Failing Upward: The East’s Sad Middle Class

The NBA’s imbalance of power between the conferences isn’t about the teams at the top. Sure, the West has Golden State, but after the champs, it could be argued in good faith the East has the league’s next five best teams in Toronto, Milwaukee, Philly, Boston, and Indiana. Rather, the difference in the conferences is most evident in the middle and bottom of the standings. In the West, there are fourteen solid teams competing for eight playoff spots, plus Phoenix. By contrast, the East is much more stratified, with five really good teams, four cover-your-eyes awful teams, and six other squads sandwiched in the middle, throwing rocks at each other all season for the “honor” of being on the receiving end of a first-round walloping. Today, depressing as it may be, let’s climb onto the dreaded treadmill of mediocrity to determine who will emerge victorious from the Eastern Conference slap fight for those final three playoff spots.

[All records and stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted, and are current through Wednesday’s games.]

BROOKLYN NETS (11-18, 11th in Conference): I almost chose not to include the Nets at all, as 11-18 is not normally the type of record associated with a team hanging around the periphery of the playoff race, but I suppose that’s why we’re here, right? Finally free of their indentured draft servitude to the Celtics, Brooklyn actually approached basic basketball competence to begin the season, going 6-7 over their first 13 games before rising star Caris LeVert suffered a gruesome right foot dislocation against Minnesota, an injury which miraculously turned out to be less catastrophic than it looked. Without their best player, the rudderless squad has been in free fall ever since, going 4-11 including the loss in which the injury occurred. LeVert’s rehab is reportedly progressing more quickly than expected, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll return to the court (and to form) in time to stanch the bleeding, even if the teams around them do little to separate themselves in the meantime.

Nets’ GM Sean Marks has done yeoman’s work in rebuilding the roster from the ground up following  Billy King’s execrable reign, but the renovation remains far from complete. In addition to snagging LeVert in 2016 in exchange for Thaddeus Young –who had no future value to Brooklyn anyway– Marks has unearthed several useful pieces through late draft picks and unorthodox personnel moves. Taking a flier on D’Angelo Russell for spare parts was exactly the sort of thing a team trapped in draft pick hell should do. DLo has started to show some signs of improvement as a player and a pro, even if he hasn’t been exactly the type of post-hype sleeper Nets’ fans may have been anticipating. He’s still a sieve on defense and an inefficient chucker at times, but for a team without a lot of other consistent offensive threats, 18.1/ 3.9/ 5.9 and 36% from three isn’t a complete disaster.

Spencer Dinwiddie has been a terrific low-cost find, and all things considered, is probably a superior player to Russell at this point. [Note: Dinwiddie dropped a career-high 39 points in a win over the Sixers on Wednesday night, and then agreed to a 3-year, $34 million extension with Brooklyn on Thursday. Bully for him.] Nondescript sharpshooter Joe Harris (44.9% from downtown on 5.1 attempts per game) has become an integral part of the rotation and is signed to a contract which is both affordable and eminently tradeable. Jarrett Allen and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are both young, useful role players Marks acquired by sloughing off unnecessary vets to impatient teams willing to part with late-first round picks in exchange for immediate help. The jury is still out on dart throws Dzanan Musa and “Rowdy” Rodions Kurucs, who are the result of picks acquired as the tax Toronto paid for offloading DeMarre Carroll’s onerous contract into Brooklyn’s plentiful cap space. Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier are undeniably useful rotation players signed to bargain-basement deals, and would be far more valuable as contributors on competitive teams with real aspirations and/or depth issues rather than as cost-efficient roster chum in Brooklyn. The Nets’ one big miss is their baffling dedication to Allen Crabbe, who is shooting only 33% (including a double take-inducing 24% from inside the arc) over 26 minutes a night while pocketing an unfathomable total of $37 million between this year and next.

Even as all these chicken-shit-to-chicken-salad moves paint the picture of a competent front office — which obviously qualifies as a vast improvement over the previous regime — the devastation wrought by the LeVert injury demonstrates just how far this roster is from anything meaningful, and to a degree, what a waste it is to be hoarding all this useful, low-cost talent on a team that isn’t going anywhere. The irony of their situation is they finally have control of their own future draft picks, so in some ways, coming out of the competitive wilderness now is actually against the franchise’s long-term interests. A clean cap sheet combined with a purposeful tank (as opposed to the unintentionally horrific rosters they were saddled with before) might be the healthiest thing for the Nets, but the front office’s ability to exploit market inefficiencies has left the roster just a hair too robust to properly bottom out.

