The NBA-TV Eastern Conference Finals: A look at the East, thus far

After seeing a fair number of games on NBA League Pass and in person at the Staples Center so far this year, here are some assertions. In this blog post, I focus upon the Eastern Conference. –

– the NBA is careening toward a Hawks-Raptors conference finals.

In the history of the league, there were several instances at least prior to like around 1983 that the league would simply not televise specific conference finals games or put the games it did televise on tape delay. There is probably not a lot of footage, for example, of the 1979 Bullets-Spurs Eastern Conference Finals, even though that finals was actually not really some kind of horrible nadir for the coke-induced undesirability of the NBA given it featured two of the leagues’ premier players at the time – George Gervin and Elvin Hayes – and a variety of other interesting players and plot elements (Wes Unseld, Bobby Dandrige, Larry Kenon, the run-and-gun Spurs vs. inside-grind-it-out Bullets, a defending champ – Washington – as the underdog). ANYWAY.

Never before has there been a conference finals that the league would like to broadcast entirely on NBA-TV, or worse, try to sabotage with shady officiating in earlier rounds to get the relatively more marketable likes of the Wizards, Bulls or Cavs in the conference finals.

But the surface unattractiveness of this finals for the, quote en quote, casual fan masks the underlying fact that Hawks-Raptors would, in fact, be one of the better and certainly more entertaining Eastern Conference Finals in recent memory. Both teams are unselfish, great offensive, great passing teams that remind me a little of the Chris Webber/Vlade Divac Sacramento Kings that were pretty great for a few years thanks to exceptional ball movement.

I thought the Hawks would be good this year, but these guys are killers. I saw them beat Portland on the road last night and it’s fairly evident why they have been destroying the league after an eh start. Paul Milsap is a terrific multi-dimensional player – one of the smartest and most unselfish players in the league. Jeff Teague is one of the most energetic and durable point guards in the league, everything he does seems to be in acceleration. Al Horford is a former all-star who has so far settled into a supporting role – and if he returns even slightly more to his old form – the Hawks will, obvious pun intended, fly to even greater heights.

Meanwhile, they are one of the deepest teams in the league, Eastern or Western conference. Players 4-9 are Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Dennis Schroder (with the amazing late 80s gold streak in his hair), Thabo Sefolosha (why did OKC lowball him?), Pero Antic, and Mike Scott. All of them, except Sefolosha, can make the three.

Long-term the Hawks are an interesting franchise. On the one hand, this amazing, low-salary team shows some kind of previously unknown basketball genius lurking inside the mediocre – possibly kind of racist – heart of Danny Ferry. Atlanta, on paper, could have the brightest franchise of any team in the NBA. On the other hand, I guess, they’re a huge mess waiting to happen with the ownership sale and Ferry’s leave of absence.

Regardless, this year, I don’t see anything short of their own playoff inexperience stopping the Hawks. The Bulls have more playoff experience, but I would still, barely, give the edge to the Hawks over a healthy Bulls team. And the chances of this hypothetical – a healthy Bulls team – actually happening come playoff time, given their injury history and Tom Thibodeau’s penchant for driving Jimmy Butler to the ground with minutes, seems unlikely.

….The Raptors success was a bit more predictable but also harder to explain. Toronto had two borderline all-star players heading into the season and one of them has missed more games than he’s played. Kyle Lowry’s Billups-like metamorphosis partly accounts for their improvement, as does the individual enhancement of Jonas Valanciunas’s game, and Louis Williams becoming this generation’s Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson for the first 34 games of the year. Their role players – Williams, Patrick Patterson in particular – all seem to be doing suspiciously well as if we were watching a movie of a Canadian team suddenly becoming the best in basketball.

The short of it is, if I had to pick one of those two teams to fade in the next few months, it might be the Raptors not the Hawks – though Toronto also has a better chance of the two to become even greater, thanks to the imminent re-addition of DeMar DeRozan. The partial unexplainability of their success plus no playoff experience beyond last year’s first round playoff loss to the Nets means that if we were doing the Eastern Conference Rankings right now, it would be this:

1. Atlanta

2. Toronto

3. Chicago

As a jaded Bulls fan, who breathes in the disappointment of adult life with each Bulls’ injury report, I must say I never in a million gazillion years thought Jimmy Butler would play like this. I mean, it seems to completely defy analysis. If you were doing something as a dumb as an “Eastern Conference MVP so far” award, it would be a legitimate four-way race between Butler, Lowry, John Wall, and – oh, right – LeBron James.

The hope here is that Butler’s stupefying greatness would transcend the Bulls predictable pattern of being damned after the obligatory final Derrick Rose injury of the season. So far, pretty good: Butler plus Pau Gasol’s pretty damn implausible in itself throwback season has made Rose effectively the fourth most important Bull (behind Joakim Noah as well). This is ideal, because the truth is Rose is currently the WORST of any eastern conference point guard among the contenders – You’d rather have Wall or Lowry, you’d even, gulp, rather have Teague, and, probably, you’d rather have Kyrie Irving. Rose is bad defensively and erratic offensively. It’s cool that everyone (including me!) really is rooting for him to return to form, but it hasn’t happened. Rose is in his seventh season. Penny Hardaway’s 7th season was staying kind of healthy and being Jason Kidd’s sidekick in Phoenix with a few playoff flourishes.

The Bulls are 3rd here because when healthy they’re better than Washington (they beat the Wizards on the road less than two weeks ago), but they lack the consistency of the Hawks and Raptors. Take last night. They needed overtime to beat the Celtics at home. Well, Butler and Mike Dunleavy were out injured. But why the hell were those two out injured? Why does this ALWAYS happen to the Bulls. When you tune in to a Hawks game, you expect to see Jeff Teague and Paul Milsap. When you watch a Bulls game, you never know who is going to play. They could win the East but, for now, I see them losing in the 2nd round.

