By: Zachariah Blott
Like the West, the East has four clubs who have cemented themselves into the playoffs: Cleveland, Orlando, Boston, and Atlanta. The conference also has a ton of teams waiting to play the lottery, so only five squads have a legitimate chance at the final four spots: let’s take a look at that quintet of hopefuls.
5 – Toronto Raptors (31-24, 4.5 games ahead of 9th spot)
The Raptors are in the driver’s seat to make it, but there are a few problems facing them. For starters, they have eight back-to-backs remaining, and their record is much better than their Pythagorean W-L record of 27-28, which indicates they’ve caught a lot of breaks up to this point. On the flip side, Toronto has been on a tear recently, winning 10 of their last 12, and they have a comparatively easy April schedule to close out the season.
Verdict: In – If they can continue to play so-so defense, their better-than-so-so offense will carry them through.
6 – Chicago Bulls (29-26, 2.5 games ahead of 9th spot)
The Bulls also have plenty of statistical hurdles, namely a tough stretch to end the season (6 of final 7 opponents are playoff-bound/hopeful) and a 25-30 Pythagorean record, which could spell a slide. It might be sooner than later considering they have a difficult group of games coming up shortly, and they play eight more contests against teams over .600. Thankfully for them, 15 of their final 27 games are in Chicago. Additionally, Hakim Warrick is already a fan favorite compared to the always-unpredictable Tyrus Thomas.
Verdict: In – Rose and Hinrich are together working out nicely in the backcourt, so they should be able to weather their upcoming schedule. (More on Rose and Hinrich later this week.)
7 – Miami Heat (29-28, 1.5 games ahead of 9th spot)
Miami’s remaining schedule is an absolute cakewalk compared to everyone else’s. They have 15 more home games versus 10 on the road. They have just five more back-to-backs and play against only four more teams over .600, both lows for this group. Their final eight games are a joke (Nets, 76ers twice, Pistons twice, Knicks, T-Wolves, Pacers), and they’ve apparently underperformed up to this point, posting a Pythagorean W-L of 31-26. Dwyane Wade’s injury doesn’t look too bad, so hopefully there’s nothing to worry about on that all-important front.
Verdict: In – The Heat have the best chance to move up a spot or two.
8 – Charlotte Bobcats (27-27, 1 game ahead of 9th spot)
The final spot comes down to two defensive teams with no-nonsense coaches. Charlotte just picked up a pair of inside helpers on D (Theo Ratliff, Tyrus Thomas), but Thomas’ attitude could prove troublesome down the stretch. We’ll see. Thankfully they have a nice little run of scrub opponents in late-March, but also have eight more back-to-backs to contend with.
Verdict: In – Larry Brown and Stephen Jackson will lead them through the final two months. Yes, this is a coach-star duo that can get you there in the weak East.
9 – Milwaukee Bucks (26-28, 1 game behind 8th spot)
They’re right there, but there may be too much trouble down the road. Milwaukee has to face 10 more squads whose records are over .600, and they play in another eight back-to-backs. They might get ahead of Charlotte in early-March, but 7 of their final 9 games are against playoff teams/hopefuls. Brandon Jennings’ shooting has only gotten colder (32% FG since New Year’s), so he has to be a true floor general for the Bucks to make it through.
Verdict: Out – Bogut is a legit talent but not a fiery leader, and a rookie PG with inconsistent performances all around can’t be the lead ship.
Zachariah Blott cannot recommend Rick Telander’s “Heaven Is A Playground” enough.