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Give And Go: Evaluating Lakers, Celtics, Nuggets and other teams on playoff bubble

Los Angeles Lakers Can the Lakers still make the playoffs with an aging core and without Dwight Howard? (Juan Ocampo/Getty Images)

Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.

This week: Assessing the chances of five playoff teams to return to the postseason.

1. With Dwight Howard gone and Kobe Bryant possibly set to miss a portion of the season, do the Lakers have any shot of making the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference?

Ben Golliver: I would be shocked if the Lakers make the playoffs. I base that stance almost entirely on their defensive shortcomings. Last season, L.A. ranked No. 18 in defensive efficiency, the worst ranking among Western Conference playoff teams. Barring a miracle, this season will be even uglier, as the Lakers lost starting center Dwight Howard and starting small forward Metta World Peace, two former Defensive Player of the Year winners who stood as L.A.'s top two performers on D last season.

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Although Howard was limited by injury and the 33-year-old World Peace isn't what he once was, the pair finished second and third among Lakers in minutes played and put up the two best defensive ratings among L.A.'s top 10 players. That was just enough -- just enough -- to ensure that an outstanding offensive season from Kobe Bryant didn't go to waste with a lottery trip. Put aside for a moment the fact that it's unlikely Bryant will be able to recreate his season of 27.3 points, six assists, 5.6 rebounds and a 23 Player Efficiency Rating as he comes off Achilles tendon surgery. How in the world can newcomers Chris Kaman and Nick Young be expected to approximate what Howard and World Peace did defensively last season?

Kaman's minus-4.6 net rating was the worst among Mavericks who played at least 300 minutes last season, and Young's minus-5.2 net rating was second worst among Sixers who played at least 600 minutes. This wasn't some anomaly, as their career defensive rating numbers have consistently been mediocre or worse. What's more, Kaman and Young played fewer than 25 minutes a game last season, and both will likely be asked to do more than that on a Lakers team that had one of the league's worst benches last year and probably got worse this offseason.

GOLLIVER: Grading Lakers' offseason

A formula for a Lakers' playoff trip looks like this: 2014 Bryant picks up exactly where 2013 Bryant left off; 2014 Steve Nash transforms into 2011 Nash; 2014 Pau Gasol transforms into 2010 Gasol; and players such as Young, Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks and Wesley Johnson all have career years from three-point range. That could potentially create a framework where a Mike D'Antoni offensive machine does more than enough to make up for a lackluster defense.  But I'm ... skeptical ... that formula will come to fruition.

Rob Mahoney: That's the thing: the losses of the Lakers' better defenders will be compounded by their replacement with miserable ones. Out go Howard, World Peace, and Earl Clark, and in come Kaman, Young, and Johnson, not to mention an increase in playing time for Nash (a lacking defender, even relative to Blake) and Gasol (who is better defensively than he showed last year, but still lacking in terms of lateral movement). Coverage at every position is set to be a mess, and things look even more dismal when you consider that things that L.A. did well (avoiding fouls) or moderately well (defensive rebounding) last season hinged on having Howard lurking in the lane. Without him around as a rotational defender/scapegoat, the Lakers should be another half or full step slower with their help D and fairly lacking in terms of team rebounding. Such is the minimal cost of losing a superstar talent, even if Howard did turn in the most disappointing season of his career due to injury.

Still, I'm not ready to write off the Lakers entirely for the playoffs, even while acknowledging that their defense should be disastrous. There's just too much offensive potential there; Bryant's injury could help reset the balance of L.A.'s lineups, and frankly I refuse to believe that Nash and Gasol are as limited as they seemed last season. The 2012-13 Lakers were a team plagued by frequent injury and miserable chemistry, and with better luck on the former and time to rectify the latter, I see both Nash and Gasol having bounce-back years as valuable offensive components. Their best days are behind them, but Nash is still a brilliant shooter with superb command of the offense, and Gasol still is a high-low post threat who can alter games with his interior scoring and passing. Coupled with the assumption that Bryant will still be able to manage a solid season after returning from a torn achilles, that could leave the Lakers with some tremendous offensive potential.

Yet that only gets the Lakers so far, and where I grow more skeptical is in their relation to the rest of the Western Conference bubble teams. We can pretty safely pencil the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Grizzlies, Rockets, and Warriors into the playoffs, thus leaving just two hypothetical spots. Vying for those openings along with the Lakers will be the Nuggets, Mavs, Timberwolves, Blazers, and Pelicans. Of that group, there are at least three teams more likely to make the postseason than L.A., and that's before accounting for any potential surprises in the field. The Lakers have a shot, still, but one dampened by surely miserable defense and a deep field of playoff-caliber teams.


