Power Ranking the Eastern Conference After Rajon Rondo's Torn ACL

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 27, 2013

Power Ranking the Eastern Conference After Rajon Rondo's Torn ACL

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    Rajon Rondo is out for the season and everything has changed—and not just for the Boston Celtics.

    Per Doris Burke of ESPN (via Mike Petraglia of WEEI.com), Rondo will miss the remainder of the 2012-13 NBA season with a torn ACL:

    Rondo has a torn ACL.. per Doris Burke on ESPN

    — Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 27, 2013

    The news is not only heartbreaking for a 26-year-old Rondo, but also for a Celtics team that was barely hanging on as it is.

    At present, Boston is clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Without Rondo, the league's leading assist man (11.1 a game), one has to wonder if the Celtics will have what it takes to avoid the lottery.

    For a Boston team that was supposed to contend for titles and rival the Miami Heat and New York Knicks, Rondo's absence comes as a potentially crippling blow.

    Even with Rondo, the Celtics haven't been able to get back to the Finals since 2009-10.  Now that they've lost their floor general, have they lost their championship aspirations as well? 

    How does his injury impact Boston's standing in the Eastern Conference? And how much does his absence shake up the overall power structure?

    We're more than halfway through the NBA season, but in light of Rondo's injury, there's still plenty left to figure out.

    *All stats used in this article were accurate as of the beginning of the day Jan. 28 and were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.

15. Charlotte Bobcats

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    Record: 11-32

    Last 10: 2-8

    Plenty of teams are going to benefit from Rajon Rondo's extended absence, but the Charlotte Bobcats aren't one of them.

    Since beginning the season 7-5, the Bobcats have since gone 4-27. They're in the bottom 10 of the league in points scored, points allowed (29th), rebounds and assists per game (30th), and their roster is stacked with wildly unproven talent.

    Kemba Walker remains a bright spot, but the immediate outlook in Charlotte is anything but.

    Simply put, it's going to take a lot more than Rondo's injury to improve the stature of this team.

14. Orlando Magic

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    Record: 14-29

    Last 10: 2-8 (Lost 5 straight)

    It's not that I'm not impressed with what the Orlando Magic have done thus far because, to an extent, I am.

    Nikola Vucevic has emerged as a premier big man, and the Magic have a strong convocation of role players in Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo and J.J. Redick among others.

    And yet, that's just the problem in Orlando—all they have are role players.

    Though the team began toiling with .500-caliber basketball early on, their lack of star power and proven depth implies this assembly is even weaker than its record suggests. 

    As the season winds down, don't expect the Magic to go anywhere but down. Like, blow-the-roster-up-with-J.J.-Redick's-departure down.

13. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Record: 13-32

    Last 10: 5-5

    Kyrie Irving is cold-blooded, and he's the Cleveland Cavaliers' path back to prominence. Just not right now.

    Cleveland has a young superstar and All-Star in Irving. His ability to torch opposing defenses and hit game-winning shots is beyond a valuable commodity that will allow the Cavaliers to tally off a number of impressive victories down the stretch.

    Outside of a few exciting highlights and potential upsets, though, there isn't much to be found in Cleveland. 

    Not this season.

12. Toronto Raptors

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    Record: 16-28

    Last 10: 4-6

    You want to like the Toronto Raptors, you really do. But you can't.

    Toronto still has plenty of things to figure out in the backcourt, and its defense has been atrocious. Not only are the Raptors 22nd in points allowed per game (99.7), but their perception of "last-second defense" is also horrible.

    Ed Davis, Amir Johnson, Terrence Ross and Jose Calderon really have turned some heads lately, but they're not going to to be enough for Toronto to turn this season around.

    Until a consistent go-to scorer emerges and the Raptors become semiconscious of what "playing defense" entails, they'll remain an ambivalent faction.

    One that won't be able to capitalize off Rajon Rondo's absence.

11. Detroit Pistons

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    Record: 17-27

    Last 10: 5-5

    Andre Drummond leads all rookies in win shares (3.7), and that includes Damian Lillard (3.5). 

    And that, right there, is the only thing that matters for the Detroit Pistons moving forward.

    For Detroit, a Greg Monroe and Drummond-founded post attack was risky. It had the potential to pay huge dividends, yes, but Drummond was considered much too raw.

