2018-19 NBA Preview Series Eastern Conference

CANTON, MA – SEPTEMBER 24: From left Jayson Tatum #0, Jaylen Brown #7, Kyrie Irving #11, Gordon Hayward #20 and Al Horford #42 pose together for a photo during Boston Celtics Media Day on September 24, 2018 in Canton, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Our 2018-19 NBA preview series is underway and we are going to begin with the Eastern Conference.  We’re going to predict the final standings in the conference while taking a look at each team and making a guess against everyone’s Vegas win total.  So let’s get straight to the 2018-19 NBA preview series with the Eastern conference.

  1. Toronto Raptors – O/U 55.5 – Over

The Celtics Raptors struggle is real.  I went back and forth between the two for quite some time.  There’s been work done at Nylon Calculus to show that a player’s RPM will decline during his first year with a new team.  Obviously the focal point here is on Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

There is going to be an adjustment period, that we know.  How long it will last is anyone’s guess.  What I simply can’t stop thinking about, however, is a potential closing lineup of FVV, Lowry, OG, Kawhi, and Valanciunas.  That’s five plus defenders with four capable shooters.

I don’t think either Toronto or Boston fits the profile of a team that wouldn’t try very hard for the top seed, since neither recent iteration of these franchises has reached the Finals.  If I had to guess, however, which team cares more it would be Toronto.  This is narrative analysis, but I feel like there is more a guarded feeling to this new era of the East for the Raptors.  Toronto has been competing the entire time the LeBron Cavs 2.0 were in business, and (rightfully) feel 2018-2019 is their time.

I mean, they went all in on Kawhi for this season with no guarantees they would get his service time beyond this year.  The Raptors want this now.

Disclaimer: I may be somewhat biased here since I liked Toronto’s odds even before the Kawhi Leonard trade.

2. Boston Celtics – O/U 59 – Under

Sticking on the idea that a new player takes a bit of a dive in RPM his first year on a new team, I don’t think we’re giving this idea enough application to Gordon Hayward.  I get it, he has been through two training camps and two preseasons with Boston now, so he is less new than most new guys, but he still has played a grand total of five minutes in the regular season as a Celtic.

Furthermore, the idea that the Celtics won 55 games last year despite functionally having no Hayward and only 60 games of Kyrie, so therefore they are destined to flirt with 60 wins, is intellectually misleading.  The Celtics did win 55 games last year, but they greatly outperformed their point differential.  Their plus/minus of 3.6 was nearly the same as Oklahoma City’s mark of 3.4, and the Thunder won 48 games last season.

Two other important factors: We cannot count on Kyrie’s health (which is also true of Kawhi) and we should not assume linear progression for Tatum (but I’m all in on Brown).  In seven seasons Kyrie has played 71 or more games three times, and 60 or less four times.  Quick tangent somewhat related to Kyrie’s games played; I talked before about which of Boston/Toronto cares about the top seed more, and if anyone on either squad is used to not giving a shit about home court throughout, it’s Kyrie.

Jayson Tatum, for all his wonderful gifts and incredible rookie season, may actually be in store for some negative regression.  Do we really believe he is a 43% 3-point shooter?  Maybe, but he had the best corner three shooting season in NBA history as a rookie, hitting 56.4% of his corner three attempts.  That is going to come down.

He certainly improve in other areas, such as once he gets strong and fills out his frame he should get better at finishing around the rim (not to say he is poor in this area presently).  So he may step back as a three point shooter while improving in other areas, with the end result being a second season very similar to his rookie season.  The point is Tatum taking some massive step forward in his second year isn’t a lock, and we should predict accordingly.

3. Philadelphia 76ers – O/U 54 – Under

I wanna say that all of planet Earth has the 6ers third in the East, so I’ll be joining Earth.  What is even left to say here?  Philadelphia doesn’t have as much shooting as it did last year during it’s stretch run/playoff run, but they get Fultz at the beginning of the season.  Embiid is a DPOY candidate, Simmons just won ROY, Redick is a dead eye shooter, Covington is the perfect complimentary wing, and Dario Saric remains criminally underrated.

The reason for the under is three fold: They did lose that shooting, Fultz is a complete question mark (though I’m optimistic) and it would be prudent to project Embiid for 60 games.  Philly won 52 games last year with a point differential of 4.5, while the Jazz won 48 games with a point differential of 4.3.  Which team was closer to the truth?

4. Indiana Pacers – O/U 48 – Over

This goes against logic and math, but I’ll drink the kool-aid.  I have habitually shown an obsession with the Pacers, so I may as well double down.  The Pacers outperformed their point differential last year (apparently who didn’t in the East?), winning 48 games despite a 1.4 point average margin.  If they should have won 43 games, and they need 49 to hit the over, did they get 6 games better?