Is this a playoff team? Unlikely in 2013-14. (Brian Babineau/Getty Images) With Doc Rivers and Co. gone, there are a lot of new faces in Boston this season. (Brian Babineau/Getty Images)

2. The Celtics have broken up their veteran core but won't face particularly stiff competition for the final playoff seeds in the Eastern Conference. Can Boston be counted out entirely?

Mahoney: I think so, largely because I'd doubt that the Celtics have any interest in being even remotely good this season. Boston has a chance to jump-start its rebuild with a lottery pick if it endures a season in the Eastern Conference basement, and that has to be an attractive possibility given the loss of other core pieces and the unpredictability of Rajon Rondo. Even with future draft picks in tow courtesy of deals with the Nets and Clippers, the Celtics would be best served by using this season as a developmental opportunity without much concern for the attainable mediocrity that would put them in the thick of the playoff race.

GIVE AND GO: Flaws in five potential contenders

In theory, one could easily see the Celtics being passable enough to outclass the flawed bunch competing for the yet unclaimed playoff spots in the East. But even that outcome would require a compliance on Boston's part that seems unlikely, particularly in light of reports intimating that Celtics GM Danny Ainge would likely start working the phones for potential trades if his team wound up being better than expected. Boston intends to be bad, while leaving the likes of Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, Toronto, and Milwaukee to duke it out for the right to be obliterated by a contender in the first round of the postseason.

Golliver: There's no good reason to count out anyone in the East besides Philadelphia, Charlotte and Orlando. This question really amounts to: "Can you Be Milwaukee?" I would hope that at least 13 teams in the East -- including the Bucks! -- are beginning the season with the goal of meeting or passing that standard of perpetual mediocrity. Wanting to Be Milwaukee, succeeding at Being Milwaukee for a number of months and making it through an entire season of Being Milwaukee are three entirely different scenarios, and I don't envision the Celtics passing through to that third and final (arguably pointless) stage.

With Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry traded to the Nets, it's fair to ask what will emerge as the calling card for the group that remains. A below-average team in terms of offensive efficiency for each of the last three seasons, Boston now faces the task of replacing its top two scorers while the third, Rajon Rondo, is rehabilitating from a season-ending knee injury. That could get really ugly. A team that was once defined by its disciplined, intense team defense, the Celtics now grapple with the downgrade from Garnett to, gulp, Kris Humphries, rookie Kelly Olynyk and other assorted scraps in the middle. That could also get ugly.

Hanging over this roster in transition is the fact that management surely views its veterans, aside from Rondo and perhaps Jeff Green, as contracts rather than players. Such players as Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee and Keith Bogans (signed to a goofy deal just to make the trade with Brooklyn work) are all available in varying degrees. Even a surprisingly strong start could be purposefully sabotaged by a midseason sell-off.

Being Milwaukee for a whole season would involve an MVP-caliber bounce-back year from Rondo, a sensational debut from first-time NBA coach Brad Stevens (the subject of a wonderful Sports Illustrated profile by Tim Layden), a season of consistent quality from Green and a quiet deadline period from general manager Danny Ainge. That's not impossible, but I definitely prefer Washington, Milwaukee, Detroit and Cleveland over Boston in the race to Be Milwaukee.

JaVale Mcgee Can JaVale McGee become a franchise center? The Nuggets are about to find out. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

3. The Nuggets have had a brutal offseason, while other Western Conference playoff contenders have built up their rosters. Should Denver still be penciled into the playoffs?

Golliver: I vented at length about Denver's summer on my way to dealing them a rare "F" for their offseason grade. In that screed, about the only nice thing I could say about the Nuggets' last few months is that they didn't overpay for Nate Robinson, which is about as scant as scant praise can get.

A defense of the Nuggets' playoff chances might go something like this: Seven of their top 10 players by minutes played are back; their top three scorers are back; they have made the playoffs in 10 straight years; they survived the loss of Carmelo Anthony without taking a crippling step backward; they have won 80.2 percent of their home games over the last five seasons; they could probably lose 12 or 13 more games than last year's 57-win season and still sneak in as an eighth seed; and there are really only six other Western Conference teams that appear to be comfortable locks for the playoffs (Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Rockets, Grizzlies, Warriors).

