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Friday, October 05, 2018

2018-19 Eastern Conference Preview

The balance of power in the Eastern Conference shifted seismically when LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the L.A. Lakers. James' run of eight straight NBA Finals appearances (Miami 2011-2014; Cleveland 2015-18) will almost certainly end as a result of that move. Regardless of the relative weakness of the Eastern Conference during this era, James' accomplishment is still noteworthy. The only other player in NBA history to lead his team to at least eight straight NBA Finals is Bill Russell, whose Celtics reached the NBA Finals from 1957-66.

Michael Jordan is often depicted as the ultimate basketball champion but his six titles are barely half of the total that Russell accumulated: 11 championships (and 12 Finals appearances) in 13 seasons. The Celtics' roster completely changed around Russell during that era, with Tommy Heinsohn being the only other Celtic player who joined Russell on each of those 10 NBA Finalists from 1957-66.

As a winner/champion, James (whose teams have gone 3-5 in the NBA Finals) is not even in the same conversation with Jordan, let alone Russell. James was justly criticized for taking the easy way out in 2010 when he left a Cleveland team that had just won 61 regular season games (after winning 66 games the year before) to create a super-team in Miami. This time, James is leaving a perennial contender to seek his fortune with a traditional NBA power that has been awful since the decline and retirement of Kobe Bryant. James is not taking the easy way from a basketball standpoint but it also is not clear that winning a championship is his top priority; he may very well have gone Hollywood both literally and figuratively.

The Boston Celtics are well-positioned to be contenders for the next several years. They are essentially adding two All-Stars to a rotation that advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals last season; due to injuries, neither Kyrie Irving nor Gordon Hayward played a single minute in the 2018 postseason but both are expected to be fully healthy for the start of the 2018-19 campaign.

The Toronto Raptors added MVP-level player Kawhi Leonard to a roster that finished with the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference last season but they gave up perennial All-Star DeMar Derozan to get Leonard. The Raptors also fired 2018 NBA Coach of the Year Dwane Casey. The potential upside for the Raptors is very high but those big moves could also backfire.

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) Boston Celtics: Prior to last season, I wrote, "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." James left, Boston's young nucleus blended nicely last season and this season the team is hoping/expecting to see the fully healthy return to action of All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, so there is every reason to consider the Celtics the favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2019 NBA Finals. The two main potential obstacles for Boston are (1) injuries to key players (always a concern regarding Irving) and (2) Kawhi Leonard's reemergence as an MVP-caliber two-way player. If Leonard regains his old form, then the Toronto Raptors will have a great opportunity to challenge the Celtics. The rest of the Eastern teams lack the talent, depth and/or coaching to beat the Celtics in a seven game series.

2) Toronto Raptors: Other than James going to Los Angeles, the biggest offseason story in the NBA was the complete breakdown of the relationship between Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs, a team that has been considered the model franchise in the league--if not all of professional sports--for the better part of the past 20 years. We may never find out what happened behind the scenes but we know the end result: Leonard is now a Raptor and DeMar DeRozan is now a Spur. How healthy and motivated is Leonard? How committed is Leonard to staying in Toronto as opposed to angling to land somewhere that he may consider to be more desirable? No one knows the answers to those questions except for Leonard, and he may not even know until he plays out this season.

The Raptors finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season but suffered a humiliating 4-0 sweep at the hands of Cleveland in the second round. That loss looks even worse when considered in the context of Cleveland sleepwalking through the regular season and then needing seven games to put away the Indiana Pacers in the first round. Dwane Casey won the Coach of the Year award and still got fired. The Raptors promoted assistant Nick Nurse--who has no NBA head coaching experience--and that is an odd-looking move; if you are going to fire the Coach of the Year because of being swept in the playoffs, one might assume that you would go in a completely different direction as opposed to turning to a less-experienced person who presumably shares Casey's basic coaching philosophies. Leonard's physical health and state of mind, plus Nurse's inexperience, are the biggest questions about the Raptors. The ceiling for this team is to win the East and possibly even test the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals (the last time we saw a fully healthy Leonard, he was dominating the Warriors in game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals); however, if Leonard struggles and Nurse is not who team President Masai Ujiri thinks he is, then the Raptors could fall from contender status to first round fodder.

3) Indiana Pacers: The Pacers were one of the most surprising stories of last season. The Pacers did not look like a playoff team on paper after dealing franchise player Paul George to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis but Oladipo won the 2018 Most Improved Player Award while averaging a career-high 23.1 ppg and leading the Pacers to a 48-34 record.

The Pacers pushed the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the first round of the playoffs and even though the Pacers' rise was unexpected it does not appear to be a fluke. I expect the Pacers to crack the 50 win barrier this season.

