Knicks, Bulls headline five East teams in position for playoff return

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You can debate whether the Eastern Conference got better as a whole last year, but there’s no debate as to whether the bottom half of the conference improved, as it clearly did, with the No. 8 seed Pistons’ 44 wins matching the total of the Blazers, who were the No. 5 seed in the West. It was very competitive from the third seed down, with a number of teams hovering between a playoff and lottery berth.

That doesn’t figure to change this year. In fact, the Eastern playoff picture is about to get even more crowded with no less than five non-playoff teams projecting as legit threats to crack the field this year. In no particular order, here they are.

  • 32-50, missed playoffs by 12 games

What went wrong last year? Well, the Knicks ended up with Kurt Rambis as their coach, and whenever a team that doesn’t include a 26-year-old Shaquille O’Neal ends up with Kurt Rambis as its coach, that team is officially in trouble. So how did they end up with Rambis as their interim coach? Derek Fisher wouldn’t remain committed to the triangle offense, would up losing part of the locker room, and Phil Jackson ultimately decided the system was far more important than his protégé.

About that system.

To put it nicely, the Knicks simply couldn’t score efficiently last year (24th in the NBA in offensive rating). Their point guard was Jose Calderon, in 2016. Their bench was abysmal. And most problematic, they simply couldn’t make shots. At one point, they were starting Sasha Vujacic. It was bad.

What went right last year? The good news is that the Knicks took care of the ball, and they were the best free-throw shooting team in the league. And while this may sound a little like a moral victory (and maybe it is), when Carmelo Anthony and rookie Kristaps Porzingis were on the floor, the Knicks outscored their opponents by 0.9 points per 100 possessions. Throw in Lance Thomas, who was a nice project who contributed off the bench provided some floor-stretching, and you can build on that.

Which is what the Knicks went out and did … at least on paper … notably adding Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings. You could make a very strong case that each of these guys’ best days are behind them, but there is some potential firepower here.

An optimist would say a change of scenery will help Rose rediscover at least a portion of his once-explosive game. Noah only played 29 games last year, but he’s only a couple years removed from being an MVP candidate and the defensive player of the year. The bench is still pretty anemic, but they at least got some young guys in there who are guaranteed to play hard.

They also replaced Rambis with Jeff Hornacek, who was fired from the Phoenix Suns during last season. He told Phil Jackson he’d run the triangle and the Knicks are trusting him to do that. Whether that sticks all year or Hornacek backs off that approach like Fisher did remains to be seen, but for the time being, he’s not Rambis, and that’s a win.


The Knicks are betting big on Derrick Rose.
Getty Images

So, what needs to happen for a playoff return?

Health. Miles and miles of health. Rose has stated the Knicks are a super-team like the Golden State Warriors and we’ve all had a good laugh at that this summer, but the truth is a healthy Knicks team is definitely a playoff contender.

If Noah can give them a lot of good Noah minutes then the defense should be able to inch toward the top half of the league. Putting him alongside Porzingis and Lee gives the Knicks a good enough starting core to be solid defensively. From there, they’ll need two bench players not named Jennings or Vujacic to step forward and be solid contributors.

As for Rose, you can’t just say he has to be healthy in order for him to make a big impact. He played 66 games last season and averaged nearly 32 minutes. He was on the court. He just wasn’t much of an impact player and that’s something he has to try to rediscover under Hornacek.

Now, you’re going from the Calderon/Jerian Grant (as a rookie) combination to Rose/Jennings, so the point guard play will improve almost by default. But they have a lot of games to make up in order to challenge for the playoffs and they will likely have a few teams in front of them trying to do the same. Default improvement likely won’t be enough.

The Knicks likely top out as a 7-seed, but they’ll be interesting all season.

  • 42-40, missed playoffs by two games

What went wrong last year? Too many injuries, not enough leadership. Noah, Rose, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol all missed time, and the Bulls, while competitive to the end, just couldn’t overcome those absences.

The lacking leadership was even more troublesome. After Tom Thibodeau was let go, Fred Hoiberg was supposed to take this team to another level offensively while building on the foundation Thibs had been laying since 2010. Instead, the offense actually regressed and Hoiberg couldn’t command the respect of his players. Butler openly questioned him. Noah publicly challenged Hoiberg’s reasoning for benching him. And all the while, there was a weird dynamic developing, but inside the locker room and out, as Rose fell out of favor as the franchise player and Butler began to assume that role.

