Anyone who has been watching the NBA this year understands the ridiculous disparity regarding team success between the Eastern and Western conferences. Despite being the resident conference for powerhouses in Indiana and Miami, the Eastern conference is only 37-84 against the West thus far in the season. Only six teams out West boast records under .500, whereas the East has a pitiful twelve teams under .500. To put the situation into even greater perspective, every team in the West outside of Sacramento (7-16) and Utah (6-21) would make the playoffs if they switched conferences. Outside of the obvious picks with the Pacers and Heat, who can be expected to make the playoffs out of the cellar of the East?
As of Wednesday night, the six teams joining the Pacers and Heat in the playoffs, in order of seed, would be Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Charlotte, Washington, and Toronto. This is hardly a definite playoff scenario, as a mere six games separate the projected fourth seed Celtics and the bottom-feeder Milwaukee Bucks.
In comparison to ESPN’s Training Camp Power Rankings, three teams previously expected to make the playoffs (Brooklyn, Chicago, and New York) are floundering in the East due to three completely separate situations. Brooklyn has suffered injuries and a lack of team chemistry (improving of late having won four of their last five, including a big win over the contending Clippers). Chicago has struggled in the wake of Derrick Rose’s season-ending meniscus tear as their lack of depth has been exposed. Mike Woodson, head coach of New York, is likely one more late-game faux-pas from being canned.
One alteration to the current playoff projections that we can likely expect to be fulfilled would be replacing Toronto with Brooklyn. The Nets are only two games back in the loss column, and their collective resurgence and team health combined with Toronto’s determination to tank (Kyle Lowry is allegedly still being shopped) should result in the Nets overtaking the Raptors.
We can be reasonably optimistic that two other current playoff teams will hold onto their spots. Atlanta, the current three-seed, holds the last of three plus-.500 records in the East. Paul Millsap appears to have built a strong connection with fellow big-man Al Horford, and their perimeter is exciting to watch with Jeff Teague’s aggressiveness and Kyle Korver’s marksmanship from deep.
The other likely solid playoff fixture is Detroit. As a new home for Josh Smith, the nine-year veteran Combo Forward has bolstered an already lethal frontcourt with Greg Monroe and second-year man Andre Drummond. Point Guard by way of Milwaukee, Brandon Jennings is averaging a career high 7.8 Assists Per Game with excellent passing options in Smith, Monroe, and Drummond.
The final three spots back East are sure to be the hardest to predict. We can expect Brooklyn to overtake Toronto’s spot, but that still leaves Boston in the hunt in the Atlantic Division. First-year coach Brad Stevens has led the Celtics to a surprising 12-14 start with an excellent selection of young talent. Jordan Crawford is finally learning to play within a system, Avery Bradley is showing a drastically improved touch from the perimeter (45% from the field and 38% from three), and Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, and Kelly Olynyk are excellent pieces to build around. Rajon Rondo’s return is unlikely to hinder the young Celtics success, as he is an excellent distributing Point Guard and defensive presence.
After the Celtics, that leaves us with Charlotte and Washington as the only projected playoff teams as of tonight. Both of these teams will be battling with Chicago and Cleveland to claim the last two playoff sp
ots. Due to the loss of Rose and off-season departure Nate Robinson, Chicago is going to have to rely even more on Luol Deng to perform on offense. A depleted benchand over-usage of players like Deng, Jimmy Butler, and Joakim Noah will prevent the Bulls from making a playoff appearance.
With the Bulls eliminated, that leaves us with Charlotte, Washington, and Cleveland all competing for two playoff spots. The odd team out will likely be Charlotte, as they lack the offensive focal point that can generate buckets late in games. Kemba Walker, though a budding star, is clearly a notch below John Wall and Kyrie Irving in terms of Point Guard talent.
As the season continues, we can likely expect the overall records of Eastern teams to improve. Despite any possible improvements, there don’t seem to be any other teams in the Eastern Conference capable of beating either the Pacers or Heat in the playoffs.
By Austin Murphy – WonderPunter