The Eastern Conference has turned into a two-man race after the first month of the season. With Indiana getting off to such a hot start, and Miami â€” at least before their recent 2-game losing streak â€” honing in on a three-peat, the East’s two best teams are indisputable. But after the top-heavy creme rises to the surface, which squads are left in the body of the conference, and who is the team most likely to take the wide-open No. 3 seed in April?
First, we’ll break down the remaining 13 Eastern Conference teams into two categories: contenders and pretenders. Then we’ll select the No. 3 from the list of contenders. The entire Eastern Conference, save Indiana and Miami, could be thrust into the role of pretender, but six teams besides the Pacers and Heat still make the playoffs. No Eastern Conference team has stepped up so far this season beside the top two, but that doesn’t mean we can’t predict who might snag that No. 3 spot in the East, or even challenge Miami and Indiana for the top two spots (it’s still early, so don’t laugh too hard at that notion).
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All of these teams have one thing in common, save Cleveland: it makes more sense for them to lose than to win. That’s because each of these teams has an eye on the celebrated 2014 Draft. None of them have the talent to compete with Indiana or Miami, or really anyone, save themselves. If all of our contenders make the playoffs, all these pretenders will receive at least a couple ping pong balls in the 2014 Draft Lottery. Aside from poor Cleveland, this will make them all immeasurably happy.
Rob Hennigan and Co. are still waiting for Tobias Harris to get back on the court, but Glen Davis is back and in great shape; Arron Afflalo is performing so amazing, they may want to trade him now, when his stock has never been higher; Victor Oladipo has shown flashes of brilliance, especially defensively, and Nikola Vucevic has displayed enough production to prove last year probably wasn’t a fluke. The team would prefer to be good, just not top eight in the East, good. Hennigan wouldn’t mind trading Jameer Nelson for a first round pick, either.
Kyrie Irving has struggled even with Andrew Bynum actually playing. No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett appears to have been a bust, and Dion Waiters is on some sort of medication. Just to give you an indicator of how screwed up the Cavs interpersonal dynamics are, they tried to call a team meeting and everyone thought Waiters punched Irving. Mike Brown has improved their defense a bit, but after the Bynum and Jarrett Jack signings this summer, they were supposed to make it back to the playoffs. Doesn’t look like it so far, but keep an eye on them.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went down with a hand injury, and Charlotte’s defense is likely to suffer as a result. But if the season ended today, Charlotte â€” at 8-11 on the year â€” would be the final Eastern Conference playoff entrant. Al Jefferson‘s addition has opened up the floor a bit as defenses key on him in the post. But Steve Clifford‘s group will only make the playoffs if MKG gets back in time and the East continues to stumble as a whole. They lack the talent to really be contenders for a playoff spot, which is probably fine with that 2014 Draft looming and the chance to finally grab a young stud regardless of their draft position in the top 5.
Holy hell was that an exciting opening week for Brett Brown‘s team in Philly. But the dust has settled and they’re currently in the No. 9 spot with Michael Carter-Williams experiencing knee issues that will keep him out of tonight’s matchup against the Bobcats. While it was a fun â€” albeit, brief â€” ride to open the year, Spencer Hawes won’t be hitting many more game-tying three-pointers and the Sixers will end up exactly where GM/mastermind/evil genius spawned in a lab Sam Hinkie wants them: Lottery-bound.
New coach Brad Stevens has the Celtics at the top of the historically abysmal Atlantic Division with a gross record of 8-12. There are five Celtics who have appeared in at least 18 of their 20 games this season and who are averaging double-figures in a well-rounded attack. They’re a top 10 defense, too, at least in terms of efficiency. This is all happening without Rajon Rondo, so when he returns Danny Ainge could be looking at a No. 8 or 7 seed in the East and a first round playoff annihilation. They need to get worse or better, but they can’t flounder here for the rest of the season. Fortunately, the rest of the Atlantic should get better, dropping them back into the again.
Rudy Gay had corrective surgery on his eyes this summer, and now he can’t stop shooting the ball. He’s attempting a career high 18.8 field goals a game and shooting a career low 38.8 percent. If that’s not all, DeMar DeRozan has significantly improved his three-point shooting to just a shade under 40 percent and Jonas Valanciunas has gotten that much more confidence in his second year. Dwane Casey might not be around a year from now, but GM Masai Ujiri has some nice pieces to work with moving forward; he’s just hoping to avoid the playoffs, which shouldn’t be a problem with Gay chucking it from all over the court.
Owner Herb Kohl might want a playoff berth, and Larry Drew might be a solid coaching hire after coming over from Atlanta, but the Bucks stink and probably will continue to stink even when Larry Sanders comes back from his thumb surgery. They’ve got a bunch of guys on the injury list (including Ersan Illyasova) already and that’s why they have the worst record (3-15) in the worst conference. Even if everyone gets healthy, it’s unlikely they’ll be in a position to make the playoffs. But hey, at least Giannis Antetokounmpo is growing!
These are the teams with a real shot…to snag homecourt advantage in the first round and a likely NBA TV appearance in the first round of the playoffs. Some of these teams will be decent, but none of them could make the playoffs in the West â€” at least after watching them through the season’s first month. Still, they’re the best the East has got not named Indy or Miami, so it’s from this motley bunch where we’ll select the No. 3 team in the Eastern Conference these days.
