The race for fourth : NBA in the East

Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution today raised the question, “Are the Hawks still only fourth best in the East?” I think the answer to that one has to be undeniably in the affirmative.

In fact, Atlanta’s seeding as number four in the East can only be rivalled by the Los Angeles Lakers’ seeding as numero uno in the West in terms of near-certainties next season.

The elite of the East have joined the NBA-sanctioned arms race of the Summer of 2009, shunning any hope of the peace process prospering, and cementing their expected positions in the thick of things come playoff time. By the elite, of course I refer to the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers. What order do those three fall in? That is anyone’s guess.

In the West, the 2008-09 champion Lakers restock their shelves with defensive doberman Ron Artest, upgrading from the 4-cylinder Trevor Ariza to a V8 Mustang (albeit one with unpredictable performance). Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs sent off the first salvo when they grabbed themselves quality small forward Richard Jefferson, along with some quality spare parts. The Dallas Mavericks in turn secured Shawn “is he still the Matrix?” Marion, whilst the Portland Trail Blazers gained floor general Andre Miller.

Focussing on the East, the top three could fall in any order. One is last season’s Eastern Conference Champion. Another had the best record in the regular season with 66 wins. Meanwhile the other won the NBA title only twelve months prior. Call them 1A, 1B and 1C, as there are too many variables and question marks as to who will fall where.

Will Shaq coexist with LeBron to good effect? Will Rasheed be a positive piece off the bench for the Celtics? Will KG come back at full strength? How will the departure of Hedo Turkoglu and arrival of Vince Carter change the fortunes of the Magic?

Sitting behind those big three however, are the runners in the race for the consolation prize. They are the competitors pushing their vehicles to the line hoping to finish in fourth place. The Hawks would have to be favourites for that position, by a long shot. They finished last season with 47 wins, four ahead of next-placed Miami. In addition, they’ve toughened up their front-court with veteran Joe Smith, gained a volume-scorer in Jamal Crawford and a promising rookie in Jeff Teague. They’ve shown in recent times that they can push the best teams in the league, with the quality talents of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, along with Al Horford’s ever-growing presence and the leadership of Mike Bibby.

The Heat look unlikely to do anything other than drop. Dwyane Wade has not secured the help he needs to succeed. Jermaine O’Neal may talk of having worked hard in the off-season, but he’s merely a shell of his former All-Star self. Michael Beasley, the great hope, is in a state of flux involving rehab and much uncertainty. Mario Chalmers and Quentin “Frequent Flyer” Richardson are nice players to have, but not winners.

Coming up from the rear is the Toronto Raptors. Perhaps the off-season’s biggest mover and shaker, the Raps have done their best to improve the international flavour of the squad by bringing in Hedo Turkoglu, Marco Belinelli, and re-signing Rasho Nesterovic. In perhaps a bigger move than it first seemed, close buddy of Chris Bosh, Jarrett Jack was also brought in. Reggie Evans, Amir Johnson and rookie DeMar DeRozan are all useful additions to a well-rounded roster. Will these changes bring the Raptors back from the disappointment of a 33 win season? This season will tell the story, a lineup that features José Calderon, Turkoglu, Bosh and Andrea Bargnani with solid depth at almost every position, surely could challenge the Hawks for that fourth slot.

The Philadelphia 76ers, another 2008-09 let-down, have surely regressed with the departure of Andre Miller. Of course, a healthy Elton Brand next to Andre Iguodala can do wonders, but Jrue Holiday and Louis Williams at the point isn’t the stuff of coaches’ dreams. Thaddeus Young, Jason Smith and Marreese Speights are big men with an agenda to rise to the top — but the Sixers seem destined to be challenging for fifth or sixth in the East.

The Detroit Pistons have had a mass clear out. Ben Gordon and Charlie Villaneuva are the prized booty of the off-season. Neither is a defensive juggernaut, but added to Rodney Stuckey, Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton and Jason Maxiell, they will definitely be a solid contender for that fourth spot in the East. Chris Wilcox, Ben Wallace and Walter Hermann will be relied upon to provide the toughness needed where others do not. Do not discount the Pistons.

Chicago seems to be a team that can not forge an identity. Once again they will be a team on the playoff bubble, stacked with young talent, led by Derrick Rose, but destined to disappoint from night to night in the same way that Tyrus Thomas has teased Bulls fans since he arrived. They’ll be in the hunt, but not in top four territory.

Larry Brown’s Charlotte Bobcats are a dangerous beast. If an Allen Iverson signing goes down, they could be intriguing to the max. A solid core of youngsters has been built in Charlotte and the X-Factor of AI could push them into the top half of the playoff equation. If nothing else, watching this team will be fun in 2009-10.

Will Washington be back in the picture? That is a tough one to fathom. Gilbert Arenas needs to screw his head on the right way and he needs to have Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler along for the ride, along with the ensemble of young talent they have stocked there. Will they again rise to be a nuisance to LeBron and his Cavs? Unlikely.

Milwaukee is in rebuild mode right now. This makes for tough times for big Aussie Andrew Bogut and Michael Redd (who may not stay in town for long).

New York and New Jersey are likely to be the heart-irritants to NY area residents once again. Too many issues and too many previous examples of underachievement here. Playoffs are unlikely.