NBA 2013-14 midseason hoedown: Eastern Conference update

The NBA’s Eastern Conference has suffered through the first half of what has been maybe its worst season ever top to bottom. That said, two of the NBA’s absolute elites tower over the rest of the conference in the standings. Coming into the year, we thought we’d have five teams (Pacers, Heat, Bulls, Nets, Knicks) then a dropoff. Turns out the Bulls were doomed to another year of #TheWait and the Knicks and Nets have been exceedingly underwhelming.

I made a big deal of my season preview, and I don’t believe in letting myself off easily. As the All-Star break nears, I decided to have a day of reckoning with my season preview, going back to look at how teams have performed in comparison to how I thought they’d do entering the year. With a little more knowledge under my belt, I’m ready to regroup and offer some newer, better predictions for how teams will finish.

1. Indiana Pacers (Preseason assessment: No. 3 in East)

Update: Indiana has kept up the playoff intensity from last year, and seen improvements in the day-to-day game of Paul George and Lance Stephenson. This team has developed according to plan. The Pacers are the favorite to beat the Heat and advance to the NBA Finals from the otherwise-pathetic Eastern Conference. The signing of Andrew Bynum at the very least does not hurt this team, which cannot be said for the last two teams he’s signed with.

My preseason assessment was: Modest. I ranked Paul George as the 12th best player in the league, which was too low, and I ranked them third in the East, which would be too low even in a world where Derrick Rose never got hurt.

New, better prediction: Eastern Conference champions

2. Miami Heat (No. 1)

Update: Miami has gotten a bit complacent. You feel this team has something more in it, which we’re bound to see in the playoffs, but right now it can’t match the dominance to which it subjected the league last season. LeBron James is having a great year but playing without urgency, and Dwyane Wade has had a bounce-back year marred by nagging injuries.

My preseason assessment was: Pretty spot on, I think. They’re still the team with the target on its back. What I didn’t account for was the elevation in play from the Indiana Pacers. If you’re Miami, you’re hoping Indiana is putting too much focus on the regular season, and that they’ll be worn down come postseason. Miami fell victim to that last season, enabling Indiana to come so close to toppling the No. 1 seed.

New, better prediction: Loss in the Eastern Conference Finals

3. Toronto Raptors (No. 11)

Update: The Raptors have found a way to make it work, which, surprisingly enough, was as simple as trading Rudy Gay for spare parts. Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan are one of the East’s best backcourts, and Jonas Valanciunas is good and getting better down low. 

My preseason assessment was: Bleak. But the Raps let go of Gay, and managed to capture chemistry that had eluded them. It’s hard to say they’ll ever contend for a title with this core, but they’ll get a good chance to test the waters in the postseason this year.

New, better prediction: First round loss

4. Atlanta Hawks (No. 10)

Update: Even without Al Horford the Hawks have managed to stay afloat in the East. Kyle Korver has developed into a viable shooting guard, valued beyond his spot 3-point shooting. Jeff Teague has been playing at a near-All-Star level, and Paul Millsap has done more for the Hawks than anyone outside the organization could have hoped. The lone weak spot is small forward DeMarre Carroll. 

My preseason assessment was: Very wrong. While a losing season this year — which I actually recommended for the Hawks — would help nearly any team long term, the Hawks have shown something different.

New, better prediction: First round loss

5. Washington Wizards (No. 7)

Update: John Wall has been great, while Otto Porter Jr. has been a major disappointment. Bradley Beal hasn’t taken the next step Washington was looking for him to take, though he’s been serviceable. The Wiz are playing well enough to have a spot carved out for themselves in the postseason, which will give John Wall and company good experience going forward. This is still a young core with its eyes on the future.

My preseason assessment was: Pretty spot on. Otto Porter Jr.’s paltry contributions have been the difference between a team that’s in the picture and a team that’s looking to do something. John Wall was deserving of his All-Star selection, and should have been the starter over Kyrie Irving.

New, better prediction: First round loss

6. Chicago Bulls (No. 2)

Update: I’m pretty sure Tom Thibodeau could coach a team of you, me, my girlfriend, Kendrick Nunn and a stray dog to the NBA playoffs. The heart of this Chicago Bulls team, something the national media and some Chicago fans are totally over, forges on. D.J. Augustin has proved himself in the absence of Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich, and Joakim Noah is playing the best basketball of his career right now.

My preseason assessment was: Made for a parallel universe. In which Derrick Rose is healthy, Luol Deng is still a Bull, and Chicago nabbed Andrew Bynum after some other sad organization dealt for him and dropped him in a cap-clearing move.

New, better prediction: Second round loss

7. Brooklyn Nets (No. 4)

Update: Brooklyn has so many high-level players, none of whom ever take charge when they need to. Deron Williams is, for some reason, timid about making his way back on to the first unit. Paul Pierce has yet to lead Brooklyn to a victory this season. Joe Johnson by default is the leader of this team, when he should really be fourth or fifth on the pecking order. The veterans haven’t provided stable leadership so much as mutual passiveness. 

