The Pacers accomplished their season-long goal of earning the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference, giving them home court advantage until the NBA Finals. The Hawks on the other hand, just clinched the #8 seed with a win over the defending champion Miami Heat. The Hawks have been ravaged by injuries to All-Stars Al Horford and Paul Milsap. Coach Budenholzer deserves tremendous credit for the job he has done, seeing as many people believed they would be in the running for a top 5 pick in this year’s draft. Although the Pacers have the best record in the East, they have struggled mightily since the All-Star break with a record of 15-14. Here is why each team could win the series. Why the Pacers will win:
Despite their struggles the Pacers are still one of the top 5 teams in the NBA, headed by their terrific defense which gives up only 92.4 points per game, 2nd in the NBA. Their scheme of forcing tough, mid-range jump shots is facilitated by the presence of 7’2 center Roy Hibbert, who has clearly established himself as one of the premier rim protectors in the NBA. They also have star power in Paul George, an emerging star who has improved every year of his career especially on the offensive side of the ball. The Pacers also improved their bench this season, adding Luis Scola from Phoenix and signing back-up point guard CJ Watson as well as executing an in-season trade with the Philadelphia 76ers for Evan Turner. Bench scoring is vital in the playoffs as the starters have endured a tremendous physical toll on their bodies, and need scoring help. The Pacers should also benefit from the injury to Al Horford as Roy Hibbert should be able to dominate the low-post (just as he dominates the center less Heat). The Pacers have the talent to make a deep post-season run but their consistency is a concern.
Why the Hawks can win:
The Hawks have an advantage at two of the most important positions in this series, point guard and power forward. Jeff Teague garnered some All-Star consideration and Paul Milsap was a bonafide steal for the Hawks at two for years $19 million. Jeff Teague is an extremely quick guard who creates for others and can attack the basket. He should be able to drive by George Hill, but the problem lies in Indiana’s ability to deny easy baskets around the rim. Paul Milsap could also be a match-up problem for David West, who is more adept at guarding in the post rather than guarding stretch 4s. Although the Hawks are a terrible road team, they have played the Pacers well, splitting the four games they played this year, including winning one game in Indiana. If the Hawks manage to steal a game in the beginning of the series they could put enough pressure on the Pacers to take this to a six or even seven game series. X-Factor for the Pacers:
Roy Hibbert has been criticized for his comments about his teammates, calling them “selfish” and although these comments might be true, seeing as Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner are playing for new, lucrative contracts, Hibbert should look at his own play as a reason for the Pacers’ struggles. This Hawks series could be a boost for Hibbert’s confidence as the Hawks minus Al Horford, have limited big bodies to defend him. Hibbert’s defense is a constant but his offensive game is starting to waver and so are the Pacers. X-Factor for the Hawks: Kyle Korver
Kyle Korver might be the best spot up 3-pt shooter in game right now and holds the record for most consecutive games with a 3-pt basket with 127. Although the Pacers hold opponents to a measly 34.5% from 3-pt land, Korver has unlimited range that becomes very hard to guard when he gets hot. Korver also has plenty of playoff experience as he has played in 60 playoffs games and has contributed to the deep runs of the Utah Jazz in 07-08 and the 10-11 Chicago Bulls. There is no doubt that Roy Hibbert means more to the Pacers than Korver means to the Hawks but if Korver can get on a hot streak, he could help lead the Hawks to a monumental upset.
Prediction: Pacers in 6
A #1 seed has only lost in the first round four times in NBA history and I don’t think that number will change with this series. The Pacers just have too many weapons on both sides of the court and eventually I think they will wear the Hawks out. Coach Vogel deserves kudos for pushing his team through their rough patch, all while achieving their goal of winning the #1 overall seed. The Hawks also deserve credit for their accomplishments, not many teams could lose their two All-Star players to injury and still find a way to sneak into the playoffs. Sure the Eastern Conference was weak in terms of wins and playoff positioning, but making the playoffs is still a respectable achievement. After the Pacers defeat the Hawks, they will have to take on the winner of the Bulls/Wizards series who both split the regular season series with the Pacers, 2-2 with the Bulls and 1-1 with the Wizards. Either matchup would present matchup difficulties as the Bulls’ series would be a drag-out, knockdown type series where whoever scores 80 points first will probably win the game. With the Wizards, the mismatch at point guard would be highlighted even more as John Wall is just head and shoulders above George Hill in terms of talent and productivity. To conclude, the Pacers roll on to the second round.
