For the first time in roughly two decades, the Eastern Conference is better than the Western Conference from top to bottom. Nine East teams are at .500 or better – nearly twice as many teams as last season, when sixth-seeded Milwaukee finished 41-41. And the East actually has a winning record against the West this season at 100-98
What changed so quickly from last season, when articles were written about how there was the greatest disparity in conference strength in recent memory?
“I thought the free agent pickups were really good and sometimes a little bit under the radar,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told SheridanHoops. “I thought multiple teams bettered themselves by trades that, again, were maybe not the most discussed but really made themselves better in those ways.”
Stevens also said that East stars, including Paul George, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony were out with injuries last season, which hurt the conference overall.
“You add those three guys, your division is better. The East is automatically better,” Stevens said.
Stevens also thinks that the East’s strong play towards the end of last season has carried over into the 2015-2016 campaign.
“And we said it at the beginning of this year: What we were last year is not going to be good enough to make the playoffs,” he said. “We’re probably going to have to be significantly over.500 to make the playoffs in the East, which is a great challenge every night.”
We all know how good Cleveland is, and that there aren’t really any problems over there right now. Unless injuries occur, the Cavaliers are going to cruise to the top seed in the conference. But everything else is up for discussion.
Only eight games separate second place and 13th place in the East right now, which is pretty crazy. The following is a quick breakdown on every team in the race for seeds two through eight in the conference — sorry, Nets and Sixers — on what’s going right, what’s going wrong and speculation on what teams could do in the six weeks leading up to the trade deadline.
What’s Going Right: The Bulls are 6-2 since Jimmy Butler said that first-year coach Fred Hoiberg wasn’t coaching hard enough. Butler has emerged as the team’s unquestioned leader, including breaking Michael Jordan’s team record by scoring 40 points in the second half in Sunday’s win over Toronto. Despite talk that Hoiberg wanted to re-shape this team into an offensive-centered squad, Chicago is still fifth in the NBA in defensive rating. And the offense is still ninth in points per game, fifth in 3-point field goal percentage and sixth in turnover percentage. Chicago has also been encouraged by rookie Bobby Portis’ play.
What’s Going Wrong: Chicago is 21st in the league in offensive efficiency, and three players who have started at least 20 games for this team — Derrick Rose, Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell — are shooting under 40 percent from the field. The Bulls attempt the fifth-fewest free throws per game and somehow force the lowest percentage of turnovers in the league.
What Could Happen: Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah will likely be free agents after the season, meaning that there will be trade rumors about them over the next six weeks before the trade deadline. If Mike Dunleavy returns this season from a back injury that has kept him out of action thus far, that would be a big boost for this team.
What’s Going Right: The team is healthy and playing elite level defense, second in scoring D and seventh in defensive efficiency. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade have missed one combined game this season and Hassan Whiteside is averaging a double-double in his contract year. Tyler Johnson, just 23, has emerged as an efficient player off the bench and an asset for the future.
What’s Going Wrong: Miami is once again a bottom-third team in 3-point shooting and mediocre in terms of offensive efficiency. Goran Dragic has been disappointing, with his lowest PER and offensive rating since the 2010-2011 season. The Heat bench scores just 25.1 points per game, the second-lowest in the league, per HoopsStats.
What Could Happen: Getting a shooter would be nice, as would shedding a contract like Birdman Andersen or Udonis Haslem. It seems like any move would be to lower the payroll in an attempt to avoid the luxury tax.
What’s Going Right: Toronto does a lot of things well for coach Dwane Casey despite a slow pace. The Raptors are sixth in offensive efficiency and third in free-throw attempts behind 20-point scorers Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and are fourth in scoring defense. Center Jonas Valanciunas returned to the lineup 10 days ago after missing 17 games with a broken hand, which should boost the team’s sixth-ranked rebounding rate.
What’s Going Wrong: Top free agent acquisition DeMarre Carroll had arthroscopic knee surgery on Wednesday that could keep him out for 6-8 weeks after already missing 14 of the team’s first 37 games with knee issues. Toronto also allows its opponents to shoot 37.2 percent from the arc, which is the fifth-worst mark in the NBA.
What Could Happen: Getting Carroll back seems like it would probably be its biggest deadline acquisition. Toronto’s top five of Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, Luis Scola and Valanciuas have only played 15 games together, per ESPN’s Mike Mazzeo. Toronto hasn’t really had a full, healthy team for very long this season, so continuity would probably help just as much as an external move.
