Blakely's NBA Eastern Conference Preview
BLAKELY'S EASTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW
BOSTON – When it’s June and the only team that’s poppin’ bottles of champagne and flashing championship bling-bling is your favorite squad, life doesn’t get much better than that.
For the rest, now is the time to be giddy with optimism.
Training camp is only a couple weeks away for most NBA teams, all of which have the same goal in mind which is to bring home a championship.
Of course, there are franchises – Philly, I’m talkin’ about you – who understand that they are nowhere even remotely close to being a championship contender right now.
And then there are teams like the Boston Celtics who have more talent and will on paper at least be better than the club that finished with the seventh-best record in the East last season.
But that won’t guarantee a playoff spot let alone ranked among the Conference’s better teams.
There’s plenty of time for all that to be sorted out of course.
But for now, we’ll take a look at where these teams stand headlining training camp.
15. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
They have been among the worst teams in the NBA the past couple of seasons, and their place as a cellar-dweller won’t change anytime soon. Joel Embiid’s foot issues will keep him sidelined for a second straight season. The good news for Philadelphia is that the Sixers were able to land Jahlil Okafor from Duke with the No. 3 pick in last June’s draft. He has a tremendous offensive game in the post, something Philly could definitely benefit from going forward. But there are so many holes in this roster to the point that not finishing with one of the three worst records this season would constitute a good year.
14. NEW YORK KNICKS
Considering how limited the Knicks were in terms of assets heading into the offseason, Phil Jackson did a nice job of upgrading the team’s overall level of talent. New York first-round pick Kristaps Porzingis of Latvia will take some time to develop, but New York added a number of high-reward, low-risk talent in Queens native Kyle O’Quinn and Derrick Williams who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft. The good news for Knicks fans is there will be more talent around Carmelo Anthony this season. But Derek Fisher’s ability to get the most – or a lot at least – out of them remains a mystery.
Because last season’s roster was so bad, it’s hard to gauge whether Fisher did a bad job with a bad team, or whether he simply got the best out of a bad situation. This season is different. He has the experience of being a head coach under his belt. He has better players. There’s no excuse for this team to not be better than last season’s squad.
13. BROOKLYN NETS
They are banking on the addition-by-subtraction model for success when it comes to this season. Deron Williams is in Dallas while Mason Plumlee was traded to Portland in exchange for the draft rights to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Arlington (Mass.) native Pat Connaughton. They still have Brooke Lopez and Joe Johnson around, but you wonder how well will Lopez hold up physically and with Johnson, 34, how much does he have left in the tank is indeed a huge question mark.
12. DETROIT PISTONS
If we’re looking only at talent, the Pistons would be a solid playoff squad in the East. But you can’t ignore the value of chemistry, something Detroit doesn’t appear to have much of on paper. Greg Monroe took his talents to Milwaukee so there won’t be nearly as much crowding around the basket as there seemed to be when Monroe and Andre Drummond were on the floor at the same time. The chemistry woes have shifted from the frontcourt into the backcourt with Brandon Jennings and Reggie Jackson. Neither one of these players is effective without the ball. And if you play them together, they will surely be looking for the ball to swing their way a lot and when they have it they will more than likely look for their own shot. That would be shame considering the growth in Kentavious Pope-Caldwell last season, in addition to newcomers via the draft (Stanley Johnson) and free agency (Danny Granger). The best thing for Detroit would be to trade Jennings whose three-year, $24 million contract expires after this season in which he is due $8.3 million.
