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The Lay of the Eastern Conference Land

The NBA is back tonight. Here's a look at the Eastern Conference and Toronto's prospects heading towards the post-season.

The NBA starts up again. Ready yourselves, get your rest, do some stretches, or, perhaps, do like Guy Fieri does for the waning hours of your freedom.

25 games remain in the 2021/22 season for the Toronto Raptors. More than 2/3’s of the season poof!

Toronto’s faired better than some anticipated. (Not I, my consequential wager on over 37 wins is looking reallllll nice right about now). They’re square in the Playoff hunt with the supposed “Top 6” a little less clear than all those so-called experts foresaw.

This won’t be a prediction; I’m no hypocrite. It’s a surmising of what’s going on in the Eastern Conference preceding the break and what might come following it.

The Past

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The East is wild. Unlike the West, where 6.5 games separate 1st and 2nd and 5.5 games are between 2nd and 5th, only 5 games keep the Raps (7th) out of 1st or 11th.

Such a tight race means the slightest modicum of volatility has big implications. Things like hot streaks, games remaining, and strength of schedule have more importance now than late November.

Boston (9-1), Toronto (8-2), and Miami (7-3) have been the hottest teams of late. Charlotte, New York, and Brooklyn have stunk.

Strength of Schedule (“SOS”) becomes a more predictive variable the further along in the season we go. Of the “contending teams”, Toronto has had the most difficult thus far, though, Atlanta’s done well to stay in the mix with the 9th most difficult. Toronto also has the most games remaining, technically, giving them the most control over how they finish. That advantage is about to shrink when they play thrice in four days.

The Present

The following data is from Jan 1, 2022 and onward. I thought to give a more zoomed in snapshot of what’s going down in the East.

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Some of this information is less helpful projecting forward. Teams struggling with significant injuries like Brooklyn, Cleveland, and Chicago or teams who made dramatic trade deadline changes – Brooklyn, Cleveland, Philly, and Indiana – will look dramatically different.

Still, there are trends – ominous or promising – to reveal.

Toronto stands out as the marquis team in the East in 2022. Boston, Miami, and Philly hold similar successful records, but their past SOS’s rank 28th, 25th, and 21st. Toronto’s 16th.

The offensive ratings are a bit less definitive – 2 points separate the majority of teams. That can be promising for a team like Toronto who, generally speaking, struggled to score at a high, constant rate.

On the defensive side, Boston has continued its dominance. Their rating is utter absurdity – a whole 7 points greater than the 4th place Cavs and 5th place Heat.

Toronto and Boston are the only teams in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive ratings in the last two months. That, in combination with Toronto’s more difficult SOS and key wins over elite Eastern teams, should provide Toronto fans with a fortified sense of optimism. What we just witnessed the past 8 weeks is something to chew on.

Point differential, like all these advanced stats, can be misconstrued. One giant 30 point beatdown distorts an average. Conversely, it can reveal the influence of luck or the potential or falsity of a team.

For example, Chicago and Charlotte share a similar negative point differential and yet their records are starkly binary. Does that mean Charlotte should be better than they are or Chicago worse than touted? A look at the SOS and maybe you could argue Charlotte and Chicago should be closer in records.

An even further dive – caution, more maths ahead –  in projected wins and losses rejigs the Eastern Conference. Basketball Reference‘s Pythagorean Wins/Losses delineates expected wins based on a team’s point differential.

Using that methodology, Boston is atop the East with 6 additional wins, followed by Miami, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Chicago, and then Toronto, Philly, Atlanta. Food for thought moving forward.

Roster Stuff

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Forecasting anything is difficult. With injuries and adjustments and additions and subtractions, teams of the past are not who they necessarily are in the future. Whatever we just looked at, matters little if one of the 75 greatest basketball players ever joins your team.

Philly is obviously the clear winner of the trade deadline. They went from Seth Curry and Andre Drummond to James Harden. Both Harden and Embiid will be the two best players on the floor in a majority of its games. That’s “Morey Ball” at its truest form.

Brooklyn, too, upgraded. They went from disgruntled, half-invested, oft-injured (all 3 qualifiers are likely linked) to Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, and Andre Drummond. Brooklyn is suddenly younger, spryer, and deeper – a much better way to surround two of the Top 12 players in the league. (I bet LeBron’s jealllll.)

Derrick White has fit splendidly in Boston. He’s Spursian to the core: a plug-and-play, team-first, defence-most, type of player. That is exactly what this Celtics team, seemingly holding it together by the skin of its teeth on the floor and in the locker room, needed.

Chicago did nothing at the deadline. Fair for them to think they’re Gucci once their defensive core of Caruso, Ball, and Williams returns. Those three make this team elite at both ends. Prior to their injuries, they had an 8th best defensive rating.

Caris LeVert in Cleveland, gives the Cavs a bigger, scoring guard to compensate for the loss of Ricky Rubio and Collin Sexton. On paper, it’s a major upgrade from two injured reservists to a legitimate scorer. However, they’re 2-2 since he’s joined and he’s struggled shooting the ball (4/14 from 3). In theory, he strengthens Cleveland’s offensive diversity, in practice, it’s unclear if LeVert moves Cleveland any closer to contention.

