This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. This was supposed to be the season the Cleveland Cavaliers returned to prominence in the Eastern Conference. No, they weren’t expected to contend for a championship, but they were expected to be a young, up-and-coming playoff team who no one would want to play. Whether it was due to the youth on the roster, poor fit of players, a new coaching staff and system, or simply unrealistic expectations, things have not gone as planned. Instead the Cavaliers currently (Sunday afternoon) sit tenth in the Eastern Conference with just sixteen games left to play as the season enters its final month. Meanwhile the New York Knicks are a half game ahead of the Cavaliers at 27-40 and the Detroit Pistons are one game behind at 25-41. The only thing keeping these teams even on the edge of playoff contention is the recent play of the injury-depleted Atlanta Hawks, who had lost thirteen of fourteen before a recent three game winning streak. Still, the Knicks, Cavaliers, and Pistons are all between three and four games out of the final playoff spot (although all three are at least five games back in the loss column) and stranger things have happened than a team making a charge over the last month of the season to snag a playoff spot that had long seemed an impossible dream.
So how does the last month look for these four teams? Despite the murderer’s row of games the Cavaliers face over the next week, their remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of 50 percent, the same as the Knicks and just one percent higher than those of the Hawks and Pistons over the course of the rest of their schedules. To break it down farther, Right Down Euclid will take a look at the remaining schedules of each team and give our best guess as to their record over the final month of the season, as well as their record overall. Obviously this is an inexact science. Just look at the Cavaliers who lost to the Knicks and Charlotte Bobcats at home last weekend only to beat the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors on the road the next two games. Still, even though each team will have some surprise wins and losses, their overall record should be fairly close to these predictions. Besides, trying to figure out your team’s chances in a playoff races is part of what sports is all about. Let’s take a look at each team in order of their current spots in the standings.
Atlanta Hawks: Remaining Schedule
With three straight wins over the Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks, and Denver Nuggets, the Hawks have to be breathing a sigh of relief as they have at least temporarily stopped their free fall in the standings. That beings said, things are about to get tougher as they face probable Eastern Conference playoff teams in the Charlotte Bobcats and Toronto Raptors this week before taking on a New Orleans Hornets team that may start a major tank job in order to keep their draft pick. With some tough games against the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards, Portland Trailblazers, and Brooklyn Nets offsetting some easier contests against the Philadelphia 76ers, it seems likely that the Hawks go something like 7-11 to finish with a record of 36-46, although the return of Paul Millsap certainly helps their chances for a better record than this.
New York Knicks: Remaining Schedule
The Knicks have feasted on a soft recent schedule to win their last six games and move back into playoff contention. That being said, only one of their last six opponents, the Minnesota Timberwolves, currently has a winning record. With the exception of games against the Pacers and Warriors (and hopefully the Cavaliers), their schedule stays pretty soft for the rest of the month. But don’t celebrate too early Knick fans, April is another story. All seven of their April games are against Eastern Conference teams that are currently playoff bound and boast winning records. The Nets, Wizards, Bulls, and Raptors are all fighting for home court advantage as well and are unlikely to throw away these games. Look for the Knicks to continue their hot run in March, but cool off next month going about 5-10 the rest of the way, to finish with a record of 32-50. Remember, the Knicks aren’t playing better so much as they’ve been playing weaker opponents. If you think the excitement of Phil Jackson being added to the front office will help them win a few more games, then so be it.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Remaining Schedule
This week is not only the toughest of this Cavaliers season, with games against the Clippers, Heat, Thunder, and Rockets, it is the toughest in recent Cavalier memory. If the Cavaliers can even win one of the next four games, that would be solid. Going 2-2 or better would be absolutely amazing. The rest of March does not let up much, as every team either currently has a playoff seed, or is trying to contend for one. The goal for the Cavaliers should be to grind and battle through March and stay close enough to make a move in April, when their schedule lightens considerably. That is far easier said than done, as this team has shown the ability to get down on itself both on the court and in the locker room. The Cavaliers also regularly play to the ability level of their opponents. Still, assuming they can keep the focus they have had over the last six weeks or so, a record of 7-9 or slightly better is not out of the question. This would give them a final record of 33-49.
Detroit Pistons: Remaining Schedule
The Pistons have been at least as disappointing as the Knicks and Cavaliers (some would say more so, as ESPN had them winning 50 games this season, compared to 37 for the Knicks and Cavs), and things are probably about to get much worse. Not only are eleven of their final sixteen games against teams who are either currently a playoff seed or looking to become one, but they have the extra burden of their draft pick as well. If the Pistons wind up with a pick any lower than eighth in the NBA draft that pick then goes to the Charlotte Bobcats. Currently Detroit has the eighth worst record in the league, but considering how the Cavaliers, Hornets, and Knicks are right behind them (as well as the fact that teams could leapfrog them in the draft lottery). it may be in the Pistons’ best interest to start some major tanking in order to avoid missing the playoffs and losing their first round pick. Because of this, a record of 5-11 or worse seems likely for Detroit the rest of the way. That would put them at 30-52.
A three or four game lead isn’t much in December or even January, but in March it is absolutely huge. At this point, it seems likely that the Atlanta Hawks hold onto the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference while the Cavaliers finish three games behind them as the ninth seed. While that would be disappointing for both the Cavaliers organization and their fans considering the goals coming into the season, it is also not the end of the world. This team would have won nine more games than the year before, played in meaningful games at the end of the season, and hopefully their young players would have learned some significant lessons about what it takes to win in the NBA. That would mean an important step forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers as they continue to grow for the future.