By and large, the last 4 teams in a Conference’s playoffs (referred to here as Contenders) are considered to have legitimate shots at reaching the NBA Finals, where underdogs can surprise opponents and shock the world by winning the Larry O’Brien trophy. (See Detroit Piston circa 2004) From coaching moves to blockbuster trades, the ranks of the NBA playoff teams have been filled with activity. The 2013 NBA free agency period is far from over but, following the start of the NBA free agency period, what have the first four teams that were eliminated done to move into better positions for next year?
Team and 2012-2013 playoff seeding: Milwaukee Bucks (8)
Key acquisitions: SG OJ Mayo, G-F Carlos Delfino, C Zaza Pachulia, C Miroslav Raduljica, G Brandon Knight, G Gary Neal, F Giannis Antetokounmpo
Key Departures: G Monta Ellis, G Brandon Jennings, G JJ Reddick, F Mike Dunleavy, F-C Gustavo Ayon, C Samuel Dalembert
Ability to move into contendership: Minimal although it’s clear to see what they are trying to accomplish. Experiencing substantial turnover, they’re trying to ride the wave of the future with the influx of Euro players, while trying to remain competitive. The Brandon Jennings sign-and-trade will bring back prospects and Brandon Knight, a serviceable young PG, despite some embarrassing moments through the course of the 2012-2013 season. OJ Mayo is talented and with shooter Gary Neal, they can give teams problems, but the talent to contend is not there. They’ve added players with potential and not strong track records. No one sees them moving into the top 4 in the East or anywhere near it. The best they can hope for is to finish somewhere near .500 and to have Larry Sanders continue to make strides while meshing nicely with Pachulia and the other European players.
Team and 2012-2013 playoff seeding: Boston Celtics (7)
Key acquisitions: Kelly Olynyk, Gerald Wallace, Marshon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Keith Bogans
Key Departures: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry
Ability to move into contendership: None. They relinquished that with the Brooklyn trade. New coach Brad Stevens has to keep Rondo happy and make young players believe, all while trying to navigate life as an NBA coach and keep Boston fans happy. I added Olynyk in there because he has been playing very well in the Summer League and with Fab Melo, they could form a solid frontline in the future. But they’re in complete rebuilding mode. With Rondo, Brooks, Jeff Green, and Olynyk, the Celtics have the pieces to be a scrappy team that gives premiere teams in the East problems, but contention is highly unlikely. Even Brad Stevens would be shocked if the Celtics made it to the playoffs, much less the second round.
Team and 2012-2013 playoff seeding: Atlanta Hawks (6)
Key acquisitions: F Dennis Schroeder, F Elton Brand, F Paul Millsap
Key Departures: F Josh Smith, F-C Zaza Pachulia
Ability to move into contendership: Same as it has been for the last 5 years. The Hawks have been a team middling in the East for years, seemingly since they drafted Josh Smith. They’ve never moved up or really dropped down to the lower level either, and they seem to like this holding pattern. Losing Smith and Pachulia won’t be easy to overcome, but Millsap can play and Elton Brand has a lot to prove after the last two seasons and that albatross contract. They also drafted a kid that played in Germany who, has been called a “poised” PG and drawn some comparisons to Rajon Rondo. (He also has a weird Wiz Khalifa color streak in his hair.) Schroeder has been steadily improving, and it’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts to the NBA. With a new coach and few new players, I still feel like we’re seeing more of the same from the Hawks.
Team and 2012-2013 playoff seeding: Brooklyn Nets (4)
Key acquisitions: C Andray Blatche, G-F Paul Pierce, F Kevin Garnett, G Jason Terry
Key Departures: F Gerald Wallace, G Marshon Brooks, F Kris Humphries, G CJ Watson, G-F Keith Bogans
Ability to move into contendership: Immediate. Pundits have already speculated about their ability to beat Miami. Now I doubt that they can beat Miami, but being in that conversation says a lot about how people view the team and the talent therein now. I still don’t like the fact that they took a page from the Yankees and mortgaged their future by giving away rights to what can amount to be 4 first-round draft picks in a trade for players who will contribute for two years at the VERY best. Still, Garnett can mentor Lopez into being a true defensive threat and not just a sporadic shot blocker, while a motivated Deron Williams can show the NBA the 20 and 10 guy that disappeared from Utah a few years ago.