Tag Archives: Joel Embiid

Looking at the NBA MVP Race and Its Many Faces

There are many faces, old and new, vying to take home the NBA MVP award this season. Whether or not they will win is a matter of perception just as much as it is on their performances. Whoever gets it will have earned it because the caveat of it being “in the bubble” is no longer an issue. The return of fans has brought some atmosphere back to games; just ask the Lakers.

Last year’s (and the year prior, for that matter) winner, Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t likely to make it three-straight. His numbers are down almost across the board, most notably from deep and at the free-throw line. Both were areas of concern he was making strides in.

So Clocker Sports is taking a look at the top candidates for NBA MVP so far. We’ll go into the case being made in their favor, and take a look into why voters might hesitate to select them.

The Many Faces of the 2021 NBA MVP Race

1. Kevin Durant

Just a couple of months ago this space was used to make a case for Kevin Durant to win the defunct ‘Comeback Player of the Year’ award. Based solely on off-season workouts and pick-up game footage, it was clear Durant would be returning at least close to the level of play he enjoyed pre-Achilles injury. Just 17 games into the season and Durant is putting up numbers close to his MVP-winning 2013-14 campaign.

Durant has the Brooklyn Nets as the current three-seed in the East despite starting 5-5 to begin the season. His 30.8 PPG is second in the NBA and the second-best mark of his career. He’s shooting better than 53 percent from the floor, again the second-best mark of his career, and hitting a career-high 45 percent of his triples. Durant’s averaging 32.2 points, 7.8 boards, and 5.4 assists per contest in his last 11 games.

The only argument one could make against him is his supporting cast in James Harden and Kyrie Irving is second to none. We’ve seen in the past how having a stellar teammate or two can detract from your efforts in the eyes of voters and fans. But consider Irving’s flakiness or Harden’s defensive issues and ask yourself if Brooklyn, who was the seventh seed last year, would be in the position they’re in without Durant.

2. LeBron James

You’ve heard all the narratives. 36-years old, washed, etc. All have been used to describe LeBron James in recent years just to have him go out and show why those assessments were misguided. Last season he helped bring the Los Angeles Lakers back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and their first championship since 2010.

We thought James would ease into the season considering, well, his reaction to the quick turnaround and the sentiments of teammates. While he isn’t leading the league in assists, he’s still leading his team in that category, scoring, and is second on the Lakers (third place in the West) in rebounds. Not bad for an over-the-hill, washed, superstar, huh? Only the foolhardy bought into that narrative.

James got dinged in the MVP race last year and voiced his displeasure. He’ll likely have to do so again because, while Anthony Davis isn’t having the MVP-type season we predicted early on, he’s still a perennial All-NBAer and arguably top-five in the Association. Perhaps the dip in Davis’ numbers can actually be used to boost the argument for James as MVP.

3. Joel Embiid

The best player on the best team in the East, Joel Embiid is having his best season since the 2018-19 campaign, of not his career. Averaging a personal-best 28.6 points and 1.2 steals per game, he’s also knocking down shots at career-best clips slashing .549/.423/.843 and a .588 eFG%. He and Tobias Harris have enjoyed Doc Rivers’ arrival on an individual level the most.

It’s a continuation of last year’s playoffs when Embiid put up 30.0 PPG (a career-high) and 12.3 RPG. Over his last eight games, Embiid is putting up 33.3 PPG and 10.5 RPG. More importantly, the Philadelphia 76ers are 8-0 in those games and 1-2 without him in that span. Philly lost the other two games he’s missed this season as well; not so uncertain evidence.

As always with The Process, it could come down to health. Embiid missed all of his first two seasons as a pro and has yet to appear in more than 64 games, though to be fair, that was his mark in 2019, and the pandemic shut down the season last year. If Embiid can stay on the floor, he has a legitimate shot at being the first center to win the MVP since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000.

4. Nikola Jokic

The Joker is currently the odds-on favorite to win the Maurice Podoloff trophy, thanks in part to his 47-point outburst against the Utah Jazz the other night. Nikola Jokic, much like Embiid before him is experiencing a banner year. He’s sitting with career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. This, unlike Embiid, is an improvement upon last year’s playoff performance.

Jokic has scored fewer than 20 points just four times this season, and in two of those outings, he had 19 points. He’s only failed to grab double-digit boards four times as well. In three of those performances, he had nine rebounds while he had eight in the other. No player has more 19-plus point, 10-plus board double-doubles than Jokic this season. We haven’t even addressed his passing of which he has nine games with double-figure dishes.  He also has five triple-doubles; tied with Luka Doncic for the lead.

