Culture of Hoops

Revised NBA Predictions: The Eastern Conference

Image courtesy of Erik Drost/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Erik Drost/Flickr.

After a month of watching games, collecting data, and changing my mind on various topics a number of times, I’m ready to revise my pre-season NBA predictions and share some of my thoughts on the league. Eastern Conference today, Western Conference comes next Tuesday.

15: Philadelphia 76ers 

Pre-Season Prediction: 24-58 (14th)
Revised Prediction: 23-59

The Skinny: If you haven’t had the opportunity to immerse yourself in the Joel Embiid experience yet this year, find a way to make it happen. Buy NBA League Pass if you have to. Embiid has enough moves near the basket that you can easily confuse him with Hakeem Olajuwon, and a jumper that demands respect. He’s pulling down 12 rebounds and 4 blocks per 36 minutes and yet he still has no clue how to play basketball. He’s so raw and just runs around and does random shit and looks clueless from time to time but still finds ways to dominate. It’s incredible. Just imagine what he’s going to do when he isn’t playing with a minutes limit and has a few good ball-handlers and reliable shooters around him. And don’t forget, Ben Simmons is looming.

An Interesting Stat: Jahlil Okafor is averaging a whopping 6 rebounds per 36 minutes. In addition, he doesn’t play defense, he doesn’t stretch the floor and he’s a ball stopper. Seems like a perfect guy to move to get those shooters and ball-handlers, right?

14: Brooklyn Nets 

Pre-Season Prediction: 16-66 (15th)
Revised Prediction: 24-58

The Skinny: Things are looking up for the Nets. They are slightly more competent and competitive than they were last year, and the on-court product is a thousand times more enjoyable. And still, Brooklyn is bad enough where they should get a high pick in a loaded 2017 NBA Draft even if they are playing hard, pushing the tempo, launching three’s and being more fun for the all of the people who still identify as Nets fan (DV).

Ah shit, the Nets don’t have their pick. And they don’t have a pick in the 2018 Draft. And they didn’t have one in 2016 or 2014. But hey, at least they got one tremendously average season out of the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett duo.

An Interesting Stat: Brooklyn went from 20th in Pace (possessions per 48 minutes) last season to 1st this year. Playing up tempo is the least they could do for people going to Barclays Center to watch Nets games. Literally, that’s the least they could do.

13: Miami Heat 

Pre-Season Prediction: 27-55 (13th)
Revised Prediction: 26-56

The Skinny: The Heat are the perfect tanking candidate, so don’t expect a scrappy Miami team to be digging in for wins once we’re past the All-Star Break. Erik Spoelstra’s job is secured and the Heat owe 1st Rounders to Phoenix in 2018 and 2021, so they’ll need to make the most of their 2017 pick in order to get on the right track.

With that said, get used to reading headlines like “Whiteside misses 12th straight game with sprained ankle”, “Tyler Johnson sets career high in field goal attempts for fourth straight game”, “Udonis Haslem moved back into Heat starting lineup”, “Spoelstra says Dion Waiters has permanent green light”, and “Heat attendance hits an all-time low.”

An Interesting Stat: The biggest bright spot for the Heat is without question Hassan Whiteside, who burst onto the scene two years ago and has since established himself as one of the most productive Centers in the league. Early on, Whiteside is flirting with joining an exclusive group of players who have averaged 15 or more rebounds since the NBA/ABA merger. Only eight players have averaged 15 rebounds in a season since 1976-77. Whiteside is just a shade under 15 boards per game at the moment.

12: Orlando Magic 

Pre-Season Prediction: 32-50 (12th)
Revised Prediction: 32-50

The Skinny: Just about everything we expected from a team with too many big guys and little to no punch on the perimeter. This team would be delightful if they took a time machine back to 1994. It’s almost 2017 though, so they’re shit out of luck in the present. But hey, maybe the 5th time in the lottery is the charm.

An Interesting Stat: The Magic were 12th in Defensive Rebounding Percentage last year, a figure they were likely to improve on after signing Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo over the summer. As of this writing, they’re 14th in Defensive Rebounding Percentage this season, so uh, yeah, the Draft Lottery is only like seven months away.

