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The Best of the Least
With just a little more than a month left in the NBA season, all eyes turn to who will be playing on into the NBA playoffs. But while most would like to focus on the Western Conference and their murderer's row of excellent teams, the real intrigue for me lies East. Yes, the Eastern Conference remains a bottomless pit of mediocrity, but you cannot deny the pit is entertaining, especially in regards to the playoff race. As of now, the last three seeds in the East remain wide open, and five teams find themselves within three games of each other for the eighth and final spot. Who says mediocrity can't produce competition?
So who will get in, and who will be left out? Let's make the case for and against the teams in the East six through eleven, and see who has the best shot of playing beyond April 15th.
Current Seed: 6th
Advantage: Simply put, the best advantage the Bucks have right now is the past three months, where the team defied all expectations to become the most surprising playoff team in the league. That success from November through January is likely enough, barring a mega collapse, to give Jason Kidd's squad comfortably get into the playoffs.
Cause for Concern: Remember what I said about a mega collapse? The Bucks may be on the verge of that. Since they shipped off Brandon Knight for Michael Carter Williams at the trade deadline, the Bucks have been in free fall, going 3-7 in their last ten and watching their record dip to only three games above .500. It may just be a case of a young team coming back to earth, but for me it's quite clear that Carter Williams hasn't had quite connected with his teammates as expected. Make no mistake, the Bucks are in trouble, the question is whether it's enough to knock them out of the playoffs or merely to a lower seed.
Current Seed: 7th
Reasons to Believe: The Pacers have been the complete opposite of the Bucks recently, which is to say they're hotter than Kevin Costner circa 1990. They've won 14 of their last 16 games, look to be playing their best basketball at the right time, and oh yeah, may be getting their best player Paul George back sometime in the next month. If George returns to his old form, the combination of him, a roster largely similar to the one that made the Eastern Conference finals two straight years and the Pacers current hot streak should not only get them in, but it should make them the team none of the higher seeds want to see in the first round.
Cause for Concern: The Pacers offense is, to put it kindly, horrifying. No player on the Pacers averages more than 13 points per game, and of any playoff contender, only the Hornets and Heat have scored less per game. It's more likely the offense would be a concern come playoff time, but a couple bad games and it could spell doom for the Pacers. If nothing else, the struggling offense is all the more reason for the Pacers to wish George back sooner than later, and hope he's still the same player he was prior to his unfortunate injury.
Current Seed: 8th
Reasons to Believe: If you look at Charlotte's stats this year, you'd think this team is lucky to be in the race at all. In truth, they've underachieved massively. Al Jefferson is still the best offensive center in the NBA despite a down year, Mo Williams and Kemba Walker (who has missed over a month with injury mind you) are as formidable a point guard tandem as you can find, and though he's been a major disappointment, Lance Stephenson is a talented player with playoff experience (don't underestimate that). This team can play, and they're better play recently points to them making the playoffs for the second straight year, a first for this newest incarnation of the Hornets.
Cause for Concern: Even at their best, the Hornets aren't a great offensive team outside of Jefferson and Williams, especially with Walker out and Stephenson doing everything in his power to nuke his reputation. And unlike the Pacers with a healthy George, there isn't any player on Charlotte who can take over a game at will. That can work if you're a ball movement juggernaut like the Atlanta Hawks, but for a slow moving, defensive team like Charlotte, it's a dangerous game to play. That, and the combination of potential chemistry problems (looking at you again Lance) should have Hornets fans very afraid.
Current Seed: 9th
Reasons to Believe: Despite the loss of Chris Bosh due to blood clots in his lungs, the Heat are easily the most talented team of the bottom feeders when semi healthy. Even at age 33, Dwayne Wade is still a superstar when on the court. Goran Dragic is the most unappreciated point guard in the NBA, and he brings some added speed to a team that has played at the slowest pace in the NBA this year. Hassan Whiteside, maturity issues aside, has been a revelation. And of course, the coaching/front office is in great shape with Pat Riley running the team and the underrated Eric Spoelstra coaching from the sidelines. If those three players are on the court consistently, this is easily a playoff team, hands down.
Cause for Concern: Remember when I said how good the Heat were when semi healthy? Yeah, they aren't semi healthy. Wade has missed significant time with nagging injuries, and likely will have to miss more time going forward. Dragic has sat out a few games in a row with back issues (never a good sign). The always overlooked Luol Deng has missed time for various ailments, and has had injury problems the past few years. And though he hasn't been injured, Whiteside's on court behavior has resulted in a recent suspension, keeping him off the court as well. Unless the team is able to play together full time for several weeks (not just several games), it's hard to imagine the Heat making the playoffs with a Michael Beasely led bench.
Current Seed: 10th
Reasons to Believe: The Celtics are the definition of over achievement. They aren't devoid of talent, but aside from Isaiah Thomas, there isn't exactly any game changing players for the famous franchise. Never the less, Brad Stevens is an exceptional coach who has helped make Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller into competent big men (offensively), Jae Crowder into a solid three and D guy, and Evan Turner into a competent basketball player again. This is among other things mind you. If nothing else, the weak East, the acquisition of Thomas (a dynamite scorer off the bench) and Steven's brilliance give Boston a great shot to move their rebuilding schedule up a year.
Cause for Concern: Of all these teams, Boston is the one that really feels like they are a player and a year away from prime time. That's pretty much the only reason, but it's enough of one to easily keep them out of the playoffs.
Current Seed: 11th
Reasons to Believe: Talent, with a capital T. When you're able to roll out a rotation that includes former All Stars like Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez and good role players in Jarrett Jack, Mason Plumlee and Thadeous Young, you should be in the conversation for a playoff spot. Throw in former Coach of the Year Lionel Hollins, and this team has all the tools to make it on paper.
Cause for Concern: For all the talent the Nets has on and off the bench, they're basically considered a playoff team by reputation alone. There's something missing here, and I'm not talking about three point shooting (although that is accurate as well). I don't know whether guys like Lopez, Williams and Johnson have declined over the past few years, if they just haven't gelled together or if it's a combination (I'd go with the latter), but something with the Nets appears to be holding them back. My guess is it'll do so again this year.
6th seed: Indiana Pacers. Yes, I have the Bucks falling off and Indiana climbing up to take their spot. The team is hot, they're well coached, they've been here before, and Paul George's return, barring a setback, should put them over the top.Theymay not be done there, as the Pacers with George are talented enough to get out of the first round, especially if they go against a depleted Bulls team.
7th seed: Milwaukee Bucks. They've built up enough of a cushion that Jason Kidd and co will be able to hold on for a playoff spot. Sadly, they won't be much of a threat this year, all though I still believe a team of Carter Williams, Parker and the Greek Freak is more dangerous in the long run than one with Brandon Knight in MCW's place.
8th seed: Boston Celtics. I'm going out on a limb here. I still don't think they're quite ready, but they are well coached, the addition of Thomas gives them a punch they didn't have, and the flaws of Charlotte and Miami's health issues are enough to put the Celtics in the final spot.