DimeMag

5 Teams That Will Resurrect The Eastern Conference Next Year

The NBA’s Eastern Conference is in need of immediate assistance because outside of the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, there are 13 other teams that are on life support.

The Atlanta Hawks are the only other team in the East with a record above .500 and that’s not going to last much longer with Al Horford now out indefinitely. That leaves the likes of the Charlotte Bobcats, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards to compete for the coveted third seed.

Yeah, that’s what you thought going into this season, right? Not the loaded Brooklyn Nets or the staunch defense of the Chicago Bulls or even the Carmelo Anthony-led New York Knicks, but the Bobcats, Raptors and Wizards, all of which will possess below average records while contending for the spot.

By comparison, the Nets were the three-seed last year after winning 49 games. Only the eighth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks had a losing record going into the playoffs, while the Boston Celtics came close with a 41-40 record.

There may be as many as four teams going into the Eastern Conference Playoffs with a losing record. Not only that, but there may be a team with a losing record to win the Atlantic Division, currently led by the 13-15 Toronto Raptors.

While the rest of the conference struggles, the Heat and Pacers flourish, with Miami holding a 6.5-game division lead over Atlanta and Indiana holding an 11.5-game lead over 14-18 Detroit, the current seventh seed.

There are still four teams that have yet to win ten games. The Milwaukee Bucks, the league’s worst team, are not even close with their 6-24 record.

But there’s hope. The East may be decrepit, but there are a few teams with rosters laden with young talent that just require professional experience, as well as finding a chemistry, in order to begin making serious playoff runs as soon as next year.

The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers may deserve a best-of-21 series to decide who is the best team out East, but even that may change as soon as next year, especially for Miami. Outside of Norris Cole, every player on the roster will become a free agent, assuming each member of the Big Three opts out.

It’s impossible to predict how that pans out, but it shows the layout of the NBA could change as soon as next year.

For now we analyze the five teams out East that are average or below-average this year, but have the talent that could lead to success in the near future.

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TORONTO RAPTORS
At 13-15, the Toronto Raptors are your current Atlantic Division leaders, holding a one-game advantage over the second-place 13-17 Boston Celtics.

That was difficult to write. It’s unnatural in two ways. One, 13-15 should never be enough to lead a division. That’s good enough for the 12th-best record out West. Two, and most surprisingly, the Toronto Raptors are winning the division.

As we all expected, the Raptors are a better team without Rudy Gay, who was traded to Sacramento in a deal that brought in Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons. The deal was more of a salary dump of Gay’s ridiculous and inflated contract, but it’s also helping the Raptors on the court, as well as with their financial situation.

Since trading Gay following their December 6 loss to Phoenix, the Raptors are 7-4, with two of those losses coming at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. However, a few of those wins are of quality, especially the six-point road win to snap the Oklahoma City Thunder’s winning streak. Toronto also beat the Chicago Bulls by 22 and most recently, the New York Knicks by 12.

With Gay no longer taking his 19 shots per game, it’s left room for guys with more potential to begin stepping forward and taking those shots. As a result, we’re getting career-bests from the likes of the 24-year-old DeMar DeRozan, currently averaging 21 points and shooting a career-best 31 percent from beyond the arc, and Jonas Valanciunas, averaging 10.3 points on 50 percent shooting.

DeRozan’s PER of 16.4 annihilates the previous career-high he set last year at 14.7.

Any coincidence that Valanciunas had gone for double-digit scoring in eight straight contests after having only eight games as such the entire season beforehand?

The best to come out of the Rudy Gay trade may just be the coaching staff finally giving some more attention on the offensive end to Jonas, who ranks 39th in points per possession on post-ups, per Synergy, as well as 67th when utilized as the pick-and-roll man.

I’m not a coach, but the 21-year-old with a post-game should be taking more than 8.5 shots per contest on a team whose current best player may well be DeMar DeRozan.

He’s also among the league-leaders in contested rebounding percentage, grabbing 45 percent of rebounds labeled as contested. Among players who garner at least 15 rebound chances per game, Jonas ranks eighth in contested rebounding percentage.

