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Eastern Conference breakdown
1. Brooklyn Nets: Similar to the Clippers in L.A., this perennial also-ran now reigns supreme in the Big Apple, trumping their crosstown rival by ignoring luxury-tax penalties, as billionaire owner Mikhail Prohkorov’s deep pockets enabled the Nets to significantly upgrade their roster in an attempt to become instant title contenders. Rookie head coach Jason Kidd, coincidentally a Knicks player last season, has the task of trying to both learn on the job and satisfy a veteran group, featuring holdovers Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and All-Star Brook Lopez, and newcomers Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry—all acquired in a blockbuster trade with division foe Boston—and the owner’s Russian compatriot Andrei Kirilenko. Brooklyn is deep and talented, but questions about Kidd’s adjustment to the sidelines, how quickly the team can develop into a cohesive unit and whether players with injury histories can remain healthy abound.
2. New York Knicks: On paper, the Knicks aren’t much different than they were last season, when they were regarded as a semi-legitimate contender in the East, mostly based upon superstar Carmelo Anthony’s scoring ability, center Tyson Chandler’s defensive prowess and reigning Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith providing a spark off the bench. A year later, when their biggest offseason moves include signing amnestied native New Yorker Metta World Peace, acquiring former No. 1 overall draft pick Andrea Bargnani via trade and re-signing both Smith, who had knee surgery over the summer, and Pablo Prigioni, coming off a season in which he was the oldest rookie in modern NBA history, things don’t look quite as bright, especially with no indication that former All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire’s health is improving any time soon. Perhaps one of New York’s few young, productive players, athletic swingman Iman Shumpert, can raise his game in his first full season after recovering from an ACL injury, but there aren’t many positives to anticipate and although the Knicks should be penciled in as a playoff team, they’re clearly a notch below the elite competition in the conference.
3. Toronto Raptors: Things can go one of two ways for the Raptors this season: Toronto can make an earnest early effort and if things don’t look go by the midway portion of the campaign, inevitably leading to the ouster of head coach Dwane Casey, and look to deal high-salary players, specifically the wing duo of Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan, en route to tanking for the much-ballyhooed 2014 NBA Draft, in which Canadian Andrew Wiggins is the consensus top prospect. Alternately, after assessing the top-heavy East, they can push to be a bottom seed in the postseason, tapping into the sense of pride in veterans like Gay, DeRozan, point guard Kyle Lowry and defensive-minded big man Amir Johnson, in an effort to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since Chis Bosh’s departure. Either way, young players such as promising center Jonas Valanciunas and 2013 dunk-contest winner Terrence Ross should get opportunities as new top executive Masai Ujiri, the reigning league Executive of the Year who previously worked for the Raptors, decides which players are keepers moving forward.
4. Boston Celtics: The Celtics have no conflict when it comes to the current direction they’re pursuing, as Danny Ainge opted to gut the team in the aforementioned swap with the Nets, as well as hiring former Butler coach Brad Stevens from the college ranks to guide Boston into a new era. With All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo out with an ACL injury to begin the season, youngsters like Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, MarShon Brooks and rookie Kelly Olynyk will get a chance to develop without the expectation of winning games, though they should be aware that the plan is to draft a potential superstar next June. Still, due to having a roster that includes some solid, if not overly productive veterans—Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Keith Bogans came over from Brooklyn with Brooks, while Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee weren’t part of the exodus—they can only sink so low.
