LeBron has gone home, the dust is beginning to settle and the endless “I’m coming home” montages on YouTube have commenced. LeBron’s decision this time around went a lot smoother than the previous and seems as though all NBA fans that don’t support the Heat are generally content with the outcome. The only question remains is, what does this change of scenery mean for Cleveland, Miami and the rest of the league. The simplest and most effective way to predict the outcome of the free agency changes is to do an eastern conference power ranking.
The western conference is left out because A) the free agency moves have not had that much of a significant impact on contending teams, B) the major emphasis of this article are two eastern conference teams and C) the west have (by far) the 3 best teams in the NBA, being the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder, so to add them in this analysis just seems cruel to all eastern conference teams who fancy themselves a title contender. Without further ado, we start at 15.
15. Philadelphia 76ers
Surprised? Didn’t think so. As a student of the NBA I appreciate the effort Sam Hinkie is putting into building a team from the ground up, but as a long time Sixer fan I can’t help but feel ever more depressed knowing that they are still multiple years away from posing any sort of a threat. Being one win away from the eastern conference finals in 2012 seems like a life time ago and I long for the days of a competitive Philly team, but for now I’ll settle for watching exciting young players mature before my eyes. Apart from the influx of second round picks, the best of which being K.J McDaniels (who will prove to have a very solid NBA career), there wasn’t much improvement in the roster apart from the long awaited debut of Nerlens Noel. The Sixers should improve on last year’s performance, but so will the Bucks, which place them dead last in the east with approximately 20 wins.
14. Orlando Magic
The only team who could challenge the 76ers for the east’s worst record. I can’t stress enough how much I love both their 1st round draft picks, but they are very much in rebuilding mode and the devastating core of young talent will need at least another year or two before they become threatening to the east. Apart from the rookies I thought the removal of both Jameer Nelson and Aaron Afflalo were perfect moves to allow their young talent to flourish, in short Orlando did everything right this offseason in my books. Their win total should also fall somewhere in the 20-25 region.
13. Milwaukee Bucks
We have arrived at the dark horse of the bottom tier eastern teams. There are a lot of “ifs” involved with this team, the first of them being Larry Sanders. This is a very big if, but IF Larry can somehow regain some of that terrific defensive rim protection form he showed in the 2012-13 season, this team will finish with significantly more wins. IF Brandon Knight begins to reach some of that potential and takes in everything the 2nd all-time NBA assist leader has to offer this team will progress in wins even more. Finally IF Jabari Parker is every bit of the offensive nightmare I’m sure he is, the win percentage grows ever further. IF the stars align and all these scenarios miraculously work out perfectly and The Greek freak taps into his god given basketball frame, Ersan Ilyasova continues to be one of the most underrated players in the NBA and the likes of OJ Mayo, John Henson, Nate Wolters and Zaza all contribute to Jason Kidd’s new system, this could very well be a playoff team. All that being said I very much doubt the majority of that will happen, purely based on the fact I always go into NBA seasons expecting the most and always end up feeling underwhelmed, this will be a 30 win team, give or take 5 wins.
12. Brooklyn Nets
Welcome to the 2014-15 disaster team. Their coach is gone, last’s year savior is gone (Shaun Livingston), the Truth is gone, and Garnett still continues long past someone of his once spectacular caliber should. What remains? The artist formally known as Deron Williams, the ball stopper Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez who can’t possibly be the offensive terror he once was with his injury history and an array of over paid role players. They should still get 30+ wins, but don’t expect a playoff push.
Unless Josh Smith or Greg Monroe leave town, the Pistons remain a lottery team. By having 3 big man starters, they lack the floor spacing and outside shooting that a modern NBA team desperately needs. They made improvements in that area by adding Caron Butler and Jodie Meeks, but as long as Josh Smith believes he has an outside touch this team will not improve. They will finish in a similar position to Brooklyn as well as this next team.
10. Boston Celtics
This is a quietly good Boston team, are they close to being contenders? Absolutely not, but they could very well make a playoff push if events fall their way. They have one of, if not the best defensive backcourt rotation in the entire league being Rajon Rondo (if he stays) the newly reacquired Avery Bradley and the versatile Marcus Smart who can play the one or two. They have two young offensively talented big men in Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk, as well as a pure scorer in Jeff Green. Not to mention their very capable 17th pick James Young and a veteran cast of role players willing to contribute. This team should also find itself in the low to mid 30’s range.