4) Philadelphia 76ers: The 76ers finished third in the Eastern Conference with a 52-30 record and then beat Miami 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs before losing 4-1 to Boston in the second round. The 76ers started the season 36-30 before finishing with a 16 game winning streak--but that streak was deceptive because at least six of those victories came against teams that were actively tanking. In the playoffs, Boston exposed Philadelphia's weaknesses and I expect the 76ers to regress to the mean, finishing with between 48-50 wins to place them just behind the Pacers. The injury-prone Joel Embiid operated under playing time restrictions last season, limiting him to 30.3 mpg in 63 games. I am skeptical that he will ever be able to handle the workload that is customary for an All-Star caliber player and those limitations are part of the reason that I do not believe that the 76ers will do any better this season than they did last season.

5) Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo made the All-NBA Second Team for the second year in a row after setting career-highs in scoring (26.9 ppg), rebounding (10.0 rpg) and field goal percentage (.529) while also averaging 4.8 apg. He was exceptional in the playoffs (25.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 6.3 apg, .570 FG%) as the Bucks extended the Celtics to seven games before falling 112-96 in the clinching contest. The organization has experienced a lot of instability and has made some puzzling personnel decisions but Antetokounmpo's all-around greatness masks many of the team's flaws and issues. In order to become a top four team in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks must improve their rebounding (they ranked 30th out of 30 teams in the league in that department) and their defense (the Bucks ranked 20th in defensive field goal percentage). Defense and rebounding are like tackling and blocking in football: they may not seem glamorous or grab headlines but it is very difficult to be a great team without at least being competent in those areas.

6) Washington Wizards: In the past five seasons, the Wizards have won between 41 and 49 games, advancing to the second round three times and missing the playoffs only once. All-Stars John Wall and Bradley Beal form one of the league's best backcourts and the rest of the rotation is solid but for whatever reason this team has not been able to take the next step in terms of winning 50-plus games and contending for conference supremacy.

The Wizards acquired Dwight Howard to anchor the frontcourt. Howard's game and reputation have declined in recent years but he is still a productive player (16.6 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 1.6 bpg, .555 FG% in 81 games for Charlotte last season).

The upside for this team is very high: if Wall stays healthy, if Howard remains productive and if the overall chemistry works then the Wizards could be a 55 win team and a serious postseason threat. On the other hand, it seems more likely that injuries and/or chemistry issues will relegate this team to roughly 45 wins and a first round exit.

7) Detroit Pistons: The Pistons have made the playoffs just once in the past nine seasons but that should change with the hiring of 2018 Coach of the Year Dwane Casey plus a full season of Blake Griffin in the fold. The Pistons won four in a row after Griffin first appeared in the lineup but then reverted to their losing ways down the stretch. Supposedly the pairing of Griffin with Andre Drummond cannot work in the "modern," analytics-driven "pace and space" NBA. No one is suggesting that this team is a serious contender but Griffin and DeAndre Jordan coexisted well with the L.A. Clippers and Coach Casey will find a way for his two big men to be effective. Drummond averaged 15.0 ppg and captured his second rebounding title in three years; his 16.0 rpg mark is the NBA's best rebounding average since Dennis Rodman's 16.1 rpg in 1996-97.

The health of point guard Reggie Jackson is critical; the Pistons looked like a playoff team early in the season when Jackson was rolling and posted a 27-18 record with him in the lineup but Detroit limped to a 12-25 record in the games that Jackson missed.

8) Miami Heat: The Heat went 11-30 in the first half of the 2016-17 season before going 30-11 in the second half. Last season, the Heat followed a less volatile path to a 44-38 record, going 24-17 in the first half of the season and then 20-21 down the stretch. It is becoming evident that both 41 game snapshots of the Heat from two years ago were aberrations. This is not an awful team, nor is it a contending team--but the Heat do have the highest payroll in the NBA in 2018-19, so it does not seem that Pat Riley has spent wisely. Goran Dragic is a solid player but he is not elite and he does not figure to improve as he moves deeper into his 30s. Hassan Whiteside is the team's most talented and physically gifted player but he took a step back last season, partially due to injuries and partially due to mindset. If Whiteside can head back in the direction of becoming an elite big man then maybe the Heat can move past the eighth seed but whether or not that happens this team looks like first round fodder for one of the conference's top dogs.

As for the rest of the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers will likely be better than many people expect; unlike the last time that LeBron James left, it does not appear that the Cavaliers are going into tank mode, and a team that has Kevin Love as its centerpiece surrounded by a decent supporting cast should be able to muster up 35-40 wins. I even give Cleveland an outside chance to grab the eighth seed if everything breaks right and if one of the teams listed above suffers chemistry issues and/or injuries.

