Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Reading Between The Lines Midseason Update - Eastern Conference

Amid the pandemonium following the whirlwind ratification of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, it was impossible to predict what this season would bring. Given this, I turned to the open market, Vegas (well, Pinnacle, actually), and set forth predictions for the Eastern Conference (and the West) for the 2011-12 regular season.

With half of this frenzied season in the books, this is an opportune time to look back and assess my December tea leaf reading. I kicked off the proceedings yesterday with a Western Conference midseason update. Today, we head East:

Atlanta Hawks
Preseason line: 34.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 20-14
On pace for: 39-27

My thoughts then:
“In the summer of 2010… management bestowed upon Joe Johnson a contract worth~$126 million over six years… The consensus at the time was that the team had broken the bank to lock in a ceiling of mediocrity. One season and a nine-game regression later, that seems a tad optimistic.”

And now: The Hawks won 16 of 22 to start the season (including 9 of 11 in the immediate aftermath of Al Horford’s injury), but have since tasted the harsh slap of reality.

Joe Johnson (14.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 39.7% FG, 26% 3-pt) has been putrid in February, as has Jeff Teague (42.1% in February, down from 50%, with 2.8 assists per, down from 5+), while Josh Smith, averaging 17-10 for the month, has shot just 42.8% from the field and attempted nearly six shots per game from 16-23 feet. To make matters worse, depth is sparse on this team, as evidenced by a second unit that features a pair of 2001 All-Stars but boasts Ivan Johnson as its best player.

For a reasonably good team, this is one sad state of affairs.

Boston Celtics
Preseason line: 39.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 15-17
On pace for: 31-35

My thoughts then:
“This is still a playoff team (one that I think has another series win left in it) but, like the San Antonio Spurs, no longer one built to run at maximum intensity on nightly basis.”

And now: I really wish I was enjoying this more.

Charlotte Bobcats
Preseason line: 15.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 4-28
On pace for: 8-58

My thoughts then:
“For what felt like an eternity (about half an hour) I stared at this roster, not debating its chances of producing 16+ victories in the coming season (pretty low), but trying to recall where I’d encountered it previously…”

And now: I’ve been less than flattering to CEO GoAT, but I’ve got to hand it to the man. He's picked a great time to realize his potential as the Michael Jordan of tanking.

Chicago Bulls
Preseason line: 47.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 27-8
On pace for: 51-15

My thoughts then:
“Built around an unrelenting defense and a superstar playmaker, this is a team designed to win every game it plays.”

And now: This team is a freaking juggernaut – not in the jawdropping “Seven Seconds or Less Suns” sense, but rather in the Duncan-Pop Spurs sense – quietly dominating all aspects of the game that are vital to victory. The Bulls rank in the NBA’s top-three in both Offensive (108.2; 3rd) and Defensive Efficiency (97.7; 2nd), Offensive Rebound Rate (31.5%; 1st), eFG allowed (45.2%; 3rd) and Free Throw Rate allowed (17.5/100 FGA) and own the league’s best record, despite playing nearly a third of their games without Derrick Rose.

Most impressive of all? In those ten games, the Bulls have posted a 7-3 record.

Cleveland Cavaliers
Preseason line: 16.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 13-18
On pace for: 28-38

My thoughts then:
“Make no mistake, a team that trots a front line prominently featuring the likes of Antawn Jamison and Samardo Samuels is hardly one we’d classify as “good,” but look for these Cavs, no longer defined by LeBron’s departure, to outperform (admittedly, virtually non-existent) expectations.”

And now: What a difference a year makes, huh? There is plenty to like in Cleveland these days: Kyrie Irving is a franchise cornerstone, Tristan Thompson is sneaky OK (13.6 points, 11 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 36, 14.7/20.2/17.4 O/D/Total Rebound Rates), Alonzo Gee is a legit NBAer, Andy Varejao is the league’s best pure role player and $15+ million worth of Antawn Jamison comes off the books this summer.

