Before the NBA season began, I made five bold predictions. Well, not that bold, considering they included such nuggets as “A bunch of teams will fall well below expectations,” and “All predictions will be incorrect.” But hidden amid the rambling was one substantive note: the Eastern Conference separated into tiers. So how did past James, in all his ignorance, do in predicting the Eastern Conference landscape?
The Favorites (Chicago, Cleveland)
Would have been hard to mess that up. The two consensus favorites both turned out all right. There was a lot of drama for Cleveland early on, but it mostly dissipated after they started destroying teams — Lebron leaving Kevin Love out of Instagrams aside.
The Bulls season was marred yet again by a Rose injury, but, fingers crossed, he should be back in time for the playoffs (or at least some version of Rose), and the rest of the roster has looked as good as advertised. Gasol magically returned to form after escaping the dark cloud hovering over the Lakers organization. Jimmy Butler made a shocking leap from Solid Piece On A Good Team to All-Star That Briefly Generated Irresponsible MVP Buzz. Best of all, when the calendar flipped to March, Nicola Mirotic revealed the monster lurking beneath the Foreigner Just Happy To Be In the NBA Façade he had been faking, suddenly dropping 20 plus points night after night after averaging a measly 7 all year.
Despite the fact that only three wins separate these teams, the consensus is that the two are no longer in the same tier. Rose is out and Cleveland has LeBron, and LeBron has won the Eastern Conference Championship the past four years. That’s tough to argue with. The Bulls fit better now with ….
The Challengers (Washington, Toronto)
Both came into the season looking a step above most of the East but a step below the real players. And that’s pretty much where they stand today.
Both have looked incredibly impressive at times, only to inexplicably go into long slumps. That’s made them two of the most frustrating teams in the NBA to watch this season. When everything’s clicking, it feels like they can take anybody. And then they go out and look flummoxed by the Hornets.
There’s still a sliver of hope for both teams in the playoffs, but neither has impressed enough to look like any more of a threat than they did at the outset.
The Good Teams (Atlanta, Charlotte, Brooklyn, Miami)
Hmm, which one doesn’t belong?
OK, I whiffed on Atlanta. Calling Atlanta “good” is like calling Westbrook “fast.” It’s true, but it’s also enough of an understatement to be vaguely insulting. There was just no way to see this coming. Atlanta was a feisty 8-seed last year, taking the Pacers to seven games, but at the time it seemed to have more to do with Roy Hibbert’s feelings being hurt by his teammates than it did anything on the part of the Hawks.
Well, Atlanta’s been good all right. Sadly, the same cannot be said of Charlotte or Brooklyn. They currently inhabit the group of sub .500 Eastern conference teams scrapping for the East’s final two playoff spots, a group that includes the Boston Celtics. For Charlotte and Brooklyn, two teams with big-money free agents that came into the year with playoff run-aspirations, to be in the same sentence as an organization that is trying to lose games, something has gone very wrong. The Nets recent hot streak has them currently sitting in a playoff spot, so perhaps it’s not too late for them.
Miami too finds itself in that unglamorous class. For a brief moment, it looked like everything might be different. Hassan Whiteside emerged out of nowhere in the middle of the season as a 7-foot rim protector with post moves that somehow hadn’t been able to make an NBA roster. Then the Heat landed Dragic at the trade deadline, and for a few hours Heat fans were staring at a Dragic-Wade-Deng-Bosh-Whiteside starting lineup. Then news broke that Bosh was out for the season, and the dream was cruelly yanked away.
The Bad Teams (New York, Detroit, Indiana, Boston, Orlando, Milwaukee, Philadelphia)
I’d like to take a second to pat myself on the back for this line: “Yeah, I put New York in the same group as Philly.” It may have been my only somewhat insightful prediction, but I was onto New York.
New York has actually been a bit worse than Philly, which is astounding when you remember that this team was the two-seed in the East just two short years ago and still has its best player from that team (they were just as bad when Carmelo was playing).
On a happier note, Milwaukee managed to rise out of the Eastern Conference ashes and into the throws of the playoffs with nothing more than good coaching and player development. It looked like Milwaukee was putting together some interesting young pieces, but this good, this fast? And without Jabari Parker? Jason Kidd’s come a long way from his water cup spilling days.
Boston, currently fighting for a playoff seed that management would probably like to see slip away, has been a nice surprise as well. Consider this: The three most highly paid players on Boston’s roster are Gerald Wallace, Isaiah Thomas, and Brandon Bass. And Thomas has only been on the Celtics for a month. 34-42 should not be good enough for the playoffs, but give credit where credit is due.
Detroit, meanwhile, has had a bumpy ride. Expectations were probably a little too high thanks to Stan Van Gundy’s reputation. One Josh Smith cut and one Reggie Jackson trade later, and the Pistons are about where they were last year, mediocre. That’s disappointing, but it’s a little too soon to pull the plug on this edition of the Pistons.
There’s not a whole lot to talk about with the Magic and Sixers, unless you’re a fan of NBA five-year plans, in which case this is your Super Bowl. Players on both teams (Oladipo and Payton for the Magic, Noel for the Sixers) showed promise, but neither seems to have landed the foundational superstar they’ve been tanking for.
Finally, Indiana, who more than any other team in the Eastern Conference – or for that matter the league – is still a question mark. 77 games into the season, that’s saying something. After losing Lance Stephenson in free agency and dealing with what at the time seemed like a season-ending Paul George injury, the Pacers looked like a lottery team coming into the year. Without George Hill for most of the season, the Pacers struggled to a 15-29 record. But since getting Hill back, the Pacers have gone 19-14, and the on/off court numbers tell an even starker story. With Hill in the lineup, the Pacers have a point differential per 100 possessions of 5.0. For some perspective, the Hawks’ differential on the season is 5.5. Without Hill, the Pacers drop to -3.2, or about the same as the confused mess in Brooklyn. Factor in Paul George’s promising season debut last night, and if the Pacers can snag the 8th spot (they’re currently a game back), they may have something sneakily scary here. Or they’ll end up in the lottery, and that’ll be it. And this is with five games left in the regular season.
You’re An Idiot — Atlanta, Milwaukee
A Little Off — Charlotte, Brooklyn, Miami, Boston
Everybody Saw That Coming — Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Orlando
Too Soon To Say — Indiana
Well Done — Detroit, Washington, Toronto
You’re A Genius – New York