In the Eastern Conference, after the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks, there is a giant drop-off in talent. All five of the aforementioned teams are fully built. They’re all led by experienced veterans (Paul George might be an exception, but I think David West sets the rough-and-tumble tone) and their squads are fully ornamented with role players. They are all near their apex as organizations, meaning none will get too much better from here with the same foundational players. They’re all hoping for subtle improvements, by young and experienced players alike, to put them over the edge next season (with Miami hoping to replicate last season’s performance).
In ESPN’s summer projection of the Eastern Conference, they predicted the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers to fill out the bottom three seeds in the East. Collectively, from what I’ve heard, from what I read and from my own personal opinion, there seems to be an agreement that these teams are going to fill out the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
However, the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Detroit Pistons all have shots to sneak into the postseason this April, as the seven teams that comprise the projected No. 6 through No. 12 seeds aren’t too far away from each other in terms of talent. Here are the projected 10-man rotations for all seven teams, along with some analysis:
Analysis: Atlanta’s starting lineup is definitely serviceable, but their bench will be one of the weaker units in the league. Millsap is probably a slight upgrade from the enigmatic Josh Smith and having Lou Williams back will help them put points on the board. Young guys like Scroeder and Jenkins will need to step up to keep this group from looking like last year’s Portland Trail Blazers (the worst bench I’ve seen in years). This team looks like they’re one injury away from being a 30-win squad, but if they stay completely healthy, they could live up to their expectation as the sixth seed.
Analysis: On paper, this is the second best of the bunch. Although the Wizards aren’t built to rise up into the Eastern Conference elite in the next few years, this collection of serviceable players should be enough to get them into the playoffs. They’ve got legitimate size upfront (especially when Nene plays hard) and they’ve got a nice young trio in Wall, Beal and Porter to build around. Their bench is pretty solid, especially if Al Harrington plays the way he did two years ago in Denver, and I expect guys like Webster and Maynor to play big roles if Washington is going to make a playoff push.
Analysis: On paper, this is the best of the bunch, but they are filled with question marks. The biggest of all is Bynum’s health, but their roster indicates that they are prepared for life without Bynum too. Hopefully, Irving can start to emerge as one of the league’s premier players (I want to see him win a little more before I give him that title) and the most underwhelming trio of top-five picks ever—Waiters, Thompson and Bennett— can all contribute and improve throughout the year. This team has been well developed through the draft and free agency and now it’s time for them to start turning the corner. If Irving and Bynum find themselves in street clothes too often, this could be another lost year for the Cavs. If they’re both healthy, this could be one giant coming-out party.
Analysis: Last year, it seemed strange that they drafted Drummond because they already had Monroe. Now, it’s gotten even weirder with Josh Smith coming to town. I don’t think the three will be able to play much together (Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors and Millsap couldn’t), but that isn’t the team’s main concern. It’s hard to see where the Pistons are going after bringing in Jennings and think their upside is mediocrity. Maybe the foundation of the three bigs, Jennings and Caldwell-Pope can improve in time and maybe this year they can come together and bring the best out in each other. On the opposite side of the spectrum, this much talent and no leadership? It could backfire on Joe Dumars … or they could finish seventh and get beat by Indiana in the first round.
Analysis: With new management in town, it’s hard to predict what we’re going to see from the Raptors. Valanciunas started to play better down the stretch last year, but Lowry struggled, while DeRozan’s production pretty much stayed the same. I think there’s a better chance of Gay getting moved and the team focusing on rebuilding around DeRozan, Ross and Valanciunas than the team making the playoffs. Maybe Gay will take the team by the horns and lead them in the right direction, but maybe he just sits back and lets his talent effortlessly score 20 points a game (just like he’s done for most of his career). With all that being said, I love the potential of Terrance Ross, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned into a 15-point-per-game scorer this season.
Analysis: Is Milwaukee any worse than they were last year? They lost Jennings and Monta Ellis, but replaced them with Knight, Ridnour, Neal and Mayo, which makes their guard rotation better in my opinion. Inside, they have a young trio in Sanders, Ilyasova and Henson that has a lot of potential and the group is certainly well rounded. What the Bucks are doing as an organization isn’t exactly clear, but their rotational depth is decent despite not having a go-to star. This could be a decent team if things go right for them, although the crew doesn’t have too high of a ceiling. I expect them to play tough for a good portion of the season, but the playoffs might be a little out of reach.
Analysis: This team can go in a couple different directions. Maybe Rondo is the kind of elite star that he thinks he is and maybe he can lead this crew of mishaps to a decent record on the heels of his passing and play-making abilities. Maybe Brooks puts last year behind him and emerges as a bona fide scorer, while Jeff Green relishes being the second star of this new-look roster. Maybe Olynyk and Sullinger can assert themselves as decent starters and maybe it turns out that Danny Ainge knew what he was doing the whole time. On the other hand, maybe Rondo struggles being the man, starts to argue with teammates, and Green, Olynyk, Brooks and Sullinger all have a hard time distinguishing themselves in starting roles. There’s a lot of variables on this team, but there’s no doubt that they start and end with Rajon Rondo … who probably won’t play in the first month of the season.
How it actually shakes out is anybody’s guess. Cleveland has the most potential of the bunch and Washington has all the pieces to be a solid No. 7 seed (if I were speaking you could note my sarcastic tone). Atlanta has zero depth and Milwaukee has the best slew of role players, but no star. Toronto has the least direction as a franchise despite apparently having a “star” in Rudy Gay, while Detroit is stuck riding a couple of sketchy lefties.
At this point, all bets are off, but given all of the variables, this is how I handicap it:
Cleveland: 75 percent chance (Even without Bynum, they have enough for the eighth seed)
Washington: 65 percent chance (Wall and Beal’s health, maturity will be telltale)
Atlanta: 50 percent chance (Good starting lineup, depth could be an issue)
Detroit: 40 percent chance (A lot of talent, no anchor, low ceiling)
Milwaukee 40 percent chance (Decent, veteran rotation, leadership issues could arise)
Boston: 20 percent chance (If Rondo can score, they have a shot; I’m not sure he can)
Toronto: 10 percent chance (I have no faith in Gay and the team might be blown up soon)