The NFL regular season is coming to an end, which allows basketball to begin to fill the approaching void. The sample size of NBA games is representative enough to project the type of seasons that teams will have the rest of the way. We are also treated to a full slate of NBA games on Christmas day, which included a thrilling rematch of the NBA Finals between the Cavaliers and Warriors in Cleveland. For all these reasons, Christmas is when most sports fans start to tune into the long NBA season.
Accordingly, let us take a look at the progress of each team in the Eastern Conference.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (23-6): +8 Point Differential
The regular season does not mean much for the Cavaliers. Lebron James knows that the real game for him and his team is the playoffs. At this point of his career, the only thing that matters is more championships. As such, his team will lose focus for a few games throughout the season and he will take games off for rest. His goal is for his team to improve throughout the regular season then peak near the end of it before the playoffs. Nevertheless, there are still a handful of statements games for them during the regular season. One of them is the Warriors on Christmas Day. The teams have split the last two NBA Finals and the Warriors adding Kevin Durant only adds fuel to the fire of the rivalry. The Cavaliers showed that they are up for the challenge with a 1 point win at home. Outside of a significant injury, I expect both teams to be back in the NBA Finals for another great matchup. They entered the season with 4/1 Title Odds to repeat as NBA Champions.
The Cavaliers look like they can be better than they were last season. Kyrie Irving continues to improve his game averaging 23.8 points while shooting over 48% and 42.5% in three pointers. While much has been written and said about Kevin Love not fitting in with the Cavaliers, he has finally integrating into the offense. He is averaging 21.9 points and 10.8 rebounds. Of course, Lebron James is still putting up ridiculous numbers. However, the increased production of Irving and Love will lighten the load on James during the regular season so he can stay fresh for the postseason. Going forward, it will be important for James to be more of a facilitator as he begins to age. In addition, the Cavaliers have put together a strong bench. J.R. Smith’s injury is not a big deal at this point because he will be back for the postseason. They have Channing Frye for a full season this year. He is averaging over 10 points in only 18 minutes and a great three point shooter who extends the floor as a stretch 4. He is a perfect fit for the Cavaliers and they really improved after they acquired him last year. DeAndre Liggins adds strong defense off the bench and is a good signing from the D-League. I also expect Mike Dunleavy to get more minutes as the season progresses once he assimilates into the team. He is a smart veteran who can shoot and extend the court. He is another player I think fits in perfect with how the Cavs want to play.
- Toronto Raptors (21-8): +9.2 Point Differential
DeMar Derozan has taken another significant step in his career. He has increased his scoring average by over 4 points from last season, 23.5 to 27.8 points per game. More importantly, his shooting percentage has increased from 44.6% to 47.9%. He is also putting together a great overall game averaging 5.1 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1.3 steals. Derozan and Kyle Lowry continue to form the best backcourt after the Warriors and the foundation for the Raptors. While the loss of Bismack Biyombo to free agency is a big loss because he was an excellent complement of shot blocking and rebounding to the perimeter play of the Raptors, they still have a very deep team with a good supporting cast for their star backcourt. Unfortunately, they are just not as good as the Cavaliers in the East. Even if they got past the Cavs, I do not foresee them beating the Warriors in a 7 game series. Unfortunately, they are a team that has just about peaked in terms of its potential and still do not have enough to break through the championship ceiling. Nevertheless, they just need to continue to add and build around Derozan and Lowry and hope that they have things break their way in a season so they can win a title.
- Boston Celtics (18-13): +1.9 Point Differential
I really like the Boston Celtics as a team. They are young, athletic, gritty, and play sound basketball. Isiah Thomas is a marvel averaging 27 points and 6.3 assists despite being 5’9” in the NBA. Avery Bradley also continues to improve as a player. He is averaging 17.8 points and 7.3 rebounds as a guard who plays elite defense. He is also shooting 47.9 % from the field and 41.1% from threes. He is definitely one of the early frontrunners for most improved player. Al Horford is also a solid addition to the team as an All-Star caliber player. However, this team still lacks the superstar it needs to truly contend for a title. Horford is definitely not that player. I love watching Isiah Thomas play but his physical limitations prevents him from being consistently reliable in big spots in playoff series when teams are zoned in to stop him over a 7 game series. Bradley can be an All-Star quality player and excellent secondary option but I doubt he develops into a go to scorer. There best chance at a superstar is probably the high first round draft picks the Brooklyn Nets are providing them over the next two seasons. Unless they find that star, they will peak as a second round exit or maybe an Eastern Conference Finals exit.
