Ranking the NBA Eastern Conference
The NBA’s Eastern Conference is awash with change. All-Stars have changed teams, restricted free agents were unexpectedly lost, massive contracts have been handed out and some desperate tinkering around the edges of some rosters will ensure last season’s results will not be repeated this time around.
Most teams will be facing some big changes to their starting lineups and rotation heading into next season, but out of the confusion, their rosters are coming into enough focus to get an early start on ranking the Eastern Conference.
1. Miami HEAT, 46-20 last season
Key Additions: Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis
Key Subtractions: N/A
Key Draft Additions: Justin Hamilton
The HEAT may be hit by the traditional early season hangover from winning an NBA championship, but with Derrick Rose sidelined to start the season, the HEAT are the class of the East. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are still the best Big Three in the East and all the supporting players that mattered are back for another run.
The HEAT face the lowest risk from injury of any team as they have shown that any two of their Big Three can carry them for long stretches and the rest of the roster is largely interchangeable. Ray Allen gives the HEAT additional depth that they really didn’t need. There is almost nothing that can stop the HEAT from claiming the top seed in the East next April.
2. Indiana Pacers, 42-24 last season
Key Additions: D.J. Augustin, Ian Mahinmi, Gerald Green
Key Subtractions: Darren Collison, Dahntay Jones, Lou Amundson, Leandro Barbosa
Key Draft Additions: Miles Plumlee
The Pacers invested $50 million in Roy Hibbert and $40 million in George Hill to make sure they were bringing back virtually all of the young talent that took them to third place in the East by surprise last season. Augustin, Mahinmi and Green effectively replace Collison, Amundson and Barbosa off the bench and the Pacers look ready to pick things up right where they left off. Also, the Pacers still have their room exception available and could add one of the many bargain free agents still out there.
Head coach Frank Vogel introduced “smash-mouth basketball” with effect and this young team is poised to continue the journey they started last season.
3. Boston Celtics, 39-27 last season
Key Additions: Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green*
Key Subtractions: Ray Allen, Greg Stiemsma
Key Draft Additions: Jared Sullinger, Fab Melo
Boston was in a position to rebuild, but after watching Kevin Garnett and company take the HEAT to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, they chose to reload instead. The Celtics gave Garnett $36 million, Brandon Bass $19.4 million and then added Jason Terry and Courtney Lee to give them better depth at the wing than they have enjoyed for some time. Ray Allen left for Miami despite a much better offer from Boston, but Terry gives the Celtics an equivalent replacement. Jeff Green still hasn’t signed his new $36 million contract and the deal has been only days away from completion for over a month, but Green keeps saying it will be done soon and there is no reason to believe otherwise.
The risks in Boston are obvious: Garnett, Terry and Paul Pierce are all on the wrong side of 34, but the biggest risk remains Rajon Rondo. Boston might fall as far as the lottery if Rondo gets seriously injured and the normally durable point guard has been getting hurt over the past two seasons. At this time, however, everything looks like four-leaf clovers in Boston. This group is better than last year’s team that missed the NBA Finals by the smallest of margins.
4. Chicago Bulls, 50-16 last season
Key Additions: Kirk Hinrich, Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Nazr Mohammed, Vladimir Radmanovic
Key Subtractions: C.J. Watson, John Lucas III, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Omer Asik
Key Draft Additions: Marquis Teague
Coming into next season, Derrick Rose will not be ready to play and his return date is to-be-determined. Without Rose, the Bulls simply are not the same club. Adding concern is Luol Deng’s decision to opt-out of wrist surgery because he believes it is no longer needed and the Bulls are hoping he’s right, otherwise it won’t matter if Rose gets back for the second half of the season.
Watson and Lucas were an effective point guard pairing while Rose was out last year and Hinrich and Robinson could be just fine as replacements, but it seems like an unnecessary risk. Belinelli sort of replaces Korver’s three-point threat, but Belinelli drives coaches insane with his extreme streak shooting. Mohammed has been a solid reserve center, but the 34-year-old cannot do what Asik did last season. The ‘Bench Mob’ is gone and the replacements as a group likely won’t be as good.
The Bulls’ starting lineup, even without Rose, is solid and Chicago is not about to collapse while Rose is out. However, first place in the East is not a realistic objective this season and the Bulls do not have the depth to handle another key injury. If everything goes well, Chicago will hold onto second in the Central Division and be in decent shape for a playoff run if Rose gets back in time. If things go even slightly off the rails, it could get ugly in the Windy City.
5. Brooklyn Nets, 22-44 last season
Key Additions: Joe Johnson, C.J. Watson, Reggie Evans, Mirza Teletovic
Key Subtractions: Gerald Green, Jordan Farmar, DeShawn Stevenson
Key Draft Additions: Tyshawn Taylor
The Brooklyn Nets have been spending money like water and with some savvy cap moves, their payroll now exceeds $81 million. The Nets re-signed Deron Williams for $98.7 million, Gerald Wallace for $40 million, Brook Lopez for $60.8 million and Kris Humphries for $24 million. They also managed to turn spare parts into Joe Johnson and instantly elevated the team into the cannot-be-ignored category. C.J. Watson provides a very credible backup point guard, Reggie Evans will grab his hardhat and every rebound in his vicinity and Mirza Teletovic will get a chance to prove his scoring prowess in Europe translates to the NBA.