Problems arise, however, when considering the Cavs’ best course of action going forward – put the pedal to the floor in pursuit of a playoff bid, or take a torch to the next couple of months in the interest of landing Irving a blue-chip running mate? I’m not an advocate of tanking when you’ve got a player as young and as special as Kyrie Irving leading your team, but must admit that there is a compelling case to be made in favor of it.

Detroit Pistons
Preseason line: 20.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 11-24
On pace for: 21-45

My thoughts then:
“…despite my confusion at Joe Dumars’ apparent lack of a long-term vision, this team is not a total disaster. There is NBA-caliber talent at every spot on this roster.”

And now: Meh. This team is pretty much exactly what we expected heading into the season – Greg Monroe, who is awesome (and keeps winning me prop bets. Thanks buddy!) surrounded by a semi-decent cast that only kinda makes sense.

Try not to try yourselves out of the top five and we’ll see you guys in October.

Indiana Pacers
Preseason line: 36.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 21-12
On pace for: 42-24

My thoughts then:
“…the Pacers are poised to build on an encouraging 2010-11, which saw them flirt with .500 and give the top-seeded Bulls all they wanted in the opening round of the playoffs. Look for Indy to make a leap into the East’s top half, a tier below Miami and Chicago.”

And now: Someone needs to remind Danny Granger that 2008-09 was kind of a while ago. It’s a testament to the rest of the crew in Indy that, with Granger shooting a disgusting 38.2% (worsted by only A.J. Price and Lou Amundson) and no one on the team within four shot attempts of his 15.4 per game, the Pacers have managed to almost two out of every three games.

This is already a damn good team. Once its offensive resources are properly allocated, we might be looking at one of the best in the league.

Miami Heat
Preseason line: 50.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 27-7
On pace for: 52-14

My thoughts then:
“Remember the weeks leading up to last season, when in the mad scramble to construct a narrative in which “dynasty in a box” would not be an instant success, many took comfort in proclaiming that Year 2 is when things would come together for the Heat?

Well… we’re here. And Year 1 ended two wins shy of a championship after a 58-win regular season.”

And now: See above.

Preseason line: 30.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 13-20
On pace for: 26-36

My thoughts then:
“I love Bogut and Bucks’ “4s,” but the combination of question marks on the wings and (yeah, I’ll say it) incompetence at the point make the thought of a .500 record for this crew seem unattainable.”

And now: Shaun Livingston is once again a useful NBA player and Ersan Ilyasova is frankly pretty awesome. Otherwise? What a fucking disaster.

Drew Gooden has logged nearly many minutes as Andrew Bogut and Larry Sanders combined, Mike Dunleavy has suited up just three times and after a promising start to his third pro campaign, Brandon Jennings has once taken up arms in his all-out holy war against offensive efficiency. With Captain Jack in the mix as well, this could get ugly in a hurry.

New Jersey Nets
Preseason line: 21.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 10-25
On pace for: 19-47

My thoughts then:
“[Deron] Williams is a legitimate superstar- perennially one of the NBA’s ten best players, top-three at his position, and, barring catastrophe, a Hall of Famer. Greatness doesn’t lose two out of every three games.”

And now: I stand by this call. Despite a subpar start from Deron Williams, injuries to Brook Lopez and rookie stud MarShon Brooks and two separate losing streaks of at least six games, the Nets are still just a 12-19 finish from the 22-win plateau. It’s too late to think about the postseason, but if this team can consistently get its best five (D-Will, Brooks, Lopez, K-Hump and Anthony Morrow) on the floor, it will be one hell of a spoiler down the stretch.

New York Knicks
Preseason line: 41.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 17-18
On pace for: 32-34

My thoughts then:
“During all those sleepless nights, toiling tirelessly to extricate the most relevant franchise not to have won anything in four decades from perhaps the greatest financial quagmire in league history, you really think his [Donnie Walsh’s] plan was to commit 95% of the cap to Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony, while featuring a backcourt that will rely on 2010 second round surprise Landry Fields to be something more than a heady role player and may prominently feature the decaying duo of Mike Bibby and Baron Davis?”

