Of all the unforeseen developments in the league this year you can rest comfortably knowing one thing is for certain: the bottom half of the Eastern Conference is a flaming garbage fire. The Brooklyn Nets are currently at 16-17 with a point differential of -1.7 is seventh.

The Miami Heat, losers of four of their past five games and owners of the league’s 26th-ranked defense, occupy the conference’s final playoff spot. It’s hard to infuse relevance into whoever nails down the bottom four postseason bids because it seems as though there’s no way any of these teams will be relevant.

But then again, we thought the same thing last year.

The 38-win Atlanta squad sans Al Horford wasn’t supposed to represent much of a threat against a top-seeded Indiana team, despite some turmoil enveloping the latter. Yet those undermanned and seemingly outgunned Hawks almost took down a Pacers' team that finished the regular season with 56 wins.

Three overarching themes likely factored into this near-upset. The first being -- and it’s hard to find empirical data to back this up -- that Indiana’s downward spiral near the end of the season didn’t have them in the best of places. Again, there’s no data that can pinpoint one way or the other how circumstances like that factor in, but at the very least, it certainly wasn’t a positive boost as they started their postseason journey. On top of that, the Pacers won 56 games that season, but their point differential of 4.4 projected out to 52.8-win team.  The Hawks, meanwhile, had a point differential of -0.5 last year, putting them on pace for nearly 40 wins but they only finished with only 38. Simply put, one team is a little bit worse than their record while the other was just a hair better.

The biggest factor, however, was the clash in styles. Without Horford, the Hawks all-shooting, all-the-time offense matched up extremely well with the Pacers lumbering frontcourt. The presence of Pero Antic completely neutralized a fading Roy Hibbert and allowed emerging star Jeff Teague to have a field day in the paint. Teague responded by nearly elevating his team to an improbable upset that would have shaken up the dynamics of the entire postseason.

It’s that last part that makes the slapfight for the final spots on the conference’s playoff ladder somewhat interesting. The current hierarchy at the top of the East is Atlanta (25-8), Chicago (24-10), Toronto (24-10) and Washington (22-11). Those four (well, at least the first three) will likely jockey for playoff positioning until the end of the season. But aside from the Raps, who are cruising along with a +6.4 point differential -- which would put them on pace for 57 wins, according to this handy sliding scale -- despite the absence of DeMar DeRozan, the other Eastern Conference ‘heavyweights’ could find themselves in an unlikely playoff battle depending on how matchups shake out.

The dynamics, obviously, could change quite a bit between now and then. But the potential butterfly effect of one of these overlooked teams sneaking into the playoffs and eliminating one of the real contenders, is reason enough to keep tabs on this seemingly inconsequential race.  So without further ado, here’s a quick look at which teams represent potential threats for the East’s best:

1. Milwaukee Bucks

Record: 18-17

Point Differential: 0.3

Best Matchup: Atlanta

The Bucks are 1-1 against the Hawks this year after splitting a home-and-home in late December. Milwaukee’s matchup advantage against this Atlanta team is their versatile defense. Head coach Jason Kidd is starting to push a trend of smaller, more “switchable” lineups that can wreck havoc on opposing offenses. When an injury crisis left the Bucks short-handed in the frontcourt, Kidd didn’t blink when moving Giannis Antetokounmpo to the 5 while having his team switch, double-team and rotate like crazy in order to thwart opponent possessions.

Such a scheme would be a poor fit for an Atlanta team that excels by using great ball and man movement to create looks for their bevy of shooters. Switching would force the Hawks to slow down and attack mismatches in post-ups or isolations, something that suits maybe two players on their roster -- Paul Millsap and Teague. This is partly why the Atlanta offense has ground to halt in their two games against Milwaukee, averaging just 83.5 points. So if these two teams meet in the postseason, the soaring Hawks might just be grounded.

2. Indiana Pacers & Detroit Pistons

Records: 13-22 & 10-23

Point Differentials: -1.3 & -2.9

Best Matchup for Indy: Chicago

Best Matchup for Detroit: Who knows

Despite their current records, these two teams are slowly morphing into annoying teams to play. After jettisoning Josh Smith, the Pistons are 5-0 with a defensive rating of 91.7 over that stretch, per NBA.com. Though they haven’t exactly played a murderer’s row of opponents, this recent hot streak has them just four games back of a Miami trending the other way. Even more surprising is that according to ESPN’s power ranking formula, Detroit is only just one spot behind 17th place Cleveland.

What the Pistons are or how long their run will extend still remains to be seen. By cutting ties with Smith and trading for stretch big Anthony Tolliver, this team is becoming closer to the Stan Van Gundy Magic teams than ever before. There’s a real chance that if their guards (particularly Jodie Meeks) stay health, the Pistons run continues. After all, we all know Van Gundy can coach, but now he finally has a roster that suits his tastes.

The Pacers, meanwhile, have been crushed by injuries to Paul George, George Hill and David West. Yet their point differential of -1.3 puts them on pace to be a 37-win team, and that’s with Hill only playing in four games before suffering a groin strain. With their steady point guard in the lineup, Indy is 2-2 so far this season and there’s no reason to suggest they wouldn’t be a .500 level team or better once he returns.

Against Chicago, the Pacers are 1-1 so far this season with their only loss being by two points at home. Of all the teams in the East, the Pacers frontline is the only one in the league that can match the Bulls size and physicality. A potential series between these two come springtime would be the opposite of aesthetically pleasing, but it would likely be a six or seven game slugfest.

3. Boston Celtics

Record: 11-20

Point Differential: -1.1

Best matchup: Chicago or Washington

So mull this over for a second; Boston, despite trading Rajon Rondo and hoping to land in the lottery, has a better point differential than all but six teams in the conference. This team could be a real darkhorse to make a late run, but too much of what they’re doing right now screams “tanking.” Brandon Wright, acquired in the Rondo deal, is a perfect complement to Kelly Olynyk off the bench, but is getting limited minutes -- likely because the team is trying to showcase Brandon Bass to potential suitors. Bass, along with Jameer Nelson, Jeff Green and Wright could be part of an impending fire sale.

Yet this team, even if Green and Bass find new homes, could accidentally find themselves in the playoff hunt. They’ve improved tremendously on defense in year two of the Brad Stevens era, climbing all the way to 13th according to our RealGM rankings after spending last year in the bottom third of the league. Their unique offense, which features stretchy big men has the potential to cause problems for defenses in Chicago and Washington that anchored by two traditional big men.  Though they are 1-2 against both clubs so far this year, the Celtics have suffered two overtime defeats and have only been outscored by 13 points combined in those six games. Depending on how things shake out in Beantown, this team could turn out to be a pesky out in the first round of the playoffs.