11. CHARLOTTE HORNETS
The Hornets have an interesting collection of talent this season. Former Celtic Al Jefferson will anchor their play inside while the Hornets added Harvard alum Jeremy Lin who will run the point some along with former UConn star Kemba Walker. They parted ways with Lance Stephenson, their prized offseason signing from a year ago. But that may not be a bad thing when you consider how they struggled with him in the lineup. I really want the Hornets to be a playoff team this season; I really do. But I can’t help but feel that they just don’t have enough talent in the frontcourt to help Jefferson. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist emerged as a defensive stopper last season, someone whose presence made the Hornets a much better team. But they were an atrocious shooting team last season. How bad? They connected on 42 percent of their shots last season. The only team that clanked it up more than they did, was Philadelphia (40.8). And while adding Frank Kaminsky in the draft certainly gives them a much-desired “stretch big,” they’ll need more than Frank the Tank dropping 3-bombs in order to solidify a spot in the playoffs.
10. ORLANDO MAGIC
This should be the year where Orlando and its young prospects finally break through and become a legitimate playoff contender. That youth more than anything else will keep them on the outside of the playoff bubble looking in. Re-signing Tobias Harris was a huge get for the Magic, because it gives them a bona fide scorer on the wing with the size and versatility to play bigger if the Magic go with a small-ball lineup. And their backcourt of Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo is one of the more talented tandems in the East. Now it’s just a matter of new coach Scott Skiles (a former Magic player who still holds the NBA record for assists in a game which is 30) meshing with his new players.
9. MIAMI HEAT
With LeBron James gone and Father Time running stride for stride it seems with Dwyane Wade, all talk of being a championship contender has cooled off when talking about the Miami Heat. But they will be a better team this season even if Wade’s health fades. Goran Dragic has borderline All-Star talent, and is one of the more under-rated players in the NBA. Chris Bosh remains an effective, high impact performer even after 12 seasons. And of course, Miami landing Justise Winslow with the 9th overall pick in June’s NBA draft – seen by most as the biggest steal of the night – will help as well. But the Heat is once again short when it comes to depth. You can get by with it when you’re roster has a strong core of perennial all-stars. But when you’re core group is on the north side of 30 years old, it means a lot of unproven talent will have to step up and contribute which is why the Heat will be just on the outside of the playoff picture.
8. BOSTON CELTICS
The parity in the East plays itself out when you start to look at teams outside of the top six. That’s where intangibles such as coaching come into play. You can talk all day about how Isaiah Thomas’ arrival was important last season, or the growth we saw in Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Evan Turner. But the real star of last season for Boston was Stevens. And that’s why I see them getting into the playoffs again even though there will probably be a couple of teams behind them that on paper at least, are better. Of course, making his job a lot easier would be Amir Johnson continuing to be supporting cast superstar, or David Lee regaining the form he displayed when he was an All-Star just a couple years ago. Jared Sullinger has made a legit commitment to improving his conditioning which could be what catapults Boston from being a team just getting into the playoffs, into one fighting for home court advantage.
7. CHICAGO BULLS
A healthy Joakim Noah would make this a pretty easy sell. But no one can bank on that this season despite his optimistic view. As big a concern as the Bulls need to be with Noah, injury concerns exist with Taj Gibson and as always, Derrick Rose. Former Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau who was fired by the Bulls at the end of this past season, did an exceptional job navigating the Bulls through turbulent times when injuries afflicted them at seemingly the worst times and worst positions. While most agree that his replacement Fred Hoiberg is a good coach, how he handles what will likely be another injury-riddled season remains to be seen. And because of that uncertainty, the Bulls will remain a step or two behind the Eastern Conference’s top teams.
6. INDIANA PACERS
Paul George will be back this season with a clean bill of health. The rest of the Eastern Conference? Consider yourself warned. Indiana had one of the league’s better off-seasons when you consider they added high-scoring guard Monta Ellis, a rugged rebounder in Jordan Hill; they re-signed Rodney Stuckey who shot career highs from the field (44 percent) and 3-point range (39 percent) last season.
The biggest concern with them has to be with their interior defense. Say what you want about Roy Hibbert, but the man was a defensive presence if not anything else during his time as a Pacer. Ian Mahinmi had some good moments last season, but he doesn’t deliver when it comes to defense the way Hibbert did most of the time.