Probably not, but hear me out.  I’m not betting on an Oladipo regression after how hard he worked to transform himself coming into last year.  You can bet against that dude, but I’m not.  Sabonis and Turner don’t need to have monster breakout campaigns, they just both need to make incremental improvements, which I expect from both, so we’re already getting somewhere.

I can’t stress this enough; the addition of Tyreke Evans is enormous for this team.  Last year when Oladipo was on the floor the Pacers offensive rating was 109.4, a mark that would have ranked 8th in the league.  When Oladipo sat, that rating fell to 101.5, which would have ranked dead last in the NBA.

That’s quite the burden on one guy.  Evans is not only the secondary ball handler/creator this team desperately needed, but he is also the backside slasher this team needed.  Evans has shot 38.7% from three on 489 attempts over the past three years.  Evans posted a 56.1% true shooting last year as the only thing on offense that worked for Memphis, and defenses knew he was the only thing on offense that worked for Memphis.

Oh, and the Kyle O’Quinn addition is great.

5. Milwaukee Bucks – O/U 48.5 – Under

This is the second season in a row the Bucks over/under has been set at 4.5 games above their previous year’s record, and just like last year, I would like to know what the hell the Bucks have done to boost their play by five wins?  Not to mention, last year the Bucks won 44 games with a negative 0.3 point differential.  They outperformed their margin by at least 3 wins.

I’m a Laker fan, so I like Brook Lopez and fully support putting four shooters around Giannis and seeing how far that gets you.  But 48.5?  Come on.  I understand that by simply replacing Jason Kidd with not Jason Kidd has to be worth a couple wins, but I think a 5 game leap (and in reality, an 8 game leap) is quite the stretch here.

6. Miami Heat – O/U 43.5 – Over

Picking the over here makes me queasy.  Miami posted 44 wins last year with a 0.5 point differential, so they overachieved by at least one win, and are essentially bringing back the same group.  That group, however, should include a better Bam than last year due to progression in his development.  Considering he has been crushing the pre-season it’s probably safe to assume he will be better this year than last year. (Yea, I know, it’s preseason, but it’s at least encouraging.)

Kevin Pelton is projecting the Heat for 44.8 wins, while Zach Lowe makes a good point about the Heat’s offense getting somewhat stale, and the league has caught up.  The counter to Lowe’s point, in my opinion, is the bottom of the East is so bad the Heat should be able to pad wins in those matchups.

Lastly, if the Heat land Jimmy Butler and keep Bam then this is an easy over and I would put Miami into the 5 seed (depending on the timing of any potential trade).  I know I outlined how players on new teams see their RPM drop in the first year, but doesn’t Butler’s grind-grind-grind approach seem to fit perfectly with the #HeatCulture?

7. Washington Wizards – O/U 45.5 – Under

This is one of my favorite unders.  The Wizards won 43 games last season with a 0.6 point differential, so basically they overachieved by a win or two.  Two significant things have changed from last year’s roster.

First, I don’t get the assumption that Dwight is an upgrade on Marcin Gortat.  Dwight’s post game is a blackhole that pisses away multiple possessions in a game.  Gortat and John Wall had mind-reading pick n’ roll chemistry which is not going to simply be duplicated with Dwight.  And then how do those two changes compound into future complications?

John Wall isn’t, uh, the easiest teammate to get along with apparently.  Literally no one likes Dwight.  So once Wall is over feeding Dwight in the post because it is so futile, how is Dwight going to respond?  We already know, he is going to publicly cry about it.  I’d imagine Wall isn’t going to like that.  And what happens when Wall and Dwight run a pick n’ roll and aren’t on the same page whatsoever?  This entire pairing has internal combustion written all over it.

The other major change is bringing in Austin Rivers.  I actually like the addition as he gives them another rotation wing, which Washington needed.  How he fits in with Wall, Beal, Porter, and Oubre remains to be seen.

Add in Wall’s injury risk plus the fact that he will begin the regular season not in top shape and this is an easy under.

8. Brooklyn Nets – O/U 32 – Over

I’m aware this makes me certifiably insane.  I will also admit I’m more so doing this because I want to predict one thing that is really different than all the projections out there, and the Detroit/Charlotte duo is so uninspiring I’m throwing something at the wall here to see if it sticks.  And no, I am not building in an excuse for when this team is completely out of it by the All-Star break and goes full on tank mode and ends up winning like 28 games.  If I’m wrong (and I probably will be) I’ll own the fact that I made a really dumb prediction that went against all the available information before the season.

But hear me out.  Between Carroll, Crabbe, RHF, Joe Harris, and Jared Dudley, the Nets have five legitimate NBA rotation wing players.  While lacking in star power, how many teams can make that claim?  Between Russell, Dinwiddie, LeVert, and Shabazz Napier, the Nets have four legitimate NBA rotation guards.  I mean, hell, between Allen, Faried, and Ed Davis the Nets have three legitimate NBA rotation bigs.  I’m also probably the biggest Jarrett Allen fan you know.

