VIDEO: The NBA TV crews divines the Raptors hot start
Don’t poke at your remote or punch at settings on your touchscreen if you feel a little cross-eyed looking at the Eastern Conference standings. They aren’t what we thought they’d be, to do a 180 on the NFL’s Dennis Green/Bears rant from a few years back.
They aren’t even close, actually, after three full weeks of the 2014-15 regular season.
Most of the respected media outlets didn’t imagine Toronto as the East’s top dog, nor Milwaukee as a playoff team, nor Cleveland as a team that grind along below .500 as Thanksgiving approached.
Few if any expected Orlando to be well in front of New York at this or any other point of the schedule, and Charlotte was a trendy enough pick that some imagined home-court privileges for the Hornets in the first round.
Not many knew what to make of Atlanta, though it generally wasn’t good, but the Hawks weren’t dismissed nearly as readily as Boston was in the “experts’ ” preseason picks. One thing all the geniuses could agree on was Philadelphia’s spot at the shovel end of this circus train, but that had less to do with crystal balls and algorithms than it did with the Sixers’ stated ambition of zero ambitions.
But look where everyone is now.
The East standings are so jumbled, compared to what most expected, that it raises a few questions:
1. Might the door be open for some upstart teams like the Raptors and the Wizards to challenge presumed favorites, the Cavaliers and the Bulls?
2. Will clubs like the Bucks and the Magic have to reassess their goals and factor in playoff possibilities?
3. At what point, if any, do the Knicks borrow from the Sixers and start playing for the bottom in a stink-tank for lottery odds?
4. Who pays all these so-called experts in the first place?
Here’s a look at the predicted order of finish in the East by three heavyweight NBA outlets:
Sports Illustrated: 1) Chicago, 2) Cleveland, 3) Toronto, 4) Washington, 5) Miami, 6) Charlotte, 7) Brooklyn, 8) New York, 9) Indiana, 10) Atlanta, 11) Detroit, 12) Milwaukee, 13) Boston, 14) Orlando and 15) Philadelphia.
BleacherReport.com: 1) Chicago, 2), Cleveland, 3) Toronto, 4) Atlanta, 5) Washington, 6) Charlotte, 7) Miami, 8) Brooklyn, 9) New York, 10) Indiana, 11) Detroit, 12) Milwaukee, 13), Orlando, 14) Boston and 15) Philadelphia.
ESPN.com: 1) Cleveland, 2) Chicago, 3) Toronto, 4) Washington, 5) Charlotte, 6) Atlanta, 7) Miami, 8) Brooklyn, 9) Detroit, 10) New York, 11) Indiana, 12) Milwaukee, 13) Boston, 14) Orlando and 15) Philadelphia.
The real standings, as of Saturday morning, looked quite different from any of the three lists above. There were myriad reasons, from the small sample size of games played and untimely injuries to the friendliness of some clubs’ schedule in opponents or road demands.
Those sorts of things will equalize to some degree as the season plays out. But other factors specific to each team, good or bad, could linger and become part of who they are and where they finish come April.
Here’s a snapshot three weeks in of a conference that didn’t figure to be deep or great when play started but at least looks (euphemism alert!) more interesting now:
1. Toronto (10-2)
Average predicted finish (in ranking cited above): Third
Biggest factor in rise/fall: Attitude. The Raptors played for development long enough. After four years with coach Dwane Casey and 48 victories in 2013-14, the time was ripe to play for something bigger. The roster is deep, the schedule was kind and the Raptors ranked high at both ends (second in ORtg, seventh in DRtg). But the sense of mission hasn’t been greater in years.
2. Washington (8-3)
Averaged predicted finish: Fourth
Biggest factor in rise/fall: Home court. The Wizards had no homecourt edge last season and it cost them when they dropped four of their five playoff games at Verizon Center. This season, they opened 4-0 at home, then followed up a disappointing loss to Dallas with an in-command triumph over Cleveland.
3. Chicago (8-5)
Average predicted finish: First
Biggest factor in rise/fall: Injuries. Even folks who thought Derrick Rose might have to sit some nights while battling soreness in his second comeback from knee surgery didn’t imagine him racking up two sprained ankles and a strained hamstring so soon in this season. Joakim Noah started slow after offseason knee clean-up, and Pau Gasol, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson all have been hurt recently. “Next man up?” More like the setback are starting to catch up.