    Well, though the rookie is still pretty raw, this coupling has proved promising. That said, there is plenty of work to be done on the perimeter, and while the Pistons have risen in the standings, they don't have enough talent to make much more noise.

    Sure, that eighth and final playoff spot in the East has never been more obtainable, but that will prove to mean little for a still-rebuilding Pistons franchise.

10. Washington Wizards

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    Record: 11-31

    Last 10: 7-3

    Please don't hurt me.

    What I've seen in the Washington Wizards since John Wall has returned has been nothing short of inspiring.

    The Wizards are 6-3 since Wall's return to action, a stretch that has included victories over the Chicago Bulls, Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets.

    Remember, this was a team that was supposed to contend for a postseason spot. Now at full strength and with Wall (and Bradley Beal and Jordan Crawford) improving by leaps and bounds right before our eyes, we'll finally get a taste of the team we were supposed to see this season.

    A team that's going to make plenty of noise in the second half of the season.

9. Boston Celtics

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    Record: 21-23

    Last 10: 4-6

    There are two things we must understand about the Celtics: 1) They're a resilient bunch, and 2) Rajon Rondo hasn't had the type of impact he normally does all season.

    With Rondo on the floor, Boston is actually scoring fewer points per 100 possessions than without him. Is this to say the Celtics are instant contenders? Absolutely not. However, it's time to acknowledge that Rondo isn't the best of fits in Boston. His preference is to constantly push the ball, and the Celtics simply aren't built for that.

    As we saw in Boston's Rondo-less victory over the Miami Heat, without him on the floor, they're able to control the offensive tempo a bit more and play to the strengths of the many. Yes, Rondo is a huge loss and doesn't help the Celtics' chance of securing that final playoff spot. But it doesn't kill it either.

    Unless Rondo's injury serves as the driving force behind Boston blowing it up before the trade deadline (per Ken Berger of CBS Sports), I'd be remiss if I wrote the Celtics off just yet:

    A bit premature, but rival execs speculating Rondo injury will compel Boston to look seriously at moving Paul Pierce before deadline.

    — Ken Berger (@KBergCBS) January 27, 2013

    Not as a bona fide contender, but as a potential playoff candidate.

    Because even without their wily point man, the Celtics still have the talent necessary to make a play in a weak and, consequently, wide-open Eastern Conference.

8. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Record: 18-25

    Last 10: 3-7

    Somewhere, Doug Collins is smiling. 

    But only slightly, because he's not the kind of coach to ride cloud nine at the expense of another team's loss.

    If Rondo's injury opens the door for anyone, it's the Philadelphia 76ers. At present, they're just 2.5 games back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, and Andrew Bynum's return is finally on the horizon (per Tom Moore of PhillyBurbs.com), if not imminent.

    I can't say in good conscience that Bynum turns the Sixers into instant contenders, but he—paired with Jrue Holiday—does give this team that desperately needs an inside presence immediate hope.

    A hope that makes gaining ground on the Celtics more than plausible in the final months of the regular season.

7. Atlanta Hawks

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    Record: 25-19

    Last 10: 5-5

    I don't trust the Atlanta Hawks. I didn't trust them with Lou Williams, and I sure as hell don't trust them without him. Even with Josh Smith.

    Whether or not the Hawks retain Smith at the trade deadline is nearly irrelevant. Should he leave, Atlanta is then tasked with developing chemistry with an array of new pieces on the fly. Should they hold onto him, his free-agency status will remain a distraction. And as he and the team has already showed, they're not impervious to controversy. 

    Toss in the fact that the Hawks are an offensively challenged assembly (96.8 ppg, 16th in NBA) and one of the weaker rebounding teams in the league (40.5, 25th), the stage is set for them to continue their fall from grace.

    Luckily, said fall won't cost them a playoff spot, but it will cost them the ability to feign title contention, as they had done earlier.

6. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Record: 23-19

    Last 10: 7-3

    Unless the Milwaukee Bucks move Brandon Jennings (they won't) or Monta Ellis (again, they won't) by the trade deadline, Wisconsin's finest aren't going anywhere.

    Some seem to be waiting for Milwaukee to implode or for them to simply dismantle its backcourt, but on the brink of its first playoff berth since 2009-10, expect the team to do nothing to change the course of the season.

    If anything, with Rondo out of the picture and the Hawks on the verge of implosion, I'd expect the Bucks to make a play for the No. 5 or 6 seed. True story.

