Scott Howard-Cooper
Friday May 8th, 2009

Playoff exits almost always come with some backstory, only rarely at this rate, the way the Bulls left to hymns of tribute in defeat, the strangeness of the Spurs and Pistons starting summer vacations so early, the Jazz walking into such uncertainty, and the Hornets not even waiting until the end of their series to call it a season. Somebody get Rafer Alston to New Orleans to smack a bunch of people across the back of the head.

Only the 76ers, Trail Blazers and Heat uneventfully faded away, so even blowouts were happenings. If Cleveland 4, Detroit 0 and Denver 4, New Orleans 1 can be events, the way the Pistons went out after six consecutive trips to the East finals and the way the Nuggets flashed on to the scene by kicking the door in, right on top of the losers as the Hornets sounded retreat, it was unusually good early theater.

And to think the real plot twists come now, with eight teams reaching the offseason to heal and regroup and move toward a 2009-10 that will prove for good whether quick elimination was a fluke or setting a course. Only then will the NBA world know the real impact of the first round. For now, the knee-jerk reads will have to do.

In alphabetical order:

Regular season: 41-41, second in the Central Division, seventh in the Eastern Conference. Playoffs: Lost to Celtics 4-3.

Outlook: Not nearly as automatically encouraging as the historic first-round series would indicate. The Bulls could lose Ben Gordon to free agency, have the unenviable predicament of having to depend on Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas and will have Brad Miller in the final season of his contract, making him prime trade material or a short-timer.

This team is nowhere close to being a known, with as many chances to turn south as to build on the spring of '09 with a lot of people watching. Derrick Rose is a comforting thought moving forward, though.

Regular season: 39-43, third in the Central Division, eighth in the Eastern Conference. Playoffs: Lost to Cavaliers 4-0.

Outlook: Major transition time. What started with the Chauncey Billups-Allen Iverson trade early in the season and advanced with the sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers now reaches a real intersection of Pistons history. The laudable run is over, and the team for rebuilding is upon them, even more than last summer when personnel boss Joe Dumars declared a shakeup in the works. No such announcement is required this time.

Dumars is smart, aggressive and will have approximately $20 million in spending power, depending where the salary cap is set. You have to like his chances to land at least one major free agent or make a major trade, or both. If there's no free agent worth the investment this summer, he holds the money for the monster class of '10. Either way, the Pistons have more than a past. They have a future.

Regular season: 43-39, third in the Southeast Division, fifth in the Eastern Conference. Playoffs: Lost to Hawks 4-3.

Outlook: Decent, just because anything that starts with Dwyane Wade has to be somewhat encouraging, but Miami is a long way from joining the Cleveland-Boston-Orlando group at the top of the East. The Heat needs Michael Beasley to develop into a starter before he can develop into a star, Jermaine O'Neal has to be a center who rebounds, and Mario Chalmers, a nice return on a No. 34 pick, has to continue to develop at point guard. That's a lot of things that have to break right to become something more than early-exit regulars.

Regular season: 49-33, fourth in the Southwest Division, seventh in the Western Conference. Playoffs: Lost to Nuggets 4-1.

Outlook: Well, it was fun while it lasted. All six or seven months. From the deserved praise of a successful All-Star weekend last February, as opposed to the praise that is so often heaped out of obligation, through the '08 playoff run that included a victory over the Mavericks and a close loss to the Spurs through the summer and start of '08-09 as the popular choice to win the West, the Hornets were the feel-good story. Then they played amid expectations for the first time and got spun in circles.

These playoffs were an especially bad landing that could be followed by the further dismantling of a once-promising roster. The Hornets tried to shed salary during the season, only to have the Tyson Chandler trade fall through when he flunked the mandatory physical, so it's only logical the same approach will be in place this summer. It's not like the roster with the big contracts delivered anything.

Regular season: 41-41, second in the Atlantic Division, sixth in the Eastern Conference. Playoffs: Lost to Magic 4-2.

Outlook: On the verge of something in the East. But who knows what. If the 76ers get a healthy Elton Brand for an entire season and re-sign point guard Andre Miller, it's a talented roster led by Andre Igoudala and joined by the emerging Thaddeus Young that could reach at least the high-40s in wins. On the other hand, if Miller leaves and Brand is hogging the salary cap without fitting in, Philly has problems.

The grand optimism at the start of the season is gone, replaced by a disappointing '08-09 and a coaching change. And now more uncertainty.

Regular season: 54-28, tied for first in the Northwest Division, fourth in the Western Conference. Playoffs: Lost to Rockets 4-2.

Outlook: Somewhere between excellent and outstanding. The Blazers are the only team in the West that can call the season a success despite a first-round elimination -- the Heat can make the same claim after improving from 15-67 to 43-49 -- because they delivered on the expectations. Portland was supposed to have a breakout '08-09, and Portland did.

Most encouraging of all, the roster is still very young, will only get better and will have maneuverability and money to make additional moves this summer. Fifty-four wins was just a warning to the rest of the league.

Regular season: 54-28, first in the Southwest Division, third in the Western Conference. Playoffs: Lost to Mavericks 4-1.

Outlook: Good. Still. Just not great anymore because Manu Ginobili has the difficult path ahead of recovering his breakneck style after two serious ankle injuries, and a hobbling Ginobili becomes a major setback for the entire operation. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker alone don't add up to the customary lengthy playoff rides.

Regular season: 48-34, third in the Northwest Division, eighth in the Western Conference. Playoffs: Lost to Lakers 4-1.

Outlook: What an interesting summer ahead. Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Paul Millsap could all become free agents, with almost zero chance all three would be re-signed in moves that would push the Jazz into the luxury tax. And the Andrei Kirilenko trade rumors have started again.

The likely outcome would be to keep Millsap, at much less money than Boozer would require, and Okur. But if Boozer does not opt out, it will force Utah to make a decision on Millsap while still on the hook for $12.66 million to Boozer. The Jazz could re-sign Millsap and field offers for Boozer, a talented player with an expiring contract. It also could go all in with Boozer and let Millsap walk. Decisions, decisions.

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