Don’t the Nets just kinda seem like the poor man’s version of the Heat to you?  Lacking in star power but deep with excellent coaching?  I dunno, Brooklyn could take a decent stride forward this year, and is it that crazy to think they would be in the Detroit/Charlotte tier fighting for the 8 seed if that happens?

9. Charlotte Hornets – O/U 35.5 – Over

Last year the Hornets’ offensive rating with Kemba Walker on the floor was 110.7, which would have ranked 7th in the NBA.  When Walker sat, that number absolutely plummeted to 100.1, which not only would have been dead last in the league, but by a mile.  The Suns were last in offensive rating with a mark of 102.6  That 2.5 point difference is large enough to jump over five other teams, before getting to the Mavericks at 105.4.

Who are we hoping picks up the slack?  Nicolas Batum’s offensive rating fell from 109.4 with Kemba on the court to 96.3 when Walker sat.  Malik Monk would have to make major strides in his second year to pick up the burden.  Miles Bridges is a rookie, and rookies typically don’t end up rating as plus players.

So why am I taking the over? Because between Kemba, MKG, Lamb, Marvin Williams, and Cody Zeller there is enough here to get to at least 36 wins by beating up on the bottom of the East, and yes challenging for the 8 seed.  I’m really just building the argument for my Nets pick as this team doesn’t have the fire power to separate as a playoff team, and if they do trade Kemba before the deadline it’s tanking season (which ruins my over pick but – presumably – takes them out of playoff contention).

10. Detroit Pistons – O/U 38.5 – Under

I don’t have a ton to say here.  I just remain skeptical of how well the Griffin-Drummond pairing is going to work, despite the success of the similar Griffin-DJ pairing, since CP3 can probably make any lineup construction in the history of basketball workout well enough.

The injuries just really concern me.  Blake is practically a lock to miss about 20 games, and Reggie Jackson has his own injury risks.  If both miss about 20 games, and some or all of them overlap, what are we really looking at here in terms of how good this team is?

Detroit went 39-43 last year with a scoring margin of negative 0.1, so they were really a 41 win team, meaning they underachieved.  I like Dwayne Casey, but isn’t it prudent to bake in a getting-used-to-the-coaching-change time period?  There just seems to be a few factors where the smart idea is to predict them on the conservative side of the conversation.

11. Orlando Magic – O/U 30.5 – Over

Separating the Magic/Cavs/Knicks grouping was difficult, so I’m banking on internal improvements here.  And by that I mainly mean Jonathan Isaac being a contributor this year.  Isaac has the length, athleticism, and shooting touch to provide lineup flexibility for the Magic.  Don’t take my word for it, trust the judgement of my very talented colleague Jackson Frank:

12. Cleveland Cavaliers – O/U 30.5 – Under

Vegas nailed this line.  The Cavs on paper are probably about a 31 win team.  One decent injury to Kevin Love and the under should hit.  In Love’s ten years he has played 73+ games five times, and 60 or less games five times.  Everything about this feels like a 50-50 proposition, but the Cavs owe the Hawks their first rounder if it falls from 11-30, so as much as Dan Gilbert wants to push for the playoffs in the second iteration of After LeBron, once it’s the All-Star break and Cleveland is out of the hunt they will probably go full on tank mode, especially if Love suffers any type of injury and the team can just shut him down.

13. New York Knicks – O/U 27.5 – Under

My under reasoning is two fold: 1. The Knicks have no incentive to push Porzingis this year, as the playoffs aren’t on the table so it is more logical to be cautious.  2. There is every incentive to tank as the Knicks are going big game hunting in free agency in 2019.  Whether or not they catch a big fish is to be determined, but they probably believe that they will, which means they correspondingly would view this year as the last year to get a really high draft pick.

Jimmy Butler – despite recently claiming all he cares about is winning – specifically listed the Knicks as a preferred trade destination, so New York probably views a potential 2019-2020 core of Butler, Porzingis, Ntilikina, and Knox as a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.

14. Chicago Bulls – O/U 30 – Under

The Bulls will be in contention for worst defense in the league, and Markkanen is missing the start of the season.  Under.

15. Atlanta Hawks – O/U 22.5 – Over

While I personally love the Hawks future potential, this team won 24 games last year and the rookie season of Trae Young figures to be a downgrade from Dennis Schroder.  The Hawks also have every reason to tank, as it’s possible they end up with three lottery picks in 2019, and have positioned themselves to have upwards of $50 million in cap space next summer.  Similar to the Knicks, they could view next season as a potential playoff year, meaning this is their last chance to get as high a pick as possible.

22.5 is a pretty low bar though.

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