Playing in the Eastern Conference is always a good thing

The NBA is now less than three hours away from tipping off. In this second installment of my preseason NBA power rankings, I’ll discuss some teams that will be fighting for a playoff spot this year.

Bubble teams, because it’s the East:

20. Milwaukee Bucks: It was pretty underrated how bad the Bucks were last season. Even though the 76ers had a 26-game losing streak, the Bucks still managed to finish with the worst record in the league. However, there’s reason to believe that this team in the lowly Eastern conference can compete for a playoff spot. Drafting the most NBA-ready player in Jabari Parker was a huge win for this team, as he seems like he’ll be a sure-fire All-Star player for years to come. Also the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo, grew two inches in the offseason and he now stands at 6’11”, making him a defensive nightmare for other teams. O.J. Mayo and Larry Sanders both had disappointing years last year, but expect both of them to bounce back and be key contributors this season. If Jason Kidd can find the right rotation for this versatile team, don’t be surprised if Milwaukee is contending for a playoff spot in the East.

19. Brooklyn Nets: If there is one thing that annoys me more then listening to Troy Aikman announce a Cowboys game it’s probably hearing Nets fans yelling, “Brooooklyn!” at a Nets game. In reality there are probably things that annoy me more, but hearing bandwagon Nets fans yelling is definitely up there. On the court, the Nets should be interesting this year. A lot of people thought they could compete for the championship last year, but those dreams were quickly dashed in the playoffs. Substituting Lionel Hollins for Jason Kidd as coach is definitely a win for this franchise, but losing Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston will hurt the Nets a lot. Having to rely on Deron Williams and Brook Lopez to stay healthy is like me relying on my putting game— it’s not a good thing. But again, playing in the East is enough to give Brooklyn a shot at making the playoffs.

18. Miami Heat: LeBron James is gone and so is all hope. Just kidding, but losing the best player on the planet will definitely hurt the Heat’s chances of making a fifth-straight NBA finals. They were able to retain Chris Bosh in free agency when many thought he was halfway out the door to Houston, but he re-signed and will be the focal point of the Heat’s offense. The key for this team will be Dwyane Wade. If he can show some semblance of the old Flash, then the Heat will have a shot to make the playoffs. However, this is a guy who only played 54 games last year and even with all that rest still looked broken down in the Finals. And this season, he’ll have to carry even more of the workload with LeBron gone. The fate of the Heat’s season will rest on the knees of Dwyane Wade.

17. Detroit Pistons: Detroit had one of the most disappointing seasons in the NBA last year. Expected to make it back to the playoffs, Detroit fell flat on its face and had another disappointing year. However, in comes Stan Van Gundy to make the pain go away. Van Gundy inherits a talented roster that wasn’t able to play well together last year, but he is one of the best coaches at meshing guys together and handling guys with bad attitudes. Andre Drummond is one of the best young centers in the league and should be in the running for an All-Star spot this year. If Van Gundy is able to work his magic and find a workable rotation, Motown will see their team in the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

16. New York Knicks: Just like Detroit, the Knicks had a letdown 2013-14 season. Also like Detroit, the Knicks now have a proven winner running the show in President Phil Jackson and Coach Derek Fisher there to implement Phil’s triangle offense. The key for the Knicks will be getting guys like J.R. Smith and Amare Stoudemire, who disappointed last year, to help Carmelo shoulder the load. If the Knicks can buy into Phil’s system and have more consistency from the point guard position, the Knicks should expect a bounce-back 2014-15 season.

Bubble teams, because it’s the West

15. Portland Trailblazers: The Blazers were one of the most exciting teams in the NBA team last year, and Damian Lillard’s game-winning three to propel Portland to the second round of the playoffs was one of the best moments of the 2013-14 season. But as much of a success last season was for the Trailblazers, I expect a setback this year. Portland relied on their starters the most out of any team last year and their lack of depth is going to hurt them this year. They ranked last in bench minutes and scoring last year and they didn’t do much to upgrade their reserves in the offseason. Portland’s starting five is good enough to carry them, but without any contribution from the bench, I think the Blazers will have trouble repeating the success they had last year.

14. Phoenix Suns: Despite winning 48 games, which would have been good enough for the third seed in the East, the Suns just missed out on the playoffs in the tough Western Conference. Unlike Portland, the Suns did a lot to improve their roster in the offseason by getting Isaiah Thomas from the Kings and getting a high-volume scorer in the draft in T.J. Warren. Eric Bledsoe is the x-factor for this team because if he can stay healthy, he’ll be an explosive point guard who can lock down the opposing team’s best player and be a playmaker on offense. Also with the Morris twins and now Goran and Zoran Dragic, the brother power on this team will be unmatched.

A piece or two away:

13. Washington Wizards: Washington seemed poised to upset the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last year after taking Game 1 in Indy, but Washington’s inexperience ended up being their demise. This team comes in confident from last year’s success and expects even better results this year. However, Paul Pierce filling in the void left by Trevor Ariza is a downgrade. This team will need guys to step up off the bench like Otto Porter, who was the third pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. Washington had one of the least productive benches in the NBA last year, ranking 29th in scoring. If this team wants to live up to their expectations and seriously contend in the East, they’ll have to make a move to improve their lack of depth.

12. Charlotte HornetsA: The sting is back in Charlotte and the miserable 10-year history of the Bobcats will be put to bed this season. Last season was a huge success for the Bobcats making the playoffs for only the second time in the franchise’s history. Now the expectations are higher after last year’s success and signing Lance Stephenson in free agency. They drafted a knockdown shooter in P.J. Hairston and drafted IU’s Noah Vonleh to play alongside another IU alum, Cody Zeller. This creates a logjam at the power forward position, and if Charlotte wants to legitimately contend they should consider trading one of those guys for a proven veteran. You have to think that Michael Jordan, being as competitive as he is, will trade either Zeller or Vonleh for the likes of a David West, Paul Millsap, or Tobias Harris given the opportunity. If he does, he will make Charlotte a legit contender.

11. Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks gave Indiana a run for their money in the first round of the playoffs, and I thought Atlanta could have been a serious landing spot for LeBron James. It was a long shot, but I thought LeBron would be a nice fit in Coach Mike Budenholzer’s system which mirrors the Spurs, a team he spent 18 years working with. Much like the Spurs, this team is going to focus on ball movement and shooting a ton of threes. Al Horford returning from injury is a big boost for this team and will give Atlanta a legit post threat. With the loss of Lou Williams, Atlanta is missing that one piece off the bench that can take them over the top. Budenholzer is an up-and-coming coach, and the Hawks will plays like the Spurs of the East, but if they want to make a serious run in the playoffs getting another scorer off the bench is key.

Follow Tyler on Twitter @TylerDarwick and listen to him on WIUX B-Side Sundays from 8-9pm