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2015-16 NBA preview: Eastern Conference Part 2, the middle class

The Boston Celtics hit the road again for Game 5 of their NBA Playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks, currently tied at 2 all.
Expert
18th October, 2015
8

Today in our preview series we breakdown the middle of the East, purgatory’s purgatory.

There’s the exciting but flawed Bucks, the competent but not especially exciting Raptors, two deep, expertly coached teams with clearly defined ceilings in Detroit and Boston, and Paul George trying to carry the Pacers just like Al Pacino tried to carry The Devil’s Advocate (Monta Ellis is Keanu Reeves). We start in Naptown.

10. Indiana Pacers
Last season: 38-44, ninth in the East
Key arrivals: Monta Ellis, Jordan Hill
Key departures: Roy Hibbert, David West

Everyone needs to cool it on the Pacers. Vegas has set their over/under win total at 40.5 which seems generous considering this team has approximately three ‘good’ NBA players. The only way Indiana gets to 40 wins is if Paul George is Paul George again, which is by no means guaranteed. And even if George does reclaim his superstar status, his supporting cast is probably just terrible enough to drag him down into the mud with them.

The Pacers big man situation is, well, concerning. Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill, Lavoy Allen, an unproven rookie in Myles Turner and someone with the last name ‘Christmas’ represent Indiana’s big man rotation. That’s a catastrophe. George is allegedly playing the four and he is making no bones about the fact that he doesn’t want any part of doing so. His former teammates are laughing at the prospect.

In theory Ellis makes sense for this team because George can cover up his defensive shortcomings, but if George is in the frontcourt then Ellis is just as exposed as ever. Playing George at power forward might make sense if it opened up more playing time for talented wing players but this team doesn’t have any other talented wing players. Apologies to the families of C.J. Miles, Chase Budinger and Solomon Hill.

Frank Vogel is an excellent coach, George Hill is eternally underrated and if George resembles his 2013-14 self then the Pacers have a top ten player in the league. But this team is going to seriously miss Hibbert and West and without them it’s hard to see Indiana approaching last season’s seventh ranked defence. It just feels like there’s going to be a lot of Monta Ellis and Rodney Stuckey about this team, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. In fact, I know it’s not.

Predicted record: 36-46

9. Milwaukee Bucks
Last season: 41-41, sixth in the East
Key arrivals: Greg Monroe, Greivis Vasquez
Key departures: Jared Dudley

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Get off the Bucks Bandwagon people. There’s a good chance it’s driving into the abyss.

Milwaukee has become everyone’s trendy pick to make some noise in the playoffs this season. They were a six seed last year and pushed the Bulls to six games in the playoffs, they’re young and improving and they added low-post monster Greg Monroe to help them make a leap. Great. But remember this…

The Bucks were a six seed last year but they only went 41-41. After trading Brandon Knight for Michael Carter Williams, Milwaukee closed the season 11-18 with the fourth worst offence in the league and the highest turnover rate. Sure, they pushed the Bulls in the playoffs, but the Bulls might not have been that good and Milwaukee lost their last game by 54 points at home. That’s six less than 60.

The Bucks were terrible on offence last season ranking 26th in the league, behind Minnesota and the Lakers. They made the playoffs on the back on an elite fourth ranked defence. While we should expect the offence to get better with improvement from Giannis Antetokounmpo, a full season of Jabari Parker and the arrival of Monroe, the defence is going to slip.

The fundamental flaw of the Bucks is that their five best players can’t be on the floor at the same time. Carter-Williams, Giannis, Khris Middleton, Parker and Monroe are the core of this team, but if you’re playing with a frontcourt of Parker and Monroe you’re conceding that you’re going to be a defensive disaster. Parker is a terrible defender – the Bucks were the best defence in the league with Parker off the floor, with him on it they plummeted to 21st – and Monroe, with his 0.5 blocks a game, isn’t a rim protector.

That’s going to mean a lot of John Henson, who is fine but compromises the offence. Henson and Monroe can’t play together though – that’s too rude a middle finger to offensive spacing.

This team can’t shoot. MCW and Giannis cramp the floor and Parker is unproven. The team needs spacing but won’t be able to find it without severely compromising the defence.

Maybe talent just wins out. Maybe MCW takes a leap into being a competent NBA starter, Parker shows us why he was the number two pick, Giannis’s shot improves and Monroe becomes a serviceable defender now playing his appropriate position of centre. But it’s a lot of question marks. Too many question marks.

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Predicted record: 39-43

8. Detroit Pistons
Last season: 32-50, 12th in the East
Key arrivals: Ersan Ilyasova, Stanley Johnson
Key departures: Greg Monroe

Is Reggie Jackson good? The Detroit Pistons have 80 million reasons to hope so. Jackson is a terrible shooter, 29.4 per cent for his career from deep – a.k.a. just 0.9 per cent better than Josh Smith, and he’s a defensive liability. But there is ‘something’ there.