For this season, they are stuck in a mediocrity Catch-22: even if LeVert can return, they’ll probably be too far back to catch the other suitors for those last three playoff spots, and if he can’t, they still won’t be bad enough to fall behind the gaggle of truly crap-tastic squads (Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta, and Phoenix) in the “Not Tryin’ for Zion” sweepstakes. The incremental progress is laudable, but given how low the depths were from which they began and the circumstances they’ve endured, a playoff berth still feels like a bridge too far.

Verdict: OUT

WASHINGTON WIZARDS (11-17, 10th in Conference): The Wiz have suffered a half-decade’s worth of tumult in this season’s first two months, and it shows no signs of slowing down. In retrospect, we probably should have seen it coming. A locker room already sporting shaky chemistry added the Dwightbola virus, Austin Rivers, and human bad luck charm Jeff Green. Scott Brooks and Ernie Grunfeld might be the worst head coach/GM combo in the league, and John Wall, who has come under some scrutiny lately for his, ahem, lack of hustle, showed up to Team USA practices over the summer looking like an overweight hobo. That things have gone even as “well” as they have this season is a testament to the baseline of talent they bring to bear and the continued evolution of Bradley Beal’s game.

The team’s deficiencies are manifold. They shoot the three poorly (27th in 3P%) and defend it even worse (29th in 3P% allowed, as admittedly noisy as this can be). They get out-rebounded by an absurd margin. Their frontcourt has gotten a legitimate lift from the promotion of Thomas Bryant to the starting center role, which tells you everything you need to know about how lacking the other options are. Wall is depressingly disengaged on defense, and it often appears the other players take a cue from their supposed “leader.” The Otto Porter problem is real: he has been marginalized to such a degree — and included in so many trade rumors — that he has gone from “third-best player on an Eastern contender” to “possibly toxic asset” faster than the duration of a typical Dwight Howard fart. Even with the team looking slightly more cohesive of late, the locker room could still fracture at any given moment.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Beal is a young, improving All-Star who would draw a monster package in return if the Wiz decided to pull the rip cord. Grunfeld smartly (two words which almost never go together) acted as the go-between in the recent Bucks-Cavs trade to acquire combo forward Sam Dekker for next-to-nothing. Dekker is a talented player who has yet to receive a real opportunity to thrive, so hopefully Brooks will throw him regular minutes to try and stabilize DC’s woeful frontcourt rotation. In limited minutes, this season’s first round pick, Troy Brown, Jr., has looked the part of a future NBA contributor. He has a bigger body than I anticipated, and his feel, stroke, and athleticism appear made to last. They may also have plucked a diamond in the rough with two-way player Devin Robinson, a long, lanky athlete who I really liked in his college days at Florida. Kelly Oubre continues to take on a larger role and add things to his game, despite how underwhelming he looks through the lenses of both traditional and advanced statistics. There is a universe where the Wiz sink towards the bottom of the standings and all of these youngsters get a chance to develop in a low-pressure environment, but given both the sorry state of the competition outside the East’s elite and Grunfeld’s perpetual inability to think beyond the status quo, it feels like a “blow it up” nerd’s pipe dream.

The frontcourt is a train wreck, and it’s unclear whether the continued absence of Dwight makes things better or worse. The roster is well past its expiration date as a group, their ceiling appears lower than ever, and a chemistry-induced implosion is always in play, but even with all these caveats, it’s tough to imagine a team with so much more pure talent than the other squads in their orbit falling into the lottery. My confidence in this prognostication couldn’t be much lower, but…

Verdict: IN

Credit: Sporting News

MIAMI HEAT (11-16, 9th in Conference): What a strange team. They do some important things well: 8th in 3P%, 11th in Defensive Rating, and 10th in Rebounding. Problem is, they are so horrendous from inside the arc (30th with a bullet) that it negates their competence from deep (also 30th in total FG%). Their starting center (Hassan Whiteside) has a 22.7 PER and leads the league in both blocks per game and rebounding percentage, yet his contract is an utter albatross, the team is better with him on the bench, and his backup (Bam Adebayo) may be slowly taking his job. The franchise’s cornerstone (Dwyane Wade) is on his farewell tour, yet for some reason is still leading the team in Usage Rate despite how clearly diminished he is. Rodney McGruder plays the second-most minutes per game on the team. They have no signature stars, yet are capped-out to a comical degree. It’s all bizarre.

