This is the third in a three part series.
Finally we’ve arrived at the third and final installment in the series looking at reasons why you should be excited about the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
All of this writing about the East has been motivated by a desire to dispel the notion that East is somehow inferior to the West. That somehow there is very little entertainment value in comparison to the major stars on the left coast like Steph Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook.
I like to think that we’ve established that the league’s future is going to be dominated by stars such as Kristaps Porzingis, Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo who make their home in the East. We’ll talk about a couple more in this third and final chapter.
The storylines in the East have also been great this year.
Seeds 4 through 10 (all teams that we’ve covered so far) have changed positions at least a dozen times since I started telling you how tight the conference is.
This past week saw some crazy drama like the showdown between the Celtics and the Raptors on Tuesday night for second overall in the conference that came right down to the wire in the fourth when unfortunately momentum swung against Boston due to a bad call (seriously Kyle Lowry jumped into Marcus Smart to draw one of the cheapest foul calls this season).
Last Monday night saw Derrick Rose go completely AWOL from the New York Knicks. Seriously nobody knew where he was. It was pretty scary.
Turns out it was some family drama.
He returned to New York, paid a fine and then helped his new team lay a pounding on his former one as the Knicks took it to the Bulls 104-89 on Thursday.
While teams slug it out in an inanely tight playoff race in the Eastern Conference. Some underperforming team is going to back into the playoffs as the very disappointing 18-24 Portland Trailblazers currently hold down the 8th seed with the 16-23 Sacramento Kings, 16-24 New Orleans Pelicans and 15-23 Denver Nuggets all within one game.
Contrast that with the slugfest that will be the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Seriously, one of the Bulls, Knicks, Wizards, Hornets or Pacers will not make the playoffs. Given those talent pools, that is the mark of a deep conference.
Well it’s no longer time to talk about those teams because for this one, we’re bottoming out.
I am so dedicated to the premise that the Eastern Conference is a fun and entertaining place for basketball again that today I am going to sing the praises of the bottom five teams; five squads that are likely not making the playoffs.
It really sucks that the Pistons have underachieved so much thus far this season as they were absolutely one of the best stories in the league last year.
Detroit made a triumphant return to the playoffs after a six year drought.
Although they were swept by the eventual NBA champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers, every game was tight and the Pistons showed that they belonged and probably would be back for years to come.
So far this season, they haven’t lived up to the promise of last year’s 44 win team.
It’s hard to pin down what has been the source of the Piston’s inconsistency and poor start this season, but injuries have played a big part.
Not having starting point guard Reggie Jackson for the first 22 games of the campaign certainly didn’t help matters.
Since returning though, Jackson has been coming back to form as he’s currently averaging 16.8 points, 5.5 assists and 2.2 boards in 20 games since returning. It’s still below last season’s averages of 18.8, 6.2 and 3.2 but Reggie is rounding back into the top form he’s enjoyed with the Pistons since coming over at the deadline from OKC in a blockbuster three team deal two seasons ago.
Jackson remains one of the brightest of the Pistons young stars and really the most talented point guard they’ve had since Chauncey Billups during their last title run. He’s capable of putting up triple doubles at any time and brings a style and versatility to the position that can not only drives the offense but also sets the tone on defense as Jackson works hard to challenge opposing guards.
The Pistons big deadline acquisition from last season, Tobias Harris, is also having a decent season as he’s been mostly entrenched at the four spot, which has allowed the Motor City squad to stretch the floor a lot with Harris shooting a career best 48% from the field and attempting a career high 4 threes per game.
He’s currently the team’s scoring leader averaging 16.5 points per game to go along with 5.1 boards per game. The majority of which have come on the backend which speaks to how hard Harris is working to overcome some of his perceived deficiencies in Orlando.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is continually having a great fourth season in the association as he picks up where he left off last year and is rapidly improving every facet of his game. He’s currently averaging 14.5 points and 3 dimes per game, both career highs, go along with 3.4 boards. He’s looking to get himself a nice raise this offseason.
The real star of the show in Detroit, however, is superstar big man Andre Drummond.
Drummond is easily one of the most likable players in the NBA. Perhaps one of the most likeable ever. Certainly in my lifetime. With his soft demeanor, babyface and braces, the 22 year old 6’11”, 279 pound centre seems more like a giant teddy bear than one of the most powerful bigs in the entire NBA.
Who can forget when he courted Disney star Jeanette McCurdy on twitter? That was probably the first and only time I ever felt remotely invested in a celebrity couple. Too bad they didn’t make it.
