We’re not yet halfway through the regular season, but to look at the standings in the NBA Eastern Conference playoff race, one might conclude it’s already over. Oh, there are battles for seedings to fight over and in the homecourt-friendly NBA that can never be overlooked. But when it comes to the eight teams that qualify for the postseason, there’s a sharp line drawn between the haves and have-nots. Milwaukee is 19-18 and the only teams in shouting distance are Philadelphia, Detroit, Toronto and Orlando. Let’s run through those latter four teams and see if any of them can make the race for the final spot(s) interesting over the next couple months.
Philadelphia (16-23): The conversation has to start here, and not just because the 76ers are in ninth place right now. The reports are that Andrew Bynum will be back by the All-Star break and if he’s healthy it immediately transforms the Sixers. Right now this is a team that can’t rebound and plays mediocre defense.
Jrue Holiday has to carry the offense scoring-wise, while distributing the ball. He’s doing a great job, at 19 points/8 assists per night, but how healthy of an approach is that for an offense? Lavoy Allen has been woefully overpowered underneath and Spencer Hawes’ six rebounds per game are inadequate given his seven-foot frame. This is a team with a nice wing scorer in Evan Turner, but because they lack three-point shooting, Philly needs to be tough underneath. Right now, they’re anything but, so the only hope is for Bynum to be healthy.
Detroit (14-24): I like the Pistons the most of any chasing team right now—well, at least as much as you can like any team that’s lost 24 of 38 basketball games. But Detroit’s got a good backcourt in Tayshaun Prince and Brandon Knight, and can bring Rodney Stuckey off the bench. The Pistons get excellent work in the post from Greg Monroe.
The issue is a complete lack of production at the forward positions, although given we’re only talking about trying to get to eighth in the conference, that’s not an unmanageable problem. Detroit’s got home games with New York and Boston, and a difficult road sequence follows soon after. If they survive and get to the All-Star break with a shot, I can see Detroit making a run.
Toronto (14-24): The backcourt matches up with Detroit, with Jose Calderon, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. The Raptors get ball distribution and three-point shooting from Calderon, raw point production from DeRozan and consistent scoring and passing from Lowry. Unlike Detroit, they have nothing down low and the Raptors don’t even pretend to play defense, ranking 25th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. This was a team I thought had a dark-horse chance at the playoffs when the season began. I can’t see it the way they’re playing right now.
Orlando (13-24): Wouldn’t it be something if Orlando scraped its way into the playoffs and the Los Angeles Lakers missed, after the way the whole Dwight Howard saga played out. The Magic are still an above-average rebounding team, even without Howard. They’re getting good boardwork from Glen Davis and Nikola Vucevic, and all three guards—Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo and J.J. Redick are pretty good scorers. With a three-game home swing of Indiana, Charlotte and Dallas starting tonight, Orlando has a chance to make up some ground.
We didn’t focus on Milwaukee in this article, though the Bucks are the team in the top eight most likely to be displaced. I’d bet on Detroit getting back in the discussion and give Orlando a puncher’s chance. With Philadelphia, it’s all about Bynum. If he gets healthy, the Sixers are going to make it and if they avoid Miami in the first round, could be trouble for a favorite.