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Sunday, October 08, 2017

2017-18 Eastern Conference Preview

The biggest off-season story in the Eastern Conference--if not the entire NBA--was the dissolution of Cleveland's Big Three as the Cavaliers sent the disgruntled Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for a package of players and draft picks headlined by All-Star Isaiah Thomas. Irving had teamed up with fellow All-Stars LeBron James and Kevin Love to lead the Cavaliers to three straight NBA Finals and the 2016 championship but Irving either grew tired of being the second option or else he did not relish the possibility of being the best player on this particular squad in the event that James leaves Cleveland for a second time.

It is very unusual for two teams bidding with each other for conference supremacy to trade star players to each other. Irving is a tremendous clutch scorer who can get buckets from anywhere on the court but he has yet to prove that he can be the main guy on a championship level team; this is not to say that he cannot do it or will not do it but he has yet to prove his capability in that regard and, in fact, Cleveland's record was very poor when Irving was the best player on the court (both before James returned from Miami and in the games that James sat out since he returned). Last season, Thomas was the best player on the first place team in the Eastern Conference but he is undersized, he is a subpar defensive player and he is still recovering from a serious hip injury that sidelined him for the final three games of the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals.

Thanks to the additions of Irving and Gordon Hayward, Boston could very well again post the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics should at least match last season's win total (53), while the Cavaliers may struggle to exceed last season's win total (51); James is known for taking off quarters or even entire games during the season and it is doubtful that at this advanced stage of his career he will exert himself to chase regular season wins just to get the number one seed, particularly while Thomas is out of action.

Of course, the key questions to be answered are "Did this trade help Cleveland possibly defeat Golden State?" and "Did this trade close the gap between the Celtics and the Cavaliers?" We will not get answers to those questions until these teams face off in the Eastern Conference Finals, a showdown that is almost certain to happen for the second year in a row barring injuries to key players or some other significant, unforeseen development.

The Toronto Raptors seem to have peaked two years ago and it is unlikely that young teams like the Washington Wizards or Milwaukee Bucks can gain enough ground in one year to pose a realistic playoff challenge to Cleveland or Boston.

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: LeBron James has led two different franchises to a combined seven straight NBA Finals and three championships in the past seven years. Say what you want about the relative weakness of the Eastern Conference during that period or about James orchestrating moves to construct two "super teams," those are still impressive accomplishments--and accomplishments that seemed unlikely in the wake of how he quit versus Boston in the 2010 NBA playoffs and then came up short in the 2011 NBA Finals versus Dallas. James has learned from his failures and grown as a result. The departure of Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas' questionable health could relegate the Cavaliers to the second seed in the East again but, assuming that Thomas is reasonably healthy by the playoffs, the Cavaliers still must be considered the favorite to win the Eastern Conference.

Do the Cavaliers have enough to beat the presumptive Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors? If the Warriors are fully healthy and completely engaged, the answer to that question is probably "No" but it will be interesting to see how Coach Tyronn Lue integrates Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green and Jae Crowder into Cleveland's rotation. Wade has a strong championship pedigree and Rose is a former regular season MVP who will presumably start at point guard until Thomas fully recovers. Green and Crowder add depth. The Cavaliers appear to have more offensive firepower and more defensive versatility than they did last season but much depends on Thomas' health and on how much Rose and Wade have left in the tank.

2) Boston Celtics: In my 2016-17 Eastern Conference Preview, I ranked Boston third but noted, "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." That turned out to be prophetic, as the Celtics did indeed post the conference's best record only to lose decisively to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Celtics almost completely remade their roster in the off-season, which is a bold move for a team that had been just three wins away from reaching the NBA Finals. Irving is younger and healthier than Thomas and Irving already has championship experience, albeit under James' large wings. Hayward is a very good two-way player, so on paper it looks like the Celtics have clearly improved. It remains to be seen if the roster moves will negatively affect the great chemistry and team spirit that the Celtics developed in the past couple years and it also remains to be seen if the Celtics have enough talent/depth to overcome "Playoff LeBron," who has dominated the Eastern Conference for seven straight years.

I think that the Celtics are a year away from winning the East. Their nucleus needs some time to grow together and, of course, if James departs Cleveland next summer then the conference will almost certainly be there for Boston to take starting in 2018-19.

3) Washington Wizards: The Wizards started 6-12 last season and many of Coach Scott Brooks' critics came out of the woodwork. Those critics fell silent as the Wizards went 43-21 down the stretch to claim the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Washington then beat Atlanta 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs and pushed the number one seeded Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

In last season's Wizards' preview, I noted that 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." I suggested that Brooks' coaching would be "worth at least four or five wins over the course of 82 games" and indeed the Wizards improved their record by eight games.

This season, the Wizards will probably neither start as slowly nor finish quite as strongly as they did last season, so 50 wins or a little more than that is a reasonable goal. The Wizards are a rising team and could possibly beat Boston or Cleveland in a seven game series but it is not likely that they could topple both Eastern Conference favorites to make it to the NBA Finals.