He’s a nifty pick and roll player who can slither his way through the defence. When he was on the court for Detroit the Pistons had a top five offence in the league. In the almost 700 minutes that Jackson shared the floor with dynamic roll man Andre Drummond, Detroit absolutely blitzed opponents.

The hope is that Jackson is just the type of player who needs to be cuddled a little to embrace his full potential. Alienated in OKC, unhappy on the bench and the victim of his own petulance, maybe Jackson just needs to be loved to be effective.

There is something intangible about Jackson that doesn’t show up in the stats. There’s a dynamism and charisma to his movement, a swagger to his play. It’s hard to forget his playoff game against Memphis 18 months ago where he scored 32 points and saved Oklahoma City’s season in the process, outplaying Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook down the stretch.

If Jackson can make the leap to All-Star then the Pistons have a roadmap to the playoffs. Jackson and Drummond will pick and roll teams to death and could become one of the most lethal duos in the league with the spacing that the likes of Ilyasova, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jodie Meeks, Anthony Tolliver and Marcus Morris provide.

The team finally has some depth too, with all those names plus Brandon Jennings, Steve Blake, Aron Baynes and promising rookie Stanley Johnson coming off the bench. The defence is the concern, ranking 20th in the league last season, but a second year in Stan Van Gundy’s system should see that ranking improve.

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On paper the names on the roster don’t look overly inspiring but look a little closer and there is a rationality to the construction of this team. Don’t be surprised if the Pistons sneak into the playoffs.

Predicted record: 41-41

7. Boston Celtics
Last season: 40-42
Key arrivals: Amir Johnson, David Lee
Key departures: I don’t think Phil Pressey counts.

11.

That’s my count for the number of respectable NBA rotation players the Boston Celtics have. In a league which features a brutal 82-game schedule, that number is going to count for plenty. The Celtics recipe for winning is simple: they’re really well coached and they have a lot of players who don’t suck. In the Eastern Conference that’s a recipe for a playoff spot.

By net rating Boston was the eighth best team in the league post-All-Star break, finishing the season on a 24-12 tear having replaced Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green with Isiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and better vibes. Brad Stevens is a top seven coach in the league and his team’s effort is rarely questioned.

The Celtics are going to be a freaking nightmare all season for opposing backcourts, with defensive hounds Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Crowder living to make life hell for their opponents. Amir Johnson is a hugely underrated pick-up for Boston (on a ridiculously friendly contract too) and will offer some rim protection that the likes of Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller had no hope of providing last year.

Somehow the Celtics had the 12th best defence in the league without a rim protector and having matador Evan Turner play big minutes, and that ranking should only approve with the addition of Johnson, improvement from Smart and a full season of Crowder.

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The Celtics aren’t going to make any noise in the playoffs. When Isaiah Thomas is your best player, you are silent in May. But the roster is incredibly deep and ripe to make a trade if a superstar hits the market. If one doesn’t then the Celtics will be plenty competitive regardless, even if it’s competitiveness with a charmingly low ceiling.

Predicted record: 43-39

6. Toronto Raptors
Last season: 49-33
Key arrivals: DeMarre Carroll, Luis Scola
Key departures: Amir Johnson, Lou Williams

It was a tale of two halves for the Raptors last season, starting out a sensational 37-17 and looking like a serious contender in the East before bottoming out 12-20 and becoming an incompetent doormat for the Wizards in the playoffs.

So, what the hell happened? Injuries can be pointed to, with Kyle Lowry missing 12 games in the second half, but the Raptors actually went 6-6 in those games. The more likely explanation is that this team just wasn’t that great in the first place.

Toronto was a putrid defensive team, finishing last year 26th in defensive efficiency. The addition of lockdown perimeter defender DeMarre Carroll will help that, but those gains will be mitigated by the loss of Amir Johnson.

The Raptors will only go as far as Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas can take them. DeMar DeRozan is what he is, an inefficient but capable scorer who holds his own on defence. Lowry is the team’s best player and when he fell off a cliff in the second half the team went with him (Lowry’s pre-All Star numbers: 18.6 points, 7.2 assists, 42.3 per cent shooting. Lowry’s post-All Star numbers: 15.2 points, 5.4 assists, 37.3 per cent shooting).

Lowry was an abomination in the playoffs, seemingly playing hurt (one would hope). He’s got plenty to prove this year and he’s coming into the season in frighteningly good shape.

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Valanciunas is the most interesting case. He’s an All-Star calibre talent, a 7 footer with skill and touch. But the Raptors have been almost comically worse the past three years when he’s been on the floor.

With Johnson no longer stealing his minutes in the frontcourt, and with the security of a long-term extension now locked away, the Raptors will be hoping Jonas can take a leap. If he does, he can vault them into the discussion with teams that will fight to be Cleveland’s understudy in the East. If he doesn’t, this situation could get ugly.

Masai Ujiri isn’t afraid to blow things up and it’s not clear whether Dwayne Casey is a good coach. The most likely outcome is, naturally, that Jonas ends up somewhere in the middle and so did the Raptors, as is becoming their custom.

Predicted record: 46-36