With training camp firmly on the horizon for the 2014-2015 Atlanta Hawks, we have plenty of content surrounding what you can expect from this year's group. However, there have been wholesale changes throughout the Eastern Conference, and as such, there appears to be a "great divide" between where certain pundits (and fans) believe that the Hawks will stack up against the rest of the teams in the East.
In this space, we will quickly outline what you can bank on for each team in the conference, and by the end, you will (hopefully) have a more informed viewpoint with regard to where the hometown Hawks could fall in the pecking order. Here is a look at the "other" 14 squads, coming at you in alphabetical order.
It is a foreign concept to think about the Celtics as a team coming off of a 25-57 season, but that is where the squad currently sits under the direction of Brad Stevens. Boston was (clearly) not attempting to compete last season, especially with the injury concerns surrounding their lone All-Star in Rajon Rondo, and frankly, the Celtics are not built for a great deal of success in 2014-2015.
Boston did add significant talent in the form of Marcus Smart and James Young through the draft, but in terms of "NBA-ready" assets, it is a limited group. Rondo leads the way, despite numerous trade rumors, but only Avery Bradley, Jeff Green and Brandon Bass could be considered "safe", and that is if we ignore the pending injury concerns surrounding Bradley's shoulder.
The Celtics do have a ton of young assets (Jared Sullinger, Tyler Zeller, etc.), but it would be highly aggressive to peg them as a legitimate playoff contender for this season, barring a major roster overhaul in the form of a high-end trade.
The Nets have one of the highest potential variances in the NBA this season, simply because of the injury woes to their two most important players. Big man Brook Lopez and point guard Deron Williams have battled chronic issues for a handful of seasons, and with Lopez appearing in only 17 games during the 2013-2014 campaign, we really have no idea what to expect from the former Stanford star. Still, he is a 20-point scorer when healthy, and that certainly matters, especially from a back-to-the-basket player in today's NBA.
On the side of Williams, he has dipped considerably from the days where he was neck-and-neck with Chris Paul for the "best point guard alive" title, and there was a point during last season where he was legitimately benched. Ankle issues have slowed Williams throughout, but even if he is 90% of the player he used to be, the ceiling is still quite high.
Brooklyn also had two high-profile defections in the off-season, as both Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston left for greener pastures. That leaves the Nets with only Joe Johnson and Andrei Kirilenko as proven options on the wing (if Kirilenko can remain upright) and with Kevin Garnett not getting any younger at the power forward spot, things could get dicey in a hurry.
If all goes well, the Nets could be vying for home-court in the first round of the playoffs, but if things go south, they could be a lottery team in a hurry.
Charlotte was a significant surprise in winning 43 games last season, and during the summer, the Hornets vastly improved their talent base with the acquisition of Lance Stephenson, and to a lesser extent, our old pal Marvin Williams. Of course, the Hornets did lose the versatile presence of Josh McRoberts, but in replacing him with rookie Noah Vonleh and the developing Cody Zeller, Charlotte shouldn't lose much at the power forward spot while gaining exponentially on the wing with Stephenson.
The jury is firmly out on Stephenson as a "go-to" guy on the wing, but he isn't the only dynamic offensive player for Charlotte, and that bodes well for his continued development. Big man Al Jefferson had arguably the best season of his career in 2013-2014, averaging 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game with slightly improved defense, and point guard Kemba Walker has drawn rave reviews despite some worries about his efficiency (39.3% FG).
Depth also isn't an issue for the Hornets, as they go four-deep with quality wings including Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (in addition to Stephenson and Williams), and that doesn't include versatile combo guard Gary Neal. Up front, the club could be relying on Bismack Biyombo for rim protection (yikes), but aside from that, there is no defined weakness that I can see.
The Hornets are a top-five team in the Eastern Conference this season from a pure talent standpoint, and if the Lance acquisition becomes a success, they could potentially hold one of the top four seeds.
The Bulls were very busy in the off-season, but their biggest "addition" will be a healthy Derrick Rose. The former MVP appeared to be rusty during his time with USA Basketball at the FIBA World Cup, but Rose emerged from a somewhat grueling schedule healthy, and that is wildly encouraging. It is easy to forget just how explosive and efficient he was at his pre-injury peak, and even 90% of Rose would be a game-changer for an otherwise impotent offense.
In addition to Rose, Chicago will add Pau Gasol to the fold, and alongside the veteran, the Bulls have two high-profile rookies in Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott. Mirotic has the reputation of being NBA-ready, and with McDermott serving four years in college, many expect him to be an early contributor, especially in the area of shooting. As a result of that trio and the combination of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, the Bulls have one of the deepest front-courts in the NBA, and they are utterly loaded from a talent standpoint.