4) Toronto Raptors: Toronto slipped from 56 wins in 2016 to 51 wins last season. One might assume that injuries played a role in this decline, particularly since All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry missed 22 games--but it is worth noting that the Raptors went 36-24 with Lowry in the lineup and 15-7 without him.

After advancing to the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, it seems like the Raptors have peaked at a level slightly below Boston and a bit further below Cleveland. Past the midway point of the season, the Raptors acquired Serge Ibaka to fill the void left by Bismack Biyombo, who had departed as a free agent prior to the season. Ibaka posted solid box score numbers but he did not have the impact defensively and on the glass that he did during his peak seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. However, the Raptors went 16-7 in Ibaka's 23 games with the team, which projects to a 57 win pace over 82 games, so perhaps it is too soon to completely give up on the Raptors.

5) Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo had a breakout season last year, making the All-NBA Second Team and finishing seventh in MVP voting after averaging 22.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 5.4 apg, 1.9 bpg and 1.6 spg. He led the Bucks in all five of those key categories, joining an elite list of "Five Tool Players" that includes Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen and Tracy McGrady. The Bucks have made the playoffs in two of Jason Kidd's three seasons as head coach and they seem to be a team on the rise, albeit a team that does not yet have quite enough talent, depth or experience to win the East.

6) Detroit Pistons: Joe Dumars left a big mess for Stan Van Gundy to fix and that process may be taking a bit longer than Pistons' fans had hoped that it would but--despite a slight setback last season after making the playoffs in 2015-16--the Pistons look poised to be a solid playoff team. The acquisition of two-way guard Avery Bradley should solidify the Pistons at both ends of the court and it is reasonable to expect bounce back performances from Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, both of whom were hampered by injuries last season.

7) Miami Heat: The Heat stunk in the first half of the 2016-17 season and then looked like world-beaters in the second half of the season, finishing tied for eighth in the East only to miss the playoffs by virtue of losing a tiebreaker to the Chicago Bulls. The Heat are not as bad as they looked in the first half but they are not as good as they looked in the second half, either. Since the breakup of the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh "Big Three" that led the Heat to four straight Finals appearances and two titles, Pat Riley has failed to acquire or develop a legitimate big-time star who can lead the franchise back to prominence. Riley has gone all-in with the nucleus that spearheaded the 30-11 run down the stretch last season and it will be interesting to see how that turns out--but, ultimately, this team simply does not have enough star power to be a serious contender.

8) Charlotte Hornets: Coach Steve Clifford almost immediately transformed Charlotte into a strong defensive team after he was hired prior to the 2013-14 season but since that time there has been some slippage. Kemba Walker emerged as an All-Star last season but unless Clifford can improve the team's defense it will be difficult for the Hornets to do much better than fight for the final playoff spot. New acquisition Dwight Howard is no longer a superstar but he has a good history with Clifford dating back to their Orlando days, so perhaps Howard can make an impact defensively and on the glass for 25-30 mpg.

As for the rest of the East, Atlanta, Indiana and Chicago are three teams that barely made the playoffs last season and figure to take major steps backward in 2017-18. There is a lot of hype in some quarters about the Philadelphia 76ers but I think that it will take at least one more season under Bryan Colangelo to reverse the damage done by Sam Hinkie's foolish tanking.

The New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic are three franchises that--for different reasons--seem to be adrift and need significant overhauls to be good again.

**********
Note:

I correctly picked five of the eight 2016-17 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2016: 5/8
2015: 5/8
2014: 6/8
2013: 7/8
2012: 8/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 6/8
2009: 6/8
2008: 5/8
2007: 7/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2017 Total: 71/96 (.740)

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:01 PM

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At Monday, October 09, 2017 11:44:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

I'd got a bit higher on the Bucks and the Heat (if healthy) and lower on the Raptors, Hornets, and Wizards.

I think Milwaukee and Miami both have a puncher's chance of taking the conference if they can stay healthy and if Cleveland/Boston don't gel quickly and/or Lebron finally starts to show his age.

Giannis is a top 5 forward (and potential top 5 player if he's added a jumper), they're long and switchy and versatile, and Maker figures to be better this year than he was last year. Miami is unlikely to lose 300+ man games to injury again, and that was the main thing that stymied them last season. Dragic looked great in Eurobasket, and Waiters/Whiteside/Johnson all seem to be all-in on the team first culture the team needs to survive. Olynyk gives them an option to play 5-out, which should make Dragic/Waiters borderline undefendable in the PnR. Both teams play defense like they mean it (a rarity in the East), and have smart, adaptive coaches.

That all said, neither team is well-positioned to weather a longterm injury to any of their three best guys (except for Parker in Milwaukee, if you count him as top 3 for them; in the regular season, at least, they can survive without him thanks to the improvement his absence brings on D).

I don't think the Wizards have enough depth to get anywhere meaningful without a trade, and I think they're unlikely to get as many games out of their starting backcourt as they did last year given their respective injury histories and minutes loads.

I think Toronto is pretty well broken emotionally, and didn't meaningfully improve their team. I think they'll miss Corey Joseph more than one might assume given his talent.

I think Dwight Howard ruins the locker room of every team he plays for, and I don't expect Charlotte to be much different.

 

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