Every year, we come into the season with reasonable expectations of which teams will be really, really good, and which teams will be fighting over Ben Simmons next summer. And every year there are a small handful of teams who completely shock us and show their worth as over-achieving playoff teams (if not title contenders), despite poor reviews heading into the season.
Here’s a look at a few teams that could prove to be that “under the radar” group in the Eastern Conference this coming year. Assuming teams like Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago and Washington are as good as advertised, and that Toronto, Miami and Milwaukee live up to expectations, that leaves one playoff spot for a whole bunch of teams to fight over. There’s a good chance that one of the following ends up filling that spot:
It’s easy to look at the Detroit Pistons’ offseason as “The One Where Greg Monroe Left Without Returning Any Assets.” But believe it or not, the Pistons actually have assembled a pretty respectable team even without their former starting power forward.
The summer started by handing Reggie Jackson the largest contract in Detroit Pistons history, an $80 million deal that now puts him on equal financial footing with John Wall. But while that was lambasted by some as ridiculous for an unproven player, Jackson’s numbers in Detroit last year were anything but amateur. In his time with the Pistons, he averaged 17.6 PPG, 9.2 APG and 4.7 RPG, all of which combine to make him one of the most interesting young point guards in the conference next season, and his pick-and-roll facilitation is exactly the kind of thing that will make other new additions like Aron Baynes and Ersan Ilyasova so valuable.
Andre Drummond, meanwhile, played on an All-Star level last year, averaging right around 14 points and 13 boards a game to go along with a couple of blocks per night and 51 percent shooting from the floor. Already one of the league’s best rebounders and shot-blockers, Drummond looks poised for a nudge toward All-Stardom, and a winning season would certainly help make a strong argument for him to end up there.
Around those two, Stan Van Gundy has assembled a respectable lineup of players who all feature styles suggesting there will be serious symbiosis in Detroit next season. Baynes, Ilyasova, Marcus Morris and rookie Stanley Johnson all are excellent additions to offset the loss of Monroe, and with Van Gundy coaching, they have as good a chance as anybody to make a little unexpected noise next year and perhaps even sneak into the playoff conversation by season’s end, despite being one of the youngest teams in the NBA.
The 2014-15 season was a train wreck for the Indiana Pacers, who kicked things off by losing Paul George to a broken leg in an exhibition game only a short time after deciding that potential replacement Lance Stephenson was too rich for their blood. Then loads of other Pacers seemed to get hurt as well and that, combined with a painfully ho-hum season from former All-Star Roy Hibbert, turned a two-time Eastern Conference Finals team into a lottery disappointment. Dumpster fires get really hot really fast sometimes.
Larry Bird and Kevin Pritchard have turned things around pretty quickly in Indiana, however, solving their biggest problem (offensive consistency) by adding scorer Monta Ellis on a very reasonable four-year, $44 million contract. Obviously having George back at full health should get some points back on the board as well, but there’s no question that Ellis is a more effective scorer than anybody the Pacers had on the roster a year ago.
Losing David West hurts a lot more than losing Hibbert, but Indiana has done a reasonable job stacking the roster with respectable replacements, including Jordan Hill, the sharp-shooting Chase Budinger and promising rookie big man Myles Turner.
Knowing they were a Conference Finals team twice in the last three years, and that they’ve still got Paul George and George Hill to go along with a pretty talented rest of the roster, it’s not insane at all to think they could improve at least six wins over last season and find themselves back at .500 basketball. And as we all know, .500 basketball in the Eastern Conference would make Indiana a six or seven seed in the 2016 NBA Playoffs.
Last year, the Celtics took a huge step in the right direction by making a trade for the ruefully underrated Isaiah Thomas and then followed his lead to a playoff appearances despite being one of the most inexperienced rosters in the East.
As the seventh seed, they were clobbered by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round, naturally, but even a discouraging series lost is better for the growth of a young team than another lottery pick. Now, there’s a very good chance that Brad Stevens can channel that postseason experience into another solid season for the Celtics, who have a surprising amount of talent on their team.
Thomas is pretty clearly their best player, which means that the Celtics don’t really have the superstar that one typically associates with perennial playoff teams. However, they are terribly deep and grew even more so by adding Amir Johnson to shore up the interior defense and trading for David Lee to add some more scoring punch.
Marcus Smart is still developing, and Avery Bradley isn’t exactly the most offensively gifted two-guard in the league, but those guys are both undeniably talented, as are Jared Sullinger and James Young and Evan Turner. Coach Stevens has trained this team to overachieve, and there’s little reason to believe they won’t do so next year, especially with a little more veteran leadership and that year of postseason play now under their belts.
Which Eastern Conference teams do you think have a chance to be this season’s “under the radar” teams? Hit up the comment section below, and stay tuned for the Western Conference version of this article later in the week.
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