The landscape in the Eastern Conferences has shifted dramatically from just a season ago. The days of the LeBron James-led HEAT battling the Pacers for Eastern Conference supremacy are a thing of the past. James’ return to Cleveland left the HEAT scrambling to replace him and, along with addition of Kevin Love, immediately made the Cavs a favorite to win the East. While the Cavs’ acquisition of James made the biggest splash, they weren’t the only team in the East to make some noise during the offseason. Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls added another talented piece to an already proven group in Pau Gasol. Gasol has fit in seamlessly and the Bulls are off to a terrific start. Elsewhere the Raptors, Wizards and Hawks have all impressed early on and look to be legitimate threats in the East.
The waters are get a little bit murkier outside of the top five in the conference. Currently the Bucks, Nets and HEAT hold the final three playoff spots, however with so many games remaining all three teams still have plenty of work before they can feel confident about their playoff chances. On the outside looking in there are still a number teams that have a chance at working their way into the playoff picture. In Orlando, the feisty Magic have surprised and kept themselves within arm’s reach of the HEAT. The Pacers, even though they have been short-handed for much of the season, continue to be one of the best defensive units in the league and as they get healthy, have a chance to climb back in the playoff race. Lastly, coming off a playoff berth the Hornets have started slowly, but with the talent the have can’t be counted out quite yet. Record wise, the Celtics are is the mix as well, but after the departure of Rajon Rondo its clear they are looking towards the future and will likely unload other pieces prior to the trade deadline.
Lets take a closer look at the figures to be a hotly contested race for the final playoff spot in the East. Teams will be ranked on their chances of securing the eighth seed based off what they have shown thus far and what’s in front of them during the final 5o games of the season.
4) Indiana Pacers (11-21) – Games Remaining: 50 (26 Home, 24 Away)
Games Remaining 50 (26 Home, 24 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500 teams: 18, vs East: 36, vs West: 14
Strength of Schedule: .524
Record over their last 10 games: 4-6
Efficiency: Offensive 97.9, Defensive 101.1, Net -3.2.
The outlook of the Pacers season changed dramatically following the horrific leg injury suffered by Paul George this summer. Not only have they been without George, but other key players like David West and George Hill have missed time as well. They have continued to play their physical brand defense, allowing only 96.3 points per game but have struggled scoring the ball.
Despite missing a number of key players the Pacers have continued to battle under coach Frank Vogel. They have been very resilient even when shorthanded. While they continue to play stingy defensive, things have been much more difficult on the offensive end. Their biggest issue is the lack of a true go-to scorer. Their most consistent threat on that end of the court has been David West, yet West is averaging just under 13 points per game. Offseason acquisitions Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles were expected to help fill the scoring void left by George but have been inconsistent thus far.
Looking ahead, 36 of the Pacers remaining 50 games will come against Eastern Conference opponents, which should offer a glimmer of hope. Their longest remaining road trip is a five game set that will come at the end of January from the 17-25. Although they won’t have to make any more multi-game trips West after January 7 when they return from Golden State. Of the teams in the hunt for the eighth seed the Pacers have one of the more favorable schedules, but the question remains as to whether they have enough firepower on the offensive end. If they can play at or above .500 against the East they might just have a shot at eight seed depending on how things play out. It may be a long shot but at this point, but they’re still alive.
3.) Charlotte Hornets
Games Remaining: 50 (23 Home, 27 Away)
Remaining Opponents: + .500 teams: 22, vs East: 35, vs West: 15
Strength of Schedule: .512
Record Over Last 10 Games: 4-6
Efficiency: Offensive 98.8, Defensive 104, Net -5.2
Expectations were high at the start of the season for the Hornets. The addition of Lance Stephenson to a team that was coming off a playoff berth gave fans reason to believe they were on the road to contending. Unfortunately, things have not played out nearly as well as Hornets’ backers hoped. Stephenson hasn’t been a good fit and point guard Kemba Walker has been unable to find his shooting stroke. Both players were expected to be major contributors in the Hornets’ bid for a back-to-back playoff appearances. Thus far Stephenson is shooting only 38.6 percent from the field and Walker has not been much better at 39.6 percent. Inefficient play for the backcourt has hampered their offensive attack all season and is a major reason for their lack of wins. That is something they will have to improve on going forward if they hope to catch Miami.
Also concerning for the Hornets, is their inability to compete with opponents above .5oo. Thus far this season they have played 18 games against teams with a winning record and have only been able to win four. With 22 games against above .500 opponents looming they will have to find a way to win higher percentage of those contests.
While the chances of Hornets making the playoffs are this slim, there is still plenty season left. They’re only four games behind current eighth seed holder Miami and with the talent they have, they may be able to make push to finish the season. Twenty eight of their remaining games will come against teams under .500, which should help them close the gap. The Hornets appeared poised to go on nice winning streak after notching four straight W’s prior to Christmas, only to follow that with a three game losing streak. They’ll have to find a way to be more consistent if they want to make run at a playoff berth. One stretch they can look forward to is a four game home set from January 14-21, concluding with a game against the HEAT. They’re in survival mode with Al Jefferson out for the next four weeks due to a groin injury. The best case scenario for them now is simply to still be alive until he comes back.
