When ranking the NBA Eastern Conference, it is hard not to notice that the teams have already aligned themselves into distinct tiers. After Chicago, Miami, Brooklyn, Indiana and New York, there is a muddled middle of teams where the debate rages about the virtue of being a one-and-done playoff team in the 6, 7 or 8 spot versus tanking for a better draft pick in June.
Of course some of the teams in the muddled middle will be joining the obvious tankers that have already committed to the lottery. After all, this may be the best draft since LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade went in the top five back in 2003. Just don’t expect any of the teams in this tier to admit they aren’t interested in a playoff spot until after it has become obvious that tanking was the plan all along.
As usual, injuries, hidden agendas and plain old fashioned luck will impact the final standings, but it is hard to say it will matter all that much to the teams in the top three that will be playing them in April.
The Muddled Middle
6. Detroit Pistons – 29-53 last season, projected 44-38
Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars had a lot of salary cap space heading into the summer of 2013 and just like in 2009, he has signed a pair of well known and talented free agents in an attempt to revitalize his franchise’s faded fortunes. He is also replacing his head coach with Maurice Cheeks, however, Cheeks is the fifth head coach in seven seasons and coaching changes in Detroit have become almost not-newsworthy.
Dumars landed free agent forward Josh Smith with a four year $54 million offer and completed a sign and trade deal to acquire Brandon Jennings from the Bucks at $24 million over three years. The question is, did he make the Pistons better or did Dumars just add talent that may or may not fit with this roster? Jennings could turn out to be a much more expensive version of Brandon Knight and Cheeks will have his hands full managing minutes between Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Smith.
The Pistons should make the playoffs as they added the most talent of any team competing in this tier. It’s just hard not to believe that everything that could go wrong will go wrong as that has been the Pistons’ story since Dumars started rebuilding on the fly four years ago.
7. Toronto Raptors – 34-48 last season, projected 44-38
Aside from the Atlanta Hawks, the Raptors should be the team deemed most likely to have a .500 record or better in the muddled middle. There is no mystery with this team. The Raptors have brought back the core of last season’s roster that played .500 ball after the Rudy Gay trade and have upgraded the Andrea Bargnani anchor that had been holding them back last year with three-point shooting specialist Steve Novak and the physical play of Tyler Hansbrough.
The Raptors are counting on Gay having a big impact this season, Kyle Lowry to show up healthy and in shape and DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas to take another step in their development. If Head Coach Dwane Casey is allowed to play his main guys big minutes, the Raptors will push a Detroit team firing on all pistons for sixth place in the East. If this is another year where the Raptors choose to develop some of their young fringe players, breaking the .500 barrier could come into question.
8. Atlanta Hawks -44-38 last season, 41-41 projected
The Atlanta Hawks have their payroll under control and they made a value signing with Paul Millsap. However, it is hard to envision this team not being slightly worse than last year without their former leading scorer Josh Smith and their 10 point per game backup point guard Devin Harris.
The Hawks didn’t blow the team up to get better through the draft and this team shouldn’t be expecting big name free agents to be begging to play in Atlanta for less than market value contracts. So the plan isn’t all that clear in Atlanta, but if Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Lou Williams and Millsap stay reasonably healthy, they should be good enough to make the playoffs with a .500 record.
9. Washington Wizards – 29-53 last season, projected 36-46
After a 4-28 start while watching John Wall wait for the stress fracture or whatever his team wanted to call the problem with knee heal, the Wizards went 21-20 before finishing the season on a six game losing streak. Not surprisingly, the Wizards believe they can play .500 ball with this roster for an entire season if Wall stays healthy and maybe they can.
The Wizards inked Wall to a deserved maximum contract extension this summer. They are hoping that Nene van stay healthy, but that might be wishful thinking with his injury history. Bradley Beal was an elite rookie last year and Otto Porter should be an elite rookie this season, so the future is bright enough, but the Wizards will be much better served by playing their young talent more minutes and sacrificing a few wins in the process. This is a case of player development while hoping for the best when it comes to the playoffs is the right way to go.
10. Milwaukee Bucks – 38-44 last season, projected 36-46 projected
The Bucks are a small market team that doesn’t believe they can tank on purpose and hold onto their badly needed ticket revenue. It worked last season as they snuck into a playoff spot when both the Philadelphia 76ers and the Toronto Raptors failed to live up to expectations. Once again, this team is good enough to grab the eighth spot if the teams that are supposed to be better flounder and that situation is not all that hard to imagine.
Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal were great value pickups by the Bucks this summer. It’s possible this team will see little decline in production from their guards for a lot less money. Larry Sanders and John Henson are poised to become the mainstays in the Milwaukee front court for a long time and Caron Butler will give this team a badly needed veteran presence. The Bucks will be competitive every night and this team is deep enough to handle injuries or consider trading a player at almost any position if the right deal came along.
11. Cleveland Cavaliers – 24-58 last season, projected 34-48
The Cavaliers are a true wild card. If Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving can stay/get healthy and play most of this season, then this roster can compete with the Knicks for fifth place and they should succeed. However, those are massive ifs.
Bynum is officially a member of the all “show-me” team. No one should assume Bynum will ever play NBA basketball again until after they see him playing in a regular season game on an NBA court. Even the Cavaliers with salary cap space to waste wouldn’t guarantee Bynum’s deal past January 10. It was a reasonable gamble if you are made of money and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert almost is.
A lot of people want to see Varejao play an entire season. In each of the last two years it looked like Varejao might be the best power forward in the NBA until he got hurt. Varejao’s recent seasons were cut short by a knee injury, a torn leg muscle and a life threatening blood clot. While these shouldn’t be re-occurring injuries, they are very worrisome. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if the Cavaliers cashed-in on a healthy Varejao for young or future assets even if Bynum isn’t ready to play.
Irving’s freshman college season was cut short by a structural foot problem that has been corrected with orthotics, but he missed 15 games as an NBA rookie and 23 games last season and the Cavaliers are simply not the same threat without him. Until a player shows he can handle the rigors of a full NBA season, their durability will remain in question.
The Cavaliers would like to make the playoffs. The Cavaliers would like to challenge for a top four spot in the standings and if everything goes just right, they can, but no one should be upset if things turn out differently. This team’s future is still ahead of them. It is more important to continue the growth and development of Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller, Anthony Bennett and Sergey Karasev. If the playoffs happen, they happen. If not, no one in Cleveland should be losing any sleep over it.
Risks and Obstacles
The teams in the muddled middle can’t assume anything heading into this season and the situation isn’t much different for those of us watching from the outside. A poor start or injury problems could move anyone one of these clubs from playoff hopefuls to joining “tank nation” full force and there will almost certainly be at least one hidden agenda that will not be obvious until after the season starts.
Anyone in the muddled middle could be a playoff team in the East if the breaks go their way, however, the teams that need the least amount of help are Detroit, Toronto and Atlanta, but even these teams have the potential to miss.
Who do you think takes 6, 7 and 8 in the NBA Eastern Conference and makes the playoffs? Which one of the teams in the muddled middle will be first to embrace tanking? Can any of these teams crack the top five in the East? Let us know in the comments below.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report. You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors