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.
CHICAGO: 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.
MILWAUKEE: 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.
TORONTO: 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.