9. New York Knicks
Sorry Knicks fan, but Melo just isn’t enough. Apart from resigning Melo and acquiring first time head coach Derrick Fisher, the Knicks have done nothing to increase their win percentage. They traded away Tyson Chandler their only inside defensive presence for Samuel Dalembert (essentially the same player except older, less rings and less talent). They improved at point guard by acquiring Jose Calderon and loosing Raymond Felony (see what I did there) in the same trade, but not to the extent that they down graded at center. The Stoudemire and Bargnani contracts give them very little wiggle room in terms of trades, so it looks like there won’t be much help coming Carmelo’s way, but if you are a Knick fan you can take solace in the fact that you now have acquired 3 players with the potential to have tremendous NBA careers (Tim Hardaway Jnr, Iman Shumpert and Cleanthony Early). Purely because of Carmelo Anthony, this kicks team should fall somewhere in the high 30’s.
8. Toronto Raptors
This Toronto team is almost exactly the same as last years 48 win team, except for one very surprising draft pick. The only reason the drop from 3rd to 8th in my mind is because the East has improved more then people realize from last years disaster. A full season with Rudy Gay will be helpful as will a backcourt tandem of two potential All-Stars being DeMare DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. As by this time we know what we are getting from the very solid Amir Johnson, Landry Fields and Tyler Hansbrough, seeing what kind of strides both Terrance Ross and Jonas Valanciunas can make will be imperative to see if this team can go any further than last years first round exit, but I very much doubt they will progress further. I see this team dropping a few wins and finishing in the low to mid 40’s.
7. Atlanta Hawks
They made the playoffs with their leader and best player injured, if healthy this season (and that’s a very big if when talking about Horford) the Hawks are a fairly lethal team. They have arguably the best shooter in the NBA in Kyle Korver, one of the very best big man rotations in the entire league with all-stars Al Horford and Paul Millsap, the underrated stretch four in Mike Scott and stretch 5 Pero Antic, as well as promising rookie Adreian Payne. They have a very unique backcourt in Jeff Teague and Thabo Sefolosha, given the right system they could be very effective, especially with Teague’s ability to penetrate and the abundance of sharp shooters to kick it out to as well as all the big men able to shoot from at least 15 feet. They could use an upgrade from DeMarre Carroll at the small forward as he would be more effective as a reserve player, but the Heat poached Luol Deng from them. This team should also finish in the mid 40’s.
6. Washington Wizards
The next 6 teams will all be within the 50-60 win mark and their standing in the East should ultimately come down to their matchups with each other. I don’t want to jinx this, but I think the East is going to be far more competitive this year, fingers crossed. The Wizards possess the best backcourt in the entire eastern conference and the scariest part of that is that they haven’t even scratched the surface of their potential. They downgraded at small forward by loosing Trevor Ariza, who was able to get up and down with both Beal and Wall, but what they lost in athleticism they made up and then some in veteran leadership, something that will only benefit this young and hungry Washington team. They locked up Gortat for the foreseeable future, which was a smart move as a solid NBA center is hard to come by in the modern age. This Washington team could very well do one better than last year and notch a spot in the eastern conference finals, and that’s the truth (pun very much intended).
5. Charlotte Hornets
Oh what a joy it is to never have to utter the Bobcats as an NBA team name. The G.O.A.T is finally starting to get a grasp at this head of basketball operations thing he’s been doing for a while now. Gone are the days of Adam Morrison and Kwame Brown draft picks, he has improved his decision making ten fold by picking up the ultra talented Noah Vonleh, and still somewhat promising Cody Zeller. The addition of Al Jefferson was the very best free agent signing last year and yes, that includes Dwight Howard. His Airness didn’t stop at last years success, he has now acquired all-star snub Lance “Born Ready” Stephenson, who couldn’t be a better fit for this team. In fact there is only one way to express how perfect this fit was http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nOxdKcqC_I . With Kemba Walker running the point along with Born Ready (who will be an all-star next year) the tremendous defense of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as well as the previously mentioned frontcourt and a number of willing role players, such as Gerald Henderson (who will hopefully be a very productive sixth man), Gary Neal and Bismack Biyombo just to name a few. Make no mistake this team is VERY dangerous and have the capability to beat any team in the east if everything gels.
