3 Reasons Why the Top 3 Seeds in the East are Legit Contenders
*Photo via USA Today
In the mediocrity of the NBA’s Eastern Conference, it is hard to imagine any teams outside of the top three seeds advancing to the Finals. In fact, only two teams in NBA history seeded outside of the top three in either conference have won a championship; the 1995 Houston Rockets were the sixth seed, and the 1969 Boston Celtics were the fourth seed.
Cinderella stories are clearly only meant for the NCAA Tournament. In the pro game, and especially in the modern-day East, the top three seeds reign supreme because of their veteran leadership, roster depth and playoff matchups against the weakest teams in the post-season.
These three factors are really what separate the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Chicago Bulls from the rest of the conference this year, and that’s why I believe they are the only legitimate contenders in the East.
For most of the season, nobody gave the top-seeded Hawks the respect they deserved. I even wrote them off, believing that after the All-Star break they would begin to stumble and end up on the lower end of the playoff picture. However, their veteran-laden roster is a huge part of their sustained success. Every player in the Hawks starting five has at least five years of NBA experience, and while they have several young players on their bench, they also have guys like Elton Brand and Thabo Sefolosha with winning pedigrees.
The Cavaliers were the opposite of the Hawks, struggling through the first 40 games of the season and wondering if they would be able to figure it out in time for the playoffs. But they have the most important veteran in the game in LeBron James, who has been to four straight NBA Finals. After missing eight straight games early in the season, James returned to lead the Cavs to a 12 game winning streak before the All-Star break, and they have only lost five games since the break. Moreover, they have added Mike Miller, James Jones, Shawn Marion, Kendrick Perkins and J.R. Smith to their roster, who all have at least 10 years of experience in the league.
Chicago has been up and down all season. Just when it seemed like they were in great shape to be the second seed by the end of the season, they lost Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler to injuries. Then Nikola Mirotic emerged to keep the Bulls afloat. Yet, the glue that has really kept them together has been their veterans. Pau Gasol is having one of his most productive seasons ever, leading the league in double-doubles. Joakim Noah has established himself as one of the most well rounded centers in the league, and Mike Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich both play significant minutes.
To some degree, this goes hand in hand with veteran leadership, as many veterans for these teams come off the bench. For the Hawks, their depth is underrated because of how balanced their scoring is. While none of their bench players average more than 10 points per game, they all average in double figures when it comes to points per 48 minutes. This means that they make the most of their minutes, which is even more evident in the Hawks sixth most efficient offense in the league.
Cleveland might have one of the most talented benches in the league thanks to a few mid-season acquisitions. Iman Shumpert fits seamlessly into the lineup when he enters the game, providing excellent perimeter defense and the capability to score in bunches. They also have savvy specialty players in Mike Miller and James Jones, who can come into the game and have an immediate impact by knocking down three’s. Their young bench players have also shown tremendous upside, with Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova playing important minutes.
The Bulls’ bench is even more impressive than the Cavs’. Assuming Rose is able to come back for the playoffs, Aaron Brooks will come off the bench once again, and he has played very well in Rose’s absence. Tony Snell and Heinrich both make plays when they’re on the court, and Taj Gibson has been one of the best bench players in the league for several years now. Not to mention Mirotic is making a run to be the Rookie of the Year. The Bulls have 10 players who average 20 minutes or more per game, and while much of that has been due to injuries, it is most definitely beneficial for them going into the post-season.
For Atlanta and Cleveland, who seemingly have their spots at one and two locked up, the first round should be a piece of cake. To put it into perspective, the second-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers have a worse record than the top four seeds in the West this season, and the East will most likely feature three playoff teams with a record below .500. The Hawks will likely play either the Brooklyn Nets or Boston Celtics, whom they should have no problems with. As of right now, the Cavs would play the Miami Heat. While many people see that as a nightmare for James and company, I seriously doubt the Heat can beat the Cavs in a seven game series.
It’s a little trickier for the Bulls, who now have the same record as the Toronto Raptors. Depending on how their last seven games play out, the Bulls could regain the three seed and face the Milwaukee Bucks, or they could end up with the four seed and play the Washington Wizards. While they would surely rather play the Bucks, I think they’ll be fine either way. The Wizards made their mark in the playoffs last year, but they have underachieved as of late.
The second round is where things really get interesting, as two of the top three seeds will likely have to play each other. From there, anything could happen.