It may sound counterintuitive, but the season that I personally link to the sport of basketball is summer. It’s a time when just about anyone who loves hoops grabs a ball and takes to courts on cement, asphalt, blacktop, and even sand to play beneath the blue skies of summer. Basketball is an outdoor sport as much as an indoor sport, and I always find myself most obsessed with it in July and August, even with the college and pro regular seasons months away.
Instead of NBA basketball, we get the whirlwind that is the NBA offseason this time of year. This summer’s has been especially fun, highlighted by The Decision 2.0. In the background, Team USA has been preparing for the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
Today, I will take a far off look at the upcoming season in the Eastern Conference, which has been so changed over the past 10 weeks.
Of course, when the time comes for College Sports Town’s annual NBA Preview in October, many of the East’s teams may look quite different. As it stands on August 10th, here are my thoughts on each Eastern Conference team, roughly in the order I see them finishing.
Everything hinges on the health of Derrick Rose for Chicago. With the league’s best point guard healthy, the Bulls are probably the favorites in the East, even with the once again LeBron-led Cavs ready to light up the league. This could, and should, be the best Bulls team since the MJ days. Defensively, there’s little doubt they’ll be the class of the Association; Tom Thibodeau is a maestro and the team has stellar defensive players across the board. Offensively, they should explode with Rose initiating things and rookie wing Doug McDermott–the best offensive college player I’ve ever seen–joining the club. Joakim Noah is the league’s best all-around center in my book: he does everything well and doubles as an elite teammate. Carlos Boozer (and his awful contract) is gone, but Chicago won’t miss him much with the additions of post presences Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic. If Rose plays and plays well, the Bulls are a lock for 60+ wins and a deep playoff run.
Yes, the King is back. And the league’s best offensive 4 also appears to be headed to Ohio. Folks can argue the merits of the Wiggins-Love trade all day long, but the fact of the matter is that, in the short-term, the trade has very little potential to hurt the Cavs. K-Love is in limbo between very good player and superstar, but the Cavs won’t need him to be a superstar. With the league’s best player already in tow, adding Love was the safe route for Cleveland. The sheer force of LeBron all but guarantees the Cavs at least 50 wins. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are both terrific players too, and, on paper, the new Big 3 is far superior to the one Bron left in Miami. There are certainly question marks though; how will the two younger stars adapt to playing with the King, and how will new coach David Blatt manage the super-team? The Cavs have the potential to be tremendous right off the bat. But not every test tube team can gel as quickly as the ’08 Celtics did.
Surefire Playoff Teams:
The Raptors exploded onto the scene last year, and at the moment they have me feeling like they’re not that far from the Title Contender category. DeMar DeRozan’s emergence has been a joy to watch–he’s gone from a great athlete who put up some nice stats to a guy you could almost feel comfortable building a team around. 2013-14 was a career year for the former Trojan, and he thrived in the Raps’ first round loss to Brooklyn. The Raptors are a good, balanced team with a top 10 point guard in Kyle Lowry and a cornerstone big man in Jonas Valanciunas. The Raptors are young and the upcoming season will be a sort of litmus test to see if, as currently constructed, they can compete for titles in the coming years.
The Wizards are a superstar away from contending for a ‘ship. Still, for a franchise that has had a miserable decade, these are happy days indeed in the nation’s capital. The Wiz inked Paul Pierce in July, and PP will slide onto the scene for a squad that apparently thinks it’s 2002 (two seven footers on their frontline). Washington is balanced and decently talented, and John Wall and Bradley Beal make up one of the more entertaining backcourts in the league. The Wizards will make the playoffs this winter, barring a disaster. But they won’t go that deep unless Wall takes a huge step forward and Pierce plays like he’s 26 instead of 36.
The Heat are basically back to where they were before LeBron arrived. They’ve got star power, but modest title hopes. In addition to resigning Chris Bosh to a huge, and likely misguided contract, the Heat added Luol Deng last month. Deng’s no LeBron James, but he’s also far from a scrub. As long as Dwyane Wade and Bosh can stay healthy, the Heat look like a solid playoff team on paper.