4. Wizards

Here is a good team that has very specific things it needs to do to become a great team. Change coaches, develop Otto Porter or some other small forward to complement and eventually replace Paul Pierce, get a 3rd guard to take minutes from a terrific but kind of fragile Bradley Beal, find a more consistent player to play more of Nene’s minutes though Kris Humphries has quietly done a nice job.

Mostly, Wall and Beal just need to play more together. As demonstrated last year, this is a team – kind of like the Warriors, actually – built to do well in the playoffs with their solid perimeter scoring attack mixed with inside defensive muscle. They could make the conference finals. But as demonstrated by their current Western Conference road swing, they don’t have the extra gear that the Raptors, Hawks or Bulls have right now and are, again, simply a good team who may 50 games in a weak conference.

5. Cavs

Nobody really hedged their bets with the Cavs in the pre-season from what I saw, which makes sense given the overwhelming collection of talent assembled here. But I think, for what it’s worth, one thing that could have been forecast was dissatisfaction with David Blatt. The CW that this guy was a smart hoops mind etc. etc. didn’t take into the reality that he is an extraordinarily low-profile name stepping into an extraordinarily high-profile situation. Erik Spoelstra had the backing of Dwayne Wade and Pat Riley and coached teams that had a beached whale washed out Jermaine O’Neal as their second best player to high 40s win totals before LeBron James came on board. And even Spoelstra was on thin ice until about the 4th quarter of Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals.

I also think the ball sharing problems between Irving and James are not totally shocking. I do think the Chris Bosh-like marginalization of Kevin Love in the offense is a bit surprising. This guy averaged 26 a game last year. It seems they should be making it more of a priority to get him the ball.

The NBA season is very, very long and there is a lot of time for Cleveland to still get their act together. But given the teams’ wild inconsistency, the fact James is not God and might be entering another stage of his career (he’s played more than 1,000 games – regular season + playoffs), and the further readjustment that might be made if they fire Blatt, they are floating at fifth for now, behind the four good East teams and ahead of the irrelevant crap forthcoming in these rankings.

6. Detroit

5-23: record with Josh Smith

5-0: record since they waived Josh Smith

ESPN will someday make one of those 30-for-30 shorts about Josh Smith getting waived and the Pistons making a stunning rally into the playoffs and throwing a scare into one of the aforementioned contenders in the first round. Like that 15-minute documentary that was just entirely about the Herschel Walker trade.

7. Nets

To call the Nets “an enigma” would seem to suggest they’re interesting, which they’re clearly not. They do, though, always seem at their best when one of their big name players gets injured or benched. Despite the overall unappealing nature of all this, they do have talent and last year Jason Kidd sort of found the right way to play all that talent. Lionel Hollins was a good, underrated coach with the Grizzlies and my money is on him guiding them to a barely above .500 record and approximately 4 percent of Clinton Hill learning who Jarret Jack is.

8. Miami

They’ll be OK if Bosh is healthy. Whatever.

9. Milwaukee

The Bucks are kind of a worse version of the Hawks, with a deep, entertaining team in a bland basketball market and major existential issues for the franchise (In this case. whether they move). I really like how they play together. They’re a team you watch and think, “They have a good attitude!”

That attitude will hopefully hold together what remains a weirdly constructed roster, and one whose most valuable long-term asset, Jabari Parker, is out for the season.

10. Boston

Every time I watch Boston on league pass, the announcers bray on about how Brad Stevens is such a neat, young coach and how they have a bunch of draft picks. These feeling-okay-about-losing vibes will have to translate into something at some point or else they’ll become….

11. Orlando

They need to changes coaches now. There needs to be some ethos, philosophy – something. There’s clearly talent and it’s adding up to nothing right now.

12. Charlotte 13. Indiana 14. New York

Since moving to L.A., here are just some things I enjoy more than watching any of these teams on League Pass –

– doing a Yelp search for sliding-scale therapists

– walking to the train station in the morning (I don’t like getting up and going to work, but it is nice to walk in the morning sun through the still kind of exotic foliage and tropical urban-ness of L.A.’s Koreatown)

– masturbating to critically acclaimed TV comedies

– reading Variety

15. Philadelphia

How bad are the Sixers? For the princely sum of 40 dollars (by comparison, tickets to the Christmas Warriors-Clippers game were $250 each at that same level), I spent my Saturday night in fucking row eight of the entire Staples Center watching the Sixers-Clippers. Row eight of the NBA Arena in L.A. I could have yelled at the players and they would have heard me. It was by far the closest I’ve ever been to the court of an NBA game. And it was totally awesome. It actually made me think more about pursuing a latent dream of being a basketball writer or trying to actually do something that would get me closer to watch these games in person. Because even though the Clippers won by 36, it was just really bracing to see things like the players attacking the rim and trying to create space and positioning amid all the giant bodies and everything moving so fast but also kind of orderly. Also, it seems like everyone travels.

This game also marked the only time all season I’ve seen the Sixers play a full game. This guy of theirs, Robert Covington, was shockingly good. Also, they make a ton of dumb mistakes, like running into each other when getting rebounds. They do play fast. Nerlens Noel is certainly nothing special yet. I bet half the rebounds he has collected this year have been in garbage time. I guess, though, one could call their whole season “garbage time.”

Philosophically, I don’t know if the Sixers whole tanking grand experiment will work out. I still maintain they should have kept players like Thaddeus Young or Evan Turner so they could actually be competitive in games — while still losing a bunch and getting a high draft pick — and that would provide a better experience for their young players. But their historic badness allowed me to have a really cool experience and I thank Sam Hinkle for that.