Major stars make up the major stories in the race for the playoffs. In the Eastern Conference, that means Derrick Rose and LeBron James will be the deciding factors for the Cavaliers and the Bulls. If we can agree on those constants, then what are we to make of the variables?
The storylines in the East last season — at least the interesting ones — were about the little details. Yes, Roy Hibbert’s funk was uncharacteristic. But so too was D.J. Augustin’s outburst for Chicago, Shaun Livingston’s revival in Brooklyn and Josh McRoberts deep shooting in Charlotte.
Star players will dictate the standings over the course of the year, but it’s the minutia that makes the difference between finishing first and fifth. It’s also what decides who finishes ninth or out of the playoffs altogether. The big names will be poured over, again and again, but maybe it’s time we look at what smaller factors could go into how things play out in the 2014-15 NBA season.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at four sneaky details that will decide the Eastern Conference.
Jack replacing Livingston in Brooklyn
Shaun Livingston had a career revival in Brooklyn last season, where he contributed a career-high .108 win shares per 48 minutes. In 2013-14, Livingston was a part of three of Brooklyn’s most-used lineups, all of which were plus/minus monsters. He was one of the Nets’ most valuable players, especially so as he worked in tandem with Deron Williams.
What made Livingston and Williams work so well together was their difference in strengths. Where Williams had a more typical balance of 3-point shots to drives, Livingston shot an unbelievable six times from beyond the arc in 76 regular season games. Meanwhile, Livingston’s size and defensive ability allowed him post up on offense and to take on opposing point guards and let Williams save himself on defense.
Jack is also a penetrator and is more than used to playing shooting guard alongside an alpha point like Williams. However, his defense isn’t up to par with Livingston and where he plays on the court is more typical for a player listed at 6-3. Whether Lionel Hollins uses him rotationally or alongside Williams will be just part of how the Nets’ offense changes in 2014-15.
The Hornets lost Josh McRoberts to Miami this summer but picked up Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams, and the hope in Charlotte is that Steve Clifford’s improved offense will combine with the new talent well enough to get them to the next level. Charlotte’s issues largely center around whether or not they will be able to shoot the ball well enough to support their penetrating and low-post offensive strengths.
In recent years, only Memphis has been able to skate by without the 3-point shot as a heavy factor in their offense. The Grizzlies have benefitted from being one of the best rebounding and defensive teams in the NBA and have the luxury of starting one of the best frontcourts along with an extremely efficient point guard in Mike Conley. Combined with their pace-adjusted offense ranking in the middle of the pack, the Grizzlies’ lack of 3-point shooting has allowed them to be perennial contenders in the West.
While the Hornets do have one of the best offensive centers in the game in Al Jefferson and a 3-point threat with Williams, neither Kemba Walker nor Stephenson are proven threats from deep. Charlotte has the potential to be a top team defensively in the East but their shooting will very likely hold them back from challenging for a Top 4 position.
Atlanta’s bench and Horford’s return
The Hawks represent an interesting wrinkle to the playoff picture in the East much as they did in 2013-14 when they took No. 1 seed Indiana to seven games in the first round. Atlanta did all that without the benefit of Al Horford, who is back for this season and will hopefully remain healthy.
Horford is one of the most dominant centers in the NBA when he’s on the floor and as we saw in the playoffs last season, the guys on the bench for Atlanta are no scrubs. Relegated to more traditional bench roles, Pero Antic and Mike Scott should provide huge value behind a solid starting lineup for the Hawks.
Atlanta has also added former Oklahoma City Thunder mainstay Thabo Sefolosha to join the backcourt reserve lineup of Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schröder. The Germain second-year player has showed promise in the preseason and along with Jeff Teague’s continued progression, the Hawks could be much more dangerous than they were last year. If Horford can stay healthy.
Chicago’s wing rotation
The Bulls did an excellent job putting together a contender to take on LeBron’s Cavaliers in the East, but their fate is far from decided. Behind Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy are two unproven players in Tony Snell and Doug McDermott, who between them have just two years of NBA experience.
There’s already rumors that Tom Thibodeau has started to sour on Snell, which leaves just McDermott to try to fit into both spots. More realistically, it means that both Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich are likely to play the off guard spot in addition to minutes backing up Derrick Rose.
It’s not as though the Bulls can’t survive with Brooks and Hinrich playing heavy minutes. Thibodeau squeezed a career year out of D.J. Augustin last season. It’s just that having to rely on parlor tricks every season has got to be tiresome for Chicago, and if Snell is sent to the D-League and McDermott underwhelms the stout Bulls could start to look noticably thinner.