Yesterday, we took stock of what happened in the first half and then glimpsed ahead to what may come for the Western Conference teams. Today, the focus is on the Eastern Conference.
Rankings are for offensive and defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions); WA82 is wins added prorated to a full season.
NBA RANK/TEAM (NBA POWER RANKING) (WIN PACE / PYTHAGOREAN PACE / PRESEASON PROJECTION)
1. Boston Celtics (24.5) (67 / 67 / 47)
RANKINGS: OFF: 10; DEF: 1
WA82: 1. Kevin Garnett 8.00; 2. Paul Pierce 5.21; 3. Ray Allen 3.70; 4. Rajon Rondo 2.68; 5. Leon Powe 1.03; 6. Glen Davis 1.00; 7. Kendrick Perkins 0.96; 8. Gabe Pruitt 0.93; 9. Eddie House 0.87; 10. Tony Allen 0.47; 11. James Posey 0.46; 12. Scot Pollard 0.33; 13. Brian Scalabrine -0.65.
NUTSHELL: Who could have predicted that it would work so well, so quickly?
LOOKING AHEAD: The chemistry of this team is so strong, Danny Ainge would be rolling the dice if he messed with it. Nevertheless, a veteran point guard--Sam Cassell?--might be a nice hedge against the possibility of Rajon Rondo going into a shell at playoff time. Other than that, Doc Rivers just needs to manage the minutes of his stars and monitor their health so that they are hitting their stride entering the postseason. The Celtics' strong play without Kevin Garnett is as encouraging for Boston's title hopes as the 29-3 start was.
2. Detroit Pistons (20.8) (61 / 63 / 43)
RANKINGS: OFF: 3; DEF: 3
WA82: 1. Chauncey Billups 5.17; 2. Richard Hamilton 3.40; 3. Amir Johnson 3.22; 4. Rasheed Wallace 1.95; 5. Lindsey Hunter 1.77; 6. Tayshaun Prince 1.49; 7. Ronald Murray 1.36; 8. Jason Maxiell 1.28; 9. Arron Afflalo 1.22; 10. Antonio McDyess 0.92; 11. Rodney Stuckey 0.04; 12. Walter Herrmann 0.02; 13. Jarvis Hayes -0.08; 14. Primoz Brezec -1.04.
NUTSHELL: Bench contributions from guys like Jason Maxiell, Flip Murray and Jarvis Hayes have more than offset ever-so-slight declines from Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton.
LOOKING AHEAD: Hayes has become more and more of an afterthought lately as Flip Saunders attempts to integrate younger energy guys like Rodney Stuckey, Amir Johnson and Arron Afflalo. However, those guys are inefficient, as young players tend to be. Meanwhile, Detroit has three starters on the wrong side of 30 years old. Like the Celtics, the Pistons will need to watch the workloads of their most important players as the playoffs approach. Getting a top-two seed in this year's Eastern Conference shouldn't be a problem. There is no reason to burn out the vets.
10. Toronto Raptors (8.6) (45 / 52 / 36)
RANKINGS: OFF: 9; DEF: 13
WA82: 1. Chris Bosh 3.88; 2. Jose Calderon 3.25; 3. Kris Humphries 2.75; 4. Jorge Garbajosa 1.42; 5. T.J. Ford 0.96; 6. Juan Dixon 0.39; 7. Rasho Nesterovic 0.09; 8. Carlos Delfino 0.03; 9. Joey Graham -0.26; 10. Darrick Martin -0.43; 11. Jamario Moon -0.53; 12. Andrea Bargnani -0.88; 13. Jason Kapono -0.89; 14. Anthony Parker -3.00.
NUTSHELL: In the top-heavy Eastern Conference, the Raptors have at times looked like the best of the candidates for the three seed. Other times, they've looked like they don't belong in the playoffs.
LOOKING AHEAD: A couple of things about this "Jose Calderon is a revelation" business. First, he was even better on a per minute basis last season. There is nothing really surprising about his performance. Second, T.J. Ford is still a better player. That said, the Raptors are awfully lucky to have Calderon. As for advice, Sam Mitchell needs to stop messing with Andrea Bargnani's playing time, and he needs more Kris Humphries and less Anthony Parker. Could he pair Ford and Calderon at times? Hey, it worked for the Knicks and their Marbury/Francis backcourt. Oh, wait... At a full seven games behind their Pythagorean predicted record, the Raps are a hard team to figure. You don't want to piss off Pythagoras. He was the Tony Soprano of the Pre-Socratics.
