A not-so-serious attempt at finding the third best team in the East

Who is the best team in the East not named the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers? Does it even matter? (No.) Won’t the Heat and Pacers just end up playing each other in the Eastern Conference Finals? (Yes… Most likely). Could the third best team end up finishing below .500? (Let’s just stop asking questions before this gets depressing). In a landscape no longer featuring relevant Bulls or Celtics teams, the Heat only have one real challenger to the throne in the East: the Pacers. To make matters worse, no team has stepped up to the plate either as a worthy challenger. Most experts saw the Nets as a legitimate title contender this year with the arrival of KG and Paul Pierce. Or they saw the return of Derrick Rose as the return of the Bulls. Perhaps the last possible contender in the East coming into the year was the Knicks, fresh off a 54 win campaign. But quite a lot can happen in just a few months. Derrick Rose tears his meniscus, and suddenly we can forget about the Bulls. Tyson Chandler fractures his fibula, general J.R. Smith-ery takes place at an unimaginably high rate, and the Knicks stop raining 3’s every night, and suddenly we can forget about the Knicks. And in Brooklyn, Deron Williams struggles with ankle injuries, KG falls off a cliff, and Jason Kidd tries his best to coach, and suddenly we can forget about Brooklyn too–I think. Yet, they have shown brief signs of life in recent weeks. But to keep things simple, the Bulls, Knicks, Nets, and Celtics (who previously had been one of the Heat’s rivals, before entering tank mode) are irrelevant in the East. That leaves us with a hodgepodge of teams in the East that, many of whom came into the season in tank-mode. Teams like the Bucks, Sixers, Magic, and Bobcats (wait, they’d actually be the eight seed if the playoffs started today…), coupled with teams trying not to be in tank-mode, but suck enough to still be in tank-mode (see: Cavs and Pistons) are afterthoughts this year. So who is even left in the East? That leaves with three teams: the Raptors, Hawks, and Wizards.

The Suspects

1) Raptors
Anyone who told you before the season that they expected the Raptors to be the three seed by the end of February was either lying or has a serious drug problem. How bizarre are the Raptors? Even their G.M. has no idea if they’re tanking or contending. He traded the guy who NBA 2K addicts would call the Raptors best player (and normal people would call the most overrated player in the league), Rudy Gay, essentially for nothing. Trading Gay made sense to just about everyone in the league, which is why it was surprising that G.M. Masai Ujiri was able to do it so easily. As anyone who is fan of analytics already knows, Rudy Gay is supremely overrated. He is what we call a ball hog. He is that guy that you pray is not on your team when you go play pick-up. He’s not the in-your-face ball hog type of teammate. He’s the type that quietly keeps gunning (and bricking) jumpers as your team gets blown out, not realizing that he is the reason that you’re getting blown out. Even Rudy Gay knows how overrated Rudy Gay is. The Raptors were 7-12 with Rudy Gay. The second he was traded though, the Raptors apparently got good. Really Good. So good that they went from being one of the worst teams in the East, to one of the best. For what it’s worth, the Raptors have gone 16-9 since Gay’s departure, catapulting them to 23-21 and in the three seed in the East. Yet there’s talk that the Raptors may move their best player Kyle Lowry now. Basically the Raptors know how much they suck. They know it doesn’t matter if they’re the three seed because they’d be lucky to snag one game, if they even made the second round, from the Heat or Pacers in the playoffs. Crazy things have been happening to the Raptors lately. They’ve been winning, something that hasn’t happened since the infamous Vincanity days. Demar Derozan has begun to look like a legitimate building block cornerstone piece. And TERRANCE ROSS SCORED 51 POINTS. No one knows what’s going on anymore. It’s hard to dub a team the third best team in a conference when they are actively trying to trade their best player though.

The Raptors have been all smiles since the departure of Rudy Gay.

The Raptors have been all smiles since the departure of Rudy Gay.

2) Hawks
This is almost a cop-out answer. Let’s face it: the Hawks are boring. Their three best (remaining) players are Paul Milsap, Jeff Teague, and Kyle Korver. {Quick tangent: A month or so ago, while watching the Hawks on League Pass, the local Atlanta station had a commercial hyping up a game between the Hawks and the Heat. How could you honestly hype up that game? They told viewers to tune in to see if Kyle Korver could go toe-to-toe with LeBron and take down the Heat. Ouch. In case you were wondering, it was actually a close game somehow.} Anyway, they’re not fun to watch. They’re always a middling seed in the East and they are never legitimate contenders.  And their best player is out for the year. GM Danny Ferry got rid Joe Johnson and Josh Smith in the past two years, and that was supposed to end Hawks mediocrity.

