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Paul Flannery | April 17, 2016

Sunday Shootaround: Parity defines the NBA East playoffs

Parity defines the East playoffs

The most interesting battle for postseason positioning took place in the muddled mess of the Eastern Conference’s second tier where the playoff puzzle has been all jagged edges and rounded shapes. Four teams: Miami, Atlanta, Boston and Charlotte came into the final week within a game of each other and all four finished with exactly 48 wins.

Fittingly it all came down to the last night of the regular season and in a convoluted plot twist the team that had the biggest win (Boston) got the worst possible scenario, while the two teams that lost (Miami and Atlanta) wound up with homecourt advantage. Charlotte stayed true to its under-the-radar nature and wound up sixth, which is not a bad place to be considering it’s on the other side of the Cavaliers’ bracket. All four are solid, well-coached teams with the potential for deep playoff runs, and all four possess notable flaws that leave them just outside the realm of true contenders.

This is the middle point of a multi-year process by which the East rearranged itself after LeBron James destroyed the previous ecosystem by returning to Cleveland. When LeBron was in Miami, the Heat were the undisputed Alpha of the conference. Yet there was always strong competition from the Bulls and Celtics and then later the Pacers. Those playoffs felt like cakewalks given the lack of depth in the East, but in retrospect the Heat were pushed to two Game 7s and a pair of Game 6s in their four years atop the conference.

Last season, the Hawks emerged as Cleveland’s primary challenge with a 60-win dream campaign and this year the Raptors assumed that role with their best season in franchise history. That’s all well and good, but the Cavs are still the undisputed favorites to return to the Finals even with a season that could be described as uneven at best and worrisome at worst. Handicapping the East still comes down the fact that the Cavs have LeBron and everyone else does not.

The real action has been found in the middle where the aforementioned four have been jostling for positioning since before the All-Star break. It even filtered down to the last two teams to qualify for the postseason. Indiana had a brief run in that mid-level company and Detroit is a far better eighth seed than the East has produced in years past.

In a sudden reversal that took a decade to unwind, the West has become the top-heavy conference with four of the top five teams in the league by net rating, while the East has become deeper and more balanced. For all their frustrating play, the Bulls and Wizards might have snuck into the postseason in the West, validating their seasons to a small degree like those of Houston and Memphis.

"The East in my three years here is night and day from what it was," said Charlotte coach Steve Clifford on Monday before the Hornets beat the Celtics. "We won 43 two years ago and we have 46 right now and we’re a significantly better team than we were then. The East is balanced. It’s a totally different world."

If this feels academic given the overwhelming strength of the Warriors and Spurs, to say nothing of the Cavs, well, it is. One of these four teams may emerge from the morass to reach a conference final, but few have been given a serious chance to unseat Cleveland, let alone ultimately challenge the best of the West.

The East’s rise back to respectability is the manifestation of a larger league narrative about the effects of parity under the current collective bargaining agreement. Shorter contracts have given rise to more roster churn and with that comes an incentive to compete in the short term without completely ravaging a franchise’s long-term prospects. Atlanta has regressed to a degree, but the Celtics improved from the lower depths and the Heat, Hornets, Pacers and Pistons all missed the postseason last year.

This new reality may be short-lived. Reports from the end-of-season Board of Governors meeting place the salary cap projections at around $92 million for next season. After years of relative austerity, general managers will have gobs of money to throw around and impatient owners demanding quick-fixes and instant upgrades. The smart teams have positioned themselves to benefit from the cap without mortgaging their futures. This has always been a staple of NBA roster management, but it will be even more pronounced over the next few seasons.

Of all the teams in the middle, the Celtics are in the strongest position going forward with a young roster filled with affordable contracts and a treasure trove of draft picks at their disposal. In many ways they are still in the rebuilding stage, and until (if?) they land a franchise player their work is not done. Everyone else will have major decisions to make with their own veteran free agents like Dwyane Wade, DeMar DeRozan, Al Horford and Nic Batum. Money may be no object, but these are still crossroads type of decisions for their respective franchises.

