Sonny’s Side Note: 2016-17 NBA Eastern Conference playoff prediction
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part opinion piece on the NBA post-season. Digital editor Sonny Mulpuri offers ranked predictions for each division, and backs his choices with reasoned arguments. Have your own ideas? Write a Letter to the Editor or leave a comment below.
Eastern Conference Standings
1) Cleveland Cavaliers
2) Boston Celtics
3) Toronto Raptors
4) Indiana Pacers
5) Atlanta Hawks
6) Detroit Pistons
7) Washington Wizards
8) New York Knicks
9) Chicago Bulls
10) Charlotte Hornets
11) Milwaukee Bucks
12) Miami Heat
13) Orlando Magic
14) Philadelphia 76ers
15) Brooklyn Nets
I’m only going to address the potential playoff teams from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers are lead by perhaps the best player in the NBA, LeBron James. Claiming the Eastern Conference Championship the last two years and the Finals Championship last year, the Cavaliers are a powerhouse and the team to beat this season.
The Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics are the two teams that have the personnel to compete for the two seed. I do think the Celtics will get the two seed just because of their off-season additions of Al Horford and third overall pick in Jaylen Brown, leaving them with more depth than the Raptors and during a 82-game season that plays a major factor. I wouldn’t be surprised if the four-six seeds are decided by two games or fewer. These seeds are going to be decided by the amount of bench depth and the contributions they have in games.
Indiana’s bench is one that is subpar, but their starting rotations is looking great. Paul George is going to be a superstar this year, named to the first or second All-NBA team, and a MVP candidate. All of their starters don’t have issues putting the ball throughout the net, but at the times the eight-ten guys on the bench don’t provide as much as they need to. I still think the Pacers will claim the fourth seed, but to make a deep run in the playoffs they need to make a few more moves to bolster their bench.
The Hawks are a team that have lost significant pieces in Jeff Teague and Al Horford. However, they also signed big-man Dwight Howard to fill Horford’s place and Dennis Schroder has played behind Teague for a few years and seems competent to take the reigns of the offense. Paul Millsap is still the best player on this team and I don’t expect his production to level off. Their bench is better than the Pacers’ but their starting rotation isn’t. They lack a true star to lead their team, but just have five guys that can get the job done. If they stay healthy, they could slip into that four seed, but they could also slip down to seven if they lose key players for certain time periods.
The Detroit Pistons are a young team and even though they got swept in the first round by the Cleveland Cavaliers, they showed the battle and heart they had in themselves. That’s what will propel them to a mid-level seed this season. Basically, their roster is unchanged with the exceptions of the additions of Ish Smith, Boban Marjanovic, and Jon Leuer. This adds depth to their bench, which was inconsistent last season. The reason the Pistons only come in at six is because their starting point guard, Reggie Jackson, is out for the first six-eight weeks of the season and their point guard depth isn’t that great, but should get by. If Stanley Johnson can use his playoff experience during the regular season, he is the X-Factor that will give the Pistons that four seed. Like the Hawks, there is no superstar on this team, but Andre Drummond has shown signs of being one and he will lead this team to back-to-back playoff trips.
Now, the seventh and eighth seed will be the true race to watch this season. There are five viable teams for two spots and this will come down to the healthiest and most efficient teams. The Wizards have a perennial all-star in John Wall and a potentially dangerous backcourt which makes up Wall and Bradley Beal. Beal is player that will either make or break the season. He’s failed to stay healthy in this tenure with the Wizards, but when he has been on the court, he and Wall have put up monster numbers. However, there have been rumors that they don’t play well together and dislike playing with one another. If they can both set their differences aside this season, I don’t see why they couldn’t fly under the radar and grab a low playoff seed.
The two teams that have made the biggest splashes this offseason, beside the Warriors, are the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls.
The New York Knicks were the team that had improved by the most amount of games last season and with the additions of former MVP Derrick Rose and DPOY Joakim Noah, they have made a stronger case to make the playoffs this season. Rose seemed unhappy as a Chicago Bull and didn’t seem to get along with Jimmy Butler on the court. He put up all-star numbers in the second half of last season and if he continues that this season, the Knicks will benefit from his play. With steady play from Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks will be a playoff team, but not advance past the first round as a low seed.
The Chicago Bulls have revamped their roster. Out went Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah and in came Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. That already provides more veteran experience for the Bulls in the fact that their new acquisitions account for four combined championships and talented complements for Jimmy Butler, as he too enters his prime. However, this team’s perimeter shooting is horrendous and if they don’t add any three point shooters to their roster, they will miss the playoffs. I don’t expect them to climb past any seed except eight, but they could achieve it if they stay consistent.
The Charlotte Hornets lost significant depth in off-season with the departures of Jeremy Lin, Al Jefferson, and Courtney Lee. Kemba Walker did take a step forward last year, but he can’t be expected to carry this team single handedly to the playoffs in the modern NBA. If the Hornets can add another scorer to help out Walker and take some of the burden off of him, they might be able to catch the league by surprise.
Finally, the Milwaukee Bucks would be higher on my list, but they have already lost their number option in Khris Middleton, due to a torn left hamstring. This team has a ton of height and potential on their roster, but I don’t think they can pull it together this season without Middleton. If they are still in it by the end of the season and Middleton comes back, they might be able to capture the eighth seed or fall or game or two short. However, this will be a learning experience for a lot of the Bucks’ young players how to mesh together in future seasons.
This Eastern Conference has seen significant improvement since a few years ago and I think this season will hold one of the most exciting playoff races in recent memories, with many seeds coming down to the final week in the regular season.