Drummond sure has though. He’s a double-double machine (averaging 14.5 points and 13.5 boards so far this season) and at 22 years old isn’t even anywhere close to his ceiling.
He’s also got great hands and court vision for a big as beyond leading the Pistons in boards and blocks, he also leads the team in steals. Now he’s just got to work on those free throws.
One of the best things that Detroit ever did was match him with coach Stan Van Gundy as Drummond is the best big man that SVG has coached since the peak of Dwight Howard (who also was/is a poor free throw shooter) in Orlando and the Pistons can certainly follow a similar pattern to success by continuing to surround Drummond with talented shooters and ball movers who can stretch out defenses and draw coverage to the perimeter, freeing up the big man to do his work down low.
The Pistons just have to stay healthy.
Although the injuries have had a silver lining. Rookie Henry Ellenson has really benefitted from increased playing time and Stanley Johnson has had the opportunity to continue to develop into the type of dynamic wing player that the Pistons will need to succeed going forward.
Still the returns of Jon Leuer, Aaron Baynes and Reggie Bullock would really help steady the ship for the Motor City going forward.
I’m of the opinion that things will get better for Detroit. They will get over their injury issues and Stan Van Gundy is too good of a coach and the Pistons have too talented a roster not to figure it out.
Besides, the last time the Notorious SVG built his team around a big man this talented, he took the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals.
Speaking of the Magic, since this is an article about how much fun the East is, it’s important to point out that Orlando had one of the most entertaining off seasons in the entire association. I’d put it second only to the Golden State Warriors’ successful courtship of Kevin Durant in terms of overall entertainment value.
The trouble is that while the Durant move was a great one and likely put a squad coming off the most regular season wins in NBA history in a position to take another shot at the championship, Orlando’s offseason was a complete and utter nonsensical train wreck.
The Magic made easily the most puzzling deal at the 2016 draft trading the man who was seemingly going to be the team’s cornerstone of the future, Victor Oladipo, the blue chip prospect they had just drafted 11th overall, Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Serge Ibaka.
This was an absolutely mystifying move given that Ibaka had seen his numbers plummet in his past two seasons in OKC while Oladipo only continued to improve all facets of his game in three seasons with the Magic and really appeared to be cementing himself as a top player for Orlando on both sides of the ball after leading the team in both points and steals. He and Elfrid Payton looked to have a lot of chemistry and really formed a solid backcourt for Orlando to build on but the Magic had other plans.
Another knock against this trade was trading away a promising prospect in Sabonis (son of basketball legend Arvydas Sabonis) really could have developed into a dominant big man for Orlando. During his time at Gonzaga, he was considered one of the elite rebounders in the US. He also has a nice mid range game for a big man and added a three point shot late in his college career. Thus far in OKC, he has shown that he has all the tools to be a starting big man in the league.
The Magic sacrificed two young talents (Sabonis is 20 and Oladipo is 24) as well as a useful utility big in Ilyasova for a 27 year old big man who had been trending downward with the Thunder for two seasons and has seen the most celebrated facet of his game (blocking) take an absolute nosedive (averaging 3.7 in 2011-12, 3.0 in 2012-13, 2.7 in 2013-14, 2.4 in ’14-15, 1.9 in ’15-16 and 1.6 so far this season).
Although he’s enjoying the best scoring performance of his career (15.5 PPG), virtually every other aspect of Ibaka’s game is well below what it was during better times in Oklahoma City.
This awful deal also had the effect of continuing to prevents a dynamic third year player Aaron Gordon from playing his natural position. Playing Gordon at the 3 often prevents him from displaying the explosiveness and rebounding ability inside that he’s been able to show as a power forward. You’ve got one of the best dunkers in the game (runner up to Zach LaVine) and you’re keeping him on the wing more.
Curiously, the Magic followed up this Ibaka trade by signing yet another big.
Bismack Biyombo was awesome in last year’s NBA playoffs. After Jonas Valanciunas went down against the Miami Heat, Biyombo transformed into a major defensive presence in the middle and was probably the driving force behind the Raptors victory in that series given how much they tried to give the series away to the Heat with poor shooting and sloppy offense all around.
His performance in the Raptors playoff run guaranteed that someone would pay him and the Orlando Magic was only all too happy to be the team to give the Congolese centre a four year, $72 million contract. To be a backup centre.
Now some team was always going to overpay Biyombo given the salary cap increase and the insanity that was free agency last summer, but to give a back up centre that much money when you’ve already got such a log jam in the middle seems completely irrational.
