Predicting the NBA's Eastern Conference Playoff Picture
With the NBA season approaching rapidly, we need to start thinking about which teams figure into the expected playoff picture this season.
We will start with the the home of the reigning NBA champions, the Eastern Conference.
This an analytical look as to which teams will make the Eastern Conference Playoffs, and the order in which we project they will finish the season in the standings.
You'll notice that along with each team is their key additions and losses -- but know that the word "key" was used somewhat loosely -- and their nERD score, which is predictive of the team's ultimate winning percentage.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (nERD 73.2)
Things could not have gone better for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015-16. They worked through a midseason coaching change and survived Kyrie Irving missing nearly 30 games. The Cavs finished with the third-best offensive rating while allowing the fourth fewest amount of points. The payoff for all their hard work was a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference and, oh yeah, an NBA title.
Signing LeBron James and J.R. Smith to big money extensions left Cleveland's pocketbook a little strapped. Deciding to keep their core intact, the club wisely decided to part ways with Mozgov and Dellavedova as they could not afford to retain them as backups. Second-round pick Felder is slated to back up Irving while the addition of Dunleavy provides coach Tyronn Lue another veteran option off the bench.
As expected, we project the reigning champs to repeat their run as Eastern Conference favorites. We don't even think it is that close. Their nERD rating of 73.2 is over 11 points higher than the second-place Toronto Raptors. We also give them a 15.6 percent chance of repeating as champs, the third-largest in all of the NBA, behind only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.
2. Toronto Raptors (62.0)
The Raptors are coming off by far the most successful campaign in franchise history. Toronto made their first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals after posting a franchise high in wins (56). Part of the credit for the rise goes to a vastly improved defense. After finishing the 2014-15 season 19th in points allowed, Toronto clamped down and ended up allowing the third-fewest last season.
Due to their success, the Raptors decided to stay quiet in the offseason, only picking up Sullinger as a replacement for losing Biyombo and Scola. The addition of ninth overall pick Poeltl helps provide some depth in the middle in case Jonas Valanciunas encounters injury troubles again. Getting a full season out of DeMarre Carroll will also go a long way in continuing Toronto's run near the top of the East.
Seeing as we have them with the fifth-best odds to win a championship, we tend to agree with the Raptors' offseason thinking.
3. Boston Celtics (60.2)
The Boston Celtics continued their rise up the standings in the East in 2015-16, finishing with a 48-34 record and in a four-way tie for third place. That came on the heels of 15-win improvement from 2013-14 to 2014-15. Head coach Brad Stevens has done an outstanding job turning the club into an efficient beast, ranking in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating last year. The emergence of Isaiah Thomas at the point gave the team its first All-Star in three seasons.
While the team could not convince Kevin Durant to join up, they did win the summer, in their own right, with the signing of Horford. He brings the Celtics another All-Star level player who also just happens to fit in perfectly with the system Stevens is running. His signing also made the decision to let Sullinger leave all that much easier. Replacing Turner with Green is also a win, as the shooting guard immediately comes in as the club's best three-point threat, an area -- 28th in three-point accuracy -- they were sorely lacking.
After finishing eight games behind Toronto last year, we feel the race in the Atlantic Division will be a lot closer. We have the Celtics finishing with 47.2 wins, just 1.6 behind the Raptors.
4. Detroit Pistons (55.8)
In just two seasons with Stan Van Gundy at the helm, the Detroit Pistons have gone from finishing 24 games below .500 in 2013-14 to their first winning season in eight years. With Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond stepping forward with semi-breakout seasons, the club was able to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
After deciding to give Drummond max money this summer, the team continued to build a young, deep, and talented roster around their budding superstar. Bringing in Marjanovic, Leuer, and Ellenson strengthens the frontcourt and gives Van Gundy endless lineup combinations. The added depth will be tested early as Jackson will be sidelined at least until December with thumb and knee problems. Smith will need to step in immediately and run the point much like he did in Philly where he averaged 14.4 points and 7.0 assists in 50 games last season.
We see the Pistons continuing their improvement, jumping from the 8 seed in 2016 all the way to fourth place in the Eastern Conference this upcoming season.
5. Atlanta Hawks (54.1)
After posting a franchise-best 60 wins in 2014-15, the Atlanta Hawks took a step back to reality with their 48-34 record last season. The number-one reason for the decline was their struggling offense. While they managed to rank 2nd behind only the Spurs in defensive rating, the Hawks went from the 6th-best offense in 2014-15 to the 22nd ranked team in offensive rating.
