2016-17 Eastern Conference PreviewWatching LeBron James fail to take the Cleveland Cavaliers to the promised land before departing for Miami and winning two titles with the Heat, it was fair to wonder if an all-time great like LeBron James cannot lead the Cavaliers to an NBA championship then maybe the city really is cursed, at least in terms of never winning another professional sports title.
James' return to Cleveland inspired hope that perhaps he would finally lead the Cavaliers to a title but after losing to the Golden State Warriors in six games in the 2015 NBA Finals and then falling behind 3-1 to the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals, it seemed like James was authoring yet another chapter in the epic book of Cleveland's sports misery. Instead, James elevated his game and--with more than a little help from Kyrie Irving--lifted the Cavaliers to an improbable comeback and the city's first professional sports championship since Jim Brown and the Cleveland Browns won the 1964 NFL title in the pre-Super Bowl era.
Now, James is trying to lead the Cavaliers to back to back championships. No Cleveland professional sports franchise has won consecutive titles since the Browns in 1954-55. James has personally made it to the NBA Finals for six straight years--the first four with Miami and the last two with Cleveland--while winning three championships, including back to back titles with the Heat in 2012-13. He has not had a worthy rival in the East since the decline and fall of the Garnett-Pierce-Allen-Rondo Boston Celtics, the last team to defeat James in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Toronto Raptors went 56-26 to finish just one game behind the Cavaliers for first place in the Eastern Conference in the 2015-16 regular season but the Cavaliers raced to a 2-0 lead versus the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals. Toronto briefly made it a series by taking the next two games at home but then the Cavaliers won by 38 and 26 to advance to the NBA Finals. Behind Toronto was a logjam of eight teams that finished with between 41 and 48 wins, including four teams that won 48 games each. Although both Indiana (45-37) and Miami (48-34) pushed Toronto to seven games, none of those eight teams had a realistic chance to win more than two games against Cleveland in a seven game series.
This season does not figure to be much different in terms of any Eastern Conference team threatening to supplant James' Cavaliers. The Cavaliers, barring injury to James or Irving, will be the best team come playoff time, even if they do not finish with the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors will pose the most serious threat to Cleveland's supremacy. Of the four East teams that each won 48 games last year, two have clearly regressed (Charlotte and Miami), one remains a solid playoff team but no more than that (Atlanta) and one is likely to break the 50 win plateau (Boston).
The new-look Boston Celtics--sporting a young nucleus of players plus the addition of free agent All-Star big man Al Horford--are a rising team that could at least challenge the Cavaliers and Raptors for the best record in the East but it is difficult to picture Boston prevailing over Cleveland in a seven game series.
Barring injury, I feel confident that those will be the top three teams in the East. After that, I expect that there will once again be several teams bunched together in the 40-48 win range; a sprained ankle suffered by a key player on one of those teams could be the difference between finishing with the fourth seed and missing the playoffs.
Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs, ranked based on their likelihood of advancing to the NBA Finals:
1) Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavaliers started out 30-11 with David Blatt at the helm before General Manager David Griffin determined that Blatt was not the right man to lead Cleveland to the championship. Griffin replaced Blatt with lead assistant Tyronn Lue, who was almost immediately given a three year contract, thereby sending a strong message that he is not a lame duck coach. The Cavaliers went 27-14 down the stretch to finish 57-25, a four game improvement over the 2014-15 season. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Hawks dropped from 60 wins to 48, so Cleveland ascended to the top seed in the conference by one game over Toronto.
Lue wanted the Cavaliers to play at a faster pace, which necessitated changes in the rotation as well as in the team's practice sessions and training methods. Some of the benefits of these changes were not immediately apparent during the regular season but bore fruit during the playoffs. It was also evident that James respects Lue in a way that he did not respect Blatt; therefore, James submitted to Lue's authority and it is only natural that when the best player supports the coach then the other players will fall in line as well. Lue held James accountable for his words and actions in a way that Blatt was either unwilling to do or unable to do because James would not listen to him.
