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The Top of the Eastern Conference

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Last week, we broke down the state of the Western Conference as it stands at the quarter mark of the season. This week, we’ll perform the same analysis for the Eastern conference. Before we begin, however, I’d like to give an overall shoutout to the East, as the conference has been a truly pleasant surprise thus far this season. It wasn’t too long ago, if you remember, that a hysteria spread throughout the Twitterverse about the osmosis of talent across the NBA’s geographical divide. A summer that brought the likes of Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Melo, and Paul Millsap out West also gave us dumb memes like this one…

The Western Conference Supremacy narrative is on a pretty hot seat right now, as the East has more teams with a positive point differential (8 vs. 6), more teams above .500 (10 vs. 7), the team with the best record (Boston), the best young duo of the decade (Simmons and Embiid), and the two most exciting League Pass guys (Porzingis and Giannis). Imagine the all-star game if it were tomorrow:

West:

Steph Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, and Anthony Davis

East:

Kyrie Irving, Giannis, Lebron James, Kristaps Porzingis, and Ben Simmons.

You get the point… don’t sleep on the East. Their best team went toe-to-toe with the best team from the West and actually came out alive, using their seemingly endless supply of 6-8 wings, an all-time Basketball IQ big guy in Horford, and the enigma that is Kyrie Irving to defeat the champs, 92-88. That game did seem a bit fluky to me as the Warriors mentally checked out and/or missed wide-open shots for long stretches of the second half, but no less fluky than the Cavs catching molten hot fire in Game 3 of last year’s finals to pluck a game off the Warriors. The Celtics, with absolute certainty, are in the realm (along with only Houston, for now) of “if we play amazing and the Warriors are very off, we’re right there,” and, whether you like it or not, that’s a pretty damn good place to be in the NBA world we live in.

Of course, Lebron’s presence hovers over all of this as given he has spent the last 15 years treating this conference like a mid-Pulp Fiction Marsellus Wallace, he’s earned the right to keep us sceptical about the playoff hopes of any team outside of Northeast Ohio. Even in light of the Cavs’ current 9-game winning streak, chinks in Cleveland’s armour have undoubtedly (re)appeared in their performance thus far this season, however, and a slew of other teams look theoretically poised to steal the bag.

Other teams, like Detroit, Toronto, and Indiana have all played really well behind renovated approaches that, at the very least, have created a good buzz in those towns respectively. It really goes to show you how strongly the Warriors’ dominance has compelled teams throughout the league to rethink and overhaul their entire team thesis — it doesn’t necessarily have to turn into pace + space or jacking up more 3s (like the Raptors and Pacers both have done), it just has to be something new and something creative. The Pistons are a great example of a team who clearly spent their offseason thinking very hard about how to be unique, which they’ve done by getting the most out of Andre Drummond.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into the three teams at the top of the conference.

Boston Celtics. 18-4 SU, 17-4-1 ATS.

It really doesn’t matter when Isiah Thomas comes back or how well he plays… the Celtics won the Kyrie trade. Of course, it’s sad when a guy gets thrown out of the building after playing his heart out for a franchise the way IT did a year ago, but it’s truly mind-blowing how much of a distant memory last season’s group feels like. The thesis is simple: Kyrie, Al, length, strength, and switchability. It all starts on defense, where their ability to switch 4/5 positions and, at times 5/5 positions has translated into a historic defensive season for Boston thus far. Stevens’ insistence on preaching effort on that end of the floor is simple, yes, but also fucking effective. It’s not a coincidence that teams don’t shoot the ball well against Boston; they get out in the open floor and contest shots and they don’t give up on plays — just ask Kevin Durant.

