Reviewing the Wreckage: Updated NBA Playoffs Power Rankings

Boy, it was such a simpler time back on April 16, when I posted my original Playoffs Power Rankings. Steph Curry had two healthy feet and a non-sprained right knee, coming off a historic regular season and ready to become immortal. Chris Paul’s traffic finger was whole. Russell Westbrook was an unquestioned superstar (good call, Mark Cuban!). The NBA’s finest hour was upon us. Now just a week and some change later, the Western Conference has been turned on its head as NBA fans have lost the two best point guards in our lives. A rematch of the horrible 2007 Finals seems unavoidable. If it happens, the Cavs are much more competitive now than the first time they faced the Spurs in the Finals; yet we will still likely feel cheated, even if it’s a seven-game classic. But, alas, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Behold, the second installment of our Playoffs Power Rankings…

  1. San Antonio Spurs (Beat Memphis 4-0) [Last Week: #2] – Quietly and swiftly took care of business versus the ghost of Memphis’ roster, winning four games by an average of 19.5 points and posting an obscene 117.1 OffRtg. San Antonio gets a much tougher test in OKC in Round 2, but they’ve suddenly become my de facto favorite to win it all now that Steph is a question mark.
  2. Cleveland Cavaliers (Beat Detroit 4-0) [LWk: #3] – Proved to be too much for the Pistons in a testy series that saw LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving average a combined 69.1 points per game. The rest of the league should take notice as the big three seem to have found a rhythm finally. Then again, Detroit doesn’t present the toughest defensive matchup. The Cavs, the second-biggest beneficiaries of the recent Warriors’ woes, actually bested the Spurs by three in OffRtg in Round 1 (120.4).
  3. Oklahoma City Thunder (Beat Dallas 4-1) [LWk: #4] – In another feisty series featuring shoves, errant elbows and innumerable stare-downs, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban tried to get in Westbrook’s head, or something, by saying the Thunder only had one superstar in Kevin Durant. Russ went off a couple hours later for 36 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists as the Thunder punted Dallas out of the playoffs. Russ is one of the last people on Earth I would choose to anger. Maybe that’s why I’m not a billionaire.
  4. Golden State Warriors (Lead Houston 3-1) [LWk: #1] – Let’s just get through this one before we get emotional. The greatest show on hardwood got knocked down a few pegs with news of Curry’s low-grade MCL sprain, but it’s still a damn good basketball team. Tied at halftime on the road in Game 4 with Curry shelved, the Warriors’ other stars unleashed the fury on Houston, to the tune of eight 3-pointers in the third quarter en route to a 65-38 second half. As bad as the Curry news is, they should still be favored over Portland or a CP3-less Clippers team in Round 2.
  5. Atlanta Hawks (Tied with Boston 2-2) [LWk: #7] – Instant Gratification Overreaction (IGO) Exhibit A: To everyone on the Internet complaining about the lack of competitive playoff series after two games, just let it breathe. Amazing how a series can even up once both teams have played the same amount of home games. There’s nothing wrong with the seven game series format. Still, it feels like Atlanta should be up 3-1 at the least, but somehow Boston is staying alive without its best wing defender, Avery Bradley. The Hawks had a 16-point lead in Game 4 behind Paul Millsap’s monster effort, but the rest of the team couldn’t hit an open shot. If that inefficiency corrects itself, look for ATL to advance.
  6. Miami Heat (Tied with Charlotte 2-2) [LWk: #9] – IGO Exhibit B: “Miami is red-hot and Nic Batum is out, it’s going to be an easy sweep” or some variation of that line of thinking was all over the podcast and Twitter world after Game 2. Amazingly, Miami did not continue to score at an all time team playoff rate and Charlotte’s great home court advantage helped them even the series. Initially I took Charlotte in six, but gun to my head I’ll take the Heat in seven. That Batum injury will haunt the Hornets at some point. The Heat should take care of business at home.
  7. Toronto Raptors (Tied with Indiana 2-2) [LWk: #5] – Toronto is all over the place. Determined to put to rest all the demons of playoffs past, the Raptors fell flat in Game 1, losing at home. After two straight convincing wins it seemed things had course-corrected and the 56-win team would prevail easily. Then Indiana spanked them in Game 4. DeMar DeRozan (30%FG) can’t score efficiently on Paul George and it seems he’ll be the last one to admit it. It’s up to Kyle Lowry (32%FG), who’s having his own matchup difficulties, to take the reins and finally get this team to Round 2.
  8. Charlotte Hornets (Tied with Miami 2-2) [LWk: #8] – I love the fight they showed in their two home wins, without the aforementioned Batum. Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lin are an unlikely pair of playoff heroes, but they played the role well in Games 3 and 4. They combined for 55 points in Game 4, hitting half their joint field goal attempts. Steve Clifford has largely stuck to his guns on defense and waited for the Heat to stop making everything. It will be interesting to see if Miami gets hot again back in their home building, what kind of counter punch Clifford has in store.
  9. Portland Trail Blazers (Tied with LAC 2-2) [LWk: #11] – IGO Exhibit C: The Blazers looked dead in the first two games, with Paul handcuffing Damian Lillard and the rest of the Blazers struggling to score. Though they still haven’t eclipsed 100 points in the series after averaging 105/game in the regular season, Dame, CJ McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu got loose with some home cooking. Aminu in particular was amazing last night, scoring a career playoff-high 30 points with 10 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks. The Clippers’ myriad injuries have opened the door for Portland, will they bust through it with two games remaining in LA?
  10. Boston Celtics (Tied with Atlanta 2-2) [LWk: #10] – I really struggled with this ranking. On the one hand they willed themselves to two straight victories to even the series. On the other hand, I just don’t feel like they’ve played all that well. Atlanta has just been missing open shots – can the Celts count on Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schroder and Jeff Teague going 14-60 again? I’ll go out on a crazy limb and say no.
  11. Los Angeles Clippers (Tied with Portland 2-2) [LWK: #6] – With Paul expected to miss the rest of the playoffs with a broken third metacarpal, that means Austin Rivers & Jamal Crawford will be running the point. Yikes. Also, Blake Griffin is gimpy on that bad quadriceps, J.J. Redick has a bruised heel and even DeAndre Jordan got nicked up last night. It’s entirely possible Donald Sterling has a collection of Clippers voodoo dolls and is somewhere laughing maniacally. What an asshole.
  12. Indiana Pacers (Tied with Toronto 2-2) [LWk: #12] – Paul George is the best player in the series with Toronto, and that alone gives the Pacers a fighting chance. In their two losses, the Pacers just couldn’t generate enough points on the offensive end, despite how well they’ve defended the Raptors’ stars. In Game 4, Ian Mahinmi and George Hill gave George much-needed support on the offensive end with 22 points apiece. Meanwhile George held DeRozan to single-digits scoring.
  13. Houston Rockets (Trailing GSW 3-1) [LWk: #15] – We are so close to being rid of this uninspiring team. Let’s hope the Warriors put them out of their misery Wednesday so Dwight Howard and Co. can finally start their vacations. https://vine.co/v/iFVpQMzWBhO
  14. Dallas Mavericks (Lost to OKC 4-1)
  15. Detroit Pistons (Lost to Cleveland 4-0)
  16. Memphis Grizzlies (Lost to San Antonio 4-0)

NBA Playoffs Power Rankings

Plus Round 1 Picks!