It is somewhat insane to think that Tom Thibodeau's club managed to win 48 games last season without Rose, but even if the point guard were to go down, this year's unit has increased offensive versatility with Gasol on board and the addition of Aaron Brooks could be a sneaky one from a scoring standpoint in the backcourt. Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy aren't exactly an ideal pair of wings for a title contender, but if Rose is alive and well, it likely won't matter.
Chicago is a consensus top-2 team in the East, and from a basketball standpoint, we should all begin praying for the health of Derrick Rose.
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LeBron James, by himself, makes any team a contender in the Eastern Conference, but when you pair the best player on the planet with another legitimate superstar and one of the top 10 point guards in the league, fireworks ensue. I won't waste your time with a "breakdown" of LeBron James, but he lost weight in the off-season, appears to be in fantastic shape, and seems poised for yet another incredible year. He's pretty good.
The Kevin Love addition is a huge one, simply because Love will now take his ideal role as the best second banana in the league. He has never been the "typical" superstar who would create shots for himself in isolation spots, but he is a tremendous shooter, an uber-elite rebounder and a high-level passer that should fit perfectly with an all-everything talent like LeBron. To be honest, Kyrie Irving is a significant step down from the other two in my view, but when a former number one overall pick who happens to possess incredible talent is your third option, everything is just fine.
At the time of this post, the wing rotation is a bit unsettled for the Cavs, especially as Ray Allen twists in the wind. If he does not join LBJ and company, the Cavs will be utilizing some combination of Dion Waiters, Mike Miller and Shawn Marion on the wing, and while that certainly isn't bad (I am incredibly high on Marion), Allen's addition would mean a great deal in spacing the floor for the creation of both James and Irving.
The single most glaring weakness on this club comes at the center spot, but even their weakness isn't a disaster. Tristan Thompson is certainly not a natural center, but in small ball lineups, he could certainly get away with playing there, and Anderson Varejao will be utterly tremendous next to Kevin Love... until the moment he leaves with injury. I really enjoyed Cleveland's pick-up of Brendan Haywood for defensive purposes, but if we are frank with each other, Cleveland's defense may not matter much if they reach their massive offensive ceiling.
The Cavs are loaded, and even if they don't fully "gel" immediately, I can't see a scenario where they are not a top-2 team in the East.
I love Stan Van Gundy.
I do not love the roster of the Detroit Pistons.
The combination of the two statements above makes projecting this year's Detroit team extremely difficult, and when considering their performance from last season (the Pistons went 29-53), it is even tougher. On paper, the Pistons are actually quite talented, with three above-average interior options in Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith, along with Brandon Jennings and former lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (among others) on the perimeter. However, the pieces simply don't fit together.
I will assume, at least for now, that Van Gundy is intelligent enough to abandon the "Josh Smith as a small forward" experiment, but if and when he does that, the team does not necessarily employ an NBA-level starting small forward. In addition, the Pistons spent wildly to acquire Jodie Meeks, and while he is certainly a useful bench option due to his shooting prowess, Detroit is definitely lacking on the wing.
The Brandon Jennings traveling roadshow is something on its own, as well, and Detroit's incumbent point guard may send Van Gundy into a tizzy before the calendar turns to 2015. Again, you really have to trust Stan Van Gundy to project this team for a chance at the playoffs.
If there is a saving grace for the Pistons, it is the potential of a Dwight Howard-like ascension from Andre Drummond. Howard exploded under the tutelage of Van Gundy, and after a monster sophomore season, Drummond seems poised to join the elite group of centers. He is their best bet for salvation, and if a full-fledged breakout does not take place, the Pistons will be in the lottery again.
Hawks fans likely see images of the Indiana Pacers dancing in their heads following the grueling playoff battle in May, but unfortunately for last year's number one seed, it appears as if they will not be repeating that performance.
The Pacers lost the aforementioned Lance Stephenson to Charlotte in free agency, but the more crushing blow was that of Paul George, who is gone for the year after his horrific leg injury during training camp with USA Basketball. Hindsight is, of course, 20/20 for the Pacers, who never could have foreseen the loss of George when they let Stephenson walk, but now, the perfect storm has occurred to the point where Indiana is decimated on the wing.
Frank Vogel's team will be utilizing some combination of C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey, Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson on the wing this season (yikes), and when considering their issues with scoring in the past, it will not be easy to replicate the production lost from George and Stephenson. Yes, the Pacers do return a strong trio in George Hill, Roy Hibbert and David West, but no member of that group can be counted on as a "main" offensive option at this stage of their career, and on paper, the Pacers may have the worst offensive group in the NBA.
The defensive core is there, and there is something to be said for that, but aside from the entire team outplaying expectations, this isn't remotely close to a playoff group.
Life without LeBron James will be incredibly intriguing for the Miami Heat.