What’s Going Right: The small lineups they’ve been using have been working offensively. They’re ninth in offensive efficiency, eighth in field goal percentage, eighth in 3-pointers made per game and third in assists per game. Kent Bazemore stepped into the starting spot occupied by the now-departed Carroll and has averaged nearly 13 points on 42.7 percent from three, which is the sixth best percentage in the conference. He’s been fantastic for them.
What’s Going Wrong: Rebounding has been a major issue. Atlanta is 27th in total rebounding and has allowed its opponents to grab the seventh-most boards in the league. That may have to do with the absence of Tiago Splitter, already has missed 13 games. The Hawks are also in the bottom third of the league in 3-point defense.
What Could Happen: If they choose to improve rebounding from outside the organization, perhaps a trade for a veteran center could end up happening. A healthy Splitter should help them out a lot.
What’s Going Right: The extreme small ball strategy employed by Frank Vogel and Larry Bird is working big time. Indiana is eighth in pace, or possessions per 48 minutes, and in the top 10 in both scoring offense and defense. The Pacers are third in defensive efficiency, a number Vogel probably takes great pride in. Paul George has returned to playing at a really high level, averaging nearly 25 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists while shooting over 40 percent from three.
What’s Going Wrong: Given the smaller lineups, you woud expect the rebounding numbers to be down, but you’d also think that a faster pace would allow for more assists. Instead, the Pacers are 25th in that department. Monta Ellis is averaging the fewest points per game and the lowest PER since his rookie season, and his lowest offensive rating since the 2009-2010 season.
What Could Happen: This is speculation, but with rookie Myles Turner likely the future at center and other big men like Jordan Hill and Ian Mahinmi on expiring contracts, perhaps trading a big man could be in their plans.
What’s Going Right: Stan Van Gundy has positioned the Pistons into being a strong defense and rebounding team. behind superb center Andre Drummond, Detroit leads the league in offensive rebounding, is second in total rebounds and eighth in defensive efficiency. They also take care of the basketball, with the second lowest offensive turnover percentage in the game.
What’s Going Wrong: The offense has not been great. Detroit is 19th in efficiency, 28th in field goal percentage, 22nd in 3-point percentage and dead last in team free-throw percentage. Too many players on this team have sub-par field goal percentages to sustain a winning record.
What Could Happen: There have been rumors surrounding the expiring contract of Brandon Jennings, who recently returned from a torn Achilles. They also hold a team option on Ersan Ilyasova next season, so he could be an interesting trade piece.
What’s Going Right: The Celtics are advanced stats darlings: Second in defensive efficiency, fourth in pace and eighth in both scoring offense and defense. They force the second-highest percentage of turnovers and are getting career years from the young trio of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley.
What’s Going Wrong: They can be more offensively efficient (currently 18th), and they’re in the bottom third in both getting to the line and opponent’s free throw attempts. Evan Turner has been underwhelming, and the team’s 3-point percentage is in the NBA’s bottom five.
What Could Happen: The possibilities for the Celtics appear endless with all of their assets, the crown jewel being Brooklyn’s unprotected first-rounder this year (and 2018). Crowder could conceivably go in a blockbuster trade for someone like Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins, and David Lee’s large expiring contract does seem enticing.
What’s Gone Right: Scott Skiles, the reigning East Coach of the Month, has Orlando playing strong defense in his first season, as the team is ninth in scoring defense and 10th in defensive efficiency. They’re also getting good seasons from Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris and a career year from Evan “Never Google” Fournier.
What’s Gone Wrong: Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo are not playing efficiently on offense and played so poorly together that Skiles moved Oladipo to the bench to keep the pairing separate. Mario Hezonja has had an underwhelming rookie season to date. Orlando gets to the line less than any NBA team.
What Could Happen: Channing Frye was previously mentioned in rumors and is seemingly blocking the path of Aaron Gordon, who’s played well when called upon. Jason Smith could be an interesting piece on an expiring contract for a contender if the Magic fall out of the playoff hunt.
What’s Gone Right: Charlotte is staying afloat under coach Steve Clifford despite missing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (injury) and Al Jefferson (injury and suspension). The Hornets commit the league’s fewest turnovers per game, make the fifth-most threes per game and make the eight-most free throws. The Hornets a fundamentally sound group with Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb and even Jeremy Lin putting good seasons together.