- Charlotte Hornets (17-13): +2.1 Point Differential
The Hornets are a good, deep team led by a very good player in Kemba Walker. However, they are definitely not a top team and I do not see how they will become one. They do not have another player, outside of Walker, on their roster who has the potential to develop into an All-Star level player. In addition, being firmly in the playoffs does not allow for them to draft high in the draft to pick one. As a result, they are a sound them that is stuck in the dreaded middle of the NBA where they are not a title contender and not bad enough to draft the talent to get there.
- New York Knicks (16-14): -2.3 Point Differential
The Knicks may not be back to prominence but they are very interesting and back to relevance. Their offseason acquisitions have yielded mixed results. Derrick Rose has looked great and flashed glimpses of his old self at times when he has played. On the other hand, Joakim Noah does not look good at all and it begs to question whether his skills have totally diminished. Brandon Jennings has provided a spark and fire off the bench but his career shooting inconsistencies continue. Of course, Carmelo Anthony provides plenty of drama. He is a lightning rod in New York. He is an all-time great scorer who adds some rebounds but is not a great defender or leader. He also holds the ball too long and does not really make his teammates better. For these reasons, he is not as great as Lebron James or even Dwyane Wade [in his prime]. To be fair, he has also not been surrounded by the talent his peers have been. Although he has played like a ball hog at times, a reason is that he is forced to at times because there is no one else to go to during his career. For these reasons, he has not played on a true title contender in New York and is heavily criticized for it. In my opinion, he is a top talent that could play on a championship caliber team if he is surrounded by the right team. Unfortunately, I do not think he has that team in New York. Although they have more talent this season and should make the playoffs, they are older and lack the athleticism to play championship level defense [or much defense at all].
Despite the melodrama of Anthony, the real story of the Knicks is the development of young superstar Kristaps Porzingis. He is one of the most physically gifted freaks I have seen in the NBA. A 7’3” man should not be able to move as fast and as quick as Porzingis can. In addition, he has three point range. His potential is unlimited. He has taken another step forward in his second season averaging 19.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks. Once he learns more post moves and how to get to the free throw line more, he will be a true superstar. For the Knicks, the hope should be that he is able to attract a couple of other young stars to the Knicks to form a championship team in the coming years. With his humility, toughness, and brilliant play, I personally believe players will enjoy playing with him. Of course, Rose and Anthony will be gone by the time that happens.
- Atlanta Hawks (15-15): -1.8 Point Differential
The Hawks are a team that peaked a couple of seasons ago and ran into the Lebron James wall to the NBA Finals. They lost Al Horford but replaced him with Dwight Howard. I agree with the general consensus that Howard is one of the most overrated stars in the league. He has lost his elite athleticism, no longer plays or wants to play great defense, never developed an offensive game, cannot shoot free throws, and completely lacks a killer instinct and toughness. The Hawks are going nowhere fast with Howard. The one player on their team I am following on the Hawks is Dennis Schroder, who is averaging 17.6 points and 6.3 assists in his first year as the full-time starter. It should be interesting to see how well he develops and improves as a player.
- Milwaukee Bucks (14-14): +2 Point Differential
The Bucks are one of the most exciting and intriguing young teams in the league. Their length and athleticism provides a lot of problems for opponents. Giannis Atentokounmpo, aka the “Greek Freak”, truly lives up to his nickname. His athleticism and talent is unreal. He is becoming a superstar averaging a ridiculous 23.4 points, 9 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.1 steals, and 1.9 blocks. Jabari Parker has also broken out averaging over 20 points per game. They will also get another great building block back when Khris Middleton returns from injury. Before he was hurt, he averaged 18 points and was the go to scorer for the Bucks. With these three studs, they have the building blocks for a great team that will be prime to take over the Eastern Conference once Lebron James begins to decline in a few years. They could probably benefit from one more premium draft pick in next year’s deep draft but they are not going to lose on purpose to get one. They should be a low seed and tough out in the playoffs.
- Indiana Pacers (15-16): -1.9 Point Differential
Like the Hawks, the Pacers are another team that peaked a few seasons back and trying to rebuild on the fly. Unlike the Hawks, the Pacers have a young, superstar caliber talent in Paul George to build around. I also love the elite athleticism of young center Myles Turner. He fits in perfectly as a big man in the current NBA with his ability to shoot and he already blocks 2.4 shots per game. The Pacers have finally addressed their point guard problem by trading for Jeff Teague, who is a productive player. I also like the trade for Thaddeus Young who is a talented big man that helps fortify a strong front line. Since the Pacers have talent, I think they have been a disappointment this season. I do not expect them to be at the top of the league but they should be in the middle of the playoff seeding in a weak Eastern Conference and definitely over .500.
