To prefix this blog, I would like to make note of the fact that all the team stats were gathered on March 6th. Considering the fact that NBA games are played practically every game of the season, these numbers will change as time goes on. With that in mind, here are my predictions for the Eastern Conference’s Playoff teams.
While Atlanta may not top many statistical categories, the Hawks have very few weaknesses which can be exploited by other powerhouse teams. The Hawks’ weakest aspect of play lies in rebounding, where they rank twenty-seventh in the league. Atlanta is also mediocre in turnovers with a gamely average of 13.6. Other than that, the Hawks are impressively well-balanced. They are without a doubt the best defensive team in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks rank second in opponent points per game (96.4), fifth in opponent field goal percentage (.434), sixth in opponent three-point percentage (.332), and seventh in opponent turnovers (15.1). Atlanta’s offense, while not as potent as their defense, is still one of the best in the country. The Hawks are eighth in points per game (102.6), third in field goal percentage (.466), second in three-point percentage (.382), and fourth in free-throws (.776).
Casting aside statistical categories, the Hawks can still take pride in their record thus far. The Hawks have swept teams in both conferences. Some notable sweeps that the Hawks have dealt in the 2015 NBA season include the Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, and Indiana Pacers. Atlanta has also won the series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, and Washington Wizards. It’s no wonder that the Atlanta Hawks are the first team in the East to clinch a playoff berth.
Outside of Atlanta, it is hard to pin down the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Could it be the deep Chicago squad? Is the second best team in the East the NBA’s sole Canadian franchise? I would say argue that neither team will be the East’s silver team. If Derrick Rose had managed to stay healthy for once in his career, I could see the Bulls playing second fiddle to the Hawks. After all, they qualified for the 2014 Playoffs with room to spare at the fourth spot. Rose only played ten games and zero postseason games in the 2014 Season. Once the Bulls entered the playoffs, they were roundly outplayed by the Wizards, only notching one win to Washington’s four. Without Rose, the Bulls lack a quality floor general.
My nomination for the East’s second spot would be the Cleveland Cavaliers. The chaos that plagued the all-star heavy lineup seems to be wearing off. Aside from the Hawks and Pacers, the Cavaliers have the most momentum in the Eastern conference with a seven-to-three record in the last ten games. Statistically, the Cavs are less impressive than their Western Conference or Georgian counterparts. They are admittedly an offensively focused team with their best categories being points per game (102.8), field goal percentage (.456), three-point percentage (.354), and turnovers (13.3). This was the identity that many expected of Cleveland all along. I would argue that stats will improve as chemistry is fostered among the Cavs.
Similar to the Cavs, Toronto puts most of its eggs in the offensive basket. The Raptors are fifth in points per game (104.6), second in free-throw percentage (.784), and fourth in turnovers per game (12.4). Toronto’s field goal percentage is mediocre (.455) though it is notably higher than Portland, Houston, and Chicago.
What particularly gives Toronto the success that it has experienced this season is its bench. The Raptors’ bench is seventh in bench points per game (39.4). Within the Eastern Conference, the scoring ability of Toronto’s substitutes only falls behind Indiana, Milwaukee, and Boston. Toronto may not have a strong defensive presence to help battle through the playoffs but they have the benefit of a wide variety of scorers.
Few teams have the blend of youthful talent and veterans that the Bulls have. On one hand, the Bulls have power in experience that is rooted in the likes of Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Derrick Rose. On the other hand, this year’s draft has breathed new life into the Bulls roster with rookies Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott, the former of which scored sixteen points in the Rising Stars game of 2015.
The Bulls make a case for the fourth spot through their work on the perimeter, from the free-throw line, and off the glass. The Bulls have the fourth best defense against opponent three-point shooters (.331). Their overall opponent field goal percentage ranking dips to ninth (.441), which is still respectable. The Bulls’ offense is marred by low field goal percentage (.440) and mediocre points per game (101.3) but their three-point shot (.354) and free throw percentage (.784) act as consolation.
After a 15-67 season in 2014, few saw the Bucks’ success this season coming. Nonetheless, Milwaukee has become a force to be reckoned with in the East. The squad from Wisconsin is a perfect blend between offense and defense. The Bucks’ have relatively low points per game (97.8) but their field goal percentage (.460), three-point percentage (.371), and free-throw percentage (.772) are all high. Their defense is even better. Milwaukee is fifth in opponent points per game (96.6), fourth in opponent field goal percentage (.432), fourth in opponent three-point percentage (.331), and first in opponent turnovers (16.5).
All of these factors working together would seem to warrant a higher place in the Eastern Conference. The reason the Bucks aren’t higher on this list is their multiple trades in the recent past. As good as Michael Carter-Williams is, he has big shoes to fill. Brandon Knight not only put up good numbers during his time with Milwaukee (17.8 ppg, 5.4 apg, 4.3 rpg, and 1.6 spg) but he had a good shot (.435). Since joining the Bucks, Carter-Williams’ field goal percentage has risen from .380 to .474 but his three point shot has shriveled to .125. If the Bucks can manage to keep most of their team together and develop Carter-Williams’ shot, they could be big next year. It may not be enough this season.
The Washington Wizards have not been the same team that they were a year ago. Last year, they finished fifth in the East, beat the Chicago Bulls four-to-one in the first round, and took the Indiana Pacers to six games. The Wizards last ten games include two wins and eight losses. The Wizards are not a bad team; they have the potential to be a top four team in the East. After all, they are fourth in field goal percentage (.466), tenth in opponent points per game (98.0), seventh in opponent field goal percentage (.437), and fifth in three-point percentage (.361). The chances of the Wizards falling out of the playoffs are slim. Nonetheless, the Wizards need to find a way to end their slump before they fall any further down the playoff bracket.
After Paul George’s injury, many wrote the Pacers off from a playoff appearance. Regardless of whether Paul George plays in the regular season or not, the Pacers have been making a serious push for the postseason. As of March 8th, the Pacers are eighth in the Eastern Conference but they have the potential to climb higher. Indiana ranks higher than current seventh-place Charlotte in almost every statistical category aside from turnovers. Without Paul George, the Pacers have mostly won through defense. They rank fourth in the NBA in opponents per game (96.5), sixth in opponent field goal percentage (.436), and fifth in total rebounds per game (44.9). If Paul George returns before the season ends and plays anywhere near recent years, the Pacers can all but guarantee a seed higher than eight.
With the arrival of Lance Stephenson in the off season, the Hornets entered the 2015 season with a great deal of optimism. Unfortunately, Stephenson is not the budding star that Charlotte had hoped. Stephenson’s points per game, rebounds per game, field goal percentage, three point percentage, and free-throw percentage have all decreased since he left the Pacers. Ironically, the Hornets have since become a poor man’s Indiana. The Hornets’ defense is decent. They rank seventh in the NBA in opponent points per game (96.8) and eighth in opponent field goal percentage (.437).
Unfortunately, the Hornets have an atrocious offensive game. Charlotte is twenty-seventh in points per game (94.9), twenty-ninth in field goal percentage (.426), twenty-ninth in three-point percentage (.316), and twenty-third in free-throw percentage (.738). If it were not for their defense, the Hornets would not even be in the run for the playoffs.