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The Eastern Conference playoff picture is muddled

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Are we sure the Wizards are on track to be a playoff team next year? What once seemed like a certainty is less of one after several other lower-tier squads made bigger moves over the summer.

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The Washington Wizards seem to think they are a playoff team this year. Well, are they?

The bottom of the Eastern Conference seemed pretty weak at the start of July. The Celtics and 76ers were clearly embracing a full-on rebuilding effort. The Bobcats and Magic were the Bobcats and Magic. The Hawks were a blank canvas, unlikely to land Dwight Howard and potentially ready to embrace rebuilding as well. The Bucks were in complete disarray. The Raptors just hired Masai Ujiri and seemed ready to rebuild too. The Cavaliers and Pistons had loads of cap space, but no coherent plan on how to use it.

That left the Wizards, seemingly stable assuming health, to zoom right into the playoffs next season. But since then, the picture has become muddled. The 76ers, Bobcats and Magic are clearly rebuilding, but the other six teams are still a factor.

  • Detroit nabbed Josh Smith, drafted Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and just acquired Brandon Jennings to team with their talented young frontcourt of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
  • The Hawks replaced Smith with the underrated Paul Millsap, kept the rest of their team together and may have a draft steal in Dennis Schroeder.
  • The Cavaliers drafted Anthony Bennett, signed Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark and won the Andrew Bynum sweepstakes.
  • The Raptors finally dealt Andrea Bargnani and saw last year's rookie, Jonas Valanciunas, dominate Summer League.
  • The Bucks haven't outright tanked, keeping Ersan Ilyasova, grabbing O.J. Mayo and Brandon Knight and signing a bunch of veterans.
  • Boston still hasn't traded Rajon Rondo, and until then, they're always a threat to sneak into the playoffs as well.

Meanwhile, the Wizards ... signed Eric Maynor and drafted Otto Porter. The rest of the team, as it stands now, is exactly the same as last year. Is that enough?

SB Nation's bloggers think so, ranking the Wizards 17th overall and seventh in the Eastern Conference in our summer power rankings check-in. Atlanta takes the sixth spot, with Cleveland (18/8) and Detroit (21/9) right on their heels. (I ranked the Wizards eighth in the East and 19th overall, with Detroit higher and Cleveland one spot lower). That's comforting.

And it should be noted that the Wizards' continuity will help them. The Wizards' big advantage is they have a five-man unit that has a track record of success, small sample size and all. This screenshot from the NBA's media-only stats page is the best argument in the Wizards' favor. (Click to biggify)

Screen_shot_2013-07-31_at_10

You read that right: the Wizards' projected starting lineup had the best +/- rating per 48 minutes of any lineup that played over 120 minutes in the NBA last season. It's a small sample size that probably won't fully hold up, but it's not unprecedented to see a team ride one great lineup to prominence. The Pacers and Thunder overcame so-so benches last year because their starting 5 had such a high +/- as a unit, for example. If the Wizards stay healthy, the chemistry of that starting unit could pay major dividends.

But it's hard to feel utmost confidence when a lot of other teams are making moves and the Wizards are standing pat like this. Even a smaller move to acquire more depth, a huge problem last year and still a problem up front, would go a long, long way. This scares me:

Screen_shot_2013-07-31_at_11

Any injury up front, and the Wizards are in trouble. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers can bring Bennett or Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao and Jarrett Jack off their bench, the Pistons can stagger minutes with Smith, Monroe and Drummond and the Hawks are bringing dynamite sixth man Lou Williams back. We also have no clue how effective the other team's most-used lineups will be because they have not played together. Just because the Wizards' projected starting five worked so well in a limited sample last year doesn't mean it will again.

All this is to say that a playoff spot is by no means guaranteed. Even with continuity and health, it might not be enough with the competition making on-paper upgrades.

How confident do you feel about the Wizards being a playoff team next year?

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