4. Atlanta (6-5)
Averaged predicted finish: Seventh.
Biggest factor in rise/fall: Passing. The Hawks have been moving the ball great, and that’s essential when you have a balanced offense that can’t – and doesn’t have to – feed just one particular scoring star. Their 64.4% assist percentage is third highest in the NBA. [Note: SI fell prey to trendier picks, put Atlanta 10th and dragged down its predicted finish.]
5. Milwaukee (7-6)
Average predicted finish: 12th
Biggest factor in rise/fall: Defense. The Bucks ranked last in defensive rating in 2013-14, but Jason Kidd and his staff seem to have lit a fire under their overhauled bunch. The Bucks have pretty good depth for a mediocre or worse team, interchangeable parts that can reward Kidd’s search for a hot hand.
6. Miami (6-6)
Average predicted finish: Sixth.
Biggest factor in rise/fall: Dwyane Wade. The Heat are about where folks expected, but they were 5-3 until Wade started missing games. Without LeBron James, they can’t overcome his absences the way they did in the past.
7. Cleveland (5-6)
Average predicted finish: Second
Biggest factor in rise/fall: Unfamiliarity. It’s harder to put together an insta-contender than we thought, perhaps. When Boston did it in 2007-08 and Miami did it (with a few more growing pains) in 2010-11, they had stars in sync – players who knew themselves and each other well enough to fit securely and quickly. The Cavaliers have James in mid-prime but Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love fresh from lottery-team training wheels. And a rookie NBA head coach. Might take months rather than weeks.
8. Orlando (6-8)
Average predicted finish: 14th
Biggest factor in rise/fall: Youth. In this case, the Magic’s heavy lifters might be so young they don’t yet realize what their limitations are supposed to be. Tobias Harris, Evan Fournier and Victor Oladipo have overachieved, even as Aaron Gordon suffered a broken foot and Elfrid Payton took a step back.
9. Brooklyn (5-7)
Average predicted finish: Eighth
Biggest factor in rise/fall: Schedule. The Nets weren’t happy but they were 4-2, until heading West for an 0-3 slap. They haven’t recovered, dropping home games against beatable Miami and Milwaukee. With as many vets as Brooklyn has, it should travel better.
10. Indiana (5-7)
Average predicted finish: 10th
Biggest factor in rise/fall: Deep reserves. For all the Pacers’ injuries and setbacks – not just Paul George (leg fracture) and Lance Stephenson‘s departure but having David West, George Hill, C.J. Watson, Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles sidelined too – some of the bench players (Solomon Hill, Luis Scola) have stepped up. And late addition A.J. Price stepped in nicely. Keeping things afloat might keep Indiana in a playoff hunt.
11. Boston (4-7)
Average predicted finish: 13th
Biggest factor in rise/fall: Potency. Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger and Avery Bradley have contributed offensively without much fanfare and Boston’s offense (third in FG%, second in assists) has swamped several opposing defenses.
12. Charlotte (4-9)
Average predicted finish: Fifth
Biggest factor in rise/fall: Lance. Though we’re loathe to put too much rise or fall on an individual, there’s no denying everyone had higher hopes for Stephenson in the early season, including himself. The defense isn’t up to Steve Clifford standards either (18th, down from sixth last season).
13. New York (3-10)
Average predicted finish: Ninth
Biggest factor in rise/fall: The triangle. ‘Cuz Adam Silver said so. Also disjointed, sometimes at cross-purposes and lots of pedigree that hasn’t proven anything here yet.
14. Detroit (3-10)
Average predicted finish: 11th
Biggest factor in rise/fall: Scattershooting. Offense has been in scarce supply for the Piston, who rank 28th in offensive rating, 29th in effective field-goal percentage, 29th in true shooting percentage and 27th in assist percentage. The disappearance of center Andre Drummond (from a 22.6 PER last season to 11.5) is vexing as well.
15. Philadelphia (0-12)
Average predicted finish: 15th
Biggest factor in rise/fall: None. The Sixers are right where they wanted to be and right where the basketball world picked them. Congrats, fellas!