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Eastern Conference power rankings: looking ahead to the playoffs

Evaluating the Eastern Conference as the playoffs get closer.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Since the last few regular season games have little meaning, I'm going to rank the top ten teams by how dangerous I think they'd be in the playoff setting.

10. Washington Wizards

Starters: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat

Top three backups: Ramon Sessions, Garrett Temple, Jared Dudley

Offensive strength: eFG% [No. 10]

Offensive weaknesses: John Wall FT/FGA [No. 25], ORB% [No. 27]

Defensive strengths: TOV% [No. 2], DRB% [No. 8]

Defensive weakness: eFG% [No. 24]

Three games back with seven to play, the Wizards are a long shot to reach the postseason. If they did, however, they have some interesting pieces to potentially cause matchup problems for their opponent. Unfortunately for them, that opponent would be the Cleveland Cavaliers, so... maybe we could give them a participation award? Because that series would be brutal.

9. Chicago Bulls

Starters: Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson, Pau Gasol

Top three backups: Tony Snell, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic

Offensive strength: TOV% [No. 10]

Offensive weaknesses: eFG% [No. 27], FT/FGA [No. 29]

Defensive strengths: FT/FGA [No. 2], eFG% [No. 4]

Defensive weaknesses: DRB% [No. 22], TOV% [No. 29]

Only a game back from the Indiana Pacers, the Bulls are (somehow) still alive and kicking in the playoff race. However, that doesn't make them dangerous. When your team takes more two-pointers than anyone else in the NBA, but converts those attempts at the second-worst rate in the league, it might be a problem. Fred Hoiberg was known for teams that shot a ton of three-pointers. While the Bulls three-point percentage has improved significantly in his first season, they are attempting threes less often than during the final year of the Thibodeau era. The offense as a whole has been pretty dysfunctional. While I'm not sure exactly whom should take the blame for this, I am sure that I don't consider this iteration of the Bulls to be a dangerous team in the playoffs.

8. Detroit Pistons

Starters: Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris, Andre Drummond

Top three backups: Steve Blake, Stanley Johnson, Aron Baynes

Offensive strengths: ORB% [No. 2], TOV% [No. 5]

Offensive weaknesses: eFG% [No. 22], FT/FGA [No. 23]

Defensive strengths: DRB% [No. 2], FT/FGA [No. 8]

Defensive weakness: TOV% [No. 21]

A talented starting five that should get extended burn in the playoffs. But a lack of quality depth, combined with a questionable fit among the starters, results in a limited ceiling for this group. Andre Drummond is an absolute beast, but they lack the spacing for him to operate as efficiently as possible, and his poor free throw shooting will be exploited in the playoffs.

Still, count out Stan Van Gundy's group at your own peril. He can game plan as well as any Eastern Conference coach, and he does have talent. If they can hit threes at a solid clip for the duration of a series, they would be dangerous to anyone.

7. Indiana Pacers

Starters: George Hill, Monta Ellis, Paul George, Myles Turner, Ian Mahinmi

Top three backups: C.J. Miles, Lavoy Allen, Jordan Hill

Offensive strengths: none

Offensive weaknesses: eFG% [No. 21], ORB% [No. 22]

Defensive strengths: TOV% [No. 6], eFG% [No. 9]

Defensive weaknesses: none

Despite a few very talented offensive players, this group has been unable to effectively produce a good team offense. However, Frank Vogel has done a magnificent job crafting an elite defense out of this team. Led by two-way star Paul George, this team will be a hard out for anyone. If George and Hill are able to step up offensively, this team may surprise.

6. Boston Celtics

Starters: Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Jared Sullinger, Amir Johnson

Top three backups: Marcus Smart, Evan Turner, Kelly Olynyk

Offensive strengths: TOV% [No. 6], ORB% [No. 8]

Offensive weakness: eFG% [No. 24]

Defensive strengths: TOV% [No. 4], eFG% [No. 5]

Defensive weaknesses: DRB% [No. 25], FT/FGA [No. 27]

A group of overachievers that stand to gain little from shortened playoff rotations, and will suffer from opposing game plans focused on their weaknesses. Brad Stevens is a smart coach, and he'll have these guys playing hard for 48 minutes, but that might not be enough in either the No. 3 vs. No. 6 matchup or No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup depending on where the Celtics ends up in the Eastern Conference standings.