Of course, we can’t let it all be rainbows and puppies. Some of the issues that may come up in the discussion in regards to Joker must be addressed. We cannot ignore that his career scoring year comes with a career-high in usage and shot attempts. Denver was also the three-seed last year and sits at fourth currently. That’s is the smallest of regressions but it must be noted. The Nuggets are getting better production from non-Jokic and Jamal Murray pieces, too. Will that hurt him when the vote comes?

5. The Field

The rest of the list gets kind of cluttered with some decent cases, but not many strong ones. Giannis’ case is the strongest. The reigning back-to-back winner is having a down year, yes. But we know how he goes, so go the Milwaukee Bucks. And for all the picking apart of his game, he still has the Bucks sitting second in the East. Not bad for a guy who can only run and jump.

Paul George has gotten a lot of love for his “redemption” season. Many will overlook his numbers simply because it’s happening in the regular season. ‘Playoff P’ is the guy we all want to see. But he has a bigger problem: Kawhi Leonard. Not only is Leonard ahead of George in PPG, but he’s also ahead in FG% while only slightly trailing in 3P%, rebounds, and assists. This isn’t saying George isn’t having a great year. Just remember who he plays with.

You’ll get calls for Davis to get consideration but, ya know, LeBron. Damian Lillard’s Trail Blazers are 11-9 right now. That ain’t getting it done. Doncic was a preseason favorite but Dallas is 9-13 and he has struggled from deep this season. Still, he has as good of a shot as anyone listed at getting back into the thick of the race. That’ll require some more wins and the Mavericks are fresh off a six-game slide.

In the Bubble, Not All Sweeps Are Created Equal

Sunday saw two teams eliminated from the postseason as Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics put Joel Embiid and what was left of the Philadelphia 76ers out of their misery. Later on, the Toronto Raptors looked very much like an apex predator in their drubbing of the “other guys” Brooklyn Nets.

It was the same fate for both teams; an unceremoniously early exit from what has otherwise been an exciting playoffs in the bubble. But make no mistake about it, it doesn’t mean the same thing for both teams.

Nets, 76ers Face Different Futures After Suffering Same Fate

Brooklyn’s Breakout Blocked

Ironically, it is the Nets, who allowed at least 34 points in every quarter, that have a brighter future.

They can at least hang their hat on the fact that next year Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will be on the floor and possibly challenging for an Eastern Conference Finals berth. Sure, they don’t have a head coach at the moment and the two aforementioned stars reportedly want to trade for a third star, but neither task is too tall.

Finding the right compliment on the floor is probably the tougher task. Not only for actual basketball reasons, but also the financial situation around the NBA after COVID…well, you know.

It may come as a surprise after seeing some of the playoff performances from the likes of Caris Levert (15.3 PTS/10.7 AST/6.0 REB) and Joe Harris (16.5 PTS/10.0 REB), that they feel the need to look outside for help. Don’t forget, they also have Spencer Dinwiddie who opted out of the restart.

If it made sense, Kenny Atkinson would likely still be the head coach.

Brooklyn is in a great position to make noise next year and beyond. This does make a couple of assumptions though.

For one, that Durant and Irving will work on the floor. But to be honest, that concern is probably minimal. While Irving can be a ball stopper, Durant’s insane efficiency should offset it. Even this is assuming Durant comes back as the same guy he was before his Achilles injury and that Irving can stay healthy.

Chemistry and health make this one of the most volatile situations in the NBA. The risk seems well worth the reward, though.

Considering the Nets lost each game by an average of more than 20 points (a number salvaged by only losing by five points in Game 2), adding Durant (29.1/7.7/4.0 in the playoffs) and Irving (23.5 PPG and 5.0 APG) should allay any fears the fanbase might have after this postseason.

Philly’s Process to be 86ed?

The Philadelphia 76er embarked on one of the most blatant tanking plans ever back in 2013. Seven years and three playoff appearances later, it may all be coming to an end. Getting swept by the Celtics is but a small part of the story. After all, when one of the two prized pieces from that years-long process, Ben Simmons, went out with knee injury, so did Philly’s title hopes.

This may have just accelerated the inevitable. Questions have lingered all year about the clunky offense, money wasted on Tobias Harris and Al Horford, and the fate of head coach Brett Brown.