12. Orlando Magic (1.0) (50 / 50 / 43)
RANKINGS: OFF: 8; DEF: 15
WA82: 1. Dwight Howard 5.84; 2. Hedo Turkoglu 2.26; 3. Keyon Dooling 0.65; 4. Rashard Lewis 0.35; 5. Bo Outlaw 0.28; 6. James Augustine 0.03; 7. Adonal Foyle 0.02; 8. Maurice Evans -0.22; 9. J.J. Redick -0.37; 10. Brian Cook -0.38; 11. Pat Garrity -0.40; 12. Carlos Arroyo -0.66; 13. Jameer Nelson -0.87; 14. Keith Bogans -1.31.
NUTSHELL: The Magic is much improved, but consider that it's taken a career season from Hedo Turkoglu to get them to this level.
LOOKING AHEAD: Orlando has pretty much exhausted its payroll flexibility, and the Magic don't seem a likely candidate to venture into luxury-tax territory. Some wiggle room will be freed up cap-wise with the expiring contracts of Keyon Dooling, Carlos Arroyo, Pat Garrity, et al, but that will be eaten up by pay hikes to Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson. So what you see on this roster is pretty much what you're going to get for the foreseeable future. There are small tweaks that can be made. First, Orlando has to find some interior muscle to help Howard on the boards. Also, the Magic has constructed a roster that, skill-wise, is similar to pre-Shaq Phoenix, with a notable exception--Orlando doesn't really have the point guard to quite make it all work. Orlando is a good team, but unless it starts getting significantly more production from the combination of Arroyo (who is a free agent after this season) and Nelson, it's hard to see the Magic challenging the big boys in the East, much less the West. Nelson is the guy that is locked up long term, so Stan Van Gundy must get over his infatuation with Arroyo.
15. Philadelphia 76ers (-1.2) (35 / 39 / 35)
RANKINGS: OFF: 20; DEF: 9
WA82: 1. Andre Iguodala 1.69; 2. Samuel Dalembert 1.59; 3. Andre Miller 0.38; 4. Rodney Carney 0.22; 5. Kevin Ollie 0.18; 6. Calvin Booth 0.18; 7. Louis Amundson 0.15; 8. Shavlik Randolph -0.03; 9. Thaddeus Young -0.19; 10. Gordan Giricek -0.45; 11. Louis Williams -1.11; 12. Jason Smith -1.29; 13. Reggie Evans -1.29; 14. Willie Green -1.78.
NUTSHELL: I'm not sure anyone has noticed, but the 76ers are moving in the right direction.
LOOKING AHEAD: No team has improved more over the last month than the 76ers. Suddenly, Philadelphia has joined Atlanta as the young teams most likely to take those undesirable seven and eight seeds in the East bracket. Wouldn't a first-round 76ers/Celtics matchup be fun? Philly has developed a nice, young core, especially since Thaddeus Young has taken over the major minutes at the power forward slot from Reggie Evans. Andre Iguodala continues to develop and is now one of the NBA's better defensive players in addition to being the 76er most capable of breaking down a defense and getting a quality shot. A potential trade of Andre Miller would hurt the 76ers in the short term, but would also allow them to get an extended look at Louis Williams' ability to run the first-team offense. A young starting five of Samuel Dalembert, Williams, Rodney Carney, Iguodala and Young would give Sixers fans plenty of hope for a brighter future. With Miller out of the picture, the 76ers could even make some noise in the free-agent market.
16. Atlanta Hawks (-1.4) (36 / 36 / 35)
RANKINGS: OFF: 21; DEF: 11
WA82: 1. Josh Smith 1.94; 2. Al Horford 0.63; 3. Joe Johnson 0.28; 4. Salim Stoudamire -0.18; 5. Mario West -0.39; 6. Josh Childress -0.45; 7. Mike Bibby -0.50; 8. Solomon Jones -0.55; 9. Zaza Pachulia -1.07; 10. Marvin Williams -1.27; 11. Acie Law -1.28.
