Not a lot in the NBA Eastern Conference has turned out the way it was expected as injuries have decimated many teams’ preseason hopes, but once one gets past some disappointing results, it has been an exciting ride that’s created opportunities for some fresh blood in this year’s playoffs. Really, it’s all good outside of New York and Detroit.
NBA Eastern Conference
1. 40-12 Indiana Pacers – 49-32 last season, originally projected 55-27 (4th)
We said: The Pacers should have won more games last season and with the addition of Luis Scola and the return of Danny Granger they are better now. However, the Pacers will probably play their best against the teams they respect and do just enough for a top 4 finish against everyone else. Look out for these guys in the playoffs.
We see: The Pacers are a team on a mission and taking nights off is so last year. This team has matured in their approach to the regular season. Scola and Granger have made a big difference and Lance Stephenson is turning into a player that will be fought over in free agency this summer. There is no guarantee they can hold on to first place in the East over the final 30 games, but it would be foolish to bet against them. Barring injury, the Pacers should be the favorites to represent the East in this year’s NBA Finals.
2. 37-14 Miami HEAT – 66-16 last season, originally projected 60-22 (2nd)
We said: The HEAT still have James, Wade and Bosh, so they remain favorites to return to the Eastern Conference Finals, however, they won’t lose any sleep about what position in the top four they end up at during the regular season. That alone makes first place an unlikely result.
We see: The HEAT still have the best player in the NBA, but sometimes that just isn’t enough during the long regular season and Wade has already missed 15 games. Miami could still end up in first place, but that isn’t this team’s priority. Getting to the Eastern Conference Finals remains the goal where, if everyone is healthy, James has the ability to steal any 7-game series from any other team in the NBA and there isn’t anyone in the East who can stop them from getting their chance.
3. 28-24 Toronto Raptors – 34-48 last season, originally projected 44-38 (7th)
We said: The Raptors have brought back the core of last season’s roster that played .500 ball after the Rudy Gay trade and have upgraded the Andrea Bargnani anchor that had been holding them back last year with three-point shooting specialist Steve Novak and the physical play of Tyler Hansbrough.
We see: The Raptors should be in seventh place with their record, but as the rest of conference has underperformed, they are enjoying a more lofty position. Toronto didn’t get here the way we expected. Rudy Gay was forced into a very uncomfortable power-point-forward role to determine if he could become a $19 million player – he couldn’t and was shipped off to Sacramento for a bench and the Raptors began living up to expectations. With the Kings, Gay has proven he is still the effective scoring small forward that he always was and the Raptors could likely have met projections with him, but Toronto is a much better ‘team’ without him. It will be a 4-way fight for third in the East the rest of the way.
4. 27-25 Chicago Bulls – 45-37 last season, originally projected 62-20 (1st)
We said: The Bulls operated at a first-place 62-win pace for two seasons behind Derrick Rose’s leadership. The winning core of Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Carlos Boozer are back and this team is good enough to produce another 60-plus win season.
We see: Once Rose was lost for the season, the Bulls prospects of returning to relevance went with him. Then Chicago did the logical move of trading away Luol Deng to get below the NBA’s luxury tax line and acquiring draft picks. While Chicago is no longer a threat to Indiana or Miami, Head Coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t about to tank the season and his Bulls are a threat to everyone else proving – once again to all the doubters – that coaching really does matter!
Chicago is owed protected first round draft picks from Sacrament (top 12) and Charlotte (top 10), so they are winning even when they are losing.
5. 25-26 Atlanta Hawks – 44-38 last season, originally projected 41-41 (8th)
We said: The Atlanta Hawks have their payroll under control and they made a value signing with Paul Millsap. However, it is hard to envision this team not being slightly worse than last year without their former leading scorer Josh Smith and their 10 point per game backup point guard Devin Harris.
We see: The Hawks were slightly better than expected before Al Horford was lost for the season and they are slightly worse without him. Millsap was made a deserving All-Star, but the longer Atlanta plays without Horford, the more obvious the hole in the middle becomes. They were 4 games above .500 at the end of December, but lost 5 games in a row in February including Chicago and Toronto back-to-back. They might be able to hold onto eighth in the East as projected, but a .500 record at the end of the season seems unlikely.
6. 25-27 Washington Wizards – 29-53 last season, originally projected 36-46 (9th)
We said: The Wizards believe they can play .500 ball with this roster for an entire season if Wall stays healthy and maybe they can, but this season it will be starting center Emeka Okafor injured for an indeterminate amount of time. Expect the Wizards to put player development ahead of making the playoffs this season.
We see: The Wizards sent a message when they traded Okafor and a first round draft pick to the Suns for center Marcin Gortat that they were going for a playoff spot and in the mess that the Eastern Conference has become, it could end up anywhere from third to eighth. This team still has issues and may set an all-time NBA record for losing the most games in a season that would have put them above the .500-mark. John Wall is having a career year and was made an All-Star and with all the injuries in the East this season, crossing the line from a projected ninth place team to a likely playoff spot isn’t much of a surprise.
7. 24-27 Brooklyn Nets – 49-33 last season, originally projected 58-24 (3rd)
We said: The Nets have the highest payroll in the NBA and will set a luxury tax record this season. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if they ended up in first place in the East.
We see: A team that has been crushed by injuries and was 10-21 on December 31. They have turned things around, but with Brook Lopez lost for the season and Deron Williams playing on suspect ankles, they can only do so much. The Nets had two 5-game winning streaks in January to salvage their season, but both times it was their new rivals from Toronto that snapped the run, sending a message that the Nets are not the even best team in the Atlantic Division. The Nets are 4 wins and 3 losses in February and that is a pretty good indication of what this team can do.
