Ranking the Eastern Conference So Far
With free agents finally able to formally sign contracts that were agreed to last week, we now have a clearer look at complete NBA rosters across the league. Have any of these deals shifted the balance of power in the Eastern Conference?
Below we rank each team in the East, knowing full well that plenty of changes can still take place between now and the start of the season, still four months away…
Very few additions and/or subtractions in Miami this offseason; and when you are a back-to-back champion, that’s usually a good thing. The two big question marks heading into the summer were whether Ray Allen would opt-out of his contract and whether or not they could bring back big man Chris “Birdman” Andersen. Fortunately for HEAT fans (and unfortunately for the rest of the Eastern Conference), both Allen and Andersen will return for another season on South Beach. As a result, the HEAT are locked and loaded to make a serious run at another ‘chip. While there are some concerns (primarily the deteriorating health of Dwyane Wade), Miami is once again the undisputed, odds-on favorite to win the 2013-14 NBA title
2. Brooklyn Nets:
The Nets had plenty of talent on their roster last season, and were able to win 49 games and capture the fifth seed in the East. However, they were knocked out of the playoffs by an under-manned Bulls teams missing many of their top players. In that bitterly disappointing first-round defeat, an issue that had been a major problem for Brooklyn all season reared its head in a major way – lack of heart, aggressiveness, and intensity. So, as much as future Hall-of-Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will help the Nets on the floor, their biggest and most important impact may come in the locker room. There are very few individuals who can nearly single-handedly change the culture of a franchise immediately upon his arrival. It just so happens that KG is one of those players. The Nets now boast arguably the best starting five in the sport: Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Brook Lopez. And the bench looks solid as well, as rookie Head Coach Jason Kidd will be able to sub in: Jason Terry, Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans, Shaun Livingston, Tyshawn Taylor, and rookie Mason Plumblee.
Re-signing Blatche, at a discount price, was a particularly shrewd move. Andray’s Per-36 minute averages last season where phenomenal: 19.5 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1.3 blocks. Consider this: Last season, Blatche became just second player in NBA history to average over 10 points & 5 rebounds despite playing fewer than 20 minutes per game. Having some depth on the front line will allow Brooklyn to rest KG and Pierce during the regular season, hopefully keeping them fresh for the playoffs. One last great under-the-radar move by GM Billy King was bringing in Lawrence Frank as the top assistant on Kidd’s staff. Frank, a universally respected coach, will help co-pilot this squad, as J Kidd learns the ropes.
Then, just when we all assumed the Nets offseason couldn’t get any better, they somehow convinced Andrei Kirilenko to agree to play for just the mini-mid level exception, an incredible value at the price. All of a sudden, the Nets can be viewed as a legit threat to Miami’s stranglehold on the East.
3. Indiana Pacers:
As one of the true up-and-coming teams in the Eastern Conference, the Pacers were intent on keeping their core together this off-season. And on a team teeming with young athletes, David West was a leader both on and off the floor. In fact, he was the only player on the Indiana roster over the age of 27 (West is 32). All along, Indiana declared loudly that retaining stud PF West their top offseason priority. And they accomplished that mission, as West has agreed to a three-year $36 million deal.
The Pacers also upgraded their back-up PG position (an issue in the playoffs last year) by bringing in C.J. Watson. Indiana added frontcourt depth as well by luring marksman Chris Copeland away from the Knicks. The true wildcard in Indy is Danny Granger, who missed nearly all of last season recovering from knee surgery. Granger is a gifted scorer, who can add instant offense to a team that sometime had trouble putting points on the board.
4. New York Knicks:
The Knicks are coming off their best season this century. They won 54 regular season games and finished with the second best record in the conference. The postseason ended in disappointment however, as they were handily swept aside by the Pacers in six games. The question now is whether the Knicks can improve upon last season’s success. Will they plateau in 2013-14 or will they slide back to the pack? The team returns largely intact. They’ve lost Jason Kidd to retirement, and Chris Copeland via free agency, but they will bring back both J.R. Smith and Pablo Prigioni. They drafted Tim Hardaway Jr, and traded for Andrea Bargnani (in exchange for Steve Novak and Marcus Camby). The X-factor in NYC will be Amar’e Stoudemire. Will they get anything out of their oft-injured $20 million power forward? Even if things break right, the Knicks will be hard-pressed to match the 54 wins they notched last season, but should still find themselves in the thick of the East’s playoff picture.
