At the start of the season, the Eastern Conference looked like an unmitigated disaster. The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers seemed to be the only two teams worth their salt, and the script was written that they would meet in the conference finals. Has that changed?
If we look at the full course of the season, it certainly looks like it may have.
First, here are the standings through New Year’s Eve:
|Team||W||L||Win%||Margin of Victory|
|New York Knicks||9||21||0.300||-4.5|
At the time, only four teams had records at .500 or better. The Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets weren’t even in the playoff picture. The Pacers were running away with the best record in the NBA.
However, if the season started on New Year’s Day, this is what the standings would look like:
|New York Knicks||25||24||0.510||0.9|
Now, it’s the Bulls and Nets who are the class of the conference. The Pacers are lagging way behind. Even the Heat are 4.5 games back, though they have the best margin of victory
Is this a substantive argument, though, or is it just cherry-picking standings? After all, the fact remains that on the season the Heat and Pacers have the best two records in the conference by a considerable margin.
The answer varies based on the specifics.
In order of the predicted final standings, let’s briefly look at the top five teams in the East and analyze their chances of getting to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Heat are in a very different situation than the other four teams. They’ve been to the NBA Finals the last three seasons. That means a lot of minutes for their Big Three. When you combine regular-season and postseason minutes, LeBron James (first), Chris Bosh (third) and Dwyane Wade (10th) are all among the league leaders in total minutes played, per Basketball-Reference.com.
In spite of Tom Thibodeau’s infamous reputation for demanding heavy minutes from his players, Joakim Noah, the Bull with the most minutes, is 4,000 minutes back.
The Heat are in a different situation than the other teams. They aren’t pressing for the best possible regular-season record. They’re worried about being healthy, rested and ready for the playoffs.
This is significant because in their 48 games since Jan. 1, the Heat have had the Big Three for just 26 of them. It may be troubling for Miami, though, that it is only 14-12 in those games. That may be in part because of lack of continuity. The Big Three haven’t played together in consecutive games since March 16.
The Heat look like a team doing the minimum down the stretch, but one that can bolster up once the playoffs start. There’s no panic in South Beach and no need for it. There is one big cautionary flag, though: Wade had missed nine games before returning on April 12. While he looked good in his return, he's been in and out of the lineup all season.
If he has to miss significant time in the playoffs, the Heat become very beatable.
The Indiana Pacers have more cause for concern than the Heat. They are playing worse, and there’s not much to excuse their struggles.
Head coach Frank Vogel rested all five starters in a game against the Milwaukee Bucks to try to fix the problems. He explained his reasoning to Scott Agness of NBA.com:
I think rest and healing up nagging injuries is part of the solution. It’s not the whole solution but I think it’s part of it.
Obviously we haven’t been very strong with our shot making of late. Our defense the other night was as bad in terms of containing the basketball as we’ve been all year. I think that has to do with legs and commitment. We just want to be mindful of making sure we’re as fresh as possible going into the playoffs.
Unlike other teams who have staggered through stretches of the season, the Pacers have done so with a remarkably stable lineup. They’ve started the same five players in 72 of 79 games this seasons. They are 6-1 in the other seven games.
The problem with the Pacers isn’t injury. It’s not as easy to fix as having a player come back to make everything fine again. In fact, it’s not even a singular problem. There are a number of factors compounding each other, and it’s all amplified because the pressure Indiana put on itself to start the season is now splintering the team.
The events that led to the collapse, while too extensive for this article, are well chronicled by Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star. The results of the collapse are evident even without the details. Indiana appears physically and emotionally exhausted.
Some of the post All-Star splits from its starters are horrific. George is shooting only 39.7 percent, and he’s averaging just 20.8 points per game, 1.4 points less than before the break. He’s the only Pacer scoring more than 15 points per game. Roy Hibbert is only snaring 4.6 rebounds. No one is averaging more than eight.
And according to Elias, via ESPN’s Marc Stein, only the 2000-01 Portland Trail Blazers have entered the All-Star break with a .700 record and had a worse post-break winning percentage than Indiana.
The following table shows the same teams as on Stein's piece but with the Pacers' record updated:
|2000-01||Trail Blazers||.469||L, first round|
|1953-54||Knicks||.500||L, first round*|
|1977-78||Trail Blazers||.529||L, first round|
|2004-05||SuperSonics||.531||L, second round|
No team that’s collapsed like this has made it to the conference finals. Based on that, Indiana looks beatable. As it stands now, if it gets to the second round, it would likely play the Bulls, currently the No. 3 seed. That is a series the Pacers could quite realistically lose.
The Bulls have been better since trading Luol Deng on Jan. 6, but probably not because of it. More than anything, the reason they have been performing so well is that for the first time in the Tom Thibodeau era, they are playing healthy.
They’ve started the same lineup 23 games in a row. That’s the longest stretch since Thibodeau became head coach. In the course of that time, they’ve also avoided injuries to their key reserves. Because of that, they've been able to lock down their rotations, and the corresponding continuity has made them a winning team.
That’s best evidenced by the fact that since the trade, judged on net rating, they have four of the top 10 lineups in the league.
The Bulls don’t have that “one guy” who can score big and carry a team, but led by Noah, they are winning with a balanced team approach. Most importantly, that approach is working when it needs to the most.
In “clutch games” (where the score is within five either way in the last five minutes), the Bulls are a league-best 17-3 since the trade. They outscore their opponents by 31.2 points per 100 possessions in those situations, which trails only the San Antonio Spurs.
The Bulls passed through adversity when Derrick Rose was injured and they traded Deng, but they dug deep and found a resolve to win. They've been the best team in the Eastern Conference since doing so.