  1. Golden State Warriors (73-9) – Duh. Any worry that the chase for 73 would wear them out should be squashed. If anything, it’s galvanized them even more. Now the Dubs can take a deep breath and smash the Rockets. That said, anyone who says there isn’t more pressure on them to finish off this record-setting season with a title is kidding themselves.
  2. San Antonio Spurs (67-15) – Of course the team with the best chance at ruining Golden State’s dreams are the Spurs, who just finished their best season. Though the Spurs have lost the season series 3-1 to GSW, they’ve played better defense on them than anyone else. Not surprising, given the Spurs’ historic 99.0 defensive rating. Their problem has been their inability to score enough to keep up with the Dubs. But I won’t be surprised if Danny Green magically becomes DANNY GREEN once the playoffs begin and starts hitting 70 percent from three.
  3. Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25) – For all the doubting and negativity surrounding Cleveland this year, they still rate as heavy favorites in the East and LeBron has located his familiar dominance setting in the past month. The East road is tougher this year and I can’t wait to see how the Cavs fare with a healthy team this time around. Another Finals loss for James seems likely, however.
  4. Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27) – The Thunder somewhat underachieved, given the relative health of their big three this season. In a weaker West they should have won 60+ games. But that’s all in the rearview. They should be too much physically for Dallas, leading to the real test in Round 2 vs. the Spurs. It seems unlikely that they make it to the West Finals, but they will always have two of the three best players in a series. If it’s ever going to click, you get the feeling it has to be this season, given Kevin Durant’s looming free agency. The fate of OKC will be a fascinating subplot to these playoffs.
  5. Toronto Raptors (56-26) – The Raptors just completed their best regular season ever, yet they arrive in the playoffs with significant pressure. The Dwane Casey regime has yet to make it out of the first round of the playoffs and were embarrassed in four games by Washington last season. Kyle Lowry and Demarre Carroll are coming off injuries. DeMar Derozan will need to continue to be a scoring force, but may find it a bit more difficult to get to the line in the playoffs against a strong frontcourt. It will be interesting to see which, if any, of the Raptors’ young bucks make an impact.
  6. Los Angeles Clippers (53-29) –  I’m kind of lost on these guys. Chris Paul and JJ Redick have had tremendous seasons. But Blake Griffin will need to be in top form for the Clips to have a shot against any of the top three in the West. He hasn’t looked right yet. They will also need some contributions from one of their wings – does Paul Pierce have anything left in the tank?
  7. Atlanta Hawks (48-34) – The next four teams are so tightly bunched they could be ranked in just about any order. I’ll take the Hawks as the cream of this group, thanks to the steady brilliance of Al Horford and Paul Millsap. I also expect Kyle Korver to up his production in the postseason.  Their lack of rebounding troubles me but I like their X-Factors, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder, to win them a game or two in a great Round 1 matchup with Boston.
  8. Charlotte Hornets (48-34) – I like the Hornets to get their first playoff game and series win on the backs of Steve Clifford’s defensive sets, Kemba Walker’s takeover potential and the wing shooting they’ve displayed all year.
  9. Miami Heat (48-34) – Man, I wish Chris Bosh was healthy and able for these playoffs. They’ve done an admirable job without him, as key young pieces Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside have meshed with Dwyane Wade. Goran Dragic has found more of a role and newest addition Joe Johnson has found the Fountain of Youth now that he’s gotten the Nets stink off him. I expect their series with Charlotte to be a grind.
  10. Boston Celtics (48-34) – They may beat the Hawks in Round 1, if they get enough consistent shooting. I don’t like the matchup of their bigs against Horford and Millsap, but they should be able to pester the hell out of Jeff Teague and Korver on the perimeter. Big opportunity for Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart to show out.
  11. Portland Trail Blazers (44-38) – They have a puncher’s chance to catch fire and score the upset over the Clippers in Round 1. I’ll take Terry Stotts over Doc Rivers in the coaching matchup but they’ll struggle with DeAndre Jordan in the post.
  12. Indiana Pacers (45-37) – They present some interesting matchup challenges for the Raptors. Ian Mahinmi will need to have a big series protecting the rim from DeRozan’s many drives. Paul George may be the best player in the series. Their lack of shooting depth gives me pause, however.
  13. Detroit Pistons (44-38) – I love Reggie Jackson’s confidence and think they’ll give the Cavs at least three tough games. They don’t have enough firepower on offense to score the monumental upset. SVG has the edge over Tyronn Lue on the sidelines.
  14. Dallas Mavericks (42-40) – Another amazing job by Dirk and Rick Carlisle to will the Mavs to the postseason. They’re over-matched and injured going into Round 1 against OKC, but I won’t put it past Carlisle to steal a game or two by out-coaching Billy Donovan.
  15. Houston Rockets (41-41) -This team has disappointed and infuriated me all season and I refuse to believe in them again. I need to cleanse my pallet. Patrick Beverley could give Steph some trouble, but the Rockets are too undisciplined; the Warriors will carve them up.
  16. Memphis Grizzlies (42-40) – It’s so unfortunate what’s gone on in Memphis. I was hoping to see another grit n grind playoff run, but with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley shelved we may never see it again.

Round 1 Predictions:

East

(1) Cavaliers vs. (8) Pistons – Cavs in 5

(2) Raptors vs. (7) Pacers – Raptors in 7

(3) Heat vs. (6) Hornets – Hornets in 6

(4) Hawks vs. (5) Celtics – Hawks in 7

West

(1) Warriors vs. (8) Rockets – Warriors in 4

(2) Spurs vs. (7) Grizzlies – Spurs in 4

(3) Thunder vs (6) Mavericks – Thunder in 5

(4) Clippers vs. (5) Trail Blazers – Clips in 7

 

 

Who Among Us Hasn’t Tanked?

It’s been a week since the (probably) forced resignation of Sam Hinkie, ending the great tanking experiment of the Philadelphia 76ers and inspiring one last wave of think pieces about the “Process”. Fear not, this won’t be yet another profound critique of Hinkie’s three-year reign. Besides nothing can top Hinkie’s own rambling, TED Talk-esque manifesto of a resignation letter.

Instead, something that Zach Lowe said on his podcast piqued my interest and I’d like to explore it further. In the Lowe Post episode that followed his podcast with Hankie (weirdly, one day prior to Hinkie’s resignation), he pointed out that just about everyone has tanked at some point or another, so it’s somewhat hypocritical to say what Hinkie pulled was some sort of radical new ground. Perhaps the Sixers went overboard with the strategy, but no NBA team is above tanking. Not the Celtics, not the Lakers, not even the high-class Spurs. Below, we’ll go through each NBA team, examine a season in which they tanked and what came of each tanking. See the Warriors’ section to understand the successful tanking equation: one part sheer luck meets one part smart drafting. Hinkie had neither ingredient, hence why he is out of a job – bottom line.