The second year player out of UCONN has been one of the biggest surprises since entering the league last season. Although highly touted out of high school, Andre underachieved at Connecticut and many scouts feared that he would never fulfill his true potential. The talented big man could be one of the best centers in the league in the next few years and should be the catalyst for the Pistons during his prime. Although Dummond experienced a nice rookie season, he has 5 more points per game, 5 more rebounds per game, and 12 more minutes per game. Although Drummond’s offensive game is incredibly raw, he is one of the best athletes in the league, which enables him to garner his buckets and play great defense. At this point in his career, Drummond knows his limitations on offense so he shoots only around the basket. Currently, Drummond averages only 12.8 points per game, but has the second highest shooting percentage in the league, 61%. Although Drummond does not score more than 13 points per game, he has a 21.74 PER because he is a great rebounder, great rim protecter, and a good defensive player. Drummond is the best offensive rebounder in the league, 5.2 orpg, and the fourth highest rebounds per game, 12.3. Currently, Drummond has the tenth highest blocks per game, 1.63, and has the ability to alter more shots because of his agility, size, and wing span. Andre should be able to continue his success and not surprise people in the future because of his talent.
9. Kyle Lowry
The veteran point guard and up coming free agent is playing the best basketball of his career for the Raptors. Although he has been rumored in numerous trades to numerous organizations, Lowry continues to shine north of the border. By the trade deadline, the Raptors will probably trade Lowry because his value has sky rocketed and they do not have a chance of making it out of the first round, if they make the playoffs. Lowry is averaging 15.8 points, 7.3 assists, 1.7 steals, and 4.0 rebounds per game. Lowry’s points and assists numbers are the best of his career and they should continue to rise as the season ends. Since the trade of Rudy Gay, Lowry has averaged nearly 19 points per game with 8.4 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals. Lowry is entering the prime of his career and should be considered for the All-Star team, if he maintains his solid basketball performances. Without Gay to shoulder the offense, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will be forced to score most of the Raptors points. Also, Lowry will be forced to score points and set up his opponents. If healthy, Lowry has the potential to succeed and average nearly 18 and 8 for a Raptors’ team, which has a chance to go to the playoffs in the dreadful East and the “Titanic” Division. Lowry should continue surprising NBA fans and experts, as long as he is on the Raptors and is given enough shots and minutes. If Lowry is traded to a point guard needy team, his stats may diminish, but he will continue to play good basketball.
8. Jeff Teague
The young leader of the Atlanta Hawks is putting together the best season of his career. This offseason, Teague signed a big multi year deal. After losing Joe Johnson and Josh Smith in consecutive years, the Hawks were forced to count on Al Horford and Jeff Teague to lead them to the playoffs. However, the Hawks have now lost Al Horford for the season, which will put more pressure on Teague. Luckily, Teague is playing great this season. The 25 year old is posting career highs in points, 17, assists, 8.3 which is fourth in the East, rebounds, 2.8, and steals, 1.5. Teague has nearly double the amount of free throws per game. While Teague has been successful in the past, he was never the center of attention of the offense and never score more than 13.5 points per game. Although Teague is not a superstar, he is a quality point guard and has led the Hawks to the third best record in the Eastern Conference. Although Teague was not a shoot first point guard, he will look to shoot more often and score more points. Since the loss of Horford, Teague has averaged 25 points per game while averaging 2.5 steals and 10 assists per game. If the Hawks are going to their third best record in the league, Teague must continue to score over 20 points per game and average about 9 or 10 assets per game. Teague is rated inside the top 45 in the league in Estimate Wins Added and Value Added and his rank should increase as the season wears. The former first round pick should continue to surprise fans from around the league so the Hawks can maintain their success.
7. Aaron Afflalo
The centerpiece of the Dwight Howard trade, besides the draft picks, has accomplished the best season of his career, thus far. During his first season with Orlando last year, Afflalo averaged only 16.6 points with 3.7 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game. However, Afflalo has greatly improved this season and is leading the young Magic squad. Although the Magic have only 10 wins this season, the addition of Oladipo and the improvement of Afflalo has made the Magic a more dangerous squad. This season, Afflalo is setting a career high in points, 21.9, assists, 4.0, rebounds, 4.5, steals, three point percentage, 45%, and free throws per game, 5.1. Afflalo has been the offensive catalyst for the club that desperately needs offensive talent and scoring. Afflalo has a 24% usage rate, which is the highest on the team and the highest of his career. Along with providing offensive support, Afflalo has the best defensive rating of his career and is on pace to set a career high in defensive win shares. According to Jason Hollinger, Aaron Afflalo has a 20 PER and ranks top 20 in the league in value added and estimated wins added. The Magic shooting guard should continue his career season because he has improved in every aspect of the game. Although he is not a house hold name, Afflalo should be considered for the All-Star team because of his success this season and the dearth of shooting guards in the association.
