The race for the last two Eastern Conference playoff spots in the NBA

This NBA season has taken the conventional wisdom of the league and has flipped it on its head. For most of the last twenty years, the West has been the superior conference, seeing as twelve of the last seventeen champions have come from that conference.

In any given season, there was usually a Western Conference team who had would have been a sixth seed in the East, that missed the playoffs entirely. Last season for instance, the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were without the reigning MVP Kevin Durant, were spurred on by superhuman Russell Westbrook and won 45 games. In the East, the sixth seed won 41 games.

This season, apart from the two super teams at the top of the Western Conference, the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs, the conferences are nearly identical. This has led to exciting races for the last two playoff spots, particularly in the East. In this article we will examine the current seeds 7-10 to see who has the greatest chance of making the playoffs.

7. Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers have one of the more interesting teams in the NBA, on paper at least. They have three capable play-making guards in George Hill, Monta Ellis, and superstar Paul George. They have good bigs in Jordan Hill, rookie Myles Turner, Lavoy Allen, and Ian (yan) Mahinmi.

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Indiana also now has two good veteran guards off the bench in Rodney Stuckey and Ty Lawson, and one of the better coaches in the NBA in Frank Vogel, yet they are only the seventh seed in the east. There really appears to be two reasons why: their failed attempt at small ball early in the season that was scrapped, and Paul George’s inconsistencies.

Last summer, GM Larry Bird said he wanted to transition to a small ball, pace and space, type of system. Bird thought Paul George would be a perfect fit to play the small ball four, because of his shooting ability and his driving ability. You could see why Bird would say that.

Most of the time when an executive says that, the player will say some rendition of “I’ll do anything to help the team.” Except George didn’t do that. George voiced opposition almost immediately, talking about his weight and how it would be easier for the bigger players to push him around, as even though he is 6’9” he weighs a paltry 220 pounds.

“Well, he don’t make the decisions around here,” Bird said. “I [played power forward]. I loved it after I did it. I just think offensively it’s going to be one of the greatest feelings he’s ever had. I’m not going to get in a battle with Paul George on where he wants to play. He’s a basketball player. He can play any position you put him out there.” -Larry Bird, via CBS Sports

Despite George’s objections, the team started out playing small, and for a while it worked. Currently injured small forward C.J. Miles actually was draining threes and was guarding fours, and the Pacers started out 12-5. However, Miles cooled off, and the team started struggling, and since then has been even more inconsistent.

This leads us to another reason why the Pacers have struggled: the inconsistent play of George. In November, the Pacers went 11-2, and George could be best described as incendiary. George averaged 29.2 points per game on 47% shooting from the field and 49% shooting from the 3-point land.

NBA: Playoffs-Atlanta Hawks at Indiana PacersHowever, George’s December was as ugly as his November was beautiful, scoring 21.4 points on 37% shooting from the field and 36% shooting from three. George has increased his scoring and his percentages every month, and it is clear that George’s play is indicative of the Pacers playoff prospects.

George shoots 43% from the field in victories, but falls under 40% in losses. Clearly George is a superstar talent, and has shown glimpses of putting it all together, but he needs to do it for a whole season before he is crowned as a true superstar.

8. Detroit Pistons

The Detroit Pistons have one of the better young groups of players in the NBA, with their core group of Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, Stanley Johnson, and the newly acquired Tobias Harris; all of whom are younger than 26.

Detroit has burst onto the playoff scene with the best Pistons team since the days when they made the Conference Finals six years in a row in the mid 2000s. Spurred on by Coach Stan Van Gundy and his four-out system, the Pistons have incorporated a pick-and-roll system with plenty of space for Drummond to roll to the hoop.

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Any talk about the Pistons has to start with Andre Drummond, arguably the most athletic big man in the NBA, and the best rebounder in the NBA. Keep in mind though that Drummond’s rim protection is a little overrated, with him allowing a 52% percentage at the rim.

However, Drummond’s skills as a rebounder and a roller to the basket cannot be denied. Drummond and point-guard Reggie Jackson have good chemistry on the pick-and-roll, and everyone on the team is good at throwing lobs to Drummond when they help too much on one of their drives.

The other Pistons starters are all good players, helping to explain their resurgence. Jackson is a point-guard who can do a little of everything on offense, shooting just well enough to have a defense not play completely off of him, and be able to drive to the basket comfortably.

635827207484256986-SMG-20151109-kkt-st3-00-4-Caldwell-Pope is a great defender; for example he held this year’s inevitable MVP Stephen Curry to a then season-low 22 points on 7-18 shooting, which is probably the best anyone has guarded Curry this year. Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris play the other two wings; Harris provides the possibility of isolation scoring, while Morris is more of a floor spacer, albeit an inconsistent one.

This Pistons team, however, is not without its flaws. Since Johnson went down with an injury, the already weak Detroit bench has become, in a word, atrocious. The bench is only averaging 26 points per game, and they really only play three guys off the bench anyway: Reggie Bullock, Steve Blake, and Aron Baynes.

Only one of those guys, Baynes, is a legitimate rotational player. The other major flaw is Andre Drummond’s free-throw shooting, which can also be called atrocious. Though these are two big flaws, the Pistons should be able to overcome them to make the playoffs.

