Blakely: Five Eastern Conference players who'll make biggest impact
FIVE EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYERS WHO'LL MAKE AN IMPACT
BOSTON -- The defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers will once again be the odds-on favorites to win the East and hoist Larry O’Brien Trophy as the league’s best team.
But there are a number of Eastern foes that, at the very least, made strides towards closing the gap between themselves and the Cavs.
Many have done it by adding proven veterans to rosters desperately in need of more experience, while others were simply looking to fill voids in their lineup due to the departure of well-established players.
Here we take a look at five players in the East who should have the greatest impact on their respective new teams this season.
5. Al Jefferson, C, Indiana
Jefferson, a former first-round pick of the Boston Celtics in 2005, has spent the previous three seasons in Charlotte. He joins a Pacers team that had arguably one of the best offseasons of any team in the league. At his best, Jefferson can play with his back to the basket and provide Indiana with another low-post scoring threat. However, as we saw last season, Father Time is gaining on the big fella quickly. Jefferson appeared in just 47 games last season, the fewest since, like . . . forever. Prior to last season, the 6-foot-10 Jefferson saw action in at least 59 games. And it continues a four-year trend in which he has played fewer games than the season prior. So why is he on this list? Because unlike previous stops on the NBA circuit, the Pacers will not need Big Al to play big minutes in order to get what they need. A team that already has talented scorers on the perimeter who can also be impactful driving to the rim, Jefferson adds a big man with elite low-post scoring skills. Considering Indiana was 24th last season in points in the paint (40.9), the addition of Jefferson ranks among the many reasons why so many believe the Pacers will be back in the playoffs this year, potentially contending for home court in the first round of the postseason.
4. Derrick Rose, G, New York
There are few players we have seen in the NBA who, just four years removed from being the league’s MVP, have fallen as hard as Rose. While no one questions his ability to score or his overall quickness, the injuries that have plagued him make Rose one of the wildest of wild cards among players now taking up residence with a new team in a new city. At his best, the former Chicago Bull star can be that complementary scorer Carmelo Anthony has never really had during his time in New York. And while the ability to score may still be there for Rose, no one feels he’ll get back to that pointbecause of his health. Injuries have plagued him for years, leading to lots of missed games and, with that, missed opportunities to be the kind of difference-maker he showed himself to be early in his career. When all is said and done, Rose may very well be the best veteran to switch to another team this season compared to last year. But in order for that to be true, he needs to stay relatively healthy all or most of this upcoming season, something no one -- not the Knicks, not Phil Jackson and certainly not Rose -- can count on, considering he's played 66 or fewer games in each of the last four seasons. And it’s also possible that he may miss some time due to an off-the-court matter involving a lawsuit filed against him by a former ex-girlfriend, who alleges that Rose and two of his friends drugged and gang-raped her.
3. Dwyane Wade, G, Chicago
One native son (Derrick Rose) heads out of Chicago, another one (D-Wade) comes in. This marriage was one of convenience for both Wade and the Bulls. He felt the Miami Heat didn’t show him the kind of love and respect that the franchise’s greatest player deserved. (He's right. They didn't.) And by bringing Wade on board, the Bulls do a nice job of filling the void (talent and overall interest in the team for that matter) left behind by the trading of D-Rose to New York. The real challenge here is how Wade will fit in with Jimmy Butler on offense. Wade is no stranger to playing with elite team when you consider he won a couple titles with LeBron James and Chris Bosh. But James could play on the wing or at the point when Wade was on the floor, and Bosh was always in the frontcourt at forward or center. But Butler, an All-Star like Wade, really plays the same position, which means one of them will play shooting guard (even though neither shoots the ball particularly well). Wade’s too smart and savvy a veteran to not make this work. He’ll be effective this season, as will Butler. But they’ll need others to step up as well if they're to have any shot at getting to the playoffs.
2. Serge Ibaka, F/C, Orlando
The more you watched Oklahoma City these past couple of years, the clearer it became that Ibaka was looking to carve out a much larger role in the offense. He hopes to continue expanding his game with an Orlando team that was desperate to add some form of legitimate, veteran leadership. Ibaka gives the Magic a player whose versatility on offense gives them a shot at having at least one matchup they can go to with some level of consistency. In addition, Orlando added one of the more underrated defenders in the NBA. More than anything, Ibaka has been in big-time playoff games and has the kind of experience that should provide enough help to where the Magic will at least be a playoff contender this season as opposed to a team that continues to stockpile lottery talent one year after another.
1.Al Horford, F/C, Boston
Of the players on this list, Horford is the only one to leave one playoff team (Atlanta) for another (Boston). As much as the Celtics love his talent, the fact that he has been part of -- and, in many ways, helped develop -- winning cultures is something not lost on them when they were pursuing him. There’s no question the Hawks were a better franchise in every way imaginable from the time Horford arrived to the end of last season. Ditto for his time at the University of Florida, where he helped lead the 'Gators to back-to-back national titles (2006 and '07) under now-Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan. The 6-foot-10 veteran essentially allows Boston to build off what it did last season. He's a battle-tested veteran who has shown an ability to impact the game at both ends of the floor. Offensively, he can score around the basket but Horford has also shown his shooting range extends beyond the 3-point line as well. Last season, he shot 34.4 percent on 3s while averaging 3.1 3-point attempts per game -- a career high. And just to put that in perspective, only four Celtics averaged at least 3.1 3s per game, with none being taller than 6-foot-6 Jae Crowder. And defensively, he essentially replaces Jared Sullinger (now with Toronto) in Boston’s starting lineup, a move by most accounts would be considered an upgrade.