The NBA season is not going as predicted. Across the NBA, nine teams that missed the playoffs last season are currently above .500.
While some of that is an early-season anomaly, some teams improved over the offseason via roster changes, front-office changes or internal growth.
Let’s take one article to look at the East and one to look at the West to see which teams’ improvements are for real, and which ones are just getting lucky.
Let’s start with the East:
Detroit Pistons, 7-3
If the playoffs started today, the Detroit Pistons would be the No. 2 seed, hosting the Washington Wizards in their playoff opener–just as we all predicted! Their most impressive string of wins was over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, all on the road. They have won five of their last six, and own the NBA’s sixth-best plus-minus over that span.
Two huge factors are leading to the Pistons’ turnaround. First, Andre Drummond has improved dramatically–in particular on the free throw stripe. He’s made 30 of his 40 attempts this year, a 75 percent rate. He took 112 attempts to make his last 30 free throws last year, to put his improvement in perspective.
The other difference is that they are taking and making more 3s than they did last year, mostly because of Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris. Their attempts are up 20.3 percent from last year and their makes are up 31.3 percent. As a result, they’re also scoring 2.6 more points per 100 possessions.
While they won’t finish second in the Eastern Conference, expect the Pistons to continue to challenge for a playoff spot. Some regression will happen, but not enough to drop them out of the top eight.
Advice: Buy cautiously
Orlando Magic, 6-4
The Orlando Magic caught everyone’s attention out of the gate with a 6-2 start which included impressive wins over the San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies. Some of the luster is wearing off that start, though.
The win over Cleveland doesn’t look as impressive — beating the Cavs has become a fad.
Second, they have really cooled off. During their hot streak, they had a plus-9.6 net rating and a 56.3 effective field goal percentage, according to NBA.com. Their last two games, the Regression Monster has caught them, devoured them, and defecated them all over Regression Lake. They have a net rating of minus-18.1, and their eFG% has plummeted to 42.9.
Part of that comes from the fact that they are without both their starting (Elfrid Payton) and backup (D.J. Augustin) point guards. Part of it is that Aaron Gordon is looking slightly more like a player growing into the role of go-to guy.
They’re not as bad as they looked the last two games, but they’re still a season away from the playoffs.
Advice: Sell high
New York Knicks, 6-4
The Knicks are probably the most shocking team to have a winning record this year. Even their own family members thought they were going to blow. Kristaps Porzingis has other ideas.
He’s averaging 30.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks while shooting 38.0 percent from 3, 55.2 percent from 2, and 83.6 percent from the stripe, in just 33 minutes per night on a team ranked 20th in pace. His per-100 possessions stats are even more amazing — he’s on track to be the third player in NBA history to notch 40 points, 10 rebounds and two 3s per game. The other two won the MVP.
Also important to the Knicks’ success is the suddenly emerging brilliance of Frank Ntilikina, the rookie out of France who is finally starting to get some run (and not surprisingly, that corresponds with the Knicks finding out how to win). He’s averaging 8.3 assists per 36 minutes, and when he is on the court with Porzingis, the Knicks have a plus-37.0 net rating in 54 minutes.
They are 6-1 over their last seven games as they feature their young players more, and they have the second-best offensive rating in the league over that span.
So yeah, more of that, please. A lot more of that.
The Knicks legitimately have a chance at the playoffs, though they still have some room to grow on defense. If they were in the West, I’d be a lot more pessimistic, but they have a bona fide superstar, and that’s enough in the East.
Advice: Buy (I can’t believe I said that.)
Philadelphia 76ers, 6-4
Of all the teams on this list, the Sixers are the least surprising to appear. A lot of people expected them to make the jump this year.
However, perhaps not everyone expected them to jump this high — they’re just finding their footing, and are looking amazing as they do it.
Ben Simmons is a revelation, and Joel Embiid is matching last year’s promise. The pair is combining for 38.3 points, 20.2 rebounds, 11.6 assists, 3.1 steals and 2.3 blocks per game.
The Sixers are on their first five-game winning streak since January 10, 2012–nearly six years ago. Over that span, they have the third-best net rating, 12th-best offensive rating and fifth-best defensive rating in the NBA.
It’s on that last point that I’d like to focus. Embiid and Simmons are both putting up impressive numbers, but what needs to be recognized is that they’re both very good on the other end of the court.
Throw in Robert Covington, who is an All-Defensive caliber wing, and you’re in business. With their starting frontcourt on the floor, the Sixers have a 97.8 defensive rating and a plus-11.4 net rating. Over the course of their current winning streak, the defensive rating is the same, but the offensive rating is 122.5, giving them a plus-24.8 net rating.
Because of the natural chemistry among Embiid, Simmons and Covington, the fact that the defense is there as well as the offense, and the fact that Embiid and Simmons are nowhere near their ceilings, expect the Sixers to get better as the season progresses.
They will make the playoffs, and they will do so emphatically. In fact, there’s a very decent chance that they will make it to at least the second round.
Advice: Buy all you can