Each week the PBT writers sit at a virtual roundtable and discuss the NBA topic of the day. This week’s question:
The Heat and the Pacers have been the clear class of the Eastern Conference so far, but who is the third best team there right now? Who will be at the end of the season?
Kurt Helin: Right now I have to say the Hawks are the third best as they are actually over .500. Which separates them from everyone else. Pomona College’s own Mike Budenholzer has helped build a Top 10 defense and they have a solid offense with Jeff Teague having his best season ever at the point. By the end of the season…. I think one of the New York teams is going to figure it out and get good (not as good as Miami or Indiana, but better than they are now). I think the Nets are the more likely candidates because if they can get Deron Williams and more importantly Brook Lopez (their best player — at both ends oddly) back on the court things will improve dramatically. The Knicks could get going as well, but I still don’t love their roster construction. But one of them has to figure it out… right? Don’t they?
Dan Feldman: Now: Toronto Raptors. The Raptors lost to my runner-up, the Atlanta Hawks, but the Hawks don’t have any wins more impressive than that and have actually been outscored this season. The Raptors have challenged some good teams thanks to their deep assortment of mid-level talent, and I believe close losses can be telling. Yup, that’s the East right now. The third best team has the best losses.
End of season: Chicago Bulls. Even though Derrick Rose isn’t returning this season, Jimmy Butler will, and he’ll definitely help. The Bulls have a +9.8 net rating when he’s on the court. and -4.9 when he’s not. That’s swayed by his absence overlapping with Rose’s, but Butler is an emerging force. Plus, I just trust Tom Thibodeau to build a quality defense with this group. Without Rose last season, Chicago still won a playoff series in a tougher Eastern Conference.
Brett Pollakoff: Right now, nobody can stake a legitimate claim to third. Atlanta, Toronto, and Chicago all have their merits and are close enough record-wise, but the hottest team has been the Wizards thanks to multiple 30-point performances from John Wall that have them currently riding a three-game winning streak.
As Dan mentioned, Chicago seems to be the obvious choice long-term to claim this crown, based on their success a season ago without Derrick Rose in getting to the second round of the playoffs — and that’s before we count on the improved game of Jimmy Butler to compliment the likes of All-Star talents in Luol Deng and Joakim Noah.
But because the conference is so mediocre overall, I’ll go with the Nets. Look, all they ned is to get Brook Lopez and Deron Williams healthy and they should show immediate improvement in a relatively short span once the team builds some chemistry around a consistent starting lineup and the rotations that follow. Brooklyn has a ways to go just to get back to .500, but given the huge dropoff in talent once you get past the Heat and the Pacers, it makes sense that the team most talented on paper would rise to the top of that group before the regular season is finished.