Quite obviously, any team that loses a player like James will be significantly worse, and that will be the case here. In addition, Miami also lost Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Rashard Lewis from last year's team, leaving the front office with a tall task to reassemble a supporting cast without the benefit of a singular superstar to build around.
The duo of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade should be enough to keep Miami relevant in the playoff discussion, but of course, that assumes relatively positive health for Wade, which may not be a given at this stage. The future Hall of Fame shooting guard appeared in only 54 games last season, and even with that "maintenance program", he visibly regressed at the end of Miami's playoff run, to the point where many are proclaiming him "done". Personally, I think Wade has enough in the tank to be a productive player, but without LeBron to take the attention away, his physical and shooting limitations will be magnified, leaving a slightly inferior player to what we expect.
Miami's huge off-season addition is Luol Deng, and aside from the news surrounding Deng and the Hawks front office, he is still a very good basketball player. Deng is likely overpaid at this point, simply because he isn't a dynamic offensive option and his body has what seems like a million miles on it, but in year one, it is reasonable to expect near All-Star production from Deng, and the Heat will need it.
Even with relative confidence in Miami's new "big three" and in newly-acquired power forward Josh McRoberts, there are too many holes on this roster for me to select Miami as a top-6 team in the East. The point guard situation is a mess, with Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and rookie Shabazz Napier in the fold, and behind Bosh and McRoberts, the big man rotation is slim with only Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem as usable options.
A win total in the low-40's is what I would reasonably project here, but there is room to maneuver based on expectations for Wade's health and production.
If you squint hard enough, the Bucks could appear to be a fringe playoff contender.
I'm only half-kidding.
Milwaukee actually brings a considerable amount of talent to the table, which is jarring considering their putrid, 15-win performance last season. The Bucks have a projected starting five of Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova, Jabari Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brandon Knight, and behind them, legitimate bench options like John Henson, Zaza Pachulia (!!!), Jerryd Bayless and O.J. Mayo bring legitimacy to the operation.
However, talent doesn't necessarily bring wins in the NBA, and there are obviously some issues here. First, Larry Sanders was an unequivocal disaster last season, and it is hard to remember the player who garnered internet love during the 2012-2013 season. If Sanders can recapture that form on the defensive end, this team becomes interesting in a hurry, but the mental hurdles are troubling.
There is a logjam in the front-court, even after Ekpe Udoh vacated the premises, and in truth, the same issue exists on the wing. Parker and Giannis are the building blocks for the franchise at this point, but neither is "proven" as a big-time contributor at this level, and the jury is out as to what type of player Antetokounmpo wants to be in the league. Parker was visibly out of shape in Las Vegas, but you would have to assume that his offensive arsenal will shine, even if the defensive side is nowhere near star level.
Brandon Knight was quietly effective last season (17.9 points, 4.9 assists per game), but the rest of the guards were a disaster and the uncertainty level is high. O.J. Mayo is still a player on this roster (somehow), and we are only a year removed from Mayo as an important piece in Dallas, but you absolutely never know with that guy. The aforementioned Bayless and Nate Wolters should help to stabilize things in the backcourt, but how high is that ceiling?
The trio of Sanders, Parker and Antetokounmpo bring a great amount of variance to this group, and Milwaukee's range of outcomes probably includes anywhere from 7th to 14th in the East. This should be fun.
I'll be the first to admit that I have no idea what to expect from the New York Knicks. First-year head coach Derek Fisher is an absolute enigma at this point, and while we expect him to run the triangle, the personnel is "interesting" in New York (to say the least) and Fisher has zero track record as a coach.
Fortunately, Carmelo Anthony chose to re-sign with the Knicks, and that brings them some semblance of stability. Anthony is one of the best offensive players in the NBA by any estimation, and if deployed correctly, he could thrive in the triangle. However, the supporting cast is dicey (at best), and the Knicks jettisoned Tyson Chandler in the off-season.
The front-court rotation for the Knicks is Amar'e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani, Samuel Dalembert, Jason Smith, Cole Aldrich and Quincy Acy. I'm not kidding. I will be kind in saying that Stoudemire was actually quite good last season (18.9 PER, for instance) and Dalembert is better than most would believe, but that is simply not a playoff-quality group of big men.
What the Knicks do possess, though, is perimeter play and the options are countless. In addition to Anthony, New York has Tim Hardaway, Jr., Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith to choose from on the wing, with a solid point guard rotation that includes the uber-efficient Jose Calderon and Pablo Prigioni. Defense will be a gigantic issue whenever Hardaway and/or Calderon is on the floor, but there are worse collections of guard talent in a lot of places.
New York could make the playoffs and it wouldn't surprise, simply because Carmelo Anthony is very, very good at basketball, but this roster is a year or two away.