The upshot: there is a lot of room for improvement relative to the competition. Goran Dragic and James “Bloodsport” Johnson, two of the team’s most important veterans, have played only 26 out of a possible 52 combined games. Dragic has had nagging injuries and has not played up to his usual standard when in the lineup, while Johnson continues to work his way back to form after offseason sports hernia surgery. Both players are trending toward the back nine of their respective careers but could offer a real boost in the second half if healthy. Adebayo has looked terrific, even if his archetype has become a bit passe in the modern game. Josh Richardson has evolved into an excellent two-way wing, and his contract is one of the very best in the league, although he would be far more efficient in a slightly less featured role. The rotation and hierarchy remain unsettled: eleven different players are averaging over twenty minutes a night, and everyone seems far too willing to defer to D-Wade as he takes his final lap around the league. This would be fine if the team wasn’t interested in being competitive, a la Kobe’s final season with the Lakers in 2016, but it’s a real organizational conundrum for a team vying for a playoff spot. It feels as though Justise Winslow has been written off multiple times already, but he is still just 22 years old and has shown some flashes of late. If he continues to progress, the 3-year/$39 million extension he signed just prior to the regular season could turn into a real bargain for a team stuck in luxury tax hell.

Head coach Erik Spoelstra is one of the best in the league at maximizing the talent on his roster. If he can get Dragic and Johnson healthy and productive, continue developing the young guns, and gradually convince Wade to take more of a backseat as part of an overall consolidation of the rotation, then it’s not hard to see the outline of a playoff team in South Beach. If nothing else, I trust their overall organizational competence waaaaaay more than our next group, which has to count for something.

Verdict: IN

ORLANDO MAGIC (12-15, 8th in Conference): There has been some groundswell for the “Hey, the Magic aren’t THAT bad!” narrative, but upon closer examination of their “surprising” start, it amounts to the soft bigotry of low expectations. This team is not good in any sense other than relative to their recent iterations. Their offense is a slog: 26th in scoring, 27th in Offensive Rating, 26th in pace, and dead-last in free throw rate. They protect the ball (4th-fewest turnovers), but otherwise, they don’t do anything particularly well on the offensive end. Everything revolves around versatile big man Nikola Vucevic who, to his credit, has developed into a legitimate All-Star (and it will be a travesty if he isn’t selected as a reserve this season).

The team has dropped three straight, including blowouts at the hands of Indiana and Dallas. Six of their fifteen losses have been by 20+ points, not exactly the hallmark of a playoff outfit. As good as Vucevic has been (20.6/ 11.5/ 3.7 with a 26.5 PER on 54/ 40/ 84 shooting splits), he is in the final year of his contract and is nearly guaranteed to leave for greener pastures next summer. Bouncy forward Aaron Gordon signed a lucrative extension prior to the season, but the deal was structured with an unusual descending salary structure. Offering (and accepting) such an eminently tradeable contract suggests neither Gordon nor the Magic are under any illusion about his long-term future with the organization. The next competitive Magic roster is meant to revolve around multi-skilled young bigs Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac, but that day remains many moons away. This places the front office in an awkward spot as it pertains to Vooch and Gordon: they find themselves trying to manage (and extract value from) a rapidly closing window, even though said window never actually opened in the first place.

Calling their guard and wing play “uninspired” is exceedingly generous. Veteran journeyman D.J. Augustin has been easily their most consistent backcourt creator. Evan Fournier remains a competent scorer for whom no opponent bothers to gameplan. Jonathon Simmons and Jerian Grant look to be playing their way out of the league. Terrence Ross is a nice player, but he should be the 8th/9th man on a good team, not wasting away as a good stats/bad team guy. For a team which has been drafting in the lottery for what feels like the entire millennium, there should be way more talent on-hand. This perpetual state of “what are they doing?” makes it hard to imagine they’ll cash in their chips with Vooch and Gordon at the appropriate time (read: ASAP) and instead just end up in the late lottery anyway next summer while losing Vucevic for nothing in free agency. It would certainly be on-brand.

