With a little more than a month left in the NBA’s regular season, it’s time to look ahead to the playoff race and break the contenders away from the pretenders in the Eastern Conference.
In just a few weeks the East transformed from a wide-open race, to a battle between two teams who need to square off in the conference finals.
If you search deep enough, you’ll find some interesting storylines to latch onto during the final 20+ games in the East. The bottom of the conference doesn’t get pretty, so sorry Knicks, Magic and Sixers fans, you should stop reading this column right now.
The Top Shelf
Atlanta Hawks (First in East, 49-13)
Even though they won six out of their last seven games, it felt as though the Hawks had slowed down a little bit after the All-Star break. Orlando gave Atlanta trouble at home after a rest day for both teams. The next night, the Hawks pulled out a 93-91 victory over the Heat, but they surrendered 38 points in the fourth quarter. A few days later, Atlanta bounced back from a slow first half and outscored Houston 59-37 in the final 24 minutes.
Josh Smith how do you feel about that?
Then the Hawks came out firing with a dominating win at home over the Cavaliers on March 6th. Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver would then sit the next night in Philadelphia where the Hawks would fall to the Sixers. It was a perfect example of the ebbs and flows of a season in the NBA.
The Hawks currently have a 10 game lead in the East with 20 left to go. Barring a major collapse, they’re going to finish with the best record in the conference and they could, for the first time in the history of the franchise, finish with the best record in the entire league. An improbable proposition to consider at the start of the season and yet it still feels as though they’re going to be an overwhelming underdog to Cleveland in a seven game series.
The Cavs would have the best player in the series, so it wouldn’t be stunning to see LeBron and Co. eliminate he Hawks, but to actually believe that Atlanta wouldn’t have a chance is the kind of opinion that fails to take into account the importance of rotation development.
Coach Budenholzer’s rotation is currently nine deep with Thabo Sefolosha still on the shelf for 1-3 more weeks with a strained right calf. Typically when the playoffs roll around rosters shrink from nine to seven as the workload of the staters increase to 37-39 minutes a night as opposed to 30-32. There’s no back-to-backs to worry about and there’s a day dedicated to traveling.
But why would Coach Bud tinker with his rotation when it’s clearly working? Atlanta’s bench is 26th this season in minutes played, which means Budenholzer won’t have to worry about Mike Scott pouting because he’s not on the court when it comes time for Millsap to play 38 minutes instead of the 33 he’s averaging this season.
Cleveland Cavaliers (Second in East 40-25)
After watching the Bulls, Raptors and Wizards (especially the Wizards) struggle after the All-Star break, it was only a matter of time before Cavaliers jumped all three to reach the second seed in the East.
Even though Cleveland suffered a loss to a scrappy Indiana team (LeBron and Kyrie didn’t play due to rest/injuries) and a tough loss to Houston (which included a swift kick by Harden to LeBron’s nuggets #neverforget), the Cavs have shown numerous signs of being something resembling the super team we were expecting to see in November.
In last Wednesday’s win over the Raptors, LeBron went into wrecking ball mode as he drilled two high degree of difficulty threes and a ridiculous scoop layup while the five Raptors on the court watched a maroon blur drive to the rim. It was vintage LeBron, which is exactly what James has been since his winter break in January, but he’s not the only reason why the Cavs are the favorite to win the Eastern Conference.
Small sample size alert: Besides his dud against the Suns, Kyrie Irving has continued his superb play since the All-Star Game. His net rating this season is 14.4. His offensive rating per 100 possessions is a career high 116, which is a massive leap from his first three seasons (109, 108, 109) and the number jumps to 123 in crunch time.
There have been multiple times this season when Kyrie has struck gold from deep in the fourth quarter. He swung a game way back in November against the Celtics when a pair of clutch threes and then a trio of free throws after he was fouled on a three point attempt. He scored 11 straight points, which led to a Cleveland comeback victory in a time where the Cavs were struggling to put together solid performances.
It’s those types of moments that the Cavs will need in May when Kevin Love misses another wide-open corner three, but continues to say that he’s not a stretch four.
Middle of the road
Chicago Bulls (Third in East, 39-25)
I’m not sure what it is about Tom Thibodeau and his backup point guards, but they go together better than peanut butter and Nutella. In the last three seasons, the guy who has been pushed into the starting lineup after a Derrick Rose injury has had immediate success.
In 2012-13 Nate Robinson had the last relevant moment of his career as he and backcourt mate Marco Belinelli led the shorthanded Bulls to a first round victory over a soulless Nets team in Brooklyn before bolting to Denver for $4 million over the next two seasons.
Last yeat, D.J. Augustin replaced Robinson and eventually replaced Rose as the starting point guard for 14 games due to yet another injury. Augustin had a career high in points (14.9) and net rating (114-105), but unlike Robinson’s Bulls, this Chicago team fell to the Wizards in the first round.
This season it’s Aaron Brooks’ turn to have a revival with Rose down for potentially the rest of the season with a torn meniscus. Brooks showed flashes of solid play alongside Rose as his score first mentality is something Tibs’ offense desperately needed.
E’Twaun Moore had a nice moment against the Thunder with his crunch time three, but it was just his first double digit scoring game of the season.
