The Boston Celtics, who have won 16 straight and own the league's best record, are rightly seen as strong contenders in the Eastern Conference this season, along with the three-time defending conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
But are there any other teams with a realistic shot at representing the East in the NBA Finals? Let's take a look at a few teams that, according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI), should at least be in the conversation with the Celtics and Cavaliers.
The Raptors are perennially waiting in the wings, but they have been shut down by LeBron James the past two seasons. The Raptors are off to a hot start this season, winning 11 of their first 16 games; BPI only gave that a 23.1 percent chance of happening. It now projects Toronto to win 56 games this season -- which is fourth best in the league, behind only the Golden State Warriors, Celtics and Houston Rockets.
The Raptors ranked fourth in quantified shot quality and third in quantified shooter impact, according to Second Spectrum. That means they are taking the fourth-best selection of shots and have the third best team of shot-makers. As a result, their offense is third in the league, according to BPI.
The Raptors have played the sixth-toughest schedule to date, but they have the second easiest schedule going forward. With a 73.1 percent chance of landing the No. 2 seed in the East, BPI gives them a 30.5 percent chance to reach the NBA Finals.
The Wizards have started the season lukewarm, winning only 10 of their first 17 games, despite playing the second-easiest schedule so far. BPI still projects the Wizards to be a 3-seed in the East, but that is because the expectation is for them to finish at 49-33, which was their record last season.
There's no need to sound the alarms yet, but where have things gone wrong so far for the Wizards? Their defensive rebound percentage is only 76.5 percent, eighth worst in the league. While they get to the line at the fifth best rate (FTAr = 0.298), they are in the bottom third of the league in 3-point attempts per 100 possessions (3Par = .310).
Like all the contenders, the Wizards need to be careful in how they position themselves in the standings. The Cavaliers might not even worry about having home-court advantage in the playoffs, and facing Cleveland in the first round would not be ideal. But if the Wizards play their cards right, they have a decent shot at winning the East.
Yes, the Pistons are the dark horse in this conversation. With a projected record of 45-37, Stan Van Gundy's team certainly has turned things around. In the preseason, BPI pegged the Pistons at 39-43 and did not expect them to go 11-6 so far.
Andre Drummond's sudden ability to make free throws has been a revelation, but he has taken his overall game to the next level. Besides his career-best free throw percentage, Drummond currently is having a career year in offensive rebound percentage and assists percentage. Overall, while the Pistons aren't playing at a remarkable pace or net efficiency, they clearly are emphasizing possession of the ball. The Pistons have the sixth-best offensive rebound percentage (25.3 percent) and eighth-best defensive rebound percentage (78.6 percent). Additionally, their turnover percentage ranks seventh (13.3 percent), while their opponents' turnover rate is fourth highest (15.0 percent).
The Pistons have played a fairly average schedule, which is a good sign that this level of play will sustain. Fans might just enjoy another playoff appearance, which would only be their second in the past nine seasons, but don't let expectations get too lofty. BPI gives the Pistons a 10.1 percent chance of reaching the Eastern Conference finals.
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