Welcome to the first series of our round table discussion. All season long, you will see round table discussions with the staff at Hoopscritic. If you have any questions you would like to submit, comment below and we will answer and tweet you.
1) With Cleveland still figuring each other out and DeRozan out for Toronto. Who’s the best team in the East (and why)?
We actually have a tale of two cities with this question. On one hand, we have the Chicago Bulls. They are probably most expert’s pick for best team in the East based on the fact that the Bulls have been missing Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol early in this season. It’s hard to argue with this logic when the Bulls are 5-1 with Rose and a .500 club without him. If he is playing every game in the second half and into the Playoffs, the Bulls should be the favorite. This Chicago group, minus Gasol, have been together for a while. It’s starting to feel like do or die for this squad.
Now on the other hand, we have the Washington Wizards. Let my start off by mentioning that the DeMar DeRozan injury was crucial for the Raptors and Cleveland is still trying to figure out too many things this season. Washington on the other hand has a solid roster that is built to with young and old. They currently sit 10-5 with all 5 losses coming at the hands of playoff teams (Mia, Tor, Dal, Atl, Cle). They are starting to get healthy with Beal returning after missing the start of the season. Their bench needs some improvement and they will be required to step up in the playoffs. The team with the best 8 players usually advanced in the playoffs. Although the obviously answer for the best team in the Eastern Conference since DeRozan’s injury belongs to the Bulls, the Wizards shouldn’t surprise anyone if they represent the Eastern Conference this year.
I tried like hell to come up with a sane argument for Milwaukee, but discretion won out in the end. It’d be easy to say Chi-leve-ton is the best team in the East, but the opposite is more probably true: none of them are the best team in the East.
On talent, nothing separates Chicago, Cleveland and Washington from last year’s pre-collapse Indiana. The difference is that Miami’s success set the bar for the Pacers. There are no great teams in the East this year, so no one knows just how good they need to be to get to that next level. It’s something of a fait accompli. Time alone won’t get any of these teams through the glass ceiling; it’s going to take a roster tweak or a systemic change.
Washington might be playing the best, but they still have the niggling problem of John Wall, an erratic shooter at the best of times, being their sole shot creator. And that’s coming from his most ardent supporter. Call it a cop-out, but the East is getting a “incomplete” until further notice.
I will say Chicago, with one caveat: I think Cleveland can become the best team in the east if they get everything figured out, and that once they hit their peak, no team in the east will be able to match it. But right now, Chicago is the pick. Healthy Derrick Rose. Jimmy Butler’s development soaring. Pau Gasol’s resurgence. Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic … there is so much talent in place and a top ten defense to boot. Chicago the last two years were a mid tier east playoff team without Rose, Gasol, and Mirotic – now, they are a brutal challenge, combining elite defense with a roster that goes at least nine deep and is anchored by a superstar. The only issue Chicago had the past two years is they just could not score – now they are loaded with firepower. It is easy to forget that Chicago were a 60 win team over a two year stretch before Rose went down – this Chicago team even more talented on paper. The east still is wide open, but they are the most convincing pick. Toronto and Washington are building on their successes of last year, but neither is as good as this Chicago team when everything is clicking. LeBron is the boogeyman lurking in the shadows, but Cleveland, while coming along slowly, have no bench, will likely continue to struggle defensively, and will be largely reliant on two key players who have never played a meaningful NBA game. Chicago is brittle, but they are my pick.
With Toronto’s hobbled by DeRozan’s groin injury, it comes down to the Bulls or the Wizards as the best team in the East. Chicago and Washington are deeper than the Marianas Trench; 10 guys average over 17 minutes a night for the Wiz, 9 guys for the Bulls. Bradley Beal is back and firing (43.5% from 3) alongside John Wall, Marcin Gortat, and veteran Paul Pierce, so now the Wiz can kill you from a variety of ways. Chicago is still working to integrate 4 new faces (2 being rookies), but their defense and energy can still be suffocating. Surprisingly, it’s 3rd year guard Jimmy Butler, not Derrick Rose, who has been pivotal to their attack on both sides of the ball.
I’d go with Chicago as the cream of the crop with Derrick Rose as the X-factor. The Bulls are 7-1 in games Rose plays 10 or more minutes. The rise of Butler, the Pau acquisition, and the explosive scoring of Aaron Brooks all take so much of the load off of Rose’s shoulders, allowing him to absorb less wear and tear and pick his spots. The $1,000,000 question (or $20,000,000/year for the next 3 years question): can Rose stay relatively healthy enough for a significant post season run?