But let’s be honest here, the only reason the Bulls have been watchable lately is when Dougie McBuckets hits the floor. Dude has an unlimited green light. Any time he touches the ball it’s going up.
Toronto Raptors (Fourth in East, 38-25)
Back in mid-January a report surfaced regarding the Raptors’ long term plans to bring Andrew Wiggins home to Canada. Before that report the Raps were 26-12 and were in the discussion of teams that could reach the finals out of what we thought was a wide-open East. Since that report, Toronto is a mediocre 12-13 and oddly enough DeMar Derozan returned from a 21-game injury on January 14th, a day before the Wiggins report came out.
Conspiracy theories aside, if you take a glance at the Raptors schedule you’ll notice a not so flattering pattern that perfectly displays why they’re stuck in the middle of the East. They’re 16-14 against the other 15 playoff teams this season and 22-11 while playing clean-up duty against the Sixers, Kings, Knicks and a pre Stifle Tower era Jazz team.
Washington Wizards (Fifth in East, 35-28)
Nobody beats the Wiz, except for the 19 times it’s happened since the calendar flipped to 2015. Part of this is due to the predictability of the Wizards’ offense, which has become a bloated mess of mid-range jump shots that are going in at a mediocre 40 percent. Just look at how many shots Washington is taking from 16-24 feet compared to the four teams above them in the East:
To further display just how many mid-range shots the Wizards have taken this season consider this; Byron Scott’s Lakers have taken 1,825 shots between 16-24 feet. This is the same guy who stated earlier this season that he did not “believe” an offensive philosophy focused around three pointers could win a title….
All alone with some cheese
Milwaukee Bucks (Sixth in East, 33-29)
Since trading away Brandon Knight to the Suns in a three-team deal that included the Sixers, the Bucks have scored over 100 points just once, so yes replacing Knight with an appetizer sampler of Michael Carter Williams, Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee has brought the mediocre return an app sampler usually brings.
But the NBA is much more than just a current on the court business. Teams are looking ahead to a new age of the salary cap and as we saw last year, a vastly different free agency period than we’re used to. Knight is superior to the PG combo of MCW and Ennis on the court, but MCW and Ennis’ rookie contracts are what’s superior in the eyes of the Bucks’ front office.
With the possibility of a massive leap in the salary cap due to the new television contract and the amount of money point guards are bringing in (Kemba Walker four years, $48 million for example) Knight could easily request $11-$13 million a year in the open market. If he’ll actually get that amount of money in the golden age of the point guard is a totally different topic of discussion, but Knight’s play this season in Milwaukee was encouraging enough that it wouldn’t be surprising if some team gave him a four year $50M offer sheet in July.
But did the Bucks do themselves a favor by avoiding a contract dispute with Knight instead of making him a key piece of their three-to-five year plan? Carter-Williams’ size fits in with Jason Kidd’s philosophy of having five interchangeable long-limbed guys on defense, who can switch on a pick-and-roll without giving up too much of a mismatch, but MCW has a broken jump shot and Ennis is still an unknown quantity. (Sidenote: Ennis has a club option in 2016, so the Bucks could quickly hit the eject button if he doesn’t pan out.)
It’s a shame that the Bucks have went from a difficult first round matchup for either the Raptors, Bulls or Wizards to a team that looks like they’ll be exiting the playoffs after four or five games.
The Bottom Dwellers
Just four and a half games separate the Pacers (seventh) from the Pistons (12th) with the Heat, Hornets, Celtics and Nets sandwiched in between.
While the names might not be sexy, there are some interesting storylines that are going to play out between these six teams. Personally what I’m interested in is the possibility of these teams ending up stuck against the Hawks on NBA TV, the red-headed step child of playoff coverage. So let’s take a look at some of the possible first round matchups and the odds that they could get stuck with a Matt Winer led pregame show.
There are too many bigger names for an Atlanta-Miami series to wind up on a network besides ABC/ESPN and TNT. What’s left of Dwyane Wade’s knees deserves better than being stuck on NBA TV.
How could anyone possibly want to see the Nets get bulldozed in the first round, while young players who could benefit from a little playoff experience (Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, Isaiah Thomas, Kemba Walker, Lance Stephenson, Kelly Olynyk) could be stuck going home or on going on a mid-April vacation
You’re right; Lance Stephenson would prefer the vacation at this point.
If the Bobcats would have played anyone else besides Miami in the first round last season, they would have been a lock to end up on NBA TV. Even with a pretty new coat of paint, they’re still a chore to watch offensively and Atlanta doesn’t have the guy that people have to tune in to see.
Hawks-Pacers if Paul George plays: 0%
No chance this ends up on a random channel that’s hard to find if one of the league’s young stars makes his return. Plus the idea of the same Pacers team as last year (minus Lance) as the eight seed against the top-seeded Hawks is fascinating.
If he doesn’t play: 50%
With the way the Pacers have been playing over their last 15 games (12-3), a Hawks-Pacers series without PG-13 is still better than a Bulls-Bucks series or Raptors-Bucks.
Boston still feels like too big of a market to wind up stuck on NBA TV.
Ding, ding. We have a winner. Not even Stan Van Gundy f-bombs can save the Pistons from the NBA TV island, we just have to hope he gives us more Youtube gold.
Thanks to Pro Basketball Reference and NBA.com for the stats.
Follow me on Twitter @Scottdargis