With 25 games left in the NBA’s overly-long 82-game season, we’re back in action after the restful All-Star Break. The trade deadline proved about as exciting as a Nets-Suns match-up. Tobias Harris will be a useful addition over time in Detroit, but he won’t impact Detroit’s possible series with Cleveland (1 vs 8).
Meanwhile, no the Boston Celtics did not make a splashy trade at the deadline. As a Celtics fan, I’m relieved they didn’t trade the Brooklyn pick for a short-term upgrade and a better shot at Toronto/Cleveland this year. Realistically, the Celtics need to win one playoff series with this new young core before they think about short-term improvements. If they have a chance to land Blake Griffin or Kevin Love, that would change the equation. Even if the Brooklyn pick turns into the 2nd or 3rd overall selection, the Celtics could certainly build around Simmons, Ingram, or Bender, each of whom could play power forward. If it ends up 4th or 5th (Damn you, Suns!), Ainge may be more likely to package that pick with other 1st rounders and other young Celtics. We shall see. The prospect of drafting three more rookies (they will have Dallas’ pick as well as their own and Brooklyn’s) would seem to make for an extra crowded training camp, and a very young team.
The Cleveland Cavs will coast into the playoffs, incorporating Channing Frye’s shooting off the bench. Kyrie and Love will allow LeBron to sit most of the final week of the regular season, with the top seed wrapped up.
Cleveland Prediction: 60 wins, 1st in East.
Raptor-Mania will ensue when the Toronto Raptors win their first playoff series in too many years. DeMarre Carroll will return from arthroscopic knee surgery by the end of March, in order to get up to speed by playoff time. Last year’s Raptors started 22-5, before crumbling in the 2nd half, but that won’t happen this year. Lowry’s conditioning and core strength are hugely improved, and DeMar DeRozan’s improvement has been well documented. Perhaps most importantly, the depth and defensive intensity of the Raptors bench will keep them ahead of the pack.
Toronto Prediction: 53 wins, 2nd in East.
The progress of these Boston Celtics has been rapid and consistent since acquiring PG Isaiah Thomas from Phoenix last February. After beating up on a weaker Eastern Conference to finish last season 24-12, Boston is now 33-24, on pace for 47 wins and home court in a first round series. Thanks to Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and addition Amir Johnson, the Celtics are one of the more physical defensive teams in the Association. Their cohesion and intensity has led to the league’s 4th best eFG% against (48.1%) and they force the 3rd-most turnovers per game. Boston still struggles with the rare traditional post-up big man, which could become an issue if they face Valanciunas and Toronto in the 2nd round. If the Celtics hold on to the third seed, who will they face in the first round remains to be seen, as seven teams have a legit chance to finish 4th-8th, and they may all finish within three games of each other.
Boston Prediction: 48 wins, 3rd in East.
The Indiana Pacers will catch fire as their schedule softens during the stretch run. Most forget the Pacers started 12-5, with Paul George shooting the lights out in November. As the season wore on, Indiana wore down, and their December schedule snuffed out that early start. Fast forward to Friday night in Oklahoma City: Paul George’s fresh legs, Monta Ellis’ scoring, and rookie Myles Turner’s 6 blocks and timely outside shooting (stretch 5!) led to a statement win for the young Pacers. Considering where they were a year ago, the progress and future-positivity is a testament to Larry Bird’s vision, Frank Vogel’s coaching acumen, and a host of shooters surrounding the potent Paul George. Myles Turner’s energy and versatility will become obvious, but he may hit the rookie wall by April. The Pacers are an enigmatic young bunch, but can they win close playoff games?
Indiana Prediction: 47 wins, 4th in East.
The Chicago Bulls are injured. “We’ve heard that song before!” you shout. Yes, they need a new song, I agree. Jimmy Butler is out for another few weeks with a sprained knee. Mike Dunleavy has a creaky back, and has been missed on the perimeter. Derrick Rose can’t absorb contact anymore, so he avoids it, and is limited defensively. Still…Pau Gasol is Pau Gasol. Butler has become capable of lifting the Bulls all by himself (see Philadelphia game, 53 points on 26 free-throws). Derrick Rose can still score, and Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic can both shoot. There is enough here to keep the Bulls afloat, even if floating is not at all what they’d hoped for in November.
Chicago Prediction: 45 wins, 5th in East.
Chris Bosh’s uncertain health status, the up-and-down Goran Dragic, and the aging Dwyane Wade will make it tough for the Miami Heat to make a real run, despite their light last 15 games. Miami will land somewhere between 5th and 7th in the East. If Bosh is able to play at full strength, and Dragic gets his confidence and health back, the Heat could put a first round scare into Toronto or Boston, and would make life extra difficult for the Pacers.
Miami Prediction: 44 wins, 6th in East.
The Atlanta Hawks will fail to regain their swagger from last year as the lost season continues even after the trade rumors die down. Atlanta has the 3rd-toughest schedule remaining in the NBA. The Hawks will fall to 7th or 8th in the East in what will be an insanely-packed end of season battle between Atlanta, Detroit, Charlotte, and Washington for two spots. DeMarre Carroll’s absence and Jeff Teague’s struggles come into focus by season’s end. I wish things got better for Horford, Millsap, and Korver. What a great story they were last year.
Atlanta Prediction: 43 wins, 7th in East.
The Detroit Pistons are taking the shape of Stan Van Gundy. Let’s rephrase that. Stan Van Gundy, who has a round, slightly oblong shape, is a wise coach, and as GM, he is shaping his roster around his uber-talented center, Andre Drummond, and his very skillful point guard, Reggie Jackson. Detroit needed shooting. They traded for Marcus Morris to play 3/4. Morris is having a solid year. They had Jodie Meeks for balance off the bench. Injured for most of the year. They hoped Anthony Tolliver’s range would provide help. Not so much. So….Stan traded for Tobias Harris and Donatas Motiejunas. Motiejunas, whose back has been cranky all season in Houston, shot 37% from deep in 2014-15, and has an array of offensive moves. Harris is only 23, and is on a solid contract, which will look better as the cap imitates the ocean, and rises. Detroit needs to make the playoffs to prove to its fans that there is progress. The city needs it. The team needs it. It will happen.
Detroit Prediction: 43 wins, 8th in East.
Left out of the Playoffs in this mad dash for the final three seeds: Charlotte and Washington.
Within going into much detail, both Charlotte and Washington will finish within three games of the 7th/8th bunch. Washington is the big disappointment here, as the Wizards hoped to finish with 48+ wins after some impressive playoff performances last year. Bradley Beal’s youthful knee issues and Nene’s old-fella knee issues have forced the Wizards into extreme small-ball lineups that haven’t worked out as well as planned. The addition of Markieff Morris from Phoenix can’t hurt, but they’ll need some time to build chemistry.