6. Eric Bledsoe
The Suns’ 24 year old point guard is one of the main reasons why the Suns have the sixth best record in the tough Western Conference. The Suns were suppose to be one of the worst teams in the league, but Bledsoe and Dragic have led the young team to a very good record. Eric Bledsoe became one of the valued commodities this offseason because of his success when Chris Paul was injured. Bledsoe will enable the Suns to let go or trade Dragic, which should net a good return or extra cap space to sign a new free agent. Before this season, Bledsoe averaged 20.4 minutes, 8.5 points, 1.4 steals, 3.1 assists, and 3.0 rebounds per game. However, Bledsoe has been given more options, which has allowed him to explode. Currently, Bledsoe is averaging 18.4 points, 5.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 4.3 rebounds, and 49% shooting percentage. Bledsoe has been able to combine his skill with his size and speed to become one of the best young point guards in the league. Bledsoe should be headed to the All-Star game because of his significance, but it is unlikely because of the number of great point guards in the West. Bledsoe has a PER of over 20, which ranks 21st in the league and has one of the highest usage percentage in the league, as well. Bledsoe should continue to exceed expectations as he gains more experience and learns the tendency of defenders around the league. Bledsoe should gain more assists as he becomes closer with his teammates and have more time to practice. On defense, Bledsoe has been very good over the last two seasons, posting a defensive rating around 101.
5. John Wall
The former first overall pick is turning into one of the best young players in the league and should become the next superstar point guard. Towards the end of last season and the beginning of this year, John Wall has improved his game because he has become a more accomplished scorer and leader for the Washington Wizards. During his first few seasons, the Wizards’ losing negatively affected Wall because he was not used to the losses. However, the Wizards are one of the better teams in the East and Wall is leading the team to one of the four 500 records in the East with his great basketball. Before this seasons, everybody was aware of John’s speed and ball handling, but his shooting was not very effective. This season, Wall is shooting more threes and has posted the highest three point percentage and two point percentage of his career. Along with the higher percentages, Wall is scoring more points and averaging more assists per game than any other season of his career. This season, Wall has the opportunity to post a 20-10 season. Wall’s 9 assists per game are ranked third in the NBA, which is the highest he has ever been ranked in his career. Along with an improved offensive game, Wall is averaging more than 2 steals per game, which is the most in his career. Wall was given a big deal this season and is showing that he is worth the big money because he has played like a top 20 player. Wall should be nominated to the Eastern All-Star team because the number of hurt point guards in the East and the numbers he has posted. Wall could even start the game because he is talented and well known among NBA fans.
4. Anthony Davis
The first overall pick from last year’s draft was suppose to be the next great power forward in the NBA because of his skill, size, and length. During a disappointing and injury filled season, he played only 64 games and averaged 13.5 points, 1.8 blocks, 8.2 rebounds, and 51% from the field. However, Davis has been one of the best all around players in the league this season, when he has been on the floor. Davis has significantly improved his offensive output. This season, Davis is averaging 19.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and a league leading 3.1 blocks per game. Davis is currently top five in PER and ranks inside the top 15 in both EWA and VA, which shows that he is one of the 15 best players in the league, thus far. Davis has improved his offensive and defense rating by a combined 10 points, 120 offensive rating and 101 defensive rating. Davis has the potential to be similar to Kevin Garnett. He plays great defense and has the ability to score 20-25 points per game. Anthony Davis should continue to improve and become one of the best players in the league in the next 3 to 4 years. Along with the potential, Davis has a good nucleus in New Orleans, which should lead them to a few playoff appearances and wins during his career. This season, Davis should be an All-Star in the West and has the stardom to make the team, unlike the previous players named. Although early, Davis seems like a potential superstar, who has a chance to make the Hall of Fame and multiple All-Pro teams, if he can continue improving on offense and playing great defense.