The Magic already had top centre Nikolai Vucevic who is now unhappy with the team due to decreased playing time and has already been demoted to a back-up role in many games this season. Alienated one of your best players with a logjam in his position is never a good idea but it seems like Rob Hennigan has irrationally decided to pursue every big in the league that they can while the rest of the league gets a bit smaller, more dynamic and stretches the floor.
They even added Jeff Green as an afterthought who is now enjoying the lowest playing time in his career and his worth statistical season.
What the Magic will do with all of these bigs is a fascinating prospect and one that will be interesting to play out as we approach the trade deadline. If I were a betting man I can see the unhappy Vucevic getting shipped which would be big mistake in a long line of them for this squad.
Lost in all this madness is the career year Evan Fournier is having as the new starting two. Averaging a career high 17 points, 3.3 dimes and 3.1 boards, the fifth year man has really thrived in what is the biggest role he has enjoyed on a team to date.
His backcourt partner Elfrid Payton continues to be a fun player to watch at the point as well, however both have suffered from increased defensive pressure when shooting from downtown as the Magic’s offseason plan of “let’s sign every big available” has caused opposing defenses to be able to zero in on the young backcourt a lot more from range.
Still the Magic will be an intriguing team to follow come trade deadline time. As there’s no way Frank Vogel came to Orlando to coach a team with such a significant imbalance in the line-up.
Sometimes the best reasons to be interested in a team aren’t on the court.
Speaking of off-court drama, it’s tough to make the argument that any team experienced it more or in such a franchise altering way as the Miami Heat.
It’s tough to watch legends fall.
The off-season may have seen the end of Pat Riley’s relevance of an executive in the NBA. The man who once threw all of his championship rings on the table to lure LeBron James to take his talents to South Beach gambled and lost in the biggest way I can remember.
The blame for D-Wade returning to his hometown Chicago Bulls can now be firmly and squarely laid at the feet of Riley treating him like an afterthought during negotiations. Doing everything to sign Hassan Whiteside and chase big-name free agents who didn’t pan out while leaving the man who was on the team for each and every one of your championship seasons in limbo.
Wade should have been slighted and he was. He was the man who was the MVP of the Heat’s first ever championship in 2006. He was the man that LeBron and Bosh came to join to form the biggest three the league had seen up to that point in 2010.
Now he’s gone.
Combine that with the tragic Chris Bosh situation.
The psychological impact of those losses has massive impacts on the Miami Heat fanbase and ultimately the perceptions of the organization as a potential destination for free agents.
If they can treat the best player in franchise history like this, what does it say about how anyone else will end up?
Hassan Whiteside doesn’t seem too worried about that at the moment though as the 27 year old big man is in the first year of a 4 year/$98 million deal. Pretty insane for a guy who was playing in Lebanon just four years ago.
Instead the man affectionately known as Count Blockula is currently enjoying a career year, leading 0the league in rebounds at 14.3 per game to go along with a top five 2.16 blocks per game, a career best 17.6 points per game.
The 7’0”, 265 pounder’s name has to be considered in any argument about who is the best centre in the NBA.
The rest of the Heat aren’t so good.
Beyond the excellent play of Goran Dragic – who remains one of the most exciting point guards in the entire league to watch – is having a great season and third year stand out Tyler Johnson is enjoying a career year with increased minutes, but beyond that the Heat aren’t working with a whole lot especially with Justice Winslow out for the year.
James Johnson is probably their most versatile rotational player and that’s saying a lot since he couldn’t buy a minute with the Raptors last year.
They’ve currently lost 12 of their last 13 and fallen to second worst in the Conference.
Watching what Pat Riley does to try to get them out this mess will be just as entertaining as anything Hassan Whiteside does on the court this season.
Trust the process.
That was the mentor of former 6ers president and GM Sam Hinkie while unashamedly continued to tank the franchise in pursuit of some far off goal that definitely included stockpiling as many assets and number picks as possible but seemed to absolutely not include winning at any point as even when these assets succeeded they were immediately traded away (Michael Carter-Williams was dealt at the deadline a year after being named rookie of the year).
He was ripped for picking a big in the 2014 draft at third overall who wasn’t going to play the entire season due to stress fractures in his feet. In fact, he would go on to miss two as people made comparisons to Greg Oden and Bill Walton. Even Hinkie seemed to hedge that bet by drafting another big, Jahlil Okafor at 3rd overall in the 2015 draft.
Trust the process was all he would offer for an explanation.
You know what? He was right.
Although, he would never see his prophesy come to fruition after quitting last season with a bizarre 7,000 word resignation letter, Hinkie’s process is complete.
The name of the process is Joel Embiid.
