Editor’s Note: The season is winding down and we have one more round table before we kick into award season, playoffs and Spring.  Be on the look out for the staff’s picks for Most Improved Player, Coach of the Year and many other awards for the 2014-2015 NBA Season.  

Who will land in the 8th seed of the Eastern Conference?

Justin Sulkin

Indiana.  Boston is a compelling pick because of the addition of Isaiah Thomas and how they have taken off after subtracting Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, but Indiana is my pick here.  More so than any team in this race the Pacers are here by virtue of their bad health but they have started to become whole, and Paul George may come back, however ill advised that may be, and apparently looks great in practice.  The Pacers schedule down the stretch is manageable. They face just two teams above .500: the Thunder and Wizards to close the season, by which time they may see watered down versions of each. The Thunder may be cemented into the 8 seed by that time, and the Wizards may be locked into the 5 seed by then as well. Boston continues to surprise and look flat out better without Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, but I will bet on the more established roster. Brooklyn is too bizarrely inconsistent to bet on.  Charlotte is simply not as good as Indiana and Boston.  Detroit has too much ground to make up.

Indiana is my pick, and while they will be an underdog against Atlanta if we get a rematch, they will push them harder than many think.

Snottie Drippen

Woah boy. The 8th seed in the East is like a rotten hot potato: teams keep tossing it like they don’t want it, and it stinks. The Celtics, 8 games under .500, are currently fumbling the 8th. Brooklyn is standing by wild-eyed and tied, record-wise. Right on their heels are the Pacers and the Hornets, within .5 game and a 1.5 games respectively, palms greased and ready to grab the 8th seed and let it slip away again. Miami is only 1.5 games ahead of the Celtics, with Dwyane Wade trying mightily to keep the clock turned back to 2010. Even Milwaukee, once seemingly entrenched in the 5th seed, saw the 8th seed fracas and decided they wanted to join the shenanigans, dropping 15 of their last 20 games to fall a mere 3 games ahead of 8th (and 9th).

So who gets in? The Celtics have been much, much better than the 20-31 record they took into the All Star break. Boston is 11-9 in its last 20. The Pacers also have looked pretty damn good since February 20th, going 11-8 (that 6 game losing streak was gross). Miami has been hot and cold, but with the roster so thinned by injuries (Henry Walker was out of the league a month ago, and is now playing almost 28 minutes a game. They’re playing Wade at power forward in real games, for god’s sake) that I don’t think they’ll have the gas. Brooklyn has come on strong as of late, winning 7 of their last 9 (after a 2-5 swoon).The Hornets seem to be coming apart; 9-12 since the midseason break, but only 3-9 in their last 12 and (surprise) are besieged by injuries to key guys.

So basically we have a cavalcade of sadness battling for the chance to be shredded by the Hawks. There’s guaranteed to be a ton of jockeying. Milwaukee plays Boston twice and has a game against the Nets left. The Pacers play the Bets, Celtics, Hornets, and Heat in a six day span. Boston’s remaining schedule is grueling: 2 games each versus the Bucks, the Raptors, and the Cavaliers, and a tilt with the Pacers. All the 8th seed competitors will have a hand in their own destinies.

If I had to bet my money, I feel that Indiana finishes the season with the 8th seed in their clutches. The Pacers defense has been outstanding (as usual), David West and George hill provide the prerequisite veteran savvy, and they have a battle tested coach in Frank Vogel. Indiana isn’t necessarily “better” than the rest, I just see them as the last man standing “winner” in this exhausting game of musical Eighth Seed.

Which coach is most likely to be fired in the offseason?

Justin Sulkin

Randy Wittman. Many believed Wittman could have seen the chopping block a year ago. His offensive system leaves much to be desired, producing way too many long 2’s to thrive.  But franchises tend to wait until they fail to meet expectations before making a coaching change, so they can sell the move to the public.  So when Washington flourished in the 2014 playoffs, Wittman bought himself another season at the helm.

The expectations have changed this year, however, and this time I believe Wittman will not be as lucky. After reaching round 2 of the eastern playoffs and being the only of those teams to return largely intact, Washington expected to take another step forward.  Sitting at 41-33, and 22-26 since a 19-7 start, Washington is set to regress or at best plateau, and that spells doom for Wittman.

It is puzzling that a Wall-Beal-Pierce-Nene-Gortat lineup, with a nice bench behind it, is struggling through the east and ranks 18th in offensive efficiency, but that is the reality in Washington.  Washington will head into round 1 of the playoffs, as an underdog, likely against Chicago or Toronto in the first round.  A loss to Chicago in particular, after beating them in last year’s playoffs (despite the roster additions), could cause ownership in Washington to reach the point of no return.

Look for Washington to fire Wittman and scour for an upgrade this offseason.

Snottie Drippen

The Hot Seat is stacked high with candidates this year, but let’s not waste time on anything other than this: Randy Wittman must go. Sure, Dwayne Casey’s Raptors are stumbling down the stretch. Yeah, Portland has been hot and cold lately, and Phoenix has faded, their playoff hopes on life support. But Casey’s Raps were a victim of a perfect storm run after they were prepped to tank last season, and the Suns made moves to stabilize a volatile personnel situation and set up for the future more than now. Since Orlando (Jacque Vaughn) and Denver (Brian Shaw) already turned their Hot Seats up to “Vaporize”, now it’s Wittman’s turn. The Wizard’s went from a league darling driven by the barely tapped potential of John Wall to an unwatchable, frustrated ball of suck in just 3 short months. The coach’s insistence on outdated, stubbornly repetitive offense had ground Washington’s attack to a stultifying halt. In today’s “Pace & Space” NBA, Washington being among league leaders in long 2s and among the league bottom feeders in 3s taken isn’t a recipe for success. This Deadspin piece knocks it out of the park in a way I couldn’t:

Who knows? Maybe the Wiz can ratchet up the already exceptional defense (4th in defensive efficiency) in the playoffs and lean on the dynamic play of John Wall and Bradley Beal to make things interesting. If not, let’s hope Randy Wittman has his summer linen shorts set and the dress sandals ready because that seat is going to be SCORCHING if Washington has an ugly 1st or 2nd round exit.