All of that is for a future date and we do the game a disservice by constantly pointing to the future. It’s a natural reaction in a league where so much power is concentrated at the very top by such a small handful of players, but it has the effect of stripping down accomplishments to their basest levels. The notion that everyone fails but the champ is a false premise.

As our attention turns to the postseason, the Eastern Conference gives us the strongest first-round matchups and the promise of a necessary step forward for several teams. It’s not rewarding mediocrity as much as it’s celebrating the positive effects of change and internal improvement.

Take the Heat, for example, who have taken on an entirely different dynamic since the All-Star break. Once slow and plodding, Miami is now faster and more dynamic. That has a lot to do with the addition of Joe Johnson, whose shooting ability has opened up space for Goran Dragic to operate. Miscast as a primary option for most of his career, derided as ISO-Joe in stagnant offenses, Johnson has been rejuvenated in Miami and Dragic has found his stride. Johnson’s transition has been so seamless it’s almost been taken for granted.

"He’s been in the league, what 15 years? He knows how to play basketball," Dragic said. "You just give him a situation and he’s going to figure it out because he’s a smart player."

Miami’s first round opponent, Charlotte, has also enjoyed a late-season surge. Like the Heat, the Hornets added a veteran after the All-Star break when they acquired Courtney Lee who solidified the wing position and added another potent shooter to Charlotte’s mix.

"He helps in every phase of the game," Clifford said. "He’s a smart pro player. Whatever the coverage is he gets it right every time. Whatever you’re running offense he doesn’t blow any sets. When he’s open, he shoots it. When he’s not, he passes it or drives it and he can really guard."

With smallball fours, scoring point guards and playmaking wings, the Heat and Hornets are mirror images of one another. Statistically this series is too close to call, much like the one that began in Atlanta where the Hawks are taking on the Celtics.

If the C’s had a preference, it would have been to avoid Atlanta who took three out of four regular season matchups including an important win last Saturday that effectively sealed each other’s postseason fates. The matchups may favor Atlanta, but overall there is not much separation between the two.

The Hawks were the league’s most pleasant surprise last season, with a gorgeous offensive blend of shooting and pace augmented by veterans having career years. With much of the same cast returning, the Hawks repositioned themselves over the second half of the season as a defensive juggernaut. The Celtics, a surprise to many people except for themselves, also bring a tight defense, albeit one predicated on pressure and chaos.

Sure enough Game 1 was a helter-skelter affair in which both teams played to their strengths and revealed their weaknesses. If this series doesn’t go seven games it may because Boston’s Avery Bradley injured his hamstring late in the opener. Without Bradley’s smothering defense to keep Jeff Teague in check, the Atlanta guard carved up the C’s down the stretch.

Not surprisingly, these two series have produced almost an even split among analysts. You can make a case for any of them and pick just as many holes by arguing for the other side. Neither of these outcomes may ultimately matter much in the larger scheme of the Warriors quest for a repeat or the Cavs drive to claim their elusive championship, but for true connoisseurs of the sport they offer the most compelling competition in the first round.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

Once you get the past the middle match-ups in the East, the first round of the playoffs looks a little shaky. The difference between the top four teams in the West and the next four is vast and there isn’t one favorite that looks particularly vulnerable. With that in mind, here’s a top-to-bottom indexing of the other series.

Blazers-Clippers: I’ve been hoping for this one for the last month. The Blazers credit a preseason altercation between Doc Rivers and Terry Stotts with forging their bond as an unbreakable underdog so it’s only fitting they would wind up on opposite sides of the first round bracket. The problem starts when you begin the analyzing the matchups. The Clips handled the Blazers in the three of their four meetings and Chris Paul kept Damian Lillard mostly in check. Still, all the pressure is on L.A., and given the offensive talents on hand as well as the simmering tensions, this should be an entertaining series. That’s really all you want in a late-night Western Conference matchup.

