Each team is now more than twenty games into the 2015-16 NBA season, and they’re definitely starting to show their colors. We’ve already got a lot to be excited about as we watch numerous teams climb through the rankings, while others stagnate closer to the bottom. The 2015 NBA Draft didn’t go quite how we had expected, so we’ve definitely been interested to see how each team is adjusting to their new acquisitions.
With so many teams already establishing their level of talent this year, it seems like now is as good a time as any to run through the list and assess which teams have the best chances of leading their division and which teams are less likely to even have a shot at winning rings this year. As we did with the NHL, we’ll be dividing our assessment by Eastern Conference and Western Conference. For now we’ll be looking to the east, while we’ll be assessing the NBA’s Western Conference standings a bit later.
The 2015-16 NBA season is still relatively young, so don’t expect this to be the last time we go through and make a few predictions. We’ll definitely be revisiting these teams later in the season to see who’s made some needed changes and who’s lost their current footing.
The Philadelphia 76ers are currently putting both the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference to shame with the worst record in the NBA. Currently 22 games into the 2015-16 NBA season, they’ve only managed to hold a 1-21 record. They’ve had some close losses, but it’s hard to pat them on the back for that when the second-worst team in the conference still has five more wins than they do. We’d say they were being carried by C Jahlil Okafor, who leads the team with 16.9 points per game, but that’s a pretty low standard for leadership. If you take last season into account, they started this year with a 28-game losing streak. And we aren’t sure they won’t top it. The prevailing theory is that they’re letting this happen for the purposes of maintaining a decent draft pick, but their shoddy performance has actually affected league revenue sharing so badly that other team owners had to step in and pressure NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to help instate Jerry Colangelo as Philly’s new Chairman of Basketball Operations. It hasn’t done much so far. We don’t know that the Sixers are really losing on purpose, but we do know that they’re succeeding at it.
Only slightly better than the 76ers are the Brooklyn Nets, with a 6-15 record that keeps them at fourteenth place in the Eastern Conference and fourth in the NBA at large. After suffering a 7-loss streak near the start of the season, they’ve at least come out on top a few times since. The current team leaders appear to be C Brook Lopez with 20.2 PPG and PF/SF Thaddeus Young with 16.1 PPG, but they aren’t getting a lot of solid support. The Nets need help with offense, but defense is going to be the real weak point as they move forward in the season. They just lost SF Rondae Hollis-Jefferson due to injury, and we doubt that replacement Bojan Bogdanovic will have the chops to fill the shoes of one of the more promising defensive rookies on the court.
The New York Knicks are doing a lot better on the floor than either of the teams above, but that’s not really saying much. With a current 10-12 record, the Knicks are doing little more than showcasing the fact that this just isn’t a good year for sports fans in the state of New York. Even PF Carmelo Anthony has called the Knickerbockers “repetitive,” and Derek Fisher has admitted that it’s difficult to coach a losing team when they’ve got a big road trip on the way without the prep time they need to turn things around. The most standout player right now is PF/C Kristaps Porzingis, the Latvian rookie who’s currently making other team owners jealous that they didn’t draft him. As we said of Marcus Mariota in our recent reassessment of the current NFL season, one talented rookie on a losing team isn’t enough to spark a turnaround. New York is facing some serious heat if they wish to raise their 2015-16 NBA season standings, and we aren’t sure they have what it takes to get where they need to be.
The Boston Celtics are the first winning team on this list with a 12-9 record, which serves to underscore just how badly the Atlantic Division is doing right now. We won’t say that the Eastern Conference hasn’t improved since the 2015-16 NBA season started, but the Atlantic Division is still holding them back quite a bit. There was some moderate concern at the start of the season that PG Isaiah Thomas would suffer a drop in productivity, but he’s been turning things around in expert fashion. According to some basic analytics, PG Avery Bradley still has a slightly higher offensive rating than Thomas. But if he manages to keep it up, Thomas might be the clear leader in Boston this year. As the first quarter of the 2015-16 NBA season comes to an end, however, there’s buzz that Bradley might receive a spot in the 2016 NBA All-Star Game. With two rising stars running the floor, the Celtics might actually be able to raise their standings before the season ends.