The Cavaliers went 12-2 in the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2015 and in 2016 but the Lue effect showed up most in the NBA Finals. In 2015, the Cavaliers took a 2-1 series lead but then Golden State Coach Steve Kerr went to a small lineup and Blatt blundered by also going small as opposed to continuing to pound the Warriors in the paint. In 2016, the Warriors took a 3-1 series lead but the Cavaliers remained poised and in the final three games of the series James did what he needed to do: attack the paint relentlessly instead of settling for jumpers or passing the ball without first attacking. James seems to need to be constantly reminded to be an attacking player against elite teams and it also seems that he only will accept such reminders from people he respects (Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley, Tyronn Lue, to cite three examples).
I concluded my Cavaliers preview last season by asking "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?" The correct answer in the 2016 playoffs was "No" and I believe that the same answer will be true in the 2017 playoffs.
2) Toronto Raptors: The Raptors tend to fly under the radar. Perhaps that is because they do not have a bona fide superstar or because they play their home games outside of the United States or because they had only advanced past the first round of the playoffs once in franchise history before making it to the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors should not escape anyone's attention this season, because they are the Eastern Conference team with the best chance to beat the Cavaliers in a playoff series.
The Raptors will miss Bismack Biyombo's defense, rebounding and energy but if Jonas Valanciunus stays healthy then they will be fine in the paint. General Manager Masai Ujiri has proven to be one of the top talent evaluators and franchise builders in the NBA but the tough task that he faces is to either (1) find a player who can make LeBron James have to work to score and/or have to exert a lot of energy defensively or (2) build a team that is so talented or deep that it can wear down James and the Cavaliers over the course of a long playoff series. The Raptors have made great strides under Ujiri's leadership but unless James declines dramatically (or gets hurt) they just do not have quite enough to beat Cleveland four times in seven games.
If the Raptors are very focused on obtaining the top seed while the Cavaliers decide to strategically rest players, it is possible that Toronto will finish with the best regular season record in the East.
3) Boston Celtics: My default tendency is to not highly value young players or young coaches/coaches who come to the NBA straight from the collegiate ranks; in the NBA you generally need experience in order to win big. That default tendency is why I did not pick the Celtics to make the playoffs in 2015 (they finished 40-42 but captured the seventh seed in the weak East) and why I picked the Celtics to finish eighth in 2016 (they finished in a four way tie for 3rd-6th with a 48-34 record and received the fifth seed based on tiebreaks).
This season, my expectations for Boston are higher and hopefully have caught up with the pace of the team's development. Coach Brad Stevens is entering his fourth year at the helm and he has proven to be an excellent NBA coach. The young nucleus of players has matured nicely and has now been joined by Al Horford, a four-time All Star with the Atlanta Hawks.
The Celtics were a well balanced team even before adding Horford, who is an excellent all-around player; last season they ranked fifth in scoring (105.7 ppg), sixth in rebounding (44.9 rpg) and seventh in defensive field goal percentage (.441). Their main weakness last season was shooting: they ranked 24th in overall field goal percentage (.439) and 28th in three point field goal percentage (.335). The Celtics did not do anything to address that weakness.
The Celtics will likely win more than 50 games this season and if everything breaks right they could even have the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference--but I am not convinced that they have enough experience and enough shooting to beat the Cavaliers in a seven game playoff series. The formula to beat a LeBron James-led team is (1) have a strong/athletic wing player who is willing and able to hound James defensively, (2) pack the paint with big guys to discourage James from driving, (3) concede long two-point jumpers to James (and hope that he settles for those shots) and (4) utilize an offensive system that spreads the court with quick passes/deft outside shooting, thus minimizing James' ability to impact the game defensively as a roving help defender.
The Celtics look like a team that is going to have a wonderful regular season and be touted as a threat to the Cavaliers only to get defeated decisively if they actually face Cleveland in the playoffs.
4) Detroit Pistons: The Pistons have been on the rise since they replaced the Rodney Stuckey-obsessed Joe Dumars with Stan Van Gundy; few people can capably handle the dual role of executive/coach but Van Gundy has done an excellent job of rebuilding the roster and of developing players after he acquires them. Dumars deserves credit for putting together Detroit's 2004 championship team and for cultivating the sustained excellence that resulted in six straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals (2003-08) but the end of his tenure was disastrous: five straight seasons of 30 wins or less.
The Pistons went 32-50 in Van Gundy's first season with the team and then jumped to 44-38 last year, returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09 and posting their best record since 2007-08. They could reach the 50 win mark this season and they will have at least a puncher's chance in the playoffs against any Eastern Conference team other than the Cavaliers.