11: Washington Wizards 

Pre-Season Prediction: 39-43 (10th)
Revised Prediction: 34-48

The Skinny: I had a lengthy list of concerns about the Wizards before the season, and nothing I’ve seen so far makes me feel better than I did 40 days ago. I looked at that roster, which is more bare than you think, and I thought about how Scottie Brooks might not be a great coach, and I stared at the total number of games Bradley Beal has missed in the last four seasons and it seemed curiously high especially since he is getting paid a lot more money than John Wall is, and I was discouraged by all the talking Wall has done about how he’s underrated and disrepected, and that’s just way too many bad things for me to feel good about this team. We’re only one month into the season and I already feel justified.

Now here’s the question … do the Wizards trade John Wall and start over? He’s under contract until the summer of 2019, so it’s not like the Wiz have to worry about Wall fleeing for greener pastures sometime in the immediate future. The more realistic worry is whether Wall ever maxes out as a top five point guard in the league, a development that is totally necessary unless the Wizards get their hands on a game-changing wing (you know, like Kevin Durant, had Durant even given Washington a meeting over the summer). I like Wall, but I don’t love him. I don’t think he tops Curry, Paul, Westbrook, now Harden, Lillard or Kyrie in terms of being a guy I trust to deliver in a big game, and that’s a franchise-altering problem if he doesn’t get to that level. Then again, Wall doesn’t have nearly the sort of support that other top tier Point Guards have. We can’t forget that he has to rely heavily on third, fourth and fifth options like Otto Porter, Marcin Gortat, and the not-quite-as-good Morris twin.

That brings me back to the original question … do the Wizards trade John Wall and start over? At some point soon the Wizards will need to have an honest conversation with themselves and consider whether or not maxing out as a 1st Round exit in the Playoffs is the best course of action, because even if Bradley Beal stays healthy all year long and for each year to come, that’s their ceiling as they are currently constructed. Luckily for the Wiz, they might not need to panic trade Wall to bottom out. They might just be bad enough with him on the team.

An Interesting Stat: Ian Mahinmi is making $15,944,154 this season, and he has yet to play a single minute. I’m not a salary cap expert, though I occasionally pretend to be one, but this seems like a lot of money for a 30-year-old Frenchman with career averages of 5 points and 4 rebounds per game.

10: Milwaukee Bucks 

Pre-Season Prediction: 37-45 (11th)
Revised Prediction: 37-45

The Skinny: The casual fan won’t want to read a ton about the Milwaukee Bucks, so I’ll save some space here. But first, a quick message to the casual fan: Familiarize yourself with Giannis Antetokounmpo. I know, that name is a bitch. Call him Greek Freak if you want. Just know he’s like a year away from entering that Triple Double Threat Every Night Fray, and he’s the only guy standing in the way of Kristaps Porzingis‘ quest to be named the next dominant international player. You know any other 21-year old 7-foot tall Greek dudes doing shit like this?

Nah, you don’t.

An Interesting Stat: As the three-pointer becomes an increasingly important facet of the NBA game, the otherwise mediocre Milwaukee Bucks boast the best three-point defense by a pretty comfortable margin.

9: Indiana Pacers 

Pre-Season Prediction: 48-34 (3rd)
Revised Prediction: 40-42

The Skinny: The subject of a major misfire by many. The Pacers were the Eastern Conference darling in the preseason; a sexy pick to contend for that spot behind Cleveland in the standings on the East coast. Here’s the hard truth … as of right now, the Pacers aren’t a very good basketball team. The standings show that they are securely in the mix for one of the last few spots that will be up for grabs, but the eye test tells me that Indiana will be on the outside looking in come mid-April. And that’s not the only thing the eye test has told me.

The eye test has told me that maybe all of those heralded moves the Pacers made over the summer actually didn’t make sense. It’s told me that George Hill is actually a better Point Guard, and fit in Indiana, than Jeff Teague is. It’s told me that Al Jefferson definitely wasn’t a good fit for a team that wanted to play up-tempo basketball. It’s told me that that Frank Vogel to Nate McMillan coaching change is a bigger downgrade than anyone realized it was going to be. Most unfortunately, the eye test tells me maybe Paul George just isn’t ready to be The Man. And that’s a real bummer if you’re a Pacers fan … or someone who placed a wager on the Pacers winning more than 45.5 games this season. Not that I’d know anything about that.