The Toronto Raptors are the current Atlantic Division leaders, but only just so. With the Raptors boasting a very narrow lead with a 13-9 record, it’s not too hard to see Boston overtaking Toronto as the 2015-16 NBA season progresses. And the fact that they’re leading the division while sitting at only sixth in the Eastern Conference is yet another indication that this just isn’t one of the stronger divisions in the NBA. They’ve been fortunate enough to watch PG Cory Joseph grow as a player, although he frankly isn’t posting the kind of numbers we’d expect to see from a high-performing player on a division-leading team. He has an average of 9.8 points right now, so it’s strange for him to be the guy that Raptors fans keep talking about. The definite team leaders right now are PG Kyle Lowry and SG DeMar DeRozan, with respective averages of 22 and 21 PPG. That’s good, but it doesn’t lead us to believe that the Raptors are going home with rings this season.
The Milwaukee Bucks are at the bottom of the Central Division with a 9-13 record, which puts them at thirteenth place in the Eastern Conference. They have a pretty solid shot blocker in C John Henson, yet a lot of the team’s responsibilities seem to be koufalling on 21-year-old Greek SF Giannis Antetonmpo. He’s all over the place right now. In each game, he’s netting an average of 16 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.2 blocks, and just under one steal. He’s basically a jack-of-all-trades, but he’s also clearly a master of none. The Bucks need strong players racking up each of those numbers, not an average player notching mediocre points in all of them. Don’t get us wrong—Antetokounmpo is having a historically great season, as only players such as Kevin Garnett, Kevin Durant and Lamar Odom have ever managed those numbers at his age. But it isn’t doing Milwaukee any massive favors, and his overly lengthy free throw routine (more than 10 seconds for each one) is irritating the Bucks’ opponents. If he starts getting called on it, the Bucks are going to do even worse than they already are.
Currently boasting a 12-10 record, the Detroit Pistons are just one of many signs that the Central Division is at the forefront of the Eastern Conference this year. The fact that they’re fourth in the division and tenth in the conference makes it all the more impressive that they currently have a winning record. One of their more impressive players at the moment is PF Marcus Morris, who is averaging just over 36 minutes per game despite being new to the team. The team could easily be flourishing under C Andre Drummond’s landmark season, as he has rivaled legends such as Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his ability to net both 20 points and 20 rebounds on three separate occasions within Detroit’s first half-dozen games alone. But they’ve also got some problems, such as SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s shaky play from the outside. According to PG Reggie Jackson, everyone just needs to shoot when they have the opportunity. He blames the team’s so-so record on hesitation, but it’s going to take more than impulsive shooting to boost them above the rest of their division. The Pistons need to go back to the drawing board with this one, or else they’ll be doomed to a lackluster season.
The Indiana Pacers are stepping it up a notch, at third in their division and fourth in the conference. With a current 12-8 record, they’re doing better than any team in the Atlantic Division—although that’s a bit of an unfair comparison, since they’ve had fewer games to lose. They just followed a 6-win streak with 3 losses in a row, so it’s hard to say much about their consistency this season. They’re getting a lot out of SF Paul George, who’s one of the better offensive players in the league right now. The problem is that he doesn’t really have anything close to an equal on the team, and that leaves the Pacers looking weak if they wish to raise their 2015-16 NBA season standing. He does have a couple of decent teammates in PGs Monta Ellis and George Hill, who have been fairly decent on scoring in addition to their competency on defense. But Indiana still has a long way to go. As of this point in the 2015-16 NBA season, they’re one of many teams we can see sticking around the middle of the rankings despite strong showings from a few of their players.
The Chicago Bulls are currently second in the division and third in the conference with a record of 11-7. It’s hard for us to put too much faith in them just yet (which is frankly a theme with the Eastern Conference at the moment). They have a lot of issues with traditionally good players, and there are doubtlessly some worried Chicago fans out there. One of the most notable issues right now is that PG Derrick Rose has been lacking the explosiveness he gave us last year. But he’s not the only player who seems to be slacking a bit. Players like SFs Doug McDermott, Tony Snell and Mike Dunleavy, Jr. were never at the top of the heap, but they were better than they are right now. Ditto for C Pau Gasol, who was already starting to show a few gaps last season. The Chicago Tribune notes that McDermott is improving lately, but improvements in 1 out of 5 players aren’t that reassuring. The saving grace of the team right now appears to be SF Jimmy Butler, a double-threat player who knows how to play the floor defensively while still delivering when he finds himself holding the ball. He helps make up for some of the defensive issues in players like Gasol, but his focus shouldn’t be on cleaning up after his team. Even if the Bulls let Butler carry them throughout the 2015-16 NBA season, they need to have his back a little better. If they do, Chicago could actually step it up in the rankings before the season ends.