*The Cavs are coming on strong; they’re 6th in offensive efficiency, and after giving up 106 ppg the 1st 7 games of the year, the defense seems to be turning it around, giving up only 93.8 ppg over the last 8 contests.
2) There are three games that separate the 1-7 seeds in the west. Who makes the WCF (and why)?
If the playoffs ended today, the 8th seeded Suns and their 55% winning percentage (that put them on pace for 45 wins) would be pitted against the Grizzlies (or the Warriors by year’s end), and the perennial powerhouse Thunder would be watching from home. OKC fans can take heart in the fact that they have 65 games left to make up ground on the Pelicans, Nuggets, Kings, and Suns. If healthy, look for Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka to lead a battle hardened 6th or 7th seeded Thunder squad into the Western Conference Finals, where they’ll face the- can’t believe I’m saying this- Golden State Warriors. The Warriors making it to the Conference Finals is heavily dependent on the health of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and (uh oh) Andrew Bogut, but if they can go into the playoffs whole, the Dubs have too many weapons to not go deep into the playoffs (Ah, who am I kidding? Spurs vs OKC).
With apologies to Memphis, Golden State is the team to beat out West. The Splash Brothers were difficult enough to handle before they cranked it up another notch, and now you’ve got Steve Kerr running amok, acting like Rumpelstiltskin and spinning the likes of Draymond Green and Marreese Speights into gold. Curry, Klay and Draymond combine to knock down almost eight three-pointers a game, and Speights is averaging roughly 412 points per 48 minutes. You can’t guard everyone (some nights, you can’t even stop Steph, who has become the best shot hunter in the game), and they have more than enough players capable of doing the dirty work.
The way things shape up now, I like Dallas to meet them in the Western Conference Finals. All eight teams (hello Mr. Durant) that will make the playoffs out West are deep and can beat you in a variety of ways, but what Dallas has working for them is that everyone knows what their responsibilities are on both ends of the court. The Mavs might not have that one guy who can overwhelm an opponent, but that’s just fine with them because they’re content to share anyway.
This question might be harder to answer than the meaning of life. It’s hard to pick against old faithful, the Spurs. I can’t buy into the Clippers just yet since they have a track record in the post season, especially Chris Paul’s performances. Houston is young with holes, Portland lacks the experience (although Lillard doesn’t seem to need experience like last year), and Dallas will require certain match-ups for them to advance. Having said all of this, I wouldn’t doubt any of these teams playing for a chance to represent the Western Conference.
But there are really only two teams that are playing head and shoulders above everyone else, the Warriors and Grizzlies. We have the league’s most potent offense in the Warriors and the league’s toughest defense with the Grizzlies. Who wouldn’t want to watch this match up in the Western Conference? The best part about both of these teams though, they both play well on the other side of the ball too.
Memphis is ranked 8th in offensive efficiency. Looking at points per game will mislead students of the game because Memphis plays at an Eastern Conference pace of 94.4 possessions a game, while Golden State leads the league in Pace with the 7th most efficient offense.
Although Golden State is an offensive juggernaut, many see their points per game and believe they aren’t a good defensive team. However, their defensive efficiency begs to differ. They are allowing a league best, 95.1 points per 100 possessions. Since they run and gun offensive, opposing teams usually score higher than their average, not based on a lack of defense but because of an increase in shot attempts. Memphis and Golden State are top 8 in both offensive and defensive efficiencies. If they keep this pace up, they will be meeting in the Western Conference Finals.
San Antonio and Golden State.
The west is going to come down to matchups, and who gets hot at the right time. As for the Spurs, what else can be said? This team is absolutely incredible, and its ability to win championships is beyond proven. The Warriors look incredible for multiple reasons. First, Steve Kerr is doing an incredible job. It feels like so many NBA teams reject clear lineup data, particularly when it shows success going small, choosing to dismiss it as a gimmick and go back to what did not work. Marck Jackson seemed to do that in getting away from Harrison Barnes at the 4, which worked during the 2013 playoffs. Kerr has gone often to smallball and it’s resulted in the Warriors having the league’s two most effective lineups: Curry, Thompson, Bogut, Green, and Iguodala, or Barnes. As for the rest of the west? OKC’s injuries will cost them home court and they have a lot of work to do to catch up to their peers. The Clippers and Mavericks are not good enough defensively. Memphis looks great, but in comparison to Golden State, I worry about their ability late in games to score (yes, they’re 15-2 and they’re awesome, but this conference is brutal). Portland is great but has a thinner bench, and just is not as good as Golden State. Houston is so predicated to exploit teams to create threes and get Harden on the line concerns me when they face better, playoff defenses designed to take those looks, as well as offenses that can score from the midrange Houston likes to surrender – Portland exposed that last year.