Pacers-Raptors: The opening game of this series validated every single concern people had about the Raps coming into the playoffs. From Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan throwing up bricks to Paul George going supernova to some questionable lineup decisions by Dwane Casey, Game 1 was the nightmare scenario for Toronto all over again. On paper this felt like a five-game series, but the feeling going in was that the Raps would face at least one gut-check game in this matchup. It’s already here.

Rockets-Warriors: Golden State can beat Houston without Steph Curry, but the Warriors would rather not have to find out. Curry’s ankle was the only concern after a Game 1 blowout and there’s really no need to test him if he’s not 100 percent. Don’t get any ideas, Pat Beverley.

Mavericks-Thunder: For the last time, I was wrong about the Mavericks. Credit goes to the ageless Dirk Nowitzki, the coaching acumen of Rick Carlisle and inspired play from their collection of castoffs. As much respect as I have for Carlisle’s ability to coach in the postseason (taking the eventual champion Spurs to seven games two years ago was tactical brilliance), I think the run ends here and rather rudely too. OKC would be wise to get this over with as quickly as possible because the last thing the Thunder needs is to get into a chess match with Coach Rick.

Pistons-Cavaliers: You should never take a Stan Van Gundy team lightly, but the matchups don’t look promising here. The Pistons will force the Cavs to play bigger than they’d like, thanks to Andre Drummond, but the Cavs have tons of size to throw his way and Drummond’s free throw shooting makes him a liability in crunch time. LeBron also seems to take particular delight in tormenting Tobias Harris, so there’s that.

Memphis-San Antonio: Love ya Grizz, but no.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"I didn’t even know about (the story), so I didn’t have time to really have a reaction. But one, you don’t want to disrespect the teams like the Spurs and the Lakers, franchises that have obviously won multiple championships and established that top tier kind of winning mentality every single year and you know they’re going to be around. We want to be that team. We want to be that franchise. We have some work to do, and obviously we’re on the right path. But we have to be ourselves in the whole process, and not really worry about speaking (about) more than what we’re doing out there on the floor." -- Golden State’s Steph Curry to Sam Amick in reference to Joe Lacob’s quote: ‘It’s not just Steph Curry.’

Reaction: Got all that? There’s a lot going on there. The subtext to the pretext is Curry telling everyone to chill out. They’ve got work to do.

"Seriously, what the f--- happened tonight, man?" -- Kobe Bryant to Woj after his 60-point swan song.

Reaction: 50 shots, man. FIFTY! FIVE-ZERO! Mamba out, indeed.

"I don’t think it was expressed to us as players clearly from Day One. I thought it was kind of different messages that was being sent to the players about the actual triangle. I actually get tired of saying the word triangle, to be honest with you." -- Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony.

Reaction: Right there with ya, Melo. This feels like it’s time for a breakup.

"We have to explore all options and I don't think there's anything off the table when you have a disappointing year like this. With that said, obviously Jimmy has had a fantastic year. From where he was to where he has gotten to, he has become a very, very valuable player for us." -- Bulls general manager Gar Forman on Jimmy Butler.

Reaction: Speaking of inevitable breakups, the Bulls will have a number of key decisions to make this offseason. Dealing Butler would be a reactionary move, but there really isn’t anyone else on the roster who would move the needle. Their best bet is to cut ties with the mainstays from the Tom Thibodeau era and rebuild around the talented two-way wing. Would they trade Derrick Rose? Could they?

"The law as it now stands in North Carolina is problematic for the league. There was no discussion of moving the All-Star Game. What the view in the room was, we should be working toward change in North Carolina." -- NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

Reaction: Yes, the league should be working to affect change to the heinous anti-LGBT law in North Carolina. If the threat of moving the All-Star game acts as a cudgel to affect that change, then fine. It is disappointing that Silver said there were no discussions about moving the game during the Board of Governors meeting. Really, none?

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

Fare thee well, Kobe.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.

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