The Next Power Teams – East
While the Western Conference has been dominated by just three teams since 1999 (The Next Power Teams – West), the Eastern Conference has continuously evolved. The Miami HEAT have two appearances in the NBA Finals, just recently losing to the Dallas Mavericks. The New Jersey Nets went twice but that was when they were led by Jason Kidd and now he’s in Dallas.
Of course the Boston Celtics have their two visits to the Finals, both against the Los Angeles Lakers with one title to show for it. The Detroit Pistons also beat the Lakers back in 2004 but lost the following year to the San Antonio Spurs.
The Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks each made one visit to the Finals, making the count nine different teams in 13 years as opposed to the West’s three.
The Celtics may have another run in them but age suggests their window is rapidly closing. The Orlando Magic would love to give Dwight Howard the incentive to re-sign with the team but if the lockout lasts an entire season, he may have already played his last game for the team.
Which of the Eastern Conference squads are in line to be the next perennial playoff team or even potential dynasty?
Miami HEAT - The angst surrounding their Finals loss to the Mavericks is undeniable but in year one, they were just two wins away from it working perfectly. The HEAT will be a power team for years to come as the organization looks to find the specific combination of role players that will lead to a LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh title.
Does LeBron need to learn how to raise his game in the biggest of moments? Sure . . . but incrementally. The gap isn’t as large as some might want to portray.
Together James and Wade are as potent a perimeter duo as any pair since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen won six championships together. Of course LeBron and Dwyane will need to win ONE title together before that’s anything more than hype.
Chris Bosh struggled at times during the regular season with the team in a tertiary role but Bosh was one of the team’s better players in the playoffs.
Both Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller struggled to stay healthy all year. Haslem remains a solid veteran and was able to make an impact through the postseason but Miller only had brief stretches of effectiveness. Joel Anthony is limited offensively but he plays hard. Draft pick Norris Cole (28th) has a lot of potential.
It will be interesting to see how the new rules (once a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is reached) will impact the HEAT. The team has about $66 million tied into six players for 2011-12. They’ll need some variation of the Mid-Level Exception to add in a few more impact players.
Even so, at a core the HEAT have so much talent in that six (even just their top three), they’re a power team in the East regardless of who else they add.
Beyond that, it’s up to management to fill in the gaps to put Miami truly over the top.
Chicago Bulls – With Derrick Rose the youngest regular season MVP in league history, the Bulls are set to be a force.
Rookie Head Coach Tom Thibodeau installed the “Derrick Rose Offense” which at its core was give Rose the ball and get out of the way. Thibodeau is considered a defensive genius and he made the Bulls a force on that end of the floor, helping Tom earn Coach of the Year.
With the combination of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer (along with Luol Deng at the three), Chicago has a tremendous front court.Both Noah and Boozer struggled with injury, missing major chunks of the season. Boozer didn’t necessarily live up to expectations but he’s still one of the better fours in the league.
Kyle Korver was strong as a shooter off the bench but he was exposed as a defensively liability against the HEAT in the Conference Finals. Ronnie Brewer is a strong defender and solid player overall but isn’t the same threat Korver is outside.
Off the bench Taj Gibson is an energetic four, capable of starting. Omer Asik has size and C.J. Watson speed.
Keith Bogans did his best to hold down the starting position at the two but if there’s a clear upgrade needed, it’s at shooting guard. When it came to facing the HEAT, it really came down to James/Wade vs. Rose (on the perimeter) and the Bulls were a star short. It doesn’t have to be an All-Star but Chicago needs another player who can create offense for himself (or a teammate) if the defense is sending multiple players to get the ball out of Rose’s hands.
Also noteworthy is that Korver, Brewer and Watson aren’t fully guaranteed after next season. Depending on the new CBA, the Bulls may have some spending power in what could prove to be a big summer.
As they are, the Bulls are already among the best in the East and they’re going to continue to improve . . .
Atlanta Hawks – The Hawks have quietly been one of the best teams in the East the past few seasons. Each year they seem to get better but have yet to break through as a true “power team.”
Some of the issue is the status of Josh Smith who doesn’t seem entirely happy being a Hawk. Smith is a unique player who can be a major presence on either side of the floor. He’s a bit of a tweener but he uses that to his advantage.
Smith paired with Al Horford is a potent duo. Horford is one of the most efficient bigs in the league, even if he’s technically playing out of position at center. Zaza Pachulia has the size and muscle but not necessarily the skill to be a difference-maker. The Hawks could use a little more skilled height – but who couldn’t?
Jeff Teague came on during the postseason and if he can continue to emerge as a player, the Hawks may be better on that alone. Kirk Hinrich is going into the last year of his deal and while Hinrich is a stabilizing force on the floor, Teague is the team’s future.
Marvin Williams is a decent small forward. The Hawks could use more depth or even a replacement at the three but it’s not crippling by any stretch.
Crucial to their run will be the re-signing of Jamal Crawford who is one of the team’s primary scorers (even in a bench role).
Finally Joe Johnson is still one of the best guards in the league. He’s paid like a true superstar, which he isn’t, but Johnson is a big-game player. He was better in the playoffs than the regular season. Johnson just needs a little more help but he’s a player teams have to always have to be conscious of when he’s on the floor.
If Smith is eventually traded, he’s a strong player on a reasonable contract. Look for Atlanta to get value back in return.
In general there aren’t many teams in the East that really seem ready to take over. The Hawks may be the best by attrition but they do have a solid core and a bright future.
New York Knicks – The Knicks are a top-heavy team with stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. Both are elite scorers at their position but neither has a complete floor game with defense, play-making, etc.
Stoudemire had a tremendous year with the Knicks and the team showed a lot of potential once the Anthony trade went through. Of course making such a big deal midseason wasn’t easy to overcome. An offseason, full training camp and some level of continuity would do wonders for the Knicks.
Chauncey Billups is going into the last year of his contract. If he can muster a few more years in New York, the team may be very dangerous with the right role players. Billups was hurt throughout the playoffs. He’s proven over the course of his career to be a true difference-maker.
The Knicks have some other pieces of merit including Toney Douglas, Landry Fields, draft-pick Iman Shumpert and likely re-signing Shawne Williams.
After this season, New York may be able to add in one more star with cap room (depending on the CBA), which could make the Knicks a true challenger for the HEAT. Still, a role player like Samuel Dalembert next to Stoudemire might be enough support to give the Knicks a boost once (if) the season kicks back in.
New York’s future isn’t as assured as the HEAT, Bulls or even Hawks but the potential is right within reach.
Honorable Mention: The Celtics will have spending power after next season to join Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce. If Boston lures a big star, they may not fade away at all although depth might be an issue.
Jonas Valanciunas may make the Toronto Raptors a competitor although he may take a year before joining the NBA (which may not matter given the NBA may take a year off too).
The Magic are wait and see, on Dwight Howard.
The New Jersey Nets may develop into a force with the Deron Williams/Brook Lopez pairing but Williams has an opt-out and is no lock (yet) to stay in Jersey.
The Washington Wizards have John Wall and if they keep Nick Young and JaVale McGee long-term, they have the makings of a team. The Indiana Pacers have some nice core pieces and spending power this summer (once the lockout is over). Indiana could quickly climb the ranks with the right moves.
The Milwaukee Bucks had an injury-plagued year but have pieces as well. The Philadelphia 76ers are intriguing as well.
None jump out just yet as a power team without making a number of significant moves forward . . .