3) What’s wrong with the Pistons?
Detroit leads the league in players wouldn’t mind having on your team, provided the contract and situation were right. It’s remarkable. Take a look, player by player, at Detroit’s preferred lineup: Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. The phrase, “If that’s your biggest problem, you’re probably in okay shape,” applies to all of them. Of course, if that’s how you’re describing an entire starting lineup, it’s a major problem.
At their best, those guys top out at “above average” on a sliding scale. They don’t fit particularly well with each other, and they’re learning a new system. Even in a weak conference, expectations shouldn’t have been high. Van Gundy added shooters in the offseason to surround Drummond the way he surrounded Dwight Howard in Orlando. It was a nice idea and could work to a degree over time, but the realty is Drummond isn’t Dwight Howard in the same way that Derrick Favors isn’t Dwight Howard. What’s worse is that Drummond has stopped finishing at the rim and isn’t even as good as he was last year.
This is a messy situation in need of a roster overhaul.
It might be easier to list what isn’t wrong with the Pistons. I believe the Pistons have a thing called a personnel issue. “Oh, of course you say that Jacob, that’s what’s wrong with every bad team” said everyone reading this. Personnel problems could be chemistry, lack of talent or, what the Pistons have, a group that doesn’t work together. This was the same problem the Knicks had when they acquired Melo with Amare, although they had some success but not as much as most thought. Detroit has zero offensive chemistry. They rank last in field goal percentage.
This main offensive problem comes from their inability to space. They have Josh Smith roaming around the perimeter and too many big men who do the same thing. They lack the true stretch 4 to provide space for either Drummond or Monroe, whoever is at the 5. They also don’t have any three point shooting threats either. Basically, the Pistons have a lot of players playing in positions that doesn’t maximize their talents. We all see the potential and talent this roster has, it’s now time to clean up some of the pieces that don’t fit to maximize everyone’s skill.
Really? Everything. There is only so much a good or great coach can do with a mismatched roster, and Stan Van Gundy and Pistons fans are sadly learning that the hard way. Sure, the Pistons are not supremely talented, but they are better than 3-14 on paper. The roster just does not work. Josh Smith at the 3 does not work because his strengths as a playmaker are muted when he is guarded by quicker 3’s. Now, all he does is shot long range jumpers, who perhaps does not care about making things better. The player who shot just 7 threes in 2009-2010 has abandoned that type of sacrifice. The NBA is shifting smaller, and a Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Smith front line, without quality guard play, is going to struggle no matter who the coach. For that matter, Monroe may not say it, but he looks like a guy whose contract situation is weighing on his mind as he struggles through the season. Still, both Monroe and Smith would both be better off if one of them played elsewhere — with Monroe an unrestricted free agent next summer after Van Gundy played hardball, that may just happen. Drummond has not built on last season’s success, and for all the love of his game he anchors a bottom ten defense and is a center on a team that struggles scoring inside. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has not developed in year 2, Brandon Jennings is an awful defender who holds the ball too much on offense. Everything is wrong. And given Van Gundy’s early struggles as a GM and Doc Rivers’ pedestrian Clippers’ GM tenure, the old rule that coaches should not assume the dual role rings truer than ever.
Two Words: Josh Smith. I know he has all the tools to be a dynamic two-way player. I know it’s not ALL his fault, but I’m sick of seeing the “hey it’s 18 seconds on the shot clock, they can get somethOH GOD WHY WOULD YOU SHOOT THAT, SMOOVE?” from Josh Smith. Since arriving in Detroit, “Can’t Shoot Right” has been taking 15.7 shots to average 15.8 ppg on a skimpy 41% shooting. He’s atrocious at shooting long two’s (35%) and 3 pointers (24%), yet inexplicably those comprise 37% of his shot attempts. No one doubts that Smith has a ton of talent. On a quality team with a strong culture and coach, he could be a valuable piece. Detroit isn’t that place. I’m sick of you, Josh Smith.