NBA Eastern Conference: The tier two tussle

Nov 9, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Dennis Schroder (17) drives to the basket past Chicago Bulls forward Bobby Portis (5) and guard Rajon Rondo (9) during the second half at Philips Arena. The Hawks defeated the Bulls 115-107. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 9, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Dennis Schroder (17) drives to the basket past Chicago Bulls forward Bobby Portis (5) and guard Rajon Rondo (9) during the second half at Philips Arena. The Hawks defeated the Bulls 115-107. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

From ring night to present day, the Cleveland Cavaliers have opened the 2016-17 season with a sense of unremitting bravado — an overall attitude one would expect from the reigning champs, especially a team that pulled a historically miserable sports city out of its decades-long misery.

As such, the Cavaliers look locked in as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. And there is at least the feeling that LeBron James (who is averaging over a minute more per game than last season) will not rest as much as expected, at least until after the new year when the Cavs are closer to locking up the conference.

After winning four out of their first five games (only losing to the Cavs), the Toronto Raptors looked poised to re-cement their status as the conference’s undisputed second best team. While they don’t seem to get the attention afforded to top teams in the Western Conference, the Raptors finished with the fourth best record in the league last season and only one game behind the first place Cavs. That would suggest there are two teams in the conference’s top tier, but the general perception seems to be that the Cavs will improve upon last season’s 57 wins, while the Raptors are bound to regress from their franchise-best 56 wins.

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The Raptors have gone 3-3 since their 4-1 start (albeit two of those losses were against last year’s two Finals teams) and currently sit fourth in the Eastern Conference. The Raps, very likely, could climb up and take hold of the second spot at some point, but it may not be as easy a task as it was last season when they finished eight games better than the third place Miami Heat.

Through roughly four weeks of the season, the Eastern Conference at least appears to be more competitive in the top half of the projected playoff bracket than in previous years. This is especially fascinating when you consider that two teams many pegged to threaten the Raps for the second seed, the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers, are currently sixth and ninth in the conference, respectively. It’s early in the season to project playoff seeding, but not too early to assess team performances and how the Eastern Conference’s pecking order has changed following an extremely active free agency period.

Toronto Raptors 

The loss of Bismack Biyombo to free agency was one thing, to lose his replacement in Jared Sullinger was quite another for the Raptors, one of the least active teams during the summer of spending. While first-round pick Jakob Poetl flashed some potential early on, he has been out of the rotation since Nov. 9 and replaced by Brazlian Lucas Noguieria, playing real minutes for the first time in his third NBA season.

While he has an offensive skill set that can be described as a poor man’s Clint Capela, Noguieria’s defensive presence has been well documented. If he can keep up his current production, spelling Jonas Valanciunas for 20 minutes, the Raps will end up with the type of defensive bench presence they really wanted in replacing Biyombo.

The real issue for Toronto may be scoring outside of its dynamic duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. You can’t count on one hand the teams in this league with a better one-two punch, but the issue is many title contenders go beyond just a two-man offense. It may have gotten teams by in previous NBA eras, but not in the current NBA climate of free agency arms races and super teams.

DeRozan’s performance has been nothing short of Jordan-esque this year, but the Raps need somebody outside of him and Lowry to step up on offense. They may also need a trade to find that player, as they guy many pegged to be that offensive threat on the wing, DeMarre Carroll, has been a huge disappointment after signing with the Raps two years ago.

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks, shockingly, are tied with the Cavs for first in the Eastern Conference heading into the weekend, with a 9-2 record. It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that the Hawks are still a top four team in the conference, as all they did was replace one All-Star center (Al Horford) with another (Dwight Howard), while handing the starting point guard job to a player (Dennis Schroder) who was basically stealing the gig from their previous starter (Jeff Teague) by the end of last season.