3. DeMarcus Cousins
The volatile Kings center is one of the most talented players in the league and has the best team around him since he entered the league. Cousins has improved during every year of his four year career, but has exploded this season for Sacramento. Before this season, Cousins’ best stats were 18.1 points per game with 11.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.5 steals, and 46% shooting percentage. However, Cousins has drastically improved every stat and is now averaging 22.9 points, 3.2 assists, 11.2 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 49% shooting from the field. Along with the improved offense, Cousins has the the best defensive rating of his career. Also, Cousins has been able to temper his emotions, which has enabled him to stay on the floor and not accumulate technicals or personal fouls. John Hollinger believes that Cousins has been one of the six best players in the league as he ranks top six in PER, EWA, and VA. Currently, Cousins has the highest usage rate in the NBA because he was the one very good player on the Kings, before the Rudy Gay trade. Rudy Gay should improve Cousins’ overall game because he will draw as many double teams and will not have to score all the points for the team. With more one on one opportunities, Cousins should improve his already high PER and his shooting percentage from the field. Along with Gay, Ben McLemore and Isiah Thomas have improved, which give Cousins more room to work in the paint. Although the Kings are bad this season, their future looks bright with Cousins as the anchor of the team. Like Davis, Cousins has the stardom to make the All-Star this season and the potential to make multiple All-NBA teams and become one of the best players in the league.
2. LaMarcus Aldridge
The Blazers have been the biggest surprise team in the NBA because of the improvements of LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. The Blazers have the third best record in the Western Conference, 24-7, and the fourth best record in the whole NBA. Last season, the Blazers did not even make the playoffs and many were questioning the future of the Blazers’ core. Many people believed that Aldridge would be traded to the Bulls or another contender because he did not like Portland and did not believe the team could lead him to the playoffs. Although Aldridge was a quality player in the past, 21 points per game with 8.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.8 fouls per game in the last three seasons, he has improved as a leader and has taken another step forward as a player. Aldridge is currently averaging nearly 24 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block, 1 steal, 47%, and 1.9 fouls per game. While the foul numbers may be a overlooked, it is an important factor because he can contest more shots, rebound more balls, and play with more aggression. These little things drastically improve the overall team’s performance, which has helped improved the overall record. Although Aldridge’s offensive stats are similar to the past, his defensive rating has improved by a few points, which can be attributed to his more aggressive nature and his bigger commitment to defense. Aldridge is on pace to make his third straight All-Star team and should be considered to be the starter of the All-Star team. Aldridge is rated in the top ten in both estimate wins added and value added.
1. Paul George
The Indiana Pacer small forward has taken another big step this season and is in the conversation for the MVP award. Two seasons ago, George was a nice player that could play good defense and score10-15 points. However, last season, George took a step forward, played great defense, became a quality offensive player, and won the most improved player award since he was given more minutes with the loss of Danny Granger. However, Paul became a great player this season and is playing like a top five player in the league. Many experts around the league believe that he is the fourth best player in league behind James, Durant, and Paul because of his skills and he is leading the team with the second best record. Paul is averaging 23.9 points, 3.6 assists, 5.8 rebounds, 2.1 steals, 41% from three, and 48% from the field. Paul’s points and shooting percentage are a career high. Paul also rates very highly in Value Added and Wins Shares because of his two way ability and overall skill. Last season, Paul made his first All-Star team and this year he is definitely going to be an All-Star behind LeBron James at small forward. Although George’s offense is good, his defensive metrics are some of the best in the league. Over the past two seasons, George is leading the league in defensive wins shares and should be a candidate for the DPOY. Along with leading the league in defense, George’s defensive rating is 94, which is second in the league. George just signed a new contract, which will be a bargain for the next four seasons. George is determined to lead the Pacers past the Miami Heat this season and has the skill and body to defend LeBron.
The Miami Heat clearly rank supreme in the Southeast division as well as in the Eastern conference. Having won back-to-back titles, they show no signs of slowing down. LeBron James is dazzling basketball fans around the world, making them wonder if he really is the best to ever play the game. The Heat will win this division, but there is hope for some other teams in the Southeast, like the Wizards, who have a chance to make the playoffs. Let’s look at how the division will play out (*denotes playoff team).
1.) *Miami Heat
If I were a betting man, my money would be on the Miami Heat to pull a three-peat and win the NBA championship. They have all of the pieces and even found a way to improve their team from a year ago. They signed Greg Oden, an injury plagued center who has not lived up to his #1 overall pick six years ago, and Michael Beasley, a talented but immature small forward who was once considered the best player coming out of college. These are two low-risk, potentially high reward picks could significantly help Miami’s bench. Of course, distractions are part of the game, and there will be a huge focus on LeBron’s impending free agency and whether he will return to South Beach next year. The X-factor for the Heat is Dwyane Wade’s health. Although Dwyane is working with Tim Grover, the legendary trainer who has worked miracles with athletes and their injuries, he still has a lot of miles on his knees and has clearly shown deterioration in his explosiveness. Chris Bosh is another important player for the Heat as he stretches out opposing defenses with his mid-range game, opening up the hole for LeBron and D-Wade to attack. If Bosh improves on the defensive side of the ball, the Heat will be tough to beat. The Miami Heat has great talent off the floor as Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra have brought in viable role players who have meshed with the big three quite well. Riley and Spoelstra will be busy managing the media scrutiny about LeBron’s free agency while also formulating a plan for the future in case LeBron decides to leave. Watch for the Heat in the headlines as they create a lot of excitement on and off the court.