Topping both division and conference are the Cleveland Cavaliers. This probably doesn’t surprise too many people, as most have come to expect nothing but the best from PF LeBron James after he nearly brought them all the way last year. But with a 14-7 record, the King and his men aren’t necessarily looking much like last year’s Cavs. James seems to have a lot of faith in PG Jared Cunningham this season, but we frankly aren’t seeing it. His numbers haven’t been that great, so we aren’t about to start crediting him in any major way for Cleveland’s wins. Many also have concerns for C Timofey Mozgov, who hasn’t delivered the same performance for which he was known last season. James may be the face of the franchise, but let’s face it—without solid players like Mozgov, they never would’ve gotten as far as they did. He needs to pull it together, preferably around the time the Cavs get PG Kyrie Irving and SG/SF Iman Shumpert back from surgery. Coach David Blatt is hoping they’re back soon, as Cleveland’s lead hasn’t kept them from feeling the heat. If we start to see the Cavs we’re used to, then we’ll believe they have a chance this year. Otherwise, we could honestly see them falling in the rankings before the 2015-16 NBA season comes to a close.
With a losing 9-10 record, the Washington Wizards are currently at the bottom of the Southeast Division and eleventh in the Eastern Conference. They were supposed to reveal a promising new offensive strategy this year, putting an emphasis on quickening their pace and attacking the net with increased gusto. But that’s not really how things are working out. While PG John Wall is fifth in the league as a scorer with a current average of 28 PPG and SF Otto Porter is getting more rebounds than ever, the team’s overall rebound rate is the second-worst in the league and their scoring hasn’t been solid enough to net them the wins they need. They don’t know how to move the ball as quickly as they’re trying to without sacrificing some of their efficiency on the defensive side of things. They could actually pull ahead quite a bit before the 2015-16 NBA season is over, and we wouldn’t be incredibly surprised if they did just that. But they need to start working on it fast; they aren’t the only team trying to better their game. And with a quarter of the season gone already, the clock is ticking.
The Orlando Magic are doing a bit better than the Wizards with a 12-9 record that places them at eighth in the conference. Most of their wins have been achieved with respectable margins, so we can’t judge their scoring too much. Still, they should probably hit their offense a bit harder while focusing on a stronger defense if they wish to raise their 2015-16 NBA season standings. One of their key defenders right now is actually C Channing Frye, which is remarkable since we probably couldn’t have said that a few weeks ago. The Magic have made a major push to overcome some of their defensive weaknesses while also getting around their opponents’ defense with a little more ease, and the results have been…well, magical. But Orlando still needs to keep improving. If they start to slip up, we could see them falling back down as Washington climbs the 2015-16 NBA standings. It’s not necessarily the likeliest of scenarios, but the Magic have been just unremarkable enough to let us believe that it could happen.
The Atlanta Hawks are barely above Orlando, standing at seventh in the Eastern Conference with a 13-9 record. Based on what we’ve seen of them in the past, they might actually be among the likelier candidates in the bottom three teams of the Southeast Division to undergo a major turnaround and climb the rankings. Some of the credit goes to SF Kyle Korver, who’s been hitting his long-range two-pointers about half of the time. According to PF Paul Millsap, the main thing the team needs in order to improve their standing is consistency. If that’s the case, then letting Korver run around those screens to shoot it just the way he has been might be crucial. However, he should also raise his accuracy rate a bit. If they can pull those elements together, the Hawks will be looking good as contenders for the championship series this year. But like just about every team in the Southeast Division, they have a long way to go before we’ll be fully convinced.