5. Philadelphia 76ers: The group of personnel, in its entirety, that has to be evaluated as the most underwhelming the NBA has to offer upon entering the 2013-14 campaign has to be the Sixers’. New general manager Sam Hinkie dealt away the team’s best player, All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, on draft night, acquiring a 2014 first-round pick and the rights to shot-blocking center Nerlens Noel from New Orleans. Noel, once thought to be the favorite to be selected first in the draft, is raw, but does have game-changing upside as a defender, but the ACL injury he suffered in college will keep him out of uniform to begin the season. Another rookie, point guard Michael Carter-Williams, should be a fixture in the starting lineup from Day 1, but although forward Thaddeus Young, is a nice complementary piece, he shouldn’t be any team’s most established player, while Chicago native Evan Turner, a former No. 2 overall pick, has talent, yet is still finding himself, and the rest of the roster, which includes some decent role players, simply doesn’t have enough for Philadelphia, coached by first-year head coach Brett Brown, to even pay lip service to being competitive in the standings.
1. Chicago Bulls: This is less of a homer pick than an acknowledgement of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s single-minded focus to get the most out of the regular season in hopes of locking down home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, something the team did in each of his first two seasons at the helm. Derrick Rose’s return will undoubtedly help, but even more crucial to success is the fact that there will only be one newcomer in the rotation, the experienced Mike Dunleavy Jr. Health will also play a part, but with depth at most positions—the top-tier wing duo of Jimmy Butler and All-Star Luol Deng with Dunleavy in reserve, veteran Kirk Hinrich serving as a high-level backup for Rose, the power-forward tandem of the underappreciated Carlos Boozer and upper-echelon big-man reserve in Taj Gibson—and a highly-ranked defense anchored by All-Star center Joakim Noah, with a one-year abdication of the Central crown providing motivation, taking back the division is a realistic goal.
2. Indiana Pacers: Indiana certainly won’t give up top-dog status without a fight and given the Pacers’ tremendous summer maneuvers—re-signing veteran leader David West, acquiring forward Chris Copeland and ex-Bulls point guard C.J. Watson via free agency, trading for backup power forward Luis Scola and to cap the offseason, recently inking All-Star small forward Paul George to a max contract extension—it’s easy to call them the Central favorites, if not the most serious challenger to Miami’s domination of the East, particularly because of massive center Roy Hibbert’s size and presence inside. But in addition to working in their new pieces, the Pacers must also figure out the Danny Granger dilemma, as the team’s former leading scorer is back after missing almost all of last season due to a knee injury. Whether to start him and move George, whose best position is small forward, to the backcourt alongside George Hill, or bring him off the bench and let the emerging Lance Stephenson continue to blossom as Indiana’s starting shooting guard is a real issue for head coach Frank Vogel and could lead to some growing pains at the outset of the campaign.
3. Detroit Pistons: By picking up Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, Pistons top executive Joe Dumars, who also hired Chicagoan Maurice Cheeks as the team’s new head coach, served notice that Detroit was making a push to be competitive again after years of mediocrity following their highly successful, if not spectacular run, partially led by floor general Chauncey Billups, an offseason returnee to Motown. Jennings gives the team a true point guard, while Smith, slated to start at small forward, makes the Pistons’ frontline, already featuring underrated power forward Greg Monroe and athletic youngster Andre Drummond at center, very intriguing. How the puzzle fits together is the question, as few of the Detroit’s pieces are shooters (draft pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a shooting guard and possible starter, is an exception) and the squad’s depth in general has holes, but after having experienced such a lengthy playoff drought, even having high hopes coming into the season is worthy of excitement in the Motor City.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers: Cleveland also had a splashy summer, using the first pick in the draft to select forward and signing free-agent center Andrew Bynum, both of whom have injury concerns, as well as picking up a pair of solid veterans in point guard Jarrett Jack and versatile forward Earl Clark, and adding two lower-profile rookies, swingmen Sergey Karasov and Carrick Felix. Of course, the Cavs’ best and most important player is All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, who must shake the injury bug himself in order to lead the likes of fellow youngsters such as backcourt mate Dion Waiters and big men Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller, as well as oft-injured veteran Anderson Varejao. Talent isn’t the question, but with so many variables, it’s hard to have complete confidence in this squad, even with the return of head coach Mike Brown after an abbreviated stint with the Lakers.