They don’t get to the free throw line very much, but Randy Wittman‘s group is now led by a John Wall you can’t â€” at least as much â€” go under the screen while guarding. While Wall can still shoot for a poor percentage in the majority of games (his shot selection will improve), and he still gets off-balance on that midrange jumper, he’s vastly improved from earlier in his career when defenses could just pack the paint. Wall’s passing has elevated him even further and he’s still got that unteachable speed and handle. But rookie Otto Porter hasn’t appeared in a game yet and second-year guard Bradley Beal is out indefinitely with a sore right foot. Nene and the rest of the Wiz need to stay healthy if they’re going to have any chance at the No. 3 spot. As of this writing, the Wiz and Hawks are the only teams besides Miami and Indiana at .500 on the year (9-9 for WASH and 10-10 for ATL Shawty).
They started sloppy, going on a four-game losing streak early in the this season, but as the pieces have gelled, the Pistons are looking better and better. They’ve won five of their last seven, including an impressive win over the Heat, and Andre Drummond is starting to morph into the best center not named Roy Hibbert in the East. Their recent turnaround comes despite Brandon Jennings‘ shooting woes (38.2 percent) and Kyle Singler‘s lack of elite three-point accuracy (31.8 percent). Rodney Stuckey is leading the team in scoring, and the Drummond/Greg Monroe/Josh Smith triumvirate is starting to figure it all out on the glass; the Pistons lead the league in offensive rebounding percentage. If thesey guys end up finishing at the No. 7 or 8 spot in the East, Miami better watch out for them. Detroit matches up really well â€”with their three stud frontcourt players â€” against the often small ball Heat.
No Derrick Rose, but Tom Thibodeau‘s hardworking group in Chicago will continue to bust their ass even while missing their former MVP. While Jimmy Butler is still out, the Bulls have turned to Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer to lead them offensively. Joakim Noah is getting into form after starting the season slow, and last night’s win over Miami might be a turning point for a franchise that really needs some good luck after a string of disappointments the last two seasons. They’re still a top-5 team in defensive efficiency and as long as they’re playing Thibs’ strong-side defense and dropping back on the pick-and-roll to negate easy buckets and force long two-pointers, the Bulls will be in the playoffs this year. Whether they’re the No. 3 seed, remains to be seen.
Paul Millsap is helping fantasy owners like us, everywhere, and he’s even developed into a solid three-point shot in spots. Al Horford has remained healthy and is doing his usual 17 and 8 routine. Jeff Teague is making Atlanta smile after matching Milwaukee’s offer sheet this summer. So why aren’t the Hawks better than their 10-10 record indicates? Long time Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer is figuring out what works and what doesn’t as he continues to lead the Hawks into the mire that represents the mid-tier Eastern Conference. They’ll avoid the Draft Lottery for the seventh consecutive season, fail to improve very much this offseason, rinse and repeat. The Hawks personify the NBA’s need to start rewarding teams that stay competitive year-in and year-out, rather than tank to improve.
New York Knicks
Shooting 57 percent in Brooklyn last night, the Knicks appeared to resurrect the floor spacing and long-range shooting left over from last season’s 54-win team that inherited the No. 3 seed in the East. Whether this means they’re turning the page on an atrocious 3-and-13 start and nine-game losing streak, remains to be seen. Iman Shumpert hasn’t been traded, yet, though there are whispers Carmelo Anthony is secretly recruiting Rajon Rondo to New York even while other rumors claim ‘Melo is bouncing after he opts out of the final year of his deal this summer. ‘Melo is only shooting 28.8 percent from behind the three-point arc, but he’s playing really hard even as the Knicks continue to lose. Last night’s 19, 10 and 6 overall performance from ‘Melo was a nice positive in a year where everyone is struggling. The return of Tyson Chandler sometime this month will be invaluable as the Knicks attempt to pull themselves out of the pathetic Eastern Conference basement.
This Brooklyn Nets team, if you can even call them that, is dead last in defensive efficiency. They struggle to rebound the ball on the defensive side of the ball, and their effective field goal percentage and true shooting numbers are all within or near the bottom five in the league. But at least Brook Lopez is finally back in the court. Deron Williams is set to return some time next week (he’s aiming for Tuesday’s Celtics game); Pierce will also be along probably in the early part of the new year. It’s hard to evaluate this team since they’ve been ransacked by injuries, coaching drama and the unmet expectations of a payroll that exceeds $100 million â€” with another $90 million tacked on in luxury taxes. But they’ll likely snag a spot in the playoffs, the East is just that bad, though it could very well end up being a 7 or 8 spot and a first round date with behemoths Miami or Indiana.
THE CHOICE FOR NO. 3?
We’ve gone through the 13 remaining teams (6 contenders and 7 pretenders; although, at least two of the contenders still look awful right now) that represent the rapidly diminishing Eastern Conference base. Right now, Washington, Atlanta, Detroit and Chicago look like the best bets to clinch the No. 3 seed. Of those four, Washington, Detroit and Chicago are playing their best ball right now.
If Washington can stay healthy, they’re our pick for the No. 3 seed in the East this year, and a possible date in the second round. They’ll obviously get splattered against the hardwood in a series against Indy or Miami, but for a franchise that’s only gotten out of the first round of the playoffs once in their 17-year history, home-court in the first round is a huge deal, even if they’re advancing against the dregs that currently make up the Eastern Conference.
Who is the No. 3 team in the Eastern Conference?
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