A History of Tanking Continue reading

Up & Down – Jan. 26, 2016

Time for our first 2016 installment of Up & Down, a look into NBA teams, players, coaches, etc. that are trending one way or another. The scope of this effort will mostly take into account the month of January.

We’re getting into the time of the season where the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders, and teams figure out their true identity. Injuries are becoming more of a factor as minutes pile up, and certain stars are posting huge numbers after finding their rhythm. In an odd turn of events, two of the four conference finals coaches from last season have been fired, the second firing coming in the same week as a superstar breaking his hand punching an equipment guy. The NBA never disappoints!

Who’s Up?

The Unbelievable Golden State Warriors – A friend and I were discussing the Warriors this weekend, as we watched them toy with the Pacers in the fourth quarter. While Steph hit threes with his signature swagger attached and darted through the lane en route to circus baskets in traffic, and Draymond Green bent the laws of physics with cross court bounce passes, we mused how awesome it must be to be a Warrior right now. To be the best and know it. To be cocky and back it up. To put on a show for an adoring crowd as a matter of routine. It’s every dude’s dream. It’s also refreshing to see a team have so much fun playing a fun game.

The fun continued last night as the Warriors showed no mercy on San Antonio in what was billed as a clash of the titans. It turned out to be “boys against men” as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said afterward. Indeed it was one regular season game, but the sheer dominance leaves one wondering if the rest of the season is just a formality before the Dubs’ second straight championship parade. My big question coming in was whose playing style would win out – which team would impose its will on the other? The Spurs bring size, suffocating defense and a slower pace than most teams. On paper they may have the horses to match up with Steph and Klay, and if they slowed the game down to a crawl Golden State may struggle manufacturing points in the half court. But it was clear the Warriors from the start the Warriors weren’t going to change their approach because of their opponent. They pushed the pace off every defensive rebound and even most Spurs makes, Steph or Shaun Livingston racing the ball up the court before the defense could get set. They forced 26 turnovers, turning those opportunities into quick buckets. Green baffled LaMarcus Aldridge, not allowing him to get comfortable in isolations. Kawhi somehow got lost in the shuffle. It was over after three quarters, with Steph scoring 37 of the Warriors 95 points to that point. It should be noted the Spurs came in giving up just 89 points PER GAME.

Before dominating the Spurs, the Dubs crushed the Cavs, Bulls and Pacers in rapid succession. 73-9 is squarely in the crosshairs.

Boogie Cousins – The Kings’ big man is in the midst of an epic January. In his last 10 games, Boogie is averaging 36.6 points and 13.8 rebounds per game. More importantly the Kings are 6-4 in those games and clinging to the 8th seed in the West. It seems Cousins and George Karl have improved their relationship, and Boogie hasn’t melted down on the court yet in 2016. If he ever had justification to, it was last night against the Hornets. Cousins had 56 points and the Internet was rooting for 60. In double overtime, he secured a monster offensive rebound in traffic and made a monster move to the rack for two points. But noooooo. Frank Kaminsky took contact form Boogie and launched himself backward, drawing Cousins’ sixth foul. There’s no way that call should be made, especially not on a bang-bang hustle play in double OT with a guy angling for 60 points. Post men everywhere sympathize with Boogie. I tweeted that I was surprised he didn’t choke somebody out after that garbage call, but to his credit he didn’t make a scene and stayed put on the end of the bench (albeit flanked by an army of team personnel).

James Harden – The bearded enigma of the disappointing Houston Rockets (their new official team name) has some alive of late, putting together some amazing stat lines. It seems he’s played his way into shape after refusing to do so in the offseason. I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to say it, the league is a better place with Harden at the top of his game, stirring the pot literally and figuratively. On Sunday against the Mavericks, Harden put up 23 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists and 2 blocks; he followed it up the next night against the Pelicans with 35 points, 11 boards and 8 dimes. Last week he had a ridiculous 33-17-14 in that foul-plagued game against the Pistons. Astounding numbers, and the Rockets are playing a bit better as a team, mostly on the back of the Beard.

Kemba & the Hornets – Much has been made of Kemba Walker’s all-around improvement this season. Once feared to be nothing more than a low percentage scorer that takes more off the table than he puts on, Walker has flourished this year with career highs in field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, three point shooting and PER. On January 18 he scored 52 on the Jazz, and four days later dropped 40 versus Orlando. After an early January swoon, the Hornets have won four of five and remain in the East playoff race. With reports that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will return sooner than expected things are looking up in Charlotte, relatively.

Rookies! – As packed as the NBA is in star talent, the last couple draft classes haven’t been spectacular. This year, however, a new influx of potential superstars, future All Stars and quality role players is being injected into the mix. Karl Antony-Towns and Kristaps Porzingis have nearly unlimited ceilings as versatile and athletic big men that can shoot. They fit right into where the league is going and could push the game to different levels in the years to come. Jahlil Okafor and D’Angelo Russell are toiling on terrible teams but producing and offering hope for the near future. Emmanuel Mudiay has been up and down, while battling injuries, but he’s shown flashes of brilliance. Devin Booker is the one bright spot on the Suns and Justise Winslow is an improved jumper away from being a star on both ends. Others that are playing meaningful minutes as key role players for their teams: Myles Turner, Trey Lyles, Willie Cauley-Stein, Stanley Johnson, Cam Payne, Bobby Portis, Larry Nance Jr., Frank Kaminsky and Jonathon Simmons. In all, 11 first rounders are currently averaging over 20 minutes per game.

Nuggets – Denver is 17-28 and likely not going to the postseason, but they’ve been pretty good! GM Tim Connelly was recently given a well-earned extension, after building a team that has Denver’s prospects looking much better than expected in short order. The Mudiay pick was a good one, he’s found diamonds in the rough in Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Jusuf Nurkic, and the bet on Danilo Gallinari is paying off. With a sharp coach in Mike Malone, the future is bright for the Nugs.

Kings – Mostly covered in the Boogie section, George Karl’s team is coming together against all odds. It should be noted that Rajon Rondo is back to his expert distributing ways – 20 assists last night against the Hornets.

Who’s Down?

Blake Griffin – First he tore his quadriceps, then he saw his team actually play better on the court, going 12-3 since his injury. Then the dreaded “undisclosed team-related incident” left him with a broken hand that will force him to miss 4-6 more weeks of action. News trickled out today that the incident was actually a fight with a team equipment staffer that started in a restaurant and spilled outside, where Griffin punched the man at least once, breaking his own hand. Now I’m not here to judge, as I have suffered multiple “boxer’s fractures” due to fisticuffs. But with the team releasing a statement that the behavior won’t be tolerated and that they’re conducting an investigation with the NBA, Blake has earned himself a place in the Who’s Down section, to be sure.

Suns – Since Eric Bledsoe went down for the season, they’ve completely fallen apart on the court, fired two assistant coaches, killed most of Markieff Morris’ trade value and saw their owner go on an anti-Millennial tirade. Coach Jeff Hornacek doesn’t really seem like he wants to be there anymore, yet he may not be fired anytime soon. Once a playoff hopeful, they are headed for one of the worst records in the league. Just a weird, toxic situation.