5. Milwaukee Bucks: Somehow, the Bucks, after letting the entire backcourt trio of Monta Ellis, J.J. Redick and the aforementioned Jennings depart via free agency, can’t quite be written off when it comes to the playoff hunt, justifying the belief that owner Sen. Herb Kohl refuses for the franchise to ever be a true cellar-dweller, thus never undertaking a full rebuilding process. Larry Sanders, one of the league’s most formidable defensive presences, is Milwaukee’s new centerpiece, literally, after agreeing to a long-term contract extension over the summer, while O.J. Mayo and Brandon Knight, the latter acquired in the Jennings sign-and-trade deal, form the team’s new backcourt, and Wisconsin native Caron Butler, a late-summer acquisition, will man the small-forward spot next to holdover Ersan Ilyasova. Larry Drew, formerly of the Hawks, was brought in to coach the squad, which used its first-round pick on Greek project Giannis Antetokounmpo, an athletic wing type who will join the likes of free agents Gary Neal and Carlos Delfino, along with veteran floor general Luke Ridnour and promising young big man John Henson off the bench.
1. Miami Heat: The two-time defending champions aren’t overly concerned with regular-season success, but although Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra will probably strategically rest some of his key players, expect his team to still let pride take over and in an effort to stay sharp, have an extended dominant stretch or two to allow them to coast at various points in the campaign. League MVP LeBron James is the game’s best player and Chicago native Dwyane Wade, whether due to his social-media spat with Kevin Durant or simply being motivated to prove that he remains amongst the NBA’s elite players, could have a resurgent year, while big man Chris Bosh will likely continue to excel without receiving much credit for his play. The rest of the conference’s improvement should eliminate complacency, but Miami’s cast of role players, potentially including former top prospects Greg Oden and Michael Beasley, has to be up to the task, so that the aforementioned superstar trio doesn’t get burned out before the games matter most.
2. Washington Wizards: Led by the young backcourt of point guard John Wall, who signed a long-term max deal over the summer, and shooting guard Bradley Beal, coming off a solid debut season, according to many observers, the Wizards are poised to return to the playoffs, quenching a thirst that’s existed since the days when Gilbert Arenas was the top player in Washington. In typical fashion, health is already a major concern, as veteran center Emeka Okafor is already sidelined, at least for the time being, but fellow starting big man Nene should be able to pick up some of the slack and re-signed sharpshooter Martell Webster, reserve Trevor Ariza and rookie Otto Porter comprise a deep wing corps. There isn’t great depth at guard and in the post, but if the team’s young players begin to live up to their promise, sneaking into the postseason certainly isn’t out of the question.
3. Atlanta Hawks: Similar to Milwaukee, even after shedding payroll and letting key players like the above-mentioned Smith leave in free agency, the Hawks can’t be taken for granted, as general manager Danny Ferry hired fellow Spurs alum Mike Budenholzer to coach the team, brought back emerging point guard Jeff Teague and elite marksman Kyle Korver, and acquired solid veteran role players, including Elton Brand and underrated forward Paul Millsap. Now unquestionably Atlanta’s top player, big man Al Horford has the chance to show off his complete skill set and when sixth-man extraordinaire Lou Williams eventually returns from an ACL injury, scoring firepower off the bench will instantly become a strength. Although they aren’t a bunch that jumps out as a force to be reckoned with, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Hawks quietly become a factor as the season goes on, and if they don’t, Ferry has set up a scenario where Atlanta can add talent in what’s expected to be a solid draft and as they did this summer, at least contend for top free agents, while evaluating young players like intriguing German rookie point guard Dennis Schroeder.
