The Eastern Conference Playoff Snail Race

By: Scott Levine

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No team captures this race better than the Magic, who are incredibly flawed, yet exciting. (Michael Tipton via Flickr)

When Paul George, and Jimmy Butler were traded, and Paul Millsap left for Denver, the Eastern Conference grew even weaker. There are now five teams that I watch in the East and feel as though they are a safe bet to make the playoffs: Cleveland, Boston, Washington, Toronto, and Milwaukee. There are eight playoff spots.

The remaining ten teams in the conference all have major questions holding them back from being a shoo-in. It shouldn’t be this interesting to watch a gaggle of mediocre teams fall ass backwards into the playoffs. But so far it has been, partially because a few have exceeded expectations.

Without further ado, let’s start this season’s first edition of the power rankings of teams 6-15 in the east, also known as the Eastern Conference Playoff Snail Race, as we try to figure out which teams are for real.

Tier 4: It’s time to start watching Luka Doncic highlights.

15. Chicago Bulls

14. Atlanta Hawks

I’m not going to talk too much about these teams in this article. I might write about John Collins eventually? I don’t know.

Tier 3: Hmmm…Maybe (probably not)

13. Brooklyn Nets

Despite their best player, Jeremy Lin, losing the season to injury, this well-coached team is not abysmal. D’Angelo Russell is a stud. DeMarre Carroll is still good at basketball (people forget that). Allen Crabbe can shoot. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has made a leap offensively and looks comfortable attacking the basket and pulling up from mid-range. Spencer Dinwiddie might end up being too good to be a backup.

So what will prevent this team from sniffing the playoffs? Their defense; as the Lakers learned last year, any time you defend a pick and roll with D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov, you’re going to have a bad time. Jarrett Allen could be a plus defender eventually, but not as a rookie. Caris LeVert and Crabbe are leaky wing defenders. Joe Harris plays twenty minutes a game.

That feeling of futility is gone from the Barclays Center, mostly thanks to the arrival of Russell. But there’s a gap between futility and the playoffs, even in the Eastern Conference.

12. New York Knicks

The Porzingis era (not to be confused with the Porzingis/Melo/Phil Jackson era) has started with a bang. I admittedly haven’t watched much Knicks yet, but I know that Kristaps is balling out right now and is the front runner to win the Most Improved Player of the Year award. I also have been encouraged by Frank Ntilikina’s highlights.

As for the team overall, what do you want me to say? They’re not making the playoffs.

Tier 2: The Snail Race Begins!

11. Indiana Pacers

Indiana kind of goofed on the Paul George trade. They did not receive any picks or high upside players, yet also didn’t get enough back to remain a playoff team. Regardless of the quality of the trade, Indiana was banking on Oladipo and Sabonis having more in their games than they showed as extras on the Russell Westbrook Triple Double Show.

So far, they’re right. Victor Oladipo has come out of the gate guns blazing, and has led this team to be one of the best offensive teams in the league so far at ninth in points per possession.

This team is currently fifth in long mid-range percentage (44.3%) per Cleaning the Glass. An absurd number of Pacers are lights out on two-pointers beyond fourteen feet. Per Cleaning the Glass, Myles Turner, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Domantas Sabonis, Thaddeus Young, and Al Jefferson are shooting above 47% on these shots so far (Bogdanovic is 60%!).

Collison and Bogdanovic are the only two with a history of shooting long twos at this rate, so I expect the team to cool off on these shots. I also expect Oladipo’s 46% shooting from three to regress to around the high 30s given the difficulty of some of his off-the-dribble maneuvers.

This team has been poor defensively. They will struggle to find lineups that give them both good offense and good defense. Cory Joseph has not proven he can run a high powered offense, while Darren Collison has trouble staying it front of opposing guards due to his frame. Bojan Bogdanovic has been incredible shooting the ball so far, but can’t guard anyone, same for Sabonis.

They are not as unwatchable as I expected, though. It’s been fun to watch their mishmash of decent players find a way to cobble together points.

10. Philadelphia 76ers

As long as Joel Embiid only sits out back to backs and takes the occasional game off, I expect the Sixers to make the playoffs.

Ben Simmons might have one of the best rookie seasons ever. I am glad I didn’t put five dollars down when the Rookie of the Year odds for Dennis Smith Jr. were 16:1. Redick and Bayless are perfect complements to Simmons, as is Covington. After 11 games, RoCo is shooting 7.5 threes a game and making 50%. Get that man a new contract!

Against the Hawks on Nov. 1, there were plays where you could see how good this team will be when things click into place. There were also several reminders that said things have not clicked into place. For every Embiid pass out of a double team, there are four possessions when Embiid coughs up the ball or shoots an ill-advised turnaround.

Other than Covington’s shooting, I don’t see many opportunities for regression the way I do with Orlando and Detroit. The only other major step back they might take is through giving Fultz starter’s minutes when he returns, which they probably should do. And of course, they’ll struggle if Embiid misses extended time.

9. Orlando Magic

The Magic solved their spacing problems in the least reliable way possible: Pray that your starting big men who can’t shoot threes start making threes. But it’s working for them. Aaron Gordon is shooting 57.5% on 4.4 attempts from three a game. Nikola Vucevic is shooting 41.7% on 4.4 attempts.

