The Whiteboard: Sorting out the NBA’s Eastern Conference logjam

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Before the season began, Bryan Toporek posited that this might be the season where the NBA Eastern Conference finally caught up with the West. A variety of roster upgrades and ascendant young teams looked like they might be ready to reverse a decade-long pattern of futility:

“Over the past 12 years, East teams have gone a combined 2,267-3,111 against West teams in the regular season. They’ve won fewer than 45 percent of their overall regular-season meetings in seven of those 12 years, including a comically low 36.9 percent (166-284) in 2013-14.”

So far, Toporek’s prediction has largely played out, with Eastern Conference teams holding an 18-9 record against Western Conference teams through Wednesday night. There is still balance at the top and plenty of legitimate contenders in both conferences but the East just looks much deeper at this point.

Through Wednesday, 11 teams in the East have a record of 4-4 or better and two more who are under .500 — the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers — were preseason playoff contenders who could benefit from some progression to the mean. All that makes for a very crowded playoff race as things stand right now.

Which Eastern Conference teams will actually make the NBA playoffs?

The playoffs are still a long way away but we can already spot some teams that may fade out sooner than others. 538’s NBA prediction model gives the Cavaliers (4 percent), Hornets (22 percent) and Wizards (42) the smallest chances of holding on to a playoff spot. However, that model is placing the Celtics and Pacers — who are a combined 6-11 — ahead of them.

By SRS (strength of schedule adjusted point differential) the Celtics, Hawks, Cavaliers and Knicks have had the shakiest starts thus far, although this measure is exceptionally noisy at this early point in the season.

Another data point to consider is which teams have been affected most strongly by unsustainable luck. For example, the Bucks and Wizards have been hammered by incredible poor shooting on wide-open 3-pointers — 30.9 and 31.3 percent, respectively. These are shots for which the defense has essentially no effect, being at least 6 feet away from the shooter and the numbers for both teams should eventually trend up. We can see the same thing at the other end of the floor, where the Bucks (28.5 percent) and Heat (28.8 percent) have both benefited on defense from unlucky opponent shooting on wide-open 3s that’s like to bounce back.

And one last thing to roll in is the teams that have been most impacted by injuries. Pascal Siakam has missed all nine games for the Raptors. Donte DiVincenzo, Brook Lopez, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton have all missed time for the Bucks. Both Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid have been in and out of the lineup for the 76ers and Terry Rozier missed five games for the Hornets.

Carmelo Anthony is an overqualified spot-up shooter

For years, people have been wondering what Carmelo Anthony might be able to accomplish if he fully committed to playing off the ball. It turns out, the answer is a lot. Through the Lakers’ first eight games, Anthony has 52.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. A full 47 percent of his shot attempts this season have been catch-and-shoot 3s, up from 27 percent last season with the Blazers.

You can see it in the dearth of some other Anthony trademarks from his shot profile. Post-ups have made up just 12.8 percent of his offensive possessions, down from 23.0 percent last season and he hasn’t even registered enough isolations to show up in the NBA’s play-type statistics. He also hasn’t attempted a single “catch-and-hold” 2-jumper this season, at least not one that was captured in the NBA’s stats. (This a non-pull-up jumper where he holds the ball for longer than two seconds after catching it before shooting. Think when he catches it on the wing, pump fakes, jab steps, pump fakes, jab steps again and then shoots without dribbling). Last season, he attempted 9 in 69 games.

The Lakers still have plenty of issues to smooth out but Carmelo’s fit is definitely not one of them and his spot-up shooting has been one of their few consistent bright spots on offense this year.


We’ve been talking a lot about breakout players at The Whiteboard and Kevin O’Connor has gone deep on 10 players who are on the verge, some we’ve already hit and some we haven’t.

Where in the world would the Brooklyn Nets be without Kevin Durant right now?

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