Let’s start with Harris (15.8/9.5/4.0) and Horford (7.0/7.3/2.3), the prized free-agent duds. Harris’ numbers seem ok, but in addition to being paid like a 20 PPG guy, he shot 38.3% from the floor and 13.3% from deep. Horford was miscast and perhaps has lost a step.

They were overpaid (bet they miss Jimmy Butler) and misused by Brown.

But the greatest crime committed has been not getting the most out of the Simmons-Embiid combo to the point where breaking them up seems more likely than keeping them together any longer.

It isn’t just one of the stars either. Both Simmons and Embiid have been subject to trade rumors, largely due to there not being a consensus as to who is the more valuable piece.

Personally, the thought is that Embiid is probably the better talent but Simmons is the part needed to make it work. That is to say, no one is as dominant as Embiid when he’s right, justifying the comparisons to Shaq. But, in a guard league, Simmons is probably the more important piece when building a team.

That isn’t to say one can’t work without the other. Most solid point guards could utilize Embiid and pick and pop big would be successful next to Simmons.

On the contrary, it might point to how much they need each other, and Philly’s need to figure things out around them. There was too much effort put in to break these two up after they have had even a modicum of success. The better plan is for the 76ers to fee themselves of Harris and Horford.

But those contracts are albatrosses. Neither will return value and may even have to go at a severe discount. Does that improve Philly’s outlook moving forward? Probably not. That shifted the focus to where it’s been, Brown, who has now been fired.

They Say It’s the Same But It’s Not the Same

Yes, these teams faced the same fate but their futures are going in vastly different directions. Both will have someone new at head coach. But whereas the Nets will be adding two bonafide star players to a group that showed a little fight this postseason, the 76ers are trying to avoid de-processing. That’s tough.

All eyes on you, Indiana Pacers…

Holy Bubble: Exploring Duo Dynamics in the NBA

The NBA departed from the “Big 3” formula of roster construction this season, leading to a slew of dynamic duos. The shutdown (and restart sans fans) means a financial crunch is coming; we could see this trend continue for the foreseeable future. So, let’s take a look at some of the top duos around the Association.

Duo Dynamics in the NBA

The King and Brow

We begin with the inspiration for this piece. Anthony Davis might be the best teammate LeBron James has ever played with. Perhaps you’ve heard, but James is in Year 17 of an illustrious career. His play, he’s averaging 25 points, eight rebounds, and leading the NBA with 10 assists per game. It’s important to note James leads the NBA in assists because Davis leads the Los Angeles Lakers in nearly every other statistic.

It’s understandable, then, that some would take umbrage with James garnering the MVP consideration. How can James be the best player in the league this year when he “isn’t even the best player on his own team”?

Aside from the Lakeshow looking completely lost without Bron on the floor, you mean? Take Thursday’s game against the Houston Rockets, for example.

With the Lakers clinching the 1-seed already, LeBron sat. Houston, though, was without Russell Westbrook (quad) too. This should have been a fairly even matchup, if not slightly in L.A.’s favor with Kyle Kuzma active and no comparable threat for the Rockets. Turns out, Kuzma certainly did his part to uplift the team in James’ absence. Davis, however, did not.

He didn’t have a bad game. 17 points and 12 boards is a solid performance for most guys. But it definitely wasn’t an ‘MVP’ performance against a depleted opponent. And it wasn’t befitting of the player deemed the heir apparent to the Lakers franchise.

This season, Anthony Davis has averaged 26.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game when he and LeBron are on the floor together (57 games). Without James (three games), Davis’ numbers take a hit, falling to 24 points and 1.7 assists. His blocks raise, but only slightly from 9.4 to 9.7 per game. Davis averaging fewer assist sans James is probably the most surprising stat.

When they share the court, James is putting up 25.2/10.2/8.1 per contest. James, by himself, is throwing up 27.6/11.4/7.6 per.

The disparity has been even more pronounced in the bubble. James started slow, averaging 19.3/10.0/6.3 in four games and sitting a fifth before playing against Indiana. Davis was 23.2/9.2/3.8 in that same span and the Lakers went 2-3.

It was LeBron with the 20-plus point performance while AD struggled (mightily) and the Lakers lost to the Pacers on Saturday. The margin was smaller than any of their other bubble losses, though.

James has a higher offensive rating and a lower (better) defensive rating. In fact, L.A.’s defensive rating is better with Davis off the floor. Without Davis, the Lakers are 6-2 and score 121 PPG. Without James, 2-2 at 110.5 PPG. Which brings us to James, at 35, having played in more games than the 27-year-old Davis. And when you consider Davis’ statistical advantages aren’t as great as some would have you believe, it’s not really that complicated.