Last years disaster and “what the hell happened” team. They lost Lance, but gained Rodney Stuckey. On paper that is a downgrade, but it might just be the locker room change that is needed in Indiana. They looked like a top 5 team in the entire league going into the all-star break, but after the Break they looked as though a loss was in store every night. I’m not ready to write this team off yet… Paul George is a budding superstar, Hibbert is the very best center in the east when he wants to be and David West is possibly the very best leader in the entire league, not to mention almost impossibly efficient. They need improved depth, as last year their production seemed to stop at sixth man Luis Scola. Ian Mahinmi should be more solid this year without the cloud that is known as Andrew Bynum no longer there to potentially take his game time, Lavoy Allen has what it takes to have a solid NBA career and the addition of C.J Miles isn’t going to hurt the 3 point percentage. All in all still a very, very solid, blue-collar basketball team, coached by one of the leagues very best, let’s just hope the locker room issues are a thing of the past.
The King has returned to his Kingdom, that obviously sky rockets Cleveland to potential eastern conference champions, but it’s not a sure thing. Cleveland do not have a better team than the Miami Heat did last year, when they where competing in a weaker east and were very nearly swept by the Spurs. Kyrie Irving still has a long way to go in terms of his work ethic on defense and his maturity, he undoubtedly has the talent, but whether he can harness the fullness of that talent remains to be seen. Wiggins is ready to play defense at an NBA level, but his offense can take a back seat, especially with his team thinking contention. As a side note, there is no better mentor in the world for Andrew Wiggins then LeBron, this has improved Wiggins chance of being a superstar exponentially. They’ve added some of LeBron’s sharpshooter friends from South Beach in James Jones and Mike Miller who also bring a locker room championship mentality with them. Their frontcourt is a problem, Anderson Varejao is very rarely healthy and Tristan Thompson hasn’t made much of an impact in his 3 year career. Anthony Bennett although having a very poor rookie year, has come to this year’s summer league with a new intensity, a cleaner jump shot and new dietary requirements. Speaking of the summer league, young Australian point guard Matthew Dellavedova has also seemed to improve on what was a very solid rookie year for an undrafted player and should prove to be a solid back up to Kyrie. Dion Waiter has already expressed disinterest in playing the role in which he is best suited, so further moves may still be made, I very much doubt this team is done making moves this off season, but this team as is should fall to only these next two teams in the east.
2. Miami Heat
LeBron has left a team once again, but the aftermath is nowhere near as devastating as people may think. They still carry a championship mentality and have every single player striving for the same goal. They are now very deep at point guard, drafting Shabazz Napier and re-signing Mario Chalmers. They’ve kept the heart and soul of the team with Dwayne Wade, who is hopefully up for the task for a larger role in the offense. They re-signed Chris Bosh to a humongous 5 year deal (something they may regret in years 4 and 5, but it had to be done) and they also made a lot more noise in free agency nabbing terrific two way player Luol Deng, as well as the versatile Josh McRoberts and former all-star Danny Granger. They now have a beautiful blend of former NBA/NCAA champions and very hungry newly signed players who are ready to buy into the Miami Heat system and run through a wall to live their dreams of holding up the Larry O’Brian trophy. The Heat are still a top 3 organisation in the NBA and every single player on their roster is the definition of the word “professional”, this team should make a 5th consecutive finals appearance.
1. Chicago Bulls
This ranking is very much reliant on hoping that Derrick Rose comes back from the FIBA world championships in close to his MVP form from 3 years ago. The Bulls managed to get to 48 wins by purely playing grit and grind basketball. With Rose and Noah they could potentially have 2 of the top 10 players in the NBA, something only the Clippers and Thunder could compete with. Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson are very high-energy defenders with decent offensive capabilities. They have made strides in helping their terrific defense by adding two college basketball superstars and sharp shooters Doug McDermott and hopefully keeping Jimmer Fredette. They have a fantastic back up point guard in Kirk Hinrich and the addition of veteran big man and 2 time NBA champion Pau Gasol, not only gives them veteran leadership, but also a reliable post scorer, who will provide someone for Rose to run successful pick and fades with, which will open up the offense inside for both Rose and Noah as well as create space for the newly acquired perimeter shooters. All this carefully constructed talent along with the greatest defensive coach currently in the NBA means trouble for any team. The Bulls are my pick for eastern conference champions.