Valanciunas isn’t the only Raptor big currently having a career-best year, though, as Amir Johnson is also giving reason to why he was signed to a five-year, $30 million deal following the departure of Chris Bosh.

The 26-year-old Johnson is currently averaging a career-high 11.5 points on a near-NBA best 60 percent shooting, while also grabbing 7.2 rebounds and 2.5 offensive rebounds per contest. Like Valanciunas, he, too, ranks among the league’s best contested rebounders, grabbing 48 percent of contested tries.

Also worth noting about this team is the surprising defense they have been playing. Allowing only 101.5 points per 100 possessions, the Raptors rank ninth in the league in defensive efficiency.

There are ten players on this Raptors team with five years of experience or less, including high-potential guys in Valanciunas and DeRozan, and only one with at least ten years. With a borderline All-Star no longer taking too many shots, it’s giving Toronto the room to allow younger guys to take on larger roles and make up for the absence of wayward midrange shots.

WASHINGTON WIZARDS
If the Wizards were to make the playoffs this year, it’ll be the first time since 2008. They haven’t won more than 29 games in a season since then, haven’t been to the semifinals since 2005 and haven’t won a semifinals game since 1982. I know. That stat surprised me, too.

It’s doubtful the Wizards make any noise in the playoffs this year, but they have all the components in place to begin making runs as soon as next year, with health permitting. The Wizards two stars in Bradley Beal and John Wall have both been dealing with injuries that have kept them from playing a significant amount of time together.

Lineups that featured Wall and Beal have played 528 minutes in only 17 games together this season and had a net rating, the disparity between offensive and defensive rating, of plus-4.2.

The Wizards backcourt gives reason enough to believe that Washington won’t be a cellar dweller for too much longer, especially with the jump Beal has taken from his rookie season.

After averaging 13.9 points and shooting 39 percent from three last year, Beal is averaging 19 points and shooting 47 percent from beyond the arc on nearly six attempts per game. However, there is still room to grow, mainly everything that isn’t shooting, as his current PER matches almost exactly what he had in his rookie season. Although he’s struggled with his pull-up jumper, making only 33 percent of his attempts, he has been among the league’s top catch-and-shooters, converting on 44 percent of his overall attempts and 47 percent of his three-point attempts.

His backcourt teammate has also seen an improvement in his shooting touch. Once finishing a season where he shot 3-for-42 from beyond the arc, John Wall is making a much more respectable 31 percent of his three-pointers. It’s leading to a significant increase in his shots, too, as he’s now taking nearly four three-pointers per game after never taking more than two per game in the previous three seasons.

On top of improved shooting, Wall is also averaging a career-high 9.1 assists per, a career-high 19.9 points and a career-high 2.1 steals. The 21.8 points per game he’s creating off his assists is second-best in the league, only trailing point god Chris Paul. The 18.7 assist opportunities per game is also good enough for second-best in the league.

Wall and Beal are picking up the slack of rookie Otto Porter, who sat out the first month-and-a-half of the season and is now struggling to adjust, failing to score more than four points in any of the eight games he’s played in. The wiry small forward, who checks in at 6-9 and weighs only 198 pounds, still has a long way to go before he can begin making an impact. The Wizards are just hoping he doesn’t go the route of Jan Vesely, the Wizards 2011 lottery pick who has yet to average better than five points per game in any of his three NBA seasons.

Still, the Wizards have built a solid foundation on guys like Wall and Beal, while surrounding them with talented frontcourt veterans in Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza and Nene, to have a future worth looking forward to.

The athleticism, speed and talent alone from Wall and Beal should be enough to make the playoffs this year, but it could be experience that ends up playing the largest factor down the road as Washington looks to piggyback off those two into consistent postseason berths.

CHARLOTTE BOBCATS
Who forgot to tell me that not only is Charlotte one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, but also a current five-seed out East?

While the Bobcats still may be as putrid as ever when it comes to offense, ranking 29th in offensive efficiency, the 98.1 points per 100 possessions they’re allowing is third-best in the league. Those numbers are superior to that than more notable defenses in the Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat. That’s impressive for a team with a turnstile for a center in Al Jefferson, who is still managing to allow opponents to shoot 56 percent at the rim, but he’s also been greatly assisted by Bismack Biyombo, who is forcing opponents into 39 percent shooting at the rim.