NUTSHELL: The young Hawks are starting to grow up.
LOOKING AHEAD: The downside of the Hawks' rise to respectability is that they won't have any more lottery picks to load up with. In fact, their first-round pick next year went to Phoenix in the Joe Johnson deal a few years ago. So this is the young core Atlanta will be moving forward with, and it's not too bad. What the Hawks needed is a dynamic scorer to go along with Johnson--and Mike Bibby may be just the guy. Dealing for Bibby was a great move for Atlanta fans, who haven't seen a playoff game during the Bush administration. It should be an exciting summer for Hawks fans, as Atlanta will be one of the few teams with cap dollars to spend on a decent free-agent class. First, though, the Hawks must get Josh Smith locked up long term. This should be the group's first playoff experience. Even if it is as the Pistons' first-round plaything, the experience will be good for the youngsters.
17. Cleveland Cavaliers (-2.6) (45 / 37 / 45)
RANKINGS: OFF: 17; DEF: 19
WA82: 1. LeBron James 6.84; 2. Zydrunas Ilgauskas 2.51; 3. Anderson Varejao 0.31; 4. Drew Gooden 0.13; 5. Donyell Marshall -0.23; 6. Dwayne Jones -0.65; 7. Eric Snow -0.74; 8. Shannon Brown -0.89; 9. Devin Brown -1.07; 10. Larry Hughes -1.21; 11. Ira Newble -1.27; 12. Daniel Gibson -1.77; 13. Sasha Pavlovic -2.12; 14. Damon Jones -2.99.
NUTSHELL: The Cavaliers are on pace to match their projection dead on, but the way they've gotten to this point has been surprising. This is a team that hasn't played nearly as well as its mediocre record indicates.
LOOKING AHEAD: The Cleveland backcourt has been the NBA's worst, bar none. Larry Hughes, Daniel Gibson, Eric Snow, Damon Jones and Sasha Pavlovic have all been dreadful. Lately, the team has resorted to using Ira Newble at the two guard. That's not going to cut it, either. The Cavs owe Larry Hughes over $26 million beyond this season, dollars they're not likely to find another team willing to accept. So they've got to find a lead guard to pair with Hughes, who is unacceptable at the point. Unfortunately, the cap situation is a little grim until next season, at least. This just may not be the Cavs' year, though Hughes is showing signs of life of late. You don't ever want to count out LeBron James in a short series. Even though Cleveland's point differential suggests a team due to regress, it seems that the Cavaliers' best basketball is still ahead of them.
18. Washington Wizards (-3.6) (39 / 41 / 38)
RANKINGS: OFF: 12; DEF: 22
WA82: 1. Antawn Jamison 2.89; 2. Caron Butler 2.27; 3. Andray Blatche 0.62; 4. Brendan Haywood 0.62; 5. Oleksiy Pecherov 0.03; 6. Gilbert Arenas 0.02; 7. Antonio Daniels -0.78; 8. Dominic Mcguire -0.95; 9. Darius Songaila -1.07; 10. Roger Mason -1.10; 11. Nick Young -1.40; 12. Deshawn Stevenson -2.19.
NUTSHELL: What we've learned: the Wizards are solid without Gilbert Arenas but they aren't nearly as much fun.
LOOKING AHEAD: I think this was one of Bill Maher's new rules: stop thinking DeShawn Stevenson is a regular. Stevenson is at best an average defender whose contributions on that end do not come close to offsetting his inefficiencies on offense. So who does Arenas get paired with when he returns? Well, rookie Nick Young looks like a keeper, perhaps an Arenas-style gunner, but his defense isn't ready for prime time. How about a Roger Mason/Arenas pairing? Wouldn't hurt to try. I do like Stevenson's beard, though. If Arenas can get back to his former self in time for the postseason, the Wizards can still be a dangerous team in the East bracket. A courageous return by Etan Thomas could really help matters, as well.
