With the NBA Playoffs right around the corner, the Western Conference is shaping up for a very exciting and competitive tournament, starting right from the first round. The East, however, has been the butt of all jokes since early in the season. Disappointing years for the Knicks and – to a lesser extent – Nets, combined with another Derrick Rose injury, has definitely lowered the level of competition in the conference. Teams like the Raptors and Wizards now find themselves in uncharted territory for their franchises the last few years – with mid to high playoff seeds. Which squads are real threats to win it all?
Indiana Pacers (51-18)
The Pacers started the season as the consensus best team in the NBA, jumping out to a 16-1 record, but have been much weaker of late. They’re 35-17 since that start, which is still very good, but not quite as elite, and just 5-5 in their last five games. So, what’s their deal?
One of the biggest reasons for their falling off is the slumping performance of Paul George. Last season’s Most Improved Player, Paul George is one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, who’s also making great strides offensively, but early in the season was heralded as a two-way superstar, and maybe even the fourth or fifth best player in the league. Those talks have disappeared. Here’s how his season has progressed from an offensive standpoint, and how he’s affected the team’s success:
- October: 28.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 5.0 APG, .486 FG%, .412 3P%, 2-0 W/L
- November: 23.0 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 3.1 APG, .472 FG%, .403 3P%, 13-1 W/L
- December: 24.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.7 APG, .468 FG%, .394 3P%, 10-4 W/L
- January: 21.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 3.5 APG, .410 FG%, .315 3P%, 10-5 W/L
- February: 21.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.4 APG, .401 FG%, .395 3P%, 10-3 W/L
- March: 19.6 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 4.2 APG, .388 FG%, .290 3P%, 7-5 W/L
His field goal percentage has progressively dropped every single month, while his points, three-point percentage, and team record have all followed general downward trends. Which Paul George the Pacers get in the playoffs could be the biggest factor in whether or not they can make it out of the East, or even to the conference finals at all.
TeamRankings.com’s power rankings likes the Pacers as the NBA’s fifth best team, good for best in the East. If they continue to play top-flight defense and can become more consistent offensively, they’ll be right in the thick of things.
Best-case scenario: NBA champions
Worst-case scenario: Second-round exit
Miami Heat (47-20)
Will the Heat “turn it on?” It’s become well-documented that the Heat don’t really push for the number 1 seed during the regular season, preferring to save their strength for the playoffs, where they blow through round after round like a freight train. That may be a good strategy – according to TeamRankings, their home power ranking (#5) is the same as their away power ranking, suggesting that perhaps home-court advantage won’t be too necessary for Miami in the playoffs.
Will they make it through those playoffs, though? They don’t rebound the ball, and rely on small lineups with three-point shooting to stretch out their opponents and give LeBron James and Dwyane Wade lanes to the basket. It’s worked in the past, but the role players that helped the Heat execute this strategy the past couple years haven’t been the same role players. Let’s examine:
- 2012/13: 10.9 PPG, .419 3P%, 112 Offensive Rating, 3.4 Offensive Win Shares
- 2013/14: 9.7 PPG, .372 3P%, 112 ORtg, 2.3 OWS
- 2012/13: 6.6 PPG, .430 3P%, 122 ORtg, 2.8 OWS
- 2013/14: 4.3 PPG, .335 3P%, 112 ORtg, 1.1 OWS
- 2012/13: 8.6 PPG, .409 3P%, 110 ORtg, 2.6 OWS
- 2013/14: 9.3 PPG, .389 3P%, 107 ORtg, 1.8 OWS
Even with Norris Cole improving, these three key cogs for Miami need to step their games up for the Heat to three-peat. The absence of Mike Miller has been felt as well. LeBron can only do so much, and with Dwyane Wade a question mark with injury history, good defensive teams like Indiana and San Antonio will be able to slow Miami’s scoring runs without role players knocking down threes. TeamRankings likes Miami as the sixth best team in the league overall, second in the East.
Best-case scenario: NBA champions
Worst-case scenario: Loss in conference finals
Toronto Raptors (38-30)
Now, things start to get a little more blurry. Toronto is the third seed in the East, but is 12.5 games back of Indiana and 9.5 back of Miami. They’re twelfth in TeamRankings’ overall rankings, with five Western Conference teams separating them from Miami. Are they legit, or is this drop off too severe? Let’s look at some deeper stats to decide.
