Seven Thoughts On Interesting Dynamics In The Eastern Conference

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The Eastern Conference is up for grabs…

Just kidding. The Cleveland Cavaliers, barring injury, are winning the East again this season. Nonetheless, that does not mean it won’t be interesting. There are four teams that, from the outset, will be contending for the second seed, a whole bunch of teams that could compete for a playoff first round series at home, and some fascinating young stars-in-the-making. Thus, here are seven predictions (if you want my thoughts on other the Pacers or Sixers click on the attached links):

1. Boston Celtics, For The First Time Under Brad Stevens, Will Have Their Own Death Lineup.

It’s amazing to believe, but since becoming Celtics head coach, Brad Stevens has never found a small-ball lineup that decimates other teams. This season that will change. The Celtics’ “death lineup” will be Isaiah Thomas-Marcus Smart-Avery Bradley-Jae Crowder-Al Horford. The Celtics played this lineup last year with Jared Sullinger playing instead of Al Horford, and put simply, they were a net negative on the court giving up 115.5 points per one-hundred possessions. Horford is not a traditional rim protector, however, last season opponents shoot worse with him as the primary defender from every location on the floor. This makes that lineup incredibly potent, as anyone who watches basketball knows that Horford is a significantly better offensive player than Sullinger.

2. The Miami Heat Are Going To Be Better Than People Think.

How is a team that lost Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh going to compete for the playoffs? It’s simple, addition by subtraction. Yes, the Heat lost a lot of talent, but per NBAwowy, the Heat were about one point per game better with Dragic and Whiteside playing together without Wade than with him. That’s not significant, but there is reason to believe that, given a revamped offense, the difference will be magnified. This is because both Dragic and Whiteside played worse with Wade than without him.

Thus, it is clear Dragic looked better without Wade – and this is nothing new to people who watched Miami in 2015-16 – but it stood for Whiteside as well.

Consequently, while Miami will miss the leadership stemming from the Heatles era, their offense should be just as good if not better.

3. The Charlotte Hornets Will Absolutely Miss The Playoffs.

The Hornets got significantly worse offensively this summer. Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin were responsible for a combined 25.7 points per game on 20.9 shots in the playoffs. Moreover, during those same playoffs, Charlotte’s only lineup that could score without Kemba Walker had both Lin and Jefferson.

Charlotte believes in using a Moneyball approach to solve this problem. I.E., they assume that a combination of its previous playoff team, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Roy Hibbert can make up for the points Jefferson and Lin scored with Walker resting. And while this strategy may work in baseball, where one player’s on-base percentage is independent of his teammates, it does not work in basketball because the team needs to function as a unit. The lack of go-to scoring in absence of Kemba Walker will make the Hornets have one of the largest falls during the 2016-17 season.

4. When Reggie Jackson Returns To Full Health, Detroit Will Become One Of The East’s Five Best Teams.

Reggie Jackson is a significant loss for Detroit. The Pistons’ main offense revolves around Jackson running the pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop, and fake pick-and-roll with Detroit’s bigs. None of Andre Drummond, Aron Baynes, Marcus Morris, Jon Leur, nor Boban Marjanovic have the talent to create their own low-post scoring. Thus it is very likely that the Pistons struggle without Reggie Jackson’s speed and playmaking ability.

When Jackson returns, however, the Pistons are going to be tough to beat. They ranked as the fourth-best cutting team in the NBA, even better than the Golden State Warriors. This is because in order to stop the Jackson-Drummond pick-and-roll teams have to crowd the driving lanes, which allows for easy cuts, and players like Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris thrive off of this action. Why is this type of defense necessary? It’s because, without it, Drummond and Jackson are unstoppable. Let’s examine the video below:

Or:

Now, let’s watch what happens when the paint is crowded.

and

Essentially, if another team tries to defend the pick-and-roll by clogging both Reggie Jackson’s and Andre Drummond’s lanes, easy passing emerges resulting in open threes or cuts to the basket. The fact is, though, that often times Detroit’s offense is too simplistic and they do not have secondary offensive sets, resulting in difficult, contested, midrange shots. If the Pistons want to improve this offensive simplicity will need to become better.

5. Kyrie Irving Is Going To Compete With Russell Westbrook and James Harden For The NBA MVP.

Let me explain by quoting an article I wrote after the Cavs won the 2016 NBA title. Three of the biggest advanced statistics to analyze basketball players (Win Shares, Box Plus-Minus, and Value-Over-Replacement-Player) – all of which run intense regression analysis to create fair, analytical scores – rank Kyrie Irving’s 2016 playoffs as a top-five all-time greatest performance for a point guard.