Injuries sabotaged the Nets last season and this will be like a brand new team, even for the returning players. The level of talent might be better than that of a fifth-place team, but this group will take time to gel and some of the pieces have yet to prove they are worth the massive contracts that were bestowed upon them. The Nets could surprise up or down from here, but this group is playoff bound.
6. Atlanta Hawks, 40-26 last season
Key Additions: Lou Williams, Devin Harris, Kyle Korver
Key Subtractions: Joe Johnson, Kirk Hinrich, Marvin Williams
Key Draft Additions: John Jenkins
Josh Smith is in the final year of his contract and most people believed he wanted out and was going to be accommodated, but the Hawks surprised everyone by moving the supposedly immoveable contract belonging to Joe Johnson and the atmosphere changed in Atlanta.
The Hawks lost All-Star Al Horford for most of last season and are a much better team with him in the line-up. Signing Lou Williams for three years at the mid-level exception was a coup as Williams’ per 36 minutes scoring has been over 20 points per game for the past two seasons. Devin Harris is an upgrade at backup point guard and Kyle Korver can score off the bench. With Horford back, this group of Hawks might be just as good as last year’s team.
7. New York Knicks, 36-30 last season
Key Additions: Raymond Felton, Ronnie Brewer, Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, Pablo Prigioni
Key Subtractions: Jeremy Lin, Landry Fields, Jared Jeffries
Key Draft Additions: N/A
It was something of a surprise when the never-before cash-conscious Knicks let both of their restricted free agents move on to other teams over a little matter like a future luxury tax bill. However, the Knicks responded to the situation with their checkbook and kept their free spending image intact. Jason Kidd was signed for $9.3 million, J.R. Smith got $5.7 million, Marcus Camby via sign-and-trade got $13.2 million contract, Raymond Felton has a $14.8 million deal and Steve Novak is $15 million richer. The Knicks’ payroll for next season topped $79 million in the process.
The Knicks continue to search for that elusive chemistry that can maximize the talents of Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, and provide this franchise with a consistent elite level of play. Whether or not the Knicks have succeeded is anyone’s guess, but they have acquired some stabilizing veterans who might be able to provide a framework for success and they certainly have the star power to be a playoff team. Unfortunately, there may not be a team in the NBA that has shown more potential to underachieve.
8. Toronto Raptors, 23-43 last season
Key Additions: Kyle Lowry, John Lucas III, Landry Fields
Key Subtractions: Jerryd Bayless, James Johnson, Gary Forbes
Key Draft Additions: Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross
Kyle Lowry won the starting point guard spot in Houston two seasons ago and has since earned a reputation as a tough, fearless guard who can score off the dribble or from deep range while being able to defend his own position without help. Much of the optimism in Toronto revolves around what Lowry brings to the Raptors. Lowry allows Raptors head coach Dwane Casey to move Jose Calderon to the second unit and Lucas finally gives the Raptors a third-string point guard who can start if necessary.
Where Jonas Valanciunas represents the future for Toronto big men and is expected to have a strong rookie campaign, the Raptors will be counting on a healthy Andrea Bargnani to carry much of the scoring load and continue the elevated level of play witnessed prior to his injury last season.
Toronto has evolved into a good defensive unit under Casey, but they will face tough competition for eighth this season and another injury to Bargnani or a point guard controversy between Lowry and Calderon could easily derail the Raptors’ season. However, if this group gels and everything stays together, there will likely be a postseason appearance for Toronto in April.
9. Philadelphia 76ers, 35-31 last season
Key Additions: Andrew Bynum, Jason Richardson, Nick Young, Kwame Brown, Dorell Wright
Key Subtractions: Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Elton Brand
Key draft additions: Arnett Moultrie
The 76ers were the NBA’s third-best team in points allowed and opponent’s field goal percentage last season behind one of the league’s best defensive players, All-Star Andre Iguodala. While the trade for Andrew Bynum represents good value, this move will dramatically impact how the 76ers play going forward and to add some concern, the 24-year-old Bynum is taking his surgically-repaired knees to Europe next month for Orthokine therapy.
Earlier, 76ers president Rod Thorn had amnestied Elton Brand and let Lou Williams walk in free agency, losing two of his best players in the process while acquiring Nick Young and Kwame Brown. The overall impact has been the loss of three of the 76ers’ top players for an oft-injured All-Star center, a diminished veteran shooting guard, a developing wing and a journeyman center. Philadelphia does have players on its roster who can step up to fill in the holes, but with the changes, head coach Doug Collins has his work cut out for him.
10. Milwaukee Bucks, 31-35 last season
Key Additions: Samuel Dalembert
Key Subtractions: Kwame Brown, Carlos Delfino
Key Draft Additions: John Henson, Doron Lamb
The Bucks’ big moves this offseason were to re-sign Ersan Ilyasova for $40 million and acquire Samuel Dalembert to replace Kwame Brown. The Bucks are slightly better than last year, but this roster is largely unchanged and the East has gotten better.
