NBA Eastern Conference Teams with the Best Shot at the Final Playoff Spots
As the NBA season heads toward the All-Star break and teams have played about half their games, the playoff picture is starting to shake out in the Eastern Conference.
There is far more parity in the East then the West. Currently the eighth place Boston Celtics are only 8.5 games back of conference leader Miami, where as Houston lags behind the San Antonio Spurs by 11 games in the West.
The top seven teams in the East are all within five games of the one seed, but in addition to a seeding battle there's also a struggle building steam at the bottom of the conference with the playoffs in sight for several middle-of-the-pack teams.
With half a season still to play, here's a look a the teams with the best shot to get into the playoffs as one of the bottom two seeds.
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The Bucks are one of the surprises in the NBA this season. They showed potential last year, finishing in ninth place, four games out of the playoffs in the East.
This season they've been able to turn it around and have been consistently above .500 all season. The team is led in points and assists by star point guard Brandon Jennings, who has shown in his few years in the league that this was no fluke.
The addition of Monta Ellis last season has also sparked the team this year, as Ellis is second on the team in scoring and averages 5.5 assists out of the 2-guard position.
Larry Sanders has been a huge factor at the center position for a team who let former No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut go in the Ellis deal. Sanders leads the team in PER and is doing things in a Bucks uniform that haven't been done since Kareem.
If the Bucks aren't slotted into the seventh or eighth seed come late April, it will be because their name's higher up the list, not because they're in the lottery pool.
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The 2012-2013 season for the Boston Celtics has been plagued with turmoil, but despite their issues they still sit in the eighth spot in the East, three games up on ninth place Philly.
The problem with the Celtics is what will happen going forward. The team has lost their driving force in Rajon Rondo for the season, and there are a lot of question marks surrounding what decisions the team will make as the playoff race heats up.
There is even speculation that, with the ages of both Pierce and Garnett, Danny Ainge may consider blowing the team up.
The team as it currently stands can probably hold off the rest of the East and slide into the playoffs as an eight seed, but the question is whether they think they can stand with a team like the Heat without their floor general.
This team has a championship pedigree and isn't going to be satisfied by a first-round exit. If they don't start playing like a real contender soon it may motivate Ainge to shop his aging stars in order to build for when Rondo can get back on the floor.
Of the teams fighting for a playoff spot at the bottom of the East, the Celtics are the biggest wild card going forward.
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The 76ers, a team that is coming off a season where they were one game away from an Eastern Conference Finals berth as an eight seed, know that anything can happen if you can get yourself into the playoffs.
The team is currently in ninth place in the East, three games back of a Boston team that is reeling with the loss of Rondo.
While Boston has lost arguably their best player, the Sixers have been without their star, the self-proclaimed best center in the NBA, Andrew Bynum.
Bynum told Tom Moore of phillyBurbs.com that he expects to be back right after the All-Star break, so it appears as if Philadelphia will be primed to make a run of they can stay within punching distance for the next two weeks.
With the way fourth year guard Jrue Holiday is playing (19.4 points and 9 assists a game), that seems to be a very real possibility.
Philly seems to almost be there with the squad they have in place, so their return to the playoffs for second straight season will hinge on how Bynum looks when he gets back on the floor.
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They've played marginally better since then, but are still 12 games under .500 at 17-29. The team however, has a lot of young talent so there is reason to be optimistic going forward.
Center Greg Monroe is as consistent as it gets at the center position, leading the team in points, rebounds and field goal percentage. They also have a young superstar in Andre Drummond, who's only deficiency in the stat line is his minutes.
Where the Pistons have really struggled this season is with ball movement, as their best distributor, Brandon Knight, averages less than 4.5 assists a game.
It appears they have addressed that issue by acquiring Jose Calderon in a three-way deal with the Grizzlies and Raptors.
The team will miss the veteran presence of Prince, but his numbers have dropped off in recent seasons and the loss of Austin Daye seems minute given that his presence on the team has been redundant with Villanueva on the roster.
If Calderon, who is eighth in the league in assists, can quickly get comfortable with the Pistons' offense and they can get Drummond the minutes that a player with the 11th ranked PER in the league deserves, Detroit has a shot to make a run at this thing.
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The Raptors sit at 16-29, 5.5 games behind Boston for a playoff spot. It's probably fair to say that giving the Raptors a shot at a playoff run is generous at best, but the Rudy Gay deal seems to indicate that GM Bryan Colangelo and the Raptors' brass believe otherwise.
They dumped starting point guard Calderon in the deal, but Kyle Lowry, a former teammate of Gay's in Memphis, has proven over his career to be a capable starting point guard.
Rudy Gay is a max-contract guy, and the Raptors wouldn't have picked him up at that price if they didn't think he could help them win.
Gay has struggled this season, shooting only a hair over 40 percent from the field for 17.2 points a game.
People seem to be down on the deal from a Toronto perspective, but as a UConn fan I have always had a soft spot for Rudy Gay and given the right system where he can be THE guy, I think he can thrive.
The team has some nice pieces with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, but they've lacked a consistent all-around scoring threat which Gay can provide if he gets back to form.
With Bargnani seemingly close to returning, the Raptors may just have a slim chance at getting back into the playoff hunt. A slim, slim chance.