Here's a question that I've been looking to answer for quite some time now, after passing through the selections of top draft picks in June and the wild and crazy free agency period (which is still continuing).
In which order are those three teams ranked? I have not a clue. All I know is that those three teams are far and away superior than the rest of the East, and at least two of them can win 60 or more games this upcoming season.
The franchises that I believe are in the battle for the next five playoff spots are the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Detroit Pistons and the Philadelphia 76ers.
Each team's draft and free agency signings and/or resignings is crucial as to whether they belong in the playoffs in the newly competitive, "no longer JV" Eastern Conference.
4) Atlanta Hawks - '08-09 - 47-35
The Atlanta Hawks are the only team that I feel confident ranking at the fourth spot in the East. The Hawks did everything the Atlanta fanbase could ask for:
- Pick up all the key pieces - Mike Bibby and Zaza Pachulia are returning, and rumor has it that a long-term deal is being worked on for Marvin Williams
- Upgrade through the draft process - explosive Wake Forest guard Jeff Teague was taken by the Hawks in the first round, a guard who hasn't even maxed out his potential
- Sombody else's trash is our treasure - on draft day, unwanted, talented part Jamal Crawford was traded from Golden State to Atlanta for seldom-used guards Acie Law and Speedy Claxton
Things are looking bright as ever for the Hawks, as their starting lineup is one to be reckoned with. Their backcourt of Bibby and Joe Johnson is still one of the best in the league, and a frontcourt combo of Josh Smith and Al Horford makes contributions on both sides of the ball.
Both players are still developing into what they can become: perennial All-Stars. Not to mention Crawford and Pachulia bring opposite, yet useful elements of their games off the bench.
The question for the Hawks is now that they've been humbled in the playoffs before, can they use it as a learning experience and leap forward? Only time will tell.
5) Washington Wizards - '08-09 - 19-63
Fifteenth to fifth in the East is quite a transition, but the Washington Wizards know what they are capable of. Injuries have more than taken its toll on this team, and each player on the roster believes they can win 50 games barring major injuries.
- A coach with a playoffs résumé - the D.C. faithful rejoice as a coach with a recognizable name is hired by the Wizards' front office: Flip Saunders
- Changes need to be made - Mike Miller and Randy Foye were brought in a day before the draft for perimeter shooting and leadership for the 5th pick (Ricky Rubio), Darius Songaila, Etan Thomas and Oleksiy Pecherov
- Searching for veteran big - currently, the Wizards are in talks with free agent center Fabricio Oberto, who is going over his options
The trade before draft day left the Wizards with a stockpile of guards, but look for a couple of them to be rid of by training camp. If they can land Oberto, it gives them a solid, experienced big man who gives them more depth in the frontcourt.
The team will look to regain its stride from '06-07, where they led the East at the All-Star Break and its offensive attack from Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison was clicking on all cylinders before injuries later built their grave.
Miller and Foye bring much needed perimeter shooting as the Wizards were second-to-last in three-point shooting last season.
A young, promising core of Nick Young, Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, Dominic McGuire and Javaris Crittenton is part of the blueprint for success in 2010, as well.
6) Toronto Raptors - '08-09 - 33-49
Toronto Raptors' general manager Bryan Colangelo has certainly made an effort to improve his team this offseason, through the draft and free agency period.
- Shades of Vince - with the 9th pick in the draft, Toronto selected a swingman with top-flight athleticism in DeMar DeRozan, resembling that of former Raptor Vince Carter
- Big name free agent landing - Colangelo's signature move of the offseason was nabbing versatile forward Hedo Turkoglu, a transaction which many around the NBA have praised
- Georgia Tech alumni party - point guard Jarrett Jack was signed by Toronto to play with fellow friend and former college teammate, Chris Bosh
Look for the Raptors to make some noise next season, as Toronto's front office realized that the Shawn Marion experiment was not to be, and that a forward more like Turkoglu would compliment Jose Calderon and Bosh much better.
Colangelo also gave sharp-shooting big man Andrea Bargnani a five-year, $50 million extension, cementing the trust he has in the former number one pick.
The Raptors also have good depth coming off the bench in Jack, Antoine Wright, Reggie Evans, Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Devean George.
The only problem this offseason for Toronto's fanbase is that Colangelo has not been able to convince Bosh to sign a contract extension, which would prevent him from becoming a free agent in the glorious summer of 2010.
7) Chicago Bulls - '08-09 - 41-41
After giving the Celtics all they could handle in the first round of last year's playoffs, the Chicago Bulls give me enough reason to rank them in the top eight in the East. Even with the departure of Ben Gordon, the Bulls are stacked in terms of depth.
- Big men in the draft - the Bulls selected husky forward James Johnson and robust center Taj Gibson in the first round
- Actively pursuing Carlos Boozer - the last few years, the Bulls have desperately needed a legitimate post presence, Boozer might be the guy
- Plan B - the Bulls could be one of the favorites to acquire David Lee by way of a sign-and-trade deal, according to ESPN
Even though the Bulls have not done much to improve their roster via free agency or trade, they are still looking for a post presence whether it be Boozer or Lee. They are unsure if Tyrus Thomas can be that guy, but to his credit, Thomas played very well in the playoffs.
They let Gordon walk, but they still have remaining guards that are respected by many in the East: Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, John Salmons and Luol Deng, when healthy. The progression that Rose makes from his rookie to sophomore season will be interesting to watch, and in a couple of years, he might be Chicago's most celebrated basketball player since Michael Jordan.
8) Detroit Pistons - '08-09 - 39-43
...And the last playoff spot goes to, yes - the Detroit Pistons. This might be the unpopular pick, but Joe Dumars has certainly done enough to keep his team in the mix with the acquisitions in free agency.
- Huskies to Detroit - fomer UConn teammates Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva made their way to "Motor City"
- Letting go of AI and 'Sheed - Dumars let go of Allen Iverson after he bickered through his tumultuous start with Detroit and Rasheed Wallace is just getting old
- Draft day bonanza - hopefully, Detroit's front office made the fans proud by selecting Austin Daye in the first round and stealing DaJuan Summers in the second round
Entering the '09-10 season, the Detroit Pistons will be small and unexperienced, adjectives we're not used to associating with the Pistons this decade. They'll be defensively challanged, as well, no more Wallaces on the backline anchoring that tough Pistons 'D'.
Fans are still waiting if Rip Hamilton will be dealt this offseason, as there is a logjam at shooting guard with him and Ben Gordon. Tayshaun Prince is still the starting small forward, but Daye and Summers are still lurking.
Rodney Stuckey definitely improved from his rookie to sophomore year, even netting a career-high of 40 points against Chicago this past season. He still has flaws in his game, mainly with his perimeter shooting and ball control.
Even with a new coach that no one besides Cavs fans has heard of, even with a semi-blowup of the team, even with many players in their early 20s... the Detroit Pistons will make the playoffs.
I cannot envision the Philadelphia 76ers squeaking into the scene because they have not done anything to improve their team. Andre Miller's name has been mentioned in dozens of trade rumors and it looks as if Elton Brand left his game in Los Angeles.
The Miami Heat could make it in again simply because Dwyane Wade's herculean efforts but it's unlikely. Unless Pat Riley makes some moves to pair Wade up with a real sidekick, Miami is out of the playoff picture. Wade might be out of Miami by next summer, as well.