NBA 2022-23: Eastern Conference Preview

With each season of the 2020s, the NBA becomes more and more opaque.  The 2021-22 Warriors were a very good team but were nowhere near as dominant as their prior iterations.  But Golden State, like most of the good teams, has a decent argument that it can win the 2022-23 title.  There are plenty of title-worthy teams but no prohibitive favorite and compelling arguments against nearly every team.

Today, let’s run through the some assorted burning questions and predictions for the East:

How will Boston do without Udoka?

In case you are curious, here’s the list of teams, since the NBA went to the 16-team playoff format in 1983-84, who made the NBA Finals and fired/lost their coach before the next season (note that a ton of coaches were fired during the season after making the Finals but that is a different inquiry):

1998-99 Bulls:  We all remember Michael Jordan’s Last Dance and how Phil Jackson was bid adieu with the rest of the team.  Chicago tried college coach Tim “Pink” Floyd as a replacement for the 1998-99 Bulls went 13-37 and were essentially an expansion team.

2000-01 Pacers: Larry Bird’s interest in coaching was limited to begin with and he quit exactly when the core of the Reggie Miller/Rik Smits team was due for a rebuild. Indiana let vets Mark Jackson and Dale Davis go for younger players and Smits retired. Isiah Thomas was brought in as coach and cobbled together a 41-41 record.

2004-05 Lakers: Phil Jackson (and Shaquille O’Neal) were pushed out by Kobe Bryant and management for various reasons.  Without Shaq, Los Angeles was not a serious contender and went 34-48 with Rudy Tomjanovich.  Rudy quit for health reasons after a 24-19 start and the Lakers cratered thereafter.  Kobe had a great statistical season (27.6 ppg) but was miserable with the results on-and-off the court. 

2005-06 Pistons:  This is the one scenario most similar to the Udoka situation.  The Pistons were still a really good team (with a great defense) when Larry Brown did his usual Brown things to get himself out of his contract due to his innate urges to leave jobs and to complain.  The Pistons replaced him with vet coach Flip Saunders, who led the team to a 64-18 record and kept the defensive intensity. 

Of the above group, only the Pistons situation even remotely resembles what’s going on now in Boston.  The Celtics, however, are a bit younger than that Detroit team and Boston has gone with the very young and untested Joe Mazzulla as coach.  He may very well be a coaching prodigy but more likely Boston may struggle a bit compared to last year.

Over the years, studies have shown that certain coaches typically get their teams to play better defense than others.  Here, there is evidence that the defense might not be a Udoka driven phenomenon. Udoka’s great defense only has a one-year track record and Boston has had good defensive teams in the past (Boston was top seven in defense each season from 2017-18 through 2019-20), with the notable exception of the 2020-21 team that struggled to defense and  was woefully weak in the middle (mostly playing Daniel Theis).

The interesting ancillary question here is how much of the Celts’ lockdown defense can be maintained without Ime Udoka.  DBPM gave a ton of credit for the defense last season to Al Horford (2.9) and Robert Williams (3.1) and these stats jive with the eye test.  Horford is turning 36 and has never had a defensive season quite this good.  Williams has been really slowly recovering from knee surgeries.  Defensive regression, to some extent, seems probable.  This is a seriously talented team but not quite where they were a few months ago.  Jayson Tatum will have to reach an even higher lever to offset this.

What will happen in Brooklyn?

I have no idea either.  Yes, the array of plausible outcomes range from miserable to title contention.  My sense is that things snowballed so badly last year that it is unlikely that something so bad happens again.  60 games of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Ben Simmons is worth about 50 wins.  There are serious questions how this will work on the court and I’m pretty intrigued to see what it will look like, even if I’m not overly optimistic.

Can Julius Randle return to form?

Let’s take a look at Randle’s three-point shooting the last few years:

2018-19: .344

2019-20: .277

2020-21: .411

2021-22: .308

Time to accept that 2020-21 was the anomaly but the hope is the Knicks can get, at least, the 2018-19 Pelicans version.  Either way, New York needs to tread water and continue to wait for that elusive star that they’ve been waiting for since Carmelo Anthony times.

Will there be any regression in Milwaukee?

They still have the best player in the NBA in Giannis Antetokounmpo and they have a really easy division.  The primary question is whether the key supporting players are starting to fall off:

-Brook Lopez is 34 and missed most of the season with back surgery.  On paper, he was slightly less effective than he had been prior seasons.

-Khris Middleton is only 31 and had a season very similar to 2020-21 but he missed most of the playoffs and has had lingering wrist and leg issues.

-Jrue Holiday was really good last season but will be 32 and regressed a bit in the playoffs.

So, there is moderate concern but these three should still be largely as good as they’ve been.   With Giannis as the heart, they should still be on the short list of title teams but the one seed might be hard to get.

What will Philly look like this year?