Cavaliers – Though the clear favorite in the East, Cleveland was beaten by the Spurs and demolished by the Warriors, leading to David Blatt’s much-ballyhooed firing. On the heels of the coaching change, word started trickling out from reporters like Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! that LeBron James and Rich Paul had orchestrated Blatt’s fate since the beginning of James’ return to Cleveland. GM David Griffin is between a rock and a hard place, juggling the unprecedented power of his star player with the volatility of owner Dan Gilbert. Respected and accomplished coaches like Rick Carlisle and Gregg Popovich have fired shots at the Cavs hastily ousting Blatt. It seems replacement Tyronn Lue was not James’ first choice (he wanted Mark Jackson of all people) and Lue’s first game was a lopsided loss to Chicago. Problems with Kevin Love’s fit and Kyrie Irving’s ball-dominance and lack of defense continue to hound the team, even as they remain atop the East.

Bradley Beal – The talented 2-guard in Washington just can’t stay on the floor. He’s played just 22 games this season due to more soft-tissue injuries. He’s never played more than 73 games in a regular season. And now he’s suffered a broken nose and concussion thanks to a Marcus Smart elbow, which will force him to miss more time. With his free agency impending, suitors may be scared away by his fragility. Meanwhile, John Wall is left to keep Washington afloat by himself. Their playoff prospects are dimming.

Perpetually Both Up & Down

Bulls – What I imagine the barroom conversations are like in Chicago…

“Wow, the Bulls won six straight in late December / early January? They might be coming on finally…oh never mind they just lost four of five. They suck.”

“Jimmy Butler scored 40 in the second half, in Toronto!? JIMMYYY!”

“They needed OT to beat the Sixers? Oh but Jimmy Butler had 50 points so that’s cool. JIMMYYYY BUCKETS!”

“They only scored 77 against the Mavericks? At home? Nice new offense Hoiberg. We never shoulda fired Thibs!”

“Warriors killed them, OK, but the Celtics? Terrible. I bet the Cavs will kill them tomorrow, even if they have da team mascot coaching them.”

“Da Bulls killed the Cavs! D-Rose is playing like his old self, getting to the rim, they said it on TV and everything! 1-seed here we come!”

“84 points and a loss at home to the Heat? What the? At least Derrick is looking goo…what’s that, D-Rose left with another injury? Pussy…”

Shifting Conference Tectonics as 2016 Begins

Welcome to 2016, loyal DotB readers!

The first two months of the season are in the books and I’m here to kick off 2016 with a deep dive into the two conferences, followed by a Power Rankings level-set. I will examine where I was right at the start of the season and eat a large plate of crow for all the teams I guessed wrong on. Each year teams surprise us with out of nowhere starts and unexpected falls from grace but this year is especially filled with upheaval. It’s part of what makes the league fun to follow and keeps us on our toes. To wit, I am in a four-man win total “fantasy” league and I thought I staged a coup with my draft picks in the preseason. Those picks were OKC, Houston, Washington, Detroit, Milwaukee, Denver and Utah. Yikes. Thanks to the Rockets, Wiz, Bucks and Jazz I am in dead last as we start 2016.

Perhaps the biggest story of the first two months for me is the shifting balance of power in the conferences. For years I’ve been fascinated with the West’s consistent dominance and curious as to how one conference can stay in power for so long. However, though the top three teams in the NBA all reside out West, the bottom falls out quickly in that usually loaded conference. It’s likely that this season the West will have two playoff teams under .500, a dubious feat that the East had cornered the market on in recent years. You have to go back to 1996-97 for the last time the West fielded a below-.500 playoff participant (there were actually three that year!). Last season’s 8-seed (New Orleans) had 45 wins and the year before that Dallas finished eighth with 49.

So it begs the questions: is this just a down year that the West was long overdue for, a blip on the radar that will right itself quickly? Or is this a sign of a changing of the power structure in the NBA? I’ll look at it through a few prisms – Superstar Arms Race, Second-tier Stars and Randomness.

The easiest way – outside of win/loss records – to determine prowess in the NBA is star power. The way that teams acquire stars (mostly) is through the Draft. So I decided to look at recent Drafts to see if any patterns emerged that have hurt the West and empowered the East.

By and large, after the year LeBron, Bosh and Wade entered the league (2003-04) up until 2009, the West did a better job of getting superstars through the draft, which is a key reason behind its continued big brother status. Here are a few names you may be familiar with: Chris Paul (’05, New Orleans), Blake Griffin (’09, Clippers), Kevin Durant (’07, Sonics/OKC), Russell Westbrook (’08, Sonics/OKC), Steph Curry (’09, Warriors), James Harden (’09, OKC), Lamarcus Aldridge (’06, Blazers via trade).

Since the 2010 Draft, the West has continue to add bona fide and/or potential superstars like Demarcus Cousins (’10, Kings), Klay Thompson (’11, Warriors), Kawhi Leonard (’11 Spurs via trade), Damian Lillard (2012), Anthony Davis (2012), Draymond Green (2012), Andrew Wiggins (2014) and Karl Anthony-Towns (2015).

Here’s how the East has done since 2010:

’10 – John Wall, Paul George

’11 – Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler

’12 – Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond

’13 – Giannis Antetokounmpo

’14 – Jabari Parker

’15 – Kristaps Porzingis, Jahlil Okafor

I’d take Boogie, Klay, Kawhi, Dame and AD in a heartbeat over the East’s top five drafted stars since 2010 (with Draymond off the bench – wow). So even though the East done a better job in the last five years through the Draft, it still lost ground in the Superstar Arms Race with the West. This would seem to point to 2015-16 being an aberration, rather than the beginning of a decline for the West. It’s a superstar-driven league.

The East did, however, seem to add more Second-tier Stars (guys like Beal, Walker, Giannis) since 2010. That may be a function of continually bagging more high lottery picks. Each conference sends seven teams to the lottery each year, but the teams with the worst records have a better chance at picking high in the top 10. Since 2008, the East had 44 top 10 picks, to the West’s 36. That has to impact overall roster depth in due time. I combed through the players picked in those draft since ’08 and – admittedly somewhat subjectively – tallied up how many of those lottery picks are impactful NBA players in 2016. Thirty-six impact players from the last eight drafts reside in the East, while just 28 play in the West. This would tend to suggest that the East has gotten deeper if not necessarily more star-studded in recent years. This line of thinking seems to fit teams like Boston, Charlotte, Orlando, Atlanta, Detroit and Toronto – all playoff-contending, over-.500 East teams for much of this season that don’t boast many huge names on their rosters. Meanwhile, such star-led teams in the West like Houston (Harden, Dwight Howard), New Orleans (Davis), Sacramento (Cousins), L.A. Lakers (Kobe) and Portland (Dame) have struggled at least in part due to lack of quality depth. My verdict here – the Second-tier Stars factor is real, and could continue to tip the scales East-ward. The current 2-10 seeds in the East may not be title contenders but they are tough on a nightly basis thanks to deep rotations and can all finish with winning records.