Still, perception is different from reality and a good majority of NBA prognosticators weren’t quite sure how Howard would mesh with the Hawks’ pass happy, team-oriented style of offense. Howard has embraced the role and is fitting better than he has on any team since his glory days with the Orlando Magic.

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The funny thing is the numbers (14.8 points per game, 12.3 rebounds per game, 1.7 blocks per game) don’t look any different from those he averaged in Houston. Howard’s forceful occupancy in the Hawks front court, especially in the rebounding department, illustrates that he may be a better fit for Atlanta than anyone could have predicted.

The Hawks are also maintaining their dominance on the defensive end, ranking second in defensive efficiency through four weeks after finishing second in the category last season. They may never win 60 games again with their current roster, but this Hawks squad may be better built for the playoffs with a stronger rebounding presence in Howard and a point guard in Schroder more willing to takeover games offensively in the fourth quarter.

Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte has been a buzz so far this season — the Hornets are off to a 7-3 start and currently sit third in the conference. Kemba Walker is the beginning and end to the conversation about the Hornets’ hot start. The sixth-year point guard out of UConn is averaging career highs in points, field goal percentage and three-point percentage, and has been a dark horse MVP candidate through four weeks with his tremendous play on both ends.

The Hornets are fourth in defensive efficiency so far, and it is their stellar team defense that figures to be the most sustainable element of their early season success. Walker will need help on the offensive end, but it may not matter much if the Hornets remain top five in key stats like defensive rebounding percentage and opponent points allowed in the paint. Charlotte is led by a lock-down, versatile defender in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who is suddenly emerging into one of the league’s best after injuries stunted the past few years of his development.

The Hornets don’t have the makeup of a number two seed, lacking a true second option on offense. Having said that, being equipped with a top five defense and an emerging superstar like Walker may be enough to lock up a top four seed after finishing sixth last season. (Granted, they were in a four-way record tie that included the third seeded Heat.)

Chicago Bulls

The Bulls are a maddening team, but one that has shown tremendous potential throughout the season’s opening month. Similar to the Hawks, analysts wondered how personnel changes would impact the Bulls, a team that made more moves via trade and free agency than arguably any other team in the league this past summer.

While skeptics questioned how a team with three ball-dominant players in Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo would work, they collectively underestimated the basketball IQ of the trio and their ability to quickly adapt with one another. Rondo has taken the biggest backseat on offense, averaging the lowest scoring output (7.6 points per game) since his rookie season. As the worst and least interested shooter among the triumvirate, it was an obvious regression and allows Rondo to focus on playmaking.

While the Bulls still have issues with their rotations and efficiency, the duo of Butler and Wade cannot be understated. Wade has plenty left in the tank at age 34 and is averaging over one made three per game for just the second time in his career. And with all the worry about how he’d mesh with so many new teammates, Butler has played like arguably the second best all-around player in the conference so far. The Bulls have enough talent to finish top four and become a dangerous team once playoffs start.

Boston Celtics

Finally, while the Celtics haven’t played like a top four team so far (6-5, currently sixth), they have been dealt two massive injury blows in the early part of the season. Losing Al Horford to a concussion for eight games and Jae Crowder to an ankle injury for seven games (and counting for both) has certainly put a damper on one of the most hyped teams entering in the season.

Hopefully, Horford and Crowder will be able to return for Friday’s highly anticipated home matchup with the Golden State Warriors, or by Saturday’s away tilt with the Detroit Pistons. While Boston has been getting heroic nightly efforts from their starting back court of Isaiah Thomas (27.2 points per game) and Avery Bradley (18.5 points per game), the team is struggling right now, forcing role players like Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson into larger roles that they did not intend to play this season.

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The most glaring part of the Celtics’ start has been their poor play on defense. After ranking fourth in defensive efficiency last season, Boston currently sits in 17th place, allowing 105.3 points per 100 possessions. Clearly, Crowder and Horford are two great defenders and their presence is surely missed. The Celtics get an early season mulligan, but need their two key front court pieces back as soon as possible.