So very different from the tightly contested West, the East is the conference where literally anyone can make the playoffs. After all, the Atlanta Hawks managed to do it with just 38 wins last season, so basically if you’re as tall as this sign, you can play in the first round.
Of course, just because the East is bottom heavy doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting, and with all of the player movement in the offseason, starting and ending with the great LeBron James, the East is far and away the more interesting conference about which to speculate, at least right now before the games actually begin.
The Sure Things
Chicago Bulls: There’s an endless supply of opinions about who may come out of the East, but one thing they all have in common is that they frame it as a two team race between the Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Count me in the Bulls’ corner with two big “ifs.” First, the Bulls project as my #1 seed IF Derrick Rose can stay healthy. That goes without saying. Second, the Bulls project as my #1 seed IF Derrick Rose is still Derrick Rose. He looked pretty awful through much of the preseason before lighting it up the other night against the Cavs. If Rose is Rose, the Cavs have a winning combination in their frontcourt of the slick and versatile offense of Pau Gasol and the energetic and defense-minded leadership of Joakim Noah. You won’t find a better suited pairing in the NBA, at least on paper. For those reasons, I have the Bulls at the top of the East.
Cleveland Cavaliers: And, of course, if it’s not going to be the Bulls, then surely it will be the Cavs. They have LeBron, and LeBron is not only the best player on the planet, he’s the best player he’s ever been as well. Having Kevin Love as a stretch 4 to play off of, moreover, should elevate both players to yet another level. The biggest questions for Cleveland are whether Kyrie Irving can adjust to going from “the man” to “that other guy with LeBron and Kevin” and how long it takes the newest “big 3” to learn to win together. Usually, that’s two seasons, not one.
Washington Wizards: You have to like the way this team is built, with an athletic, scoring minded backcourt and tough physicality up front. Adding veteran leadership in Paul Pierce to a roster that won’t need Pierce to play like he was still in his prime is almost certainly a good move. There are still questions about Washington’s ability to get easy baskets in the half court set and it won’t help a developing team like the Wizards that Bradley Beal is out to start the season. Beal and John Wall just came into their own last season so it’s rather inopportune that they won’t get to immediately build upon that.
Miami Heat: Gee, remember four years ago when people were screaming that it was practically cheating for Miami to pair up LeBron with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh? Where are those people now that LeBron has left, making Cleveland an instant title contender, while Miami, if histrionics were to be believed, will be tanking with crappy Wade and crappy Bosh on their roster. Yeah, right. Miami won’t be a finals contender, but they will cruise to a playoff berth without even breaking a sweat. Newly added Luol Deng ain’t LeBron, but he ain’t chopped liver either, and Wade and Bosh both seem like they are very much looking forward to a LeBron-less season where every single loss doesn’t engender panic stricken headlines asking what’s wrong, they lost a game!
Indiana Pacers: No Lance Stephenson, no Paul George, some people actually say the Pacers are “rebuilding.” Well, they’ll have to do a lot more to drop that low. They still have a productive David West and Roy Hibbert, who was very good for a lot longer than he was terrible. They also add Rodney Stuckey, who is one of those players like Ben Gordon who always gets stats that go unnoticed. In a tougher conference, the Pacers would be toast, but in this East, they’re still in the mix.
Brooklyn Nets: Last year’s joke about the Nets – that they were right on track to win the 2007 NBA Championship, still applies. Kevin Garnett and Joe Johnson are both a year older, and Deron Williams is a year further removed from when he was considered one of the league’s up and coming superstars. The Nets look a lot different with a healthy Brook Lopez in the middle, but that’s only happened once in the last 3 years.