The Process and Big Ben

Heading East, we find ourselves with two very polarizing players; both enigmatic in their own way. Joel Embiid might be the most dominant player in the NBA since Shaquille O’Neal when he’s right; both physically and mentally. Ben Simmons is Magic Johnson-ish only bigger and faster. The lack of a jumper is a big hurdle for Simmons. For Embiid, it’s always a volatile mixture of health and focus.

Together, these two can be among the most fun to watch. But there are far too many moments of a lack of spacing due to Simmons’ defender sloughing off. And while Embiid has about as complete a game as you’ll find in the NBA, the most important ability is availability.

So who has been more important to the 76ers? The answer might surprise you if you didn’t answer “trick question”.

Like in the case of LeBron and AD, we see Simmons with a higher offensive rating but Embiid has a better defensive rating. But their records are very similar without each other, though this season it has certainly favored Embiid. Maybe these aren’t as good of indicators in this instance; or at least not in comparison to how they impact each other.

Embiid, in 165 games with Simmons, averages 24.9 points, 12.2 boards, and 3.4 assists. Without it’s 25.2/11.6/2.9; granted in a much smaller sample size of 10 games compared to 52 the other way. For Simmons, its 15.8/8.1/8.1 with Embiid and 18.3/9.0/7.5 without.

Philly is 27-25 with Simmons but without Embiid and 6-4 when the opposite occurs. Again, the sample size is an issue with deciding here.

But all of that is career numbers, what about 2020? Joel is 5-2 without Ben while Ben is 9-7 without Joel. Many will want to give Joel the nod for the higher win percentage but, clearly, after reading the first entry, you know we won’t be discounting availability here.

Simmons was putting up 11.7/7.0/4.3 in three games before being shut down and having surgery for a torn meniscus. While Embiid has been a monster in the bubble averaging 30.0/13.5/3.3 and the 76ers are 3-1 in Orlando, the injury looms large. Simmons will obviously miss the rest of the season barring, perhaps, a Finals appearance.

The comparisons to Shaq aren’t just hyperbole for Emiid’s stature, demeanor, and dominance. It also refers to the need to have that guard or wing player to truly unlock his, and his team’s, full potential.

Of course, the simpler answer is that they need each other. Ben needs Embiid to be the wrecking ball and Embiid needs Simmons to operate the crane. Together they have a win percentage well above .600, separate we see talented individuals that are missing something.

The Beard and Brodie

The Beard and Brodie were polarizing together before they were polarizing apart, reaching the NBA Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011. But their lore has only since that time. Russell Westbrook won MVP on the strength of averaging a triple-double for an entire season (something he did two more times after) and is having his best scoring season since then.

James Harden is on his third-straight season scoring 30-plus points and actually won his own MVP the season after Westbrook. He has been vocal in his pursuit of another MVP and even went as far as to take shots at reigning (and likely repeating) MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

This one isn’t really a “who’s more important” (it’s Harden) as much as it is people might not realize how important Westbrook is to the Houston Rockets.

He had developed a pretty bad reputation as a guy who cared more about the stat sheet than the win column. For running off superstar teammates in Kevin Durant and Paul George (neither of which appears to be true).

Swap out Westbrook’s name for Harden’s and Durant/George for Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony and you can leave everything else the same.

But Houston went out and traded for Westbrook; “rescuing” him from the doldrums that were sure to hit the Oklahoma City Thunder (but never did). That sent two messages. First, it signaled Harden’s willingness to adjust, even if only slightly to bring in perhaps the only point guard who would need the ball more than Paul, and was a worse shooter to boot.

The other message was that at least one organization outside of OKC felt he was the missing piece to the puzzle. If you don’t think so just look at the changes made to the roster following Westbrook’s addition.

Westbrook is shooting just over 25 percent from deep (yuck). He’s never been a great three-point shooter, save for one season when he shot 40 percent. Houston’s system is a percentages game where they only take threes or layup/dunks. They allowed some mid-range stuff when they acquired Paul but Westbrook provided the unique challenge of floor spacing.

Houston’s solution was to move center Clint Capela and run an offense where the tallest player on the floor at any given moment is 6-foot-7. Think Golden State’s death lineup but more concentrated.

That’s a lot to change just for a pice or someone you brought in to placate the face of the franchise. Clearly, they have a much higher opinion of him than that. We’ll see how it pays off.