What’s led to the Bobcats improved defense is the players commitment to working in coach Steve Clifford‘s system, most notably seen in their stingier defense when it comes to points in the paint. The team that was giving up nearly 44 points in the paint per game last year is now giving up only 36 this year, tied for first in the league with the Indiana Pacers.

What makes that even more impressive is the Bobcats don’t have a Defensive Player of the Year candidate to bail them out. Like I said, it’s Al Jefferson in the middle and it’s not like he’s gotten any better at keeping opponents from scoring.

What’s aiding Charlotte in their defense is the speed and athleticism of the perimeter players with guys like Kemba Walker, currently averaging 1.4 steals per game, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist whipping around the three-point line and keeping slashers from getting to the rim.

There are only four teams in the league that allow fewer assists per game than Charlotte and only two teams that allow a worse field goal percentage. For a brief time in the early portion of the season, Josh McRoberts, the team’s starting power forward, was their leader in assists.

The only thing holding them back, though, is their offense, where they are extremely inefficient, possessing the league’s worst effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, and have more players shooting below 40 percent than they do shooting 50 percent or better.

Kemba Walker, Al Jefferson, Gerald Henderson and Ramon Sessions are the team’s four top players in points per game. None of them are shooting better than 46 percent. Sessions, in fact, is one of the five rotation players that is shooting below 40 percent.

They’re also the league’s worst three-point shooting team, converting a league-low 4.8 threes per game and are converting them at a league-worst 32 percent. There’s only one player shooting above 36 percent on threes, while there are four players attempting at least one three-pointer per game and shooting below 30 percent.

There’s a lot of room for improvement, but it may only take one scorer, such as what they previously had in guys like Jason Richardson and Stephen Jackson, that would strengthen them as the East’s third-best team at the moment, with Al Horford‘s injury effectively ending Atlanta’s chance at holding the spot.

It’s not much to say, but it’s a start.

What’s more significant, however, is the fact that they have a defensive foundation that will continue to keep them competitive. They’ll begin winning games once they scoop up a scorer who can knock down shots at a respectable percentage.

Fortunately for them, they’ll have plenty of cap space next year as they’ll only have $40 million in guaranteed deals, mainly because they’ll finally be rid of that grotesque deal of Ben Gordon‘s, which pays him $13.2 million this year.

DETROIT PISTONS
I thought it impossible because of how many picks a team receives in the draft, as well as how many of those picks actually stick on the roster, but the Detroit Pistons are currently in possession of four rookies.

Only one of those rookies, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, is earning consistent minutes and it’s probably not what Detroit expected when they used a top ten pick to take him. The former star out of Georgia is averaging only 6.6 points and shooting 36 percent from the field as Detroit’s starting shooting guard.

Meanwhile, Luigi Datome, Peyton Siva and Tony Mitchell, Detroit’s three other rookies, are struggling for minutes.

But the rookies aren’t the reason why Detroit has the potential to become one of the East’s most dangerous teams. No, that honor goes to the frontcourt of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and, most notably, Andre Drummond, who have propelled the Pistons to become the league’s leading team scoring points in the paint.

Just imagine if Josh Smith actually took it to the rim more often, rather than attempting four three-pointers per game and converting on only 26 percent of such attempts, which is causing his field-goal percentage to flirt with the 40 percent mark.

There’s one huge reason as to why the Pistons have seen so much success in the paint this year, at least from an offensive and rebounding standpoint, and it’s directly related to Andre Drummond, the 20-year-old who was drafted ninth by Detroit last year. Drummond is averaging 12.8 points to go along with 12.3 rebounds per and an absurd, Moses Malone-esque 5.2 offensive rebounds per contest. The league-leading offensive rebounder is averaging a full offensive rebound more than second place. Naturally, the Pistons lead the league in offensive rebounds per, grabbing nearly 15 a night.

Although he’s not leading the league in rebounds total per, he’s actually fourth behind Kevin Love, DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard, it can still be argued that he’s the best rebounder in basketball, once you consider that he’s grabbing 70 percent of the rebounds he has a chance at.