Kyrie is having one of those seasons where his numbers aren’t absurd but he’s doing a perfect job of picking his spots and deciding when to enter “I’m one of the five best scorers in the league right now” mode. The Celtics under Stevens have always kept as a principle that everyone ought to touch the ball frequently which, despite being theoretically at odds with Kyrie’s on-court attitude, has actually been a perfect complement to his game. In preparing research for this article I was quite shocked to find that Kyrie has arguably been a worse offensive player this year than he was in Cleveland last year… until the clutch. THE DUDE BALLS OUT IN THE CLUTCH. For the season, his offensive rating is sitting at a mediocre 106. In the fourth quarter, that number jumps to 118. In the last 3 minutes, that number jumps to 129! The guy is doing a superb job of mitigating the potential awkwardness of his arrival in Boston by being “one of the guys” for as long as possible until he needs to become “the guy” that Boston traded for and that makes him one of my favorite players of all time.

Al Horford’s resurgence is another byproduct of the Kyrie Irving experience, as the oft-maligned Big Man has been rejuvenated in his 11th NBA season. His ungodly +18 Net Rating is far and away a career-best — anchored by a gritty 99 defensive rating that perhaps does not even do justice to how versatile and integral he’s been for their league-destroying team defensive concept thus far. Catching flak in the playoffs a year ago for not being able to hold his own on the glass, Horford has improved to collect 23% of available defensive rebounds, up from 16 in last year’s playoffs. In my opinion, you become an elite defensive big in the NBA when you can do three things at once: rebound your position, protect the rim, and get out on the perimeter and switch a little bit. Horford can do all three well, and is entering the elite Draymond category in terms of switchability and staying in front of guards.

I’d be remiss to discuss Boston’s success this season without mentioning their stable of “in-between guys”, switchable 2-4 wings who have truly all stepped the fuck up this season. Jayson Tatum looks like a 10-year NBA vet at the young age of 19. While I do think he has the upward potential of becoming an elite scorer someday, he is already an elite 3 and D wing who fits perfectly in Boston’s system. Averaging 14 and 5 with a wise-beyond-his-years 49/48/85 shooting splits, it’s safe to say that Boscould never could have imagined this type of contribution from Tatum in year 1.

Going forward, the prospects of a Tatum-Hayward-Brown centrifuge on the wings is super, super intimidating. Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown are all making special contributions to a team that seems to really love playing together. My main worry with the IT trade was how it would affect team chemistry; everyone seems to be loving playing with Kyrie and he’s returning the favor with a maturity/leadership flavor that while some may struggle to understand, the Celtics seem to embrace. I do honestly believe that Kyrie is leading the league in high-fives this year so far, if only that stat were tracked.

VERDICT: Best Team in the East

Detroit Pistons. 14-6 SU, 14-5-1 ATS.

Detroit’s resurgence to start the season has been one of my favorite stories across the league. They’re perched nicely near the top of the conference and have the feel of a team that could really go far, as evidenced by their win in Boston the other night in which they really hurt the Celtics with bully ball. While big wins like the ones they’ve pulled off against Golden State or Boston are nice, perhaps a better sign of a good team in Detroit is their ability to avoid bad losses and take care of business when it’s easy. To that end, the Pistons have only lost 1 game to a team with a losing record this season, most recently coming out with a 24-point thrashing at home against Phoenix last night. They’re not high variance, they’re just flat-out good.

Of course, none of this is possible without Andre Drummond’s improved free-throw shooting, allowing him to stay on the floor throughout the game and keep contributing. The hack-a-Drummond strategy that killed the Pistons at times last year is now verging on out of the question, as he’s knocking down 63% of his free throws (up from 39% a year ago!). Hacking in basketball is similar to icing a kicker in football. It’s way easier, in my opinion, to kick the field goal when the opposing coach has the threat of calling the timeout… you just aren’t sure if he’ll use it. If you blow the timeout too early, the kicker can just step up to the next kick and know this is the one. Drummond’s confidence is so high this year because the whole concept of Hack-a-Drummond is off his mind, and boy he’s just balling now. You’re looking at a guy averaging 14 points and 15 boards with a Draymond-like +12 net rating.

