We've taken a look at how the Western Conference is shaping up, let's head over East to see what is brewing at the halfway point of the season.
Injuries have been the story of the year, but there has been some relief in the return of Isaiah Thomas allowing us to finally witness one of the more intriguing storylines in recent memory. Good teams don’t trade amongst themselves, especially not in the same conference but the Celtics and Cavs decided they would. Kyrie Irving has been incredible offensively, displaying all the skills we have grown accustomed to over the years. His defence has been average at best; he started like a house on fire and some claimed he was a defensive juggernaut but he remains what he always has been – a capable defender who barely shows any interest.
He has had help from Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Jayson Tatum but the loss of Gordon Hayward will be felt as the season goes on. But on Tatum, the kid is 19 and might be the most well rounded rookie we have seen in the last five years. He is being asked to do so much more, which fast-tracks his development but one wonders how he and Brown will handle the workloads they are being given. Will the Celtics be happy to drop a few games here and there to rest the kids, and Irving? Brad Stevens is considered a coaching genius, so you would think he has it under control.
Toronto sit second in the East, with more of the same but also plenty that is new. Jakob Poetl, Pascal Siakim, Deron Wright, Fred Van Fleet and O.J.Anunoby give the Raps more depth than they have had while being led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but whether that depth translates to them being able to unseat Boston or Cleveland remains to be seen. They are playing at the 10th fastest pace, rank 4th in offensive rating and 6th in defensive rating but you can’t help but shake the fact that come the playoffs, teams will shut down DeRozan and Lowry, both of whom do not thrive in the post-season. The prediction – they finish as the #2 seed but are trampled, again, by Cleveland in the second round.
The Wine and Gold have been somewhat underwhelming, despite LeBron James taking on Father Time and playing him to a virtual tie. When this guy retires, we will sit back and wonder how the fuck he has done what he has done – he ranks third in minutes played and first in player efficiency, and just keeps on rolling. As long as he is fit, Cleveland wins the East #analysis. It sounds simple, but a line-up of him, Kevin Love, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Dwayne Wade will cause offensive fits and if you trade Thomas and Wade for J.R.Smith and Iman Shumpert they could cause defensive chaos. You can’t help but feel that a trade is coming – it needs to be for a defensively impactful player if they are to challenge Golden State.
Just 3.5 games separates the next 7 teams in the East – Detroit, Washington, Milwaukee, Miami, Indiana, New York and Philadelphia. The Pistons look to be what they have been for the last few years – might sneak into a lower playoff seed, but don’t have the game to challenge a top team despite Andre Drummond making drastic strides. The Wizards should finish fourth in the East and should push the #1 seed in the second round, but the lack of a bench and Marcin Gortat’s regression makes them a candidate to get shredded in the paint by decent big men. The Bucks are so intriguing; throwing out a line-up of Giannis, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe and Thon Maker might be the most versatile, defensively-powerful group that any team can muster and yet they are continually mediocre. The Heat are a classic .500 team – they don’t have the star power, but are brilliantly coached and versatile enough that they are in most games, and are as likely to shock with a win against Golden State as a loss to Atlanta. They are in a state of flux due to some of their contracts, and seem headed for the 8-seed and could give Boston fits in the first round.
The Pacers have been a pleasant surprise, as Victor Oladipo is a lock for the most improved player in the NBA and should be a starter in the All-Star game. For Indiana to get Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for Paul George may turn out to be a masterstroke; adding those two dudes to Myles Turner gives Indiana an insanely talented young core who may get some playoff exposure this season. They are one team the top seed would not want to see. The Knicks are almost the feel-good story of the year; the franchise seemed dead last season, but extracting Phil Jackson and Carmelo Anthony has been a Godsend! Kristaps Porzingis is everything he promised to be, Frank Ntilikina may be one of the best defensive guards in the NBA already and they have a roster full of veterans and role players filling the gaps. The NBA is better when the Knicks are relevant, and they are most definitely that!
The Sixers are without a shadow of a doubt the most scrutinised team in the league. Joel Embiid is a generational talent, but the fact remains that his body may never let him fulfil his potential. His net rating, player impact estimate and defensive rating all rank within the top 20; if he ever played more than 35 minutes a game for a stretch we could see domination like we have never seen before! Ben Simmons has stepped in as a rookie, who can’t shoot, and best brilliant. He is averaging 16.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.9 blocks per game and playing 35.9 minutes a game. Reminder – he is a rookie, playing point guard. There has been plenty written about him ‘slumping; in December as those numbers dropped to 14.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.9 assists – as a basketball industry, we need to chill the fuck out and appreciate what this KID is doing! If Simmons and Embiid get a reasonable run with injuries, this franchise is set for a sustained period of dominance #analysis.
A look further down the standings sees Brooklyn, Chicago, Charlotte, Orlando and Atlanta all in various stages of tanking, failure and development; three of these teams look to be heading on the right track, while two are in a state of flux.
The Nets appear on the right track – building around DeAngelo Russell, Caris LaVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson seems a very sound strategy and one that will pay off in the next 3-5 years, provided the complementary pieces fit. They rank fourth in pace but bottom 12 in both defensive and offensive efficiency – the intent is clear, but patience will be required. The Bulls rank second last in net rating, but it seems as though they might have the makings of a bright future with Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkinen, Zach LaVine, Justin Holiday and David Nwaba. Again, the defensive versatility and length of this team is a definite strength and with a component coach they could well rise again before too long. Note – Fred Hoiberg is NOT a competent fucking coach.
The Hornets rank 20th in net rating, despite having the 25th best record in the league and they are playing fast, ranking ninth in pace. They defeated Golden State last week, at Oracle, and Kemba Walker remains a top-flight point guard. But something is missing; maybe that something is Malik Monk? That something definitely isn’t Dwight Howard, despite him throwing up very good numbers. Just wait until he ruins the locker room from the inside out…its coming!
The Magic have been killed by injuries, and have a very offensively strong starting five but the direction of the franchise remains uncertain. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic would be very good second, third or fourth options but Orlando need to find a way to get a franchise-player into the mix. They may need to play the waiting game and go via the draft, which is fraught with danger; very few teams have less to look forward to in the short-term than Orlando. The Hawks have cleaned house and gone all in on the likes of Dennis Schroeder, John Collins, Tareaun Prince, Kent Bazemore and DeAndre Bembry – their offensive rating and pace are middle of the road, while their defense is bottom 5. Like Brooklyn, the intent is clear and it’s now time to sit back and be patient.
So its crystal ball time… first round series of Celtics-Heat, Cavs-Sixers, Raptors-Pistons and Wizards-Bucks give us at least two, maybe three really interesting series! Spoiler alert – Kyrie gets his wish and will go head-to-head with LeBron in the Conference finals…