It’s no secret that the last decade or more hasn’t been kind to the Eastern Conference and NBA fans perception of it. But with teams like Miami and Indiana expected to bounce back from disastrous injury riddled seasons and others Milwaukee looking to take another step forward the only question we really should be asking ourselves is who are the would be challengers to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers
1) Cleveland Cavaliers
It’s this simple. The Cavs have LeBron James. That very fact alone virtually guarantees a 50 win campaign. Throw in a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love I honestly see the Cavs flirting with 70 wins next season. After starting 19-20 start last year, Cleveland eventually rounded into form the 2nd half of the season ultimately winning the Eastern Conference (LeBrons 5th straight feat) and were 2 wins away from winning an NBA title minus both Irving and Love in one of the single greatest individual feats the league has ever seen in James. The Cavs were able to retain most of their core from last season (still awaiting Tristan Thompson’s contract decision) as “GM LeBron” continues to burn through owner Dan Gilbert’s money.
2) Chicago Bulls
Even with new head coach Fred Hoiberg entering the fray, one major advantage Chicago hold over most teams in the East is continuity. That alone alongside a deep roster gives the Bulls a guaranteed seat as a top 4 team in the conference. Add in a hopefully healthier Derrick Rose who’s coming off playing in his first postseason since 2012 plus another year with Pau Gasol, Chi-town should be right there as one of the clear cut favorites to compete for the East title alongside Cleveland. Of course health with this roster is the ultimate factor whether that becomes realized.
3) Miami Heat
The 2014-15 campaign was a disastrous 37-45 soiree’ that started with them losing the best player on the planet LeBron James to encountering a laundry list of injuries throughout the season. Here’s the thing: you really have to credit Pat Riley for remaining resilient and steadfast in reloading this Miami squad this offseason. The Heat were able to retain Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, re-sign Goran Dragic, brought in some much needed depth in former New York Knick Amare’ Stoudamire and the athletic Gerald Green, formerly of the Phoenix Suns. Add in the return of Chris Bosh, who missed 37 games last season due to blood clots and the emergence of Hassan Whiteside, the masses agree that Miami is one the favorites to compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy. Much like the Chicago Bulls, injuries will play a huge factor with how far they go.
4) Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks stood tall and shocked the NBA world in 2014-15. ATL came out of nowhere boasting a franchise record 60 wins, clinching the top seed in the East and reserved a seat in the Eastern Conference Finals before bowing out to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Hawks were so good last season that Coach Mike Budenholzer was recognized as Coach Of The Year. Atlanta did take a hit this offseason losing F DeMarre Carroll to the Toronto Raptors but were able to recover and acquire former San Antonio Spur C Tiago Splitter and retain F Paul Millsap. While it’s tough to see the Hawks replicating the regular season success of last year, I don’t expect them to fall off the map either especially with the emergence of Jeff Teague and the solid play of Al Horford in the frontcourt. Expect them till still be a team to be reckoned with near the top of the conference.
5) Toronto Raptors
The last two seasons at the north of the border has brought on much regular season success. While both seasons have ended in first round exits, Toronto should still be in the mix next season. The Raptors big free agency prize came in the form of DeMarre Caroll and despite many questioning the hefty price tag for 4 years, $60 million, Carroll will bring much needed grit to a franchise in need of toughness especially once the NBA calendar flips into late April and May. Toronto is another team that will be in the mix in an otherwise lackluster Atlantic Division and should flirt with 50 wins next season. How far they go in 2015-16 will be ultimately determined by their talented backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozen.
6) Washington Wizards
Many NBA fans the last few years have had the Wizards pegged as the team primed to take the “next step”. While the last two seasons have each resulted in the Wiz winning at least one playoff series, there is still a sense of disappointment surrounding Washington. Also to add salt in the wound is losing veteran F Paul Pierce in free agency. It is a bitter pill to swallow especially when you consider just how great Pierce was in big moments last postseason. While the Wiz do have John Wall and upstart Bradley Beal rounding out their backcourt, the disappointing play of ‘Nene last summer has many Washington fans concerned and wondering if they missed a golden opportunity the last few years to make a major push for a Finals berth considering how weak the East has been and is expected to improve in 2015-16.
