As we approach the first quarter pole of this NBA season, I began to take a look at some of the early successful teams in the Eastern Conference. Wondering exactly what it was that was allowing these teams to have success in this young 2016-2017 season, I decided to dive into it a bit deeper and see for myself. Just like in life, some are less fortunate than others and while teams like Golden State have pretty much everything to be thankful for, the 76ers can be grateful that they’re nearly halfway to their win total from last season. The Dallas Mavericks are kind of like those people who have absolutely nothing great that stands out in their lives, but they’re just happy to be a franchise. They’re like that person who looks like he has a really nice car from the outside, but then you get inside of it and there’s more food on the floor boards of the front seat than there is between Shaq and Barkley’s chairs on the NBA on TNT set.
First, lets take a look at the Eastern Conference. As a whole, they can be thankful that they’re no longer the AFC South of the NBA. Having two teams below .500 make the playoffs two seasons ago prompted talks of changing the playoffs format to include the top 16 teams overall. We’ll start with the team looking down on the rest of the conference like Allen Iverson over Tyronn Lue. Drumroll…the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Resurgence of Kevin Love
During his first couple years with the Cavs, he was sort of like the third Manning brother that no one really cared about. Now, he is playing some of the best basketball of his career and is performing with success similar to his breakout year in the 2011-2012 season, when he averaged 26 and 13 and finished in the top 10 for the leagues Most Valuable Player vote for the first time in his career. His points (33.3), rebounds (16.5), steals (1.4) and assists (2.2) per 100 possessions are all nearly high as they were during his MVP-caliber year in Minnesota. A large portion of his increase in points per game is due to K-Love’s ability to get to the free throw line. While playing in the Twin Cities, his free-throw rate (the ratio of his foul shots to field goal attempts) was at a career high of 46%, dropping to nearly 32% after his first two seasons in Cleveland. Early on this season, his free throw rate is back up to 45% and he is shooting almost 85% from the charity stripe, a high since 2010. Love is also contributing heavily to the Cavaliers defense, which ranks in the top half of the league in opponent’s points per game. Along with his increase in steals and blocks per game, his points allowed per game in both isolation and pick and roll defense have dropped significantly from last year. Their Defensive Efficiency Rating is higher when Love is on the court and he ranks in the top 10 in the league in win shares per 48 minutes (a stat which calculates how much a player contributes to a team’s victory). Don’t get me wrong, this team would be significantly worse without that LeBron guy, but K-Love’s efficiency is responsible for the improvement from last year’s championship team and part of the reason why they will once again finish as the top team in the East.
Toronto Raptors: Canada Pride
It was a sad time for this country when their prized possession was a two way tie between Canadian Bacon and Justin Bieber. The Toronto Raptors may have finally taken over the top spot. Not only have the Toronto Raptors surpassed the Yankees, Patriots, Alabama Football and Duke Basketball as Drake’s favorite sports team, but they might have one of the best fan bases in ALL of sports. Although like a fourth of the NHL teams reside in Canada, the Toronto Raptors are coming to be known as Canada’s Team. They rank third in the league in attendance percentage at home and this is just the regular season. These Canadians have come to absolutely LOVE the playoffs. The fans have been there through the thick and thin. From the 2013 season when the Raptors boasted a losing record, they still had the 13th highest attendance in the league, to the last two NBA Playoffs where the fans have been so loud that there were multiple instances where players were unable to hear the referee’s whistle. Not to mention, they renamed Maple Leaf Square and began calling it “Jurassic Park” due to the hundreds and sometimes thousands of fans that pile up outside of the stadium to watch basketball on a big screen. You could compare it to international soccer, but these Canadians are WAY to nice to send death threats to players or fans when things don’t go their way. Toronto has the league’s second hardest schedule, but they’re a team that can handle it. Will they finish second in the conference? Maybe, maybe not. But come playoff time, aside from the Cavs, there’s no other team in this conference I’d rather avoid.
