Friday, March 4, 2016

NBA Eastern Conference Contenders: A Look Around The League

LeBron's won a few EC Championships, is he on his way to another?

Cleveland Cavaliers

For the longest time it was Cleveland…and everyone else.  The winners of the Eastern Conference were penciled in by the time the year changed its last digit. That’s why pencils have erasers. The Toronto Raptors have gone on a run while the Cavs have dropped 3 of their last five games and appear to be searching for their mojo. Moreover, there are reports that Kyrie Irving is unhappy. With 23 games remaining, the Cavs have more questions surrounding them than at any other point in the season.

Toronto Raptors

I don’t believe in them. I know the team is closing the gap on the Cavs, but the team is built in the backcourt and neither Kyle Lowry nor DeMar DeRozan have proven to be efficient scorers in the postseason.  To his credit, Lowry is having the best season of his career, posting career highs in points, rebounds, field goal and 3 point percentage. For the Raptors to take the next step forward, they will need consistent play not only from their stars bu their frontcourt as well. Jonas Valanciunas and his post game help give the Raptors balance. Will the Raptos have enough to finally get over the hump?

Boston Celtics

Brad Stevens has quickly established himself as a guy that is going to be in the Coach of the Year discussion perennially. His after timeout offensive sets are both confounding and effective, and he’s arguably the most recognizable guy for this franchise.  The team is third in pace and defensive efficiency, while keeping their turnovers low (they have the 6th lowest number of possessions that result in one). Isaiah Thomas has made a name for himself in Boston and is the best player on the surprising team.  In the end, stars win playoff series and this organization is still looking to barter its assets to acquire one. Still, the future looks bright for one of the stalwarts of the NBA…even if there is a good chance all these wins end in a first round exit.

Wade has another running mate, NC's own Hassan Whiteside (USATSI)

Miami Heat

This team is as intriguing as it is frustrating.  When Chris Bosh went down with a recurrence of blood clot issues it felt like the season was careening towards a disappointing end.  But as Hassan Whiteside has continued to improve, and Joe Johnson’s recent acquisition Miami looks to be surging at the right time. Add to that the fact that through some shrewd moves, they will avoid paying a repeater luxury tax (Pat Riley for Executive of the Year?) and the future looks as bright as the present.  Still, they will need Bosh if they plan on making a real run.  But the idea of a Miami Heat vs LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers Eastern Conference Finals matchup is incredibly exciting.

Atlanta Hawks

After winning 60 games last season, there was a hope that the Hawks were close to dethroning the Cavaliers.  Then they lost DeMarre Carroll and got off to an extremely rough start.  After deciding not to blow up the team at the trade deadline, the Hawks have continued to struggle. They’ve had four different three game losing streaks this season. That magic that they captured is gone. It seems like the right time to figure out the value for the pieces that they have, and come up with a plan for the future.

Steve Clifford has put himself in the COY runnings (USATSI)

Charlotte Hornets

What a delight to have the local team invited to the party.  Ranked 6th, they are showing signs of consistency, easily dispatching the Suns and 76ers most recently.  Perhaps even more impressive, they have incorporated Al Jefferson back into the fold without missing a beat. His time as a part of he second unit gives the team’s offense a dynamic flair.  Last season the team was 24th in 3 pointers attempted, this season they are 4th.  The startling contrast is a testament to Head Coach Steve Clifford’s flexibility and understanding of his roster. This year will be a success if they make the playoffs and keep soon-to-be-free agent Nicolas Batum.

Indiana Pacers

This team has far exceeded my expectations, and that starts with their star Paul George. It’s been about 18 months since George injured his leg on that stanchion in Las Vegas.  Most expected this year to be one of rebuilding—for him and the franchise.  Instead, the team sits in the 7th spot in the Conference and rookie Myles Turner has continued the team trend of going beyond what the pundits thought possible. Turner and Ian Mahinmi have provided the front court presence for a team that has used Monta Ellis as a pseudo point guard to make their occasionally docile offensive attack more dangerous.  They already have their superstar in place, a good free agency haul and the Pacers could be back among the best teams in the East.

Detroit Pistons

Speaking of pleasant surprises, the Pistons suddenly have two emerging stars.  Andre Drummond’s ascension, while sharp, has been expected.  Reggie Jackson’s rise has been more startling. After years of being Russell Westbrook’s understudy in Oklahoma City, Jackson wrestled the starting position away from an injured Brandon Jennings, making him expendable. Jennings departure meant Tobias Harris could come into the fold, which should improve their below average offensive efficiency. If they can avoid Cleveland in the first round, they will be a tough out for someone.

Wall must carry his team to the playoffs to be considered one of the sport's best PGs (USATSI)

Washington Wizards

I know the Wizards are currently 9th and out of the playoff bracket if it started today—but it doesn’t start for another 20 games or so.  And this team is finally healthy (no team has lost more games to injury than the Wizards).  If I had to bet on a team with the majority of its talent in the backcourt, give me Washington over Toronto.  As long as they stay healthy, they’ll make the postseason. Imagine playing all season to get homecourt advantage and the prize is John Wall and a fresh Bradley Beal. Good luck.

Chicago Bulls

The Bulls are yet another case of talent taken asunder by injury woes. The Bulls have had injuries to nearly all off their key members.  Ironically, 35-year-old Pau Gasol has been the healthiest and most consistent member of the team.  With star player Jimmy Butler finally cleared to play, do the Bulls have enough time to run down the bottom of the playoff contenders?

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