Power Shuffle

Pistons among 6 scrapping for East's last playoff openings

Washington could have a dynamic backcourt if John Wall and Gilbert Arenas can learn to play together.
Joe Murphy (NBAE/Getty)
There’s a general consensus that the East closed the gap on the West over the summer, though I’m not quite sure why. For all the buzz free agency created, it might yield negligible impact on the East-West balance of power, which last year saw the West amass a plus-42 edge in interconference games with a 246-204 advantage.

Amare Stoudemire went from Phoenix to New York and Carlos Boozer from Utah to Chicago, and while both make their new teams better, their old teams were hardly left crippled.

We can all agree that Miami should be dramatically improved. But the Heat won 47 games a year ago. Let’s say they improve by 20 wins to get to 67. That figures to be more than offset by Cleveland’s drop from 61 wins and compounded by Toronto’s fall from 40 wins – the damage inflicted on those two franchises by the free-agent flights of LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami.

Essentially, Miami replaces Cleveland atop the East’s power pyramid, joined there by Orlando and Boston, both of which project to be not significantly better or worse than they were a year ago.

Chicago probably leapfrogs Atlanta as the odds-on favorite for the last top-four playoff seed with the additions of Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer. Boozer’s scoring and rebounding seem ideal complements both to Joakim Noah’s defense, rebounding and energy and Derrick Rose’s pick-and-roll acumen. The Bulls could be in for a 10-win boost over last year’s 41.

The Knicks should be better, but anyone penciling them in for a playoff spot … well, have the eraser handy. They’re in the mix, but adding Stoudemire and subtracting David Lee doesn’t add up to a huge plus for me. Raymond Felton gives them an upgrade at point guard and Anthony Randolph is the X-factor. They’re still going to have to score 110 to win on a lot of nights.

Who else is better? Indiana added Darren Collison but subtracted Troy Murphy. Philadelphia figures to get a bounce from installing Doug Collins as coach, but it could be short-lived. If Gilbert Arenas takes to playing with John Wall, Washington could have a dynamic backcourt, but much still hinges on young big men JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche.

Milwaukee and Charlotte overachieved a year ago. On paper, Milwaukee got better by adding Drew Gooden and Corey Maggette while retaining John Salmons, but I’m still expecting a regression from 46 wins. Ditto from Charlotte and its 44 wins after losing Felton to the Knicks and sending Tyson Chandler to Dallas for the chance to dump Erick Dampier’s non-guaranteed contract.

I see five playoff locks – Miami, Orlando, Boston, Chicago and Atlanta – and one likely, Milwaukee.

Cut Toronto, Cleveland and New Jersey – which should improve by 20 wins – from the list of playoff possibilities. That leaves six teams – the Pistons, Charlotte, Indiana, New York, Washington and Philadelphia – vying for two playoff berths.

I like the Pistons better than all of them, but if I had to rank ’em in order of their potential to slide past them into the seventh and eighth spots, I’d go: Philadelphia, New York, Charlotte, Washington and Indiana.

Let’s see how it looks two months from now with the season just getting started.