7) Milwaukee Bucks
Lost on many people was that the Bucks had one of the better one season turnarounds in recent memory, flipping from 15 to 41 wins. All of that was due to first year coach Jason Kidd changing the culture with very good young core of talent who made an imprint such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Also not to be forgotten last year’s #2 draft pick Jabari Parker missed most of last season due to injury but did play well in his short time. With Milwaukee acquiring Greg Monroe from Detroit it is possible the Bucks can move up the conference standings but the Eastern Conference is expected to be much better in 2015-16 so while seeding wise the Bucks may slip back a bit, I still see solid growth coming from this franchise next season.
8) Indiana Pacers
With Paul George returning for a full season and Roy Hibbert shipped out to the Lakers, the Pacers on paper look to be a different team stylistically which is also evident with the signing of Monta Ellis. Two things to look forward to in Indy next season: a more uptempo style of basketball and most importantly a return trip to the postseason. Frank Vogel is way too good a coach to allow Indiana to miss the playoffs consecutive years.
9) Brooklyn Nets
So the good news: Brooklyn was able to get out of that disastrous Deron Williams contract, sorta. The bad news: the Nets don’t get a draft pick to use until what it seems like the year 2034 so Brooklyn is solely reliant on free agency as a mean to rebuild. Brooklyn was able to retain C Brook Lopez who when healthy is one of the best at his position. Plus after next season the Nets will be free from that disastrous Joe Johnson contract (originally signed in Atlanta) and in time for their sake to make a splash in free agency next summer.
10) Boston Celtics
In a weak East last season the C’s shocked many by making the postseason. Now with that behind them the only question will be whether they can capitalize on that. Coach Brad Stevens has done a terrific job with this Boston rebuild the last few seasons and its paying off. Still a improved Eastern Conference does make it hard for the Celtics to make much more impact. Not to mention this is still a rebuilding process but Boston did go semi big this offseason and acquire F David Lee from the World Champion Golden State Warriors. Boston could still compete for the #7 or #8 seed in the East if they play their cards right but expect way more push back from the conference this time around than last.
11) New York Knicks
Despite striking out on the heavy hitters that dominated the free agency landscape this summer, the Knickerbockers were able to recover with some quality acquisitions that will allow them to at least not reside in the Eastern Conference cellar. C Robin Lopez at 4 years, $54 million while to some looks like alot of money is actually more of a value deal especially when the salary cap is expected to dramatically increase in 2016. Also New York brought in swingman G Aaron Afllalo who at the very least can provide some instant offense outside of ball dominant Carmelo Anthony. The highlight of the summer though was drafting Kristaps Perzingas with the #4 pick which at the very least had many fans scratching their heads but he has thus far looked decent in summer league.
12) Detroit Pistons
Stan Van Gundy had alot of work to in Motown as the Pistons continue their transition under his reign as both President and Coach. It’s clear now that his team is being built around the growing talent of C Andre Drummond but I must admit I do scratch my head just a little with Detroit making a huge commitment to former OKC Thunder G Reggie Jackson at 5 years, $80 million and whether he’s ready to take that next step forward as a floor leader. Expect another year in the lottery as Detroit continues to build assets but with Stan Van at the helm, the Detroit Pistons time spent in the lottery may not be as long as you think.
13) Charlotte Hornets
2014-15 turned out to be a extremely disappointing year for the former Bobcats. Many had Charlotte as a possible top 4 team in the conference especially after acquiring G Lance Stephenson which turned out as a huge flop and resulted in him being shipped out to Los Angeles (Clippers). Still the Hornets do have decent talent around that roster and a healthy G Kemba Walker might be the elixir to moving this team forward once again. C Al Jefferson regressed last season dealing with loads of injuries and this coming season will be his final year under contract so it will be interesting to see how he responds. Michael Jordan’s team do have a lot of work to do moving forward.
14) Orlando Magic
The 2015-16 season for the Magic will begin with a new coach in Scott Skiles and loads of raw young talent. The most interesting thing about Orlando moving forward is whether a tough as nails Skiles will make it all work and if guys like Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris and Elfrid Payton are ready for Skiles no nonsense style of coaching and if it wears thin sooner rather than later. Unfortunately the Magic still have work to do and while the talent is there, with an expected improved Eastern Conference, O-town is still miles away from becoming playoff viable.
15) Philadelphia 76ers
This offseason couldn’t have gotten to a more disastrous start with the news that Joel Embiid is expected to miss next season as well due to another setback from his already injured foot. However Philly was able to draft an insurance policy with the #3 pick, Jahlil Okafor from Duke. The larger question remains whether General Manager Sam Hinkie knows what he’s doing and if there is actually a light at the end of this really dark tunnel for Sixer fans. We shall see.