And now: Jeremy Lin saved me from self-inflicted bodily harm.

Had Linsanity not gripped the NBA, there is a decent chance that I’d have torn a rotator cuff while patting myself on the back. Thanks, Jeremy.

Orlando Magic
Preseason line: 38.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 22-13
On pace for: 41-25

My thoughts then:
“Are people really expecting this team to win three out of every five games? Last season, with a happy (happier, at least) Dwight Howard and an uncharacteristically healthy Jameer Nelson, the Magic racked up 52 wins, or 41-42 over a 66-game sched.

While Dwight is still Dwight, it’s unlikely that he’ll be Dwight in Central Florida by season’s end.”

And now: Thanks to the long-range prowess of Ryan Anderson (43.4%), J.J. Redick (44.7%) and J-Rich (40.3%), along with Hedo Turkoglu’s return to the ranks of the (more or less) living (11.5, with 4.5 assists per game, with 36% on 3’s, though just 40.7% FG), Dwight Howard has received the support necessary to keep the Magic among the East’s second tier.

The possibility exists that Dwight’s bluff is called and he’s forced to play out the season in Orlando. Should this happen, and he is able to maintain his focus (which, in fairness, he’s done pretty well thus far), a run at 40 wins is very much in play. However, should management relent and deal Dwight for a copious (but probably forward-looking) collection of assets…

Philadelphia 76ers
Preseason line: 38.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 20-14
On pace for: 39-27

My thoughts then:
“With the Celtics’ grip on elite status looking a bit tenuous and the Magic about to have a harsh rebuild foisted upon them, the Sixers, are prime candidates to step into a new-look second tier (along with Indiana, behind Miami and Chicago) in the East.”

And now: The Sixers cooled off after a torrid start, dropping seven of nine heading into the break. a run at 40 wins is increasingly unlikely.

With that said, this is not a team in the midst of an implosion, simply an imperfect but very good team in the midst of a slump. The Sixers are an elite defensive unit (league-low 97 points allowed/100 possessions and second-lowest EFG allowed, 45%, just .1% more than Boston) that does not waste possessions (league-low 10.3 turnovers per 100 possessions – no one is within 2 of this mark).

However, this is also a team that’s challenged offensively (it’s been exactly six weeks since the Sixers scored 100+ in a game) and lacks a singularly-skilled weapon that can be deployed at will whenever a bucket is needed. The damage wrought by such a setup is minimal over the course a lengthy regular season, but becomes magnified in nip-tuck games against quality opposition. The #4 seed in the East is theirs to lose (I don’t think they’ll lose it), but serious contention is at least one move away for this group.

Toronto Raptors
Preseason line: 15.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 10-23
On pace for: 20-46

My thoughts then:
“A year from now, the Raptors will have cause for some serious optimism… This season, however… not so much. Look for the Raps to struggle early and often, en route to the league’s worst record.”

And now: That the Raptors’ 10 wins in 33 games represents significant outperformance relative to expectations makes me sad.

With that said, however, do you realize that at 10-23, the Raptors enter the second half just six games behind the Celtics for the #8 spot in the East? (Ok, I lied earlier. I am kinda enjoying the 2011-12 C’s.)

In all seriousness, as I have said before, looking ahead to next season, this team is more than a little intriguing, with the MUCH-improved Andrea Bargnani back in the mix, flanked by DeMar DeRozan, Jose Calderon and a pair of top-ten picks – 2011’s #5 overall Jonas Valanciunas, plus an addition from a loaded class this summer.

Preseason line: 19.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 7-26
On pace for: 14-52

My thoughts then: “Like the Raptors, the Wizards are a “next year story.”

And now: #tweetsfrom2013

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