The last, by definition impossible to quantify measure, is randomness. Here are some random, quirky things that have made the East better in 2015-16 and/or the West worse…

  • Conglomeration of talent at the top of the West. Aldridge went to San Antonio in the offseason, effectively creating a super team in the Spurs and turning a 50-win Blazers team into Lottery fodder. The Warriors kept their loaded roster intact after a historic season. The return of the KD-Russ-Ibaka trio at full health has made OKC a powerhouse again. The Clippers have struggled some but still have one of the top starting 5’s in the NBA talent-wise.
  • Houston forgetting that it was basketball season. They’ve gotten a coach fired, had many on-court bickering matches and sport some of the worst (laziest) transition defense in the league. After a conference finals appearance, the Rockets are the most disappointing team in the league, yet will make the playoffs by default. Slated for 55 or so wins, they will be lucky to finish .500. Can’t wait for them to sleep through a Round 1 loss.
  • The Plague hitting New Orleans. A supposed shoo-in to build upon last season’s 45-win playoff team, they barely have enough NBA players most nights thanks to a rash of injuries.
  • Memphis got old, Phoenix imploded and the Kings, Nuggets and Blazers aren’t ready for primetime.
  • Injuries have disproportionately hit the West. Eric Bledsoe is lost for the year, the Nuggets and Pelicans are decimated, Mike Conley and Lillard have missed time. Even the 32-2 Warriors have been hit by injuries, not that it’s hurt them much.
  • Unlike most recent years, the East only has two doormats in Philly and Brooklyn. The Magic, Hornets, Pistons, Knicks and Pacers have graduated up a level or two thanks to improved coaching (Magic, Hornets, Pistons), a healthy Paul George (Pacers) and an influx of respectable talent (Knicks). As bad as Washington and Milwaukee have been compared to expectations, they can be tough on any given night.
  • Coaching performances. Stan Van Gundy, Frank Vogel, Brad Stevens, Mike Budenholzer, David Blatt, Scott Skiles, Steve Clifford, Eric Spoelstra and Dwayne Casey have done great jobs this year. They all coach teams in the East.

After considering these factors – a combination of great coaching, an uptick in roster depth and random cataclysm striking the West – I tend to conclude that the shifting in conference tectonics this year has been more a blip than a new world order. When it comes to the NBA I will always side with the Superstars, and there are just more of them out West. Besides, Golden State and San Antonio are miles ahead of anyone else in the league and OKC edges out Cleveland for No. 3 in my Power Rankings. So chances are the West will still wear the crown that matters when the season ends. The regular season crown is a good start for the East though as it fights for respectability, and I’m excited to see a much more balanced NBA going forward.

Here’s to a great new year of pro basketball, and my inaugural 2016 Power Rankings will be right up!

Rising(?) East – Examining the Southeast Division

The Southeast Division has rarely been relevant in the past decade, outside of the Miami super-teams and Atlanta’s 60 win season last year. But as mentioned in my last post, the Southeast is one of two divisions with four teams over .500. Charlotte and Orlando have been frisky, jumping out to 10-8 records. They both potentially join division mates Atlanta and Miami in the playoff conversation. I mentioned this already but it bears repeating: the top eight teams in the Southeast and Central divisions are 35-19 against Western Conference opponents. One of the toughest questions for NBA analysis is always, “is this a blip or a real thing?”

What makes me confident that the East is actually gaining ground on the West is that two East teams I most expected to be near the top are at the bottom – Milwaukee and Washington. I still have faith in both teams, but the East is no longer one big doormat and these two slow starters are learning that the hard way. We will examine what’s wrong with them in a follow-up post.

But let’s go back to the goodness.

Southeast Division

  1. Miami (10-6)
  2. Atlanta (12-9)
  3. Charlotte (10-8)
  4. Orlando (10-8)

Quick hits on each team:

Miami can throw out a starting-5 that can stand toe to toe with just about anyone, and they do one thing exceedingly well – play efficient defense. Opponents shoot so poorly against the Heat it’s like they’re using those tight carnival rims that always screw me out of a useless prize dammit. The Heat hold opponents to 41% from the field (1st in NBA), 32% from three (4th), allow the second fewest free throw attempts per game and lead the league in point allowed per game (92.5). The reason they aren’t, say 14-2, rather than 10-6, is an almost equally anemic offense. Basically Heat games this season have been brick-laying contests in which Miami forces slightly more clanks from their opponent than they produce. They’ve only gotten off for more than 100 points four times this season, but three were against Houston, Sacramento and the Lakers. Those three may as well spot the other team 15 points at the start of each game. With the talent on Miami’s roster – Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh – you expect the scoring to go up at some point. The mantra for these guys is to keep healthy for the playoffs.

Atlanta will not win 60 games again this season. We all knew that. But an early 7-game win streak (albeit against less than stellar competition) shot them to the top of the conference early. Their defense has taken a bit of a hit without DeMarre Carroll, and with Tiago Splitter on the injured list. But Budenholzer ball continues to thrive – the Hawks are second in the league in assists and top half in most shooting categories. They should compete for a top four seed all year.

Charlotte is a team that I had completely written off after the season-ending injury to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. That they are 10-8 is a testament to the coaching staff, Nic Batum’s bounce back season and a more efficient Kemba Walker. The narrative around this team is that they are hoisting threes at will and just trying to outscore teams with their defensive stopper MKG on the shelf. They have gone nuts in certain games, scoring 130 on the Bulls and 108 on the Mavs in back to back games. They hit 14 threes in that Bulls beatdown, but only 6 against the Mavs. They rank 6th in scoring and 12th in three point attempts, numbers that seem improbable for a team that features Al Jefferson. I love Big Al, but he slows the game down and has never been known as a great kick out passer once he gets the ball down low. Nice job by coach Steve Clifford pivoting their style after MKG went down and helping Marvin Williams find a niche as a stretch four.

Orlando is just awesome. They are a joy to watch. They are filled with pedigreed athletes (due to so many years of high lottery picks), they play hard for Scott Skiles, they make mistakes but always seem to put up a fight against tougher competition. This is the trajectory I hoped they’d be on and I expect their above-average play to continue. Victor Oladipo has taken the next step and has slightly improved his jumper but it still needs work. Elfrid Payton has fantastic hair but also needs work on his jumper. Tobias Harris and Aaron Gordon are fascinating swiss army knife type of players and Evan Fournier has surprised me with his scoring. Nikola Vucevic gives them a constant 15 and 10 post presence. With so many pieces Skiles can roll out many different lineup combinations to mix things up and keep other teams guessing. For instance, potentially their toughest lineup to defend this season is Fournier, Payton, Vucevic, Channing Frye and Tobias Harris. Figure out a way to slow that group down, and here comes Oladipo and Gordon; two more difficult problems to solve. Orlando may slip in to the playoffs as an 8 seed, and drive Cleveland batty in Round 1.

Back in a bit with a diagnosis and analysis of Milwaukee and Washington.

Rising(?) East – Examining the Central Division

Over a month into the NBA season, there are many early returns I didn’t see coming (hello Houston and NoLA), but I will take credit for predicting the rise of the Central Division. Since it’s only been a month I can’t say it’s eclipsed the Southwest Division as the class of the league, but it’s much closer than expected thanks to some stumbling teams (hello again, H-Town & N.O.).