What went right last year? Ironically, the one thing the Bulls did do well last year was play defense, which is what they always did under Thibs. It kept them competitive most nights, and Pau Gasol had a nice individual season with a double-double average to go with 4.1 assists. When Mirotic was healthy, he was a great 3-point shooter at 39 percent, while Doug McDermott was a good weapon for them off the bench, knocking down 42.5 percent of his 3-pointers.

Now they add Rajon Rondo on a short deal and Dwyane Wade on a big-but-flexible deal, and in doing so, they immediately become interesting. Problem is, Hoiberg wants to play fast and shoot threes, and how do you do that consistently with Butler, Rondo and Wade in your starting lineup?

So, what needs to happen for a playoff return?

Pretty simply, either they figure out how to help Butler regain his shooting stroke and the Wade/Rondo combination truly surprises us with their perimeter play, or the Bulls find a way to play fast and loose mainly with the second unit, while reining it in and physically punishing teams with the Wade/Butler combination.

There’s no getting around the weird construction of this roster. The fit of all these names is a big question. But this team was right there last year, and with the addition of Wade alone they presumably got better. If they can find that identity with their starting and bench units alike, they can beat most teams in the league on a given night. They’ll impact the playoff race, one way or another.

  • 41-41, missed playoffs by three games

What went wrong last year? We believed in Randy Wittman and this team couldn’t get its health in order. The Wizards were being picked as possibly the second best team in the East before opening night. We were dazzled by their dominant upset of the Toronto Raptors in the first-round of the 2014-15 playoffs, and the only thing keeping them from getting to the 2015 Eastern Conference finals was probably John Wall fracturing his hand and wrist during the second round against the Atlanta Hawks. The Wizards played small ball during that playoff run and small ball was all the rage.

Then, for the fourth straight season, Bradley Beal found himself dealing with a stress fracture in his leg and the Wizards didn’t have the depth to deal with it. They also missed Alan Anderson and Nene, as this team struggled to score consistently. They were the perfect example of a team deciding to play fast without truly knowing how to do that over the course of a season with any consistency.

Wall tried to do it all and he couldn’t do enough. A mid-season acquisition of Markieff Morris helped but didn’t give them enough of a boost to finish the year strong. Their .500 record was the perfect encapsulation for their season.

Whenever they took a step forward, it was soon followed by a step back.

What went right last year? Wall was really good. Outside of that, the Wizards did have some very encouraging success following the acquisition of Morris at the trade deadline. With a lineup of Wall-Beal-Otto Porter-Morris-Marcin Gortat, the Wizards were plus-5.6 points per 100 possessions. That five-man unit defended well and they were pretty good on offense. Even though they missed the playoffs, that final stretch of the season was big in building continuity within their starting lineup for this coming season.

It’s not the most satisfying of silver linings, but it matters.

This summer, the Wizards said goodbye to Wittman as their coach and replaced him with Scott Brooks. Even if you want to criticize the offensive system (especially at the end of games) of Brooks, he’s a big improvement over Wittman. He’ll have them more prepared most nights and he’ll likely use a good blend of small ball and more traditional lineups.

That’s a necessary thing because the Wizards beefed up their frontcourt this offseason. They signed Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith after Kevin Durant refused to even give them a meeting. They finally brought guard Tomas Satoransky to the NBA and traded for Trey Burke to be the backup point guard. They lost Jared Dudley to the Suns in free agency, but they’ll likely expect Kelly Oubre to contribute more in his second season.


John Wall needs a healthy Bradley Beal alongside him all year.
USATSI

So, what needs to happen for a playoff return?

I don’t think they need to do too much to find themselves back in the playoffs. Even as competitive as it is now, this is a talented roster with good depth. Last year was more of an outlier than a concern for the franchise. Some will blame their struggles on this newfound idea that Beal and Wall don’t get along enough on the court, but the truth is the front office has mangled the direction of this team. Brooks now gives them a better, clearer direction moving forward.

If they can avoid the fifth straight year of Beal getting a stress fracture, this team should be a lock. If they can play defense under Brooks, they may even start moving back toward that top-4 spot in the East many of us assumed they’d find themselves in last season.

  • 33-49, missed playoffs by 11 games

What went wrong last year? Regression to the mean. Big time. In their first season under Jason Kidd, the Bucks overachieved. They went 41-41, made the playoffs and even put up a fight against the Bulls after going down 3-0 in the series before losing in six games. Then last season, the Bucks weren’t the same defensive unit with Michael Carter-Williams and Greg Monroe heavily involved all season long. They went from fourth in defense in 2014-15 to 23rd in 2015-16.

