Eastern Conference Parity: A Closer Look


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The NBA’s Eastern Conference is quite crowded near the top these days.

As of Thursday, December 31st, your Boston Celtics are 18-14, on pace to win 46 games. In the last decade (minus the strike-shortened ’11-12 season), 46 wins would have been good for the East’s 4th or 5th seed in the playoffs. As every Western Conference team’s fan-base is at least mildly aware of, the East has been the inferior side of the Association for a while. While the season is still relatively young (32 games young), the shift in power has been noticeable. On the other hand, the Warriors and Spurs are head and shoulders (dandruff?) ahead of everyone else at the moment.

Today, the East’s playoff ladder is a tangled mess. The conference’s 2nd through 9th seeds each have 12, 13 or 14 losses. Stopping at the current 9th seed would be avoiding the fact that the Detroit Pistons, with only 15 losses, are the 10th seed. The Washington Wizards, after being hit with new Bradley Beal and old Nene injuries, are at 11th with 16 losses.

As the February 18th trade deadline approaches, the standings will be heavily scrutinized by GM’s across the league. But which records are closer to the truth and which records are based more on the luck of the schedule and injuries? Though it would be smarter to wait until the halfway mark to do this, since I have time today, I’ll do it now.

Let’s take a long-view of how the Boston Celtics compare with the East’s top 10, using Hollinger’s playoff odds (now run by ESPN’s Ben Alamar, using an analytical model, BPI). Won-loss projections in parentheses. Though I appreciate the various factors BPI takes into account, especially rest and distance-traveled (for away teams), a team’s point-differential is probably slightly exaggerated in this model.

Point-differential has become a trendy way to measure a team’s dominance, in part because of Golden State’s blowout victories, in part because it’s intuitive. The bigger a team blows another team out, the better that team looks. However, I think point-differential over-emphasizes two things: depth and winning close games. The deepest teams will always win by bigger margins because weak benches are often exploited over the grind of the regular season. The blowout factor takes away a certain edge from some teams, and can create extra pressure in those rare crunch-time games. It may not come up as often in the regular season, but this is amplified in the playoffs, when the vast majority of games are not blowouts.

*Below, on/off numbers via http://www.basketball-reference.com

Alright, with that out of the way, let’s dig in:

1. Cleveland Cavs (54-28)

Without a healthy Kyrie Irving or Iman Shumpert for the first 25 games, Mo Williams and Matthew Dellavedova have been given extra minutes, and filled in solidly. Dellavedova continues to get the benefit of the doubt with his manic defense, and his 45% shooting from deep has been more than helpful. Kevin Love has had a chance to show off his all-around game. Keep in mind that Love has played only 4 playoff games.

LeBron’s terrible three-point shooting in 11 December games (15%) is concerning, and probably points to a combination of factors: the absence of Irving to create off the dribble; the injury to Mo Williams, who creates decently himself; better defensive competition; LeBron’s slightly tired older legs. Look for the Cavs to restrict LeBron’s minutes heading into the break as Irving and Shumpert return to form.

 

2. Toronto Raptors (50-32)

The Raptors have successfully navigated the absence of center Jonas Valanciunas due to the scoring surge of DeMar DeRozan and fierce rebounding and defense of Bismack Biyombo. Quietly having another All-Star year is the newly svelte Kyle Lowry at point. Other than Lowry, the Raptors are isolation-heavy, but they happen to have two very good isolation players in DeRozan and Valanciunas. Toronto is 28th in assists, but has managed wins over Miami and Dallas in recent days.

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Valanciunas makes the Raptors offense hum. (photo via Bleacher Report)

With the help of Valanciunas (114.1 offensive rating on; 104.3 off) on the block and DeMarre Carroll on the wing, the Raptors offense will bounce back. Toronto signed Carroll this summer, forcing them to let Amir Johnson sign with Boston.

Toronto and Boston have three games left. The January 20th match-up will be a barometer-game for each team.

Considerations:

  • How will Dwayne Casey decide to use Valanciunas/Biyombo? Match-ups will likely dictate their minutes.
  • Will Lowry’s creaky back force Toronto to limit his minutes as the season’s slog continues, heading into the break?
  • Terrence Ross seems glued to the three-point line. Only 16% of his shots have come in the paint. This is what happens with isolation-heavy sets and no post-game. Can Casey find a way to make Ross’ shooting more of a factor?
  • Is Cory Joseph all defense, or can he create a little something off-the-bounce? Ross and Scola would benefit from Joseph finding more penetration.
  • Toronto has a bizarre January schedule (5-game Atlantic-coast road trip, 7-games at home, 5-game West/Midwest road trip). The schedule-makers did their best to limit Toronto’s long-distance travel, which resulted in some unique calendar maneuvers.