Three of the four Central teams won again last night (Cleveland was off), leaving four teams in the division above .500 on the season. The only other division in the NBA with four teams over .500 is the surprising Southeast, where Charlotte and Orlando have overachieved to 10-8 records. Amazingly, the top eight teams in these two divisions are 35-19 against Western Conference opponents. This is where I remind you that the West has bested the East in regular season record 15 of the last 16 years. It’s only early December, but we can officially raise an eyebrow at the perpetual little brother, the East.

What’s most crazy about these early results is who is not doing well in these divisions. Unquestionably, the two worst teams in the Central/Southeast have been Milwaukee and Washington, two playoff teams that went all in to win this season. We will examine what’s wrong with them in a follow-up post.

But let’s start with the good.

Central Division

  1. Cleveland (13-5)
  2. Indiana (12-5)
  3. Chicago (11-5)
  4. Detroit (10-9)

Cleveland came in as the clear favorite to win the East and that hasn’t changed. I’m loving the all-business version of LeBron we’re getting right now; he has his guys humming and their fast start will allow Kyrie Irving to ease back into the lineup when healthy. Get Kyrie back, get Iman Shumpert back, hit full stride going into the playoffs. That’s the script for Cleveland and nothing has diverted them from it so far.

Indiana is the true surprise of the division early on. Frank Vogel is a great coach because he has shown the ability to adapt. Much like Erik Spoelstra in Miami or Gregg Popovich in San Antonio have done, Vogel has changed to fit the personnel and whims of the front office. Roster turnover is a thing that happens quickly in the NBA, especially when you factor in injuries. Before Paul George went down prior to the 2014-15 season, Indiana was one of the top teams in the West, by playing a plodding, physical style anchored in defense and rebounding. Roy Hibbert and David West were great on the boards but not ideal for spacing on offense. So Vogel shaped a team that wasn’t all that fun to watch but they were damn successful, with those bigs clogging the middle and the versatile Paul George, Lance Stephenson, George Hill wing combo slowing down shooters and creating turnovers. Losing George before the start of the season made last year a lost cause, but Indiana has quickly pivoted into a totally different attack. PG-13 is back playing at an All-NBA level on both sides of the court and the Pacers rank 11th in offensive rating, 9th in pace and 2nd in three-point percentage. The truly amazing thing is that their defense hasn’t slipped a bit when they’ve gone small. I really don’t have a great explanation for that, outside of Vogel’s game planning and George’s all-around brilliance. They are blitzing teams with one lineup that’s featuring Ian Mahinmi and Lavoy Allen as the only “bigs”to the tune of +55 points and +6 rebounds. Another lineup with Jordan Hill as the lone big is +40 in points. I have doubts on whether any of this is sustainable but the Pacers have proven me wrong thus far.

Chicago keeps winning yet I’m not quite sure how they’re doing it. As a Bulls fan I’m very happy with an 11-5 start, but I also worry about sustainability here. Let’s take a closer look. First off, who are the Bulls beating? All the good teams, seemingly. Chicago has knocked off Cleveland, OKC, San Antonio, Indiana, Charlotte and earned a nice road win in Phoenix. They played Golden State tough in Oracle before the Warriors’ practically unfair, Draymond at the 5 lineup torched them in the final two minutes. The Bulls have only scored over 100 points in five of their wins, while ranking 4th in defensive rating. So their well-renowned defense hasn’t been hurt, curiously, by Fred Hoiberg’s new system. Season-long, a Hoiberg team can’t compete with a Thibs scheme in defensive efficiency, right? (However, considering most of the roster has been around for a while, we do need to give them some credit for retaining Thibs’ principles and knowing how to play the game at a high level. They are NBA players, after all). Of their five losses, two have been in overtime and only one occurred at the United Center. So no worries right? All good, moving on…

…OK now taking my head out of the sand. There are a few concerns worth mentioning quickly. A) Derrick Rose is shooting 34% and 19%(!) from three; B) Nikola Mirotic may not actually be a good shooter (which they desperately need him to be), and his incessant pump-faking is ridiculous; C) Hoiberg has them playing 11th in pace yet 26th in offensive efficiency. So they are getting shots up quickly just not making them. If this doesn’t right itself, how can their defense possibly hold up?; D) four of the top five Bulls’ lineups in terms of +/- don’t include D-Rose, but four of the bottom five +/- lineups do include D-Rose. E) As a D-Rose fan, I’m sad.

Detroit raced out to a 5-1 start, lost four straight, then have played about even ball since. They are much improved, but still have glaring flaws, which show up in their multiple blowout losses. Six of their losses have been by nine points or more. It boils down to a serious lack of shooting. Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond can be magic on the pick-and-roll, but when defenses clamp down and force Detroit to beat them from the outside, they simply don’t have the firepower. Marcus Morris is shooting just 28% from three, so not doing his part to stretch the defense, while Stanley Johnson has shown flashes and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been up and down. On nights when they can be close to league average in field goal / three point shooting they will be dangerous. Once they get Brandon Jennings back, they may get a much needed shot in the arm, at least for small stretches. But basketball is definitely back in the Motor City, and I can’t get enough of Mr. Drummond.

Southeast Division breakdown coming up next…

 

Has Anyone Ever Seen Fred Hoiberg and Marc Trestman in the Same Room at the Same Time?

Trestberg

Really makes you think. The Bulls gave up 130 points tonight to the immortal Charlotte Hornets. Not quite as bad as the Bears losing 55-14 to the Packers, but it’s eerily similar to the “sacrifice defense for modern offense” routine that Chicago fans are all too familiar with after Trestman’s failed reign.

Maybe Trestman ditched the glasses, put on a suit and tricked John Paxson into making him the new Bulls coach? It’s admittedly far-fetched, but I mean his day job with the 2-6 Ravens can’t be all that demanding.

(For the record I was all for both the Trestman and Hoiberg hires because, well, I don’t know, I’m an idiot? Or I was sick of watching terrible offense and unwisely took stout defense for granted? Let’s go with that. There’s still hope for Hoiberg obviously, but I’m officially a little nervous. Also: D-Rose held under 10 points for three straight games? Make that terribly nervous.)

What We Might Know After a Week (Eastern Conference)

What might we know after a week of NBA games? After looking at some data…maybe, probably nothing. But we can look at what last year’s standings were after each team played three games, and where that jived with or diverted from final standings. After waiting breathlessly all offseason for NBA action and eager to understand the league power structure, I crave context. I posted the Western Conference breakdown earlier. Now moving on to the Eastern Conference.

Anyone who follows the NBA with any real enthusiasm knows one simple truth: the Eastern Conference is inferior to its Western counterpart. It’s been that way for most of the 21st century. Some day I will do an investigation into why this phenomenon exists. But for now, just take comfort in the fact that the status quo has not changed. There’s one constant in this ever-changing world.

While the West has three winless teams in Houston, New Orleans, and Los Angeles (Lakers), the first two still have very real playoff aspirations after their bad start. Middle of the pack teams such as Phoenix, Denver, Sacramento and Utah all pack a punch. And the top of the West is much stronger than the top of the East. So the top, middle and bottom of the West is looking to be superior. To further illustrate the point, in this admittedly early stage of the NBA season, there are six winless East teams – Milwaukee, Philly, Indiana, Charlotte, Orlando and Brooklyn.