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Even those who are skeptical of first-year coach Brian Shaw, concerned about Danilo Gallinari's recovery timeline from knee surgery and down on Denver's other moves (trading Kosta Koufos, signing J.J. Hickson when Kenneth Faried is already on the roster, failing to lock up Andre Iguodala, getting outbid on Corey Brewer) can admit that the Nuggets do have a lot with which to work. It's not unreasonable to say that Denver deserves to be penciled in as a playoff team, given how consistently impressive the offense has been since Ty Lawson took over as the full-time starting point guard.

DOLLINGER: Challenges for new coaches in the West

The bigger, nagging issue is that we shouldn't even be having this "on the bubble" discussion about the Nuggets. Had Denver handled its off-court business in recent months, the question should have been, "Did the the Nuggets learn from their playoff loss to the Warriors and are they ready for true contention?" Full kudos will be due to Shaw if he keeps the franchise's playoff streak intact, but who is actually excited about the prospect of a Nuggets team that feels neutered?

Mahoney: Not by any means. Denver's roster was built to compensate for the lack of a superstar shot creator through balance, and over the summer suffered several compromises in that aim. Iguodala's free agent departure is a brutal turn, as Denver loses its best player and top defender with nothing to show for it. Losing Brewer hurts, too; although the 27-year-old forward was hardly essential, his energy and leak-out scoring helped to cut deficits and pile on leads. Even the decision to trade Koufos, a cost-effective center who produced well for Denver, is a bit odd -- especially considering that his absence now entrusts JaVale McGee to fill big minutes without driving his coach and teammates insane in the process.

All of which are notable concessions for a team that will undergo considerable changes next season, as the Nuggets transition from Karl's style of running opponents into the ground to whatever Shaw chooses to employ. Even if Shaw does a fine job, there's a possibility that this team -- lacking for half-court creators, still -- will loose some of its sheen without the benefits of pushing the pace. Under Karl, Denver was uncompromising in transition, a phase of the game that allowed the Nuggets to rack up easy scores and disguise their weaknesses. Things could well be different under Shaw, to the point that the patchwork Nuggets start to show at the seams.

Plus, a team in Denver's position doesn't exactly have the means to compensate for Gallinari's injury. The Nuggets forward could wind up missing half the season (or more) as he rehabilitates from a torn ACL, which should be a painful absence that leaves Denver without its three most-played wings of last season. Together, Iguodala, Gallinari, and Brewer accounted for over 7,000 minutes played last year, all while functioning as valuable sources of shot creation. In their stead are a host of inconsistent and reliable replacements, none of whom seems capable of bringing about the kind of offensive stability that Denver ultimately needs. Denver's depth is built to compensate for the lack of a superstar, but struggles to cover for the absence of another of its key contributors.

All told, there's nothing in Denver's roster to suggest a playoff guarantee, nor even a particular advantage over the rest of the bubble teams in the West.


4. Milwaukee has restocked its roster while remaining competitive, but have the Bucks done enough to secure a playoff spot?

Mahoney: Possibly, but that really says more about the East's middle class than the team the Bucks have assembled. Kudos to Milwaukee for putting together some decent pieces without overcommitting financially, but the combination of Larry Sanders, O.J. Mayo, Ersan Ilyasova, Caron Butler, and Brandon Knight doesn't quite make for a shining beacon of hope. All the same, Bucks GM John Hammond has ensured that this team is good enough to get by -- as is company policy -- and thus Milwaukee stands a solid chance of snaring either the 7th or 8th seed over fairly lackluster competition. I'd still favor Detroit and Washington for those slots, frankly, but the gap between those teams, Cleveland, Toronto, and Milwaukee is slim enough that most any permutation seems feasible.

GIVE AND GO: Can Pacers, Warriors, Rockets climb the ladder?

In my eyes, Milwaukee sits as arguably the most stable of Eastern Conference bubble teams, but also the most lacking of upward mobility. There's some developmental potential in Sanders, Knight, and John Henson, but ultimately this looks to be a relatively static roster equipped only to meet moderate expectations. There are enough quality players and veterans to solidify the Bucks as a decent team, but in all this is a group of fairly straightforward players who should fit together rather plainly.

The ever-active Bucks made enough moves this summer to keep up, and more generally did well to avoid attachment to the combination of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings for the long term. Yet their maneuvers aren't quite enough to earn the benefit of the doubt in terms of protecting their playoff berth, which should be among those up for grabs.

Larry Sanders; LeBron James Larry Sanders' defense could give the Bucks an edge on other East bubble teams. (Miami Herald/Getty Images).

Golliver: Who is up for a game of Milwaukee Bucks Mad Libs? Something like ...

