The Cleveland Cavaliers are the heavy favorite to win the Eastern Conference, for good reason. Not only is Cleveland one of the top five teams in the league, but no other team in the conference can be considered a real contender without everything breaking right.
But we’ve seen everything break right for teams before. Just last year, Golden State went from a team struggling to win in the playoffs to a juggernaut that looks like it’ll be a perennial title contender for years to come. Steve Kerr had a huge impact, but the rise of Stephen Curry to MVP and Draymond Green to Defensive Player of the Year runner-up paved the way for the Warriors to be much better than anyone expected.
For four of the Tier 2 teams in the East, one player’s development or performance could put his team into real Eastern Conference contention.
Chicago Bulls – Joakim Noah
The Chicago Bulls know all too well how it feels to have your postseason hopes dashed by LeBron James, and at first glance, it looks like it might be more of the same this year. Mike Dunleavy, an underrated contributor, will miss a good chunk of the season, and Derrick Rose is already dealing with an injury. Since the roster is very similar to last year, most peg Rose’s ability to get back to elite form as the most likely way for the Bulls to improve. But don’t forget the Bulls have another former All-Star who played worse than Rose did last year.
Joakim Noah was the backbone of the Bulls’ defense in 2013-14 and rightfully won Defensive Player of the Year. He led the league in defensive win shares and defensive rating, per Basketball-Reference. Last year, he wasn’t much of a difference maker on that end, as the Bulls’ defense struggled even with him on the floor. Pau Gasol obviously contributed to that when they shared the floor, but Noah played with the human matador Carlos Boozer in 2013-14 and still put up elite defensive numbers.
Noah just didn’t look right at all last year. Watch LeBron James get past Noah for a three-point play opportunity here:
James makes people look silly all the time, but Noah makes it way too easy here. The explosiveness on defense just wasn’t there.
I’ve already touched on why Noah seems to still have some skill left, and if he’s in a better place physically, he could make the Bulls a much better team. If the Bulls can combine last year’s offensive efficiency (10th in the league) with a defense that resembles the 2013-14 team (second), Chicago could be the biggest threat to the Cavaliers in the East.
Atlanta Hawks – Thabo Sefolosha
Much has been said about Sefolosha’s unfortunate injury last year and how much it affected the Hawks. Now, with DeMarre Carroll gone, Sefolosha is the closest thing to a wing stopper the Hawks have and will be a pivotal part of any long playoff run.
Sefolosha isn’t Kawhi Leonard on defense, but he’s a solid defender who gives max effort and is rarely out of position. With Tiago Splitter joining the club and Al Horford hopefully spending the year fully healthy, the Hawks should have better interior defense than last year, and that will in turn help out the wings.
But out of the wings expected to play big minutes, only Sefolosha can be counted on as a primary defender against elite players. Kyle Korver’s better than people think, but you’re not asking him to go toe-to-toe with LeBron.
While he helps on defense, Sefolosha has to be a better shooting threat to keep Atlanta’s offense humming at a high level. Sefolosha struggled last year, shooting just 32.1 percent on his 78 threes. He struggled the year prior as well, so this is somewhat of a concern for Atlanta.
In 2011-12 and 2012-13, however, Sefolosha shot over 40 percent on threes. If he can get near 40 percent in this offense, he’ll be enough of a threat that defenses will have to respect him.
A return to form and health from Sefolosha is a must for the Hawks to repeat the success of last year. If Sefolosha has a down year, the Hawks will feel the sting of Carroll’s departure even more.
Washington Wizards – Otto Porter
While John Wall and Bradley Beal give the Wizards one of the best backcourts in the NBA, Washington’s ceiling will likely come down to the development of 2013 #3 pick Otto Porter.
Beal broke out in the playoffs last year when Wall got hurt, and Porter experienced a mini-breakout as well. With the Wizards employing small ball, Porter got plenty of open looks and started hitting threes at a respectable 37.5 percent clip, up from a 33.7 percentage during the year. He was more aggressive on both ends and looked like a player who belonged in the lineup in crunch time.
A few weeks of playoff ball don’t erase the stretches during the year where Porter was a non-factor, but it could provide a glimpse of how Porter can be effective. The small ball lineup didn’t just unlock more room for Wall, Beal and Pierce to operate, it made Porter look better as well. Jared Dudley can essentially work as a small ball 4 on offense this year, as he’s a good shooter and willing passer. Although Dudley’s nowhere near the offensive player Pierce is, Porter will have some of the same benefits of a small ball lineup with Dudley in the fold as he did with Pierce.
Randy Wittman has said he wants to pick up the pace this year, and it’s about time. With one of the fastest players and best playmakers in the league running the show, Washington should get out and run as much as possible. Porter has looked competent and willing in transition, so a move to a faster offense should benefit him.
Overall, the Wizards are going to need internal improvement this year to make a serious run at the Eastern Conference crown. Porter is one of the likely candidates to take a step forward, and he needs to for Washington to exceed expectations.
Milwaukee Bucks – Giannis Antetokounmpo
Milwaukee is expected to take a huge step forward this year, and it needs the Greek Freak to do the same if this team is serious about making a playoff run.
Khris Middleton is an excellent player, but will likely always be more of a secondary offensive option who has big nights from time-to-time. Greg Monroe is an excellent post-up player with glaring deficiencies in other areas. Jabari Parker isn’t even a year removed from his ACL surgery and has just 25 games of NBA experience under his belt. Even the most optimistic projections of Michael Carter-Williams don’t foresee him as the key player on an offense.
All of this means that if Milwaukee wants to make a dramatic leap from 25th in offensive efficiency to the top half of the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo has to be a key cog. The flashes of domination he’s shown have to become more consistent, or Milwaukee will continue to go through times when it simply cannot score.
Antetokounmpo upped his free throw attempts per game from 2.6 to 4.3 last year, and that’ll have to continue to go upward. His length and explosion make him an extremely tough cover, and he draws a ton of contact when he gets into the lane. He should be going to the line even more frequently, and players often see an uptick in free throw attempts in Year 3 when they realize how to play through contact more. Antetokounmpo was 39th in free throw attempts per game last year, and with his ability, he should be in the top 15 this season. Those extra points will be huge for Milwaukee.
The other part of his game that needs to improve is his jump shot. Antetokounmpo really struggled with jumpers last year, shooting a woeful 15.9 percent on his small sample size of 44 attempts from deep. Even inside the arc, he was unwilling and ineffective as a jump shooter, and smart teams dared him to take jumpers. Chicago crowded the lane on him in the playoffs and begged him to take outside shots.
He doesn’t need to be an excellent shooter, and he doesn’t even need to have consistent three-point range this season playing next to Middleton. But Antetokounmpo can’t be as bad as he was last year at shooting, or Milwaukee’s spacing will shrink even more. The team plans on starting Carter-Williams, Antetokounmpo and Monroe together, so if Giannis struggles mightily again, the Bucks will have three non-shooters on the floor. It’s too hard to build an offense around that.
If Antetokounmpo can improve his consistency and his shooting, he could be in for a huge leap in his third year. And if he gets there, he can take Milwaukee to the lofty heights some writers have them pegged to reach.