Detroit has revamped their offense, moving him frequently from the baseline-dunker role to the high post, surrounding him with a group of quietly skilled shooters and scorers. As a team, they are shooting a fantastic 40% from the three-point line, behind career years offensively from Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley. Both those guys are shooting with confidence and shooting it well, not only having the effect of bolstering the team offense but also the secondary (and perhaps more valuable) effect of limiting Reggie Jackson’s ball dominance, for which he has often been criticized. Jackson is very skilled and can undoubtedly take over a game, indeed, but they don’t need that from him every night. Van Gundy’s ability to reign in Jackson’s role into a “point guard who picks his spots as a scorer off of P&R” has proved invaluable thus far. Not only has the team’s offensive rating shot up to 8th in the league at 109, but Jackson’s individual efficiency has benefited as well. His usage is down, his PER is up to 20 from 14 a season ago, he is taking more threes than ever, and his True Shooting is up to 59 from 51. All this improvement while he’s settled in nicely in the team hierarchy, taking the 4th most shots on the team and playing the 5th most minutes. I’ve always been wary of Jackson but this just might be the perfect role for him.

Defensively, they’ve got bulldogs in Stanley Johnson and Avery Bradley whose ability to apply ball pressure coalesces perfectly with Drummond’s ability to clean the glass and protect the rim. Teams actually are shooting the ball surprisingly well against Detroit, and it’s quite surprising that they’ve climbed to 11th in the league in defense with a 106 Rating despite allowing opponents to shoot 47% from the field, just 25th in the league. This actually renders Detroit somewhat of a regression candidate defensively, as I expect their overall defense to climb a bit higher as teams’ shooting against them cools off a bit. If you would have told me that Detroit would go into Boston as a 6.5 point dog and the C’s shot 52% from the field and 49% from 3, I’d say that sounds like a rough night for the Pistons. Yet, they go into the Garden and win outright by 10. Just awesome stuff from Detroit this season, and if you can still find a 20:1 for them on Eastern Conference future bets, go ahead and lock that up. They’re legit.

VERDICT: Contender in the East.

Cleveland Cavaliers. 14-7 SU, 8-12-1 ATS.

Anyone who knows me knows I am not the biggest fan of LeBron James. However, it is impossible to deny that what this man is doing in his Year 15 Season is absurdly impressive. 28, 8, and 8. The shittier the Cavaliers’ supporting cast gets the harder it becomes to attack Lebron’s greatness, as he’s carried a truly misfit group to a 14-7 record despite the 24th-ranked defense in the league. If you try to imagine the Cavs’ roster with a league-average small forward in Lebron’s place, say, Trevor Ariza, aren’t they just a worse version of Minnesota’s 25-win Kevin Love teams? They have big names, for sure, but when you cut it real for a second their roster is probably really bad.

If I were Tyrann Lue, I’d stop worrying as much about the defense or even the difference between their offense and defense and instead just embrace a Rockets-like approach. It won’t matter how bad your defense is if you score 125 points, as evidenced by the Cavaliers’ lone win in last year’s finals. For instance, the 5-man lineup of Love, Lebron, Wade, Korver, and J.R. is putting up 130 points per 100 possessions. Sure, they can’t defend anyone, but is any team outside of Golden State that good defensively as to flip the advantage on its head? I appreciate the severe lack of defensive ability in lineups like these, but lineups like these also have the effect of aggressively enforcing defensive weakness onto the other team. Becoming comfortable in very high-scoring games like, for instance, a college football team does throughout its season, is my best bet for how Cleveland can stabilize itself going forward. Why not just be Oklahoma and win 62-52 instead of trying to Bama and dominate?

The difficulty with projecting this group is that every bone in my body wants to point out to you the flaws in this team… but doesn’t Lebron’s greatness cover up any of them? They can’t guard anyone. They can’t defend in transition. They don’t force turnovers. Their coach is awful. They don’t rebound well. They don’t have anyone who can defend a point guard.

But, they have Lebron. I wrote you two long-form analyses of why I love Detroit and Boston and yet with a gun to my head I’m still taking Lebron, every single time. Still hate him, but time to show some respect.

Verdict: The Lebron Effect

Zach is currently a college senior on the East Coast, and loves to write about sports as well as record his NBA podcast. An avid fan and notable consumer of sports content, the descent into the application of the handicapping lens to sports analysis was only inevitable.

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