2015-16 Eastern Conference PreviewLeBron James' return to Cleveland proved to be successful by any objective measure, as he lifted the Cavaliers to the franchise's second NBA Finals appearance. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sidelined by injuries during the NBA Finals, the supposedly pass-first James fired up nearly 33 field goal attempts a game and averaged 35.8 ppg, 13.3 rpg and 8.8 apg as the Cavaliers fell to the Golden State Warriors in six games. James' raw box score numbers were incredible, but he shot just .398 from the field and .687 from the free throw line and he could not seize the championship despite having a 2-1 series lead with Game Four at home. As is often the case with James, his play and his statistics were simultaneously astounding and mystifying. He largely escaped any criticism for being inefficient and taking so many shots, as commentators felt that he had no choice with the team's second and third best players on the shelf. I think that James played the right way and that if he had played that way throughout his career--accepting the challenge to be great, instead of being passive in key moments against top teams--he would have more than two championships now. I also think that if Kobe Bryant ever attempted 33 shots a game in the NBA Finals that several NBA commentators would spontaneously combust. It is worth noting that in the pivotal Game Four, when the Cavs could have put a stranglehold on the series, James shot 7-22 from the field. That performance sticks out not just for James' poor shooting percentage but also because he took far fewer shots in that game than any other game in the series. Why take your foot off of the pedal with an opportunity to go for the kill?
The Atlanta Hawks surprised just about everyone by leading the East with a 60-22 record but the Hawks faded down the stretch before righting the ship and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history (the Hawks made it to the Western Division Finals 12 times between 1956 and 1970, winning the NBA championship in 1958). The Hawks proved to be no match for the Cavaliers, though, falling in four straight games.
The Chicago Bulls had a typical season for them, finishing third in the East with 50 wins despite battling through injuries to several key players. After a second round loss to Cleveland, Chicago's management decided to get rid of Coach Tom Thibodeau in favor of Fred Hoiberg, who will install a run and gun offense featuring a lot of three point shooting.
If Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade stay healthy, the Heat might pose the biggest threat to Cleveland. Miami's projected starting lineup of Bosh, Wade, Hassan Whiteside, Luol Deng and Goran Dragic looks formidable on paper.
Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs:
1) Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cleveland Cavaliers had an up and down season before ultimately arriving in the NBA Finals. They started out just 5-7 before winning 12 of their next 15 games. Not long after that, James took an eight game hiatus during which the team went 1-7. Was that a brilliant strategy to rest and recharge, did James just need to heal some minor injuries or was that James' way of getting some of his teammates in line by withdrawing and in effect asking them, "How far do you think you can take this team without me?" We will probably never know the real answer but we do know that after James exited his tent and rejoined the battle the Cavs went 32-10 the rest of the way, aided by some shrewd midseason roster adjustments that added Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to the rotation.
First year Coach Dave Blatt looked clueless and overwhelmed at times and he never seemed to fully win James' support but the East crashed and burned around the Cavs while James and his new teammates found their way. Blatt was exposed in the NBA Finals as Golden State's Steve Kerr completely outcoached him by going small when it became clear that the Warriors had no way to match up with Cleveland's big lineup. Blatt should have stuck with his best players but instead he went small as well and the Cavs lost three of the last four games of the series.
The Cavaliers' projected "Big Three" of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love did not look entirely comfortable playing together but when Irving and Love suffered injuries during the playoffs the Cavs discovered that a big frontline of Mozgov, Tristan Thompson and James created a lot of matchup problems. It will be very interesting to see how Blatt deploys his roster this year if all of his players are healthy. It will also be interesting to see if Tristan Thompson--who is represented by LeBron James (I mean, Rich Paul)--reports to camp and what kind of deal James (I mean, Rich Paul) negotiates for Thompson. James (I mean, Rich Paul) is seeking maximum dollars for a player who had a good postseason run but is projected to come off of the bench.