Detroit is a pleasant surprise at 3-0, and the Raptors have also jumped out to an undefeated start. Chicago and Atlanta have each played four games and sit at 3-1, while Miami, Washington and Cleveland all look very good. Here’s a look at the standings early on:

  Team W L
1 Raptors 3 0
1 Pistons 3 0
3 Bulls 3 1
3 Hawks 3 1
5 Cavaliers 2 1
5 Knicks 2 1
5 Heat 2 1
8 Wizards 2 1
9 Celtics 1 2
10 76ers 0 2
10 Bucks 0 3
10 Pacers 0 3
10 Hornets 0 3
10 Magic 0 3
10 Nets 0 3

Here’s a look at where the East stood after three games last season, and the final conference standings:

14-’15 Team W L   Final Standings W L
1 Heat 3 0 1 Hawks 60 22
2 Bulls 2 1 2 Cavaliers 53 29
2 Wizards 2 1 3 Bulls 50 32
2 Raptors 2 1 4 Raptors 49 33
2 Knicks 2 1 5 Wizards 46 36
2 Nets 2 1 6 Bucks 41 41
7 Cavaliers 1 2 7 Celtics 40 42
7 Bucks 1 2 8 Nets 38 44
9 Celtics 1 2 8 Pacers 38 44
9 Pacers 1 2 10 Heat 37 45
9 Hawks 1 2 11 Hornets 33 49
9 Hornets 1 2 12 Pistons 32 50
13 Pistons 0 3 13 Magic 25 57
13 76ers 0 3 14 76ers 18 64
13 Magic 0 3 15 Knicks 17 65

The East was weird last year, as the Heat adjusted to life after LeBron and eventually were done in by health issues. The Knicks fell off a cliff, winning only 15 more games after their 2-1 start. The Cavs struggled near .500 before the LeBattical and Timofey Mozgov/J.R. Smith/Iman Shumpert acquisitions, finishing the season 35-15 over the last four months. Meanwhile the Atlanta Hawks became nearly unbeatable for three months, going 38-6 from December through February.

Looking at the first week of this season, there are only two teams that really stand out as surprises – the Pistons and Bucks. These two Central division teams are headed in different directions through three games. Detroit has reshaped its roster and approach to the game. A question mark coming into the season was their defense, but they are winning with stellar performances on that side of the court, anchored by Andre Drummond blocking/changing shots in the paint. The Pistons are winning while shooting just 39 percent (28th in NBA) and ranking 21st in points per game. But they’re fourth in opponent’s points per game and are holding teams to just 28 percent from beyond the arc.

If the Pistons join the Heat in making the playoffs in the East this year, that means at least two teams that made it last year will fall to the Lottery. The Nets will be one of those teams. The other, it pains me to say, could be the Bucks. A chic pick to make a leap by people like me (I gushed about them in this NBA Risers column), the Bucks are struggling to find their way. They clearly miss cagey veterans like Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley, while Giannis missed a game and Jabari Parker hasn’t played yet (he’s cleared to play as of this writing). Meanwhile the addition of Greg Monroe, while it has great potential, has disrupted the chemistry. The Bucks are also testing conventional wisdom by starting a point guard that can’t shoot, in Michael Carter-Williams. He’s shooting a gross 27 percent from three.

The good news for Milwaukee, besides Jabari returning to the lineup? There are 79 games left, and they play in the East. The Rockets and Pelicans are envious.

Taking My Temperature on the ESPN Summer Forecast

Recently, ESPN put out its “Summer Forecast” rankings, based on a survey of their NBA experts’ thoughts on 2015-16 team win totals. Since it’s Labor Day weekend and we’re still nearly two months from the start of the season, I figured I’d take a look and comment on these rankings. Below are my thoughts for each team’s projected win total, followed by a forecast of my own.

 EASTERN CONFERENCE

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers

Proj. record: 59-23

Last season: 53-29

This is low. Like everyone else in the world, I have Cleveland winning the East, but anything under 60 wins would really shock me. Even with Kyrie missing time, the Cavs have made enough improvements in the offseason and the team jelled in the playoff run.

  1. Chicago Bulls

Proj. record: 50-32

Last season: 50-32

This is the safe bet, factoring in the unknown that is Head Coach Fred Hoiberg. But this team has done it before and with a jolt on the offensive end, 50 wins will be a disappointment. I like Chicago for 2nd in the East, but it will take 53-55 wins to do so.

  1. Atlanta Hawks

Proj. record: 50-32

Last season: 60-22

I’m a bit lost on this team. I still don’t know how they won 60 last year, and DeMarre Carroll’s loss will be felt, but not sure he is worth 10 wins. However, some of the bloom is off the rose with the players that are left I feel, so I’m predicting an even more precipitous drop.

  1. Miami Heat

Proj. record: 47-35

Last season: 37-45

I’m predicting more than 47 wins from Miami, as they will be one of the bigger turnaround teams this season. Health won’t be perfect, but a killer starting 5 and great coach in Eric Spoelstra gets them close to 50 wins.

  1. Washington Wizards

Proj. record: 46-36

Last season: 46-36

The Wizards were impressive last year but their 2015-16 success hinges on a few key items: Jared Dudley and Otto Porter replacing Paul Pierce’s production and veteran leadership, Bradley Beal and John Wall staying healthy enough to become a top 3 backcourt and Randy Wittman staying out of his own way. 46 wins feels about right but could swing based on those factors.

  1. Toronto Raptors

Proj. record: 44-38

Last season: 49-33

The Raptors played like crap in the playoffs. But they should get a healthier Kyle Lowry and added Carroll to give them more lineup versatility.. I’m guessing they finish a bit closer to last year’s totals. Playoff performance will be a whole other conversation.

  1. Milwaukee Bucks

Proj. record: 44-38

Last season: 41-41

I love the Bucks this year, see my NBA Risers column for more detail. A healthy Jabari Parker and addition of Greg Monroe should lead to 44-45 wins.

  1. Boston Celtics

Proj. record: 40-42

Last season: 40-42

People always talk about Brad Stevens when they talk Celtics. Having a great coach goes a long way and I admire Stevens’ work, but at the end of the day you need stars if you want to be a factor in the NBA. The 8-seed feels like their ceiling, right around 40 wins.

  1. Indiana Pacers

Proj. record: 39-43

Last season: 38-44

Indiana’s fate will be tied to Paul George. If he returns to even 90% of what he was two years ago, Indiana could nab a 7 or 8 seed. I’m not a fan of the rest of their roster, aside from George Hill and PG-13’s leg makes me nervous. I’m taking the under here.

  1. Charlotte Hornets

Proj. record: 35-47

Last season: 33-49

The Hornets ridded themselves of Lance Stephenson and stuck to their guns on drafting Frank Kaminsky, when Justise Winslow was unexpectedly available. I like the first move, hate the second. More mediocrity for MJ’s crew, 35 wins feels fair.

  1. Detroit Pistons

Proj. record: 35-47

Last season: 32-50

I’m going to pick Detroit to finish closer to 40 wins after some roster turnover and a training camp under SVG. This team will play together offensively, while Andre Drummond takes another leap on both ends.

