Way-too-early NBA Predictions: The Eastern Conference Playoff Bubble

Can’t wait for the 2015-’16 season to start? We neither. Now that most of the offseason’s major moves are complete, we’ll dive into some ludicrously premature predictions for next season. In the coming days and weeks we’ll attempt to project the standings in each conference, five teams at a time, before trying to lock down who will bring home the major awards at the end of next year. It’s the summer … we’re starving for content. It’s time for Part 2 – let’s look at the playoff bubble in the Eastern Conference.

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The Eastern Conference hasn’t been the place for riveting playoff races in the recent past. With bumbling teams barely scraping 40 wins normally in the mix, the chase for eighth has more often than not felt like a contest nobody wants to be leading.

In 2015-’16, the top seven seeds in the conference are probably spoken for, barring catastrophic injury. But for once, the competition for the East’s final playoff spot might be worth more than just a hate watch. A trio of young squads will try to make the ascension from dumpster divers to relevant conversation points this coming season.

Here’s a way-too-early prediction for the six through ten seeds in the East.

6th – Miami Heat

Key Additions: F Justise Winslow, G Gerald Green, F/C Amar’e Stoudamire

Key Losses: G Shabazz Napier, G Zoran Dragic

Health is the number one key for any NBA team’s success. We saw it last year – Oklahoma City was a title favourite before Kevin Durant’s foot injury derailed the Thunder’s season. Kevin Love’s and Kyrie Irving’s absences saw the Cavaliers’ once-beautiful offense devolve into an archaic style vaguely resembling basketball that was exposed in the NBA Finals. And in Miami, an aging Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh’s blood clots, and an early-season knee injury to Josh McRoberts destroyed any hope Erik Spoelstra may have had at finding continuity – or hell, a reliable sample size – in the first post-LeBron year in South Beach. Here’s a look at the Heat’s eight most commonly used line-ups from last year.

TABLE 1

That is a whole lot of Shawne Williams. Consider some other team’s most used lineups: Chicago’s most common unit played 353 minutes. Toronto’s played 390, and that team had seven lineups with 100 or more minutes together. The champs, Golden State, deployed their top lineup for a whopping 813 minutes. It’s no wonder Miami struggled so mightily from start to finish. Most disappointingly, of course, was that the most anticipated Heat five-some of Wade, Bosh, Luol Deng, Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside never once played together as a result of Bosh’s untimely health concerns.

The overall talent is here for a tremendously successful season in Miami if everybody can suit up for a full season. It’s just difficult to bet on that happening. Wade is fading, McRoberts will likely need time to round into form, and it’s unclear if Amar’e Stoudamire has enough left in the tank to be a useful backup big man. It would be a lot of fun to see it all come together, though. Getting to see a late-round playoff matchup between LeBron and his former running mates Bosh and Wade would be a win for all of us.

7th – Atlanta Hawks

Key Additions: G Tim Hardaway Jr., G/F Justin Holiday, C Tiago Splitter 

Key Losses: F DeMarre Carroll

Predicting a fall-off from 60 wins to a bottom half playoff team seems steep, I know, but as was mentioned last week, any of the six teams under Cleveland could find themselves clutching the two-seed at season’s end. It wouldn’t be startling to see the Wizards, Bulls, Bucks, Raptors, Heat and Hawks all separated by 4 or 5 wins; they could conceivably finish up in the exact reverse order of what’s been predicted the last two weeks.

The loss of DeMarre Carroll stings, though. His departure leaves a gaping hole on the Hawks’ wing, and an ill-conceived draft night deal which landed Atlanta Tim Hardaway Jr. in exchange for the 19th pick (Jerian Grant) doesn’t exactly fill the crevice with cement. Hardaway is more like silly-putty.

Also of concern is the health of Kyle Korver. The sharpshooter was nothing short of spectacular this past season, posting a career-best true shooting percentage (.699) and securing the first All-Star appearance of his 12-year career. However, coming off surgeries on both an ankle and his shooting elbow, it’s hard to envision the 34-year-old registering a repeat performance. Korver’s value largely depends on his ability to hit an other-worldly percentage of his three-pointers because he is so heavily dependent on them (74.8 percent of his shots last year were threes). Korver recorded a career-best PER in 2014-’15 – a near league-average 14.8. If his stroke is inhibited even a little bit by his injury recovery, that score could plummet to a very pedestrian level.