Who will represent the Western and Eastern Conference in the Finals?

Justin Sulkin

Golden State and Cleveland.  Golden State has rolled all season long, and seemingly, the primary reason being given for why they will not win the West is that they have not done it before.   But every contender breaks through at some point, and Golden State experienced a long playoff run in 2013 and physical seven game series in 2014.  Looking at the playoff contenders in the west (sans Oklahoma City, New Orleans, and Phoenix), the Mavericks and Clippers are better than given credit for, but rank 16th and 18th respectively in defensive efficiency: neither team is good enough on that end to march through the west.  The Grizzlies have a negative net rating with Jeff Green on the floor; his addition has not had the desired impact of yet, and with a middling offense, concerns about Memphis scoring in the playoffs are not all narrative based.  That leaves Houston and San Antonio.  Houston is excellent, but I worry about how reliant on James Harden they have become: while Harden can carry them when necessary, Golden State has that gear with Steph Curry and has a more stable roster around him.  San Antonio is the scariest threat to the Warriors success, their roster from last year’s demolition of Miami intact.  They are also coming on late in the season, and look poised for a playoff run despite their status as a 6 seed.  It is tough to bet against San Antonio in a playoff series, but I am picking Golden State to reach the finals.

The East is far less juicy, but has its own set of storylines still.  Miami could put a scare into a higher seed (Cleveland?).  Dwyane Wade has been incredible, Goran Dragic has provided a post deadline boost, and championship character bleeds through the organization.   But for all Miami’s virtues, they still are 34-39 for a reason and figure to fall short in the East.  Toronto and Washington are talented, but are struggling with taking the next step from mid-tier playoff team to title contender.  Should they face off in the 4-5 matchup as they sit presently, the winner will be a massive underdog in round 2 against Atlanta.

Chicago is excellent in theory.  When healthy, a Rose-Butler-Dunleavy-Gasol-Noah-Mirotic-Gibson-Brooks-Snell-Hinrich rotation is extremely deep, versatile, and armed with frontline talent.  But something always seems amiss with Chicago.  Derrick Rose has obviously injured his knee once again, and Jimmy Butler has injured his elbow.  Chicago has slipped to 12th defensively this season, a bad outlier for a Tom Thibodeau defense.  Noah and Gasol have not performed well as a unit.  Chicago will be a tough out, but I do not see them getting past Atlanta or Cleveland.

That leaves Atlanta and Cleveland, and I believe Cleveland will beat Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Finals.  Atlanta is amazing.  Mike Budenholzer’s offensive system is incredible, and Atlanta defends on a string on the other end.  Much of the narrative that they cannot win without a “superstar,” or “player who gets his own shot” is simply untrue.  San Antonio just blitzed through the 2014 playoffs without the best player in a single series, and at the end of the day, a great team offense, great team defense, and team sitting at 56-18, is a surefire contender.  Cleveland’s 19th ranked defense concerns me, but they are 29-7 since their slow 19-20 start to the season, and will be a ferocious playoff out just by virtue of the talents of LeBron, Kyrie, and Kevin Love.  If Cleveland can muster enough defensive stops in the playoffs – they rank 11th on that end since January 15 – their offensive firepower could carry them through the East.  I am betting they will find a way to beat an incredible Atlanta team and very good Chicago team.

Snottie Drippen

Ugh. It’s a crapshoot. I’m going to basically close my eyes and pick a team at random in the West (“random” means “Warriors”,”Grizzlies”, or “San Antonio”). I usually look for team contiuity and a multi-year progression when picking NBA finalists. Has the core 3 or 4 guys been together for 2 or 3 years? In those 3 years, have they went further and further in the playoffs?

Here’s the issue: due to injuries (dammit Pacers, sayonara Thunder, sad for the Blazers) or new unfamiliar rosters (looking at you, Cleveland), the current forecast is hazy. Golden State looks dominant, but they haven’t made a deep run as a group yet, not sure if they’re ready for the 3 round Western Conference Gauntlet. Wes Matthews going down pretty much eliminated Portland in my eyes. The Clippers mostly fit the prerequisites, and Chris Paul seems to have a new level of force in his play, but I’m not sure if they haven’t plateaued as a team, if they have enough outside of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. The Spurs seem to be coalescing at just the right time, and I’m sure watching them round into form has the rest of the East on notice. As for the East, it’s basically a 2 team race, with Atlanta cruising into the playoffs with a huge lead and the Cavs coming on strong as the season winds down. The Bulls are the dark horse: they have a nice combination of disciplined vets, relentless hard work up and down the roster, and deep, versatile offensive talent.

For entertainment’s sake, I’m pulling for a Hawks versus Warriors finals. I’s love to see the so-similar-yet-so-different styles collide. Atlanta and Golden State would be beautiful, fast, fun, physical basketball with fun matchups all over the floor: Teague’s speed against Curry’s shooting, Horford and Millsap’s multifaceted offense versus Bogut and Draymond’s stalwart defense, Korver’s otherworldly shooting against Klay’s burgeoning all around game (and otherworldly shooting).

But sadly….*sigh*…we more likely get to see LeBron James and Tim Duncan-AGAIN-in the Finals. Yay.

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