    Milwaukee seems destined to invoke some major changes moving forward, but with the teams around them struggling, the path to a strong playoff push is being paved right in front of them.

    And the Bucks aren't about to forgo that in favor of anything.

5. Brooklyn Nets

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    Record: 26-18

    Last 10: 7-3

    The Brooklyn Nets are not who they appear to be.

    I respect the change of culture that P.J. Carlesimo has instilled as head coach. The ball is moving more on the offensive end and the Nets are now fifth in points allowed per game (94.8).

    That said, Brooklyn continues to struggle on offense in general and are 7-14 against teams with a record of .500-plus. Rondo's absence ensures the Nets will have no other competition other than the Knicks in the Atlantic Division, but they don't have the offensive cohesion or execution necessary to make a deep playoff push right now.

    Brooklyn is talented enough to stave off any push the Hawks, Bucks, Sixers and even Celtics may try to make, and thus seems destined for a top-five finish.

    Still, its offense is of major concern, and I'm less than thrilled about their futility on the glass. 

    Until Deron Williams and company prove otherwise, I'm cautiously pessimistic about their status as a title contender.

4. Indiana Pacers

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    Record: 26-18

    Last 10: 6-4

    For those that have watched the Indiana Pacers extensively, consider this: How much better would they be if Roy Hibbert was a consistent offensive threat and if Danny Granger was healthy?

    Watching Indiana play defense is like watching a brick wall in motion. The Pacers are second in points allowed (89.9) and rebounds grabbed (45.6) per game, and they play at a slower pace that is built for playoff success.

    However, their offense does worry me. Aside from Paul George, David West and George Hill, no one in Indiana scores in double figures. That's a problem.

    When you don't have an array of offensive options, your dynamic becomes so much more easier to defend. Guys like Hibbert and Gerald Green have to step up. And this team needs to embrace Danny Granger's eventual return.

    The Pacers do have the talent necessary to make ample noise in the Eastern Conference, but they stand to make an even louder bang if their 29th-ranked offense becomes less of a disaster.

3. Chicago Bulls

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    Record: 26-17

    Last 10: 7-3

    All the Chicago Bulls are currently missing is a consistently potent offensive attack.

    Right now, they're eighth in assists (22.7), sixth in rebounds (43.9) and third in points allowed (91.1) per game. And yet, Chicago's standing (impressive though it may be) is severely hindered by their 25th-ranked offense (93.3) and mediocre home record (14-11).

    Enter Derrick Rose.

    Though we have to understand that Rose won't be Rose out the gate, his presence alone opens things up considerably for the Bulls on the offensive end.

    Add his inevitable dominance into the mix, and you have a bona fide contender in a Chicago team that was supposed to roll over and admit defeat this season.

2. New York Knicks

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    Record: 27-15

    Last 10: 5-5

    For a contender, the New York Knicks really are short of an identity.

    Watching them play, you can tell they have the potential to be both an offensive and defensive juggernaut, but they've been unable to achieve simultaneous dominance for quite some time.

    And yet, you can't help but be intrigued by the immediate future of this team. Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert have returned, Stoudemire looks more than competent, and they are perhaps the deepest team in the entire league.

    Once Carmelo (40.9 percent last five games) and J.R. Smith (31.5 percent last five games) regain their shooting touches and the returning players have rediscovered the flow of the game, the Knicks should, theoretically, be one of only two legitimate threats (alongside the Bulls) capable of dethroning the Miami Heat.

    The fact that the Celtics are no longer a threat to win the Atlantic is merely a bonus.

1. Miami Heat

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    Record: 28-13

    Last 10: 6-4

    Miami needs to figure out its rebounding situation.

    The Heat are dead last in the league in boards per game (39.5), and it has really hurt them in losses against teams with a glass-crashing consciousness.

    Lethargic rebounding and all, though, looking at the Eastern Conference, there doesn't appear to be many teams Miami needs to fear. Healthy Bulls and Knicks factions present serious impediments, but other than that, the Heat should be able to traipse their way to the Eastern Conference Finals.

    Sure, they dropped one to a Rajon Rondo-less Celtics team, yet that's not the type of folly that would cost them in a seven-game series. Nor is that the type of play a team like Boston could sustain over the course of such a series.

    As long as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade continue to dominate, not even a poor showing on the glass will be enough to bring the Heat down to the level of their opponents.

    Most of them, anyway.