After not playing for two seasons due to the aforementioned stress fractures in his feet, Embiid has finally arrived and if he were a religion, I would be one of the biggest worshippers.
In his rookie season, Embiid is one of the best players in the entire league. He’s averaging 19.6 points per game, 7.6 boards, 2 dimes and 2.33 blocks per game which is good enough for fourth best in the league. He’s shooting 46% and hits just over a third of all threes attempted. He’s hitting half of all 2 point field goals. For all you advanced stats types his true shooting percentage is 58% and his player efficiency rating is 23.5.
He’s also taken the nickname of The Process.
The answer to the prayers for the entire city of Philadelphia and nobody deserves it more.
Seriously, I was in Philly last February to watch the Hawks blow out the 76ers 124-86 and it was more depressing than some funerals I went to. This is the city that had Dr. J, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson. It deserves way better than that.
It has The Process now.
Embiid isn’t just the best on the floor either. Seriously, follow him on twitter. I don’t think there’s been any athlete, not just in basketball, better at social media than Embiid. He’s currently petitioning fans to vote for him to go the all-star game so he can score a date with Rihanna while at the same time retweeting fans who said he would be a bust so their comments count as all-star votes.
If you don’t follow him, you’re doing it wrong.
Beyond the The Process, the Sixers are enjoying stellar play from Dario Saric, a Croatian forward drafted the same year as Embiid and has affectionately christened The Homie. Saric has been getting a lot of minutes off the bench and has been able to provide a new dimension to Philly’s offense as he is unafraid to let it fly – for better or for worse -which is the kind of fearlessness that is coming to define this young Philly team.
Third year Canadian prospect, Nik Stauskas AKA Sauce Castillo has also shown he has a bright future in Philly as he has evolved into a solid perimeter threat and continues to improve in his defense and ball moving ability as well. Most importantly, he’s a lot of fun to watch and is seeming to have a lot of fun out there which is a prerequisite for the new look Sixers squad.
Sergio Rodriguez AKA Spanish Chocolate AKA El Choco was an unheralded free agent signing by the 76ers this has paid off in major ways as the 30 year old, fresh off six seasons with Real Madrid, has now become firmly entrenched as the starting point guard in Philadelphia and has proven critics wrong in terms of his ability to play in the NBA.
The other big free agent acquisitions, Gerald Henderson and Jerryd Bayless, as well as the recently acquired Ersan Ilyasova have shown that The Process has indeed arrived. Solid vets have been added to the young core to make a better team going forward.
The payoff is that the 76ers have already won 12 games and are on pace for their highest win total in four years.
With Ben Simmons still to come, the potential trade of Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor (who has been great is a new supporting role but is capable of more) bringing even more assets and with 13 picks spread over the next four drafts, the future is bright in Philly.
Plus this team is just damn fun. If you aren’t watching them, you should be.
Trust the process.
If there is a team that is the polar opposite of the Philadelphia 76ers it is the Brooklyn Nets.
Holy shit are the Nets in rough shape.
You know Sam Hinkie’s process? If anyone is the architect of the Nets current situation, it’s Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge who swapped Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the Nets in exchange for a package that included three first round picks including next year’s. The Celtics have used the Nets picks to get James Young and Jaylen Brown so far but this year’s looks to be a jackpot.
The Nets are currently 8-32.
They are by far the worst team in the NBA and the main intrigue in watching them this year is going to be in determining whether or not they hand the Celtics the top pick in the NBA draft.
Meanwhile, Boston has already finished their rebuild and are one of the top teams in the Conference.
Danny Ainge is a genius.
There isn’t a lot to love about this Nets team.
Brook Lopez is excellent and still one of the best players in the entire league. But holy hell it’s sad to watch him toil away in Brooklyn because he deserves better than this.
Sean Kirkpatrick, Jeremy Lin, Bodgan Bogdanovic and Trevor Booker are all really good NBA players and it pains me to see them all stuck in a situation like this. They’re all worth tuning in for, but the results are usually pretty predictable.
The biggest fun in watching a Nets game is in seeing what journeyman who you forgot is in the NBA suddenly catches fire for them in a random game. I managed to tune in for a Quincy Acy game this season. It was actually pretty great.
If you’re a Celtics fan, the Nets are well worth watching because you’re hoping that they can bottom out enough to give you better odds of a first round pick.
The Nets are basically a dumpster fire and don’t have a draft pick until 2020. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better.
But they’re also the only team I can say that about.
Once upon a time there were as many as five teams in the Conference you could say that same thing about. Not anymore.
Because the East is already great again.