NBA Eastern Conference Preview: 3rd and 4th Seeds

We’re halfway through our preview, and so far I’m pretty uncomfortable. Truthfully, I don’t think anyone is good at predicting anything in terms of sports. LeBron softens that disability a little bit. While there’s never a guarantee he’s going to make it out of the East, it’s an easy guess for most of us basketball nuts.

Where things gets tough for fans is when we have to analyze and predict the future of our team. We allow hope to muffle the objectivity, for excitement to blur the reality. Maryland-bred, I’m a Wizards fan, which never meant anything to me until I watched John Wall play at the Verizon Center (prior to that I was a Heat fan, and still pull for Dwyane Wade’s success to this day). I look at this team, and I see every reason they can contend for a Finals bid. Which brings me to today:

  1. Washington Wizards

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Last Year’s Finish: 5th

Projected Starting Lineup:

Point Guard: John Wall
Shooting Guard: Bradley Beal
Small Forward: Otto Porter, Jr.
Power Forward: Nene
Center: Marcin Gortat

6th Man: Kris Humphries / Kelly Oubre, Jr.

Losing Paul Pierce is certainly not a great thing, but I don’t think it will be as detrimental as people think. That one year of Pierce’s influence was a sharp change in the locker room culture of Washington, and I doubt that change will reverse itself because Pierce left. While the Wizards lost a Hall of Famer, they gained depth. Jared Dudley, Alan Anderson, and Gary Neal all offer similar veteran leadership that Pierce did with more ground covered in the lineup.

The truth (no pun intended) is that the Wizards were at their best when utilizing a stretch four and dropping Nene to the B-Unit. I have no issue with Nene as a player, I think he’s the perfect medicine to match up against undersized centers, but for the Wizards to work the best that they can, he needs to sit while Gortat and Wall are on the court together. That pick and roll game + three outside shooters is deadly.

Where I have to get objective and express concern is with Randy Wittman. The last couple of years we’ve seen two sides of Randy Wittman. He’s an anti-analytic monster that believes in long-twos and wants to pair two big down low. In the playoffs, he transforms into a dream version of himself, draws up plays that lead to an open three, and sweeps favored teams like it’s nothing. Wittman will have to start with the open threes from the start, and hopefully put the Wizards in a position to have home-court advantage in the postseason.

X-Factor?

Outside of Wittman’s coaching decisions, the Wizards are going to have to find out who that stretch four is going to be. Dudley and Anderson are both capable of being just that. We’ve also seen Kris Humphries shoot AND MAKE three pointers during the preseason. Additionally, Kelly Oubre has to show up to play. Wall and Beal have come together to lead the team in a positive direction, and the rook needs to recognize and follow suit.

 

  1. Toronto Raptors

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Last Year’s Finish: 4th

Projected Starting Lineup:

Point Guard: Kyle Lowry
Shooting Guard: DeMar DeRozan
Small Forward: DeMarre Carroll
Power Forward: Patrick Patterson
Center: Jonas Valanciunas

6th Man: Terrance Ross

Toronto has to feel bitter about the end of their postseason last year. Not only did they lose in the first round after an exciting season, but they were dominated by Washington. They were demoralized. Part of it could be attributed to missed shots, which there were a lot of, but the other part could simply be competitive spirit. Toronto is probably hungry for a culture change as well, and it’d be interesting to see how they take the early exit of the last two years and use it as motivation this year.

While they lost 6th Man of the Year Lou Williams, they gained arguably the MVP of the Hawks’ postseason last year. DeMarre Carroll is a huge pickup for Toronto, and at 29, he’s tied with Kyle Lowry as the oldest player on that roster. Toronto is going to be relevant, and this is the year they reach the second round.

My worries for Toronto comes from the lack of veteran leadership. Paul Pierce clearly got to them last year, and while Lowry was named an All-Star starter last year, he hasn’t risen to the kind of leader he needs to be. They are going to play some wonderful basketball, but as LeBron and others can tell you, the playoffs is about an attitude as much as it is about talent. What are they going to do if they face Chicago in the first round? I think they are all sorts of better than Chicago, but not when it comes to pure grit and heart. The intangibles matter in this game.

X-Factor?

The play of Patrick Patterson. He’s a perfect player for the modern NBA. A power-forward that can hold his own down low and is able to hit the three regularly. In the regular season he shot 37 percent from beyond the arc, and in the playoffs that rose to 46 (!!) percent. If he can continue that kind of play, Toronto could be the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference.

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