  1. Brooklyn Nets

Proj. record: 30-52

Last season: 38-44

Brooklyn got rid of the disappointing Deron Williams and his huge cap hit. They also didn’t do much to get better, in an offseason with their hands tied due to irresponsible Russian rain-making the last few years. This feels high, which is sad.

  1. Orlando Magic

Proj. record: 30-52

Last season: 25-57

I really like the Magic roster and new coach Scott Skiles will bring a new energy. I think they improve by 10 wins and next season fight for a playoff spot.

  1. New York Knicks

Proj. record: 25-57

Last season: 17-65

An 8-win improvement seems high to me. Even with a healthy Carmelo they top out at 22 wins in an improved East. Wouldn’t be surprised to see Carmelo traded by February.

  1. Philadelphia 76ers

Proj. record: 19-63

Last season: 18-64

Philly has some players now after so many high draft picks, but their still raw, and the team is missing an identity. Again, with an improved East, this win total may be high which is really, really sad.

 WESTERN CONFERENCE 

  1. Golden State Warriors

Proj. record: 60-22

Last season: 67-15

The champs stood pat this offseason except for shipping out David Lee, which will give them a little flexibility to add to their already insane depth. I understand you can’t forecast 67 wins since it’s an all-time number, but I also don’t see them dropping off 7 wins from last year. They’re too good and every game (plus homecourt) matters in the West.

  1. San Antonio Spurs

Proj. record: 57-25

Last season: 55-27

This feels right. They will be awesome, but will take time to find their rhythm with the new pieces. Manu Ginobili is not the player he once was and they lost a lot of shooting and perimeter depth this offseason.

  1. Houston Rockets

Proj. record: 56-26

Last season: 56-26

Houston is absolutely stacked on paper. If Ty Lawson and James Harden figure out an efficient way to share the scoring load, look out. They could approach 60 wins, so I’m taking the over.

  1. Los Angeles Clippers

Proj. record: 56-26

Last season: 56-26

Another team that made some nice moves and got better this offseason. They will also need time to jell, but Pierce, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith are complementary pieces, so I expect them to hit their stride quicker than the Spurs, who are integrating a star in LaMarcus Aldridge. I’ll take them to outperform this projection.

  1. Oklahoma City Thunder

Proj. record: 55-27

Last season: 45-37

Jeez the West is stacked. OKC could conceivably win the West, which would mean 60-plus wins. We are the real winners, getting to watch KD and Russ play together again. Will be interesting to see how Billy Donovan works out as an NBA coach, but I’ll bet a few extra wins on him.

  1. Memphis Grizzlies

Proj. record: 51-31

Last season: 55-27

Memphis does feel due for a downturn, but I’ve gotten burned by that thinking before. With the intensity which they play defense, they are a threat to win on any given night in the regular season. 52 wins is my guess.

  1. New Orleans Pelicans

Proj. record: 47-35

Last season: 45-37

This is where things get really interesting in the West seeding. The team they’ve put around Anthony Davis is weird, and outside of Tyreke Evans I’m not sure where the consistent scoring will come from. However, Alvin Gentry should be counted on to make an impact on that end, and Davis is a monster, 45-47 seems more than doable.

  1. Dallas Mavericks

Proj. record: 41-41

Last season: 50-32

As a Dallas resident, I’m not a Mavs fan. But I’d still like to see them succeed so I can go to some intense late season and playoff games. But I don’t see them making the playoffs or even finishing .500. They’re counting on too many old guys and Wesley Matthews will need to be handled with care after an Achilles injury.

  1. Utah Jazz

Proj. record: 40-42

Last season: 38-44

This is the team I like to take the Blazers’ playoff spot. See NBA Risers for more color, I’ll just say I love the frontcourt of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, they play great defense and the loss of Dante Exum – while it sucks – won’t hurt as much as one might expect. Trey Burke and Raul Neto can be serviceable – just feed the bigs and Gordon Hayward from the perimeter.

  1. Phoenix Suns

Proj. record: 35-47

Last season: 39-43

A super intriguing team. They are a huge wild card. Either Markieff Morris and all his drama lead this team into the tank, or they make a run at the 8-seed with an improved offense. Alex Len should be better, Tyson Chandler will anchor the defense and they have a plethora of perimeter weapons. I’m betting on an improvement and just missing the playoffs as the 9-seed.

  1. Portland Trail Blazers

Proj. record: 31-51

Last season: 51-31

This team was so great to watch the past two years, but they will fall off a cliff. 31 wins will be tough in the West, with really only Damian Lillard providing spark (and terrible defense).

  1. Sacramento Kings

Proj. record: 31-51

Last season: 29-53

I really enjoyed CBS Sports’ Zach Harper’s column on George Karl and Demarcus Cousins, and the potential to build a great offense regardless of the off court drama that has plagued the two. But the Kings need the turbulent Cousins, Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay to click and not clash with a headstrong coach. That’s a bit too much to ask. Sacramento will struggle but 31 is attainable with the talent they have.

  1. Denver Nuggets

Proj. record: 27-55

Last season: 30-52

Really excited to watch Emmanuel Mudiay figure out the league. He will have his bumps, but will have the ball in his hands a ton and be asked to shoulder a major scoring load. That’s about all there is to watch in Denver this year. I’m taking the under.

  1. Los Angeles Lakers

Proj. record: 26-56

Last season: 21-61

If Kobe and Julius Randle play most of the season, and D’Angelo Russell lives up to the hype, these guys will at least have some entertainment value. They lack depth however, and Kobe’s body may just not be able to hold up anymore. I think they win 23 games, with some Vine-worthy moments mixed in.

  1. Minnesota Timberwolves

Proj. record: 24-58

Last season: 16-66

Their talented young core is exciting and the development of Karl Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach Lavine will make for good League Pass nights, but 24 wins is too much of a jump.

Down On The Block’s Forecast

Eastern Conference

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers – (61-21)
  2. Chicago Bulls – (55-27)
  3. Miami Heat – (50-32)
  4. Washington Wizards – (47-35)
  5. Atlanta Hawks – (46-36)
  6. Toronto Raptors – (45-37)
  7. Milwaukee Bucks – (45-37)
  8. Detroit Pistons – (40-42)
  9. Boston Celtics – (40-42)
  10. Charlotte Hornets – (37-45)
  11. Orlando Magic – (36-46)
  12. Indiana Pacers – (35-47)
  13. Brooklyn Nets – (25-57)
  14. New York Knicks – (22-60)
  15. Philadelphia 76ers – (19-63)

Western Conference

  1. Golden State Warriors (62-20)
  2. Houston Rockets (60-22)
  3. Oklahoma City Thunder (57-25)
  4. San Antonio Spurs – (55-27)
  5. Los Angeles Clippers – (54-28)
  6. Memphis Grizzlies – (52-30)
  7. New Orleans Pelicans – (47-35)
  8. Utah Jazz – (43-39)
  9. Phoenix Suns – (41-41)
  10. Dallas Mavericks – (40-42)
  11. Sacramento Kings – (31-48)
  12. Los Angeles Lakers – (23-59)
  13. Portland Trail Blazers – (23-59)
  14. Denver Nuggets – (20-62)
  15. Minnesota Timberwolves – (19-63)