Predicting the NBA's Eastern Conference Playoff Picture
With the NBA season approaching rapidly, we start thinking about which teams figure into the expected playoff picture this season. While the Western Conference looks to be stacked once again, there is no shortage of good teams in the East.
While the playoff race appears to be unpredictable in the Eastern Conference, in reality we project seven of the eight playoff teams from 2014-15 to return this year, just like the Western Conference. The only exception is last year's 8 seed, Brooklyn, will sit at home while a Miami returns to the chase.
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 65.3)
Last season, the Cavs got off to a slow start. With a new coach, David Blatt and superstars Kevin Love and LeBron James playing with Kyrie Irving for the first time, the squad needed time to figure out their identity. But after a 19-17 start, and an injury to Anderson Varejao, the organization, swung a couple of deals bringing in Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert. Down the stretch, the Cavs rolled, going 34-12 after the pair of trades and nearly took down Golden State in the Finals, sans Love and Irving.
The addition of veterans Williams and Jefferson to a deep bench will be significant as the Cavaliers will be relying on their improved depth all season long. The big three of Love, Irving and James, along with Shumpert, are all dealing with injuries early this season. With expectations of championship or bust, the Cavs will do all they can to keep their players healthy throughout the year.
With the re-signing of James, Love, Smith and Tristan Thompson, it should come to no surprise that the Cavs are projected to lead the way in the East again. Another year together to work out the kinks in the offense and improve the sloppy defense -- they were 18th in the NBA with a 106.3 Defensive Rating -- the Cavs are the favorites to come out of the East. We predict Cleveland will finish with the second-highest win total (55.3) in the entire NBA, behind only the defending champion Warriors. Cleveland also has the highest championship odds (13.8%) in the Eastern Conference.
2. Toronto Raptors (59.8)
Expected to finish a distant second to Cleveland, Toronto is projected for 48.7 wins, basically the same record as they had last year, 49-33. Despite winning the Atlantic Division and having home court against Washington, the Raptors were embarrassed in 2014-15 as they were swept in the first round.
After giving up an average of 110.3 points per game to the previously anemic Wizards offense in the playoffs last season, defense became the priority for the Raptors this offseason.
Swapping Vasquez and Williams and their 109-plus Defensive Ratings for the defensive-minded Joesph and Wright immediately improves the second-team defense. The addition of Carroll allows Terrence Ross to try and be the offensive spark plug off the bench like Sixth Man of the Year, Williams, last season. It also gets Ross' -3.8 nERD out of the starting lineup and upgrades it with Carroll's 5.8 score.
Adding Biyombo to the frontcourt gives the Raptors a defensive presence behind Jonas Valanciunas that was non-existent last season. The former Hornets' 2.9 blocks per 36 minutes bring some much-needed rim protection to the squad.
3. Atlanta Hawks (59.8)
The Hawks surprised everyone last season as they finished the year tops in the Eastern Conference with a 60-22 record, a 22-win improvement from 2013-14. A well-rounded team that ranked in the top 10 in offense and defense, the Hawks return with not many changes to their squad in 2015-16.
The loss of Carroll, the Hawks' do-everything small forward, will be less of a challenge to overcome as it would seem. Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha poised to split the reps at small forward. Both are plus defenders, as they finished last year with a 102 and 101 Defensive Rating, respectively. Between the two of them and the emergence of third-year guard Dennis Schroder, they have Carroll's points and threes well-covered, too.
Our projections have the Hawks winning a tough Southeast Division with 48.1 wins
4. Chicago Bulls (57.7)
Key Additions: Bobby Portis
Key Losses: None
The big change in Chicago this season comes not from the personnel but the coaching staff. After five seasons and a 255-139 record, Tom Thibodeau, and his plodding pace were shown the door and replaced by new coach Fred Hoiberg and his uptempo offense. While the players remain the same, their roles have changed. Nikola Mirotic appears to have replaced Joakim Noah in the starting lineup, a move we wholeheartedly endorse.
One of the deepest teams in the East, they had 10 players log over 1,400 minutes last season, the addition of rookie Portis strengthens an already solid bench. After suffering through multiple injuries last season, the Bulls have the resources and experience to deal with starters Derrick Rose and Mike Dunleavy already sidelined to start the season.
While Cleveland looks to be far and away the best team in the East, our projections have the 2 seed being a fierce three-way battle with the Bulls only 2.1 nERD points and 1.4 wins behind Toronto but still in fourth place.
5. Washington Wizards (52.8)
Washington pretty much stood pat this offseason after winning 46 games and finishing as the 5 seed in the East last year. The loss of the 38-year-old Pierce will be offset by the continued development of Otto Porter. The third-year pro had flashes last season, especially in the playoffs. In the first three games of the Conference semi-finals versus Atlanta, Porter averaged 14.0 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.