5. Chicago Bulls:
What may have been lost in all the hoopla and controversy surrounding Derrick Rose’s return (or lack thereof) last season, is just how good a basketball player Rose is when healthy. During the 2010-11 season, he averaged 25 points, 7.7 assists, and 4.1 rebounds en route to claiming the NBA’s MVP award. He was just 21 years of age at the time, the youngest receipt of the MVP award in league history.
If Rose and Luol Deng and Joakim Noah can stay close to 100 percent healthy, the Bulls are capable of competing with and beating any team in the NBA. Although they lost Marco Belinelli, and possibly Nate Robinson to free agency, the Bulls did bring in the underrated Mike Dunleavy, who is a great complimentary piece and should be a solid role player in Chicago. In addition, Jimmy Butler, fresh off an incredible postseason performance, is a year older and brimming with confidence. And we know Tom Thibodeau will have his guys giving max effort each night. (Although, one situation to keep an eye in the Windy City is the extremely stormy relationship between Thibs and the Bulls upper management, which is extremely rocky right now and may get worse).
6. Cleveland Cavaliers:
After the top five teams in the East, there is a major drop-off to the next tier. Still, three of the remaining 10 teams will qualify for the postseason. And now the Cavs are suddenly one of the more intriguing teams in the East, due primarily to the signing of Andrew Bynum. Rolling the dice on Bynum is obviously a risk, and the ultimate boom-or-bust proposition. Fortunately, Cleveland was able to insulate themselves by only guaranteeing one season on the contract.
While Bynum is the biggest body and biggest name, he certainly isn’t the only player Cleveland has imported this offseason. The Cavs inked Jarrett Jack, one of the NBA’s best sixth men and combo guards, to a four-year pact. They also added Earl Clark, who resurrected his career in Los Angeles last year. They also will need to find room for No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Bennett, and Russian sharpshooter Sergey Karasev (the 19th selection in the 2013 draft). Assuming both rebounding machine Anderson Varejao and the uber-exciting/ supremely talented Kyrie Irving can both stay healthy, the Cavs will have an opportunity to make some noise.
7. Atlanta Hawks:
With Josh Smith fleeing to Detroit, the Hawks lose one of the most athletic and versatile players in the NBA. However, some ATL pundits have previously posited that Smith’s inefficient and often frustrating game might not be as a big a loss as some might suspect. To replace Smith, Atlanta inked Paul Millsap to a great contract (just two year at $19). They also brought back sharp-shooter Kyle Korver and added a grinder in DeMarre Carroll.
8. Washington Wizards:
How important is John Wall to the Wiz? Well, last season, Washington went 5-28 in the 33 games they played without him. In contrast, they posted a 24-25 record with him in the lineup. Over the second half of last season, Wall was one of the NBA’s most prodigious guards – averaging 20.7 points, 7.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals. This season, Wall will be joined by a healthy Bradley Beal and new additions Otto Porter Jr (the 3rd overall pick in the 2013 draft) and backup PG Eric Maynor (via free agency). The Wiz also brought back Martel Webster. Washington hasn’t qualified for the postseason since 2008, could they book a return trip to the playoffs next Spring?
9. Detroit Pistons:
With Josh Smith playing alongside Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, Detroit will roll out one the most explosive frontcourts in the East. Smith can be frustrating because he often settles for bad shots, but there is no denying the all-around impact he has on a game when he is locked in and focused.