5) Atlanta Hawks: Is Dwight Howard a declining and/or disinterested player or will his game be revived now that he does not have to deal with James Harden's ball dominant play on offense and Shaqtin' A Fool caliber defense? I don't expect Howard to ever be an MVP caliber player again but it was his forceful play in the paint at both ends of the court that powered Houston's run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals, regardless of what Harden's media supporters say. Howard can be an effective offensive player on screen/roll actions and with occasional post up opportunities and he is still a strong presence as a rebounder and defender. The Hawks will not win 60 games like they did two seasons ago, nor will they seriously threaten the Cavaliers in the playoffs, but they are a solid squad that should have no problem making their 10th straight postseason appearance.
6) Washington Wizards: New Coach Scott Brooks has a proven track record of developing young players--including Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden--and that is his primary task here: develop a roster that is filled with talented young players who have yet to reach their individual or collective potential. I am not expecting miracles but the Wizards only missed the playoffs by three games last season and I believe that Brooks' coaching will be worth at least four or five wins over the course of 82 games.
7) Orlando Magic: Frank Vogel led the Indiana Pacers to the playoffs five times in six years, including back to back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals. It did not take long for the Magic to hire him after the Pacers made the puzzling decision to let him go. Vogel will instill a defensive mindset and that will be enough to lift the Magic to the 43-45 win range. The Magic beefed up their soft interior defense by adding Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, two athletic big men who will anchor the back line of Vogel's defense.
8) Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets did not have a great offseason and many pundits expect them to drop from the postseason picture but this is a well-coached, defensive-minded squad and I think that those qualities will enable the Hornets to win just enough games to grab the final playoff sport.
As for the rest of the East, the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets will remain the two worst teams. It will take a long time for the 76ers to undo the damage done by Sam Hinkie's foolish tanking. Under Hinkie's misguided direction, the 76ers spent years losing on purpose to gain the right to draft players who cannot stay healthy long enough to prove whether or not they will become significant contributors. The only thing that losing breeds is more losing. I expect that Bryan Colangelo will turn the 76ers around eventually but he has a tough task ahead of him because, as Colangelo put it, Hinkie bred "a culture of losing" and that does not change overnight.
The Nets are not trying to tank but they are just run really, really poorly. After purchasing the team in 2010, Mikhail Prokorov talked big about how he was going to turn the Nets into a championship team within five years but he has found out that the business "techniques" that enabled him to build a fortune as a Russian oligarch do not lead to success in the NBA.
The Khris Middleton injury will be too much for Milwaukee, a non-playoff team last season, to overcome.
The Knicks have a good team on paper--but for five years ago, not now; even if veterans Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah combine with second year budding star Kristaps Porzingis to increase New York's win total by 10 (which is far from certain) the Knicks will still likely miss the playoffs in an Eastern Conference that is steadily becoming stronger and deeper.
The Indiana Pacers replaced Vogel with Nate McMillan, who is a solid coach but not necessarily an upgrade; the Pacers' plan is apparently to play fast, shoot a lot of three pointers and hope that the opposition does not notice that the Pacers are too small to protect the paint. They barely qualified for the playoffs last season with 45 wins and I think that they will decline a bit this year, though perhaps Myles Turner will make a big jump after an impressive rookie season and carry this team to one of the final playoff spots.
The Miami Heat lost Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and Luol Deng while adding no one of consequence. Even if Hassan Whiteside lives up to his new, big contract that will not be nearly enough to get this team into the playoffs.
Like the Knicks, the Chicago Bulls have talent on paper but that talent is either old or mismatched; if everything meshes just right and Dwyane Wade drinks from the Fountain of Youth this is the team that I have picked to miss the playoffs that I think has the best chance of proving me wrong by winning 45 games instead of 35--but I feel comfortable predicting 35 wins (or less).
It would not shock me if Chicago, Indiana and New York beat out the teams that I have picked for 6th-8th and I fully expect teams 6-11 to be closely bunched together but as things stand now I have more questions than answers regarding the Bulls, Pacers and Knicks.
I correctly picked five of the eight 2015-16 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:
2006-2016 Total: 66/88 (.750)
posted by David Friedman @ 4:41 AM