My preseason assessment was: More optimistic, but not blind to this being a possibility. I pegged them fourth in the conference, and a strong fourth at that. But I didn’t pretend to know it would work out well, and cited last year’s Lakers and the 2004 Lakers as references to teams that threw stars together, only to watch them explode and negate each other. 

New, better prediction: Second round loss

8. Charlotte Bobcats (No. 12)

Update: They would be the most “whatever” playoff team since the 2012 Jazz squad got chomped by San Antonio in the first round, and the Bobcats appear to be little more than placeholder text until the Knicks surge ahead and nab the final playoff seed. Al Jefferson is raking in statistical accolades, and appears to be loving it. 

My preseason assessment was: A little bit pessimistic. It’s apparent Charlotte isn’t tanking, insomuch that “tanking” is relative.

New, better prediction: No. 10 in the East

9. New York Knicks (No. 5)

Update: Carmelo Anthony! The Baltimore-native is having one of his best seasons ever, even before the 62-point supernova he threw at the aforementioned Bobcats. His rebound numbers are up and he’s getting his teammates involved when they’re playing at a level that’s worth involving. If the Knicks were a better team, he’d be every bit the MVP candidate Kevin Durant is. New York cannot play consistently. I think they’ll will their way to a playoff spot, as the lottery does them no good this season.

My preseason assessment was: Way off. Most pundits had this team all wrong, not seeing how the lack of veteran leadership and quality point guard play would affect it. Even still, it’s shocking how this team racks up losses.

New, better prediction: First round loss

10. Detroit Pistons (No. 6)

Update: Detroit went for it all when it brought in Josh Smith. But after the season got away while Detroit was mired in the exact quagmire we feared it’d be — a frontcourt weighed down by too many talents — general manager Joe Dumars fired head coach Maurice Cheeks. It appears Dumars made the change hoping to surge ahead and steal a playoff spot. But if the Pistons do so, it will be an unprecedented effort. You simply don’t fire your coach and immediately get better. No matter who it is.

My preseason assessment was: Far too kind. I’ve long been enamored with Jennings’ flash, but it’s the wrong fit here for obvious reasons. 

New, better prediction: No. 9 in the East

11. Cleveland Cavaliers (No. 8)

Update: For those who don’t believe in the power of chemistry, riddle me this: How does a team with a superstar talent at point guard, two players that can stuff the stat sheet while maintaining facilitating roles, and three top-five picks from recent drafts including the No. 1 overall selection of the rookie class lose about two-thirds of its games? Dion Waiters appears to be the problem. He and Irving don’t get along, and head coach Mike Brown doesn’t appear to be the guy to tie it all together. Just an unfortunate team.

My preseason assessment was: A much happier scenario for this Cleveland Cavaliers team. A return to the playoffs in the post-LeBron era would do wonders for morale, and I had them slipping in as the No. 8 seed.

New, better prediction: No. 12 in the East

12. Philadelphia 76ers (No. 15)

Update: The 76ers sit in an encouraging 12th place in the East, with Nerlens Noel waiting in the wings to aid the effort for next season. Thaddeus Young has played accrued some pretty good statistics and has been a breakout player for the 76ers, which is not to mention the overachieving raw talent of Michael Carter-Williams. 

My preseason assessment was: Morbid. I had them last in the East, which I don’t find unreasonable. They’ve impressed, even if they’re still lottery bound.

New, better prediction: No. 13 in the East

13. Boston Celtics (No. 14)

Update: Rajon Rondo is back, which gives Boston fans some idea of where their team stands at full strength. Jared Sullinger has had some monstrous games for them, and Jeff Green has been solid, but I have a feeling this team will look very different by the time it’s contending again.

My preseason assessment was: A little harsh, but not much. What I really underestimated was the positive impact of head coach Brad Stevens. 

New, better prediction: No. 11 in the East

14. Orlando Magic (No. 13)

Update: The Magic are something of an amorphous blob as far as shaping the future goes. Victor Oladipo has played pretty well, stellar at times, but still doesn’t have a position to call his own with Arron Afflalo soaking up the minutes at the two-guard spot. Jameer Nelson needs to go be a veteran backup somewhere, same with Glen Davis. Those guys cannot be starters on championship teams. 

My preseason assessment was: More or less correct. I did expect them to get better this season after last year, and they’re on pace to inch forward, but not to the extent they would have hoped. Oh well — a pizza’s a pizza.

New, better prediction: No. 14 in the East

15. Milwaukee Bucks (No. 9)

Update: More like Milwaukee sucks, am I right? More like Seattle Bucks, am I right? More like why does your court do that, am I right? The Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo, brings promise, and Brandon Knight has played hard. But the Bucks needs scoring, and they don’t have it on this roster. 

My preseason assessment was: Destroyed by early injuries following an embrace-the-tank campaign from the Bucks when they got (mostly) reassembled. This team is the posterchild for my 20-win threshold proposal, which suggests to disallow teams that don’t win 20 games in a season from making the playoffs in the following season. The Bucks should be improving enough to get more wins as the season goes on. A 20-game landmark would give them something to play for.

New, better prediction: No. 15 in the East

Eliot is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @EliotTweet.