An Interesting Stat: The Pacers are the epitome of average, all across the board. It was difficult to find any statistical measures that stood out. The best ones I could find that illustrate some of their early season struggles: Indiana’s shooting percentages in the paint and on corner three’s are both down a relatively significant amount from last season.

8: New York Knicks 

Pre-Season Prediction: 44-38 (6th)
Revised Prediction: 41-41

The Skinny: Most teams have multiple questions that need to be addressed and answered, but it appears as if the Knicks only have one that will determine the eventual outcome of their season (which, in all honesty, only maxes out with a postseason appearance that concludes in either Round 1 or Round 2): Will the Knicks allow Kristaps Porzingis to co-star with more established names Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose, or will he fall to third in the pecking order? Porzingis is young and he’s still just a slab of clay, but he’s so fricking talented and wholly unique and if the Knicks don’t utilize him they deserve to miss the postseason for the fifth straight year, and the next three seasons too.

It’s not like Porzingis was an afterthought at the beginning of the season, but over the last week and a half his touches per game have nearly doubled and the Knicks are playing their best ball of the season. That’s no coincidence. If Jeff Hornacek continues to find ways to get Porzingis the ball in spots where he’s most comfortable the Knicks could easily push into the next tier of Eastern Conference Playoff teams. If the Knicks offense relies too heavily on the iso-antics of Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose they won’t make the Playoffs. And if they revert back to the Triangle because Phil Jackson insists that’s how you win in 2016 we might need to put the old fella in an assisted living facility.

An Interesting Stat: The key to Porzingis’ leap from year one to year two can be found in his shooting percentages right around the rim and from behind the arc. He’s 20 percent better from 0-3 feet away from the basket, and nearly 10 percent better from downtown thus far this season.

7: Detroit Pistons 

Pre-Season Prediction: 45-37 (5th)
Revised Prediction: 43-39

The Skinny: Not much has changed in terms of my overall opinion of the Detroit Pistons, yet I’m always left with so many questions watching them. Is Reggie Jackson going to move the needle in a major way when he comes back from a knee injury? Will Tobias Harris and whichever Morris twin is on the roster find their jumpers from the outside? Why is Stanley Johnson borderline unplayable when he looked like a gem from time to time last year? And the only thing more puzzling than the hairstyle choices of Beno Udrih and Aron Baynes is why it seems like Andre Drummond has plateued when he’s only 23 years old. Drummond should be making the same sort of leap that Dwight Howard made when Stan Van Gundy was his coach in Orlando, shouldn’t he? It definitely shouldn’t feel like Baynes, with that goddamn man bun, is occasionally a better option.

Everyone pegged Detroit as a possible leap candidate this year, but that would require at least one of their young players making an individual leap, and that has yet to happen. They need to start hitting three’s like they did last year (they’re down from nine made three’s per game to six) and one of these young dudes need to take the conch and make the Pistons their team. Seriously, go full Abduwali Muse, look Stan Van Gundy right in the face and let him know that you’re the captain now.

An Interesting Stat: Though Drummond might not be young Dwight and the Pistons don’t have the firepower Stan Van Gundy’s Magic team had, they are much better in one area: the Pistons commit the fewest number of turnovers per game, and those SVG Orlando teams never finished in the top ten in that category.

6: Charlotte Hornets 

Pre-Season Prediction: 43-39 (7th)
Revised Prediction: 45-37

The Skinny: My early season League Pass crush. The Hornets have a delightful home court and home crowd, and what I like most is that they know who they are. They have an identity, and if you don’t think that’s important then you’ve missed the point at how this whole NBA thing works. Charlotte is long, they play hard and they do all the little things that good teams should do; they hit threes, they don’t turn the ball over, they don’t give up a lot of offensive rebounds and they don’t put their opponents at the free throw line.