19. Indiana Pacers (-4.9) (32 / 33 / 37)
RANKINGS: OFF: 19; DEF: 16
WA82: 1. Jeff Foster 1.85; 2. Mike Dunleavy 1.41; 3. Danny Granger 0.80; 4. Troy Murphy 0.64; 5. Stephen Graham 0.14; 6. Jermaine O'Neal -0.21; 7. Ike Diogu -0.24; 8. Travis Diener -0.59; 9. Jamaal Tinsley -0.72; 10. Shawne Williams -0.85; 11. David Harrison -0.86; 12. Marquis Daniels -0.89; 13. Andre Owens -1.04; 14. Kareem Rush -1.76.
NUTSHELL: Other than upping the tempo, what is Larry Bird's plan for the Pacers?
LOOKING AHEAD: The Pacers have effectively emasculated center Jermaine O'Neal with their new offensive structure, which has rendered them one of the NBA's most perimeter-oriented teams. As a result, O'Neal is almost certainly going to opt out of his contract after the season, becoming one of the jewels of the NBA's sparkling class of free agents this summer. That being the case, doesn't Larry Bird have to trade him for something right now? Apparently not--there has been nary an O'Neal chirp sounding from the rumor tree. O'Neal's decline, because of injuries and Jim O'Brien's philosophy, has been as steep as Indiana's tumble to the bottom of the league's attendance rankings. That's right--an Indiana basketball team has become so bland and indistinct that even fans in the Hoosier state aren't turning out. That'll happen when Danny Granger is your featured player.
20. Chicago Bulls (-6.0) (33 / 32 / 49)
RANKINGS: OFF: 26; DEF: 7
WA82: 1. Joe Smith 0.89; 2. Joakim Noah 0.75; 3. Aaron Gray 0.35; 4. Tyrus Thomas 0.24; 5. Luol Deng 0.20; 6. Kirk Hinrich -0.14; 7. Demetris Nichols -0.21; 8. Andres Nocioni -0.22; 9. Adrian Griffin -0.36; 10. Ben Gordon -0.58; 11. Thomas Gardner -0.74; 12. Thabo Sefolosha -1.39; 13. Ben Wallace -2.04; 14. Chris Duhon -2.44.
NUTSHELL: This is the NBA's most disappointing team, and it's not really close.
LOOKING AHEAD: After everything that has happened, the Bulls could actually still make the playoffs. For that to happen, they need Luol Deng to get healthy and, when he does, they need to treat him like he's the team's best player, which he should be. Beyond that, Chicago must commit to using Joakim Noah, Tyrus Thomas and Aaron Gray as its primary interior players. Forget about Ben Wallace. Just forget about him.
21. New Jersey Nets (-6.5) (35 / 25 / 43)
RANKINGS: OFF: 25; DEF: 21
WA82: 1. Vince Carter 0.39; 2. Desagana Diop -0.21; 3. Stromile Swift -0.33; 4. Sean Williams -0.38; 5. Nenad Krstic -0.57; 6. Devin Harris -0.58; 7. Richard Jefferson -0.83; 8. Jamaal Magloire -0.87; 9. Maurice Ager -0.95; 10. Trenton Hassell -1.77; 11. Josh Boone -1.96; 12. Bostjan Nachbar -2.11; 13. Darrell Armstrong -2.12; 14. Marcus Williams -2.12.
NUTSHELL: An abysmal style of play continues to mask a solid coaching job by Lawrence Frank. This team shouldn't be withing sniffing distance of the top eight.
LOOKING AHEAD: With Jason Kidd gone, the Nets have begun the much-needed process of re-inventing themselves for the future. Devin Harris, Desagana Diop, Sean Williams and Josh Boone are solid building blocks, and Richard Jefferson is still just 27. Until Rod Thorn can extricate New Jersey from Vince Carter, it's going to be tough for the franchise to turn the page.
24. Charlotte Bobcats (-10.8) (29 / 26 / 39)
RANKINGS: OFF: 23; DEF: 26
WA82: 1. Gerald Wallace 0.39; 2. Emeka Okafor 0.26; 3. Nazr Mohammed -0.11; 4. Jason Richardson -0.17; 5. Othella Harrington -0.48; 6. Jermareo Davidson -0.52; 7. Ryan Hollins -0.62; 8. Derek Anderson -0.68; 9. Earl Boykins -1.07; 10. Jared Dudley -1.33; 11. Raymond Felton -2.34; 12. Jeff McInnis -2.93; 13. Matt Carroll -3.57.