3. Boston Celtics (49-33)

The Celtics have been beating the teams they should beat (except for that awful loss to the Lakers on Wednesday night!), and playing very well in close losses to the league’s best (Warriors and Spurs). Isaiah Thomas is looking like an All-Star, creating offense with his off-kilter bursts of speed, innovative finishes at the rim, and his ability to create contact and get to the line (90% on 5.9 FTA/gm). The Celtics are winning with vicious perimeter defense (all the more impressive during Marcus Smart’s injury absence), The benefit of Amir Johnson’s rim protection against penetration-heavy teams is huge.

Avery Bradley’s range has steadily improved over the last two years. It’s a testament to Bradley’s off-season diligence, as Ainge and Stevens no doubt made that priority #1 in order to complement Isaiah’s off-the-bounce game. Boston’s offensive rating is a stellar 108.1 with Bradley on the court, compared with 97.1 when he’s out. Bradley is shooting a remarkable 45% from deep in the first quarter, and 40.2% overall from deep. Teams don’t seem to be able to stop Bradley out of the gate, and then focus on him the rest of the game. I’d be surprised to see that continue through the rest of the season, as scouts wise up to Stevens’ tendencies. (info via http://www.vorped.com)

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Jae Crowder’s impact on both ends continues to be essential element of Boston’s success. (photo via Fox Sports)

Jae Crowder is having a critical impact, and is impossible not to cheer for with his infectious energy. Crowder is 2nd on the team with +7.0 on/off rating differential. In a particularly impressive performance, Crowder put the Celtics on his broad back when they put out one of their ugliest performances of the year. In mid-November against the Sixers (we’ve seen what can happen when a team loses to the lowly Sixers, ahem, Phoenix), Crowder took over the final three minutes with steals, blocks, and two timely three-pointers. Though Crowder is at 36% overall from long-distance, he is shooting 44% from deep in the 4th quarter (warning: tiny sample). Crowder’s toughness and intensity are particularly suited to rabid Celtics fans.

Going forward, a few questions to consider:

  • How will Stevens integrate Marcus Smart back into the lineup? With Thomas and Bradley playing so well together, it will be tough to stagger their court time.
  • Smart needs to be able to make threes somewhat consistently to pair well with Turner on the second unit. Turner’s versatility has been very helpful for the bench, but his 16% from deep is not a typo.
  • Will Stevens use Crowder at power forward, alongside Amir Johnson?
  • Most importantly, can the Celtics trade future picks for a pure shooting 3/4 to create more space for Isaiah-Bradley-Crowder-Amir lineups? If yes, the Celtics could leap from a good team to a contending team.

 

4. Indiana Pacers (49-33)

Paul George, Paul George, Paul George. These box scores are like a trip to Six Flags, making me alternately delighted and queasy. It’s tough to complain about this average line: 24.5 pts / 7.7 reb / 4.0 ast / 1.7 stl. But it’s tough not to see a trend in December: good teams are defending George out at 27-feet, and forcing him to drive. Here are a few of his worst shooting nights in recent weeks: 4 of 16 @DET, 1 of 14 @SA, 5 of 19 vs SAC, 3 of 14 vs ATL. That’s a rough stretch. The torrid November (49.5%) from deep is in the rear-view now. George is one of the best two-way players in the NBA and should garner second-tier MVP chatter (everyone after Curry). George’s rebounding is crucial to Indiana’s success. One has to wonder if his energy will be an issue as the season wears on.

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Monta Ellis’ acrobatics with the ball take pressure off of Paul George. (Getty Images)

Monta Ellis was perfectly suited to playing next to Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons, both creating the spacing for jittery Ellis to streak into the lane. Signing with Indiana was curious. The Pacers insistence on pushing the pace works wonderfully at times at makes perfect sense in the modern NBA. Still, they need more from Monta, whose free-throw attempts at a career-low 2.3 / game. When Indiana dictates tempo and George or Ellis finds their grooves, they win, as evidenced by two early season victories over Boston and last night’s 26-point Ellis performance as they beat Atlanta. An encouraging sign for Frank Vogel’s crew.

C.J. Miles is an assassin from deep, but can’t rebound, and is a serious defensive liability at the power forward.

Questions:

  • Can the frenetic pace be maintained for all 82 games?
  • When the pace slows, can they win? (Especially in the playoffs)
  • Will Myles Turner help them defend the paint when he returns from injury? Pacers are 26th in shot-blocking.

 

 

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