Eastern Conference Playoff Candidates Part II: The Upstarts

Posted: 01/19/2016 by levcohen in Basketball

The Indiana Pacers finished 38-44 last season. Meanwhile, the Detroit Pistons were 32-50, while the Orlando Magic went 25-57. What do these three teams have in common besides the fact that they all missed the playoffs in a really poor Eastern Conference last year? Well, all of them are squarely in the playoff race in an improved conference this season. Why are they so much better this year than they were last season, and will it last for the rest of the season and yield a playoff berth?

For the Pacers, this is relatively cut-and-dry. Last season they were a mess, and it’s shocking and a testament to head coach Frank Vogel that they did as well as they did. Star forward Paul George, one of the 7-10 best players in the NBA, horrifically broke his leg while training with the US National Team, while big men Roy Hibbert and David West were clearly ready to move on from Indiana, which certainly affected their play. This year, Hibbert and West are gone and the Pacers have become more guard-oriented, with the addition of Monta Ellis signifying a wish to get faster and more dynamic. Truth be told, many of the offseason moves haven’t worked. Ellis is averaging under 14 points per game, well below his career average of 19, while neither three point shooter C.J. Miles (who has never been very efficient) nor traditional power forward Lavoy Allen (a scrappy player who lacks talent) has been effective in the starting lineup. Those things will need to improve if the Pacers want to make a deep playoff run, but they’ve played better this year and should make the playoffs simply because they have gotten their star back. And when I say Paul George is back, I mean he’s back. His numbers in his last pre-injury year, the one that generated top-five player buzz, were: 21.7/6.8/3.5/1.9 steals and a 20.2 PER. His numbers this year are: 23.9/7.4/4/2 steals and a 20.8 PER. The PER lags behind common perception (I don’t know why the stat underrates him), but the point is that, if anything, he’s better than he was before his gruesome injury. For now, that’s good enough for Pacers fans, who just want a return to the playoffs. Soon, the fans will be hungry for more, and I think there are ways for this team to improve its chances of advancing in the playoffs. Playing Myles Turner, the raw first round pick out of Texas who has great ability, a little more would help, as Turner might already be better than Allen and certainly has more potential to swing a playoff game. But this team probably won’t get out of the first round of the playoffs, and that’s fine. The Pacers have cap flexibility going forward and a bright future with George at the helm.

Verdict: Likely Playoff Team

After the Pistons released Josh Smith in the middle of last season, they went 27-27 to close the season, so I guess you could see their improvement coming, too. The moves Jeff Van Gundy in his first full year in charge have already transformed this team into a prototypical Jeff Van Gundy team. Gone are big men Smith and Greg Monroe, who left for Milwaukee after the season. With those moves and the acquisition of Reggie Jackson from the Thunder last winter, Detroit has become a team predicated on the Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-roll surrounded by shooters. Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova, both 6’9″ forwards, were signed because they were bigger players who could stretch the floor; both are starting and averaging at least a made three a game. Meanwhile, shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has taken another step forward in his third year, playing 37.4 minutes per game and averaging 14.4 points per contest while providing good defense. But the stars of this team are clearly Jackson and Drummond, which, of course, was the intention. Both of them reside in the top-40 in RPM and the top-25 in PER, with Jackson posting a 19.4/3.8/6.6 line with a palatable 44% field goal percentage and Drummond going 17.6/15.5 (leading rebounder in the NBA)/1.5 blocks with great defense (eighth in DRPM) and his lone blemish being his 35% free throw percentage. Jackson and Drummond have in fact been a good combination, playing 29.1 minutes per game together and posting a +3.6 plus/minus in that time. In fact, the entire starting lineup is great together, going +2.3 in 19.7 minutes per game this season, a number that prorates out to +5.5 over a full game. At +1.9, the Pistons have been a solid team this year, but their poor bench has let them down. Perhaps the return of Brandon Jennings from injury will help with that, as Jennings should quickly become a dynamite scorer off the bench. Maybe rookie Stanley Johnson, who has shown flashes but has largely been ineffective, will help out more over the second half of the season. Or maybe the starting lineup will lead the Pistons to a playoff berth without much help. For that to happen, the Pistons will need to get lucky, avoiding any major injuries and winning close games.

Verdict: Better than 50/50 and a near lock if they stay healthy and get a big boost from Jennings’ return

I might be writing this at the wrong time vis-a-vis the Orlando Magic. When 2016 began, they were 19-13 with a +2.6 point differential. In the new year, they’re 1-7 with a -11.5 point differential. It’s been a quick fall from grace for the lovable Magic, who have fallen all the way down to the #9 spot in the conference. The schedule hasn’t been easy in the past handful of games, but that doesn’t excuse getting blown out to this extent day in and day out. The slump was kind of predictable, because the Magic just aren’t ready to win yet. This is a very exciting team, but only one starter is over 23-years old, and that’s Nikola Vucevic at 25. Vucevic, averaging 17 and 8 and playing improved defense, is very good, but he’s not a star player, and he’s the team’s only player who can be considered well above-average. I’m not going to spend much time on this team, because I don’t think they have much of a chance to make the playoffs. What they do have, though, is a chance to build a perennial contender out of the young nucleus. The Vucevic-Victor Oladipo-Elfrid Payton-Tobias Harris-Evan Fournier-Aaron Gordon-Mario Hezonja core of seven sub-26 guys looks set to be a great core going forward. The pieces might not all fit together (I think Vucevic, Oladipo, Payton, and Gordon are clear keepers), and the Magic clearly need some knockdown shooters to place around the key guys, but this is clearly a team whose ceiling is sky-high. Maybe it would be better to spend one more year in the lottery, though.

Verdict: Probably a year too soon

Still to come: the Celtics, Hawks, and Heat

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