Heat not where they want to be in East, but many teams struggling

The Miami Heat have slipped down the standings without LeBron James this season, though the Cavaliers, with James, aren't faring much better.

Lynne Sladky/AP

There was no doubt coming into the season that the Miami Heat were in for plenty of surprises after four relatively stable years of dominating the East on their way to NBA Finals appearances.

With the return of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to lead the way, making the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference appeared to be a foregone conclusion. There would be no rebuilding and the focus continued to be on winning now. The powerful "Heat Nation" videos made by team owner Micky Arison and president Pat Riley immediately after LeBron James left made sure of that.

Between injuries and uneven play, however, the Heat now find themselves struggling against the very teams it used to dominate. During the Big 3 era, many of these teams were steadily improving, making shrewd decisions in free agency and the draft to strengthen their rosters.

Even with the surprising struggles of James and his new-look Cleveland Cavaliers to start the season, there are still four other teams — the Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls — that have risen to the level of elite status in the East. Nearing the midway point of the season, barring a major injury or complete collapse, those four teams appear good bets to reach the playoffs.

At 29-8, the Hawks are just nine wins away from matching their win total from last season, which was good enough for the eighth and final spot in the East playoffs. They have only lost two games since they were 7-6 in late November. Right behind them are the Raptors, Wizards and Bulls with similar records.

These four teams have the depth and experience to carry them through the rest of the season and secure home-court advantage, which leaves just four spots left for the rest of the East.

Along with the Heat and the Cavaliers, the improved Milwaukee Bucks and the Brooklyn Nets are in the middle of the pack and currently in the lower playoff seeds. Complicating matters are five teams below them in the standings that are just a winning streak away from catching up.

Which of these remaining teams have a legitimate shot of making the playoffs? Let’s take a brief look at each team, excluding the Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks who have collectively lost 64 games and are heading to the lottery.

Appreciative Whiteside making most of opportunity with Heat

Note: Record in parenthesis through Jan. 12

MILWAUKEE BUCKS (20-19)

Led by new coach Jason Kidd and point guard Brandon Knight, the Bucks have quickly risen up after finishing with the worst record in the league last season. Much like the Hawks, they are getting it done without a clear superstar but instead with a complete team approach and balanced production. Losing prized rookie Jabari Parker for the rest of the season with an ACL injury has set the team back, but their depth has seen them through so far. If they can continue to stay healthy and play tough defense, the Bucks could remain hovering around .500.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (19-19)

The Cavaliers are in a free fall coinciding with LeBron James taking a leave of absence to rest his various injuries and ailments. They have won just once in nine games without him and many of their many problems won’t simply be fixed with his return. Still, there is too much talent for them not to make the playoffs. James alone should guarantee a winning record, which is enough in the East to get in.

MIAMI HEAT (16-21)

Again, there is too much talent — not to mention playoff experience — for the Heat to not be able to rise out of their current slump and string together enough wins — at the very least against teams with losing records — to get in the playoffs. After a rash of injuries and the loss of Josh McRoberts for the rest of season, they have been relatively healthy and have some stability in their starting lineup for the first time.

Their second-half performances have been an area of real concern but a winning record doesn’t seem out of reach if the team can gel and play up to their abilities.

BROOKLYN NETS (16-22)

The Nets are a tough nut to crack. They appeared to have settled on a winning formula bringing Deron Williams and Robin Lopez — two of their highest-priced players — off the bench last month when they won six of seven games to reach .500. But since then, they have wilted and lost six straight games. Their upcoming schedule for January that features games against the Memphis Grizzlies, Wizards (twice), Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Hawks and Raptors won’t do them any favors. There’s too many question marks on this roster and inconsistency to label them a threat to sneak into the postseason.

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INDIANA PACERS (15-24)

Last season’s top-ranked team in the East has understandably struggled without their star Paul George as he recovers from a horrific leg injury suffered in the summer and the loss of Lance Stephenson to free agency. David West missed the first 15 games of the season, while starting point guard George Hill has only played in five games — first because of a quad injury and now a left groin strain. Much like the Heat, they may have struggled in the first half of the season because of their shuffling lineups, but should stabilize over time and improve their record.

CHARLOTTE HORNETS (15-24)

The Hornets have been inconsistent, confusing and perplexing — much like their prized offseason acquisition Stephenson. But somehow they’ve been raising their level of play as of late without him and Al Jefferson. Much of this has to do with Kemba Walker, who was recently named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week after leading his team to a perfect 4-0 record and averaging a league-leading 30.3 points per game in that span. They might be able to put it all together once they’re healthy, or they could implode again.

DETROIT PISTONS (14-24)

After ridding themselves of Josh Smith when their record was 5-23, the Pistons have been on a tear lately and have bounced back in a big way. They have won nine of their last 10 games since then and are surprisingly playing well. Whether they can sustain it for the rest of the season is an entirely different question, however. Still, this is a team on the rise and one to keep an eye on.

BOSTON CELTICS (13-23)

They appear to be in full rebuilding mode after trading away Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green and team president Danny Ainge seems to be more concerned with stockpiling draft picks and assets then making a run at the playoffs. This not a team the Heat should be concerned with.

ORLANDO MAGIC (14-27)

The young Magic have talent but little experience after trading away longtime point guard Jameer Nelson to the Celtics. Center Nikola Vucevic and shooting guard Victor Oladipo are sure to be stars in this league for years to come, but it’s a little too early for them to be the kind of team that can sneak their way into the playoffs just yet. They will certainly be a team that will give the Heat plenty of headaches for years to come.

You can follow Surya Fernandez on Twitter @SuryaHeatNBA or email him at SuryaFoxSports@gmail.com.