- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2016

The season started with a simple premise, which has pervaded the Eastern Conference for at least five years: There was LeBron’s team, and everyone else.

Last season, the Eastern Conference was a woebegone place filled with tepid basketball teams. Two teams with under .500 records made the playoffs. The Milwaukee Bucks participated following an even season of 41-41. As expected, James and the Cleveland Cavaliers thrashed through the playoffs and into the Finals.

The cycle has begun to turn. When the all-star break begins in full on Friday, Cleveland will be in its projected place, atop the conference standings. The Toronto Raptors are just three games back. The surging Boston Celtics, 8-2 in their last 10 before the break, are 7.5 games back. Each team in the top eight has a winning record.

The Washington Wizards will be at least two games out of the final playoff spot. They finished the pre-break schedule on Thursday night in Milwaukee.

For now, let’s take a look around the conference as the league shuts down for a week:

Who can challenge Cleveland?

A vote here for the Celtics as constituted, and even more so should they make a big move before the Feb. 18 trade deadline. The Celtics started the season with multiple parts laying around. Coach of the year candidate Brad Stevens has found a way to mix them and produce one the league’s most problematic teams to oppose. Though often playing small, the Celtics are blessed with toughness from all-star guard Isaiah Thomas, his longtime friend Avery Bradley, small forward Jae Crowder and backup point guard Marcus Smart.

Boston is ninth in ESPN’s offensive efficiency ratings. It’s third, just behind the Western Conference heavies San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors, in defensive efficiency. Boston is also third-best in defending the 3-pointer, plus the best in the league at creating turnovers. That’s a tasty blend.

The Celtics can push out a small lineup that is capable of handling the one Cleveland presents with Tristan Thompson at center. The best-case scenario for Boston is it adds another piece via trade, using the bevy of picks in its pocket, then draws Cleveland in the conference semifinals. That way, the weight of making the NBA Finals is not on the outcome of the series for what is still a green Celtics team.

“I think that Cleveland is still the best team in the East and I think Toronto’s a very good team, and Miami’s a good team in the East,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said during a radio interview on Thursday. “I think that we’re a team that can beat anybody on any given night. I just think that we’re not a team that can win a playoff series against some of the elite teams in the NBA right now.”

The Raptors have also taken a step since being swept out of the playoffs last season by the Wizards. Surprisingly, Toronto has moved into the conference’s second spot despite the loss of wing DeMarre Carroll, who had knee surgery on Jan. 9. There is no timetable for his return. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan form the second-best backcourt in the NBA, trailing only Curry and his partner Klay Thompson. Toronto has a heavy reliance on isolation scoring. It’s 28th in the league in assists per game. That approach could well undercut it during the playoffs, much like it did last season.

Is the middle pack legitimate?

The Heat, Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls are the middle of the standings sandwich at the break. Each has problems.

Trade rumors are following Atlanta. Supposedly, the Hawks may be open to trading point guard Jeff Teague or center Al Horford. Teague has one year remaining on his contract. Horford is an unrestricted free agent following the season in line for a maximum contract. Dispatching either does not make sense for a team that won 60 games last season and went to the conference finals, though, it should be noted, it tremendously benefited from a random fall by John Wall.

Miami is reliant on two stars, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, having throwback seasons. Sustainability is its main question. Wade, 34, has not played more than 70 games since 2011. He has appeared in 50 already this season.

The Pacers are interesting. They have the star to counter James with in Paul George. Like Toronto and Atlanta, they are a top-10 team in opponent’s field-goal percentage. And, they are right behind the Celtics in defending 3-point shots. Indiana needs more scoring to help George. A significant trade could vault the Pacers toward the top of the east.

Chicago coach Fred Hoiberg sounds like Wizards coach Randy Wittman.
“We have to find ourselves,” Hoiberg told reporters after the Bulls were blown out by Atlanta to close their pre-break schedule.

Chicago has lost 13 of 18 games entering the all-star break, including its last five at home. Star Jimmy Butler has a strained left knee and will miss three to four weeks. Taj Gibson left Wednesday’s game with a strained foot, and Joakim Noah is likely out for the season because of a shoulder injury. Ever-fragile Derrick Rose is always on the edge of an injury.

About those Wizards

Washington moves to the break as perhaps the biggest disappointment in the league. It joins the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee as teams that made the playoffs last season, but have a losing record at the all-star break.

“That little team y’all got in Washington, they’re mediocre at best,” said TNT analyst Charles Barkley on a conference call. “You want me to tell you they’re really good? They’re not very good. They’re mediocre at best. That’s just a fact. That’s another team that’s disappointing. If you want me to tell you they’re world beaters, they have a shot at this thing, they don’t have a shot at this thing. They’re just playing out the 82 games of the regular season, maybe get to the playoffs, and their season is going to be over. That’s a fact.”

Washington has a good chance at an ignominious triumvirate before dispersing: The Wizards entered Thursday night tied for 30th in opponent’s field-goal percentage, 30th in opponent’s 3-point percentage, and 29th in rebounding percentage. They can’t stop anyone, and there is little reason to think that will change after the break.

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