There are a few fascinating things to watch here.  First, a full season of James Harden in lieu of Ben Simmons should complete the transformation from a defensive team to an offensive team.  In 2020-21, Philly was a decent offensive team (13th) and really good on defense (2nd).  Last year, the pace really slowed (25th) and the defense fell (12th).  Granted, the 76ers had neither Simmons nor Harden for a good chunk of the season. Still, a Harden/Tyrese Maxey backcourt sounds leaky.  Despite this misgiving, the 76ers are a good team with peak Joel Embiid and plenty of options.  Doc Rivers has some postseason issues but they are poised to have a nice regular season. 

How are a couple of 33-year old star lead guards going to do?

Yes, Jimmy Butler and James Harden are the same age and I’ve been low-key obsessed with how their skill sets will age.  Harden has been on quite a ride, forcing trades and “modulating” his effort level from time-to-time.  Putting all this aside, here are Harden’s raw numbers from the last four years:

-2018-19: 78 games, 30.6 PER, .254 WS48, 11.0 BPM

-2019-20: 68 games, 29.1 PER, .245 WS48, 9.6 BPM

-2020-21: 44 games, 24.5 PER, .208 WS48, 7.2 BPM

-2021-22: 65 games, 20.9 PER, .152 WS48, 4.0 BPM

There are reasons for the decline here but the trendline is straight down.  Even 2021-22 Harden is an All-Star level player and his playoff stats were really good the whole time except for last season, when he had his worst playoff performance of his career by far (16.8 PER, .112 WS48, 1.9 BPM).  Winter may not be here yet but its coming.

As for Butler, things look a little different:

-2018-19: 65 games, 20.2 PER, .173 WS48, 3.7 BPM

-2019-20: 58 games, 23.6 PER, .221 WS48, 5.4 BPM

-2020-21: 52 games, 26.5 PER, .255 WS48, 7.7 BPM

-2021-22: 57 games, 23.6 PER, .228 WS48, 6.3 BPM

Butler misses games but has been largely the same player the last three years.  Can they keep it up?  History is pessimistic.  Here’s the list of guards, 6’5 or bigger, at age-33, who had positive BPMs (minimum 1,900 minutes played):

Michael Jordan 1996-97: 8.9 BPM (had 10.5 BPM the previous year, fell to 6.9 at age 34)

Manu Ginobili 2010-11: 5.4 BPM (had 6.7 BPM the previous year, jumped to 6.9 BPM at age 34 in only 792 minutes.  Was slightly less effective in fewer minutes the next couple of years after that)

Ray Allen 2008-09: 4.0 BPM (had 3.0 BPM the previous year, fell to 1.2 the year after.  Averaged 2.5 BPM the next couple of years after that)

Clyde Drexler 1995-96: 4.0 BPM (had 6.5 BPM the previous year and 4.8 BPM the year after. Retired at age-35 with a 3.4 BPM)

Kobe Bryant 2011-12: 3.3 BPM (had 5.2 BPM the previous year and 4.6 BPM the year after but tore his Achilles, which basically ended his career)

Kyle Korver 2014-15: 2.8 BPM (had 1.1 BPM the previous year and -1.0 BPM the year after.  Korver had a career year at age-34 somehow and regressed immediately)

Vince Carter 2009-10: 2.0 BPM (had 2.4 BPM the previous year and fell to 0.3 BPM the year after. Was mostly okay after but did have a nice year at age-36 randomly)

Jamal Crawford 2013-14: 1.6 BPM (had 1.0 BPM the previous year and fell to 0.7 BPM the year after. He lasted for years but was negative player all that time)

Doug Christie 2003-04: 0.8 BPM (had 3.2 BPM the previous year and fell to -1.3 BPM the year after and career ended shortly after)

We should ignore MJ because he can’t be compared to anyone.  Manu played well but in many fewer minutes.  The best hope for Butler and Harden come from Drexler, who played at 3-4 BPM level in his later years.  Allen was able to be helpful for years but was no longer a lead guard.  In all, the data tells us that the chances are both Harden and Butler are due for some decline.  Of course, the aging curve is constantly changing over time but regression is likely over the next two years.

East Final Predictions:

1. Philadelphia 76ers

2.  Milwaukee Bucks

3.  Boston Celtics

4. Miami Heat

5.  Brooklyn Nets

6.  Toronto Raptors

7. Cleveland Cavaliers

8. Atlanta Hawks

Play-In Teams

9.  New York Knicks

10.  Chicago Bulls

Lottery Bound

11.  Charlotte Hornets

12.  Washington Wizards

13.  Detroit Pistons

14.  Orlando Magic

15.  Indiana Pacers

Playoffs Second Round

-Nets over 76ers

-Bucks over Celtics

Conference Finals

-Bucks over Nets

Stay tuned for Western Conference preview and Finals prediction….