After a few strong seasons for the Eastern Conference, including two of the past four NBA championships, the standings project to be incredibly disparate once again between top and bottom. That also means the East will dominate the reverse standings and earn the lion’s share of ping-pong balls at the 2020 draft lottery.
Another way to look at the poor standing of the East is that bad teams in the JV conference will benefit and win more games than their talent level merits based on their weak schedules. This played out last season as teams like the Hornets and Wizards beefed up against teams in the East to punch above their weight in the standings. Regardless of the slight differences such statistical anomalies create, the Suns will have a harder path to nightly wins than these teams.
Importantly, this also could help the Suns sneak ahead of similarly talented East teams in the lottery. We all know the Suns are not setting out to tank or waste any time this season, but arming the roster with additional young talent should always be a goal of any franchise when possible. In this way, Phoenix could benefit from losing a few more games than an equivalent East squad.
Let’s take stock of where the East hierarchy is at this point in time to help us understand the broader NBA landscape as well as the Suns’ lottery spot.
The terrible trio (plus one)
Make no mistake about it: The bottom of the East features three teams significantly worse than the Suns. That group includes New York, Cleveland and Charlotte.
The Cavs were far and away the worst defense in the NBA last year (2.5 points per 100 possessions worse than the Suns, and we all saw the dumpster fire in Phoenix). They didn’t do much to get better there and will give big minutes to Darius Garland, a slight scoring guard recovering from a meniscus injury. With Kevin Love in tow and another year of growth from Collin Sexton, their offense should get better, and it was already 25th last season. Cleveland likely won’t go 19-63 again, but they just don’t have the depth of talent to compete with Phoenix or the rest of the East’s playoff challengers.
While the Knicks made a show of creeping back toward competitiveness by signing 63 billion power forwards this summer, they won’t be a good team, either. New York was the worst offense in the NBA last season and of their new additions, only Julius Randle expects to sop up offensive possessions efficiently on a consistent basis. At the same time, R.J. Barrett may negate much of Randle’s benefit. Like Cleveland, the Knicks set themselves up to be slightly better in 2019-20 but didn’t add as much of the Suns and don’t have as much proven young talent, either.
As for the Hornets, well, they’re the Hornets. Rather than do anything to keep Kemba Walker or get assets back for the only superstar they’ve had this decade, they replaced Walker with Terry Rozier. While Charlotte actually has a ton of interesting young role players, they will be pretty terrible with Rozier in a high-usage role and the young players learning through trial and error.
Let me real quick get this thing out of the way about the Wizards: I don’t think they will be good, but with Bradley Beal, it’s hard to lump them in with these three cellar-dwellers. We saw Washington drift to more wins than expected with Beal playing at an All-Star level last season, and I expect more of the same. Unless they trade Beal early in the year, they won’t make the playoffs, but they won’t be awful.
Everyone else has a reasonable shot at the playoffs
If I told you the Hawks or Bulls made the playoffs, would you be shocked? No way. Each team added to their young core with decent veteran talent this summer and are on the precipice of a breakthrough. The better money is on Chicago, but regardless, both of these groups are more proven than the Suns as well as the bottom four discussed above. They are the two most likely to benefit from beating up on weaker East teams.
Above Atlanta and Chicago sits Detroit, the final team I have on the outside looking in of the East playoffs. To me, Orlando and Miami are a considerable level above the Pistons, who are relying on Derrick Rose and young players for depth a LOT this season.
Even if the Magic or Heat slip, they are both way better than the Suns. Miami figures to have a pretty great defense when they can put out lineups like this: Justise Winslow, Jimmy Butler, James Johnson, Derrick Jones Jr., Bam Adebayo. Adding Butler will be as smooth as the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot.
Orlando was one of the better teams in the league after the All-Star break last season, particularly on defense. With Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross and Aaron Gordon, the Magic are just too efficient and experienced to be out of the playoff hunt.
All of that means I project the East lottery standings to look something like this:
13. New York
The Suns should slot in there somewhere among the top three of Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta. Considering how bad Memphis should be in the West, the Suns should firmly be in the back half of the lottery next season, all but ensuring that we don’t have to think about the draft too hard until actual draft season — March through June.