Nylon Calculus: Reviewing preseason predictions for the Eastern Conference

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Josefczyk-USA TODAY Sports
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Josefczyk-USA TODAY Sports /
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Here’s a look back to our 2022-23 NBA preseason predictions, and how each Eastern Conference team performed against our expectations.

At the beginning of this season, we offered some statistically inclined predictions for every team in the Eastern Conference. With the regular season concluded, we’re assessing how we did.

Prediction: Boston Celtics finish in the top five league-wide in offense and defense

Beginning this season the way they finished last’s, the Celtics were a historic offensive team over the first two months of play with an impressive 1.2 point-per-possession offensive rating. Their 1.11 point-per-possession defense has also been among the conference and league’s best marks all season long. Boston has slipped on both ends since the All-Star break, which has allowed Milwaukee to commandeer the conference’s number-one overall seed. Should conference seeding, and its inherent home-court advantage, determine the outcome of the conference finals this stretch of play would become a point of criticism.

This preseason prediction for Boston was correct: the Celtics are the league’s fourth-best offense and its fourth-best defense, per NBA Stats. However, I’ll assign an “A-” to this prediction, since the Celtics were prognosticated to be the consensus favorite in the conference and one of the league’s best two-way teams.

Grade: A-

Prediction: Brooklyn Nets win less than 50 games in the regular season

The Nets finished with 45 wins, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story of this team and why I predicted them to fall short of lofty preseason expectations.

My prediction was based on a belief that either Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving would miss extended time for the Nets, not that both would be on different teams in the spring. However, that prediction was largely true. Aside from the roster rebuild that Brooklyn embarked upon last month, Durant and Irving still missed a combined 27 games as members of the Nets this season.

Brooklyn is still a playoff team with a talent-laden roster and some postseason experience, and there’s a possibility that they manifest a tough first-round opposition to one of the conference’s favorites. Their defensive versatility should provide them with ample schematic options to combat even the most-dynamic offensive opponents, even if they fall short of advancing.

Grade: A

Prediction: New York Knicks lose at least 50 games in the regular season

The Knicks are the first miss in a string of Eastern Conference predictions that fell flat on their face.

The big difference between this Knicks team, which greatly surpassed the 32-win mark, and last year’s 37-win team? A major offensive improvement that few teams in the modern NBA have matched. The Knicks’ offensive efficiency jumped from 1.11 points per possession last year to 1.19 points per possession this season, a jump equivalent to the difference between the best and the 27th-ranked offenses this season, per Cleaning the Glass.

In terms of the fundamentals, they doubled down on their proficiencies and shored up their weaknesses. Second-chance points have been the driving force of the Knicks’ offensive successes in all three seasons under Head Coach Tom Thibodeau. Last season, they grabbed 28 percent of their misses, which was a top-10 mark league-wide. This year, they’re grabbing 31 percent of their misses, which ranks second overall. In addition, they’re getting to the free-throw line two times more per 100 possessions than a season ago, which is also a top-10 mark.

The Knicks were a mediocre shooting team in 2021-22 and followed suit in 2022-23, with a below-league-average team effective field goal percentage. They turned the ball over at a league-average rate, which could be troublesome for a franchise with high hopes of competing in the postseason.

Even though Thibodeau is known for the defensive identity of his teams, we should recognize and credit him for embracing the offensive identity of this Knicks team.

Grade: D-

Prediction: Philadelphia 76ers are a top-three defense league-wide

The Eastern Conference has dominated the league defensively, but the Central Division has shined brightest. Philadelphia has still proven to be a strong defensive outfit, allowing a mere 1.14 points per possession on 54 percent opponent shooting. Both are above the NBA average, but not sufficient to best the Boston-Milwaukee-Cleveland brass that are the leaders on that end of the floor.

The Sixers have transitioned from a defensively elite team to an offensively-focused one — an impressive redefinition given the level at which they played on both ends of the floor this season. James Harden’s consistency and availability this season are a part of the reason, but I think it has been Joel Embiid’s offensive improvement that has propelled the team’s offensive dynamism. In my opinion, his offensive efficiency is the most-compelling facet of his MVP case.

While this isn’t to say that I believe the Sixers’ viability as a postseason contender and Embiid’s recognition as the league’s Most Valuable Player will result in different outcomes than seasons prior, I do believe the probability of both is as high as it has ever been.

Finishing 10th in defense and third in offense in an even more competitive Eastern Conference may be a harbinger for these Sixers, even if I didn’t see it coming.

Grade: C-

Prediction: Toronto Raptors are a top-five defense, just behind divisional opponents in Boston and Philadelphia

Yikes. While the consensus was also high on the Raptors before the season, projecting this team to finish as a top-five defense is undoubtedly going to be my worst prediction in the East.

During the Nick Nurse era, Toronto finished fifth, second, 19th, and 10th in defense. Aside from the 2020-21 season in Tampa Bay, the Raptors have displayed a consistent ability to defend at the highest level to boost their nightly prospects against more talented teams. My thinking was that the Raptors would be able to repeat their prior success with a largely unchanged roster.

The loss of Kyle Lowry, even in his late thirties, could be responsible for some of the drop. Replacing his minutes with those of Malachai Flynn and Gary Trent Jr. isn’t ideal, but I thought that their three defensive stalwarts — OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, and Pascal Siakim — would be able to plug the holes that came from their undersized backcourt. The Raptors were, and are, elite defensively with that trio on the floor, which provides some pause in how far this outcome was from the prediction.

If Toronto added one more capable defensive guard, is it possible they make a defiant leap as a team? Or is there a very real schematic problem with this team that needs to be diagnosed? We’ll likely need to wait until next season to find out.

Grade: F