NBA East preview: Raps shoot for playoffs

New faces will certainly bring optimism to the Toronto Raptors but only time will tell if translates into a playoff spot. 

The Raptors hope to improve on a 33-49 campaign last year that earned them a 13th place finish in the Eastern Conference.

If Toronto wants to get back to the playoffs after its one-year absence, they’ll need to beat out some of the bubble teams to do so.

Beyond the three clear favourites, things are wide open for the final five post-season spots. The conference breaks down as follows:

The Big Three

1. Cleveland Cavaliers — In a tight three-horse race, the team with the best player can win out. LeBron James helped his squad to the number one seed last season and the additions of Shaquille O’Neal and Anthony Parker are upgrades over Ben Wallace and Trevor Ariza.

2. Boston Celtics — The second-round loss to Orlando hurt. Having to play a marathon seven-gamer against Chicago in the first round didn’t help either. They may have the best starting five in the NBA, with scoring, rebounding and defence out on the court in any crucial situation.

3. Orlando Magic — After losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals last year, there wasn’t much tinkering done in Orlando. Vince Carter enters where Hedo Turkoglu exits, but unless the Magic play Toronto (and they might), Turkoglu is considered the better clutch player. Vince also plays well against his former club.

Second Round Possibles

4. Atlanta Hawks — The Hawks won their first playoff series in a decade last year before being blown away by the Cavaliers in round two. The addition of scorer Jamal Crawford in the off-season should help, and a year older and wiser might help them advance in the playoffs.

5. Miami Heat — Last season saw Miami start turning things back around. Having one of the NBA’s elite in Dwayne Wade along with some burgeoning young talent in Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers will hold them in good stead. The addition of Quentin Richardson should only help for ball distribution.

6. Toronto Raptors — It’s a brand new team in Toronto as they attempt to shake away the cobwebs of a losing season. Turkoglu gives the Raptors another weapon alongside all-star Chris Bosh. If the new pieces gel well, the team could not only be a post-season lock, but might be able to avoid the big three in round one.

Playoff Potential

7. Chicago Bulls — The young team nearly shocked the basketball world when taking Boston to a seventh game last season. Losing Ben Gordon will hurt their team, but youngsters like Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas still have a lot to give to this squad.

8. Washington Wizards — While it would seem an egregious claim to put a team with 19 wins the season before in the playoff picture, a healthy Gilbert Arenas will really make a big difference. Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison help lead a supporting cast as Washington tries to get back to where it was a year ago.

9. Detroit Pistons — Although the addition of Ben Gordon will help this team, they really haven’t done enough compared to the rest of the conference to be guaranteed a playoff spot. Former Raptor Charlie Villaneuva could develop into a less erratic version of Rasheed Wallace.

10. Philadelphia 76ers — Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala will really have their work cut out for them. The departure of Andre Miller means that they’ll be lacking a veteran passing presence at guard. Louis Williams just doesn’t fit that mold.

11. Indiana Pacers — This team needs a healthy Mike Dunleavy back if they want to compete. One of their most intriguing young pieces, Jarrett Jack, went to Toronto for nothing in return. Indiana has scorers and defenders, but in different bodies, so unless they can make line changes, the Pacers likely won’t reach the post-season.

Cannon Fodder

12. Charlotte Bobcats — Any team coached by Larry Brown has to be good eventually. Is Tyson Chandler an upgrade from Emeka Okafor? Possibly, if he can stay healthy. The team is going to likely have to buy into a defensive system given their lack of potential scoring.

13. New York Knicks — The 2009 Knicks will be remembered … well, by no one really. They’re just waiting for the 2010 off-season to load up on stars. In the meantime, maybe Jared Jeffries and Eddy Curry can at least show they may be worthwhile enough despite over-sized contracts to try and garner some trade value.

14. Milwaukee Bucks — Brandon Jennings will be an intriguing addition to this team that was forced to trade away a few pricey players in the off-season. Do they look to deal off Michael Redd for someone with potential, or try to keep him long-term and hope that he’ll help Andrew Bogut and Jennings get this team back to respectability?

15. New Jersey Nets — It’s hard to know at the end of the year whether they’ll be the New Jersey Nets or the Brooklyn Nets. Wherever they wind up, at least there are a few good pieces in place for the future. Brook Lopez, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Yi Jianlian may be real ballplayers down the road.