There are some things to love about the Hawks’ offseason, too. Justin Holiday probably has more upside than Hardaway – particularly on defense – and he could actually turn out to be the long-term Carroll replacement with an expanded role away from Golden State. Another new addition, Tiago Splitter, will bring some size and interior defense to what might be the best frontcourt trio in the Eastern Conference with Paul Millsap and Al Horford. (Although Splitter’s underwhelming rebounding numbers suggest the team could still struggle on the glass).

It simply feels like there are more damning red flags with the Hawks heading into the year than the teams above them. Then again, no one predicted their season-long demolition of the league last year.

8th – Orlando Magic

Key Additions: G C.J. Watson, F/C Jason Smith, G Shabazz Napier, G/F Mario Hezonja

Key Losses: F/C Kyle O’Quinn, F Maurice Harkless

There’s a good chance it could be a year early to predict the Magic taking a significant leap. Over a three-year stretch that has yielded only 68 wins, Orlando has accrued a bounty of tantalizing young talent, but with a lack of solid coaching under Jacque Vaughn in recent seasons, and plenty of room to grow for the Magic’s prized youngsters, it’s understandable to question whether or not the pieces can fit together to form a legitimately competitive team this year – even in the East.

The good news: incoming coach Scott Skiles is an ideal fit for the franchise. Skiles’ teams are always stingy on the defensive end. In 11 full seasons as a bench boss with the Suns, Bulls and Bucks, the former NBA guard has coached seven top-ten ball-stopping teams. At worst, his defenses have been middle-of-the-pack, never ranking lower than 16th in points allowed per 100 possesions, via Basketball Reference.

Additionally, Skiles has shown throughout his career that the’s more than willing to reward playing time to young players who earn it. In fact, some of his most successful teams have prominently featured players below legal drinking age. A 19-year-old Luol Deng logged 27.3 minutes per game in his rookie season, as the 2004-’05 Bulls went 47-35; at 21, Deng played a team-high 37.5  minutes on a nightly basis for a team that was even better. A few years later with Milwaukee, Skiles gave a 20-year-old Brandon Jennings the freedom to run the Bucks’ offense, starting him in all 82 games of a 46-36 season.

Skiles won’t have a choice but to carry over that trust with the Magic. Orlando’s core of Nikola Vucevic (24), Tobias Harris (23), Victor Oladipo (23), Elfrid Payon (21), Mario Hezonja (20) and Aaron Gordon (19) is going to need reps in order to grow together. Veterans like C.J. Watson, Jason Smith, and Channing Frye can certainly contribute on the periphery, but shouldn’t be earning minutes at the expense of the organization’s building blocks.

Thankfully, that young foundation boasts all kinds of defensive potential. Of course 20-10 threat Vucevic is not a traditional defensive anchor, but his porous 0.8 blocks per 36 minutes and 53.7 Opposing At-Rim Field Goal Percentage won’t stand out as such liabilities with the growth of Orlando’s long wing players. A configuration of Payton-Oladipo-Harris-Gordon-Vucevic screams of a team with the potential to freely switch on pick-and-rolls. The electrifying Hezonja and underrated Evan Fournier (also just 22) can augment those defenders with some steady outside shooting, and the previously mentioned vets can fill in the gaps.

It may be disorganized and ugly to start the year, but a lot like the 2014-’15 Utah Jazz, the improvement over the 6-month schedule should be constant and significant as Skiles continues to form the rotation and implement his system. Utah’s fantastic second half wasn’t enough to to sniff the playoff race out West after such an abysmal start, but Orlando could follow up a poor start with a strong finish and remain in the playoff chase until the final week of the season.

9th – Detroit Pistons

Key Additions: F Stanley Johnson, F Ersan Ilyasova, C Aron Baynes, SF Marcus Morris, G/F Reggie Bullock, G Steve Blake

Key Losses: F/C Greg Monroe

Detroit made some questionable offseason moves, but carried out more than enough shrewd pick-ups to make up for any misses. The Pistons’ first move was to add Ersan Ilyasova in a deal with the Bucks. That move made sense; the former Bucks forward will be an excellent fit next to Andre Drummond with his well above-average three-point shooting. He’s like a slightly less offensively potent, more defensively inclined version of Ryan Anderson when he was paired next to Dwight Howard with Stan Van Gundy’s Magic.

