The biggest news of the week, clearly, is Derrick Rose’s injury and subsequent surgery that will cause him to miss the rest of the season. That means the end of Chicago’s championship hopes for this season, and casts a pall on Rose’s once-limitless future. For more on Rose, check out Andrew Riche’s excellent piece on this very site. Rather than step on his toes, let’s take a look at the rest of the league.
We’re only a month in, but two teams in the Eastern Conference already look to have locked up their divisions. Indiana was already running away with the Central, and Rose’s injury means that race is all but over. Miami has won nine straight after a so-so start, and there is no reason to think they will be challenged by anyone in the Southeast. The Atlantic division, on the other hand, doesn’t have a single team above .500. In fact, they don’t even have a team above .400. The Toronto Raptors are the unlikely leaders at 6-9, and while it’s hard to imagine them as a 4 seed, it’s unclear whether anyone else in the division will unseat them. Brooklyn and New York have been atrocious to start the year (more on them later), and Philadelphia is firmly committed to tanking. Boston is the wild card here: with a promising coach, a roster that plays hard, and Rajon Rondo returning sometime this season, they might take a look at a wide-open division and decide to push for the playoffs. But they also have a front office and owners that are willing to suffer through a losing season or two in order to build for the future, and with a ton of future draft picks, the Celtics could just as easily decide to go the other direction. As hard as it is to believe, the Raptors may be the favorite to host a playoff series in April.
While the Eastern races are characterized by a lack of drama and/or talent, the Western Conference has plenty of both. The Spurs are doing their best to match Indiana’s torrid start, putting up similar margin of victory numbers against a tougher schedule. They deserve to be called the favorites in the Southwest division, but Houston is also a top-5 team, and will be adding a piece from the all-but-inevitable Omar Asik trade. We don’t know yet what that piece will be, but we can expect the Rockets to make San Antonio work for the division title. The race for the Northwest is even closer, as Oklahoma City and the surprising Portland Trailblazers are separated by just a game, and advanced stats have them about even. The L.A. Clippers are the closest thing to a prohibitive favorite in the conference, with a 2.5 game lead over Phoenix in the Pacific. But the Clippers have issues on defense, and Golden State has played better than their 9-8 record, so the race is far from over.
This was supposed to be the season of tanking, as several teams set themselves up for losing seasons in advance of what looks like a once-in-a-generation draft. Sacramento, Phoenix, Orlando, Charlotte, Utah, and Philadelphia were all expected to challenge for the #1 pick. But a look at the five worst records in the league tells a different story:
- Cleveland 4-12
- Brooklyn 4-12
- New York 3-12
- Milwaukee 2-13
- Utah 2-15
Everything is going according to plan for the Jazz, but this is not a list those other four teams want to be on. All four had playoff aspirations, with the New York teams hoping to make some noise once they got there. There’s a lot of season left, but each of these have teams have now dug themselves a hole, and need to either make a serious change or reevaluate their plan.
The Bucks are the most obvious candidate for a reevaluation, as the most optimistic projection this season had them ending up as first-round cannon fodder. Milwaukee’s ownership has traditionally been averse to tanking, but a terrible record, league-worst scoring differential, and uninspiring roster may be enough to convince them to play for the draft this year. Cleveland is in a similar situation, in that they want to see their young roster get the experience of winning, and become an attractive destination for a marquee free agent (ideally one with Ohio ties). Unlike Milwaukee, they have added several high draft picks in the last few years, including a rising star in Kyrie Irving, and the belief is that the Cavs have had their fill of building through the draft. Rather than changing course, they are more likely to look to a coaching change if things don’t turn around soon.
Brooklyn and the Knicks have a more difficult decision to make. Both teams are built to win now, with older players and little-to-no flexibility to rebuild their rosters. To make matters worse, the Knicks don’t have a first round pick this year, giving them even less room to maneuver. Left without the option to play for next year, they’re in the unenviable position of needing an improvement from within the organization to be relevant.