The point guard has not yet proved he can perform at a superstar level throughout the course of an entire reason. And there is reason to be skeptical, as those in Cleveland’s front office and coaching staffs have noted that Kyrie Irving will get meaningful rest during the regular season. Nonetheless, Kyrie’s playoffs were a trend upwards, and I am willing to bet we see it continue this season.

P.S., my new Kyrie 2s are fantastic:

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6. Frank Vogel’s Orlando Magic Are Going To Try And Have A Top-5 NBA Defense. They Will Probably Fail.

Let’s review the Orlando Magic’s 2016 offseason. They hired Frank Vogel – recently fired from the Indiana Pacers – to be their new head coach; traded upcoming star Victor Oladipo for an aging Serge Ibaka; paid many millions to bring reserve center Bismack Biyombo; and, like many other teams before them, took a flyer on inconsistent swingman Jeff Green.

Vogel looked at this Magic roster and correctly realized their offensive talent is incredibly limited. They had the 22nd best offense last year, and with an utter lack of floor spacers and players who can create offense on their own, the team probably wouldn’t ever rank better than league average as structured. Thus, taking lessons learned from Indiana, Frank Vogel has decided to create an athletic, defensive goliath.

In terms of points saved at the basket, Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo are two of the ten best rim protectors in the NBA.

On the face, therefore, these two signings make defensive sense. Moreover, both Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon are positive perimeter defenders. Post all-star break, opponents shot 5.1% and 4.1% worse when Payton and Gordon guarded them on three-point attempts respectively. This means that Orlando’s perimeter defense and rim protection are both well-above league average. Thus – Vogel’s logic goes – Orlando will force opponents to shoot inefficient, midrange shots and, as a result, drastically improve their own defense.

The problem with all of this is that Orlando was an even worse defensive team than offensive one last year, surrendering a terrible 104.6 points per 100 possessions. It is extremely unlikely for any team to improve that significantly on one side of the court over a single offseason. Regardless, the Magic’s attempts at improving defensively will make them an interesting watch this season.

7. Cleveland Is Going To Win The East, Boston Is Getting The Second Seed, Toronto Will Still Be A Player, And My Eastern Conference Team Rankings.

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25)
  2. Boston Celtics (54-28)
  3. Toronto Raptors (53-29)
  4. Indiana Pacers (49-33)
  5. Detroit Pistons (44-38)
  6. Atlanta Hawks (43-39)
  7. New York Knicks (41-41)
  8. Washington Wizards (40-42)
  9. Miami Heat (39-43)
  10. Chicago Bulls (39-43)
  11. Orlando Magic (35-47)
  12. Milwaukee Bucks (34-48)
  13. Charlotte Hornets (30-52)
  14. Philadelphia 76ers (22-60)
  15. Brooklyn Nets (12-70)

Some quick thoughts on these rankings:
-Boston may not be the second best team in the East but they will have the talent to get the second best record.

-Atlanta is the predicted playoff team with the greatest degree of variance. I believe the Schröder-Howard pick-and-roll will be devastating assuming Dwight agrees to be primarily a roll man. If he does not, something he has hinted at since his time with the Lakers, Atlanta will be awful and may blow-up in the middle of the season.

-The New York Knicks will struggle while Derrick Rose starts. Eventually, though, Hornacek is likely to start Brandon Jennings in his place. This move will save the Knicks’ season.

-New York, Washington, Miami, and Chicago will be neck-and-neck the entire second-half of the season. Injuries, sudden player development, and scheduling will all play a role in who claims the last two playoff spots.

-Orlando and Milwaukee both also have variance. If Orlando can create a top-five defense they will more than likely grab a playoff seed. I believe losing Khris Middleton and an inability to get fair value for Greg Monroe is going to hurt an otherwise great team. If Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jabari Parker can become an all-star, however, the Bucks will be able to fight through their bad luck and perhaps get into the playoffs.

-Brooklyn may be the worst team we have ever seen in the NBA. The only thing preventing this is the Jeremy Lin/Brook Lopez pick-and-roll, which given the scoring prowess of both players, will be sure to win the Nets seven or so games. If either gets injured or – more likely – traded, though, the Nets will struggle to beat even the worst teams.

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