A pair of other trades netted Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and backup point guard Steve Blake – all of them will beef up Detroit’s perimeter shooting. If there’s one thing Van Gundy’s system requires, it’s knockdown shooters.

Stanley Johnson was a contested pick on draft night – mostly because Duke’s Justise Winslow was still on the board at the eighth selection. However, Johnson was a more than defensible choice. Many onlookers have pegged him as a potential Draymond Green-style do-it-all power forward who can also step out and play on the wing. He along with Ilyasova can be a wonderful pairing next to Drummond in crunch time.

It was in free agency that the questionable moves started to roll in. Aron Baynes is making a lot of money for a marginally skilled backup center. Reggie Jackson’s five-year/$80 million deal will never look like a bargain. He holds a sub-30-percent career three-point percentage and probably can’t play extended minutes with Jennings (if he ends up returning from his torn Achilles).

What the Pistons need is for Jackson’s stretch run to not just be a flash in the pan. In 27 post-deadline games with Detroit, Jackson posted 19.7 points, 10.3 assists and 5.2 rebounds per 36 minutes on a respectable 33.7 percent clip from deep while forming a fun pick-and-roll partnership with Drummond:

(Courtesy Dan Feldman)

With his slashing and playmaking, Jackson somewhat quiets the concerns with his shaky jumper. If he does play at the level he displayed once he landed in Michigan, Jackson’s contract will look less and less egregious. Let’s just hope his fine play wasn’t just in the interest of earning that fat lump sum – for Jalen Rose’s sake.

10th – Boston Celtics

Key Additions: F Amir Johnson, F David Lee, F Perry Jones, G Terry Rozier, G R.J. Hunter

Key Losses: N/A

Predicting the Celtics to fall out of the playoff picture isn’t so much about the Celtics getting worse; rather is just feels as though Danny Ainge’s rebuilding process is progressing slower than the ones taking place in Orlando and Detroit. After striking out on the big available free agents this offseason, Ainge finds himself still searching for the type of game-changing talent he has been after since the Big-Three was broken up.

Heading into his third season on the sidelines, coach Brad Stevens will have to find a way to arrange a roster that features six or seven natural power forwards, and another five or six positionally ambiguous combo guards. Here’s a look at Boston’s charmingly quirky depth chart.

Boston Depth ChartCourtesy ESPN.com

This isn’t to say Stevens can’t forge a workable rotation out of the pieces at his disposal. He is a sorcerer after all. David Lee is still a viable offensive player who can rebound circles around soon-to-be reserve Kelly Olynyk. Amir Johnson – when healthy – was a human eraser on Toronto’s defense, often being the last line of defense when the Raptors’ perimeter defenders failed. His presence should bolster what was a surprisingly respectable defense last season; the Celtics finished 12th in defensive rating with no classic rim-protector on the team.

Marcus Smart is the closest thing Boston has to a potential star-caliber player, and it’s essential to the franchise’s long-term plans that he continues to develop this year. He shot poorly last season, just 36.7 percent overall, but his almost-average three-point stroke was a nice surprise given how he was projected to shoot from deep coming out of Oklahoma State. With his defensive ability, he will always have a place on an NBA floor. However, Evan Turner being charged with a great deal of the ball-handling duties last season is at least a little concerning as it relates to Smart’s long-term ability to run an offense as a lead guard.

Ultimately, the success of the Celtics this year will be dependent on Stevens’ mastery, because while the roster has some talent, it’s more a collection of excellent sixth men than it is a team built to make serious noise. Getting leapfrogged by teams with a bit more star power might not be such a bad thing for the Celts, though. By missing the playoffs, Ainge will find himself with a lottery pick of his own to add to what could be a trio of top-14 selections (Boston is owed Brooklyn’s 2016 first-rounder as well as Dallas’ pick if it falls out of the top-seven). That might be the ammunition Ainge needs to inject his roster with some tangible promising talent.

Stay tuned for the rest of our Way-Too-Early NBA Predictions in the coming weeks. Next week, we’ll look at the cellar dwellers of the East. 

About Sean Woodley

Sean graduated from Ottawa's Carleton University with a Journalism Degree in 2014. Since then, he's regularly contributed at SB Nation's Toronto Raptors site, Raptors HQ, while writing and hosting podcasts for Crossover Chronicles. Follow him on Twitter (@WoodleySean), and email him at sean.woodley1@gmail.com if you're interested in exchanging food for written or spoken words.

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