If you’re looking for a story filled with parity and incredible competition, with teams battling and cannibalizing each other throughout the season, kindly close your computer, put on your jacket and go take a walk. This one just isn’t for you. Sorry, bub. The Eastern Conference is about as top heavy as Christina Hendricks driving an early 90’s Jeep Wrangler. In fact, the majority of the teams east of the Mississippi would be on the outside-looking-in come playoff time if they were out west. However, yes, there are some nice teams, and due to the myriad of off-season transactions made by the Cavs, Heat, Hornets, and Bulls, the door is wide open, and the tide is ripe for some shifting. A lot of this is due in part to the Pacers shattering (pardon the pun), with Paul George out for the year, Lance Stephenson jetting to Charlotte and Roy Hibbert slowly transforming into Greg Ostertag. At any rate, mark my words: there will be a new team in the Eastern Conference Finals, most likely two.
1) Cleveland Cavaliers
I’m still shocked at what the Cavs were able to pull off this summer. I mean, this is Cleveland we’re talking about! Cleveland! Home of heartbreak and Comic Sans. But I digress.
LeBron took his talents home, Kyrie Irving is healthy and signed a lofty extension, and Kevin Love joins the team to create a new “big three.” Mike Miller and Ray Allen (eventually) are nice off-the-bench acquisitions that can put up points in the blink of an eye and have championship experience. First year head coach David Blatt brings with him a plethora of offensive schemes and knowledge that should create plenty of “oh-my- god-I-can’t-believe-what-I-just-saw” (KEVIN LOVE OUTLET PASSES TO LEBRON OMG!!!!!) moments, and plenty of sleepless nights for opposing teams. After losing in the finals last year, LeBron will be playing with a massive chip on his shoulder. All we can do is pray for everyone else, or hope his shoulders collapse while carrying the entire state of Ohio.
The biggest questions surrounding this team are defense and chemistry. Offensively, the Cavs could find themselves at the top of the NBA. Defensively, the Cavs still don’t have a reliable rim protector and lack overall depth. Varejao, Love and Tristan Thompson should gobble up all the rebounds, but if you think you’re getting 82+ games out of Andy, I have a beach house in Iowa I can sell you.
With a new coach at the helm, ushering in a new system, and a bunch of new players, can the Cavs gel quickly in order to earn the #1 slot? Will Love and Kyrie be cool as the #2 and #3 options? Can Dion Waiters take a back seat to the big three? It wouldn’t shock me one bit if the Cavs ended up moving Waiters for some front court depth before the trade deadline. Overall, I think they’ll be just fine. People forget the 2010 Heat were 9-8 the first month they played together. I’ll keep putting my money on Bron-Bron until I’m proven otherwise.
One more thing to consider: this could very well be the fifth consecutive year that LeBron plays in the NBA Finals. Neither Kobe nor Jordan ever accomplished that.
2) Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls kept themselves busy this summer, but the biggest addition to this team will be a healthy Derrick Rose. I’m still skeptical and will continue to be until Rose can prove he can stay healthy. God, this breaks my heart. I love Rose’s game, but it simply isn’t smart to bank on a Bulls team that relies so heavily on him. There’s just no telling what kind of player he’ll be over a full season, or if he can even make it through a full season.
Signing Pau Gasol was a huge get for the Bulls. Even if he’s no longer in his prime, he still takes a boatload of pressure off Rose while adding depth at the power forward position. Pau and Joakim Noah should form a formidable front court, and having Taj Gibson coming off the bench is downright terrifying. Adding Aaron Brooks was a sneaky good signing, while drafting Nikola Mirotic and McBuckets to play alongside Mike Dunleavy gives this team some much needed scoring. Oh, and Jimmy Butler continues to get better. Double oh, Tom Thibodeau is still the coach. Triple oh, this team still defends its ass off.
On paper, the Bulls have the best overall roster in the East, and if they can stay healthy, they’re the only true threat to Cleveland.
3) Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Drakes (as they will now be referred to until the end of time) weren’t supposed to do a damn thing last year. That notion didn’t last,. After the Rudy Gay trade, nothing was the same. The Drakes went 42-22 and locked up the #3 seed in the East, losing in heartbreaking fashion to the Nets in the first round of last years playoffs. Now, the team did their best “we’re getting the band back together” routine, with their top seven scorers all back in uniform.
Kyle Lowry played out of his mind last season, and should have been an All-Star. Demar Derozan earned a spot on the All-Star team and spent the summer gaining invaluable experience playing in the FIBA World Cup. Same goes for rising big man Jonas Valanciunas. Picking up Lou Williams from Atlanta was a sneaky good move, as he should provide a spark off the bench along with some nice backcourt depth.
The Atlantic Division has regressed, and barring injuries, there’s no conceivable reason why the Drakes can’t win it for the second straight decision. In return, this means securing home court advantage and the third seed in the playoffs. And this time they should be out for blood, with a cohesive, improved, and matured roster. I fully expect this team to go beyond a game 7 in the opening round and give either the Cavs or Bulls a slug fest of a series in the second round.
4) Washington Wizards
Washington will be one of the best teams in the East this year, despite having the stupidest logo and uniforms in the league. As soon as Bradley Beal gets healthy, the Wiz will roll out the East’s best back court duo. Nene and Gortat will once again dominate the paint and could be the most physical duo in the league. Adding Paul Pierce was fantastic. He won’t completely fill the void Trevor Ariza left, but he’ll be a nice wing partner with Beal, and Washington’s offense should improve on the perimeter significantly. He also brings savvy veteran leadership, a fiery competitive streak and a knack for coming through in the clutch.
The Wizards are also a deeper team than they were last year. Something they sorely needed. Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. should get plenty of minutes. Dejuan Blair and Kris Humphries aren’t stars, but they can do some nice things, and should fill the role left by Trevor Booker. Martell Webster could provide a nice spark off the bench, provided he’s healthy. However, the success on this team still lies firmly on the backs of Wall and Beal. I expect them to make the jump and take this team to new heights this season. If my predictions go right, that Cavs/Wiz match up in the second round will be a can’t miss. Start prepping your popcorn now.
5) The Miami Heat
Now that LeBron is gone, will the Heat be able to maintain their era of Easter Conference dominance (they’ve won 12 straight playoff series)? Or will they become the scorned ex-girlfriend, clad in Ugg boots and sweatpants, downing Chardonnay and Ben and Jerry’s by the gallon? One thing we know for certain, the post-LeBron era will definitely be interesting.
It’s easy to forget that in the shadow of LeBron’s departure, Shane Battier, Ray Allen, and the corpse of Rashard Lewis are all gone as well. Two out of those three played significant roles for the Heat throughout their title runs. On the other side, re-signing Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh keeps the core intact. Both have championship experience, have carried teams in the past, and are top-five players at their position. Signing Josh Mcroberts gives the Heat some needed toughness, floor spacing and scoring ability. But replacing LeBron with Luol Deng is kind of like putting a bandaid on an axe wound, though he’s still a hell of a player who should fit in well within the Heat’s system . And if Danny Granger can have anything that resembles a return to form, he should provide the Heat with some firepower they need off the bench. Also, don’t forget that Spoelstra can coach his ass off.
This team isn’t without its problems, though. Their point guard situation is a shit storm, they don’t protect the rim or rebound well, and their front court is thinner than a coked-out Kate Moss. What’s more, can all these new additions play cohesively? Can Dwayne Wade’s knees withstand another deep postseason run before they inevitably turn to ash and dust? Do they have the resiliency to bounce back after what San Antonio did to them last year? Does Bosh have it in him to carry a team? I have my doubts.
6) Charlotte Hornets
Oh man, it brings me so much joy just to be able to write “Charlotte Hornets.” Seeing the purple and teal back where it belongs puts a Titanic sized shit-eating-grin on my face. Now, if only they could bring back Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning (pre Madison Square Garden brawl, of course).
