If you missed part 1 of the rankings, go check them out here.
#4 Detroit Pistons
The Pistons might have the best player among the four teams that are left in Andre Drummond. He still needs to develop an offensive game to turn into the big man the Pistons are hoping for, but he’s still an incredible shot blocker and rebounder at the ripe age of 21. The list of players that have averaged 13 points, 13 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game before the age of 21 consists of two Hall-of-Famers and Drummond. The Pistons also boast some potential in the backcourt with Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldewell-Pope, although Jackson will be a restricted free agent in the summer.
The reason the Pistons aren’t higher on this list is the decision they made releasing Josh Smith during the season. Although the Pistons reeled off 10 wins in their next 13 games, they’ll finish with fewer than 35 wins, and they’ll be on the hook for $14 million in dead money for each of the next two seasons. Even with an exploding salary cap in the summer of 2016 (also the season Andre Drummond will be up for an extension), that’s $14 million less the Pistons will have to spend than they should have. That may have gained them a few wins in the short term, but I’m guessing it will cost many more wins in the long term.
After last year’s draft catastrophe – the Cavs jumped eight teams to acquire the 1st overall pick forcing the Pistons to give their pick to the Hornets – the Pistons own all of their picks in the next few years; however, they don’t own any extra picks (something that the top three teams all have in common).
#3 Boston Celtics
The Celtics future is one of the brightest in the East, if not the entire league. They appear to have one of the best coaches in the league (Brad Stevens), wing defenders that have the potential to shut down the opposition (Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart) and more picks than they’ll know what to do with including: Clippers’ 2015, Nets’ 2016, right to swap with Nets in 2017 and Nets’ 2018. Those are the first-round picks the Celtics own in the next four years, not including their own and the endless amount of second-round picks they’ve acquired.
The watered down East is one of the reasons they aren’t higher on this list. As of Thursday morning, the Celtics were in the 7th-seed in the conference, one full game clear of the 9th-placed Pacers and Heat. However, the bottom three seeds in the East will finish with more losses than wins, and the best net point differential belongs to the Pacers at +0.2 (point differential is offensive rating minus defensive rating). It’s completely possible the Celtics aren’t quite as good as their less than impressive record would suggest.
The last reason the Celtics aren’t in the top two spots is the lack of cornerstone-type player in the rotation. Bradley, Smart, Evan Turner, Tyler Zeller and the others Celtics are having a fantastic season relative to where they were predicted to finish, but there doesn’t seem to be enough room for the players to grow and finish in the top half of the conference as currently constructed.
#2 Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks have a very strong case for the top spot on this list. Giannis Antetokounmpo has seemingly limitless potential as a scorer (he has a true shooting percentage of just under 56%), a rebounder (he averaged almost 7 rebounds per game in under 32 minutes) and he won’t stop stealing the hearts of basketball Twitter:
I just taste for the first time a smothie..MAN GOD BLESS AMERICA😊
— GiannisAntetokounmpo (@Giannis_An34) January 20, 2014
With Giannis, Jabari Parker, Michael Carter-Williams (although there are red flags surrounding him), John Henson and Khris Middleton, no team holds more young talent than the Bucks, although Middleton is a free agent this summer. The only reason they aren’t higher on this list is they have $48 million committed for next season, and that doesn’t include whatever they try to pay Middleton to re-sign him.
The Bucks essentially have two first-round picks next season with their draft pick and a healthy Jabari Parker returning. Although Parker was only able to play 25 games this season, he showed flashes of the scoring threat he could provide shooting 49% from the field and scoring 12 points in under 30 minutes per game. He has a healthy array of post moves for a young player, resembling a slightly more in shape Paul Pierce. He may have a bit of improving to do on defense, but with a potential wing stopper next to him (Giannis) and an above average rim protector behind him (Henson), he may not have to worry about that end too much.
The Bucks also own all of their own picks for the next few years, but they also acquired the Clippers’ 2017 first-round pick in the Jared Dudley salary dump move.
#1 Philadelphia 76ers
Teams, fans and other players may not like how the team has set to do it, but no non-playoff team is better set for the future than the 76ers. They may finish with fewer than 20 wins for the season, but there is plenty of talent on the roster. Robert Covington has the potential to be a deadly three-point shooter – he’s shooting 39% this season – and the 76ers control his rights for three more for only $1 million per season. Joel Embiid still has the potential to be a dominant big man on both sides of the floor, and all of this is without mentioning their best player.
Nerlens Noel still has a considerable amount of developing to do on the offensive end; he’s taken 33% of his shots between 3-10 feet and is shooting a miserable 29% on those shots. But defensively, he’s making the most of his potential. Defensive rating isn’t the best indicator of a good individual defender, but Noel is leading this 76ers’ team to a 104.6 rating, a full point above league average. He’s already one of the best rim protectors in the league, per NBA.com’s SportVU cameras, and is one of two players averaging 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. All of those stats are magnified when you realize Noel is only just barely allowed to legally have an alcoholic drink (he turned 21 on April 10th).
The contract situation for the 76ers is also one of the best in the league. No player is guaranteed more than $5 million next year, except for JaVale McGee ($12 million) who was bought out earlier in the season. They owe less than $30 million in total salary next season thanks to the rookie contracts of Embiid and Noel.
The 76ers’ draft pick situation is only matched by the Celtics. Between their own, the Heat’s first-round pick (top 10 protected), Oklahoma City’s first-round pick (top 18 protected) and the Lakers’ first-round pick (top 5 protected), the 76ers have several chances to better their team either through the draft, or by packaging the picks into a deal much like the Rockets did in the Harden trade.
The East is clearly the inferior conference in 2015, but don’t be surprised if we see some of these teams competing for a title soon.
(And probably losing to the Spurs. Those same damn Spurs.)