While Jordan and Howard can also boast such a mark, they both pale in comparison to the contested rebounding numbers of Drummond, who is grabbing an unheralded 48 percent of all contested boards. By comparison, Howard and Jordan are at 36 and 39 percent, respectively.

Nikola Pekovic is the only player among the league’s top 25 rebounders, in terms of rebounds per, that can boast a better contested rebounding percentage, but he’s also grabbing nearly two less contested rebounds per game than Drummond.

You would assume Drummond’s intimidating presence would lead to a strong defensive presence, but it’s actually the opposite and it’s one of the few blemishes in his game. The Pistons rank 21st in the league in points in the paint given up per contest and Drummond is allowing opponents to shoot 49 percent at the rim, while averaging 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes.

As a result, the Pistons are the 20th-ranked team in defensive efficiency. With Brandon Jennings and Caldwell-Pope manning the backcourt, there’s going be plenty of defensive breakdowns that require Drummond to bail out his team. It hasn’t been the case so far.

Fortunately for the Pistons, Drummond is only 20 years old, as scary as that is to believe. His free throw routine may never be polished enough to become respectable, but he can refine his defense and attempt to use the athleticism he possesses to become an elite defender.

If Drummond were to become as elite on the defensive front as he is at rebounding, the Pistons can lock up an anchor in his prime for however long they wish to pay him.

PHILADELPHIA 76ers
If the Philadelphia 76ers aren’t careful, Michael Carter-Williams is going to win them right out of a good lottery pick.

It was believed going into this season that Philadelphia wasn’t going to be a threatening team at any level. In fact, we were all mostly under the impression that the Sixers were going to tank for the chance to draft an Andrew Wiggins or a Jabari Parker.

That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, though, as Carter-Williams is doing enough of everything to keep the Sixers from being completely awful. Even at 9-21, they’re still five games back of first place in the Atlantic Division and four games back of the final playoff spot. It would take one week-long winning streak to be in contention for either of those reservations, and they still have a chance with Carter-Williams running the show. It became apparent how much he means to this team when he missed a few games in the middle of December.

They’re 8-11 when he plays and 1-10 when he has sat out. He’s had eight games with at least ten assists, including a recent run of three straight where he dished out as many as 13 dimes, coming in a loss to Cleveland where he also scored 21 points on 17 shots.

Carter-Williams, who is averaging nearly eight assists per game, allows his height to create mismatches against point guards who are typically shorter than he is. With that height advantage, he’s able to see the floor better, shoot over the top of defenders and grab rebounds, garnering nearly six per game. His length is also leading to his current status as the league-leader in steals at 3.1 per contest and the 18.2 points per game he’s creating off of his assists is good for ninth in the league.

The Sixers are a minus-12.8 when he’s off the court.

Also contributing to a brighter future for Philadelphia, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2005, is Evan Turner, who is having the best season of his career, averaging 19.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists, as well as possessing a career-high PER of 14.2. He’s also among the league’s best drivers this season, converting 56 percent on 179 drives. Among players with at least 175 drives, only LeBron James has a higher shooting percentage.

Tony Wroten, a castoff of Memphis, is also excelling on an extremely inspired, hard-working team. A year after averaging 2.6 points and playing only 35 games last year, Wroten has come off the bench, and started in place of Carter-Williams during his injury rehab to average a solid 13.9 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists per.

Guys like Wroten, Carter-Williams, Turner and Thaddeus Young give a lot of hope for the future for a Sixers team that has yet to play with Nerlens Noel, who will most likely sit out the entire year to recover from a torn ACL. They team should also be receiving not one, but two high draft picks next summer. (Philly owns New Orleans’ first-rounder this year, and it’s only top-five protected.)

If the Sixers can draft a scoring big that can stretch the floor and combine him with Carter-Williams (Dario Saric? Doug McDermott?), they may just wind up as one of the top teams out East next year. They’re a borderline .500 team when he’s on the court and it could take just one or two more talented pieces, as well as some veteran experience, to turn them into a threat.

Not bad for a squad that has started James Anderson in 27 games and Hollis Thompson in 13.

What do you think?

Follow John on Twitter at @JFriel1990.

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