5. Atlanta Hawks

Starters: Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap, Al Horford

Top three backups: Thabo Sefolosha, Dennis Schroder, Mike Scott

Offensive strength: eFG% [No. 6]

Offensive weaknesses: TOV% [No. 21], FT/FGA [No. 28], ORB% [No. 30]

Defensive strengths: eFG% [No. 3], TOV% [No. 5], FT/FGA [No. 6]

Defensive weakness: DRB% [No. 26]

A very solid team, especially on defense, led by a great coach. However, it's not particularly difficult to game plan against their personnel. Their rebounding weakness will put them in a possession debt that will be difficult to overcome. The defense is excellent, however, which should be enough against a less talented opponent.

4. Miami Heat

Starters: Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Luol Deng, Hassan Whiteside

Top three backups: Gerald Green, Justice Winslow, Amar'e Stoudamire

Offensive strengths: none

Offensive weaknesses: none

Defensive strengths: FT/FGA [No. 4], DRB% [No. 6], eFG% [No. 8]

Defensive weaknesses: TOV% [No. 5]

A talented and well-coached group that doesn't really fit together very well, but they're making it work. Despite losing one of the better players in the conference to blood clots in his leg, this team has really come together since the All-Star break. A stifling defense combined with a balanced offense is a good recipe for playoff success. Don't be surprised to see this team in the Conference Finals... if they can avoid Cleveland's side of the bracket.

3. Charlotte Hornets

Starters: Kemba Walker, Courtney Lee, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller

Top three backups: Jeremy Lin, Frank Kaminsky, Al Jefferson

Offensive strengths: TOV% [No. 1], FT/FGA [No. 8]

Offensive weakness: ORB% [No. 29]

Defensive strengths: DRB% [No. 1], FT/FGA [No. 5]

Defensive weakness: TOV% [No. 24]

Since starting the season 22-25, this team has gone on a 21-6 tear. The trade for Lee has proven to be a fantastic move, giving them a very dangerous perimeter trio on offense. Williams and Kaminsky have stretched the floor effectively at power forward, enabling that trio to attack at will. These guys will be a tough out for anyone.

2. Toronto Raptors

Starters: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Luis Scola, Jonas Valanciunas

Top three backups: Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson, Bismack Biyombo

Offensive strengths: FT/FGA [No. 2], TOV% [No. 7]

Offensive weaknesses: none

Defensive strengths: DRB% [No. 7], FT/FGA [No. 10]

Defensive weaknesses: none

Solid in all aspects of the game. Deep bench. Excellent backcourt. These guys are good. They've also never had any playoff success, and their key offseason acquisition has been out most of the year (although he's expected to return in time for the postseason). That said, I think this is the year things change for them. I don't see any way they lose in the first round, and they should be favored against any team they face in round two.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

Starters: Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson (hopefully)

Top three backups: Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye (also hopefully)

Offensive strengths: eFG% [No. 4], ORB% [No. 6]

Offensive weakness: FT/FGA [No. 22]

Defensive strength: DRB% [No. 5]

Defensive weakness: TOV% [No. 23]

While going through the rosters of each playoff team for this article, it just struck me once again how laughable the talent discrepancy is between Cleveland and every other playoff team in the East. It hasn't exactly been smooth sailing this year, but Cleveland is still at the top of the East and there really is nobody that can challenge them. Top offense in the East at shotmaking. Second in grabbing their own misses. So, basically we make the most shots, and when we do miss we often get it back and then make it on our second (or third) try. And, frankly, we just aren't really bad at anything. No, we don't force many turnovers with our defensive scheme, but that's by design. We also don't get to the free throw line very often, but that's because we're too busy draining shots.

It might seem outlandish given the ups and downs of this team throughout the year, but I really would be surprised if any Eastern Conference foe gets to a game six against us. We present far more problems for them than they do for us. We have a deep, adaptable roster with more top end talent than any of these teams. Toronto has had a good year, but they've struggled a bit post-All Star break. Charlotte has come on lately, but does Kemba - Lee - Batum really scare us? I just don't see any of these teams proving to be a significant obstacle.