The Eastern Conference has turned into a two-man race after the first month of the season. With Indiana getting off to such a hot start, and Miami — at least before their recent 2-game losing streak — honing in on a three-peat, the East’s two best teams are indisputable. But after the top-heavy creme rises to the surface, which squads are left in the body of the conference, and who is the team most likely to take the wide-open No. 3 seed in April?
First, we’ll break down the remaining 13 Eastern Conference teams into two categories: contenders and pretenders. Then we’ll select the No. 3 from the list of contenders. The entire Eastern Conference, save Indiana and Miami, could be thrust into the role of pretender, but six teams besides the Pacers and Heat still make the playoffs. No Eastern Conference team has stepped up so far this season beside the top two, but that doesn’t mean we can’t predict who might snag that No. 3 spot in the East, or even challenge Miami and Indiana for the top two spots (it’s still early, so don’t laugh too hard at that notion).
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All of these teams have one thing in common, save Cleveland: it makes more sense for them to lose than to win. That’s because each of these teams has an eye on the celebrated 2014 Draft. None of them have the talent to compete with Indiana or Miami, or really anyone, save themselves. If all of our contenders make the playoffs, all these pretenders will receive at least a couple ping pong balls in the 2014 Draft Lottery. Aside from poor Cleveland, this will make them all immeasurably happy.
Rob Hennigan and Co. are still waiting for Tobias Harris to get back on the court, but Glen Davis is back and in great shape; Arron Afflalo is performing so amazing, they may want to trade him now, when his stock has never been higher; Victor Oladipo has shown flashes of brilliance, especially defensively, and Nikola Vucevic has displayed enough production to prove last year probably wasn’t a fluke. The team would prefer to be good, just not top eight in the East, good. Hennigan wouldn’t mind trading Jameer Nelson for a first round pick, either.
Kyrie Irving has struggled even with Andrew Bynum actually playing. No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett appears to have been a bust, and Dion Waiters is on some sort of medication. Just to give you an indicator of how screwed up the Cavs interpersonal dynamics are, they tried to call a team meeting and everyone thought Waiters punched Irving. Mike Brown has improved their defense a bit, but after the Bynum and Jarrett Jack signings this summer, they were supposed to make it back to the playoffs. Doesn’t look like it so far, but keep an eye on them.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went down with a hand injury, and Charlotte’s defense is likely to suffer as a result. But if the season ended today, Charlotte — at 8-11 on the year — would be the final Eastern Conference playoff entrant. Al Jefferson‘s addition has opened up the floor a bit as defenses key on him in the post. But Steve Clifford‘s group will only make the playoffs if MKG gets back in time and the East continues to stumble as a whole. They lack the talent to really be contenders for a playoff spot, which is probably fine with that 2014 Draft looming and the chance to finally grab a young stud regardless of their draft position in the top 5.