What’s Gone Wrong: Losing Jefferson has hurt Charlotte in the rebounding department, where it is 23rd in total rebounds and 29th in offensive rebound percentage. The team has also given 31 starts to P.J. Hairston, who is shooting just 35 percent from the field with the team’s worst defensive rating, PER and win shares per 48 minutes among players who have logged at least 20 games.
What Could Happen: Jefferson is on an expiring contract and if the team doesn’t envision him in its future plans, then why not try to recoup assets for him? Kidd-Gilchrist also vowed to return this season from a torn labrum, which would significantly improve this team defensively. Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams are also on expiring deals, although Batum looks like a keeper.
NEW YORK KNICKS
What’s Gone Right: Kristaps Porzingis’ development is beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and Carmelo Anthony has become a more selfless player (highest assist numbers in nine years) and a more willing defender (best defensive rating since the 2011-2012 season). It hasn’t been pretty, but New York is eighth in rebounding and field goal defense and leads the league in opponents’ 3-point percentage. The Knicks also are tops in the NBA in free-throw percentage.
What’s Gone Wrong: The Knicks are mediocre at most things, which is actually a huge accomplishment given last season’s results. They play with the fifth-slowest pace, which contributes to their 23rd-ranked scoring offense. They force the second-fewest turnovers in the league and let opponents get to the line far too often. Kevin Seraphin, Sasha Vujacic and rookie Jerian Grant have done really poorly thus far, and the former two should probably not see any more meaningful minutes.
What Could Happen: The Knicks are definitely looking for backcourt help. Depth there has become a problem since the team stacked the roster with frontcourt acquisitions in the offseason, thinking Porzingis wouldn’t be ready. But if the team falls out of the playoff race and Arron Afflalo continues to outperform his contract (he has an $8 million player option for next season), New York could potentially think about recouping assets for Afflalo if management thinks he will be too rich for them this summer.
What’s Gone Right: Washington wanted to go small, push the pace and shoot more threes. They’ve done that. The Wizards are fifth in pace, seventh in 3-point field goal percentage and force the fourth-highest turnover percentage in the NBA. Jared Dudley leads the conference in 3-point shooting, and reserves Gary Neal, rookie Kelly Oubre and recent pickup Jarrell Eddie are all shooting better than 40 percent from deep.
What’s Gone Wrong: Their new strategies aren’t really working, putting coach Randy Wittman under fire. They’ve dropped to 25th in offensive rating, are 20th in defensive rating, 24th in scoring defense and dead last in rebounds and blocked shots per game. Bradley Beal has missed 16 games already, and the advanced stats don’t show him in a good light this season while he’s been on the court.
What Could Happen: Do they make a coaching change to try to right this ship? I don’t know. Nene’s contract is off the books and he could conceivably be on the block if things really go south. Martell Webster, Dudley, Alan Anderson and Neal would be intriguing veteran trade chips as well. Don’t forget this team still has visions of Kevin Durant.
What’s Gone Right: Not a whole lot for a franchise that was supposed to be this season’s hot, trendy team on the rise. Milwaukee has been hitting shots and is currently seventh in both overall and 3-point field goal percentage. The Bucks are fourth in assists per game, ninth in blocks and in the top 10 in forcing turnovers. Khris Middleton and Jerryd Bayless are both in the league’s top 10 in 3-point percentage and the big trio of Greg Monroe, John Henson and Miles Plumlee have been efficient offensively. Giannis Antetokounmpo is shooting over 50 percent from the field at age 21, which is frightening.
What’s Gone Wrong: They play no defense and aren’t very disciplined. Milwaukee boasts the worst defensive rating in the league. The Bucks are 24th in scoring offense and offensive rating, take the most twos in the game, commit the most fouls and are in the bottom seven in rebounds and turnovers per game. That spells poor play across the board. They traded a 2017 first-rounder to Toronto for Greivis Vasquez, and he’s been injured and ineffective. Rookie Rashad Vaughn, who the team reportedly had doubts about before drafting him, is shooting under 30 percent from the field. Things have gone pretty poorly for O.J. Mayo this season as well. And coach Jason Kidd is out indefinitely after hip surgery.
What Could Happen: Get younger, take the lottery pick and move forward. If teams want Mayo, Vasquez or Bayless, they have to listen, no? It just seems like this year has been a bump in the road in the team’s overall rebuild.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who focuses on analytics, profiles and features. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. You should follow him on Twitter.