At fifth in the Eastern Conference are the Charlotte Hornets, with a 12-8 record but a losing record of 3-5 on the road. They’ve kept their home games at 9-3, but that’s to be expected. Actually, the Hornets are a lot like the Cavaliers, who are currently 4-6 on the road but 10-1 at home. They made some questionable trades this past offseason, involving SF Nicolas Batum, SG Jeremy Lamb and C Spencer Hawes. But it seems to be working in their favor for the most part. And largely thanks to C Cody Zeller and PF Marvin Williams, the Hornets just had one of their biggest wins thus far against Detroit. We won’t lie, there’s a chance that Charlotte could actually make it to the postseason this year. If they continue to raise their 2015-16 NBA seasons standings, we’ll know for sure.
The Miami Heat are at the top of the Southeast Division and second in the Eastern Conference with a 12-7 record and a solid chance at improving. Outside of their division, their main threat within the conference is definitely Cleveland. Miami hasn’t been performing as well at home, and the Heat have had a couple more chances to prove themselves on their own court than the Cavs have had. With both C Chris Bosh and SG Dwyane Wade leading the team to victory, they could easily step things up and take a commanding lead as the 2015-16 NBA season continues. But they have a little more on their minds right now. Bosh owns about $6000 in fines after getting two fouls and an ejection in the most recent game, which he might be appealing due to a botched traveling call that led to him getting riled up. He has a good chance at winning (the NBA admitted they messed up), but he still needs to watch his temper and keep his head in the game. That’s exactly what Wade is doing, as he doesn’t feel that the Heat’s current conference standings entitle them to get too cocky. Coach Erik Spoelstra feels that this is the appropriate time for the Heat to start adjusting their strategy, and will be working with C Hassan Whiteside on perimeter defense. If the Heat can keep doing what they’ve been doing while also making a few improvements, they’ll be in a pretty decent position by the end of the 2015-16 NBA season.
Eastern Conference Predictions
Given how close many of these teams are, it’ll be hard to say who might advance to the playoffs at the end of the 2015-16 NBA season. Only eight will make it, and the race for those last couple of spots is going to be a pretty close one. That said, we can make a few light predictions based on our discussions above as well as some current projections for how the 2015-16 NBA season might end.
The current standings would pit the Orlando Magic against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Atlanta Hawks against the Miami Heat, the Toronto Raptors against the Chicago Bulls, and the Charlotte Hornets against the Indiana Pacers.
Our projections would pit the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Washington Wizards, the Charlotte Hornets against the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat against the Detroit Pistons, and the Atlanta Hawks against the Chicago Bulls.
We have trouble seeing anyone from the Central Division making it, with the exception of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The notion of the Chicago Bulls beating the Toronto Raptors is especially ridiculous, but even our projections have them against the Atlanta Hawks—a team we believe could make some real improvements by the end of the 2015-16 NBA season. We also can’t really see the Indiana Pacers beating the Charlotte Hornets or the Detroit Pistons beating the Miami Heat. Basically, every Central Division team that we can currently picture making it to the playoffs is likely to get bumped off at one point or another. Cleveland is the only real exception, and even they’ve got some work to do if they want to cement any sort of real lead.
The Atlantic Division is in even worse trouble, even if they have two of the better teams in the conference in the running for the playoffs. The Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors both have chances of making it to the playoffs, but it’s going to be an uphill battle for both of them. The Celtics are historically a better team, but the Raptors appear to have some innate potential this season that could boost their chances a little. Aside from that, this division has no chance.
That leaves us with the Southeast Division. This one is really, really hard to call. The Miami Heat might stay on top, but the Washington Wizards are missing such minor elements that they could turn the 2015-16 NBA season into a true Cinderella story if they’re able to apply just the right amount of elbow grease. Charlotte has a pretty decent chance as well, and the Hornets benefit from the fact that they’re already way ahead of the Wizards in practically every way. As far as the Atlanta Hawks and the Orlando Magic are concerned, it’s harder to say. They still have a chance, but we could easily see them remaining middle-of-the-road teams. Of the two, we would probably lean more toward the Hawks.
Everything considered, the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers are the likeliest candidates to take the Eastern Conference this year. But as we said earlier, we’ll be checking back in at a later date to see how the 2015-16 NBA season has progressed. We’ll be interested to see what changes have occurred by then.