A career 39.6 percent three-point shooter, Dudley brings much needed long-distance shooting to a Wizards squad that finished 27th with only 6.1 threes per game last season. When Dudley returns in late-November from back surgery, he will provide extra insurance for the club in case Porter does not take another leap this season.
Our projections have Washington finishing nearly five nERD points behind Chicago, making the Wizards the start of a definite decline in quality of the rest of the Eastern Conference.
6. Miami Heat (51.5)
2014-15 was a disappointing year for the Heat as they finished with 37 wins and missed the playoffs. One positive note, they discovered perhaps a hidden gem in Hassan Whiteside. After being out the league for two years, Whiteside found his groove in Miami as he averaged 10.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game last year. His emergence gives the Heat one of the most talented starting lineups in all of the east with Goran Dragic, Wade, Luol Deng, Bosh, and Whiteside.
Since Wade, Bosh and Deng are all over 30 and missed a combined 68 games last year, the Heat bench needed reinforcements. Stoudemire proved he still had same life left in his legs as he averaged nearly 11 points in 16.5 minutes per game for the Mavericks last season. Green has made more than 340 three-pointers the last two season, so he can bring firepower to a Heat team that finished 21st in threes made and 24th in three-point shooting percentage.
While our projections have the Heat winning 42.8 games, an argument exists that their ceiling is much higher.
7. Boston Celtics (49.1)
Last season, the Celtics entered the All-Star Break struggling. They were 20-31 and poised to spend their second year under Brad Stevens at home come playoff time. But after the acquisition of Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics finished strong by ending the year with a 20-11 run and sneaking into the playoffs as the 7 seed. Coming off the bench in all 21 of his games in Boston, Thomas averaged a team-high 19.0 points in only 26 minutes per game.
The big addition to the Celtics this year is starting power forward David Lee. After a disappointing 2014-15, where he lost his starting job to Draymond Green, the power forward is ready to have a bounce-back season. In his previous four seasons with the Warriors, Lee averaged 18.2 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. His presence is desperately needed up front as Boston gave up the 26th most opponent rebounds, 44.7 per game, last year.
With 41.2 projected wins, the Celtics finally look like a .500 team, although they are closer to being the first team out than they are to Miami at the 6 seed.
8. Milwaukee Bucks (48.5)
After making a 26-game improvement and snagging the 6 seed in 2014-15, the Bucks enter this year with plenty of expectations on them. Monroe and his 4.9 nERD, solidify the center spot and provide a marked improvement over Pachulia (1.3). His 10.2 rebounds per game last year will also offer a boost to what ended up being the 24th ranked rebounding squad last year with 42.1 per game.
2015-16 will also be a big season for the development of Michael Carter-Williams and Giannis Antetokounmpo. A 39.6 shooter while with the 76ers, Williams raised his shooting percentage to 42.9 in 25 games with Milwaukee. Just like the point guard, Antetokounmpo showed impressive defensive ability last year with a 101 Defensive Rating. His offense, on the other hand, needs some improvement. The Greek Freak's 49.6 percent Effective Field Goal Percentage was exactly league average, but he needs to be even better this year if he is going to be the star the Bucks need.
Our projections have Milwaukee narrowly making the playoffs and with a slightly below .500 record with 40.5 wins.
Missing the Cut
Indiana Pacers (48.1)
Indiana will be an exciting team in the East as they shift to a more uptempo, small-ball system after years of defensive grinding. They finished last season 19th in pace (93.2 possessions per 48 minutes), and 24th in points scored (97.3). With the addition of Monta Ellis and, more importantly, a full season of a healthy Paul George, Indiana will undoubtedly have more offensive weapons this year. We project them to barely miss the playoffs with 39.4 wins.
Charlotte Hornets (46.0) and Detroit Pistons (45.8)
Both the Hornets and Pistons missed the playoffs last year; they finished 11th and 12th in the East, respectively. This season, we have both squads still on the outside looking in, but not by much.
Charlotte ridding themselves of Lance Stephenson and acquiring Nicolas Batum marked them as our most improved team in the Southeast Division this offseason. While the season-ending injury to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was a massive blow, the Hornets maintain a solid shot at returning to the playoffs after missing out last season.
In Year Two under Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons look to keep climbing the standings. Last season's 32 wins marked the most by a Detroit team since 2008-09. With point guard Reggie Jackson running the show for a full year, we project a 36.7 win season for the Pistons as they battle in the toughest division out east, the Central.