Maybe most importantly, most vital to the potential postseason success of the Hornets, Charlotte has a player in Kemba Walker who can go toe to toe with anyone down the stretch in a tight game. Look, Kemba’s crunch-time antics at Connecticut were at least slightly explainable, and the fact that he’s doing the same kind of shit in the NBA is almost beyond comprehension, especially if you watched him a lot earlier on in his career when it wasn’t a certainty he’d ever be able to be a starting Point Guard for a Playoff contender. It would catch anyone who wasn’t paying close attention by surprise, but Kemba’s numbers this season are off the charts impressive and he’s among the best late game scorers/shot creators in the NBA.

If Kemba’s early season tear turns out to be more substantial than just a month long hot streak, the Hornets are in business. No, they aren’t on the same tier as Cleveland, but they could just as easily end up the 2nd seed in the East as they could the 6th seed. It feels like there will be a logjam in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference Playoff picture just like last season, and the Hornets are firmly in that mix.

An Interesting Stat: Curry through 16 games during 1st MVP Season: 23.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.9 steals, 50-42-92 shooting splits, 3.2 three’s per game … Kemba through 16 games this year: 24.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 47-41-80 shooting splits, 2.8 three’s per game   … I mean, the numbers aren’t that far off.

5: Toronto Raptors 

Pre-Season Prediction: 47-35 (4th)
Revised Prediction: 47-35

The Skinny: The Raps are for the most part the same team we’ve seen right in the thick of the Eastern Conference Playoff picture the last few years, only this time around DeMar DeRozan is riding an unexpected and unprecedented hot streak. I know the post-Olympic leap is a documented thing, and I’m certainly a believer in it, but this one caught me off guard. Here’s the rub: there is almost no way this can be maintained for an entire 82-game season. Sorry to all the Raps fans out there, but DeRozan’s return to earth has already begun. He’s still playing exceptional ball, and Lowry is a more than capable second option, but the days of DeRozan consistently putting up 30 points per game on 50 percent shooting on a ton of two-point jumpers are well behind us.

An Interesting Stat: Toronto is one of only two Eastern Conference teams that rank in the top ten in field goal percentage, and this despite the fact that only two teams in the league take fewer shots three feet and in than the Raptors do. They are among league leaders in mid-range shots and long two’s taken, and they’re hitting a high percentage. Again, if DeRozan cools down, and he will, Toronto’s offense will sputter.

4: Chicago Bulls 

Pre-Season Prediction: 41-41 (8th)
Revised Prediction: 48-34

The Skinny: The Dwyane Wade/Jimmy Butler crunch time combo has to be a legitimate worry for every other Eastern Conference contender (only Cleveland has two guys more qualified to close a game than Chicago does), but more worrisome than how Chicago closes games is how well Jimmy Butler has been playing all 48 minutes so far this season. If you didn’t think Butler was on the same tier as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George before the season then your opinion has likely been swayed by Butler’s two-way brilliance.

It remains to be seen if the Bulls can eek out enough shooting all season long to stay in the mix for a 1st Round series with home court advantage. Of their regular rotation players Butler and Wade are shooting the best from distance through a month of the season, only history tells us their percentages will even out and regress toward the mean as the season goes on. Unless the Bulls co-alphas have permanently worked out the kinks in their jumpers and found a way to improve their efficiency from deep by ten percent in a single offseason Chicago will need guys like Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic to improve their output. But even if the Bulls become the team we expected, a collection of non-shooting perimeter players and too many big men that have to win by pounding the glass and working hard in isolation for points, they play with enough grit every night to remain a challenge for Eastern Conference co-contenders.

An Interesting Stat: The Bulls boast the lowest field goal percentage in the NBA from 0-3 feet from the rim, yet score more efficiently from 3-10 feet than anyone else in the league. In fact, Chicago’s 50 percent shooting from 3-10 feet would be the highest mark since the league started keeping tracking of shooting percentages by distance in 2001.