The Brooklyn Nets showed signs of improvement but not enough signs to jump to playoff contention.

The Charlotte Hornets seem to have peaked after making the playoffs in two of the first three years that Steve Clifford coached the team. After missing the playoffs two seasons in a row the franchise hired James Borrego to replace Clifford. The much-maligned Dwight Howard played well for the Hornets last season and they will miss his presence in the paint.

The Chicago Bulls hope that the addition of Jabari Parker will be enough to lift the team into playoff contention but that is asking a lot of an injury prone player who is allergic to defense and is not as great of an offensive player as he seems to think that he is.

Kristaps Porzingis is still recovering from his ACL tear and the New York Knicks did not add any talent to the roster that went 29-53 last season, so the team will probably finish with a similar record this season.

The Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic both figure to be terrible again.

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Note:

I correctly picked six of the eight 2017-18 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2017: 5/8
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

2006-2018 Total: 77/104 (.740)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 AM

5 comments

5 Comments:

At Friday, October 05, 2018 4:02:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

" Hassan Whiteside is the team's most talented and physically gifted player but he took a step back last season, partially due to injuries and partially due to mindset. "

Perhaps we are quibbling over semantics here, but while Whiteside is incredibly gifted physically I would not describe him as "talented." He is large and athletic and precious little else. His skillset (outside of rebounding, where he excels) is extremely limited, he does not have a natural understanding of the game in any real way, and his decision making is extremely poor. Even his shot-blocking is more of the Serge Ibaka "if I try to block every shot I'll inevitably catch a few of them" school than the Olajuwon "block the shots I can block, don't bite on fakes, and have the wisdom to know the difference" school.

He is also not nearly the pick-setter or roll man you'd expect him to be given his physical gifts, though he does have good alley-oop chemistry with Dwyane Wade (and, oddly on a team with so many good passers, kind of only Dwyane Wade).

Physically, Whiteside is the Heat's most gifted player. But in terms of talent I'm not sure he's in their top 5.

It is also worth noting that the Heat are likely to trade Dragic (and Whiteside, if they can find a sucker) before or during the season, in which case they'll almost certainly drop from playoff contention.

 
At Saturday, October 06, 2018 1:06:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I remember an interview during which Harry Gallatin described the ability to work hard consistently as a "talent." I think that "talent" is somewhat subjective. I would submit that being large and athletic is a talent. How many people are as large and athletic as Whiteside? Granted, he is no Olajuwon but Whiteside has value as a rebounder, shot blocker and high percentage scorer in the paint. Those are all valuable talents. I agree that Whiteside could improve in the areas that you mentioned.

Pat Riley does not have a history of tanking, so if he trades Dragic and Whiteside I would expect for him to get enough in return that the Heat will still be in the playoff picture.

 
At Saturday, October 06, 2018 4:27:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I agree that Riley does not like tanking, but I disagree that they will remain playoff contenders for a haul built around either Whiteside and/or Dragic unless they also offload some of their valuable young pieces (namely Josh Richardson and Bam Adebayo) which I do not anticipating them doing.

Whiteside's value is badly damaged by his attitude, theatrics, and injury history; he is now a known malcontent who does not play up to his contract.

Dragic is the Heat's best player and the engine that runs their offense, but he is a point guard on the wrong side of 30; the kind of teams likely to trade for him are contenders looking to add a piece that can help them in the playoffs, and those sort of teams are much more likely to offer draft picks and cap relief than they are contributing players.

I suppose if they traded Whiteside but not Dragic they might actually improve as due to addiction-by-subtraction as because of whatever they get for him, but my suspicion is that it will be difficult to move Whiteside without giving up either Dragic or enough of the team's younger talent that it will significantly diminish their playoff hopes.

 
At Saturday, October 06, 2018 4:30:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Quibbling over the definition of "talent" it is probably a semantic argument but I struggle to imagine a definition under which Whiteside is more "talented" than Dragic, Waiters, or Wade (and perhaps even Richardson) that is based around anything other than sheer physical size and strength... and even then I'm not sure many GMs in the league would take him over any of those players.

 
At Saturday, October 06, 2018 7:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I thought that you made the previous comment.

You may be right about what would happen if the Heat trade Dragic and/or Whiteside but all I can do in my previews is make predictions based on rosters as currently constructed.

Whether or not GMs would take Whiteside over the players you mentioned is a question not only of talent but also—in no particular order—age, contract status, roster composition, attitude and other factors. A mobile, strong and athletic big man posseses rare talent.

 

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