• Russell Schmidt

Eastern Conference Playoff Picture

*Photo via Ocanada.com

As we near April the Eastern Conference playoff picture is still very unclear. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors are the only two teams that have already clinched a playoff spot in the conference, and they are near locks to finish as the first and second seed in the East. Cleveland currently holds a 2.5 game lead over the Raptors for the conference’s top seed.

Next we have a four-team battle for the 3-6 seeds between the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, and Charlotte Hornets. While none of these teams have officially clinched a playoff berth, it would be shocking at this point of the year to see one of these teams fall below the 8th seed in the standings. At the moment the 3 and 6 seed are separated by just 1.5 games, meaning it is still a mystery where these teams will finish.

Finally we have another four-team race for the final two spots in the playoffs, and the chance to face either Cleveland or Toronto in the postseason. The Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons have control of the 7 and 8 seeds at the moment, with the Chicago Bulls 2 games back and the Washington Wizards 3 games back. The least threatening of these four teams to Toronto and Cleveland is Detroit. The Pistons have a formidable and young starting five that may become a force to reckon with in future seasons. This season they are simply not ready to test either of the conference’s powerhouses. Benches become less important in the playoffs since most coaches shorten their rotations, but they still play a big factor in the outcome of a series. The Pistons have one of, if not the, weakest bench in the league. Stanley Johnson and Anthony Tolliver have been battling injuries since the All-Star break, and it continues to look less and less likely that Jodie Meeks will return at any point this season. Acquiring Tobias Harris was a good move for Detroit, but it only further depleted their bench for this season since they traded two rotation players for one. In addition, the failed trade for Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton with the Houston Rockets hurt their chances at adding two additional bench players. The Pistons simply don’t have enough firepower to be a serious threat in the playoffs.

*Photo via Getty Images

Speaking of teams dealing with injuries, the Chicago Bulls are also unlikely to put up much of a fight in a series. Rumors are swirling that Jimmy Butler will need offseason surgery on the same knee he recently missed several weeks after injuring. Butler has yet to regain his form since returning to the lineup, and it is unclear if he will fully recover this season. The Bulls will only go as far as their star player takes them, so if Butler is not 100% it is hard to take the Bulls seriously. In addition Joakim Noah is out for the year and many other players like Derrick Rose, Nikola Mirotic, Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson, E’Twaun Moore, and Pau Gasol continue to be in and out of the lineup. Perhaps a healthy Bulls team would be a formidable foe, but this version of the team won’t stand a chance come playoff time.

The Wizards and Pacers on the other hand have the potential to be interesting first round matchups for the Cavs and Raptors. Unfortunately it is unlikely the Wizards will make the playoffs considering they are 3 games back from the 8th seed with just 10 games remaining. The few times that the Wizards have had Bradley Beal healthy since acquiring Markieff Morris at the deadline, Washington has looked like a legitimate threat. Morris gives the Wizards a true stretch-4 that they have not had in the John Wall era, and it allows them to move Nene to the bench where he has flourished. Otto Porter Jr. also provides a major upgrade defensively over last season’s starting small forward Paul Pierce. If I were the Raptors or Cavs I would not want to face a healthy Wizards team in the opening round.

*Photo via AP

I also would not want to play against the Pacers. Paul George has proven that he has fully recovered from his horrific injury and has reclaimed his place as one of the league’s top players. George’s presence alone means the Pacers are never out of a game. With other star wing defenders like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler, and DeMarre Carroll ailing with injuries, George is the conference’s top player for defending LeBron James. No one can truly stop LeBron, but George has the ability to prevent him from completely dominating a series. If the Pacers end up facing the Raptors, Toronto better hope and pray that Carroll is back in the lineup and up to the task of guarding George. If he’s not, I don’t see any other players on Toronto’s roster that can matchup with George. This new look Pacers team may not have the same level of defense or size as the Indiana teams we have become used to, but they offer many new dimensions. Considering Danny Granger was injured the majority of his time in Indiana that overlapped with George, Monta Ellis is by far the top scoring option that George has ever played with. Ellis is the type of player that you can feel confident will have at least one huge game that shifts a series. Pacers rookie big man Myles Turner also shouldn’t be overlooked. Turner’s injury earlier in the season and the fact that there have been so many impressive rookies this season have contributed to his low level of national coverage, but he has already proven that he is one of the steals of this years draft. Turner can defend, rebound, score in the post, and shoot from the outside. He is already Indiana’s best big man and will be a matchup problem for both Kevin Love and Luis Scola.

For these reasons I am hoping the Wizards and Pacers claim the East’s final two playoff spots. As a basketball fan I want to see the most competitive series possible, and the Wizards and Pacers can provide that. The likely NBA champion will come from the West, but the Eastern Conference bracket should be much more exciting. It already seems pretty predictable that the Spurs, Warriors, Thunder, and Clippers will advance to the second round and that the Warriors and Spurs will matchup in an epic Western Conference Final. The winner of that series will almost certainly beat the Eastern Conference champ for the title.

The Eastern Conference, on the other hand, seems much less predictable and up for grabs. The 3-8 seeds are pretty interchangeable and will all have glaring weaknesses. While the Raptors and Cavs are the clear top two teams in the east, they too have major weaknesses and look very vulnerable. They are not even close to the Spurs and Warriors in the West. On paper the Cavs should dominate this conference, but there is something that just doesn’t feel right with this team. They don’t seem to have much chemistry, and it is hard to know how much this has been affected by the midseason coaching change. It’s hard to take the Cavs seriously as threats to San Antonio and Golden State when they lose to the Brooklyn Nets in the final week of March (with a fully healthy team).

*Photo via Raptors Republic

The Raptors are hard to judge without Carroll who should be a major part of the team. In order to make the finals they will need Carroll to contribute. It is never a good recipe for success when a team is trying to reintegrate a vital new member into the rotation this late in the season. Carroll has only played in 23 games in his first season with Toronto. In addition the Raptors are still just 3-8 in the postseason during the Kyle Lowry- DeMar DeRozan era and have yet to advance past the 1st round.

This lack of clarity in the Eastern Conference should make it even more exciting to see what happens. While I expect the Cavs to once again represent the conference, it wouldn’t surprise me if they got knocked out before the finals. The same goes for the Raptors. As interesting as the entire playoffs should be, the real showdown will be the likely Western Conference Finals matchup between the Warriors and Spurs.

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