Preseason playoff picture: Eastern Conference

We already told you who we believe will make the playoffs in the Western Conference

The picture in the Eastern Conference is a bit different.

Just like the West, the East has six teams that are locks to play in May. They are the defending champion Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, who last season weren’t in (a) Brooklyn or (b) the playoffs.

You can find whatever real or imagined faults you’d like with those teams. The fact remains that each one has too much talent to land in the lottery.

At the other end of the spectrum are five teams that have no shot in hell at the playoffs. The Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons are pointed in the right direction but don’t have enough to compete. Based on their mismatched roster, the Orlando Magic don’t have a current direction. And the Charlotte Bobcats should be able to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

That leaves two postseason berths for four teams: the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors.

Let’s break down who’s playing and who’s praying.

ATLANTA: New GM Danny Ferry will keep receiving kudos for dumping Joe Johnson’s contract until the first time the Hawks are down three with a minute to go and have to throw someone the ball. There are still options – Josh Smith, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, newcomer Lou Williams – but none of them can create a shot or the matchup issues the way Johnson can.

Smith is in the last year of his contract and appears destined to be bounced back and forth from power forward to small forward. Also entering a contract year is point guard Devin Harris, who could be playing for his next deal and may get in the way of Teague’s development. And while the Hawks aren’t big, they aren’t overly quick, either.

Atlanta has made the playoffs five straight years, so this group knows how to get there. But trading Johnson will work as addition by subtraction only on the payroll and not on the court. He is a stud whose go-to game is going to be sorely missed.

VERDICT: Out. Keep in mind that adding a lottery pick to all that cap room isn’t such a bad deal.

bulls small logoCHICAGO: Yeah, we know. How could the Bulls, who finished each of the last two seasons with the best overall record, be sweating a postseason berth? Well, consider that in the 33 games last season (including playoffs) in which Derrick Rose did not play, Chicago scored 100 or more points just six times and didn’t reach 90 points 16 times. Now consider that Rose probably won’t be back until the All-Star break, when the Bulls have just 30 games remaining.

In addition to Rose’s prolonged absence, the Bench Mob underwent a serious downgrade during the offseason, and you have to wonder how effective complementary players such as Richard Hamilton, Vladimir Radmanovic and Marco Belinelli will be with Kirk Hinrich at the controls.

Tom Thibodeau is still the coach, which means the Bulls will still defend as well as any team. But the frontcourt foursome of Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson should be preparing for some heavy lifting until Rose returns.

VERDICT: In, and a dangerous bottom-bracket seed if Rose is right.

bucks small logoMILWAUKEE: The Bucks operated under the radar in the offseason because none of their moves were glitzy. But in Samuel Dalembert and Joel Przybilla, they got the centers they needed to allow their forwards to be forwards – particularly Ersan Ilyasova, who presents problems as a stretch-4 who can bang the boards, too.

A true training camp will benefit Monta Ellis, who alongside Brandon Jennings gives Milwaukee arguably the quickest backcourt in NBA history. You can decry Ellis’ volume game, but the Bucks were 12-9 with him in the lineup.

There’s a lot of guys playing for contracts – Ellis, Jennings, Dalembert, Mike Dunleavy – under perhaps the NBA’s most abrasive coach in Scott Skiles, who also is in the final year of his deal. That could make for a combustible situation. It says here that they win enough to put that stuff aside.

VERDICT: In, as the eighth seed.

raptors small logoTORONTO: The trade for Kyle Lowry was among the best offseason acquisitions of any team. Lowry’s all-around game and mental toughness will fit right in with coach Dwane Casey’s approach. Coupled with the hopeful health of solid scorers Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan and a possible strong rookie campaigns from Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, the Raptors could threaten 40 wins.

But as you probably figured out by now, that won’t be enough. There are still way too many question marks and inconsistency on the bench, where the roster has a handful of borderline D-League players. If Toronto can move Jose Calderon’s expiring contract for a stud, the picture could change a bit.

VERDICT: Out. Wait ’til next year.

(RELATED: Offseason report cards, team-by-team)

(RELATED: Offseason moves and analysis, team-by-team)

Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Wednesday and Sunday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.

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  1. Ray says

    I Seriously don’t think the hawks will make it. After years of one and done playoff runs, I think Ferry wants wants to push reset on the roster. J J was just the first of many moves.

  2. James says

    @Buddahfan

    Who exactly on the raptors is a borderline D-leaguer? Last year when the Raptors played Justin Dentmon, Alan Anderson, and Ben Uzoh, those are literally some of the best D-League players available, and they still pale in comparison to the rest of the roster. Don’t need to be such a hater.

  3. XK says

    I wouldn’t be shocked if the Bulls missed the playoffs this year. I think you’re underestimating how much their bench mob losses will impact them, especially with Rose missing a good chunk of the season.

    I think your probabilities are mostly correct, but would throw the Hawks into the mix for one of the last two slots (along with the Bulls and Bucks). I think the Hawks will definitely miss Joe, but I think they’ll play looser too, (less iso for JJ), and that they have a decent chance of making the playoffs if they try to spread the floor and run (assuming at least some of their new pickups actually shoot well this season). Of course, once they reach the slower-paced playoffs, their lack of size and a go-to presence would inevitably lead to a loss.

  4. Jim says

    I think you have the Bulls right were they should be. And even though the Bulls made the right decision to match the poison pill offer sheet Omer Asik signed his loss will cripple their defense of the paint on the second team, a unit that always outscored the other team’s second unit more because of their defensive abilities than their offensive fire power. And yes, the Bulls were 18-9 without Rose last year, but they benefited from a short preseason where teams had many new faces and were still trying to find an identity. The Bulls had the same exact team back, plus Jimmy Butler, and hit the ground running. This year the Bulls will be spending lots of time trying to figure out the new rotation, break in a rookie PG in Teague who will play a lot of minutes, and find ways to hide Radmonovic.

  5. says

    You neglected to mention the Bulls were 18-9 without Rose last year. I think they’ll finish closer to 5th than 8th. They should be in the mix for for the best defense in the league again. Swapping Rose for Hinrich won’t hurt them in that regard, and Asik only played 10 minutes per game last year, so they can get by without him. More minutes for Gibson.

  6. Henrik says

    With the addition of Nene, Ariza and Okafor, plus the rookie Bradley Beal, Wizards should be in the conversation for the 8th spot. Also, it’s important to say that they shipped all the knuckleheads out of town (McGee, Blatche) which should help in building the winning culture. John Wall is going to have a huge year IMO.
    Bulls are a lock for the playoffs. I would bet a decent amount that Bulls, if Deng and Noah can stay on the floor, will be a higher seed than Brooklyn.

  7. Buddahfan says

    Raptors roster has a handful of borderline D-league players.

    Interesting way to put it.

    Can’t say I agree with that, but then again I am just a fan and not an expert on this stuff.

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