At this point, the East isn’t as soft as everyone thought it would be, although there’s still a huge talent and probability gap between the Cavs and the rest of the conference. Some perennial playoff teams have fallen off and a few teams have bounced up the ladder quicker than expected. Here’s our final power rankings of the season.
In terms of ball movement and fluidity, the best the Cavs looked last year was at the beginning of the Celtics series. Before J.R. Smith went all roundhouse on Jae Crowder after Kelly Olynyk ripped Kevin Love’s shoulder out of place and made the rest of the series an on-edge scrappy mess, the Cavs were a well-oiled machine. I’d imagine we’ll see more of LeBron at power forward, and just in the post regardless. He’s basically a cheat code with his back to the basket in the high post, bullying his way toward the basket, daring a double team. For my money, the two most important players in regard to their basement/ceiling ratio are Love and Shumpert. If Loves continues to play offensively at a high level — he’s shooting 45.7 FG% and 48.6 3P%, averaging 20 points over the last five games — and is somewhat functional on defense and Shumpert hits open shots — which could be a lot to ask for since he’s shooting a career low from three at 29.5 percent — they’ll be hard to beat. And, despite his struggles, Mozgov’s size will be an asset when they play Detroit in the first round.
Hungry and desperate with a hyper-aggressive backcourt, the Raptors are a tough-minded team and certainly won’t be an easy out in the playoffs. There’s still a lot of distance between them and the Cavs if you’re weighing a matchup in terms of pure talent, but, after going seven games with the 2013-14 Nets who mortgaged their next decade on that team two years ago and that embarrassing knock out last year, this could be the playoffs where they catch some momentum.
3. Boston Celtics
Loaded with future assets and well-coached and balanced this season, the Celtics — although obviously without the superstar talent that pushes a team over the edge of becoming a serious contender — could earn home court advantage during a rebuilding cycle, which is a good thing when you own picks from the Nets. Isaiah Thomas is averaging 24 points per game since the all-star break and they have the sort of defensive prowess to make an opposing team’s life pretty difficult. If they slip to the four seed, a good bloodbath of an opening round matchup would be with the…
4. Miami Heat
It’s hard to know what to make out of the Heat. There’s no word on Chris Bosh. But, they have young players that contest entry points and around the rim, a proven superstar in Wade whose on the decline although still dangerous, a point guard sometimes looks like a good fit and sometimes doesn’t and well-past-their-prime veterans who can still pour points on you from time to time. But, unless Pat Riley made another deal with the devil, the 2016 Heat seem bound to be bounced early.
Same team. Same mediocrity. Different year.
Probably this year’s team that aren’t very threatening in a series, but play with the sort of defensive intensity that becomes an in-game annoyance, the Pacers have a true superstar in Paul George and a promising prospect in Miles Turner. Add in a few heat check players and what seems to be a team with the turbo button pressed all the time, and they could take a game or two from an opponent whose not careful.
A definite surprise team this season — especially after they passed on Justise Winslow and lost Kidd-Gilchrist to injury — Charlotte Hornets could still end up taking home court advantage, but even if they do, they’ll be the most likely team to be upset, even though they exceed the sum of their parts and have won the third most games at home in the Eastern Conference.
This is interesting. At the beginning of the season, it seemed like whoever grabbed the 8th seed in the East would barely be able to tie their shoes, but Detroit has a star in Drummond, made a good trade for Harris, found a way to get the most from Jackson and has a solid prospect in Johnson. They’re 7-3 in their last 10 games. Making the playoffs will of course keep them out of the lottery, and the probability of them making it out of the first round is extremely low, but becoming a functional team may help them solidify their line-up with free agents in the next two years, while still picking in the middle of the draft.
A lightning round for the probable cut-off point:
I’d imagine there will be changes, and they’ll look to build around Butler, both through the draft, by trade and making splashes in free agency.
What a mess.
11. New York Knicks
There’s hope for the future here. It would be beneficial for both Carmelo and the Knicks if they parted ways, but I respect him for possibly going down with the ship. If they truly plan on staying together, I’d imagine they’re going to try to go nuts during the next two free agency cycles.
12. Milwaukee Bucks
Well, it seems like Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to be able to play every position on the floor soon, and Jabari Parker looks like he’ll have a solid future, but the Bucks are going to establish an identity and add more talent.
13. Orlando Magic
Defend Super Mario island at all costs.
Trust the process, I guess. Actually, I kind of hope they land Brandon Ingram and Denzel Valentine in the draft, bring in a healthy Joel Embiid and flip Okafor for a young guard, forcing us all to accept Sam Hinkie as the NBA’s one true rebuilding overlord, who, like any proper savior, wasn’t recognized in his time. I also hope the Browns win the super bowl.
15. Brooklyn Nets
No players. No picks. No immediate future.