The Nets barely made it into this category. The reason they made it: Lionel Hollins is the new coach in BK and he’s a good one. But it’s easy to worry about the Nets. Billy King elected not to open up their checkbook to bring back Pierce, who was their best two-way player for much, if not most, of last year. You wonder how many good years Joe Johnson has left–it feels like he could fall off the map John Salmons-style any time now. And then there’s the fact that Deron Williams manages to lose a couple of steps each year. In the playoffs last year, he even managed to lose his jump shot. Locals say it was last seen in Oceanside. Brook Lopez will return, and that will help, but the Nets likely will wind up going as far as Mirza Teletovic can take them (read: not very far).
Mediocre Fringe Playoff Teams
New York Knicks
Some people say that this is the worst category to be in. I disagree. I like the low playoff seeds. Sure, they don’t have true title aspirations or a long-term plan to win a title in 2023, but at least their regular season isn’t tainted by tanking or coasting. But I digress. Let’s talk about the Knicks. In theory, Carmelo Anthony alone should get them to the playoffs, and he almost did last year in spite of the hurricane around him. Knicks president Phil Jackson has calmed the storm, brought in a new coach, and locked Anthony up long-term. The rest of the Knicks’ roster is, more or less, a farce. Jackson will be presiding over an overhaul for the next couple of seasons, but the first goal should be to restore some positive vibes*.
The Hawks sucked last year and shouldn’t have made the playoffs. In fairness, they had to go almost the whole year without Al Horford. And, yes, they almost beat Indiana in the first round. But Horford is never healthy, and the Hawks only nearly pulled the upset thanks to some smoke and mirrors magic from coach Mike Budenholzer. The Hawks resigned Kyle Korver in July and probably will make the playoffs again in the winter if they stay healthy. Still, if they don’t, nobody will be that surprised or upset.
What is there to say about the Hornets? They’re not very good…but they made the playoffs last year thanks to one of the league’s best defenses (turns out the fat Steve Clifford, AKA the fat Scott Skiles, is a pretty good coach) and a monster season from Al Jefferson. Next year, they could be even better defensively due to the addition of the erratic but talented Lance Stephenson. The Hornets might make the playoffs. They might not. Either way, at least they don’t have to call themselves the Bobcats anymore.
The Celtics are a mystery to me at the moment. They still haven’t traded Rondo and it’s hard not to wonder if they can even get much for Rajon at this point. Jeff Green has a horrible contract and has seemingly settled into the role of being the Emeka Okafor of wings. The C’s drafted a couple of studs in Marcus Smart and James Young. Smart’s game is a work in progress, but he’s got future star written all over him. They also picked up Evan Turner on the cheap, and he’s clearly got some game. If the Celtics want, they can probably make a push for that 8 spot. The question: do they want to?
The Pacers won more regular season games than any other Eastern Conference team last year. Then they fell apart late in the year. Then the offseason arrived, Stephenson got signed by Charlotte, and their dynamite superstar suffered a truly gruesome leg injury that should keep him from playing at all next season. Which leaves them right about here. David West is probably their best player, although he’s 33 and not getting younger (or better at free throw shooting…). They’re right on the cusp between categories for me. They do have an outside shot at the playoffs, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see them tank in hopes of drafting another future star to put alongside George.
This team recently signed Ben Gordon to a two-year $9 million contract. Gordon played in 19 games last year, shooting 34% from the field and 27% from three-point land. YES, MAGIC FANS, THIS IS WHY YOU CANNOT HAVE NICE THINGS.
Philly is going to be good…the question is when and how good. Reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter Williams has legitimate top-5 superstar potential in my eyes, but he’s got a loooong way to go. This winter, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid are going to debut. The rest of the roster is fluff.
Chauncy Billups, Rasheed Wallace, and Richard Hamilton ain’t walking through that door, fans.
Jabari is a very good basketball player. Fans in Milwaukee will get to see him do very good things on the basketball court next year.
*To be honest, I think the Knicks will probably be better than the Nets next year. Why, then, do I have them a notch below the Nets? Answer: I could see the Knicks falling apart and missing the playoffs more easily than I could see the Nets doing so. Carmelo could get injured or decide to mail the season in, Derek Fisher could struggle in year one as coach, etc.