There's a good chance we will more of this in the second round of the playoffs.

There’s a good chance we will more of this in the second round of the playoffs.

The Hawks are the closest thing in the NBA to a franchise on a feeding tube. They’re still right there and technically alive for the three seed, but what’s the point? Unfortunately this is the most competitive tanking season maybe ever, so it looks like they’re stuck in NBA Purgatory, otherwise known as the middle ground. As has been pointed out by nearly every expert, in the NBA, you either want to be at the top or the very bottom. Very simply, being at the very bottom gives you the best chance of getting a true superstar, that is supposedly needed to win a title. Danny Ferry likely knows this, and also knows that Al Horford is a great complementary piece. But Horford is not the first, and probably not even the second best player on a title team. It seems that no matter what the Hawks do, they are always mediocre. When they went all in for a title with Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford, they were a middle playoff seed. When it looked like they were trying to tank, at least a little bit, they were a middle seed. You’d probably rather be a Bucks fan right now than a Hawks fan. At least the Bucks can watch every college game this season with the excitement that they might have a superstar next year, who will later ditch them in free agency to get the hell out of Milwaukee. Sorry, Hawks fans. (And Bucks fans.)

3) Wizards
Now let me apologize to myself. As a Wizards fan, it’s impossible to view the Wizards much differently than the Hawks. I know what you’re thinking: John Wall is a “star,” the very type of star the Hawks lack. Now, let me respond:  no, he’s not. Wall is having a career year, no doubt. He puts up 20, 9, and 4 per night, and if you did nothing else but look at those numbers, you might even be fooled to think he’s the best point guard in the East, maybe one of the elite point guards in the league. His 3-point jumper has improved, I will concede. But watch enough Wizards games (I would not wish this upon my worst enemy), I dare you, and you’ll see the same glaring flaws in his game today as when he was a rookie. He still doesn’t even shoot 33% from behind the arc–aka he still can’t shoot. He still turns the ball over nearly four times per game. He still has no concept of pace, knowing when to push the ball and when to take it easy. You will often see the infamous one on three fast break that ends up in an out-of-control charge or bizarre layup attempt. These are the plays that make Wizards fan shudder. And when the game is on the line and you need a big shot, I can think of countless guys I’d rather have taking the shot than Wall. Yet, since he is the “star,” Randy Wittman elects to have Wall take–and brick–game-winners. Beyond Wall, some point to young oft-injured Bradley Beal as a stud. Beal could be very good in the future. He’s not having a terrible season, but he’s just about average in terms of his player efficiency. He’s just a standstill shooter right now. Until Beal develops a consistent off-the-dribble game, his offensive game will remain limited. On the wing, namely standing still in the corner, are either Trevor Ariza or Martell Webster. Both guys are capable of getting hot, but are streaky shooters at best, who only take corner 3’s. And down low, Nene and Gortat are as close to average as you can get. This is a very average team that would be lucky to sniff the eight seed out West, but fancies itself a contender because the East is so weak.834055036

The Verdict
None of these teams is good. The Raptors, Hawks, and Wizards will ultimately have no bearing on what happens in May or June. Being without their best player for the remainder of the year, it’s difficult to see the Hawks staying above water the rest of the year. That leaves us with the Raptors and Wizards. Now we’ve got two completely different approaches to sucking here. The first involves a team trying its best to stop winning. The Raptors are trying to trade their best player and look into the future. The second involves a delusional team supposedly going all-in this year (ALERT WIZARDS FANS: WE’VE SEEN THIS BEFORE. SEE: TRADING #5 PICK, WHO COULD’VE BEEN STEPHEN CURRY, FOR RANDY FOYE AND MIKE MILLER)–mostly to appease its fan base that is starved for a playoff appearance of any kind. Wiz fans know what’s up. They know they’d just be the sacrificial lamb in the second round for the Heat or Pacers. As long as they can get their “Second Round Playoffs” shirts that Wiz fans remember all too well from the years with Gilbert Arenas, they will be happy. I’m not sure what I’d rather be: the team trying way too hard to be good and barely being .500, or the team kind of trying to lose and being a few games over .500.

If I had to choose, gun to my head, the third best team in the East, I guess I’d go with the Wizards. At least they’re trying to win now, and we know they will have their best player for the rest of year, unlike the Hawks and possibly the Raptors. And by the Wizards being in the best shape of these three teams for the three seed, they are setting themselves up the worst for the future. Because if there’s anything we know for sure, it is that none of these three teams can beat the Heat or Pacers in the playoffs. This might be the year that it’s okay if your best player gets hurt, where you can dangle out your best player on the trade market, looking to load up on draft picks.

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