This......this was a rough week for the Eastern Conference.
Usually for the East this season, the narrative has stayed pretty consistent. One solid team (First the Toronto Raptors, then the Atlanta Hawks since), a bunch of intriguing teams 2-6, two of which are struggling at any given time, and then a bunch of ugly, with some ugly even uglier than your standard ugly. This week was heavy on the ugly.
Only five of the fifteen East teams cracked .500 this week. Several of the teams that picked up quality wins also threw up stink bombs, often the next game they played, or vice versa. For example:
-Toronto lost to the Brooklyn Nets by 16 at home, then followed that up by shelling the Clippers in their next contest.
-The Chicago Bulls whipped the New Orleans Pelicans by 35(!) and then in typical Bulls fashion, struggled to knock off the lowly Magic the next night.
-The Charlotte Hornets handled the Washington Wizards for the second time in a week, then scored 81 points against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The struggle was real this week, and it's apparent that many teams are just coasting until the All-Star Break. Now, let's get into the most powerful rankings of the least powerful basketball conference.
1. Atlanta Hawks (1)
They lost twice in the last ten days (*gasp*) but in between losses to Anthony Davis and to the Memphis Grizzlies on the road, two damn good losses, they beat Washington comfortably and handled the Golden State Warriors in perhaps the game of the year. They may not be on an absurd win streak any more, but this team still very much looks real as a contender.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (2)
One ridiculous George Hill vine and it'd be 14 in a row.
The Cavs really have been the second-best team in the East for a few weeks now, and with three games against the Heat, Bulls, and Wizards coming up, they should be able to further cement that. Just kinda wish that Hill three had FIT-OUT of the basket instead of FIT-IN, amirite?
3. Toronto Raptors (4)
The Raptors finally have their butts back in gear after about a month-long swoon that saw them hemmorhaging points like a water main break. They're down to a not-terrible 103.8 defensive rating over their last ten games, and their offense has surged since they got Demar DeRozan back, helping the Raps climb back up to the second-best offensive efficiency in the league.
One of the main reasons the Raptors have had a recent uptick in play is that they seem to have gone back to much of what succeeded for them early in the season. A lot of it is getting DeRozan back; any time you can get your second-best player back from an injury, that's going to help. But that's not the only throwback move for Toronto. James Johnson has had a resurrection of sorts in his return from injury, averaging 8.8 points per game on 76 percent shooting over the last five games, and adding in his typical stingy defense. They're also forcing more free throw attempts than they had been in recent weeks, and that's paid dividends, as they've gotten to the line 26.7 times per game in their last ten, and are converting at nearly 80 percent. Defensively they're making smart rotations, Jonas Valanciunas hasn't been horrible of late, and Dwayne Casey is shying away from the Patrick Patterson/JV frontcourt duo that's been a disaster defensively (106.4 DRtg).
The big question moving forward is whether Toronto can keep this up on a brutal West road trip through the rest of February. After the All-Star Break they get to go to Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, and Dallas before coming back home - to play the Warriors. Yikes.
4. Chicago Bulls (5)
Lose to Houston by double-digits, pile-drive an Anthony Davis-less Pelicans squad by 35, barely beat the Magic, murder the Sacramento Kings. Just keep on not making a damn bit of sense, Bulls.
5. Milwaukee Bucks (3)
YES THE BUCKS! Look, I'm not crazy. They've won four straight, play great defense, just pulled apart the Raptors, and their point differential (1.8) is in line to pass Chicago (1.9) and Washington (2.2).
Rank the Bucks third, and they immediately get taken to OT by the Los Angeles Lakers and barely beat the Boston Celtics. You caused this, Mourt. However the Bucks actually won three of four and played the Rockets tight, so they stay ahead of.....
6. Washington Wizards (6)
Blowouts of the Brooklyn Nets and Magic won't save you here, Washington. They've still won just four of six, lost to the Hornets twice in ten days, and their offense is a legitimate problem right now.
7. Brooklyn Nets (9)
Besides getting pasted by the Wizards, actually had a pretty nice week. Their defense has been atrocious lately (111.6 DRtg over the past 10), but the win over Toronto looks impressive and they're just a game back of the 8-seed.