Their current trajectory is the opposite of Indiana’s, and if the two teams meet in the second round (as they would if the standings hold), it would not be a shock to see Chicago win.
It’s not just visible in the standings or stats either. It’s in the atmosphere of the two teams. While the Pacers are melting from the heat of adversity, the fire has forged the Bulls into an even stronger unit.
If the Bulls can land a quick punch, the Pacers might not recover.
Toronto fans feel the Raptors are the most overlooked, disrespected, brushed-aside team in the league. They might have a point. According to information provided by Steve Lepore of SB Nation, Toronto is the best team this season without a single national TV appearance.
Just because they’re in Canada doesn't mean the Raptors aren't in the NBA.
On Dec. 9, the Raptors traded Rudy Gay and parts for Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes (i.e. an entire bench). Their second unit, which was only the 15th-best, has become the fifth-best since making the trade.
Without Gay’s inefficient shots stymieing the team, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were able to shine. Since the trade, the backcourt duo has been averaging 41.9 points and 12.2 assists. That’s 6.3 points and 2.9 assists more than they combined for before the trade.
The Raptors are better, but there are real red flags here too. They’re 3-7 in games decided by three points or less. They’re 18-25 against winning teams. They’re 1-6 in overtime. Those are all signs of learning to win.
They have a grand total of 310 minutes of playoff experience in their starting five. Dwane Casey is in the conversation for Coach of the Year, but he’s never coached a playoff game.
Teams that haven’t learned to win close games in the regular season don’t normally figure it out in the playoffs, particularly against veteran teams. It’s even less likely if the coach has never held the whiteboard in a postseason game.
The Raptors are a good young team, and they’re growing. It’s not their time yet, though. They need some playoff vetting. If the standings hold, they’re going to be pitted against the veteran Brooklyn Nets in the first round. It’s unlikely they win that series, much less beat the Heat (presumably) in the next.
This isn't a diss of the Raptors. They've had a great year and are a nice up-and-coming team, but they need a postseason trip to learn from before a true playoff run is likely. Count this as a learning opportunity, and mark the Raptors as favorites for a second-round trip next year.
The Brooklyn Nets were on a tear for a while. From Jan. 1 to April 1 they were the best team in the East.
Under the radar, Joe Johnson has played well since the All-Star break, increasing his scoring 2.1 points per game. His true shooting percentage before the break was .546, and it’s been .594 since.
Pierce has been a consistent two-way player, averaging 13.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists on the year. Deron Williams hasn’t been worthy of a max contract, but he’s been solid since Jan. 1, averaging 15.2 points and 5.8 assists per game.
Jason Kidd seemed like he was on the verge of being fired in December. Now he keeps winning Coach of the Month. Per Marc Stein of ESPN, the Nets have had the best season in history of any team 10 games under .500 on Dec. 31.
They've shown they can play. When April started, the Nets had traction, and it looked like they were a threat to go deep in the playoffs.
However, they’re only 3-3 since April 2 and have been outscored by 3.5 points on average. That might have some worried the Nets are suddenly staggering.
On April 2 the Knicks decimated the Nets, 110-81. Brooklyn lost to the basement-dwelling Orlando Magic a week later. Both are admittedly bad losses. That doesn't mean the Nets are in trouble though.
Remember, they also beat Miami (albeit without Wade) for the fourth time this season on April 8, and that was the only game that really counted.
It seems the Nets are more focused on jockeying for the best position for the final stretch of the postseason than winning right now.
They are a veteran team with plenty of playoff experience, but they also have younger and less experienced players being incorporated into the mix.
Mason Plumlee, Mirza Teletovic, Andray Blatche and Shaun Livingston have developed into solid role players. New acquisition Marcus Thornton has been the gunner off the bench.
Their playing time has come as a result of veterans being out.
Kevin Garnett returned to the lineup April 5. Andrei Kirilenko returned April 4.
Now Kidd needs to determine how to make it all work at the same time. That's a lot of moving parts to try to figure out in just a couple of weeks.
The Nets are trying to finalize their postseason rotations now so they don't have to do it in playoff games. Getting that worked out seems to be the priority even if it costs them a few losses.
And then there’s this: If they press for the No. 3 seed, they may not do themselves any favors. That would likely land them a first-round series against the Washington Wizards, whom they are 0-3 against, and a second-round series against the Pacers, whom they are 0-4 against.
Around the beginning of April, they might have looked at the writing on the wall, seen what was going on with the standings and thought, “You know, maybe we’re better off staying where we are.”
The playoffs are often more about matchups than who the best team is, and the Nets match up well with the Heat. Both teams play a brand of small ball, and the Nets, at least in the regular season, seem to be doing it better when the two teams compete.
It’s not likely, but it’s feasible that the Nets topple the Heat in the second round.
After all the ado about the inevitability of a Pacers vs. Heat matchup in the Eastern Conference Finals, there’s at least an even chance that it doesn't happen. There’s even a possibility neither team is in it.
It would require the final standings to work out just right. The Bulls have struggled with the Heat previously in the playoffs. The Nets actually have a much better chance against the Heat than the Pacers. And the Bulls and Nets might even have to play in the first round.
If the brackets don't work out right, the Heat vs. Pacers conference finals is a lot more inevitable—but only if they don't work out right.
Since the start of the 2014, the Bulls and Nets have been better teams and right now are potentially valid second-round threats.
While it’s unlikely that they both make the conference finals, if it did happen, it would teach us to not make too many declarations based on what’s happening in December. It would also be kind of funny, and who doesn't appreciate good comedy?