A Fresh Pair of Jays

The youngest pair in our deep dive into duo dynamics across the NBA, Jayson Tatum entered the league with all the fanfare and continues to be the more publicized of the two. And perhaps that is rightfully so, but Jaylen Brown entered a year earlier and has developed into a very key piece for the Boston Celtics.

In case you haven’t noticed, this is another one where we’re more highlighting the importance of the “sidekick” than asking who is better. Though, the answer to that latter question might deserve more scrutiny than most realize.

Interestingly enough, they were both selected third overall. But the similarities don’t stop there. They were both taken after the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers picked first and second, respectively.

Taytum was in contention to be the first-overall selection in ‘17 before ultimately going behind Markelle Fultz and Lozo Ball; a mistake that probably haunts some in the 76ers and Lakers organizations to this day. Brown was never going over Brandon Ingram, let alone number one pick Ben Simmons.

Brown’s first year he averaged 6.6 points per game while mostly coming off the bench. Tatum started 80 games and scored nearly 14 points per as a rookie. Now it’s worth mentioning that Brown’s output jumped substantially with more playing time as a starter.

More important about that season is it was Kyrie Irving’s first (of two) seasons in Boston but he missed the postseason allowing Tatum and Brown to shine on the biggest stage.

Here’s where it gets interesting because Tatum got all the hype for his 18.5/4.4/2.7 and, at just 19 years old, deservedly so. But Brown was no slouch. He came in just behind Tatum with 18.0 points, 4.8 boards, and 1.4 assists of his own. Brown was even the high-scorer for Boston, with a 34-point performance against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round; a series Boston won in seven games.

We also have to consider Brown’s defense. It’s Tatum who has the better Defensive Real Plus-Minus, but it is Brown who regularly draws the tougher assignment. That is both in terms of individual talent as well as variety.

Tatum’s maturation into a two-way player should not be overlooked by any means. But context is key and if we are going to praise one for realizing his potential on both ends of the floor, Brown might need to get those roses first. So far in the bubble, Brown is putting up the better line, but that is largely due to a horrendous first game from Tatum. Minus that game, they’re within a point.

Again, this one isn’t about who is better. Just, whenever we mention how stellar Jayson Tatum has been, we need to be sure to mention how important Jaylen Brown is and how far he’s come.

NBA Playoff Surprises and Disappointments: Eastern Conference

The Western Conference was the focus of the last article but this time, it’s the Eastern Conference that gets a turn. It’s playoff time! A long, grueling NBA season has finally given way to the postseason and there will be no shortage of excitement. Before breaking down the first-round matchups (an article for another day), let’s continue identifying the playoff teams that surprised by making it. Conversely, we will also discuss a pair of squads that enter with more doubt than confidence.

Playoff Winners and Losers in the Eastern Conference

Pt. 1

Brooklyn Going Hard

Somewhere Jay-Z has to be throwing up the dynasty sign. A decade after the release of the hit single that served as the theme when they relocated from New Jersey, the Brooklyn Nets are living up to the hook. They had back-to-back 44+ win seasons in 2013 and 2014; following the acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. But that was always an ill-fated attempt to capture (someone else’s) lightning in a bottle. This is, by and large, a homegrown product that has turned around the fortunes of the once-wayward franchise.

D’Angelo Russell’s maturation has been the catalyst to what GM Sean Marks and Head Coach Kenny Atkinson have built. Heavily reliant on the three-ball (34.1% of their offense, 5th in NBA) the Nets are also among the best at defending it (31% of opp. Scoring, 5th in NBA). Russell (.369) and this year’s winner of the three-point contest, Joe Harris (.474), can and will shoot it out with the best of them. And Spencer Dinwiddie, their second-leading scorer, is slashing .442/.335/.806 while leading the team in free throw attempts with 5.2 per game.

Now for the not so positive part. Brooklyn allows the highest shooting percentage and the third-most attempts in the paint in the Association. That is a problem for second-year big man Jarrett Allen with one Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers on tap for the first round. Allen averages two blocks a game but Embiid (30% from 25+ ft) is fully capable of pulling him away from the basket. Allen allows 38% on such shots. The other major knock on the Nets: turnovers. Brooklyn turned the ball over at the fourth-highest rate in the NBA. That is a problem as Philly is scoring 21.4 points per game in transition, eighth-most in the league.

Do You Believe in (the) Magic?