5. TORONTO RAPTORS
Every year there’s a team near the top that takes a noticeable dip, and that team this season should be Toronto. They added DeMarre Carroll which will take some of the pressure off DeMarr DeRozan defensively as well as provide the Raptors with another scoring option. And the addition of Canadian native Corey Joseph should help keep Kyle Lowry’s minutes in check. Toronto has as much or more talent than most of the Eastern Conference.
But this past season was one in which they did not take the kind of step forward that many – especially those north of the border – were anticipating. They have changed the fundamental core of their team by letting Amir Johnson go.
He was a glue-guy who did a lot of the not-so-glamorous work around the rim. There’s no clear indication of who will fill that void for this upcoming season. And while it won’t prevent them from being a playoff team, it’s hard to imagine the Raptors riding high among the Eastern Conference’s elite this season.
4. WASHINGTON WIZARDS
The contract extension talks between the Wizards and Bradley Beal has all the makings of being a distraction for a team that can’t afford it. John Wall made tremendous strides last season, elevating his game from being a scorer on a good team to a leader who could find postseason success. The frontline of the Wizards remains one of the deepest and a definite strength going forward. And their guard play, even beyond Wall and Beal, is decent. Throw in the addition of uber-athletic rookie Kelly Oubre and the Wizards have a lot to be excited about this season. But this team’s growth hinges heavily on their backcourt continuing to not just dominate their matchups but take over games and become the steady catalyst required to be among the Conference’s elite.
3. ATLANTA HAWKS
For most of the 2014-2015 season, the Hawks were having a fairy tale-like season as they finished with a franchise-record 60 wins which was good enough for the best record in the Eastern Conference. Then came a crushing finish at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers who swept the Hawks in the Conference finals. The loss of DeMarre Carroll (signed with Toronto) wouldn’t be so bad if they knew for sure if Thabo Sefolosha (right fibia fracture) would be ready to go at the start of the season. But that’s just the beginning of Atlanta’s issues heading into this season. They must learn how to handle being the hunted from the very start of the season. Even when they were racking up wins at an unprecedented clip last season, there was a still a sense of disbelief on the part of many (myself included) that they would do anything of value in the playoffs. The Hawks won’t enjoy the kind of unprecedented success they had last season, but they are still a legit power in the East.
2. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
Unlike Major League Baseball, it’s unusual for teams to go from rags to riches in just a year or two. But that’s exactly what we’re seeing take place with the Milwaukee Bucks who are sure to build off last season’s success. Of the Eastern Conference’s young teams with promise, none stand out the way the Bucks do. We didn’t see enough of Jabari Parker because of an injury to figure out what his ceiling is as a player. But we saw enough to know that it’s high … like really high. The “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo seems on the verge of emerging into an All-Star caliber player. Re-signing Khris Middleton was a significant offseason move for the Bucks, as was their ability to sign free agent Greg Monroe from Detroit which meant beating out teams like the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Bucks still have some room to improve before talk of them being a title contender is for real.
But they have more than enough talent to give the best teams in the East a run for their money.
1. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
One of the reasons LeBron James took his talents back home to Cleveland was because he knew that with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in fold, they would have the kind of core group that would give Cleveland a chance to compete for a title – not just the top spot in the East, but a championship – consistently. This year will be no exception even if contract talks between Tristan Thompson and the Cavs continue to stall. Without him, they are still really good. But if they envision a return trip to the NBA Finals next June, it’s not going to happen without Thompson reprising his role from last June of being a dirty work superstar.
With or without Thompson, Cleveland still has enough talent to rank among the top two or three teams in the Eastern Conference. 7-foot-1 center Timofey Mozgov was an unstoppable force in the playoffs. Similar play this season will make him a legitimate All-Star candidate. Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and the return of Mo Williams all add some much-needed firepower from the perimeter. And you can say what you want about Matt Dellavedova, but the pesky point guard has a way of getting under guy’s skin which is a good thing when you’re fighting for a championship which is what the Cavaliers will once again be doing.