2.) *Washington Wizards
The Wizards take a big step and reach the playoffs this season with their young stars starting to pay dividends. After John Wall returned from a serious knee injury last year, the Wizards finished the season with a .500 record, which would have been good enough to make the playoffs considering the Bucks got in under .500. John Wall received his much-desired max contract extension, they drafted Otto Porter, a versatile wing player who can defend and Bradley Beal showed significant improvement as the season wore on. The Wizards also have some expiring contracts in Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza that could be traded for some younger assets to help the Wizards in the long-run. But the Wizards lack post presence, as Nene has not been able to stay healthy, Emeka Okafor is not the player he once was, and the Wizards don’t have any reliable back-ups. This put the onus on Wall, Beal and Porter to carry the offense and both Wall and Porter are inconsistent shooters, which is partially why the Wizards ranked 27th in field goal percentage last season. If the Wizards can attack more, and trade Okafor and/or Ariza for a viable big man, the Wizards could vault themselves from an 8th seed to a 6-7th seed.
3.) Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks are positioned for a rebuilding year as they let Josh Smith go to Detroit and they fired Larry Drew. And while the Hawks have a solid core of Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Lou Williams, they are still several significant upgrades from making the playoffs. In the NBA, there are teams who are consistently mediocre with little potential of advancing but are not the dregs of the league. The Atlanta Hawks are the quintessential example. They missed out on Chris Paul and Dwight Howard but signed a nice complimentary piece in Paul Milsap while also re-signing Kyle Korver. The Hawks also had a nice draft by selecting Dennis Schröeder, a talented point guard who could be a surprise ROY and might even take over the starting job from Jeff Teague. He still needs time to adjust to the NBA game but has the potential to be a cornerstone of this franchise. The Hawks are young and need more pieces to be contenders.
4.) Charlotte Bobcats
The Charlotte Bobcats have been the laughing stock of the NBA for years now as they have consistently drafted players who have turned out to be busts including Adam Morrison, Brandan Wright and DJ Augustin. Fan attendance is low and the Bobcats don’t have a player worth advertising. Insert Al Jefferson. Although Jefferson may not be a star, he has a consistent game of 18 points and 9 rebounds per game, solid numbers for a new NBA game that focuses on perimeter play. This signing is important for the growth of the Bobcats and for showing the fan base that the team can attract free agents. But even with the Jefferson signing, the Bobcats don’t have enough talent to get out of the lottery, which is a good thing for them as they traded a protected 1st round pick to the Bulls back in 2010 and that pick still has protection until 2016. The Bobcats also have a Blazers protected top twelve pick and a Pistons protected top eight pick that the Bobcats may get this year as the Blazers and Pistons look to make the playoffs. Given how stacked the draft is expected to be, a midrange pick could turn into a star, so the Bobcats have a great opportunity on the horizon. Multiple picks can change the course of their franchise in just one night. This might be the last year for Bobcat nation to root for tanking and hopefully owner Michael Jordan and GM Rich Cho can turn this team around. As for this season, the Bobcats need Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to find a jumpshot, Cody Zeller to play physical against bigger players and for Kemba Walker to become a more efficient shooter. I don’t like this team now, but next year, it may be an entirely different story.
5.) Orlando Magic
The Magic will be one of the worst teams in the NBA, no doubt about it, but they do have some exciting young players such as Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Mo Harkless and Nikola Vucevic. These players will become complimentary pieces to the high first round lottery pick they will draft this year. The question becomes what kind of player will they draft, as Victor Oladipo has played point guard throughout the summer league as well as in preseason. If the Magic get the #1 overall pick, there is no question who they will take Andrew Wiggins; if they fall to a lower spot, and they think Oladipo will be more of a shooting guard, then the Magic may draft a point guard, potentially Marcus Smart, a player they wanted last year who didn’t declare for the draft. Other possibilities are Dante Exum, an Australian player with good height and play making ability or Andrew Harrison, a physical guard who can play both guard positions and will know how to play under pressure because he will star for the University of Kentucky this season. The Magic will also get the lesser pick of the Nuggets-Knicks trade that involved Carmelo Anthony, which could turn into another valuable asset. This season will not produce many wins for the Magic but the future is looking brighter.