The Eastern Conference standings have been all over the place this year. It seems like Boston at the top has been the only consistency in the entire conference, and even that is being threatened by Canada. As we launch into February and the final third of the NBA regular season, a lot is going down in the Eastern Conference, that for once actually looks like it MIGHT be up for grabs this year.
Blake Griffin to Detroit
The biggest bomb of the year so far came yesterday, when Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Clippers were trading Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, a protected 2018 first round pick, and a 2019 second round pick. After a hot start to the season, Detroit has been plummeting and currently sit in the least desirable position in the Eastern Conference standings. The injury to Reggie Jackson had lead to an increased offensive reliance on Bradley and Harris. As we all know from his time in Boston, Avery is a great supplemental offensive player. However, without a star like Isaiah Thomas to draw the defense's attention, Bradley's shooting has suffered somewhat in Detroit. Blake Griffin gives Detroit a strong #1 option offensively. The move will also give Luke Kennard an increased role in the offense and a greater chance to develop. Kennard currently leads the team in Offensive Rating, and is shooting 42.6% from three on the year.
After drubbing Cleveland last night (more on that later), Detroit sits at 24-26, 2 games behind Philly for the 8th spot. I don't know about you, but I do NOT want to see the Pistons in the first round.
We have historically had some trouble containing Drummond, and throwing Blake in the mix gives us two dangerous big men to wrestle with instead of one. However, I'm not certain the addition of Griffin is going to vault Detroit over the Sixers. Some will argue the move actually made the Pistons worse. They lose two of their best three-point shooters and their best two-way player in Bradley. Kennard has done fine coming off of the bench, but will probably have trouble containing opponents' best shooting guards.
Whether or not this is a move that actually improves the Pistons, a frontcourt of Griffin and Drummond will at the very least be electric to watch, and with Reggie Jackson expected to return around the All-Star Break, they will probably be nipping at Philadelphia's heels.
The Mess in Cleveland
We've been told for three years now that the NBA only has two good teams. I'd love to know who this alleged second good team is. They couldn't mean Cleveland, could they? The Cav's season has been nothing short of abysmal, despite Lebron James playing some of his best (offensive) basketball. Boasting the league's worst defensive rating, Cleveland is barely holding on to home court in the first round of the playoffs. To add to Clevelands' troubles, all-Star forward Kevin Love left the Cav's loss last night early and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks.
There have been myriad trade rumors surrounding the Cavs as well, and with Kevin Love sidelined 6-8 weeks, the probability of a trade is higher than ever. George Hill's name has been tossed around, as well as DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers are reportedly seeking more young talent and draft picks and are willing to part ways with Jordan and Lou Williams, who is having the best year of his career. So far the Cavs have been unwilling to part ways with the Nets pick, which currently sits at 6th worst in the league. However, DiAngelo Russell is expected to make his return next week, so I would expect the Nets to begin to inch their way up the standings. No matter how good Spencer Dinwiddie has been playing, he is still Spencer Dinwiddie. Despite this, the 2018 draft is expected to be a strong one, so I wouldn't expect Cleveland to part ways with the pick unless they are confident that Lebron will be returning next season.
Return of the Jabari
Milwaukee have yet to lose a game since firing Jason Kidd, and currently sit in sixth place in the East. Add to that the fact that Jabari Parker is set to make his return Friday night, and suddenly the Bucks are looking very dangerous to the top teams in the East. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton are first and second in minutes per game so far this season, so the return of Jabari should help to take some of the load off of their broad shoulders. We also don't even know Jabari's full potential. In three seasons, he's played just 152 games, and has improved in nearly every category each year. Last season he averaged over 20PPG and finally added a three-point shot to his arsenal.
If he comes back fully healthy and fearless, he will turn the Bucks into a team that could make some serious noise in the Eastern Playoffs. If you're looking for a dark horse to make the ECF, look towards the Bucks.
Washington Without Wall
The Wizards took the entire league by surprise last year, and would have made it to the Eastern Conference finals if it weren't for offensive juggernaut Kelly Olynyk. This year no team is letting Washington take them by surprise. John Wall has seen a slight drop in numbers from last year to this, although he is still second on the team in scoring with 19.4 PPG and second in the league in assists per game with 9.3. However, Wall underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and is set to miss 6-8 weeks. Fortunately for Washington, they have been able to stay afloat with Wall thus far this year, sitting at 7-6 when he does not play, including a big 102-96 win over Oklahoma City last night. The Wizards currently sit in 5th place in the East at 28-22. Without Wall, they should be able to hold onto a playoff spot for Wall's return, but they could easily slip to 6th or 7th with the way Indiana and Milwaukee are surging. This presents another possible poor first round matchup for Boston. If The Wizards slip to 7th and Toronto sneaks into the top seed, the Celtics would be forced to deal with a fully loaded Washington squad. Boston is obviously capable of dealing with the Wizards, but it could easily turn six or seven games and leave us tired for the second round.
Not Done Yet?
This article is probably coming out too early. There is strong likelihood for more moves in the upcoming week before the deadline occurs. The Clippers, having just dumped Griffin, have put DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams on the trading block in order to gain young talent and free up cap space for a lucrative summer. Either of these players could easily be East-bound.
Meanwhile, the Kings currently have thirteen players playing between 15-28 minutes per game. THIRTEEN. They have found themselves amidst a handful of trade rumors, and would be wise to move some of their older players and actually commit to some of their young talent. George Hill and Zach Randolph are not leading them anywhere promising.
Chicago sharpshooter Nikola Mirotic has been a staple in trade rumors ever since he got falcon-punched by Bobby Portis, his own teammate, this preseason. He's simply too ugly for me to want him in Boston, but for him, I can imagine anywhere would be an upgrade from the Bulls.
Almost not worth mentioning is the possibility of a Joakim Noah trade. Noah has been an absolute disaster ever since arriving in New York. It would probably take a strong additional incentive for another team to accept Noah's gargantuan contract, but the Knicks have an attractive first rounder and a handful of promising young players that they could be willing to part with in exchange for swallowing the load that is Noah's contract.
Last and certainly not least we reachTyreke Evans. Evans has rediscovered his mojo after a handful of disappointing seasons. He is currently leading Memphis in scoring and has developed into a legitimate threat from three point range. The Grizz aren't going anywhere this year, so are looking to strike while the iron is hot and get what they can out of the suddenly attractive Evans. They have gone so far as to bench Evans until a trade occurs or the deadline passes. Many Eastern conference teams are in pursuit of Evans, most notably Boston and Philadelphia. Boston has been looking for a reliable scorer off the bench, and Evans could serve that role. Memphis is most likely seeking a first rounder in return for Evans.
The Bottom Line
Let's face it. No matter how terrible Cleveland may look right now, it's going to take something special for them to not breeze through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Take a look at the above photo. That's at least two points ten times out of ten. Lebron nearly beat the Warriors without Kyrie and Love three years ago. Although the East is exciting right now, there's no reason to expect anything different from the past seven years in the Eastern playoffs. Someone needs figure out a solution to Lebron that doesn't involve the three greatest shooters of all time. Let's hope Brad is the guy to figure that out.
Photo Credit: (USAToday)(Clutchpoint)(Sportsnet)(Hoops Habit)(Sports Illustrated)(Sporting News)(NBA.com)