The media seems to be in a rush to paint this season as the turning of a corner when what we’re really watching is nothing more than a slightly less depressing version of the same nonsense they’ve been trotting out for the last half-decade. I’m not falling for the sleight of hand this time.

Verdict: OUT

Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

DETROIT PISTONS (13-13, 7th in Conference): If basketball is a game of runs, Detroit’s has been a season of runs. They won their first four, then dropped five in a row, then won nine of eleven, and are currently on a six-game losing streak. The 4-0 start was obvious fool’s gold, and their 9-13 record since then is likely a more accurate reflection of the true nature of the team, which puts them right square in the mix with all these other jokers. The schedule has been brutal during their six-game slide, and they’ve been dealing with some nagging injuries to their rotation of late, but these are night-to-night realities in the NBA. Their core three players (Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson) have played 77 of a possible 78 combined games. Blake is at the top of his game and putting up young Blake numbers (25.6/ 9.1/ 5.0) despite having to re-orient more to the perimeter, and yet the team is only sitting at .500 — with a negative point differential — because the rest of the roster, for lack of a better word, sucks.

The Pistons are middle-of-the-pack in terms of pace and Defensive Rating (13th and 12th, respectively), but they are struggling because they simply cannot put the ball in the hoop with any consistency. They are currently 24th in Offensive Rating, 29th in FG%, 28th in 3P%, and dead-last in Effective FG%. Blake has too much responsibility on his shoulders as a creator. Drummond is what he’s always been, Jackson is “fine” — that is to say, a guy who shouldn’t be the third option for a team with any sort of aspirations — and the rest of the rotation consists of limited offensive players who need to hit catch-and-shoot threes but for the most part don’t.

Unless fellow 22-year-olds Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard take massive steps forward as the season wears on, the ceiling just isn’t very high for this roster. What’s worse, Detroit’s front office is more or less stuck with this core for the next two seasons: Griffin and Drummond’s contracts are probably immovable even if they wanted to, the electrifying combination of Jon Leuer, Langston Galloway, Ish Smith, and Glenn Robinson III will make an unforgivable $27 million combined this season, and the team is still on the hook for $5.3 million in dead money to Josh Freaking Smith this year AND next, which is the funniest damn thing I’ve read all day.

It feels like we’ve already seen the best of the Pistons. A team employing this version of Blake has a high floor, but it also relies on him (and Jackson) to stay healthy all year, neither of which have been winning bets in the past. And people get at me for my Dwayne Casey take, but I’m doubling down on it: he just isn’t that good of a coach. I’m not saying he’s Vinny Del Negro/Byron Scott-level horrendous, but I can’t be the only one thinking those who voted him Coach of the Year last year are feeling more than a slight twinge of buyer’s remorse, especially after the Raptors unceremoniously fired him immediately after the playoffs and then came out of the gates firing on all cylinders this season after replacing him with the guy who, by all accounts, was actually the architect of the team’s improvement last season in the first place. Again, I’m not trying to clown on Casey or say he’s bad; he just isn’t some sort of coaching savant who creates this massive win delta for his teams in the way he sometimes gets portrayed. Anyway, Detroit kinda stinks and things are probably going to get worse.

Verdict: OUT

CHARLOTTE HORNETS (14-13, 6th in Conference): I’ve written and spoken at length about Charlotte over the last week-plus, so we’ll keep this brief. Since the podcast taped, Charlotte has won three straight (over Denver, New York, and Detroit), two of them in close, crunch-time fashion. [Bet you can guess which one was a double-digit win.] The results are beginning to match the process, and their schedule is relatively soft over the remainder of the calendar year, so we should start to see them solidify their playoff position over the upcoming stretch of games. The roster still has plenty of warts, but so long as Kemba stays healthy, this is, at worst, the sixth seed in the East.

Verdict: IN

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