The bottom line is that there will likely once again be drama, injuries and strange coaching strategies in Cleveland but would you bet your life that any Eastern Conference team can beat the Cavs four times in a seven game series if James is physically healthy and mentally engaged?
2) Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks were a surprise team last season and I sense that some people still view them as a fluke. I certainly underestimated the Hawks but now that I see that they have a good coaching staff in place, a sound system and a deep roster--albeit one devoid of a superstar--I fully expect them to remain in the upper echelon in the Eastern Conference. Losing Demarre Carroll hurts but let's not go crazy about a guy who averaged 12.6 ppg. His contributions can be replaced collectively, which is the way the Hawks do things; no one on the team averaged more than 16.7 ppg but six Hawks averaged at least 10.0 ppg and four Hawks made the All-Star team.
3) Toronto Raptors: General Manage Masai Ujiri is a very good talent evaluator. The Denver Nuggets have not been the same since he left and the Raptors have been a team on the rise since he arrived. The Raptors needed to bolster their defense and so in the offseason Ujiri added Demarre Carroll and Bismack Biyombo to a team that won 49 games despite being hampered down the stretch by a back injury that slowed down All-Star guard Kyle Lowry. Yes, I just wrote that the Hawks can replace Carroll but that does not mean that he will not help Toronto.
4) Miami Heat: The Miami Heat have a stacked starting lineup. As I noted above, if things break right they could very well be the biggest threat to knock off the Cavaliers. So why do I rank the Heat just fourth? Except for Dragic, each of Miami's projected starters missed at least 10 games last season. The team's three most valuable players--Wade, Bosh and Deng--each missed at least 20 games. I think that we are going to spend a lot of the season hearing about how good this team could be but I am not quite convinced that everything will hold together through 82 games plus the postseason.
5) Chicago Bulls: The Bulls could be anywhere from the second best team in the East to a team struggling to make the playoffs but fifth sounds about right. Pau Gasol enjoyed being freed from the shackles of Mike D'Antoni's offense but he does not figure to be featured in Fred Hoiberg's run and gun attack. It is not clear if Derrick Rose will ever regain his MVP form. At this writing, Rose is recovering from an orbital fracture and facing the prospect of sexual assault charges. Chicago's offense may be better under Hoiberg but it is doubtful that the defense will be as good as it was under Thibodeau and the net result figures to be a slow but steady slide from contending status.
6) Washington Wizards: I like Washington's young nucleus, particularly the dynamic John Wall-Bradley Beal backcourt. However, the Wizards did not do enough in the offseason to move up in the standings. It seems like they are treading water hoping that their core players will continue to improve and/or that Kevin Durant will join the squad when he becomes a free agent.
7) Milwaukee Bucks: Remember when many members of the mainstream media questioned Jason Kidd's coaching ability? Kidd silenced a lot of his critics while guiding the surprising Bucks to the sixth seed last season. The addition of Greg Monroe will help but is somewhat offset by the loss of Zaza Pachulia and Ersan Ilyasova. The Bucks just do not seem to have enough talent to take the next step.
8) Boston Celtics: The battle for the last playoff spot will probably be won by a team with just 40-42 victories. The Indiana Pacers, with a healthy Paul George, could make the playoffs, as could the Orlando Magic with Scott Skiles at the helm or the Detroit Pistons in year two under Stan Van Gundy. However, I like Boston's program, mainly because the Celtics are not buying into the nonsense that it is better to be really bad, miss the playoffs and get a Lottery pick than to build a team piece by piece while gaining postseason experience along the way. The Celtics are the anti-76ers. Not that there is anything wrong with Indiana, Orlando or Detroit--those teams are also on the right track--but I think that Boston's playoff experience last year will be an asset for the team's core players this year.
I correctly picked five of the eight 2014-15 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:
2006-2015 Total: 61/80 (.763)
posted by David Friedman @ 2:09 AM