ATLANTA — Now that last week’s NBA trade deadline has passed, a more concrete view of the playoff picture is taking shape in the Eastern Conference.
At the top of the food chain in the East, of course, remain Indiana and Miami.
The Pacers took another step at equipping themselves for a Finals run by swapping veteran Danny Granger, who had struggled in his sixth-man role, to Philadelphia in exchange for swingman Evan Turner and reserve big man Lavoy Allen. Allen, along with the acquisition of center Andrew Bynum, provides Indiana with even more size and depth on the interior, but picking up the Chicago native Turner was the move that truly raised eyebrows around the league. The versatile former No. 2 overall draft pick was the 76ers’ leading scorer, but in his new role, Turner should flourish as the primary option in the Pacers’ second unit alongside the likes of point guard C.J. Watson and power forward Luis Scola, while giving Frank Vogel several lineup options to choose from, coupled with similarly multi-faceted starting wings Lance Stephenson and All-Star Paul George.
The Heat stayed quiet at the deadline, but many observers believe they’re poised to strike as a litany of established veterans, such as the aforementioned Granger — it’s unlikely he ever suits up for the Sixers, with the Thunder also looming as one of his main suitors, according to a league source — reportedly on the verge of being of bought out and becoming free agents in time to meet the league’s March 1 date to be eligible for a playoff roster. The experience, chemistry and sheer talent of Miami’s All-Star trio of the underappreciated Chris Bosh, aging Dwyane Wade and obviously LeBron James can never be discounted, and while the Heat’s supporting cast isn’t an overwhelming group, it will be interesting to see whether offseason pick-ups Michael Beasley and Greg Oden can emerge as even spot contributors by the playoffs.
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Beyond those two powers, the East is a middling bunch, as has been noted all season. But the Bulls and Raptors, after trading leading scorers and small forwards Luol Deng and Rudy Gay, respectively, have each found a rhythm and appear capable of maintaining their bids to host a first-round series.
The Bulls’ prospects are dissected frequently in this space (Thibs, Noah, Gibson, defense, injuries, etc.) so moving on to Toronto would be prudent, especially as it doesn’t particularly matter which of the two teams lands in either third or fourth, since the aforementioned Heat and Pacers present monumental, if different, challenges in a second-round matchup.
The Raptors, a team many predicted would employ a tanking strategy after the Gay trade — point guard Kyle Lowry, an All-Star snub, was on the block from that moment forward, but ultimately, Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri saw fit to keep the feisty floor general in Canada—but the squad’s unforeseen improvement turned the tide. The perimeter trio of Lowry, All-Star swingman DeMar DeRozan and emerging second-year wing Terrence Ross has proved to be potent offensively, and is well complemented by the interior tandem of second-year center Jonas Valanciunas and underrated power forward Amir Johnson, while playmaking point guard Greivis Vasquez, stretch-four Patrick Patterson and veteran swingman John Salmons — all acquired from Sacramento in the Gay trade—have galvanized the Raptors’ bench.
Washington would ordinarily be held in the same esteem as the Bulls and Raptors, but Nene’s sprained MCL — since the brittle big man will effectively be out through the end of the regular season, as usual, it looks like the Wizards could be doomed by the injury bug — levels its ceiling a bit. Still, the explosive young backcourt of All-Star John Wall and sharpshooter Bradley Beal, along with bruising center Marcin Gortat, ensure that the Wizards will finally end their playoff drought, and the trade-deadline move with Denver for formerly disgruntled veteran point guard Andre Miller certainly doesn’t dim their prospects.
After their horrific start to the season, few would have expected to see the Nets right the ship and firmly establish themselves as postseason-bound. But first-year head coach Jason Kidd persevered and despite a season-ending injury to the team’s top player, center Brook Lopez, veteran-laden Brooklyn has gone about things unconventionally — Peoria, Ill., native Shaun Livingston has been arguably the club’s most valuable player, if not its most high-profile — and bounced back to ensure that its massive luxury-tax bill won’t be in vain.
Another surprise has been Charlotte, which goes to show how important a culture-changing coach — rookie Steve Clifford, who has smartly prioritized defense on a roster lacking a lot of scoring punch — can be. The Bobcats’ offensive anchor, big man Al Jefferson, might be the most unheralded star in the league, and while they won’t wow anybody, the Michael Jordan-owned franchise’s style of play should be sustainable enough down the stretch of the regular season to earn its second playoff berth ever.
Currently going in the wrong direction is Atlanta, as it seems first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer’s outside-shooting attack isn’t enough to overcome the Hawks’ general lack of talent. One of the league’s feel-good stories in the first half of the season, as good as All-Star Paul Millsap, record-setting three-point specialist Kyle Korver and floor general Jeff Teague have been in general, the absence of sidelined big man Al Horford is finally catching up to them, as evidenced by their defensive, interior scoring and rebounding woes.
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Assuming the Hawks’ swoon continues — or for that matter, the Nets or Bobcats hit a rough patch—on the outside looking in right now are two teams that were penciled in to make the playoffs based off their maneuvers last summer, Detroit and Cleveland. Things haven’t panned out as hoped for either, especially in terms of chemistry, leading to in-season firings: Chris Grant, the Cavaliers’ former general manager, and Chicagoan Maurice Cheeks, ousted as Pistons head coach in his first season on the job.
The Cavs have been aggressively trying to improve via trade, evidenced by last month’s aforementioned trade for Deng, and at the deadline, acquiring skilled center Spencer Hawes from Philadelphia. But whether or not Cleveland, particularly its young backcourt of All-Star Game MVP Kyrie Irving and second-year sixth man Dion Waiters, can gain some positive momentum in time to make a playoff push remains to be seen.
Detroit opted to stand pat, perhaps in the hopes that it’s talented frontcourt of powerful second-year Andre Drummond, underappreciated power forward Greg Monroe and fellow southpaw Josh Smith, along with point guard Brandon Jennings, can realize its potential. Like their Central Division rival Cavaliers, the playoffs aren’t that much of a reach for the Pistons if they can get on a roll.
Although they aren’t much further outside the postseason picture than the two previously mentioned teams, the Knicks’ miserable season makes their chances seem like much more of a longshot. It’s been a comedy of errors for New York the entire campaign, with lame-duck coach Mike Woodson somehow clinging to his job and more focus on whether superstar Carmelo Anthony will leave via free agency than the fact that the team, equipped with much of the same personnel, has fallen so far from a year ago, when it won the Atlantic Division and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.