Toronto Raptors: It’ll be between Brooklyn and the Raptors to see who can win the Atlanstink Division: Toronto won it last year, but it’s hard to consider them a proven commodity. Athletic wingman DeMar DeRozan and point guard Kyle Lowry both peaked last season and probably don’t have too much more upside left. Newly acquired Lou Williams is a proven commodity as sixth man, but I’m over the idea that starter Terrence Ross will ever be more than he is right now. If there’s growth to be had, it’s from 7 foot center Jonas Valunciunas, who made significant strides last season and seems to have more to go. You can never underestimate how much impact a big man can have…
Detroit Pistons: Unless, of course, you’re the Detroit Pistons and have spent the last two seasons wondering why your excellent frontcourt tandem of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe hasn’t translated to more wins. I suspect this year it will, as Stan Van Gundy, while not a Hall of Fame level coach, is more than capable of wringing success out of what talent there is. In Drummond’s case in particular, that’s plenty, although this is undoubtedly a make or break year for volatile point guard Brandon Jennings. The Pistons can’t be pleased at having gotten passed by teams like Charlotte, Washington & Toronto who all seemed to be behind them. It’s their turn this year, or else.
New York Knicks: I think Carmelo made a real mistake going back to the Knicks, or, more specifically, if he ever wanted to win a title, I think he made a real mistake. This franchise needs so much more work than it can possibly get done while Anthony is still at the top of his game, and his presence at all will probably cause New York to win too many game to make real improvement possible. The Knicks still rue the contract they gave Amar’e Stoudemire, but obviously learned nothing from the experience or they wouldn’t have Andrea Bargnani sitting behind him on the depth chart. Carmelo is dynamic enough to generate some wins – the Knicks are surely better than their 37 win total a year ago, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that this was a playoff team for the three years in a row before that. The Knicks haven’t gotten any better in that time, but neither has the rest of the conference.
Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks are the home of the NBA’s unappreciated player. Al Horford, the best center no one ever heard of is here, as is Paul Millsap, that other power forward, and Jeff Teague, who’s a top third point guard with bottom third name recognition. The team, however, lacks real cohesion, and certainly lacks a star, and the only way they’ll make the playoffs this year is the same way they made it last year – by default.
Charlotte Hornets: Normally, my dark horse is a team that might come out of nowhere to make the playoffs, but as I’ve pointed out, half the team in the East that make the playoffs fit that description. Instead, Charlotte is a certain playoff team, but I think they’re the one team that could actually challenge the top 2. Adding Lance Stephenson was real vision: he’s the one on the rise free agent who could really become a star player in his new environs. Al Jefferson provides the post presence every team needs to be competitive. If rookie Noah Vonleh pans out, and can do so relatively quickly, you might just see Charlotte, and not either Cleveland or Chicago, in the conference finals this year.
Boston Celtics: Drafting Marcus Smart was the clear indication that Rajon Rondo will be dealt this year, right? Well, I thought he’d be dealt last year, and so did everyone else in the known universe, and yet he’s still a Celtics. Still, Boston should be in full rebuild mode, and Rondo is a piece they could deal to multiple teams who would give them a valuable package in return. Time to pull the trigger.
Orlando Magic: I really do like the way Orlando’s rebuild is shaping up. A backcourt of Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton has the potential to be a defensive nightmare for opponents, and although I’m not completely sold on Nik Vucevic as a center, he certainly is a prolific scorer and rebounder and maybe needs no more than a strong defensive presence alongside him to make the frontcourt work. Can Aaron Gordon fill that role? The good news for Orlando is they have multiple young prospects coming up together that the team can evaluate.
Philadelphia 76ers: I had no problem with the Sixers drafting Nerlens Noel last year, and if this preseason is any indication, he will have been well worth the one year wait. If Joel Embiid is healthy, he will undoubtedly also be worth the wait. The same is definitely not true of Dario Saric, the Sixers second top 10 pick which they wasted on eurotrash that won’t even play until 2016. All of the so-called solutions for tanking that I’ve heard are terrible ideas, but the Sixers surely make you want to see someone do something to stop it.
Milwaukee Bucks: I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that Jabari Parker, with his offensive skill set, degree of pro polish and vsat opportunity with the Bucks will almost certainly win the Rookie of the Year this year. And the bad news is all the other news that you will hear about the Bucks this season. Of course, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Milwaukee’s no Rome, so if Parker can play at all that will be a step in the right direction. Can the Bucks out-lose the Sixers this season? I say, “Yes they can!” but I’m a cockeyed optimist.
[featured image via NBA]