The Last Emperor – East

Dynasties in China lasted about 4 millennia. From the Xia Dynasty in 2000BC, to the Qing Dynasty which folded in the early 20th century, you’d have to admit they had a pretty good run. Looking at the NBA standings, they might be done with their dynasty rule as well.

In a league where multiple championship teams are the norm, we’re seeing a new face on the NBA. Just look at the standings, and honestly say that you thought Cleveland would be leading the Central, or the Sonics in the Northeast. Before last year, the last time a team won a championship without winning one in the 5 years before or after is the 1983 Sixers. That means in the last 20 years, we’ve seen the same few teams win year after year.

Professional basketball wasn’t always this way. In the 10 years before 1984, the league saw equality with 5 of the 10 champs being non-dynasties. I welcome parity, because it means every year any team can win. Nobody wants to start the year already knowing their team has no chance to compete. The NFL was a dynasty driven league in the 80s & 90s when only 8 different teams won in 20 years. However things have changed for the NFL, in the last 5 Super Bowls, 4 different teams have gone to Disney World. If you weren’t a fan of the Niners, Cowboys, or Packers, I’m sure you much prefer the current situation.

In the East, the biggest surprise might be the first place Cavaliers. Cleveland was suppose to be, at best, third in the tough Central. However the Pistons underestimated the importance of their bench. Detroit won the championship around a team model, and losing Okur, Williamson, and James made them less of a complete team. Meanwhile the Pacers might have forfeited their chances at taking the division with the 3 major suspensions that have crippled their team.

The Cavs’ offseason was suppose to be a disaster when already signed-Carlos Boozer bolted for Utah. However the Cavs have barely missed a beat at PF with the emergence of Plan B signee-Drew Gooden (49.8% eFG, 1.12 PSA, 19.9 PER). In addition, Paul Silas has gotten Jeff McInnis to play at a decent level for the second straight season (51.9 eFG, 1.09 PSA, 14.5 PER) which allows LeBron James to play SF, a position that more naturally suits him than PG. The Cavs no longer have the East’s best center with the trade of Shaq trade to the East, but The Big Z (47.1, 1.11, 19.6) gives the Cavs one of the better centers in the league.

Of course the biggest improvement in Cleveland might just be the King himself. James (52.1, 1.14, 26.4) has improved just like a rookie on his way to superstardom should. If you’re a fan of the Basketball Forecast/Prospectus, James has improved in all three of Hollinger’s independent stats: assist ratio (21.1 from 19.1), turnover ratio (10.8 down from 11.2), and rebound rate (10.8 from 7.6). LeBron has a higher PER despite taking less shots, because his shooting percentage has improved as well. If you’re wondering exactly how far LeBron has come in his second season, James ranks 6th overall in PER this year. That’s higher than Shaq, Marion, Kobe, Pierce, Francis, or Nash. The top 6:

TEAM	NAME............	PER	
SAS Tim Duncan...... 30.51
MIN Kevin Garnett... 30.32
DAL Dirk Nowitzki... 30.05
PHO Amare Stoudemire 29.14
MIA Dwyane Wade..... 26.82
CLE LeBron James.... 26.40

Cleveland isn’t just doing it on offense. The Cavs have the 2nd ranked defense, allowing only 96.3 points per 100 possessions. Looking at, their only defensive weakness is PG. Opposing playmakers are averaging a 16PER against Cleveland. The good news for the Cavs is it’s the only position that’s doing better than average. If Cleveland can keep this up, and get a shooting guard before the deadline, they could be serious contenders in an East that is wide open.

Before the season started everyone was guessing that a Florida team would be atop the Southeast. However few would have predicted Orlando as the Florida team leading the division (Ed Note: since writing this the Heat have re-taken the lead, but isn’t this a nicer story?) I already did a little piece on the Magic, where I found three factors in the rebirth of Orlando: Grant Hill’s health, the improved defense, and the fast development of Howard. Hill did miss his first game, apparently because of a shin problem not related to his ankle. However it doesn’t appear to be serious, as he played 34 minutes tonight against the Lakers. As long as Hill stays healthy, the Magic will be competitors in the East.

Orlando isn’t the only surprise team in the Southeast. Washington looks more formidable this year as well. So far the Wiz are getting a boost from their two highest scorers, newly acquired Antawn Jamison (46.6 eFG, 1.03 PSA, 21.18)and currently healthy Gilbert Arenas (50.0, 1.12, 19.6). However their best player maybe unheralded Larry Hughes (42.4, 0.99, 23.54). The Washington shooting guard can score (21.6 PTS/40) and is one of the best rebounding guards in the league (6.8 REB/40). What’s incredible is he’s added a passing game to his offense. Hughes has nearly doubled his assists, whether you judge by per game (2.4 last year to 5.2 this year) or by Hollinger’s assist ratio (10.2 last year to 19.8 this year). To show how good a player he’s been so far, Hughes is 10th in the league in PER, between Marion and Marbury. At $5.5M he’s a steal, and the Wizards would be smart to resign him to a long term deal.

Stay tuned for Part 2, when I cover the West’s first place newbies.