This spacing has allowed Elfrid Payton to thrive in his game back. He dished out eleven assists in his return against New York. Payton has a little of what makes Ricky Rubio more than his shooting stats. He delivers hard passes right where his teammates want them, a split second earlier than most players.

In Payton’s first game back, Fournier and Gordon initiated much less of the offense than when alongside the floor-spacing D.J. Augustin. The defense is able to collapse off of Payton, so it makes sense for Payton to have the ball.

Payton, for his reputation as a non-scorer, had a good second half of last season. Post-all star break, he averaged 9.3 drives per game, and shot 56.2% on five attempts off of drives per game per NBA.com. Payton will need to continue this production to justify having the ball in his hands as much as he has this season. The opportunity cost of not having the ball in Fournier or Gordon’s hands is significant.

Jonathon Simmons has also looked good so far. I worried how would play outside of the Spurs’ ecosystem. But he’s been the player Orlando thought they would get. They’ve used him creatively on offense as a creator for the second unit. Payton and Simmons only played eight minutes together against the Knicks.

Terrance Ross benefitted from sharing the floor with Payton. He went 2-3 from behind the arc in Payton’s return. He has struggled so far from behind the arc, shooting 24.1% from three after 11 games. Without Payton, most of Orlando’s actions were pick and rolls or pick and pops. Ross isn’t built for either action, and neither Gordon nor Fournier drove and kicked to Ross the way Payton does.

Gordon and Vucevic are obvious regression candidates from three. We will have wait to see what this team is when is their big men aren’t breathing flames from behind the arc. Vucevic is noticeably bad at protecting the rim, and I am unsure of what the ceiling of a team that features him is.

8. Charlotte Hornets

If you watch this team’s starting unit, you’ll probably think they should finish seventh, perhaps sixth, in the east. They put the clamps down on defense, and Kemba Walker is one of the best ten point guards in the league.

But when Kemba sits, their offense crumbles. They almost let Orlando crawl back into the game on Oct. 29 after sitting Kemba and giving Dwayne Bacon/Jeremy Lamb/Malik Monk the ball.

Walker creates efficient shots for himself through attacking the basket (he is shooting 58% from inside four feet). His playmaking generates open threes for others, something that makes him a rarity in Charlotte’s offense. The team is a net +11.9% from three when he plays per Cleaning the Glass.

Their solid defense might just offset their Kemba-less train wreck of an offense enough to trudge to 40 wins. Batum may help Kemba-less units upon returning, but also may not. I can totally see Charlotte blithely trading two second round picks for a backup point guard in February.

7. Detroit Pistons

The Pistons are getting out in transition, nailing threes, and Reggie Jackson is less of a ball hog. While Andre Drummond has improved as a rim protector, he’s still has a ways to go on defense, and doesn’t have what one could describe as “touch” around the rim.

Whatever, he has improved his free throw release and the small aspects of his game that he’s always been good at. He brings lateral quickness and active hands for his size, and did a good job snaring rebounds and mucking up the passing lanes against the Warriors and Bucks; two Pistons wins.

I expect both Bradley and Harris to cool down from three, but for Harris to still take a leap this year. While his mid-40s three point percentage seems unsustainable, his shot selection has vastly improved. He is taking more transition threes and has jacked six threes a game. He took under four attempts last year.

This team is still missing spacing from the small forward spot. Stanley Johnson is up to 33% from three this year, and has had a few great games from three, but he doesn’t command the attention of a knockdown shooter.

The Pistons’ dilemma at the small forward spot represents how rare modern NBA small forwards are. The ideal NBA small forward is large enough to guard the Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonards of the league, but skilled and quick enough to hit threes and defend most wings. There are maybe a dozen players in the league who fit this mold. This is why the Pistons have so many eggs in the Stanley Johnson basket. Even if he hurts them in the short term, he is the piece that can vault them past the first round of the playoffs.

I’m glad Anthony Tolliver is back in Detroit.

Tier 1: Too good for the snail race, but not good enough to not be in this article

6. Miami Heat

I expect this team to win more than half their games after they ended last season 30-11. They are well coached, and have a deep roster. Everyone in their rotation can execute some part of a spread pick and roll scheme. You have the guys who penetrate and find open shooters (James Johnson), you have the guys who shoot open shots (Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Kelly Olynyk, Okaro White), and you have three guys who do both (Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, and Josh Richardson). You also have Hassan Whiteside collapsing the defense by rolling to the rim.

Justise Winslow missed the second half of last season, and I think that Winslow’s injury helped the team in the short term. Winslow is not a good shooter, does not consistently find open shooters, and is not a major threat rolling to the rim. The offense has to bend to accommodate him, and it has rarely led to good results.

But much like Detroit’s Stanley Johnson situation, they kind of need Winslow to be good to make noise in the playoffs. They are capped out and he is the only small forward with upside on the roster.

The other skepticism of mine comes from the career years of Dion Waiters, James Johnson, and Wayne Ellington last season. It’s possible that their high level of performance is here to stay, and that Spoelstra will continue to put them in positions to succeed, but it’s also possible that they just all happened to play better than usual around the same time.

It’s difficult for me to imagine three teams in this article finishing better than Miami, but since I guess it’s possible the Pacers, Magic, and Pistons keep this up, or Embiid establishes himself as the best center in the league, it’s not a given.

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