3: Atlanta Hawks 

Pre-Season Prediction: 40-42 (9th)
Revised Prediction: 49-33

The Skinny: I’m annually optimistic in the pre-season about Atlanta’s potential, but this year I was scared off for a variety of reasons. The potential Jeff Teague to Dennis Schroder drop-off worried me, but thus far it’s been minimal at best. The possibility that this would finally be the season when Kyle Korver, now 35 years old, would stop hitting three’s seemed like it was in play and that would leave Atlanta with all but no shooters from distance, but Korver’s hitting at a higher rate this year (42 percent) than he was last (40 percent). More than anything else, I was concerned that Dwight Howard’s moody stink would rub off on a Hawks squad that has been successful for the last two seasons in large part because of the culture and style of play that Mike Budenholzer, a Gregg Popovich disciple, had built there. Things were rocky last year at the trade deadline when it was reported that all Hawks players were up for grabs (just a few months later Al Horford would sign with the Celtics and Jeff Teague would be traded). It seemed like bringing in a notorious locker-room shithead like Dwight wouldn’t exactly smooth things over for the leftovers.

Dwight isn’t  ’09 Dwight anymore but he’s played nice and been just about as steady as anyone could have imagined he would be heading into year-13 of his career. He’s still protecting the rim, still grabbing boards, still dishing out hard fouls and he’s doing all the things the complimentary big alongside Paul Millsap should be doing. There’s still not a shred of aesthetically pleasing offensive output, but that’s O.K. Dwight might have, improbably, made the Hawks better than they were last year. Good enough to seriously threaten for an Eastern Conference Title? No, but another Southeast Division banner will look awfully nice in Philips Arena.

An Interesting Stat: Last season Atlanta was in the top five in both defensive field goal percentage on shots inside 6 feet and defensive 3-point field goal percentage. Impressively, they’ve improved on both marks so far this year.

2: Boston Celtics 

Pre-Season Prediction: 54-28 (2nd)
Revised Prediction: 50-32

The Skinny: The Celts stumbled out of the gate this season thanks to a variety of maladies that cost Al Horford, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart a handful of games, but things have balanced out since Boston has approached full strength and premium health, and if that trend maintains for the duration of the season then the Celtics are likely the second best team in the Conference.

Any sort of immediate impact we thought Al Horford may have in Boston remains to be seen though; he might not be the sort of fundamental franchise changer he was made out to be when the Celtics signed him over the summer. But with Horford back in the lineup, along with perimeter pit bulls Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, and Avery Bradley (who stakes a claim as Boston’s best two-way player this year so far… apologies to Isaiah Thomas, who is scoring like no player under six-foot tall ever has since Iverson), the Celtics abysmal early season defense should eventually round into one of the better units in the league, and the genius Brad Stevens has already helped to craft a top ten offense.

An Interesting Stat: Aside from the injuries, the biggest reason why the Celtics defense has dipped from 4th last season to 19th so far this year is because Boston ranks dead last in Defensive Rebounding Percentage, meaning they allow a greater percentage of opponent offensive rebounds than any other team in the NBA. On the other end of the floor, Boston is in the bottom ten in securing offensive rebounds. This is part of the reason it’s hard to take the Celtics seriously as a threat to topple Cleveland. If the Celts can’t control the glass and the paint they stand no chance of beating LeBron and company.

1: Cleveland Cavaliers 

Pre-Season Prediction: 57-25 (1st)
Revised Prediction: 60-22

The Skinny: Pretty clearly the best team in the Eastern Conference, and the early season cohesion the Cavs have shown on the offensive end raises their ceiling. There will likely be just as many nights that they sleepwalk through portions of games against inferior opponents (like their recent game against Philadelphia, that they won, where they missed their first fourteen shots of the game) as there are ones when they impose their will on teams that they’ll be seeing in April, May, and June. But make no mistake, Cleveland is dialed in in a way that they haven’t been either of the previous two seasons. And if they face some unexpected contention from an Eastern Conference contender (or if sneaking past Golden State in the race for the best record in the league, and potential home court advantage in the NBA Finals), this win total could end up higher than 60.

An Interesting Stat: In LeBron James‘ thirteen NBA seasons he’s led his team in scoring every single year. Through 15 games this year Kyrie Irving holds a slight edge over LeBron in points per game. I expect that this won’t change, and if the Cavs are going to reach their regular season ceiling, that is for the best. With over 47,000 regular season and Playoff minutes on his odometer, it’s time for LeBron to take a step back and truly settle into the distributor role during the marathon that is the regular season. Some will say LeBron is coasting through the regular season. I think it’s more accurate to say he’s gearing up for a postseason run that could alter his legacy in a way where LeBron has no more ghosts left to chase.

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