9. Chicago Bulls

The Bulls are the only team in this list to employ the services of a former MVP, point-guard Derrick Rose (2010-11). Unfortunately, Rose’s injuries have been piling up, leaving him as a shell of himself. Rose has yet to play nearly a full season since his MVP-season.

ct-tom-thibodeau-speculation-bulls-spt-0129-20150128Prior to this season, the Bulls fired Tom Thibodeau, the coach who had the most success of anyone since Phil Jackson. In fact Thibodeau might have actually done a better job seeing as his best players some of those years were Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, and Joakim Noah, as opposed to Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman.

2015-16 has seen everything good and bad about last year’s Bulls taken to extremes: playing hard and beating teams they should lose to, (like beating the Cleveland Cavaliers twice, the Toronto Raptors three times, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Oklahoma City Thunder), while losing to teams they should beat, (like the Orlando Magic, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Denver Nuggets, the Milwaukee Bucks, the New York Knicks, and the Brooklyn Nets). The Bulls have also barely scraped by multiple times against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers.

One could look at the Bulls and say they have been demolished from injuries, and that’s not wrong. Jimmy Butler, the consensus best player on the team, has missed 15 games with assorted injuries. No one player has played every game for the team, with Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott each missing one game. In total, Bulls players have lost a total of 145 games to injury this year, a figure that places them 9th in the NBA.

ct-derrick-rose-plays-bulls-spt-1024-20151023Derrick Rose, after a broken orbital bone, couldn’t see equal vision in both eyes until after New Year’s. Even with that impaired vision, the Bulls clearly played better with him on the court. His passing is unparalleled on the team, because while one could claim Joakim Noah is a better passer, he has nowhere near Rose’s driving ability.

Even with all the injuries, the Bulls’ play this season has been downright unacceptable. They have the talent to hang with the big guns, as evidenced by their victories over the top teams, but the Bulls also have the lack of motivation against bad teams akin to a four-year old needing to clean his room. In other words, no motivation to speak of.

These Bulls could easily have won 50 games, but their lack of motivation against bad teams has cost them dearly. Still though, since New Year’s, Rose has been averaging 19 points, 5 assists, and has been shooting 46% from the field. Butler is a 20 PPG scorer, and one of the best defenders in basketball. Pau Gasol is one of the best offensive post players in the league, and Taj Gibson is the counter to that on the defensive end. The bench has Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, and Bobby Portis, all of whom could start for most NBA teams.

I think it is fair to say the Bulls’ lack of effort will be their downfall, and the more motivated teams will get in before them.

10. Washington Wizards

The Wizards were another team with ECF expectations. There was even hope that with a good season they might be able to lure Kevin Durant away from the Thunder in free agency, assuming they had a good showing with superstar point-guard John Wall and young marksman Bradley Beal.

However, that has not proven to be the case. The Wizards have taken a massive step back from last year, and are in a position to miss the playoffs entirely. Washington’s demise can be explained for two reasons: injuries and poor coaching/executive decisions.

Jeff Teague, Bradley Beal

Remember that tidbit about the Bulls being the 9th most injured team in the league? Well the Wizards rank 1st in that category. The Wizards lead by a mile, with 257 games missed due to injury, a lot of them to key rotational players such as Alan Anderson, Nene, Beal, Gary Neal, and others. Beal in particular has had bad injury luck, as he has yet to even play 74 games in a season, which is unfortunate because he is viewed as a cornerstone of the franchise.

John Wall always manages to play all the games, and he by himself has led the team this far. Overcoming a poor start by his lofty standards, Wall is on the verge of averaging 20 points, 10 assists, and five rebounds, and is solidifying himself as one of the top-five point guards in the NBA

However, the other reason the Wizards have struggled is that they have a poorly constructed roster, and have supplemented that with a bad (if not the worst) head-coach, Randy Wittman. For example, when your team is reeling from an injury to Alan Anderson, you have not built your roster well.

John Wall, Marcin GortatThe Wizards should be running constant fast-breaks with Wall’s dazzling speed, yet they play two plodding centers in Marcin Gortat and Nene. This team should play Gortat center and have Dudley play power-forward, as he proved he was capable of last year with the Bucks.

With this small change, the Wizards would clear up a lot of space. This would also allow Gortat, who is a very skilled center, to work his magic with Wall, one of the best assist-men in the league. Then Otto Porter, the team’s starting small forward, along with the sharpshooting duo of Beal and Dudley, can make teams pay for leaving them open.

Unfortunately, Wittman seems unwilling to make this change. Despite all the injuries, there is no way this team can make the playoffs until there is an entire regime change. Wittman and GM Ernie Grunfeld have failed in their efforts, and owner Ted Leonsis needs to overhaul the entire staff.

Verdict?

The Wizards and the Bulls’ respective inconsistencies will win (read: lose) out in the end and keep them out of the playoffs, and hopefully convinces each to re-do their team. The Pacers have the best team of the bunch and even if they just go .500 the rest of the way, they should be able to make the playoffs. The Pistons have been on a little losing streak lately, but they should be able to hang on to that last spot.

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I predict there will be a fight until the end for the eighth seed, but the season will conclude with the standings as they currently stand, with the Pacers and Pistons retaining the last two spots.

Statistics provided by: ESPN.com, NBA.com, basketball-reference.com, and Nylon Calculus

Images thanks to: CBS Sports, Fox Sports, NBA.com, NBC Sports, freep.com, the Chicago Tribune, wtop.com

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