Projecting the NBA Eastern Conference's middle five
PROJECTING THE NBA EASTERN CONFERENCE'S MIDDLE FIVE
BOSTON -- The NBA is a league of extremists.
Teams near the top of the Eastern Conference feel good about their lot in life because being one of the best is on every team’s wish list.
And those at the back of the Eastern Conference pack, who I wrote about on Tuesday, are hopeful that better days are coming because frankly, where they are can’t get much worse.
But what about those in the middle? You know, too good to be lumped together with the bad teams but not quite good enough to be elite.
Here’s a look at five such teams in the Eastern Conference, each with their own set of circumstances that has them as basketball centrists . . . with the odds relatively the same that they will slip to the back of the Eastern Conference standings, or surge up a few spots and get closer to the top.
10. ORLANDO MAGIC
The addition of ex-Oklahoma City forward Serge Ibaka (seen at left) not only strengthens the Magic frontline, but provides them with a much-needed veteran presence they've have lacked for years. But in adding him to the mix, one has to wonder what it will mean for Aaron Gordon’s development, especially with them also signing ex-Celtic Jeff Green. If the Magic are indeed in win-now mode, they will do what most teams do and lean on their more experienced players. Nikola Vucevic is a double-double machine at center while Evan Fournier and Mario Hezonja showed promise on the perimeter last season. Orlando is not a playoff team as constructed, but this group has enough talent to at least be competitive for one of the last playoff slots.
9. NEW YORK KNICKS
Staying healthy is a must for any team to have success. But for the Knicks,it's a necessity for them to just be competitive. Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Carmelo Anthony (left) form a nice 1-2-3 punch that’s only strengthened by Kristaps Porzingis’ emergence a year ago. But Rose and Noah have extensive injury-riddled pasts; they played just 82 games combined last season. And Anthony, while still a talented scorer, is on the back-nine of his career. As much as Rose and Noah will garner headlines, the two newcomers that could propel New York into the playoffs are ex-Celtic Courtney Lee and point guard Brandon Jennings. Lee is a career 38.4 percent shooter on 3s, which should help a Knicks team that ranked 20th in 3-point shooting (34.6 percent) last season. Jennings has played in 460 NBA games, 416 as a starter. How he adjusts to being a backup will have a significant impact on New York’s postseason chances.
8. ATLANTA HAWKS
Al Horford (now with the Celtics) was not Atlanta’s best player last season. But his value went so much deeper than just points, rebounds and blocked shots. And the Hawks will feel his loss this season, as well as the departure of Jeff Teague, who was traded to Indiana. Adding Jarrett Jack (a former Georgia Tech star) will soften the blow, but coming off an MCL injury against Boston in January raises questions about his effectiveness. And Dennis Schroeder (left) now gets to take over as the team’s lead guard. He was great as a sub, but no one knows how he’ll handle being The Man. And then there’s the Dwight Howard factor, a player whose competitive juices have left a lot -- A LOT -- to be desired in previous stops. The Hawks won’t totally fall apart because there’s too much talent and their head coach, Mike Budenholzer, is too good to let that happen. But this team will take a step or two back this season and find itself fighting for one of the last couple of playoff spots.
7. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
The Bucks have size, length, a couple of decent perimeter scorers and what appears to be -- on paper at least -- better depth. But with all that talent, something’s amiss. There’s no clear-cut, bona fide leader of the pack. Giannis Antetokounmpo (left) has the talent to be a star in this league. Jabari Parker will likely become more of a scorer now that he’s one more year removed from a knee injury early in his rookie season. There’s no telling how much of a bump they’ll get from the addition of Matt Dellavedova, who was a career backup in Cleveland, or whether Khris Middleton will continue improving as a wing scorer after seeing his scoring average increase every year he has been in the NBA. If this group can stay relatively healthy, the playoffs are indeed a realistic goal.
6. CHICAGO BULLS
There are so many questions and concerns about the Bulls that many see them as a team that will struggle just to make the playoffs. Like so many others, staying healthy will be key to their success. But in trading away Derrick Rose, they actually became a deeper team more in the mold of their head coach, Fred Hoiberg. By adding Dwyane Wade, the Bulls still have the kind of upper-echelon talent to pair with Jimmy Butler that gives fans the kind of 1-2 punch to cheer about. Ex-Celtic Rajon Rondo (left) will do what Rondo does all the time -- drive his head coach nuts while dropping dimes left and right all season. Taj Gibson, Robin Lopez and Bobby Portis give Chicago a solid group of interior defenders/rebounders, and Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic will only get better and become more consistent perimeter threats. The Bulls have the potential to do more than just get to the playoffs; they could actually make some noise along the way and potentially play their way into being a top-four club in the East . . . and with that, attain home-court advantage through at least the first round of the playoffs.