NUTSHELL: Michael Jordan's cluelessness as to how to run a franchise continues to manifest itself, much to the dismay of Bobcats fans.
LOOKING AHEAD: Sam Vincent went to a small-ball lineup for a while, featuring Gerald Wallace and Jason Richardson as the starting forwards. The lineup was fun to watch, even with Jeff McInnis in it, and there were even some successful nights, such as a win at Boston. Overall, Charlotte is still a dysfunctional team. Even though the Bobcats' best players are rangy, athletic types, and they have a good, young point guard in Raymond Felton, Charlotte is only middle-of-the-pack in terms of tempo. Nazr Mohammed can be a solid post option in the halfcourt set and should get major minutes alongside Emeka Okafor to improve Charlotte's unacceptable rebounding percentage, which ranks 26th in the league. The components are there to be much better than this, but for whatever reason it's just not working for the Bobcats. The focus from here on out should be to push the pace and establish the Bobcats' fast-break attack with Felton in more of a pure play-making role.
26. Milwaukee Bucks (-12.6) (28 / 22 / 24)
RANKINGS: OFF: 24; DEF: 29
WA82: 1. Andrew Bogut 0.19; 2. Charlie Villanueva -0.11; 3. Michael Redd -0.13; 4. Jake Voskuhl -0.73; 5. Dan Gadzuric -0.76; 6. Maurice Williams -0.88; 7. Awvee Storey -0.91; 8. Michael Ruffin -0.92; 9. Desmond Mason -1.09; 10. Yi Jianlian -1.77; 11. Bobby Simmons -1.84; 12. Charlie Bell -3.20; 13. Royal Ivey -3.31.
NUTSHELL: General manager Larry Harris is in the final year of his contract, and the howls for change have defined the Bucks' disappointing season. When you realize that Harris went out of his way before the season to match Miami's offer sheet to Charlie Bell, you can't blame the fans for worrying about the future of their favorite franchise.
LOOKING AHEAD: Michael Redd could be so valuable as a role player on a contending team, the type of player who could put Utah or New Orleans or Denver over the top. He's woefully miscast as the franchise player in Milwaukee, and that, as much as anything else, muddles up the works in beer town. Moving Redd should be a priority, if not for Harris than for whomever replaces him if that change should come to pass. With developing Yi Jianlian and another lottery pick on the way, the situation isn't totally hopeless in Milwaukee.
28. Miami Heat (-15.8) (14 / 20 / 39)
RANKINGS: OFF: 28; DEF: 27
WA82: 1. Shawn Marion 2.45; 2. Dwyane Wade 0.71; 3. Alexander Johnson -0.18; 4. Anfernee Hardaway -0.55; 5. Alonzo Mourning -0.74; 6. Dorell Wright -1.01; 7. Earl Barron -1.03; 8. Marcus Banks -1.65; 9. Mark Blount -1.76; 10. Jason Williams -1.85; 11. Daequan Cook -1.99; 12. Chris Quinn -2.41; 13. Udonis Haslem -2.60; 14. Ricky Davis -4.23.
NUTSHELL: A lost season.
LOOKING AHEAD: Everything is frozen up for the Heat. Dwyane Wade is a few months away from being truly healthy. No one knows if Shawn Marion will opt out. How high in the lottery will Miami end up? Does Pat Riley want to coach beyond this season? There is very little evaluation to be done of the current Heat roster. All of the action will be over the summer.
29. New York Knicks (-17.5) (23 / 25 / 43)
RANKINGS: OFF: 22; DEF: 28
WA82: 1. Zach Randolph 0.82; 2. David Lee -0.04; 3. Wilson Chandler -0.07; 4. Malik Rose -0.63; 5. Mardy Collins -0.82; 6. Renaldo Balkman -0.95; 7. Nate Robinson -0.95; 8. Eddy Curry -1.42; 9. Stephon Marbury -1.57; 10. Jared Jeffries -1.99; 11. Fred Jones -2.03; 12. Jamal Crawford -2.76; 13. Quentin Richardson -3.37.
NUTSHELL: Isiah is still there? Are you serious?
LOOKING AHEAD: Until Thomas is gone, you can't.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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