Chicago Bulls: Rajon Rondo…yeah… um no.
Sorry Rajon, your time has passed; however, the Bulls should be pretty damn thankful for someone and his name is Jimmy Butler. His top-10 league rankings in points per game, free throws made, PER, EWA (Estimated Wins Added) and Win Shares speak for themselves. Having 12-time NBA All-Star Dwayne Wade as his new sidekick hasn’t necessarily been the worst addition for Butler either. Oh, and they’re still grateful for Portland drafting Sam Bowie. As we’ve seen in the past, it’s not the easiest job in the world to keep pace with the rest of the league with a one-man show. I expect the Bulls to finish in the top three of this conference due to their easy remaining schedule in comparison to the rest of the conference, but don’t expect them to give Cleveland or Toronto much of a fight.
Atlanta Hawks: The NBA Schedule Makers
Looking at the 10-7 Atlanta Hawks, you could choose to praise the Hawks’ addition of Dwight Howard, the NBA’s version of the kid no one wanted to play on the same team as during pick-up basketball because he would kick the ball into the neighbor’s yard if he felt like he wasn’t getting enough touches, or you could consider the fact that the 2012 Charlotte Bobcats could probably be over .500 with the schedule that this team has played so far. They aren’t underachieving by ANY means, but they have the 6th easiest schedule in the entire NBA and are one of only two current playoff teams to rank in the bottom 10 in the league in both points scored and allowed. Also keep in mind that Dwight has yet to injure his back or confront the team’s best scorer about sharing the ball more. This team is good and has potential, but until I start seeing more quality wins and less laughable losses, I’m not buying into the Atlanta Hawks as anything more than a 4-seed at best.
Boston Celtics: Being ONLY one game out of 2nd place
Ranking in the bottom half of the league in defensive rating, having Al Horford (9) and Jae Crowder (7) miss a combined 16 games to start the year, playing 10 of their first 18 games on the road and sitting only one game out of second place in a competitive Eastern Conference, the Celtics need to take team field trips to Church on Sundays (or Synagogue on Saturdays) to thank God that they have yet to implode with these unfortunate circumstances. The Celtics are 5-2 with Horford and a mediocre 5-5 without him and will have to play 10 of their 16 games on the road next month. The good news is, things should only get easier for them after New Years, but until then, this team is going to have to fight to keep pace with the beasts of the East. If this team stays healthy and fights through their tough schedule early on, I predict that this team will finish third in the Eastern Conference when its all said and done.
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker
With credit to arguably one of the best benches in the NBA, the impactful return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and success of coach Steve Clifford in getting the best out of this young team, the Charlotte Hornets would not be in the position they were in without Kemba Walker. I swear he has not played this good of basketball since the average basketball fan knew who Jimmer Fredette was. He’s averaging a career high in points, rebounds AND assists, while ranking in the top-15 in the NBA in PER, Win Shares and Value Over Replacement Player. Although Charlotte maintains a solid bench, this team does not produce like it does when former UConn superstar is on the court. Finally, the best basketball player on this team doesn’t watch the games from the executive suite. Don’t get me wrong, this team has improved greatly; however, their not-so-easy upcoming schedule combined with a young roster causes me to believe that they won’t continue at this pace, but will manage to make the playoffs.
The East is once again a very strong conference. The Pacers (7th) and Knicks (8th) are currently barely holding onto playoff spots early on in the season and it appears that it will be a fight to the finish for the last couple of playoff spots.
Is there a current non-playoff team that will be fighting for the Larry O’Brien trophy after 82 games?
In my opinion, with a defense that ranks in the top half of the league and a team led by the young talents of Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo (you can’t help but to feel bad for Milwaukee’s PA Announcer), these Milwaukee Bucks WILL be a playoff team this year.
Next time, we’ll take a look at the Western Conference and the surging Warriors who have LeBron James to thank for opening the door for free agents who can’t win a title without playing alongside the other half of their respective conference’s All-Star Team.