4. Charlotte Bobcats: First, the good news: Charlotte will be an improved team, simply because of the acquisition of free-agent big man Al Jefferson, a top-tier post scorer, not to mention another year of experience for the perimeter trio of scoring point guard Kemba Walker, second-year small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and shooting guard Gerald Henderson, who agreed to a contract extension over the summer. The bad news is if even if the Bobcats’ nucleus, which also includes first-round draft pick Cody Zeller, backup point guard Ramon Sessions and reserve swingman Jeff Taylor, gets a whole lot better, they’re still very unlikely to sniff the franchise’s second-ever playoff appearance. Michael Jordan’s team, which will revert back to its previous Hornets nickname after the season, has yet another new head coach in Steve Clifford and a tough road ahead, meaning that the Bulls fans can breathe a sigh of relief that the protected pick from the Tyrus Thomas deal is still not in much jeopardy.
5. Orlando Magic: Regardless of what record Orlando finishes with, things are looking up for the Magic, which turned out to be the belated winner of last summer’s Dwight Howard blockbuster deal, as they ended up with several promising young pieces from the trade, including double-double machine Nikola Vucevic and athletic swingman Maurice Harkless, not to mention established veteran shooting guard Arron Afflalo. The latter is one of three established players, along with floor general Jameer Nelson and power forward Glen “Big Baby” Davis, who should be considered trade bait this season, as the organization is clearly in the midst of a youth movement. Rookie guard Victor Oladipo will get an opportunity at both backcourt positions, forward Tobias Harris is expected to build upon his stellar second half of last season and big men Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O’Quinn will battle to be a part of the rotation, as well as the team’s core moving forward.
1. Chicago Bulls: As previously stated, Thibs’ determination and the team’s familiarity, as well as Derrick’s chip-on-his-shoulder comeback tour, will enable the Bulls, barring injury, to have one of their usual regular seasons, pushing for the conference’s top spot to hopefully make their road a bit easier when the playoffs arrive.
2. Miami Heat: While postseason seeding shouldn’t and probably doesn’t matter to the battle-tested champs, they’ll look to prove a point at various junctures in the campaign, sending a message that they can toy with the majority of their opposition at will, though Spo’s insistence on resting, LeBron, Wade, Bosh and other veterans will probably result in not garnering the East’s top spot.
3. Indiana Pacers: The Pacers were good last year and by the end of the season, they’ll probably be even better, but with new faces in the rotation, some early-season experimentation could lead to a slow start, which shouldn’t be overly concerning, but is enough for their prime rivals to gain a slight edge.
4. Brooklyn Nets: The talent is there, but with an influx of veteran newcomers and a first-year head coach now having to be heavy-handed with players who were his peers just a few months ago, there are bound to be some growing pains, and even if the influence of Garnett and Pierce makes the Nets tougher, they definitely don’t make them any younger.
5. New York Knicks: New York’s playoff meltdown could be a sign of things to come, as Carmelo was tasked with having to shoulder too much of the burden, but even if he receives more help from a supporting cast that surely isn’t the match of the East’s top teams, it’s difficult to envision exactly how the Knicks can vastly improve.
6. Detroit Pistons: Almost by default, the Pistons are the team just below the conference’s five playoff locks, simply because their two biggest additions, Smith and Jennings, could have something to prove after being unfairly maligned in their previous homes, while Dumars is likely feeling some pressure, which could trickle down to a greater sense of urgency in young players like Monroe and Drummond, who have never been in a situation like that, making the behind-the-scenes mentoring of Billups even more important.
7. Washington Wizards: Again, this just feels like Washington’s year, especially after Wall’s tremendous campaign after finally getting on the court last season and subsequent summer proclamations, but also Beal’s potential to help form what could be one of the best backcourt pairings, solid role players elsewhere and the fact that the Wizards have more continuity than much of their direct competition for a bottom seed.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs have so many questions and are so unproven, but somebody out of the Bynum-Bennett-Varejao-Thompson-Zeller-Clark frontcourt group has to stay healthy and Waiters’ gunner mentality could actually work on this team, but mostly, Irving is too good to not get them into the postseason and be saddled with the label of not being a winner.