Welcome to the second half of the NBA Playoffs preview! After looking at the West, it’s time to delve into the East, and examine which teams are contenders, and which are merely pretenders.
1. Atlanta Hawks – 51-14
What I like to call the “East Coast Warriors”, this team is on a roll, and just won’t stop. What I like about them as a serious contender is their tremendous depth; they have many players that are able to score in double digits when needed, and that’s a major need come playoff time, when defenses lock-in, and you’ve got to have different people step up every night. They have an underrated front court that can bang with the best of them, and with Kyle Korver on the perimeter, teams are forced to stick on him, leaving room on the interior for the rest of the team to work.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers – 42-25
After an early-season scare in terms of chemistry and win/loss record, the Cavaliers are now firmly where they were predicted to be in the pre-season. LeBron James isn’t slowing down for anyone, Kyrie Irving and JR Smith give solid outside shooting, and Kevin Love can float from the post to the three-point line, depending on what is needed in each match-up. They will give any team a run for their money, and a Hawks/Cavs battle for the Eastern Conference Finals seems like it would be a marquee match-up.
3. Toronto Raptors – 39-26
To me, this team is what the Hawks look like with not as good of coaching. This is a team full of talented players, but no true ‘star’, which could be their unraveling when the playoffs start. They haven’t had consistent offensive production from anyone other then Kyle Lowry lately, and while DeMar DeRosen and Terrence Ross can certainly put up numbers, it’s a question if they can maintain playing at a high level throughout the playoffs. Jonas Valanciunas has talent, but is still learning, and they lack a quality backup center, so end up being outsized when they play Amir Johnson at the center position, which is their biggest weakness in a seven-game series.
4. Chicago Bulls – 40-27
If the Hawks are the East Coast Warriors, then the Bulls are the East Coast Spurs. While they may not have recent rings like the Spurs, coach Tom Thibadou has a knack for winning despite injuries that other coaches would use as an excuse or crutch for not preforming to expectations. Joakim Noah is been recovering throughout the year, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson have been in and out of the lineup, and of course Derrick Rose return is still unclear. What is clear is that they still are able to pull out victories, and are still a team that no one wants to have to face in the playoffs.
5. Washington Wizards – 38-28
This will be an interesting playoff year for the Wizards. While they don’t feel like a contender for the Finals, they do seem like a team that could pull off an upset in the first round. Paul Pierce will be fighting tooth-and-nail for every victory, in part due to his competitiveness, but also in part to validate his decision to sign with a team that many, including me, would say is still about two years from serious contention. They got into the second-round last year, and this year will continue to be a building block for their young core to really get their fire going next year for a breakout year.
6. Milwaukee Bucks – 34-32
If there is any team that needs playoff experience more then the Bucks, please, let me know. They have an extremely talented group of players, and a surprise run to the second-round would do wonders for their recruiting efforts in the free agent market this off-season. Their young players already trust and rely on coach Jason Kidd for his experience and leadership; helping them win a playoff series in his first year with them will cement that for the rest of his time there. They will consider it a solid season if they even take their first-round opponent to a full seven games; if they actually win a series, it’s going to be a full team of youngsters ready to commit to Kidd, expecting that they can actually win in all in a couple years.
7. Indiana Pacers – 30-35
After Paul George broke his leg this last summer, many people were acting as-if the Pacers made a huge mistake letting Lance Stephenson go. Let’s be honest; do you really think the Pacers would have a better record right now if they kept Stephenson, instead of getting CJ Miles and Rodney Stuckey? Even if PG-13 comes back for the post-season, it’s unlikely that he’d contribute much in the way of winning; even his teammates think he’s nowhere near 100%. If they make it out of the first-round, it will be an embarrassment to whatever top-seeded team they topple.
We have three teams that could all be in play for facing the juggernaut that is the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs, so let’s take a look at all three of them.
8. Charlotte Hornets – 29-35
The Hornets are the team most desperate to get into the playoffs by any means, in an effort to show some type of progress. This is a team that hasn’t had back-to-back playoff appearances in 13 years, so even if they get swept like they did last year to the Heat, it will be prove to the fans and themselves that they have finally evolved to a playoff team. If they do make it, expect to see Lance Stephenson try too hard, and become humbled in the process, making him a more measured and effective player for the future.
9. Miami Heat – 29-36
The Heat would be the other team that wants the eighth spot badly, although they can now hide behind the fact that All-Star Chris Bosh is out for the season with blood clots on his lungs. They already traded this years first-round pick away when they signed LeBron James in 2010, so they have no incentive to not get into the playoffs. Technically the pick has top-10 protection, so if they did hit the lottery and they lucked upon the #1 pick they would keep it, but the chances are slim to say the least, and as a franchise would be much better off with additional revenue from the playoff appearance. Also, there is pride on the line; it’s hard to go from four Finals appearances in a row all the way to the lottery(and not just any lottery, but in the East), so as an organization, there is pressure to show the fans that they haven’t fallen so far, so fast.
There is also the little matter of Goran Dragic; there is a real chance he could depart this summer if he feels like this team isn’t equipped to get things done in a conference that is getting more competitive by the day. He just experienced what it’s like to barely miss the playoffs last year; I’m sure he didn’t ask to be traded just so he could have it happen again.
10. Boston Celtics – 29-36
The Celtics have put together a compelling team, but are still a teams that is firmly in rebuild mode, so if things get close during the end of the year, it’s probable that they will intentionally lose a few games, willing trade a blowout to the Hawks for another trip to the lottery. That being said, if they did make the playoffs, it would be great for a franchise that is so iconic in basketball, and would cause people to look at the 76ers and wonder why they can’t rebuild while still being at least competitive, and show the fans they their time, effort, and money is respected enough to at least try to win.
Well that wraps it up for our NBA Playoffs Preview! This is one of the most exciting playoffs in recent memory, with the top teams in each conference both having much to prove to show that they are more then merely a regular season team. We have a team in each conference wondering how they are going to perform when their superstar comes back for the post-season, with Durant for the Thunder, and Rose for the Bulls. And of course there is still LeBron and the Spurs both itching to have a Finals reunion of the ages. What a wonderful time to be a basketball fan!