2) Orlando Magic (13-22) – Games Remaining: 47 (27 Home, 20 Away)
Games Remaining: 47 (27 Home, 20 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500 teams: 20, vs East: 27, vs West: 20
Strength of Schedule: .489
Record Over Last 10 Games: 4-6
Efficiency: Offensive 99.2, Defensive 104.5, Net -5.3
Going into the season it seemed highly unlikely that the young Magic would have a shot a playoff berth. However, with the way things are shaping up in the lower half of the conference that doesn’t seem nearly as unlikely anymore. They are currently just 2 1/2 behind the HEAT, despite having only 13 wins. Versatile forward Tobias Harris is having a break-out season, averaging 18.5 points, seven rebounds and shooting 47.6 percent from the field. The Magic have been getting significant contributions from Nikola Vucevic and Victor Oladipo as well. Vucevic is one of the more productive young bigs in the league with his ability not only rebound at a high rate, but score the ball as well. Rookie point guard Elfrid Payton looks to have a bright future and is already making an impact. He will have to improve his jump shot, but has already proven to be a serviceable defender.
Their first major obstacle will come in just over a week. They have a four-game road trip starting January 7 in Denver, followed by games against the Lakers, Trail Blazers and Bulls. It doesn’t get any easier when they return home on January 14 as the face the Rockets, then take on the Grizzlies and Thunder respectively. If they can come out of that stretch with three wins, they should be very happy.
If the Magic can make it through that tough stretch in January the rest of their schedule is very manageable. They will play the vast majority of their remaining games at home. However, the Magic have been better on the road (9-12), then when playing at home (4-10). If they have any hope of competing for the final playoff spot that is something they must address as they still have 27 home games remaining. One thing that has surprised about the Magic is how good they have been in close games. Usually young teams struggle to finish tight contests, but the Magic have thrived, going 5-2 in games decided by three points or less. They have a winning record (10-7) against teams under .500 and with 27 remaining games against teams with a losing record that is one thing they can be optimistic about.
Miami (14-18) – Games Remaining: 50 (23 Home, 27 Away)
Games Remaining: 50 ( 23 Home, 27 Away)
Remaining Opponents: +.500 21, vs East: 31, vs West: 19
Strength of Schedule: .503
Record Over Last 10 Games: 4-6
Efficiency: Offensive 103.6, Defensive 106.5, Net -2.9
As expected the loss of LeBron James has really taken its toll on the HEAT. Even with Dwyane Wade having a very solid year and the addition of former All-Star Luol Deng, the HEAT are four games under .500. December in particular has been tough on the Heat as they have won just five of their 16 games played this month. They will have to snap out of this funk quickly before giving up too much ground.
They have relied heavily on Chris Bosh down low, as he is their only legitimate low post threat. Bosh is leading the team in minutes played, logging just over 35 per night. He has been very productive in those minutes, leading the team in rebounding and ranking second in scoring, but you have wonder if he will start to wear down later in the season. He’s already missed some extended time this year. Losing Josh McRoberts has really hurt their frontcourt depth. It will be on Bosh and Wade to do much of the heavy lifting for the remainder of the season to as the HEAT look to hold onto to the eighth seed.
Like the Magic, another issue for the HEAT has been than their their inability to win at home. In 18 home games thus the far the Heat are only 6-12. Surprisingly they have actually been much better on the road, going 8-6. They have to be happy with the way they are playing away from home, but need to do a much better job protecting their homecourt. The HEAT have two four-game road trips and one five game road-trip remaining, spread over the next three months, with the five gamer coming in the middle of January where they will take on the Trail Blazers, Clippers, Lakers, Warriors and Kings. Both the Magic and HEAT face significant tests in the next few weeks; whoever fares best will likely have a leg up on the eighth seed race.
The first 32 games of season for the HEAT included 17 against above .500 opponents and they were only able to salvage five wins in those games. Although, when you compare that to the teams above them in the standings, it doesn’t look so bad. The Bucks are only 4-11 against +.500 teams, and the Nets just 2-11 against +.500 teams. When they have played teams under .500 the HEAT have done well, going 9-6 in those contests. With 29 of their remaining 50 games against opponents under .500, if the HEAT can continue to take care of business against those teams holding onto the eight seed becomes much less of a challenge.
The race for the last spot in the East will almost certainly be a tight one. As of today the HEAT are the favorites to land the eight seed, but a lot could change between now and the end of the season. While the Heat may hold a slight lead over the rest of the pack they have done little to prove that they will run away from their competition, leaving the door wide open for a team like the Hornets, Pacers or Magic to sneak in. It will be interesting see which teams step up during the more difficult parts of their schedule and which teams fold when faced with a little adversity.
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