Seemingly blamed for the club's lack of scoring, Teague was shipped out paving the way for Dennis Schroder to take over the point guard duties. They added Jack as the youngster's backup, just in case he falters. As big of a change as that may be, losing franchise fixture Horford in free agency changes the entire teams dynamic. Out is an efficient floor spacing center. In is Howard, a lane-clogging, rebounding master whose offensive skills are declining. The two centers could not have a more different skill set. Whether or not coach Mike Budenholzer can make the switch work will largely determine the club's fate this year.
We project the Hawks to win the Southeast Division but expect them to continue their decline with 43.9 wins and a 54.1 nERD.
6. Charlotte Hornets (51.6)
This past season, the Charlotte Hornets surprised the NBA world by gaining 15 wins and making the playoffs for only the third time since being re-born in 2004. They transformed from the third-worst offense in the league in 2014-15 to becoming the seventh-most efficient with a 107.1 offensive rating last year. The breakout season by Kemba Walker, combined with the addition of Nicolas Batum, was a godsend for the offense.
Seeing how well the team performed on both ends of the floor, the organization decided only to shuffle around some bench pieces this summer, hoping that last year's core will continue to grow. Having a full year out of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would rank as their biggest addition if it were to happen. The 23-year-old small forward has been on the verge of a breakout but cannot remain healthy.
The Hornets have all the makings of a playoff team as we project them to win 42.1 games and finish a close second behind Atlanta in the Southeast Division.
7. Indiana Pacers (51.5)
Despite the Indiana Pacers' ending their brief playoff hiatus and making their fifth trip to the postseason in the past six years, the organization perplexingly decided to part ways with Frank Vogel and his .580 winning percentage over five years. Apparently not happy being a defensively-minded team -- the Pacers were 3rd in defensive rating but 25th in offensive rating last year -- the front office attempted to reshape the roster while remaining a playoff contender.
Their first big move was swapping out George Hill for Teague at the point. An All-Star in 2015, Teague is an offensive upgrade over Hill but the question remains if he fits in with ball-needy Paul George and Monta Ellis. Adding power forward Young -- and letting Mahinmi walk -- allows up-and-coming big man Myles Turner to slide over and have the center position all to himself. The question remains if all the offensive upgrades will click together and how much the defense will regress without Vogel's leadership.
With a projected win total of 42.8 wins, the Pacers likely will find themselves battling it out for one of the bottom three seeds in the East, just like last year.
8. Washington Wizards (50.1)
After making back-to-back Eastern Conference Semifinals, expectations for the Washington Wizards were sky-high entering last season. Relying on rock solid defense and an average offense had been working in Washington. However, wanting more points on the board, coach Randy Wittman decided to go uptempo last season. While the team was able to score 5.9 more points per game, the defense was left in shambles. A perennial top-10 unit, the defense ended up in the bottom third in points allowed, and the Wizards finished out of the playoffs, costing Wittman his job.
Enter in former Oklahoma City Thunder boss Scott Brooks to manage a promising core and the making the playoffs seems possible again. Along with Brooks, the front office decided to add quality depth to their frontcourt to help with what was one of the most injury-plagued rosters. If Bradley Beal can stay off the trainer's table and on the court, the Wizards have the talent to overachieve this year.
Our algorithms see Washington, after sitting one year out, returning to the postseason, albeit as the 8 seed.
Missing the Cut
Miami Heat (47.9)
Pat Riley's resistance to retain franchise legend Dwyane Wade was one of the most surprising moves in the NBA in years. The purge of a 48-win Miami Heat team did not stop there, as Miami said goodbye to Chris Bosh, Luol Deng, and Joe Johnson. Riley may come out looking like a genius if youngsters Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, and Justise Winslow take a step forward this season. We don't see it, as we expect Miami to finish on the outside looking in with a 40-42 record.
Orlando Magic (44.7) and Chicago Bulls (44.4)
The Magic are stocked with young talent and have steadily improved the past three seasons. They brought in an experienced coach in Frank Vogel to accelerate the learning process and, in a draft day shocker, traded for Thunder big man Serge Ibaka. While we don't see them in the playoffs just yet, Orlando keeps gaining wins with a projected 38.5 this season.
The Bulls were one of the biggest disappointments in the East last year as they went from contending for the 2 seed to ninth place. In a dramatic overhaul, the club brought in a new backcourt for this season in Wade and Rajon Rondo. The makeup of the team has a rebuild feel with a veil of desperation. We anticipate the decline to continue, ending with a lottery pick for Chicago for the second year in a row.