With the playoffs getting closer, the matchups in the Eastern Conference are starting to take shape, and there's a very common perception among fans of the middle teams in the East. "I want Charlotte." This comes off as insulting to a team that has been very good for much of the season, and has been shooting flames out of their fingertips since March. However, it does make some bit of sense. The Hornets could be viewed as the "weakest" of the four, and one injury could send them tumbling. It also makes sense, because the rest of the East is just as good as Charlotte is.
Right now, the middle of the conference is jam packed with very different teams that at the same time are very equal. The Boston Celtics have played consistently great basketball for the entire season. They're led by a genius coach in Brad Stevens that, like Steve Clifford, is able to bring out the best in his players. Under Stevens, Isaiah Thomas has become an All-Star and Jae Crowder looks like one of the ultimate glue guys of the NBA. Even Evan Turner has turned around his NBA career with Stevens coaching him. The Celtics are one of the few teams that have beaten the Warriors this year, and they throttled Charlotte in earlier matchups. They're a top five defense with one of the NBA's best net ratings. They're great.
The Atlanta Hawks at the moment are just as hot, if not hotter, than the Hornets. After rumors swirled of Atlanta potentially breaking up their core that won 60 games last year they instead decided to double down with hopes that their defense would carry them this year. That gamble has paid off, with Atlanta currently ranked as the second best defense in the NBA, and their offense has had flashes of that same system we all fell in love with last season. Al Horford and Paul Millsap might be the least talked about frontline ever, and Kent Bazemore has proven to be a great option on the wing. They're not the same Hawks that disappointed in last year's playoffs. This team can play, and they're extremely dangerous going into the playoffs. They're great.
The Miami Heat are a head scratcher to say the least. They play their best basketball when their best players aren't on the floor together. They sink or swim depending on Hassan Whiteside's consistency and how young Dwyane Wade looks. However, when this team has it going their might not be a better competitor to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Joe Johnson has given them a veteran shooter that isn't afraid of taking and making big shots. Give Goran Dragic an open floor to run in and he can still eviscerate even the best of defenses. Their youth off the bench has flashes of being able to hold their own, and they've even closed out games at times. It's a huge bummer that they likely won't get Chris Bosh back, but they're still playing some incredible basketball without him. Erik Spoelstra knows how to prepare a team for the playoffs, and anybody that has to face Miami is going to get a tough series no matter what. They're great.
See the resemblance between the three teams that the Hornets may face in the first round? Each and every one of them is a great team, and skill level wise there isn't a single difference between them. This rule also applies to the Hornets.
Rolling into the playoffs with a top 10 offense and defense, Steve Clifford has Charlotte's roster running like a well oiled machine. Kemba Walker is breaking out before our very eyes thanks to some much improved shooting, and his leadership has given the team someone they can follow into a seven game series. Nicolas Batum is going to get a max contract this year. Walker might be the leader, but Batum is the glue that keeps everything the Hornets do together. Just look at Charlotte's recent stretch of play with Batum injured. The offense just isn't the same without him, and the defense is clearly missing their versatile wing defender. When he's on the floor the Hornets are a different and better team. Next to these two has been key performances out of role players throughout the entire season. Marvin Williams 3-point shooting, Cody Zeller's rebounding, Jeremy Lin's creation off the bench and explosions reminiscent of Linsanity. These three have been reliable for the Hornets all season, and there's no reason they can't be reliable entering the playoffs. Even big slow Al Jefferson, now coming off the bench, can still take over sections of a game with just his presence on the floor alone. His play style might be straight out of the 90's, but when Big Al has it going defenses bend to his will. When the Hornets are healthy they're dangerous, and they're not someone that's going to be fun to game plan against for seven games. This team, like their competitors, is great.
Four great teams. Very different styles. Each just as good as the other. There's going to be subtle advantages once the playoffs start such as home court advantage and health that could help swing a series one way or the other, but as far as the actual matchup goes there isn't any advantage between the four. Each team has their own strengths and weaknesses that the other should be able to exploit. At the end of the day, no matter which of the three Charlotte gets matched up with in the first round, they'll have just as good a chance at beating them as the rest.