Triple Threat Weekly: Sorting through the East

Weekly NBA Content by Back of the Jersey

Welcome back to Triple Threat Weekly! This week, Jim Armstrong and Tyler Michels will continue their NBA discussion by sorting through the mediocre Eastern Conference. Who are the pretenders, who can we see making a playoff run, and who is our December choice for the NBA Finals?

John Wall is only 24. Can he lead the Wiz deep in the playoffs?

John Wall has looked elite so far. Is it enough to lead the Wiz deep into the playoffs? (Photo courtesy of Bleacher Report)

Who are your pretenders in the Eastern Conference? Who can we boldly eliminate from being a serious threat?

Tyler Michels

I don’t think the Hawks (15-6) or Wizards (15-6) have much of a chance to win multiple playoff rounds. As a matter of fact, I think these teams would be lucky to be .500 if they played out West.

Let me start with Atlanta. The Hawks are a well-coached, scrappy team that plays hard every night, which may be the biggest part of the formula to winning in a dreadful Eastern Conference. But, make no mistake, Atlanta has talent. Jeff Teague (17.5 PPG, 7.1 APG) has emerged as a top five point guard, has anyone else seen this guy play recently? Part of the problem for Atlanta is that they just don’t play the kind of defense required to make a run at the NBA Finals. Millsap and Teague aren’t regarded as great defenders. They will also need Horford to pick it up, his play has been suspect of late. Atlanta is one of those underdog teams that is fun to get behind, but it’s unlikely they can be taken seriously at this point, despite the hot start to the season.

Washington is another team I have to eliminate as a possible NBA Finals contender at this early point in the season. I know this might shock some people because of John Wall’s continued spectacular play, but I really just can’t see it. Losing Trevor Ariza painfully hurts, because the Wiz now lack a true perimeter defender. Paul Pierce was a nice replacement, but he’s obviously not the same player he used to be. Can he even hold up for the entire season? Bradley Beal returned about two weeks ago, and it’s been a complete struggle. He’s shooting 49% from the field in wins, and just 35% in losses. He’s absolutely their X-factor. If Beal can somehow morph into one of the NBA’s best two guards (which I believe he has the potential to be), they could somehow make a run in the playoffs. But, as we know, that’s highly unlikely. Realistically, Washington is an entertaining 50-win team that will have problems matching up with the Bulls, Raptors and Cavs in a seven-game series.

Jim Armstrong

Quick 250 words on the New York Knicks – did anyone foresee this team being as bad as they have been through the first 1/3 of the season? Oh wait, they’re the New York friggin Knicks….how could we ever expect anything remotely sniffing mediocre from such a well run organization? They have lost 20 of their first 24 games and sport the NBA’s longest losing streak, at 10 games and counting. The Knicks are 6 games out of the #8 seed and are looking up at such teams as the Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic in the standings…yikes! Make no mistake, the Knicks were never going to be a dangerous playoff team this year but in acquiring Derek Fisher as head coach and paying Carmelo a max deal, many in New York expected the Knicks to at least compete for a low playoff seed. Heck, the Nets stink this year as well (8-12) yet still hold the #8 seed. Enough with the Knicks.

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Tyler – agree with you 100% re: your Pretender selections. Washington has missed 29-year old Trevor Ariza’s defense and athleticism on the wing (could guard any 3 in the league) and on the flip side, the Rockets have thrived in their 16-5 start due largely to Ariza’s presence on the wings and his three-point shooting, despite missing Dwight Howard for most of this season. The Ariza acquisition made literally zero news this summer but has turned out to be one of the most pivotal acquisitions of the summer.

Love what the Hawks are doing with Mike Budenholzer at the helm (spent 18 seasons in the Spurs organization prior to joining the Hawks in 2013) but they don’t have enough athleticism on the wings (similar to the issues the Clippers face in the West) to be a contender. I also love what Kyle Korver brings to this team in his lethal shooting but his deficiencies on defense are exposed, particularly when the LeBron James’s, Luol Dengs and Joe Johnsons are in the playoff mix.

Which teams are legitimate contenders in the East?

Tyler Michels

Some may be surprised that I am throwing the Raptors hat into the ring. The Raptors own the top spot in the East, and although I don’t think they will be able to retain it come April, I do think they are a real threat to come out of the Eastern Conference. Here’s why: The Raptors have the required depth to make a playoff push. Lowry has been unbelievable yet again, a factor I questioned before the season. Demar DeRozen is also as good as any other two guard in the league. If he can get back to being healthy, this team features a dynamic, athletic backcourt coupled with a big, tenacious front court in Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson (who has struggled this season and the Raps are still off to a great start). Look for Toronto to continue their impressive play all the way into April.

The Bulls are another team that is an obvious contender. But they have one requirement to get there: get Derrick Rose healthy and stay healthy. This Bulls team is easily the deepest team in the East. With the addition of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, Chicago has added some serious foreign talent. Jimmy Butler has emerged as an unbelievable two way player, and despite battling injuries, they are just a few games back of the top spot in the conference. If D-Rose can manage to flip the switch and get back to playing the kind of basketball we saw a few years ago, the Bulls have as good of a chance to be playing in June as any other Eastern Conference foe.

Jim Armstrong

I’m going to look a little more broadly here and declare that only one team is a contender in the East because at least 5 teams in the West are currently better than every team in the East. Only the Cavs deserve merit as contenders. The Bulls need to prove to me that they can stay relatively healthy for an entire season. Derrick Rose has looked solid in the games he has suited up for but has already missed 8 of his team’s first 21 games due to injury. I need a larger sample size from the Bulls and more nationally televised games from the Raptors to throw these teams into the Contender mix.

Cavs Trio v. Bulls Trio

The Cavs and Bulls both have a lot of fire power. Who are you taking in a seven game series? (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

 

Yes, it’s mid-December. But if you had to pick one team from the Eastern Conference to still be playing in June, who is it?

Tyler Michels

The almighty Cleveland Cavaliers. Watching the Cavs play the last few games, it seems like we are essentially just waiting for the inevitable. LeBron will start to play better as he gels with his teammates, Kyrie and Love will figure out their roles, and the Eastern Conference won’t even be competitive in a few months. I truly believe this may be the case. Cleveland has now won eight out of their last ten, and is starting to find that groove we all expected when this team was assembled a few months ago. There are two problems the Cavs need to address by the trade deadline in order to solidify their NBA Finals chances. One, deepen their bench. This is most likely only going to come via trade, and there has been talks of acquiring Iman Shumpert from New York. This would be a huge upgrade to a bench that really lacks any spark. Another issue with this Cavs team is their defense. They just don’t play the type of shutdown defense we all witnessed LeBron’s Heat squad play the last few seasons. This will have to change to fend off any upsets from the Bulls or Raptors in May.

Ultimately, it’s early. Very early. But when it’s all said and done, I think it’s going to be the Cavs, Bulls and Raptors as the top three – and only three – that will have any chance of a showdown with a Western Conference opponent.

Jim Armstrong

LeBron James led teams have qualified for the Finals each of the last four seasons. Until another team proves otherwise, I’m going with LeBron making his fifth Finals trip in as many seasons.

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