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.
This summer was exciting for both New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets fans as they both thought they had a serious chance to challenge the Miami Heat and potentially win an NBA title. Well, welcome to reality New Yorkers, both of your teams are below .500 and don’t have much hope for the future.
Let’s first start off with Brooklyn, the Nets made some supposedly huge offseason moves acquiring Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry for Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph and first round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018. Pundits deemed Garnett and Pierce, “the experience” that the Nets needed to defeat the Heat. Now people are seeing that “experience” really means “old-age” and the scoring numbers for Pierce and Garnett have drastically decreased from 12.3 ppt to 6.7 ppg. Deron Williams has constant ankle injuries, and now with Brook Lopez gone to a season-ending surgery on his broken foot, the Nets are going to have to rely on bench players for the majority of their scoring. The other huge problem for the Brooklyn Nets is Jason Kidd and his inexperience as a head coach. GM Billy King and owner Mikhail Prokhorov took a chance on Kidd, and now the gamble has failed. The soda-spilling scandal and the swift removal of Lawrence Frank as an assistant coach has shown that Kidd is not ready to coach any NBA team.
Now on to the Knicks, who face a huge decision on whether to trade Carmelo Anthony before the February deadline because of Melo’s impending free agency. Melo has already been quoted as saying he is planning to test his free agency, so why wouldn’t the Knicks shop around their lone star? It is clear that the Knicks have a long way to go before becoming remotely relevant in the championship picture, and trading Melo might aid that process. If the Knicks can land a high first round pick or a young talent under contract for Melo, it would enable the franchise to make more strategic offseason moves. On the court the Knicks struggles are laughable, they rank 25th in points per game and 22nd in adjusted field goal percentage. J.R. Smith is shooting 34% from the field and is only getting to the free throw line 1.7 times per game, showing how inefficient a scorer he is. Mike Woodson might be the first coach fired this year, the Knicks 9-19 record is a harbinger of needed changes — and lots of them.
2.) The Portland Trailblazers are for real
From the disappointing NYC teams to the emerging Portland Trailblazers, who I didn’t pick to make the playoffs this year. To quote the famous rapper The Notorious B.I.G “If you don’t know, now you know” — and this applies perfectly to the Blazers as they have started the season off at a league best 24-5, all while hiding amongst the elite teams in the Western Conference throughout preseason predictions. The Blazers are led by their two should-be all stars, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, who together average 44 points per game. These two provide a lethal pick and roll game with LaMarcus’ ability to knock down 15-20 footers and Lillard’s ability to driving and score or step out and hit threes. Playing in Portland, most East coast basketball fans don’t see the Blazers play, but I urge you to try. They are fun and exciting and have players who will compete with anyone in the league. There have been discussions about LaMarcus Aldridge as a possible MVP candidate, and we all saw Damian Lillard preform last year by winning ROY. The only question for the Blazers is their bench as the starters average 85 points per game while the team averages 108 points per game. Rookie CJ McCollum is expected to come back soon and he might provide a spark off the bench, but if he doesn’t, the Blazers might need to trade for a sixth man who can score the rock. The Blazers are coming folks, whether you know it or not.
3.) Rivalries are Real
Ok, the NBA has had storied rivalries like Bulls-Knicks, Celtics-Lakers, Pacers-Knicks/Bulls, Lakers-Kings and the Detroit Bad Boys against almost everyone, so you might think that era is over. But look again. There are simmering rivalries in today’s NBA, and the animosity is clear among certain teams and players. For instance, the Clippers-Warriors have featured skirmishes involving Blake Griffin with Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green as well as DeAndre Jordan’s near fight with Bogut. The coaches, Doc Rivers and Mark Jackson, aren’t the best of friends and the two teams won’t even go to chapel together. In their last two games alone, there have been seven technical fouls called with two ejections. It would be difficult to make a case that these two teams don’t play a little bit rougher when the face each other. Another rivalry resides in South Beach and Indiana as these two teams clearly see themselves as the Eastern Conference’s top teams. Paul George was even quoted as saying that his preparation in the offseason was for the Miami Heat. Indiana believes that they can defeat the Heat and are trying to send messages through regular season victories. Miami has consistently downplayed the Pacers’ talk, citing the fact that championships aren’t won during the winter months. And while the Pacers-Heat rivalry hasn’t been as physically bruising as the Clippers-Warriors sparring, the potential for hard fouling is huge. The Pacers may be the strongest team in the league, and LeBron is the NBA’s best. Let’s just hope we see a playoff series between both the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers and a Eastern Conference Final between the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat.
4.) Top Teams Tanking
With the upcoming loaded NBA draft class there has been discussion about whether tanking is fair and strategic or embarrassing for the league. My opinion is simple — bad teams especially in smaller markets such as Utah, Charlotte, Orlando and Milwaukee, don’t necessary attract the huge free agents like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago or Miami. These smaller market teams try to build through the draft just like the Thunder did. Listen to the Supersonics/Thunder’s draft picks since 2007, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden (the trade was dumb but they did net Jeremy Lamb), Eric Bledsoe (traded to LAC now with PHX), Reggie Jackson, Perry Jones III and Steven Adams. They found two franchise changers and some tremendously talented role players all through the draft and even traded some pieces to fit the Thunder’s system. So when teams tank and perform poorly, it is usually not a reflection of the team’s desire, but a plan devised by the front office to find young players who can contribute in the future. Rebuilding by tearing down is a viable strategic option for smaller markets who don’t have the resources to attract top free agents. Who knows, with some luck of ping-pong balls and the development of the right players, Utah or Milwaukee could be the next OKC.
5.) The Pacers are the best team in the NBA
While the Portland Trail Blazers have the NBA’s best record, the Pacers are the NBA’s best team. The Pacers get my vote for best team because of their overall depth and intense defensive mentality. Paul George is no longer a star on the rise, he is firmly entrenched as one of the league’s best players. He plays hard on both ends, a rarity in today’s NBA and his offensive game has elevated every year he has been in the league. The Pacers also improved their bench this year, trading for Luis Scola and adding CJ Watson and Chris Copeland to help alleviate the scoring stress on the starters. Lance Stephenson has also emerged posting three triple doubles this season, most in the NBA. As “Born Ready” continues to mature with age, the Pacers become more and more dangerous in terms of team potential. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Pacers’ bigs Roy Hibbert and David West who are two stout defensive players who also can score in the low post, making opposing defenses worry about the inside-out game. This Pacers team is maturing and is not afraid of anybody, including the defending champs the Miami Heat. Don’t be surprised if this Pacers team knocks off the Heat as they have both the offense and defense to do so.