Last night after the All-Star Game, a bombshell deal was announced (now official) as the Sacramento Kings sent their superstar center, DeMarcus Cousins, along with Omri Casspi, to the New Orleans Pelicans for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, and 2017 first- and second-round picks. This was a surprising move for multiple reasons, the first being that less than two weeks ago Kings GM Vlade Divac made it clear that Cousins would not be traded.
Tuesday night, Knicks fans across America sighed (or screamed) at the same time, when it was announced their projected-2nd draft pick would actually be 4th – making them the only team in the lottery to actually lose ground. Missing out on the two consensus top-pick big men in Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor is a tough pill to swallow, especially when the Knicks won’t get their first choice of a consolation prize, but there is plenty of reason for looking up in New York this offseason.
After a terrible year in 2013-2014, the Knicks made some big changes this offseason, all stemming from the hire of Phil “Zen Master” Jackson as team president. Jackson is considered by many to be the greatest basketball genius on the planet, with 13 championship rings – 2 as a Knicks player, 6 as coach of the Bulls, and 5 as coach of the Lakers – to his name. One of Jackson’s self-proclaimed biggest reasons for success is the triangle offense, a system that has taken on a sort of legendary aura over the years. The Zen Master brought his protege Derek Fisher on board to become Knicks head coach and teach the team this art, which is assumed to be the offensive philosophy New York will employ for as long as Jackson remains team president. However, the Knicks haven’t started so hot this season – they’re currently 2-6 and already falling well behind divisional rivals like 7-1 Toronto. Is the slow start due to slow chemistry building and system learning among players, or could New York have a real long-term problem?
After an amazing 2013-2014 season, the unbearably long offseason is finally coming to a close. There’s a lot to look forward to this year in the NBA, with superstars on new teams, contenders adding pieces, and more squads than ever with a chance to make noise. Let’s get started with my projected standings for the Eastern Conference, and analysis for the teams in it:
We previously took a look at the top four seeds in the East. Now, we’ll look at the teams currently ranked 5-9, and what kind of chances each of those teams has to do damage in the playoffs.
Brooklyn Nets (39-33)
The Nets had a rough start to the season, sitting at 10-21 by the end of December. 2014, though, has been kind to them. A 29-12 record in the new year, despite the absence of center Brook Lopez, has Brooklyn as a team to watch as we enter the playoff race.
Their success has come from a balanced and efficient offensive attack, with no active player averaging more than Joe Johnson’s 15.5 PPG. Alongside Johnson, Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Marcus Thornton, and Andray Blatche all average double figures in the points column (interestingly, though, they’re only 24th in the NBA in assists per game). Their offense is pretty solid, though not elite, by NBA standards, ranking 10th in effective field goal percentage and 9th in efficiency. Brooklyn’s offense is also balanced from a court standpoint, as they’re top ten in both two-point and three-point efficiency, making them a difficult matchup to prepare for. With the ball, this is a team that is good enough to keep pace with opponents.
Defensively, Brooklyn is less effective. They’re ranked 9th in opponents’ points per game, but that is due only to their slow pace, as their efficiencies are all below average, per TeamRankings.com:
As the fifth seed, the Nets may also be at a disadvantage without home court in the first round (and most likely the rest of the playoffs, should they advance). They’re 25-11 at home, and rank 8th in the NBA in home power ranking per TeamRankings, making them a formidable force at the Barclays Center for any visitor. However, with the majority of their playoff games to be on the road, where they’re 14-22 (second-worst of the top nine seeds in the East) and rank 18th, Brooklyn may have a tough time giving Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett a last shot at a title.
One interesting tidbit is the Nets’ success against Miami – they’re 3-0 against the defending champs – but barring any big changes to the playoff picture for the top few seeds, a Brooklyn-Miami matchup wouldn’t be possible until the conference finals. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Brooklyn makes it that far.
Best-case scenario: second round berth
Worst-case scenario: first round exit
Washington Wizards (38-35)
Led by emerging star John Wall, the Wizards have secured themselves their first playoff spot since 2008. Wall has truly been one of the league’s best players this season, with career highs in points (20), assists (8.7), steals (1.9) field goal percentage (.436) and three-point percentage (.362). According to Corner Three’s WAR, Wall is considered the tenth-best player in the league, above such players as Paul George, James Harden, Stephen Curry, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard… you get the picture. His 1.9 steals per game, tied for fifth in the NBA, spearhead a defense that is excellent at forcing turnovers – they’re fifth in opponents’ turnovers per game, forcing a turnover on 14.9% of their opponents’ possessions (fourth). This allows Washington to capitalize with 16 fast break points per game, good for seventh in the league.