The Bobcats were one of the feel-good stories of last season. After being a perennial cellar dweller, they finally broke out, going 43-39 and earning the 7th seed in the playoffs. Yes, they were swept by the Heat, but the season marked vast improvement and ushered in some new found optimism for the future.
MJ was busy this summer, doing something other than golfing and wearing terrible clothes. He lured do-it-all swingman Lance Stephenson away from the Pacers, along with Marvin Williams from the Jazz. Paired with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson, the Hornets have both athleticism and depth at the wing. Williams proved last year that he’s capable of playing a stretch four, and along with Noah Vonleh and an improving Cody Zeller, should be able to fill the void left by Josh Mcroberts.
Kemba Walker could very well make the All-Star team this year, and has proved he has the clutch gene going back to his Uconn days. Al Jefferson is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, averaging 22 points and 11 boards, while improving his defense. Add that to everything I’ve already mentioned and you have the makings of a pretty solid squad. If the Hornets can gel and continue to improve, then I may have ranked them too low.
7) Atlanta Hawks
Last season, the Hawks made the playoffs without Al Horford. Last season, the Hawks found themselves in a game 7 against the top-seeded Pacers without Al Horford. This season, Al Horford is healthy. I really like Al Horford, guys. Pair him with fellow All-Star Paul Millsap (I miss you so much, Paul) and you have a duo that should flirt with double-doubles on a nightly basis. Both can shoot, rebound, pass, defend, and together, they should be able to play the high-low game with relative ease.
The Hawks also have Jeff Teague, a top-10 point guard. Only the Spurs averaged more assists than this team last season. Kyle Korver is the league’s best three-point shooter, Thabo Sefolosha, Demarre Carroll and Kent Bazemore bring defense and athleticism to the wing. Pero Antic is terrifying. Head coach Mike Buldenhozer worked alongside Gregg Popovich. They brought back the Pacman logo! In short, there’s plenty to be optimistic about in ATL.
Even with Horford in the lineup, this team is undersized, and will most likely struggle rebounding the ball. Horford has also missed 116 regular season games in the past three seasons, so I question his durability. Moreover, The Danny Ferry fiasco certainly didn’t help a front office that’s had a history of turmoil. Also, the Hawks bench isn’t anything to get excited about. In fact, I’d be surprised if the Hawks didn’t try and pick someone up via trade or waivers to add some depth. It’s going to take something special for this team to get out of the first round of the playoffs this year, but I do see the Hawks as a team on the rise.
8) Brooklyn Nets
It wasn’t too long ago that KG, Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce were Brooklyn bound. Joining forces with Brook Lopez, and Deron Williams to form a basketball Voltron and crush the Eastern Conference and bring a title to New York. My have the mighty have fallen. This year, with new head coach Lionel Hollins at the helm, the Nets will try and claw their way back into contention.
On the bright side, the Nets have a nice stable of capable big men with Garnett, Lopez and Miles Plumlee. Throw in former Swiss-Army knife AK47, and the Net should be able to win some games on size alone. If Deron Williams can stay healthy, he can still play at an elite level–same goes for Joe Johnson who’s battling Father Time. Croatian rookie Bojan Bogdanovic is a player to keep an eye on. Pairing him with Mirza Teletovic and Jarrett Jack could give Brooklyn some great shooting off the bench. They also have the best uniforms in the game.
On the dark side, this team just can’t seem to stay healthy, and with that, depth becomes a huge issue. Williams, Kirilenko, Garnett and Lopez missed a combined 148 games last season. Brooklyn continues to get older, and will have a tough time keeping up with super athletic teams like the Cavs, Raptors and Wizards. Also, rebounding is a huge concern. With all these glaring issues, I would expect Mikhail Prokorhov to shell out some more of his billions trying to sure up this team. If they want to compete, he’s going to have to.
Even after writing and analyzing all these teams, I still don’t see anyone advancing to the finals outside of Cleveland or Chicago. Part of me hopes I’m wrong, even though I’m an admitted LeBron fan boy. Parity is always a good thing in sports, so are teams that come out of nowhere and shake everything up. Here’s hoping both of those things happens.
I need a beer.