Charlotte needed a big badly. Montrezl Harrell helps, in a vacuum, but is not the type, I think, they needed. LaMelo Ball does all the hard work. He puts players in the best place to pass or score. Plumlee often gutted whatever advantage they had; Harrell will make better use of those opportunities, but only in a limited capacity, and is a liability defensively at the 5.

Brook Lopez’ return looks unlikely. Serge Ibaka gives Milwaukee the ability to go back to those larger lineups that overpower teams. Losing Divencenzo in exchange, who wasn’t playing well, but is another guy to throw at perimeter threats, mitigates the ultimate success of adding Ibaka. Losing Connaughton, literally, days later, makes that trade sting a bit more.

The Future

Again, I’m not predicting anything. I’ll let the data people do that and, perhaps, I’ll make the odd inference or two.

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The following tiers are based on FiveThirtyEight’s projected records.

Home Court Advantage

1. Miami
2. Philly
3. Milwaukee
4. Boston

Nothing feels solid these days.

Can’t say with certainty that these teams will be the top 4 in the East, but all signs point to them ending there.

Only Miami looks to be able to coast the rest of the way should they remain healthy. They have a moderate SOS and the 2nd best net rating and point differential in the East.

Milwaukee, on the other hand, has the hardest schedule remaining in the league and still have yet to shake off their Championship hangover. Philly and Harden still have to click and demonstrate that it can work at both ends of the floor.

Were it not for Boston, I would say Toronto’s a fun dark horse for that 4th spot. Boston’s found its identity in its defence. They’re so elite at that end that despite having a 10th best offensive rating, they still hold the NBA’s best net rating since January. I could critique Boston’s depth, but I’d be throwing snowballs in glass houses then.

Still not a sure thing. Boston has the 10th worst SOS remaining and only 22 games left to maneuver.

Avoiding the Play-In

5. Chicago
6. Cleveland

Hard to believe, I know. But I’d even go so far as to say that, realistically, either could find themselves in the Play-In.

Chicago (5 games ahead of the Play-In) had the 29th hardest SOS and finished with a -0.7 points differential over the last 2 months. They now have the 2nd hardest SOS moving forward with health for a majority of its players still in question and a faltering defence. Cleveland (2.5 games ahead) is due to hit a wall – their offensive rating has been in the bottom third of the league the last two months and have only a +1.6 point differential since January – eventually.

Playing In the Play-In

7. Toronto
8. Brooklyn
9. Atlanta
10. Charlotte

I know it’s startling to see Brooklyn here. They do have an easier SOS, but it’s a major uphill battle without KD, Kyrie for half the games, and a rusty Ben Simmons. PlayoffStatus has them pegged at a 72% likelihood they’re in the Play-In.

Charlotte struggled with a medium SOS in the first part of the season with their offence falling off a cliff the last two months. Their schedule will only get a bit easier moving forward, and they’ll have to do it, for a while, without veteran scorer and least lucky NBAer, Gordon Hayward.

Other than the Raptors, Atlanta looks like the only other team flirting with the Avoiding the Play-In tier. They have a much easier SOS than most, are finally healthy, and torch offensively. If they can work their defensive rating down a few pegs, they have a shot.

Miss the Playoffs

Washington
New York
Indiana

New York has the 4th most difficult SOS ahead; the body language doctor and sudden losing suggests they’re at the verge of implosion.

Washington’s lost Bradley Beal and Indiana is on a retool. No reason to think any of these three will put together a Play-In Push.

The Rest

I didn’t include Detroit or Orlando in any of this because they long ago bowed out. Love that Piston core though. I’d watch those guys in anticipation of future years of problems – Troy Weaver finally seems passed his centre-obsessed ailment.

Thoughts on Toronto

Despite, FiveThirtyEight’s projections, Toronto truly is a wild card. At times, they look destined for home court advantage, other times the Play-In.

A wise strategist does not forecast, they consider the possible, plausible, and probable.

The possible is Toronto craters. The minutes, an injury, bad luck, horrid shooting. Something does them in. Toronto has a thinner margin of error than most. A combination of fateful events could plummet Toronto into the Play-In or worse.

The plausible is avoiding the Play-In. The Raps have proven they can beat anyone on any given night – Toronto has one of the best records (5-6) vs Top-5 teams in the East. Since January, Toronto’s also had the 3rd best point differential and net rating in the conference. They also have more games remaining than anyone in the Eastern Conference and possess the easiest remaining SOS among the Top 8. There’s a scenario where one of those upper tier teams bungles a chunk of games and Toronto gets hot and zips on by. PlayoffStatus.com has Toronto as a 40% chance at finishing 5th or better.

The probable is Toronto goes 14-11 and finishes right where it sits currently, 7th. I pity the #2 seed who faces Freddy All-Star and crew in the first round.