After years of ridicule, the NBA’s Eastern Conference was legitimately good last year. There might not have been genuine championship contenders outside of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but there was definitely depth. The 56-win Toronto Raptors had their best season in franchise history. Four teams — the Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics and Charlotte Hornets — finished with identical 48-34 records.
Even at the bottom, the seventh- and eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons could feel better about the season than their Western Conference counterparts, the injury-ravaged Memphis Grizzlies and defensively deficient Houston Rockets. Two talented teams that seemed like playoff locks in the preseason — the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls — missed the postseason entirely despite finishing at .500 or better.
All of this competence in the East was a nice change, if a little disorienting. The bad news: it probably won’t continue. After a wacky offseason, the balance of power has shifted back to where it has been for most of the past two decades. I’m bullish on the Cavs (obviously), Celtics, Raptors and Pistons, but how many of these other teams are even going to win more than half their games? Even though it’s an optimistic time of year, I’m finding it hard to get excited about them. Here are some reasons for skepticism:
Maybe all the Wizards needed was a new voice from the sidelines. If they needed much more than that, though, then they’re in trouble. Scott Brooks could make this team more cohesive, but it won’t matter a whole lot if John Wall and Bradley Beal are not at their best. All the worry about Wall saying that he and his backcourt partner “have a tendency to dislike each other on the court” might be overblown, but there has probably not been enough made of the fact that Wall had surgery on both of his knees this summer.
Under Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks have relied on amazing communication, ball movement and chemistry. Will that still be there with Dennis Schröder starting at point guard and Dwight Howard starting at center? Only two starters — Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver — remain from the enchanting team that won 60 games two years ago, and the personnel no longer seems to match Budenholzer’s sensibility. Great coaches adjust to roster turnover, but these particular changes seem challenging. You’ll like DeAndre Bembry, though.
Milwaukee underperformed last year, so it seems like a prime candidate to bounce back, especially with the expected development of 21-year-olds Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker. I like the additions of Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic. Still, I can’t completely talk myself into this being the year the Bucks break out. Greg Monroe proved to be a poor fit, and coach Jason Kidd is still going to have to play around with lineups in order to keep enough shooting and defense on the court at the same time. If only he could clone Khris Middleton.
The good news: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is back from injury, and who doesn’t love him? The bad news: Jeremy Lin is gone, Courtney Lee is gone and Al Jefferson is gone. Reserve guard Troy Daniels is also gone, and that might not seem like a big deal until you realize Ramon Sessions and Marco Belinelli are now the Hornets’ backup guards. I’m wary of underrating the Hornets because Steve Clifford generally manages to get the most out of his players, but this team just seems thin. (If Roy Hibbert returns to his All-Star form, joke’s on me.)
Jeff Teague is a fine point guard, but he’s not necessarily an upgrade over George Hill. That move made some sense, though, with the understanding that the Pacers desperately wanted to run. In that context, though, Al Jefferson is a curious addition. While Paul George is phenomenal and Myles Turner is full of potential, I’m not sure that the two of them have the proper pieces around them. The transition to a post-Frank Vogel identity will be tough without more shooters and defenders.
It’s not just that Dwyane Wade left. It’s not just that Chris Bosh’s status is up in the air. It’s that Wade left, Bosh’s status is up in the air and the Heat lost Luol Deng and Joe Johnson in free agency. Suddenly, this team is going to need resurgences from a few veterans and improvement from their young guys. And one of their promising young players just tore his MCL. Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside are a formidable duo, but they’re going to have to do some heavy lifting here.
They apparently don’t even know what offense they’re running. As well as the questions about the health of their starters, there are concerns about the strength of their bench. Beyond all that, is this the best environment for Kristaps Porzingis? The 7-foot-3 unicorn is supposed to be the future of the franchise, but Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony are presumably going to be the Knicks’ primary playmakers. No one knows whether or not this team is going to be more than a sum of its big-name parts.
I love these players. I do not think they are good enough at putting the ball in the basket. If not for the next team on this list, the Magic would have had the strangest offseason in the NBA. Aaron Gordon is apparently going to play small forward, and Bismack Biyombo is going to make $17 million as a backup center. Nikola Vucevic is still around, Mario Hezonja still might not get enough minutes to show what he can do and Jeff Green is here for some reason. Hope it works, but it feels like the front office still has some tinkering to do.
The Rajon Rondo-Dwyane Wade backcourt experiment is either crazy enough to work or just plain crazy. The latter seems like a safer bet, sadly, and some of that is because there isn’t enough shooting elsewhere on the roster to give it a chance. Most of it, though, is because their defense is going to be disastrous, at least based on the way they performed on that end of the court for the last couple of seasons. Fred Hoiberg isn’t asking for sympathy, but I kind of feel bad for him.
Sean Marks’ new front office made a bunch of small, smart bets in the offseason. It will be nice to have Rondae Hollis-Jefferson healthy. The Nets should play hard and might actually be entertaining. But they’re still going to lose a lot of games.
OK, I’m actually pumped about this team. Thanks to the martyred Sam Hinkie, the Sixers are remarkably well-positioned for the future. The roster is totally unbalanced, though, and everybody’s too young. More patience is required. Trust the process.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / A team-by-team look at the end of the NBA Eastern Conference’s honeymoon