8. Indiana Pacers (12)
Hey, look at you, Indy! Besides beating the Cavs this week, the Pacers also picked up wins over the Pistons and Hornets and actually played the Spurs really tight. The Hornets game ended in similar fashion to the Cavs game, in that George Hill destroyed hopes and dreams:
Their net rating has crept close to even over their recent stretch of games (-0.5 per 100 possessions in their last 10), and after that horrendous seven-game losing streak, they've rebounded pretty well.
Indy's ugly offense has been no secret this season, but it's had a recent uptick thanks to the play of a former Cav and an almost-Cav. C.J. Miles has stepped into a bigger role over the last few weeks, and outside of a very absent performance against Charlotte, he's been pretty solid, posting 17 points against the Kings last week, posting 15 points on seven shots against the Pistons, and dropping 26 on his former team on Friday. He's been doing typical C.J. things, and has been a joy to watch after a woeful start to the season.
Meanwhile, remember when Damjan Rudez was almost a Cav this summer? He's been pretty quiet with Indiana this season, but injuries to Ian Mahinmi and Lavoy Allen have opened up some time in the Pacers' rotation for him. He dropped 18 points against the Magic a few weeks ago, and since then, has been very consistent off the bench for Indy, averaging 5.7 points per game on 43.8 percent shooting (40 percent from deep) over his last 10 games. He's not a good rebounder, and his individual defense has been lacking, but the Pacers are actually 2.6 points/100 possessions better defensively with Rudez on the floor, and the spacing he adds really helps open up driving lanes for Hill and Miles when they share the floor with him. Both Miles and Rudez have really helped Indy's offense improve as of late, and their schedule is one of the cakiest in the league post-All Star. Watch out for injury-ravaged Indiana to grab that 8 seed and be a real pain for Atlanta in the first round.
9. Charlotte Hornets (7)
Charlotte won four of five post-Cavs beatdown, but since have dropped three straight to Philadelphia, Indiana, and Detroit. Their point guard combo with Kemba Walker injured is now a platoon of Mo Williams and Brian Roberts, and their next three games are home vs. OKC, at Dallas, and at Chicago. Good luck.
10. Detroit Pistons (8)
A convincing win over the Hornets last night helps, but their post-Josh Smith high has worn off, especially on the defensive end, where they're allowing 108 points per 100 possessions over the last ten.
11. Boston Celtics (11)
Boston preyed on an easy schedule this week, beating the Sixers and the performance art formerly known as the Denver Nuggets. Weird stat: of 21 games in 2015, the Celtics have had a whopping FOUR decided by more than 11 points. They may not be good, but they are a pain in the ass every night.
12. Miami Heat (10)
Hassan Whiteside is fun, we get it. But Miami's lost five of seven, is playing at the slowest pace in the league, and has the fifth-worst point differential in the East despite having the seventh-best record. This team is unwatchable right now.
The biggest issue with Miami all season has been point guard play, and it's somewhat of a testament to how good of a distributor LeBron James is. Miami's offense was 11th in the league in assists per game last year, but that's fallen to 29th this year as the ball has continually gotten stuck in the backcourt on Norris Cole and Dwyane Wade isolation looks. Cole has been a tire-fire offensively, posting an eFG% of 42.8 percent, shooting 26.3 percent from three, and posting an assist rate of 23.6 percent, which even "noted non-point guard" Kyrie Irving does better than.
Mario Chalmers and Shabazz Napier have been better individually, but the Heat's offense is better with both off the floor. And "individually better" means shooting an even 40 percent with 4.3 assists per game in the case of Chalmers, and league average three-point shooting (35.4 percent) but 37.5 percent shooting on two-pointers from Napier. The Heat's point guard play has been horrendous, and that's been a major reason why they've been really depressing this season.
13. Philadelphia 76ers (13)
Played a competitive game against the Warriors, and that's better than any of these final three teams have accomplished in weeks.
14. Orlando Magic (15)
Out of the bottom spot because they hung tough at San Antonio, nearly beat Chicago, and did beat the Lakers this week. They also are finally free from the Jacque Vaughn struggle bus! Moe Harkless might actually play again! And maybe they'll find a coach that can get the most out this roster!
You do you, Magic.
15. New York Knicks (14)