Can they get easy baskets? In the playoffs, defense turns up, and it becomes more difficult to score in isolating situations. Can the Raptors score when it’s necessary? They’re not great at it – they’re 27th in fast break points per game with 10, 23rd in points in the paint per game with 38.9, and 18th in effective field goal percentage at 49.5%. For a three seed, their offense is rather weak, even with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both having career years.
Their defense? That’s where the Raptors make their stand. They’re good at preventing their opponents from getting the easy baskets they themselves starve for – sixth in opponents’ points per game, twelfth in opponents’ fast break points per game, and eighth in opponents’ effective field goal percentage. Toronto is clearly a solid defensive team, with an All-Star (and a snub) to try to carry some of the scoring load. If they can continue to play their slow-paced game and get into their halfcourt defensive sets, and Lowry and DeRozan don’t flame out, this team could very well make a bit of noise.
Best-case scenario: Conference Finals berth
Worst case scenario: first round elimination
Chicago Bulls (38-31)
Want to know what good coaching can get you? One glance at the Bulls’ roster, and you’d probably guess they’re missing the playoffs. And you’d be wrong. At thirteenth on TeamRankings power rankings, just behind Toronto, Chicago is right in the thick of things in the East. As a matter of fact, they may be even more in the thick of things than the Raptors.
Chicago’s run to relevancy this year without their superstar, Derrick Rose, has multiple key parts: great team defense (courtesy of both Tom Thibodeau and personnel), Joakim Noah’s career year, and the resurgence of DJ Augustin.
Just how good is the Bulls’ defense? Their rank of second in opponents’ points per game is partially due to their slow pace (they’re 30th in points per game themselves), but the rest of the stats show how elite their defense is. Second in opponents’ points per game, fourth in opponents’ assists per game, third in opponents’ rebounds per game, and eighth in opponents assist/turnover ratio. Those stats only scratch the surface of Thibodeau’s machine: take a look at their advanced numbers (courtesy of TeamRankings):
All around the board, this is one of the league’s best two defenses, second in many categories only to Indiana. Like Indiana, though, and Toronto too, their success hinges on their offensive success. For Chicago, those numbers tell a bleak story:
The Bulls are in dire need of Derrick Rose (or Melo?), as their offense is, for lack of a better word, anemic. But it’s been better lately, thanks partly to the blossoming of Joakim Noah. The Bulls run their offense through Noah at the high post, where he takes his defender out of the paint to open up cutting lanes right to the rim for guards and forwards – cuts to which Noah is very able to pass, as he’s one of the most uniquely skilled big men in the league. He can handle the ball as well, so if you want to give him too much space daring him to shoot, or get up in his face to block his passing vision, he can get momentum and blow by you to the rim with his dribble. Noah is one of the league’s best centers, boasting impressive offensive and defensive ratings of 112 and 96, respectively, and providing 9.2 win shares to the Bulls this season – good for thirteenth in the league overall, and second among centers (behind DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers).
Another jolt to the Bulls’ offense has come from an unlikely source in DJ Augustin. After being an afterthought in Indiana and being cut by Toronto, Augustin has been a big part of Chicago’s late run to playoff relevancy this season. Take a look at what he’s done for Coach Thibs compared to his previous two stints (courtesy of ESPN)*:
For the Bulls, the key will be scoring enough points to beat their opposition. Their defense can seek to carry them past the playoffs’ weaker teams if it performs to the standards of this season, but it won’t be able to get them past anyone if their offense continues to perform like one of the NBA’s worst. The Bulls have potential to do big things this postseason, but have plenty of potential to disappoint as well.
Best-case scenario: Conference Finals berth
Worst-case scenario: first-round boot
Next up, we’ll take a look at the teams ranking 5-9 in the East, and why the teams previously mentioned might want to take them more seriously than they think.
by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University
*In order, these stats are: games played, games started, minutes per game, field goals made/attempted per game, field goal percentage, three pointers made/attempted per game, three point percentage, free throws made/attempted per game, free throw percentage, offensive/defensive/total rebounds per game, assists/blocks/steals per game, fouls/turnovers per game, and points per game.