Conventional wisdom says the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets are head and shoulders above the rest of the Eastern Conference and – barring a disaster – will secure the top five spots.
At the other end of the conference, you can probably toss out the Orlando Magic, Charlotte Bobcats and Philadelphia 76ers, who could pool their rosters to come up with the 15 best players and still not make the playoffs.
That leaves three spots for the remaining seven teams. Last season, those spots went to the Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks. Some would argue that each of those teams took backward steps in the offseason and could wind up in the lottery.
The postseason door could be open for teams such as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons, who clearly upgraded their rosters this summer in an effort to play in May. But have they done enough?
“I really like what Detroit did,” NBA TV analyst Greg Anthony said. “I really think they improved their standing.”
Regarding Cleveland, TNT analyst Chris Webber offered, “I think they’re the best young talented team in the league.”
But talent isn’t the only factor. Health matters. Coaching matters. And veteran professionalism matters.
“We’ve seen it year in and year out with young teams,” Anthony said. “They’ve shown promise, but can they do it consistently?”
Was that a hedge? Perhaps. But we’re not hedging. Below is a look at the seven East teams that have shot at the playoffs – and the three who we think will make it.
ATLANTA HAWKS: Believe it or not, the Hawks have the longest current playoff streak of any Eastern Conference team — six years. Rookie coach Mike Budenholzer will have to get lots of new pieces to mesh quickly in order to keep that streak alive.
Injuries already are taking a toll. Combo guard Lou Williams, who has the ability to relieve point man Jeff Teague or play alongside him, is still rehabbing a torn ACL and may not return until Christmas. Big man Gustavo Ayon, the potential backup to undersized center Al Horford and the MVP of the Tournament of the Americas for Mexico, could miss eight weeks with a shoulder injury.
Atlanta tallest player is 6-11 Eurorookie Pero Antic, a burly distance shooter whose supposed toughness will be tested immediately. The addition of Paul Millsap will help, and there is plenty of veteran professionalism here. But the Hawks need contributions right away from second-year guard John Jenkins and rookie blur Dennis Schroder (profiled here). Because unlike two years ago, the Hawks don’t have enough to withstand an injury to Horford.
VERDICT: In, almost by default and probably as the eighth seed.
BOSTON CELTICS: Of all the East teams tracking a playoff berth, they have the best and most indispensable player in All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, a triple-double machine who makes all of his teammates better and provides excellent head-of-the-snake defense.
Unfortunately, Rondo is highly dispensable right now, out until probably December with a torn ACL. Without him, the Celtics have no true point guard. Rondo’s backups are Avery Bradley, who has shown he cannot effectively run the offense for anything more than short stretches, and rookie Phil Pressey, who simply is not ready. And whoever plays the point will be working with a rookie coach in Brad Stevens.
There seems to be more than a few established names here, but many of them – Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger, Keith Bogans – have trouble getting their own shot and desperately need Rondo delivering the ball to be effective.
VERDICT: Out. It behooves both Rondo and the Celtics for him to take his sweet time returning and make the goal 60 losses instead of 35 wins.
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: They have practically doubled the number of viable NBA players on their roster, adding Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark through free agency, Anthony Bennett with the top pick in the draft and Anderson Varejao via return from injury, providing the glue for Mike Brown’s defense.