Mouse in the house! The Disney sponsored Orlando Magic have reached the postseason for the first time since Dwight Howard last donned the blue and white (2011-12). Their 42-40 mark is their best since the 2010-11 season when they won 52. The Magic are 11th in three-point percentage (35.6%, 10th out of playoff teams. More impressive, they are fifth in turnovers (13.2) and second in personal fouls (18.6); playing a very clean game on both ends. Orlando also managed to block 5.4 blocks per game, good for sixth across the NBA.

Maybe it was divine intervention that kept Nikola Vucevic with the Magic. More likely it was lack of a quality offer. Whatever the case, Vuc set career-highs in points, rebounds, and assists; going for 20/12/3. He did that while slashing .518/.364/.789 and committing a career-low 2 fouls per game. Perhaps his contract situation contributed to his (and Terrance Ross’) mid-career breakout, but Head Coach Steve Clifford, and Magic fans will take it. Aaron Gordon showed more of his playmaking ability, notching a 16.6 assist percentage, and tallied a career-high 5.1 win shares.

Where they may need some actual magic, getting easy buckets. Orlando is dead last in free throw attempts per game. They draw fouls at the second-lowest rate too, so it isn’t as if the calls they get are simply on the floor. The Magic are a screen-heavy offense but that is where the positives about their hustle stop. They are 27th in deflections, 27th in loose balls recovered, and a paltry 29th in contested shots. Their first-round opponent, the Toronto Raptors, are no worse than third in any of those categories.

Green Envy

The Boston Celtics finished 49-33, fourth in the East. That is a drop from the 55 wins and second-place finish of last year. But a closer look shows they had improved production in several areas this season. They increased their scoring output, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and assists. They also managed to cut down on blocks, increase steals, and blocked more shots. Their advanced metrics improvement is also largely across the board.

So why are they a disappointment? Well, for starters (no pun intended) Marcus Smart will miss the entire opening round and, quite possibly, all of the second with a torn oblique. Smart has a slash line of .422/.364/.806 with career-high effective field goal and true shooting numbers. But his greatest impact is on the defensive side of the ball. He tied for eighth in steals per game during the regular season and is in the top-40 in defensive win shares. Boston will attempt to replace what Smart brings with Terry Rozier, who also resides in the top-90 for defensive win shares, but lacks Smart’s size to defend wings.

Of course, this is a team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals last year without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. But Irving (23-6-5) has been the talk of NBA Twitter this season in regards to where he will even be playing next year. Meanwhile, Hayward (11-4-3) is having a down year in his comeback campaign after playing all of five minutes last season. Then there is young Jayson Tatum, who is also dealing with an injury. Undoubtedly adjusting to life as something other than the top option, he has seen his scoring efficiency fall in his sophomore season, though he has upped his point totals, rebounding, assists, and steals.

Keeping the Pace

Indianapolis Pacers Head Coach Nate McMillan has to be a darkhorse favorite for Coach of the Year. Sure the Pacers record is the exact same as last year. But Indy has managed to raise their production across the board, save for dips in free throw percentage, offensive rebounds, steals, and a minor drop in two-point attempts. Oh yeah, they also only got 36 games out of their best player, Victor Oladipo, after he went down with a quad tear back in January. That was supposed to be the death knell for the Pacers in 2019 and instead, they head to the NBA postseason.

For all the praise they deserve for even getting here, the loss of Oladipo might be about to catch up to them in a major way. We already know that the team with the best player usually wins in the playoffs. One could argue that even if Oladipo was healthy, he would still not be the best player on the floor in their first round matchup against the Celtics. But, it is hard to envision a scenario in which a player who averaged 22 points, eight rebounds, and six assists in the playoffs last season would not help.

All of this feels like a slight to the amazing season Bojan Bogdanovic is having. He is averaging 18-4-2 this season; well above his career numbers of 13-3-1. He also parlayed career-high usage into his best efficiency rating, effective field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage. He has been the de facto lead dog for a team with seven players averaging double figures for the season. Where they lack sans Vic is in isolation. They are the 24th in Isolation play frequency so that could obviously be the reason. But there will be times in the postseason when the play breaks down and they will need a player to go get a bucket.

Eastern Conference Has Warts

Just like it was for the teams in the Western Conference surprises and disappointments piece, these are indeed still playoff teams. There is a case to be made that this is all nitpicking, and maybe so. But the issues raised here only accentuate what is already assumed. Save for Boston, none of these teams are thought of as true contenders for a title. Even the Cs have less luster than last year with what, in total, is a better team simply by having Irving and Hayward healthy.