- Chicago Bulls (14-16): +0.7 Point Differential
The Bulls championship window closed when Derrick Rose suffered a career changing injury. The decision to rebuild around young superstar, Jimmy Butler, makes total sense. He is a stud on both ends of the floor. The Bulls are definitely his team now. However, their offseason moves were very peculiar. In a league that is emphasizing shooting, the Bulls decided to go against the grain by signing Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. Rondo is a playmaker and triple double threat but he still cannot shoot. His reputation as a bad teammate has surfaced again in the early season. Wade still has flashes of greatness but his best days have long been gone. The moves have not worked out so far and I am skeptical it gets much better. They can make the playoffs as a low seed but are not going too far if they do.
- Washington Wizards (13-16): -1.7 Point Differential
The Wizards are a bitter disappointment. John Wall and Bradley Beal were supposed to form the next great backcourt and potentially attract Kevin Durant back home to Washington D.C. to build a super team. Wall and Beal are putting up statistics. Wall is an athletic freak at point guard and averaging 23.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 9.7 assists, and 2.3 steals. Beal is one of the better shooters in the league and averaging 22.2 points per game. Nevertheless, the two have outwardly shown their disdain for each other and it shows in the form of a mediocre record. It is becoming clear that one of them needs to be traded. In my opinion, Wall is definitely the more complete player so Beal should go.
- Detroit Pistons (14-18): +.3 Point Differential
I like their young core and have a healthy respect for Stan Van Gundy. Accordingly, their poor start is disappointing. Reggie Jackson’s early season injury has obviously not helped. However, Andre Drummond’s progression is not going in the right direction. I expected him to be a force down low on both ends of the floor. The 14 points per game is unacceptable. They have had a lot of team meetings in an attempt at a spark. Naturally, it is not working and frustration is mounting. They definitely have the talent to make a playoff run. More importantly, they are a young team that needs to get back on the right direction again.
- Orland Magic (14-18): -4.2 Point Differential
I have no idea what the Magic are doing. They had a talented, young front line already then traded for Serge Ibaka and signed Bismack Biyombo in the offseason. There is talent on this team but it appears to be mismanaged. The roster needs to be sorted out and trades need to be made.
- Miami Heat (10-21): -2.8 Point Differential
Lebron James left. Chris Bosh was inflicted with a career ending health condition. Dwyane Wade got old and was finally allowed to leave. The Heat could not woo Kevin Durant to South Beach. For all these reasons, it is not surprising the wheels have finally come off for Miami. Nevertheless, it is not devoid of hope. Pat Riley is still one of the best executives in the NBA and running the Heat. Hassan Whiteside has played well and is developing as the primary option. 18 points, 14.9 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game is solid production. He is also working on his jump shooting. Justice Winslow is a talented young player who has shown flashes recently. Goran Dragic has also played very well. In my opinion, the Heat should try to trade Dragic and completely rebuild around Whiteside and Winslow. Regardless, I do not expect them to stay down for too long with Riley at the helm.
- Philadelphia 76ers (7-22): -7.7 Point Differential
It is a shame that Ben Simmons got hurt during preseason. It will be interesting to see how this team plays when he returns later in the season. Nevertheless, the “Process” is finally yielding real hope. Joel Embiid is finally on the court and is showing he can really play. In only 24.5 minutes, he is averaging 18.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks. He can also really shoot and displays some serious post moves. Comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon are premature but there is definitely a resemblance. On the other hand, they need to fix the positional distribution of their roster. They do not need Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel behind Embiid. There definitely needs to be a trade but it will be difficult to get fair value with their obvious roster imbalance. Regardless, there is hope with the 76ers especially when Simmons debuts. Another high draft pick in a deep draft will also not hurt their long term prospects.
- Brooklyn Nets (7-22): -8.5 Point Differential
They are the worst team in the NBA with the bleakest future. They do not control their draft picks the next two seasons as Billy King sent them to the Boston Celtics in a foolish trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce who were well past their primes. Naturally, they cannot lure top free agents because they are a lousy team with no assets. In addition, they cannot even get restricted free agents they overpay and sign to the offer sheets. They have been matched on three offers already. They have a couple of talented young players (e.g. Sean Kilpatrick, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, etc.) who look like they can develop into solid contributors. Brook Lopez is a talented center. Jeremy Lin can play and gets a chance to show what he can do when he leads a team. However, he is more of a good player off the bench than a star. This situation is as hopeless as there is in the NBA.