The issue for the Pistons will be their guard play. Brandon Knight showed flashes last season, but it’s still unknown whether he’ll develop into a true NBA point guard. Rodney Stuckey has seen has his scoring average, field goal percentage, and assists decrease in three consecutive seasons. However, Detroit landed what they hope will be their shooting guard of the future by drafting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the first round. Then, in a surprising move, GM Joe Dumars brought back former Piston Chauncey Billups. Even on his last legs, Billups will have a significant impact in the locker room, as Billups is one of the most respected veterans in the league.
10. Boston Celtics:
After the C’s parted ways with Doc Rivers, and then traded away KG and Paul Pierce, a lot of the talk in Beantown centered around whether or not the Celtics were looking to “tank “ the 2013-14 season. While they obviously won’t be contenders for the crown, they probably won’t be bad enough to get a legit shot at the #1 overall pick unless they trade Rajon Rondo as well.
11. Milwaukee Bucks:
The Bucks situation remains unsettled, because at the time this column went live, it was unknown whether or not Atlanta would match the Bucks four-year, $32 million offer sheet to Jeff Teague. Consequently, it is unknown if either Monta Ellis or Brandon Jennings will be back in Milwaukee next season. The offseason moves the Bucks have made was signing O.J. Mayo at $8 million per over three seasons, Zaza Pachulia to a $15 million pact (3 years) and Carlos Delfino (3 years at $10 million.
12. Toronto Raptors
It’s officially a quiet offseason when the biggest signing a team announces is inking Tyler Hansbrough to a two-year deal. The Raps also did shed Andrea Bargnani and netted three draft picks in return. Clearly, new GM Masai Ujiri is focused on the future and has no interest in overpaying for mediocre talent. Ujiri will continue to protect cap space and accumulate assets – be they draft picks or young talent on affordable contracts.
13. Orlando Magic:
The Magic undoubtedly have a bright future ahead of them, in large part due to the Dwight Howard trade; as we can now safely proclaim Orlando the winners of that deal, as they are the only team to actually benefit from the transaction. When the Magic traded away Howard last summer, they were hoping to get modest production from Nikola Vucevic, who looked extremely raw as a rookie in Philadelphia. However, Nikola developed into a rebounding machine and is suddenly a cornerstone of the Orlando organization. On the season, Vucevic was one of only eight players in the league to average a double-double (13.0 ppg. and 11.9 rpg). Over the final five months of the regular season, from December 1 onward, Vucevic ripped down 798 rebounds, more than any other player in the NBA. Moe Harkless also came over in the D12 deal, despite being just 19 years of age, held his own and showed tremendous potential. Tobias Harris was another youngster the Magic traded for that posted phenomenal numbers over the final few months of the regular season. Now Orlando has added Victor Oladipo to mix, and exciting and super-athletic shooting guard.
With a little luck and few more shrewd moves, the Magic may not find themselves in the Eastern Conference basement much longer; especially considering they will likely have plenty of cap space to play with next summer.
14. Charlotte Bobcats:
Yes, there are flaws in Al Jefferson’s game, but the fact of the matter is he’s a rare back-to-the-basket big man that can efficiently and effectively score on the low block. In addition, at age 28, he is still relatively young. Those types of players don’t hit the free agent market all that often. He was looking for a deal starting at $15 million a year, which seemed unlikely. However, the Bobcats, who have had trouble attracting free agents, swooped in and gave him more than any other team was willing to commit. The ‘Cats certainly need more than just an upgrade at center, but for a team that won just 21 games a season ago, it’s a step in the right direction (unless one happens to be of the opinion that the right direction was attempting to secure as many ping pong balls as possible).
15. Philadelphia 76ers:
The 76ers are clearly hitting the reset button and rebuilding with an eye on the future, as the disastrous Andrew Bynum trade essentially forced their hand. New GM Sam Hinkie decided to speed up the process as soon as he took control of the organization. Instead of potentially competing for an 8th seed (at best), Hinkie boldly traded away the teams best player for Nerlens Noel and the New Orleans Pelicans 2014 first pick. Suffice to say, expectations in Philly will not be high, which means Sixer fans can now start fantasizing about Andrew Wiggins….