Last season we saw an aging and aching Boston squad hobble into the post-season as a 41-win seventh seed while the oddball mix of young talent in Milwaukee did just enough things right to default into the eight spot. With both of these franchises taking a clear step back this summer, which 2013 Lotto teams will rise up to take their place in the Eastern Conference Playoffs?
SEEDS 1-4 | The Locks – Heat, Pacers, Bulls, Nets
Miami are the champs and didn’t get appreciably worse. Indy pushed the Heat to seven games and that was before massively upgrading their bench. Chicago gets their former MVP back. Brooklyn added two Hall of Famers to a roster that already looked like the Casual Fan All-Star team. Chisel these four into your 2014 Eastern Conference bracket.
SEEDS 5-6 | One Catastrophe Away – Knicks, Hawks
If Carmelo Anthony or Tyson Chandler miss any major amount of time, the Knicks are toast. Same goes for Atlanta if either Al Horford or Jeff Teague go down. Barring disaster however, both of these rosters are strong enough to secure a playoff spot in the East.
SEEDS 7-8 | The Best of the Rest – Pistons, Wiz
The last two Eastern Conference Playoff Spots are theirs to lose: Detroit just dropped all that Corey Maggette cap money on Josh Smith, then upgraded Brandons (Knight to Jennings) – they seem hell-bent on forcing that Top 8 protected pick they owe Charlotte out of the Lottery. The Wizards were 24-25 when John Wall played last year and are banking on their max-man to finally stay healthy (though he’s never played more than 69 games in a season).
THE ALTERNATES | If Everything Goes Right – Cavs, Raptors, Bobcats
I’m assuming the Celtics are all in on The Wiggins Lottery and that Milwaukee’s ever increasing oddball roster won’t have enough offensive firepower to stay in close games (although the young defenders along the frontline are very intriguing). That leaves us with…
Toronto. Rudy Gay and Demar Derozan are talented, high-usage scorers but will need to establish a pecking order and get others involved. Summer League MVP Jonas Valanciunas could be a beast in the middle and last year’s Lotto Pick Terrence Ross could morph into Klay Thompson East. The Raps notched 34 victories last season despite having to incorporate Gay on the fly. They’re the most likely candidate to jump into the eight seed should one of the above franchises stumble.
Cleveland wants to put the post-Lebron Lottery days behind them but the Cavs only won three more games than the Bobcats last season – astounding when you factor in Charlotte’s paper-thin front court and coaching problems – and the jump from 24 to 40 wins is rarely made without adding a superstar. If the ramshackle center duo of Anderson Varajao and Andrew Bynum can’t synchronize their annual injured reserve stints, Cleveland will struggle to reach the post-season
Finally, we have our beloved Proto-Hornets in Charlotte. Coming off a tremendous offseason that saw the team massively upgrade their coaching staff and front-court, Kemba & The Gang will likely surprise many by actually competing on a nightly basis. The addition of Al Jefferson will aid in Walker’s transition from dynamic scorer to dynamic point guard. Jefferson and Cody Zeller’s inside/out abilities will free up driving lanes for the still 19-year old Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Both the coaches and reserves on the Bobcat bench are the strongest in franchise history. These are all signs for optimism should everything come together.
Unfortunately, the interior defense is a major question mark and the Cats’ two strongest defenders (MKG, Bismack Biyombo) are liabilities on the other side of the ball. Also, the bulk of the team’s core is still incredibly young and inexperienced.
Given the talent parity in the East’s muddy middle, it’s unlikely Charlotte will make the post-season jump this season – but that’s probably not the team’s plan anyway. A successful 30-34 win campaign combined with at least two (potentially three) 2014 first round picks, $10-$12 million in cap space and another year of growth under a legit coaching staff should be more than enough fuel to launch the ’14-’15 Charlotte Hornets into the Playoffs and keep them there for a while. UNLESS…
A ‘James Harden Scenario’ Appears
If Charlotte shocks everyone by playing .500 or so ball by the All-Star break and a disgruntled All-Star becomes available (Lamarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, ???), the Cats have enough in the war chest to out-bid anyone. Large expiring contract? Check. Enticing 2014 First Round Picks? Check. Young prospects on cheap rookie deals with some upside? Check. In this kind of James Harden scenario, Charlotte could certainly separate themselves from the middle of the pack ahead of schedule and find themselves playing meaningful games next April.