Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports
The NBA’s All-Star break and the trade deadline — the latter with little fanfare — have come and gone, which means we’re in the season’s home stretch. Rosters may be set in stone, but standings and the playoff picture are anything but. So let’s look at what each of the Eastern Conference teams should be looking to accomplish as the 2015-16 season winds down.
Cleveland Cavaliers – Stay healthy and gel as a unit
Let’s be honest — the Cavaliers are more than likely going to run roughshod over the Eastern Conference and back into the NBA Finals. That’s why the Cavs should really just focus internally on learning whatever new intricacies coach Lue wants them to learn while staying healthy and tuning up for what seems like an inevitable June rematch with the Golden State Warriors.
Toronto Raptors – Try and steal home-court advantage from Cleveland
If there’s any team in the East that can beat the Cavaliers, it’s most certainly the Raptors. However, that task goes from being Herculean to being somewhat doable if the Raptors can get a potential Game 6 and 7 to be played up North. Right now the Raptors are 3.5 games behind the Cavs, but they have 30 games left (17 at home) to make up that ground and steal the Eastern Conference crown.
Boston Celtics – Stay the course
The Celtics have been one of the most pleasant surprises of the season and continue to play solid team-first basketball. Coach Brad Stevens is proving to the world why he’s considered one of the best young coaches in the game and has the Celtics on the precipice of the playoffs for the second straight year. This team probably isn’t ready to win yet, but this year continues to be a great learning experience for a team with a bright future. The Celtics may be playing great basketball, but they’re only 4.5 games clear of being out of the playoffs, so there’s still much work and maturation left to stay in contention in a better-than-usual Eastern Conference.
Atlanta Hawks – Regain last season’s form for the playoffs
Last year the Hawks shocked the NBA by putting up 60 wins en route to grabbing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Hawks rolled through the Nets and the Wizards in the first and second rounds of the playoffs, but were no match for the Cavaliers, losing to King James and Co. in just four games. The Hawks haven’t been nearly as consistent this season but have showed flashes of last year’s team. Getting that swagger back might not get them past the Cavaliers, but it’s their best hope for a lengthy playoff run in 2016.
Miami Heat – Begin the youth movement
Dwyane Wade is still a long way from done, but if the Miami Heat are going to do anything of substance, it will be because of their the young talent, namely Justice Winslow and Hassan Whiteside. With Chris Bosh out for the foreseeable future and possibly the entire season, the young guns must step in and propel D-Wade and Goran Dragic to new heights. The Heat didn’t have the firepower without Bosh last year, so the new influx of talent is their only hope.
Indiana Pacers – Improve on the road
Paul George’s return has elevated the entire Pacers team back to a level of respectability that was missing last year. The Pacers have been more than capable at home in Indiana, sporting a 17-9 record, but their 11-16 road record is tied for second worst among current Eastern Conference contenders. If the Pacers can improve on the road, they can put themselves into the conversation for a No. 4 seed or better. And judging by their road play, they’re really going to need that home-court advantage come playoff time.
Charlotte Hornets – Use the momentum gained before the All-Star break
After a disastrous West Coast trip in January, the Hornets dropped to 17-20 and looked lost. Now the Hornets have won eight of their last 11 and are back in the playoff picture. On top of that, during their recent run, they beat the Cavaliers, Heat, Bulls and Pacers — all teams in the current playoff picture. That should give the Hornets the confidence they need to continue their stretch run.
Chicago Bulls – Just make the playoffs
The goal for the Bulls is simple: just make the playoffs any way you can. The team largely decided not to sell at the trade deadline, outside of dealing Kirk Hinrich to the Hawks, meaning they’re still a talented team by any measure. When Jimmy Butler returns from injury, there’s no reason this team can’t sneak into the mix in the East and make some real noise.
Detroit Pistons – Get Tobias Harris acclimated
Tobias Harris proved that he’s a valuable starting five-caliber player in Orlando, and his presence will greatly help the middling Pistons reach new heights. Harris is a talented wing scorer who can rebound as well. Most importantly, he’s a pretty high-percentage shooter, shooting .464 percent from the field. He could well be the guy to spur the Pistons on to a run for the playoffs.
Washington Wizards – Keep Markieff Morris in check/get him involved
The Wizards’ trade with the Suns for the mercurial Markieff Morris was essential for the Wizards if they’re hoping to make the playoffs. Washington is extremely light in the front court and the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Morris will give them a much better presence in the paint. Hopefully for the Wizards, the trip across the country is enough of a reminder for Morris that he needs to keep his hands to himself.
Orlando Magic – Let the young guns shine
The Magic made a major statement when they shipped Tobias Harris and Channing Frye out of town at the trade deadline: The team is ready to play ball in free agency this summer. The caveat there, is that they need to prove to potential big-name free agents that they have the talent to win next year and are a big piece or two away from being a contender in the East. So Aaron Gordon, Victor Oladipo — game on, it’s recruiting season.
New York Knicks – See what Kurt Rambis can do with this team
It’s been a strange year for the Knicks on a few different fronts. Kristaps Porzingis has been a godsend for the team (just as Knicks fans expected back in June, right?), and Carmelo Anthony has returned to All-Star form. But there is still a ton of work to be done in New York, and it starts with the team’s interim head coach, Kurt Rambis. Rambis knows he’s auditioning. If he can take the Knicks to the playoffs and show Phil Jackson signs of life from this squad, he could be in line to take over the reins for good next year. If not, the Knicks have to start from square one in their hunt for the bench boss.
Milwaukee Bucks – Win on the road
The Bucks are an extremely capable home team, and they are 10 games under .500. Their .652 home winning percentage is very respectable, but they’re 7-24 on the road, which is putrid, to say the least. The Bucks are still a young, growing team and winning on the road will come, but it would certainly be nice to see a marked improvement in that respect from the team before the 2015-16 season ends.
Brooklyn Nets – Trust in Sean
The Nets have been a bit of a dumpster fire over the last few years. But now, it’s all coming up roses for the team. Well, not yet, but it will, if they trust the process that new general manager Sean Marks is going to begin. It’ll start with evaluating his current roster, and it could very well end with major free agents making their way to Brooklyn in the summer of 2016, if all goes well.
Philadelphia 76ers – Trust in Sam?
There’s one team in the NBA that hasn’t reached double-digit wins yet, and you guessed it, it’s the 76ers. The perennial losers are doing what they do best — losing — but I suppose that’s still a part of the plan? You have to think that things will eventually start to take shape in Philadelphia, as there really isn’t much else to look forward to. Ideally, Jahlil Okafor and the rest of the team’s young talent continue to evolve this year and Sam Hinkie can get this team on track… eventually.
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for any of his other three teams.