They forced turnovers but they gave the ball right back. They killed on the offensive boards and got killed on the defensive boards. They had the lowest 3-point rate in a league that had Byron Scott and Sam Mitchell as coaches. Anybody who was surprised by the Bucks a year ago felt more comfortable with this team coming back down to earth. They weren’t entirely healthy but they were healthy enough to be better than what they showed.

What went right last year? Khris Middleton was worth every penny they shelled out for him in the summer of 2015. He was a deadly 3-point shooter, their best scorer, and a very good playmaker. Jabari Parker returned from an ACL tear his rookie year and looked as explosive as ever. He was dunking with electricity every night. And over the final couple months of the season, Kidd unleashed Giannis Antetokounmpo as a point forward and he put up some pretty eye-opening numbers in the process.

Now, unlike the Knicks, Bulls and Wizards, the Bucks didn’t make and big moves this summer (Read: 4 teams relying on internal improvement). They signed Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic to add some much-needed outside shooting. They continued their quest for the team with the longest wingspan by drafting Thon Maker with the 10th pick and committing to making him a worthwhile project. But otherwise, this is pretty much the same team we saw last year with a better understanding of where each player is in their development.

So, what needs to happen for a playoff return?

The trickiest part for Kidd and company is figuring out how to become that defensive unit again with MCW and Monroe so heavily involved. The Bucks have the personnel to play that switching style of defense that cuts off the court, but if Monroe is constantly wandering around the paint like Mr. Magoo — totally unaware of his surroundings — then the Bucks are going to be in trouble when he’s on the floor. Carter-Williams will probably have a reduced role this season, which may help him catch up to the speed of the game.

The Bucks can’t trick themselves into thinking they’ll be a good offensive team. They’re likely not going to be that most nights. But they can be a great defensive team once again. That’s their calling card. That’s how they return to the postseason. The defensive possessions have to be better, more communicative, and ended by solid rebounding effectiveness.

  • 35-47, missed playoffs by nine games

What went wrong last year? Ever since the Magic decided Stan Van Gundy needed to go even though they were trading Dwight Howard, they’ve been in the land of rebuilding. Some of it has gone well with additions like Victor Oladipo (though he’s gone to Oklahoma City now), Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, but last season was their best defensive season of this new era and they still only finished 16th in defensive rating. Couple that with being bottom 10 in offensive rating and it’s easy to see why the Magic finished so far out of the playoffs.

They moved Tobias Harris and Channing Frye before the trade deadline, and moved Oladipo in and out of the lineup because the team was so bad when he and Elfrid Payton were on the floor together (minus-3.0 points per 100 possessions). The frustrating thing for Orlando was they were 19-13 at the end of December. They went just 16-34 the rest of the way.

What went right last year? A lot of the young guys looked pretty good in individual moments. Gordon could be a terror on the defensive end and his jumper looks better. Evan Fournier was a fantastic scorer and shooter on a team desperate for offense. Vucevic was a double-double machine. And even though Mario Hezonja was limited to spot minutes, he had some really fun moments that injected life into the fan base. Not to mention, they finally cracked the 30-win barrier after failing to get past 25 in the previous three seasons.

Now they add Serge Ibaka, who came from OKC in exchange for Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the draft rights to lottery pick Domantas Sabonis. They also went out and signed Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green, D.J. Augustin and Jodie Meeks, while also re-signing Fournier to an $85 million deal. The bench features a lot of weird fits, but it’s certainly better than we saw at the end of last season.

Orlando also watched Scott Skiles quit after one year back on the job and pounced on the opportunity to hire Frank Vogel after his begging to keep his job in Indiana didn’t work on Larry Bird. By bringing Vogel in along with their new players, they committed to being a big-time defensive team, which should help them crack that top 15 in defensive rating.

So, what needs to happen for a playoff return?

Can this team get by on defense alone? That would be tough. Which means in all likelihood they’re going to have to figure out some kind of offense — which, with the parts they have and the coach they just hired, seems unlikely. In Vogel’s first full season coaching the Pacers, his team was seventh in offensive rating. In the four seasons after, his team never finished higher than 20th in offensive efficiency. Without pieces that seem to fit on offense in Orlando, where is that scoring going to come from?

The answer is this team either has to jump to a top 5-ish defense in the NBA or Vogel has to finally figure out how to put together an offensive system that can last. It’s not impossible by any means. If Gordon or Payton or Hezonja take the leap, that would be a start. More than likely, Vogel tries to get his team to be a lot like the Pacers of last season. The problem, though, is they don’t have a Paul George to bail them out most nights.



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