Washington plays an interesting style, as their pace slows down greatly as the game goes along. Take a look at their points for and against by quarter, again per TeamRankings:
While they outscore their opponents by almost two points in the first quarter, they begin to play a more grinding style through the next three, with differentials of -1.1, +0.1, and +0.2. As the playoffs tend to have slower paces and lower scores, it will intriguing to see if Washington can jump out to the early lead they’re accustomed to.
In terms of shooting efficiency, the Wizards are pretty average on both sides of the ball – 16th on offense and 19th on defense. They’ll have to rely on their steals and havoc defense to get wins in the postseason, but with likely first-round matchup Toronto top 10 in not turning the ball over, the Wizards could find a tough road ahead. However, they’re good enough on both offense and defense to make a hard-fought series with just about any team in the East.
Best-case scenario: second round berth
Worst-case scenario: first round exit
Charlotte Bobcats (35-38)
Like the Wizards, the Bobcats have been starved for playoff position until this season. The biggest reason for this year’s success is Al Jefferson, who would also be the Bobcats’ key to pulling a possible, however unlikely, first-round upset of Miami.
Charlotte’s recipe for success has been pretty simple: play well on defense, and give the ball to Big Al on offense. Jefferson’s line of 21.5 PPG / 10.4 RPG / 1.09 BPG / 0.97 SPG has contributed to his ranking as a top-5 center according to WAR, and his ability to score with ease on the block has led to people like future Hall-of-Famer Paul Pierce to label him as “unguardable.”
However, teams in the playoffs, especially help-happy Erik Spoelstra’s Heat (who the ‘Cats figure to meet in the first round) will not hesitate to double Jefferson and force Charlotte’s 20th-ranked three-point percentage to do their damage. Despite a solid defense that ranks ninth in opponents’ shooting efficiency, Charlotte’s inability to force turnovers (28th in the league) and ho-hum offense (24th in shooting efficiency) won’t be good enough to beat the top seeds in the East, assuming Charlotte can stick it out the rest of the season and become eligible for postseason play. If Charlotte were able to somehow pass Washington and find their way out of a Indiana/Miami first-round matchup, they might have a shot at making some noise, but at three games back with just nine remaining, it would be difficult.
Best-case scenario: second round appearance (after jumping to sixth seed)
Worst-case scenario: Miss playoffs
Atlanta Hawks (31-41)
The Hawks have been – for lack of a better word – a disaster. After a 25-21 start that had them third in the East, they’ve won just six of their past 26 games. The biggest reason for their absolute freefall has been the loss of Al Horford, who went down just five days before that dreadful stretch began. Without their likely best player (on both sides of the ball), Atlanta is a mess.
The Hawks are in the bottom 10 in both rebounds and blocks, and are 17th in points both for and against in the paint. They rank 20th in both TeamRankings’ overall rankings and Hollinger’s power rankings.
Atlanta needs to turn their season around now if they want to retain their playoff spot, as their six-game losing streak has lined up quite nicely – or unfortunately, depending on your perspective – with a late Knicks surge. However, even with a playoff berth, despite an underrated offense that ranks second in assists (thanks to Mike Budenholzer’s Gregg Popovich training), their defense is probably too weak to put them on top of a seven-game series against any of the East’s playoff bound teams:
Best-case scenario: first round loss
Worst-case scenario: early offseason
New York Knicks (31-41)
The Knicks are a curious case. They’ve won 10 of their past 13 games, but two of those losses were blowouts (one against the Lakers) and the other to a Kyrie-less Cavaliers team at home at Madison Square Garden. Regardless, thanks to the previously documented struggles of Atlanta, the Knicks have a good shot at the playoffs even after one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history.
Down years from Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, Tyson Chandler, and basically every member of the roster not named Carmelo Anthony or Tim Hardaway Jr., combined with very questionable coaching schemes from lame duck Mike Woodson, have all contributed to the Knicks struggles. Despite one of the league’s highest payrolls, New York is 21st in TeamRankings’ – and 18th in Hollinger’s – rankings.
Even with former defensive player of the year Tyson Chandler in the center, their defense has been absolutely brutal this season. Woodson’s propensity for switching bigs onto guards and doubling without quick rotations or accountability have led to defensive efficiency numbers that are, across the board, as bad or worse than Atlanta’s:
The Knicks also seem to make it as hard on themselves as possible to score points, as they’re 30th in fast break points, points in the paint, and free throw attempts. 30th in all three. The life they’ve showed in the past couple weeks is a very good sign, and if they can push into the playoffs, which Hollinger gives them a 13.6% chance of doing as of today, they’d likely match up against the Pacers, a team that has had unthinkable struggles in the same past couple of weeks, and whom New York beat during that stretch. It would be interesting to see New York get hot against the one-seeded team that eliminated them last season, though the numbers say betting on such a situation would not be smart.
Best-case scenario: return to the second round
Worst-case scenario: miss playoffs
by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University
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.