The Eastern Conference may be a top-heavy, mostly underwhelming group of teams, but at this point a second tier appears to be emerging behind the Pacers and Heat. While none of these teams stands a good chance of cracking that upper echelon, the Raptors, Wizards, Bulls, Nets and Hawks all seem highly likely to reach the playoffs.
Of course, that only leaves one spot left in the East, with at least four teams having a realistic shot of landing it.
A brief, lopsided series against a team destined for bigger things may be all that's in store, but if you're one of the teams listed below, a postseason appearance is undoubtedly the goal at this point. As we did last week, sizing up the teams competing for the final two seeds in the West, here are the franchises eying the last spot in the East:
Charlotte Bobcats (21-27)
They're not flashy, they can't score and they have a lame duck nickname, but the Bobcats have something unique among the playoff hopefuls: a really good defense. While that may be hard to imagine for a team that stars Al Jefferson, Steve Clifford has Charlotte playing disciplined and effective on that end of the floor. Only three teams foul less frequently.
The team's offense isn't nearly as pretty, but the Bobcats rarely turn the ball over (lowest rate in the league, per NBA.com) and the combination of Jefferson and Kemba Walker has often been enough considering the team's stout defense.
Also, by the way, if we're talking guys who might've deserved All-Star attention, here's Big Al in his past 10 games: 28.9 points, 12.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals while shooting 57 percent from the floor. During that stretch, the Bobcats are 6-4.
New York Knicks (19-27)
New York has regained its footing with four straight wins against sub-.500 opponents, but a tougher schedule over the next few games will let us know if the recent improvement is remotely sustainable.
Carmelo Anthony remains a superlative scorer, the kind of player who could single-handedly lead the Knicks to a playoff spot, but the team has a deeply flawed roster that's struggled to find an identity. We know 'Melo has been hot recently, with the 62-point game and all, but he shot under 38 percent over his preceding seven games. It's hard to be consistent shouldering such a big load.
And for all of Anthony's scoring flair, the Knicks' defensive issues remain. Tyson Chandler is no longer the interior force he was a couple years ago, and teams haven't had trouble taking advantage of the opportunities provided by having so many weak defenders play crucial minutes.
Detroit Pistons (18-27)
Everyone knew the Pistons were taking an unusual route by signing Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings in the offseason, and it's resulted in a weird team that's not particularly good. With Smith often forced to the 3, he's lost his jump shot completely, and you have to wonder where his confidence is at this point.
Things aren't all bad in Detroit, of course, when you still have Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe around, but questions still revolve around the latter's future. If the Pistons let Monroe hit restricted free agency this summer, he's going to get big offers, so trade rumors will surround this team until the deadline passes.
Coming off a 16-point win over Orlando on Jan. 28, the Pistons have a number of winnable games in the first half of February, but they lost to Utah, New Orleans and Milwaukee over the past two weeks. Few teams can bring the size and rebounding like Detroit, so the team remains intriguing if it can find a better formula.
Cleveland Cavaliers (16-30)
Things may not look good in Cleveland right now, but there's talent on the roster and only four games separate the Cavs from Charlotte. If they can get out of this lethargic stretch and fire off some wins, the optimism shown by GM Chris Grant recently will look less like P.R. talk and far more reasonable.
Only the Bucks, 76ers and Jazz have worse net ratings this year, per NBA.com, which say a lot about where this team is, but Kyrie Irving remains a spectacularly talented player and Mike Brown's defensive principles could eventually click. Having Luol Deng around should start to pay dividends eventually, too.
Of all the teams, Cleveland is probably the least likely to figure things out, but the Cavs are still very much in the hunt.