I know what the Magic are trying to do, but after a 23-59 season in 2013-2014, it isn't clear if they will be markedly improved on the court this season. Orlando lost its best player, Arron Afflalo, to a somewhat inexplicable trade, but the Magic are clearly stockpiling assets, and they chose both Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon with lottery selections in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Payton and Gordon join a young group of talented assets that includes Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris, and on the surface, a young core appears to be developing. However, the majority of those players have defined limitations in shooting the basketball (or, really, scoring at all), and Orlando's roster make-up on a one-season basis is curious at best.
In a desperate attempt to acquire NBA-ready shooting, the Magic shelled out overpriced deals for Channing Frye (who has been great in recent seasons) and Ben Gordon (who has been dreadful in recent seasons), but I'm not sure that plugging the holes was the ideal route. Orlando will undoubtedly be fun, and the assets are very real, but this season isn't going to be a prosperous one in the standings.
One month ago, I took a deep dive into the Philadelphia 76ers in another venue and emerged with the thought that this team could seriously challenge as the worst club in the history of the NBA. Yes, you read that correctly.
The Sixers managed to garner 19 victories a year ago, but more than half of those wins came while the trio of Spencer Hawes, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner were employed by the team, and now, each of them has vacated the premises. What is left in Philly is a collection of cast-offs and also-rans, with the only top-tier talent emanating from 2013-2014 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams and "rookie" center Nerlens Noel.
Carter-Williams and Noel are both looking at promising careers, but neither is a sure thing for this year, as the former won the ROY honors despite wildly inefficient numbers, and the latter is recovering from an ACL tear that cost him his entire rookie season. Philadelphia is (wisely) investing in the future with long-term projects like Noel, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, but for the purposes of this season, bleak isn't a strong enough word to describe the assembled roster.
If the Philadelphia 76ers don't finish last in the East, I don't know anything at all.
The Toronto Raptors have exercised the very definition of "bringing the band back together". Masai Ujiri chose to virtually retain the entire roster, with the Raptors returning their top seven scorers from a 48-win team in 2013-2014, and with the exception of Atlanta legends Lou Williams and Lucas Nogueira, this is the identical group from a team that made the playoffs as a top-4 seed a year ago.
However, my expectations for the Raptors are considerably lower than most, simply because I think the stars perfectly aligned last season. Kyle Lowry was borderline incredible, averaging 17.9 points, 7.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game with plus defense, but Lowry's renaissance came in a contract year, and his reputation around the league isn't exactly a sterling one.
The entire frontcourt is back, and big man Jonas Valanciunas (now 22 years old) is the main reason for optimism that Toronto could actually take a step forward. Valanciunas was a top-5 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, and while he was solid last season (11.3 points, 8.8 rebounds per game), there is some "ceiling" left, which is simply not the case for players like Amir Johnson, Patrick Patterson and even big-time swingman DeMar DeRozan.
For my money, DeRozan is the best player on the Raptors roster, and they will certainly need him to replicate last season, when he averaged 22.7 points per game despite some questionable efficiency numbers. It seems "boring" to suggest that Toronto is what they were last season, but when the talent remains the same, that is the general conclusion unless we can build in some advancement from younger talent.
Lou Williams should undeniably help Toronto's backcourt depth, but aside from that, the Raptors appear to be a mid-tier playoff team in the Eastern Conference, just one year after they were exactly that. It is easy to forget that most people wrote this team off in advance of the Rudy Gay trade, but being the "hot" team doesn't always carry over, and I can see the drop-off coming.
Lastly, the Washington Wizards are probably the team most closely associated with being the number three squad in the East. The backcourt combination of John Wall and Bradley Beal is generally considered to be one of the two best young duos in the league (say hello to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson), and with the newly-acquired Paul Pierce as a wing partner for Beal, Washington's offense should improve on the perimeter.
Up front, Nene and Marcin Gortat are back in the fold, and while Gortat was overpaid (in my estimation) during the off-season, the issue with his contract has much more to do with length than current level of play. Nene is always an adventure due to his well-chronicled injury history, but if they are both healthy, the pairing of Nene and Gortat is arguably the most physical duo in the NBA.
The biggest theoretical improvement for Washington comes in the form of depth, and that is the place where the Wizards can claim real growth. Both Otto Porter (the #3 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft) and Glen Rice Jr. appeared to be rotation-worthy while playing in Las Vegas, and that allows the Wizards to be extra careful as Martell Webster returns from a herniated disc in his back. Behind the starters up front, Washington now employs both DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries, and while neither is a star by any stretch, they should represent upgrades over what the Wizards got from Trevor Booker and Al Harrington a year ago.
With all of that said, Washington's potential for a jump into the elite class is directly tied to Wall and Beal. Wall's pure ability is off the charts, as evidenced by his number one selection in the draft, but Beal likely presents more room for growth given Wall's semi-breakout a year ago, and his ascension will be key to Washington's plans to join Miami and Chicago in the pool of contenders.