Last week, my colleague Hugo Kitano did a fantastic piece on the Western Conference with the help of Jalen Rose and P.J. Carlesimo, breaking down the favorites (Warriors obviously) and the possible contenders to challenge Golden State into the playoffs (Spurs, Thunder). As the calendar year looks to roll into 2016, we take a look at the other side of the league over in the East to find out who is trending up, and who is trending down.
The Cavs - With no surprise, the Cavs find themselves in cruise control at the top of the division, especially as they start to get fully healthy. They are obviously flawed - they will need more production from players not named LeBron James down the stretch to take the stress of their mega star. Getting Kyrie Irving back toward 100% health is huge - he is pesky on defense, a dynamic scorer, and lets James be the supporter that he is best at rather than having to be primary handler.
The largest effects will be down the stretch - top teams in both divisions are not just thinking about the regular season at this point. They are looking at the dog days of January and February and prepping for their stars to not get warn out when it doesn't count. Not all teams are the Spurs - sitting their stars for rest games. But if James could cut his minutes down by 5-6 per game, that will be a huge step toward the future. James plays 36.1 minutes per game - good for 8th in the league. Curry for comparison plays 34.8, and has obviously taken his share of 4th quarters completely off.
Atlanta Hawks - Other top teams in the East are currently the Hawks in the second spot. Atlanta has not played the perfect level of basketball they did last year, but their encore performance hasn't slipped that far. So far, they have not fully felt the effects of losing DeMarre Carroll like some guessed they would. They don't particularly excel at anything in particular - ranked in the teens in both offense and defense. But Coach Mike Budenholzer has them working hard, playing their game, and always competing. They will never be the "sexy" pick - they don't have the same star power as other teams - but they continue to bring multiple all stars and talent to the floor every night.
Indiana Pacers - The Pacers are Paul George's team. They will go as far as the superstar will take them. The roster is built around maximizing George's talents. They will need another scorer down the stretch to be a serious contender, and should have the pieces to acquire one. Watching what they were able to do in Indiana in the 4th quarter against the Warriors, they will continue to compete until they can't anymore. They are gritty - I would be scared to go against them in a playoff series, especially if they have home court advantage.
Miami Heat - The revival of the Heat has been fun to watch. They are my secret League Pass team. I just never know what Hassan Whiteside will do on any given night. He might score 2 and have 20 boards. He might have 12 blocks. He might punch a guy in the face. He is being harnessed by the veteran talent down in South Beach to his best potential, as babysitters Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade are riding their surprisingly deep roster to more success this year. As we pointed out before - their success will simply depend on health. Can they trade not having to play any more games this season for an 8th spot just so we can watch Cavs/Heat for 7 games?
The Rest of Them
Take a closer look at the standings, less than 4 games separate the 2nd spot in the division from the 10th. I doubt this many teams will stay in contention as the season continues on, but I picture a tight race for the 8th spot after the all star break. This should seriously affect the trading deadline - more teams in contention mean less teams will be excited about throwing it in. Any team should feel that if they can sneak up into the 7th spot in the standings to avoid the Cavs, that any of the other teams can be beat.
It is less about all teams being bad, but more about that the East has many teams that can come out and compete on any night. Charlotte has a deep roster but has lost a few close games this season that could have them in the top four in the standings. The Bulls will find themselves at some point (with this roster or after a trade) and should continue to be dangerous. The Raptors and the Celtics are both teams I don't want to play in a playoff game.
But who knows... in two weeks this all could change. The Bucks could go on a run and push themselves back into playoff contention. The Magic could revert back to their losing ways and fall out of the pack. We can say for certain that it is good to see more competition and more teams in contention, rather than last year where we were already writing half of the division out of the standings and into mock drafts.
Around the League
- The Warriors head on the road this week to swing through the state of Texas for a back-to-back. They will be without Harrison Barnes and Leandro Barbosa for both games. Walton has started to shift Klay Thompson to play more minutes with the second unit to help the scoring balance, which has worked just fine as long as Brandon Rush keeps hitting his shots. Maybe Omri Casspi was doing his best audition for the Warriors, as they could use another scorer like him coming off the bench to help.
- Speaking of trades - one team that should start to look at flipping its assets for a rebuild is the Phoenix Suns. They lost Eric Bledsoe to a season ending knee injury this week, and as they continue to fall out of the playoff race, they could see the writing on the wall sooner than later. It will start with a trade of Markieff Morris, who probably should have been traded a month ago. If he finds himself in Houston or down with the Clippers, he could seriously flip the balance of power in a playoff race.
- Another guy who could change a race is Brandon Jennings. In Detroit, he finds himself back on the court - albeit in the D-League. Jennings will be playing for a new contract, but I could picture him as this year's Jamal Crawford. He is a heat check kind of guy, and if he only has to play 15-20 minutes a game as his knee comes back to 100%, he is going to make a GM out there look like a genius. How about Jason Thompson, a 2nd round pick, and a pat on the back?
That's it for this week's trip around the League. Next week, we will dive more closely into the race for the final playoff spots in both divisions and find more teams we can cross out of the playoff picture. Until then, Happy New Year and realize that the Warriors just had the best calendar year regular season record of all time. 2015 was pretty cool, wasn't it...
(Follow me on twitter @badiehard)