix of 45-win teams in the East. The Heat have replaced James with Luol Deng, which won’t excite the fans but does provide a solid enough small forward option. It also bears reminding that Chris Bosh is still a very good player (he put up a 19.4 PER over the last four years as a third banana in Miami) and was a star in Toronto when he was a primary scorer. This won’t be a great team but this is not the post-Jordan Bulls.
7. Charlotte Bobcats: Excitement is a relative concept. After all the futility of the past decade, fans seem genuinely excited about a 43-win team and signing an actual coveted free agent in Lance Stephenson to pair with Kemba Walker. Stephenson will help a defense that is already very good but in order to jump up a level, the Cats will have to actually scorer more efficiently. At this point, the offense is mostly Al Jefferson and some occasionally accurate chucking from Walker (he has improved his three-point shot but was still an unacceptable .333% last season). The reliance on Jefferson is quite heavy ofn offense and if he slows down at all they could easily slide out of the playoff picture.
8. Detroit Pistons: The 2013-14 looked like a poorly constructed roster with individual pieces that had some value. The 2014-15 still have that weirdly constructed roster but they now have a legitimate coach now in Stan Van Gundy. How a team with Josh Smith and Andre Drummond would rate below average defensively does boggle the mind but Van Gundy is known for fixing that problem. The offense, however, still looks suspect. Smith isn’t really a small forward anymore and playing with an inefficient chucker like Brandon Jennings is probably a painful proposition for any teammate. Assuming the roster doesn’t change, merely making sure that Smith, Drummond, and Monroe are on the court at the proper times will help. More likely, Monroe or Smith should be traded for backcourt help (yes, Smith is not very tradeable but you never know). Also, a Jennings-centric offense is a bad idea, as he is much better suited to be played in the Jamal Crawford/Lou Williams sixth man role. So there is a lot of work to be done her but the coaching clean up should be enough to get Detroit back to the playoffs.
The Maybe Teams
9. New York Knicks: Carmelo Anthony might be the second best player in the East but his supporting cast is still weak. As with Detroit, some minor tweaks (removing Mike Woodson and Raymond Felton) could yield enough improvement to get to the playoffs. The concern here is that the Knicks were a very bad defensive team and they are losing their best defensive player in Tyson Chandler. Granted, Woodson’s weird switching defensive system didn’t work but unless Derek Fisher is one of those real defensively tough coaches (which we have no way of predicting at this point), the Knicks will probably be just short of the playoffs. As with the Nets, the short term isn’t what matters anyway and the plan is to hit it big in free agency in 2016.
10. Atlanta Hawks: With Al Horford coming back, the Hawks should be as good, if not better than last year. Of course, they weren’t very good last year (38-44), so a modest improvement could still find the team out of the playoffs if enough teams play improve. Combine that fact with the potential sale of the team and there is enough flux here to see Atlanta come up just short of the playoffs, not to mention the very real possibility that management tries to facilitate a sale by going 76ers mode and gutting the roster for new ownership to hit big in the lottery.
11. Indiana Pacers: They couldn’t score before they lost Paul George and Lance Stephenson. They could be a low rung playoff team but the likelihood is a step back this season and hope that they get a nice draft pick and that George is good to go in 2015-16.
Boston Celtics/Orlando Magic/Milwaukee Bucks/Philadelphia 76ers: I guess the question is whether you can make an argument whether any of these teams could surprise and compete for the playoffs. The Bucks and Magic have some solid pieces but unless someone ends up turning into a surprise star, they just don’t have enough talent. Boston will probably trade Rajon Rondo, which will preclude contention and Philly isn’t worth mentioning this season except to catch Nerlen Noels and (maybe) Joel Embiid a few times.