The Battle For The Eighth Seed – East
There will be a battle for the eighth seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference this season. Dramatic changes to many East rosters have raised expectations for a lot of clubs and, if one is being objective, those changes should have also raised some concerns.
It is assumed that the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers have all laid claim to a playoff spot, with the Toronto Raptors challenging anyone who fails to live up to some fairly high expectations. Assumptions, however, are based on everything going right, but everything rarely goes right for everyone in the NBA. There will be real challengers for that last playoff spot in April.
On Shaky Ground
If Derrick Rose returns early, there are no issues big enough in Chicago to really matter, but no one can honestly tell you if Rose is coming back in January or anytime before next October. Last season, C.J. Watson and John Lucas III did a good job covering for Rose, but they are gone and former Bulls point guard Kirk Hinrich is back after averaging 6.6 points and 2.8 assists in Atlanta last year. This wasn’t exactly an inspiring move.
If Luol Deng’s wrist really did get better on its own and Joakim Noah’s foot doesn’t give him trouble, the Bulls are good enough to return to the postseason without Rose. Otherwise, this team will be battling for the final playoff spot and they might lose that battle.
New York Knicks
If you believe head coach Mike Woodson’s 18-6 run to save the Knicks’ season was real, then there is nothing to worry about other than the obvious age and injury concerns. If that playoff push only came as a result of a late season coaching change and forced chemistry because certain stars were embarrassed, get worried because that move only works once.
A big concern in New York remains Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire’s very real injury risks. The 38-year-old Marcus Camby and the 39-year-old Kurt Thomas should not be expected to replace a starter. The Knicks have the talent and the depth to be good, but their inconsistent play and somewhat brittle roster does not exactly fill one with confidence that everything will go as planned in New York.
How often does a team trade their best player for scraps and still get to compete for a playoff spot? Six-time All-Star Joe Johnson is gone, but the Hawks do have former All-Star Al Horford returning from injury, so this team isn’t toast. However, the Hawks are retooling and only have three players on guaranteed contracts after this season.
If everything goes right, Atlanta is talented enough to easily make the playoffs for the sixth time in a row, but everything could quickly go off the rails if players become more concerned about playing for their next contract or if the team continues the retooling process during the season.
Of the eight players that averaged over 20 minutes per game last season, four are gone including the team’s top three-point threat, Jodie Meeks, leader in blocks, Elton Brand, leading scorer, Lou Williams and only All-Star, Andre Iguodala. Head coach Doug Collins gets most of the credit for Philadelphia exceeding expectations, but it was leading playmaker and defender Iguodala who got things done on the court. The success of the past two seasons cannot simply be projected onto this year.
Excitement in Philadelphia centers on the acquisition of Andrew Bynum. The 76ers recognized their team had gone as far as it could and has bet the farm on the often injured, sometimes erratic, but highly talented young center. Bynum had a breakout year in Los Angeles last season and if he becomes a leader in Philadelphia, this could be the move that lets the 76ers take the next step, but it should not come as a surprise if these dramatic roster changes don’t produce results overnight and the 76ers have to battle for that eighth and final playoff spot in April.
Head coach Dwane Casey turned the Raptors from defensive joke to defensive threat in just one injury-filled, lockout-shortened season and during the summer, the team honored his request for shooters by drafting, signing and trading for help. The Raptors are poised for a dramatic rise from last season’s 23-43 record.
Toronto added two top-10 draft picks to the roster in Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, but it was the acquisition of point guard Kyle Lowry from the Rockets that has generated the most excitement. Casey calls Lowry his alpha-dog and the point guard is expected to provide the aggressiveness and leadership that has been missing in Toronto for some time. The Raptors are also counting on their leading scorer, Andrea Bargnani, to have a healthy season and DeMar DeRozan to take another step in his development. There seems to be few chemistry issues in Toronto with eight rotation players returning, but there will be stiff competition for minutes with the newcomers. If everything goes right in Toronto, they won’t just be battling for eighth; the Raptors will take the East’s final playoff spot.
This year’s Bucks look a lot like last year’s and this team only missed the playoffs because of a surprisingly bad 3-7 finish to the season. Expect the Bucks to be in the playoff hunt again this April.
Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis will continue to lead the Bucks in scoring and quite possibly the addition of Samuel Dalembert will erase some their defensive lapses this season. Rookies John Henson and Doron Lamb should contribute right away and re-signing free agent Ersan Ilyasova was a solid move. It might be easy to overlook Milwaukee, but that would be a mistake. The Bucks are more than good enough to take advantage of any opportunities that might present themselves over the course of the season.
Don’t confuse this team with the dysfunctional group that has spent the last four seasons in the lottery, the Wizards have cleaned house. Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza give John Wall and the Wizards’ impressive collection of young talent some sorely missing veteran leadership.
To battle for eighth, the Wizards need Wall to become the All-Star level point guard envisioned when he was drafted and suggested by his first two seasons’ averages of 16.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.7 blocks. They will also need major contributions from some of their other young players. This is more likely to be a developmental season for the Wizards, but if everything clicks, Washington could surprise.
Who Wins The Battle For Eighth?
Predicting playoff seeding in September is something of a mug’s game as many of the deciding factors are not in anyone’s control, but the challenges teams could be facing are often evident long before the season gets underway.
The Bulls, Knicks, Hawks and Sixers have issues to overcome if they are to avoid battling for eighth and several of last year’s lottery teams are ready to pounce on any sign of weakness.
Which teams do you think will be battling for eighth in the East this April? Give us your predictions for this year’s playoff teams and near misses.