8. 23-30 Charlotte Bobcats – 21-61 last season, originally projected 28-54 (13th)
We said: A starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and Al Jefferson still only averages 23-years-old and while there is plenty of firepower, it will be matched by mistakes at the other end. This team is still under development, but the light at the end of the tunnel should no longer be assumed to be an oncoming train.
We see: The Bobcats shouldn’t be in eighth spot, but they are ahead of schedule because of their top five standing in opponents’ points allowed. They give themselves a chance to win games. Jefferson is a 20 point 10 rebound load for the Bobcats in the post and Walker has developed into the clutch player everyone saw in college. With the poor showings by the Pistons and Knicks, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this team make a move before the trade deadline in order to hold onto their playoff spot.
9. 22-30 Detroit Pistons – 29-53 last season, originally projected 44-38 (6th)
We said: The Pistons added talent and should make the playoffs. Dumars landed free agent forward Josh Smith with a four year $54 million offer and completed a sign and trade deal to acquire Brandon Jennings from the Bucks at $24 million over three years.
We see: A team imploding. Joe Dumars has fired his head coach, but since it was the talent he has put together that hasn’t gelled, maybe he should have fired himself. From the day Dumars signed Smith, it seemed obvious he should have been cashing in on his young soon-to-be free agent power forward Greg Monroe to acquire an impact small forward, but we’re still waiting and nothing has happened. Sure the Pistons still have the talent to be a postseason team, but if Dumars doesn’t fix this dysfunctional roster by the trade deadline, it looks like more disappointment and another trip to the lottery. (Note: the Bobcats own the Pistons’ draft pick top 8 protected and must be licking their chops in anticipation.)
10. 20-32 New York Knicks – 54-28 last season, originally projected 48-34 (5th)
We said: The Knicks are old and have injury issues, but they won 54 games last season under Head Coach Mike Woodson facing many of the same problems. Somehow Woodson kept this team on track during the regular season and he will probably do it again this year.
We see: An old injury-riddled and injury-prone Knicks team that Woodson couldn’t work his magic on early in the season and has tuned-out and gave-up. The Knicks do not function as a team. It was a miracle Woodson was able to get 54 wins out of the Knicks last year, but apparently that miracle is not about to repeat itself. They are still in range of a playoff spot, but no one seems to care. (The Knicks do not have a 2014 first round draft pick – owed to the Nuggets and they owe their second round pick to the Rockets.)
11. 20-33 Cleveland Cavaliers – 24-58 last season, originally projected 34-48 (11th)
We said: The Cavaliers are a true wild card. If Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving can stay/get healthy and play most of this season, then this roster can compete with the Knicks for fifth place and they should succeed. However, those are massive ifs. . It is more important to continue the growth and development of Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller, Anthony Bennett and Sergey Karasev.
We see: Not a lot has gone right in Cleveland this season. The Bynum experiment was a huge failure although he was traded for Luol Deng so that was a better result than expected. However, this team doesn’t defend or share the ball and is generally more dysfunctional than anticipated. Like Detroit in some ways, the Cavaliers are less than the sum of their parts. To compete now and/or in the future, this team needs a trade. Hopefully interim general manager David Griffin has the authority to make some moves.
12. 19-35 Boston Celtics – 41-40 last season, originally projected 33-49 (12th)
We said: Boston didn’t have to let Head Coach Doc Rivers out of his contract and trade Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett if they were going to take steps to ensure a return to the playoffs this season. However, the Big Three era in Boston was over. Point guard Rajon Rondo will miss the start of the season and probably a lot more before his rehab is done.
We see: Rondo is back and the Celtics are 2-8 with him on the court, so far, everything is going according to plan.
13. 16-38 Orlando Magic – 20-62 last season, originally projected 25-57 (14th)
We said: The Magic have done an exceptionally good job of rebuilding out of the ashes of their Dwightmare. Last season Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson showed they were part of the future and the second overall 2013 draft pick Victor Oladipo is a potential future All-Star guard. However, the rebuilding isn’t done and another high draft pick in 2014 is definitely in the plans.
We see: We really like Oladipo. Good job Magic!
14. 15-39 Philadelphia 76ers – 34-48 last season, originally projected 18-64 (15th)
We said: 76ers fans have a facebook page called Winless For Wiggins. This roster is young, suspect and ideal for tanking. Veteran Jason Richardson is unlikely to play this season after knee surgery. The team dumped All-Star Andre Iguodala for nothing but wishing and hoping last summer and recently traded All-Star Jrue Holiday for the injured 2013 sixth overall draft pick Nerlens Noel.
We see: A team constructed to lose games that is right on schedule. Michael Carter-Williams could win Rookie of the Year and the only thing they’ve done wrong is not move out Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and/or Spencer Hawes for more draft picks.
15. 9-43 Milwaukee Bucks – 38-44 last season, originally projected 36-46 (10th)
We said: Once again, this team is good enough to grab the eighth spot if the teams that are supposed to be better flounder and that situation is not all that hard to imagine.
We see: The Bucks didn’t do this on purpose, but once down, they’ve been riding the trip to the most ping pong balls with gusto. At the break, Milwaukee has 7 players injured and can barely field a starting 5. With 4 players out indefinitely, they can easily hold onto last place overall and no one is going to accuse them of tanking the season. If the Bucks didn’t have unbelievably bad luck, they would have had no luck at all. Only 1 player on their roster has played in all 52 games.