Milwaukee did well in the draft and needs to find playing time for their young prospects. Monta Ellis could opt-out at the end of the season, Mike Dunleavy and Dalembert are in their contract year, and the Bucks have some decisions to make.
11. Washington Wizards, 20-46 last season
Key Additions: Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor
Key Subtractions: Andray Blatche, Rashard Lewis
Key Draft Additions: Bradley Beal
The Wizards finally admitted that what they were doing wasn’t working and started moving out the question marks last season. Amnestying Andray Blatche was the final step in that process. They now have a solid core of veterans, mostly on short-term deals, to mentor their young players and provide budding star John Wall a much better environment in which to play.
Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza are the present, but this team is all about Wall, Bradley Beal, Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker and Jordan Crawford going forward, and any short-term success will be riding on how fast the 21-year-old Wall can become the All-Star point guard envisioned when he was drafted. It will take time, but the future in Washington is starting to look pretty good.
12. Orlando Magic, 37-29 last season
Key Additions: Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga
Key Subtractions: Dwight Howard, Ryan Anderson, Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon, Earl Clark
Key Draft Additions: Andrew Nicholson, Kyle O’Quinn
Now that Dwight Howard and Jason Richardson are gone, the starting line-up for the Magic in October could read Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, Hedo Turkoglu, Al Harrington and Glen Davis. Too good to tank the season, not good enough for the playoffs, the shattered Magic still have decisions that need to be made.
A team that has been abandoned for a second time in their history by the best center in the game will probably have some issues when it comes to rebuilding, but that is not a good reason to waste a season with indecision. New general manager Rob Hennigan came from an organization that rebuilt through the draft and the Magic are incentivized to get the best draft pick they can next June.
13. Detroit Pistons, 25-41 last season
Key Additions: Corey Maggette
Key Subtractions: Ben Gordon
Key Draft Additions: Andre Drummond, Kyle Singler
Not many of the Pistons’ moves have worked out since they started rebuilding on the fly. The free agent acquisitions of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva in 2009 bombed, re-loading with the old stars from the recent glory years of the franchise failed and the team just hasn’t been the same since Chauncey Billups was traded in 2008. Fortunately, the Pistons have drafted better. Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight are the future of the franchise and this year’s pick, Andre Drummond, has a lot of potential.
Detroit paid the Charlotte Bobcats to take Gordon off their hands and received Corey Maggette and his expiring deal in return, but this move was a financial transaction, not a basketball trade and will not make the Pistons better until next season. The roster remains a mixture of young players who represent the future and veterans that may actually be in the way. There is talent here beyond the win-loss record, but there is little evidence the team has figured out how to access or best develop it.
14. Cleveland Cavaliers, 21-45 last season
Key Additions: C.J. Miles, Kelenna Azubuike
Key Subtractions: Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker, Ryan Hollins, Alonzo Gee*
Key Draft Additions: Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller
Antawn Jamison was the Cavaliers second-best scorer and third-best rebounder and they let him walk away in free agency, but it doesn’t matter. Jamison was not in the long-term plan. The Cavaliers could have up to 11 players on rookie deals next season as everything the team does in 2012-13 is focused on the future. Alonzo Gee will probably be back on his qualifying offer as there has only been limited interest in the restricted free agent and most other teams are out of options anyway, but he needs to make a decision.
The Cavaliers are one of the few teams with any salary cap space and only have $14.6 million in guaranteed deals next year, but don’t expect the team to hinder any of that hard-earned flexibility. This will be a season of player evaluation and development. Some nights the Cavaliers will look really good and the next game, they will play like a bunch of rookies. Get ready for a bumpy, but exciting ride as the Cavaliers plan for 2013-14.
15. Charlotte Bobcats, 7-59 last season
Key Additions: Ben Gordon, Ramon Sessions, Brendan Haywood
Key Subtractions: D.J. Augustin, Corey Maggette
Key Draft Additions: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeff Taylor
The Bobcats are rebuilding out of a deep dark hole; a seven-win season says it all. Kemba Walker, Bismack Biyombo and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist give Charlotte a solid core of young talent for the future, but the moves the team made this summer are an acknowledgement that future success is still several seasons away.
By taking on Ben Gordon’s $25.6 million, the Bobcats added another year and $14.7 million to their payroll to get a protected first-round draft pick from Detroit and then they added to their long-term commitments with $10 million over two years for Ramon Sessions. Amnesty has not been used on Tyrus Thomas and his remaining three years as the Bobcats are still below the salary cap and there must still be some hope that the 25-year-old power forward can get it together before a decision needs to be made.
Expectations remain low, but the Bobcats will not be as bad as last year and with a couple more lottery picks, the future should look a lot brighter.
There is still a long time before training camps and preseason games start in October, but most teams are down to their last one or two open roster spots and have used their salary cap space and their exceptions. Player movement will be slowing down dramatically for a while as teams digest all the changes they have made.
Without a single game or practice in the books, each team’s offseason moves remain open to interpretation. Let us know what you think in the comment section below and give us your early ranking of the Eastern Conference teams.