"Milwaukee's slightly depressing trade for veteran player who is years past his prime and its overpaying of veteran free agent who is YEARS past his prime made you shake your head and chuckle. Not this again! Still, underrated younger player and slightly overpaid competent veteran should be enough to keep Milwaukee in the "barely worse than average" mix, which seems to be their preferred lot in life. Inconsistent young point guard looms as a possible X-factor and, hey, at least they have an extremely large number future second-round picks stacked up in the war chest. All things considered, though, their ceiling looks to be a first-round sweep at the hands of Eastern Conference powerhouse.

This year's blanks, in order: Caron Butler, Zaza Pachulia, Larry Sanders, O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight, seven, and, hmm, I'll go with the Bulls.

Sarcasm aside, I see the Bucks once again in the Milwaukee Membrane, fighting for relevance in that gelatinous band between the seventh and ninth seed. If pressed, I'd say I like their chances of sticking in the postseason picture, if only because the newly extended Sanders should be able to ensure that the Bucks' defense remains above average despite the many new pieces.


5. With Josh Smith no longer in Atlanta, where do the Hawks now figure in the Eastern Conference playoff race?

Golliver: I'm as guilty as anyone of mentally rushing to the conclusion that Atlanta will finish around the fifth or sixth spot for the fourth straight season. Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver are back after re-signing, Lou Williams should be back after a season-ending knee injury and the free agency swap of Paul Millsap for Smith winds up looking like a wash, especially considering Atlanta's position relative to the likes of No. 7 Boston, No. 8 Milwaukee, No. 9 Philadelphia and No. 10 Toronto. None of those teams made a (positive) franchise-altering move this summer, giving Atlanta some meaningful buffer room.

The health of Al Horford does loom large here. He's been fairly durable over the years, playing in 74 or more games in four of his six seasons, but Atlanta will feel any sort of an extended absence from him deeply this season. When the Hawks lost Horford for much of the 2011-12 season, all those expensive veterans who have since been cast out -- Smith, Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams -- came in handy. So did Pachulia, who filled a bunch of minutes as a stand-in starter. There's no question that Atlanta's new-look roster under GM Danny Ferry allocates money more efficiently, but those rebuilding moves came at the cost of depth. Some combination of the Millsap/Elton Brand/Gustavo Ayon/Pero Antic group would be on tap if anything happened to Horford, and that's fairly disconcerting.

GOLLIVER: Grading the Hawks' offseason

In other words, the steady Hawks actually seem to have a fairly wide array of possible outcomes: I see their ceiling as the sixth seed and their floor as 11th place, as Milwaukee, Washington, Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto could all move past Atlanta in a worst-case, Horford-less scenario.

The flip side of all those recent departures, by the way, is that Horford is in line as a strong candidate for the annual "You know who is really good that doesn't get enough love?" conversation, assuming the Hawks do remain competitive. If Atlanta is in the playoff picture at midseason, he would seem to be a no-brainer selection for his third All-Star team.

Mahoney: I'm completely onboard with the notion of Atlanta as the East's 6th seed, as the Hawks boast the kind of talent and flexibility to set them apart from the glut of Eastern Conference mediocrity. Horford is clearly at the center of it all, and his varied work as a help defender, offensive facilitator, rebounder, post-up threat, and mid-range shooter will allow Atlanta to piece together functional lineups more easily. Millsap's signing should offer an effective complement; while may not be equipped to play as pivotal a role, Millsap makes for a productive, predictable alternative to former Hawk Josh Smith. There's a loss in that transition in terms of overall talent and defensive ability, but Millsap should help the Hawks to stay level whereas Smith's contributions too often oscillated between positive and negative.

This should be a big season for Teague, too, who will be entrusted with more playmaking responsibility and seems poised to take a step forward. He may never be slated for stardom, but at the least Teague has the potential to be a very good starting-caliber guard with the speed and shooting to excel in pick-and-roll situations. He'll be helped along by a solid (and underrated) supporting cast: Korver, whose off-ball movement and gravitational pull on opposing defenses helps more than most realize; Williams, as the kind of high-volume shot creator that every team needs on its bench; Brand, who in limited minutes will provide capable interior defense and mid-range shooting; John Jenkins, a sharpshooting guard entering his second season; Dennis Schroeder, who will relieve Teague in spots and could be a wild-card contributor; and a host of serviceable role player types stockpiled at the end of the bench.

The Hawks won't be good enough to run with the East's top five, but they likely will also prove too capable to be lumped in with the teams on the bubble, thus returning Atlanta to familiar territory: in the middle of the playoff bracket.

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