Hawks, Nets, Bobcats could be East’s most vulnerable

Two days before free agents can start to sign NBA contracts, Stan Van Gundy made it clear that priority No. 1 for the Pistons is Greg Monroe
Scott Cunningham (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Boston’s 2014 descent was easy to predict. The Celtics opted for a tear-down, trading away Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce – not to mention coach Doc Rivers – four months before the 2013-14 season.

But even that path wasn’t clear at this time a year ago. There was a serious school of thought that Danny Ainge would keep the band together for one last run at a title before the window he propped open in the summer of 2007 by trading for Garnett and Ray Allen slammed closed.

So to project in early May which of the eight 2014 Eastern Conference playoff teams will be most vulnerable to having their spot seized by the Pistons or another lottery team on the come – before the draft, before free agency, before trading season fills out roster holes – is nothing more than speculation based on supposition.

But, since it is mid-May and the draft process is still on low simmer, let’s do it anyway.

The Celtics were one of three 2013 playoff teams who’ll join the Pistons in the lottery. Well, check that. One 2013 playoff team not in the ’14 field, the Knicks, doesn’t even have its own lottery pick, which will make New York’s bid to reverse fortunes a little more complicated – and, if the Pistons keep their pick at No. 8, improve Detroit’s chances of getting ahead of the Knicks in the line to replace one of the current playoff teams in 2015.

Here are three 2014 playoff teams that could be vulnerable:

  • Atlanta – Hawks GM Danny Ferry made waves late in the season, with the Hawks flailing and New York and Cleveland catching up in the race for the final playoff berth, by saying it wasn’t the organization’s goal to be the No. 8 seed. He meant the Hawks were focused on loftier goals, of course, but the implication was clear. Atlanta will keep its guns holstered until Ferry sees a clear shot at bigger prey.

    That could mean the Hawks will approach this summer as they did last off-season: patiently. They signed Paul Millsap after the market had cooled, but otherwise let others chase hot free agents. They made the playoffs anyway, even after losing Al Horford for much of the season, but only because the conference was so forgiving.

    The Hawks could have about $15 million in cap space this summer, certainly enough to grab at least one more quality starter. But they got a lot of mileage out of players like DeMarre Carroll and Pero Antic this season and that might not repeat itself in an altered mix next season. The Hawks have the East’s longest active playoff streak, so they won’t go away quietly. But they’re within reach.

  • Charlotte – The Utah Jazz went a long way toward determining the East’s final two playoff berths with their decisions in February 2013 to not trade either Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson but let them walk for cap space, instead. Millsap earned an All-Star berth and helped Atlanta survive Al Horford’s loss. If the vote had been taken at season’s end, Jefferson might have replaced Millsap on the roster as he led Charlotte’s second-half charge.

    But the Bobcats don’t appear to have much margin for error, either. Jefferson and Kemba Walker played superbly and carried Charlotte’s offense, while rookie coach Steve Clifford drove them to play hard-nosed defense every night. The chemistry was terrific, but can it be preserved and sustained over time despite an underwhelming roster? And how will the additions made possible by their financial flexibility affect that chemistry?

    The Bobcats will have about $20 million in cap space. In the past, that wouldn’t have meant much; Charlotte just isn’t, or hasn’t been, a free-agent destination. Can the tandem of Michael Jordan’s aura and a playoff season change the calculus? Stay tuned. As it stands, this is a team the players within the Pistons locker room clearly believed they should have beaten last season.

  • Brooklyn – The Nets are looking at forking over about $80 million in luxury taxes when the final accounting is done for this season and next year won’t be much different. It’s an aging team on a roster dripping with onerous contracts.

    The Nets were dreadful for the season’s first two months, standing at 10-21 when the calendar flipped to 2014. They looked like an aging husk of a team before stumbling upon success with an unlikely lineup that included moving Paul Pierce to power forward.

    Pierce and Kevin Garnett are nearing the end. How long Brooklyn can remain relevant in their current configuration likely depends on the ability of Brook Lopez to come back from yet another foot injury and the need for Deron Williams and Joe Johnson to play consistently like All-Stars, which has proven more elusive for them as they age. Around the league, there’s not necessarily a conviction that the end is near for the Nets so much as a belief that when it starts to fade it might go fast.