The Eastern Conference since 2010 has been ruled almost unilaterally by the Miami Heat. Four straight Eastern Conference Championships, two NBA Championships, Four Finals appearance and a team full of All Stars that many thought would make a dynasty for years to come. My how things change when reality sets in. The days of the Big 3 in South Beach are over, despite the promises of “Not 4, Not 5, Not 6, Not 7”.
After an embarrassing defeat by the old and determined San Antonio Spurs, Lebron took his exit, leaving his friends behind to head back home to good old Cleveland, Ohio. The same Cleveland that received three #1 overall lottery picks and had three coaching changes in the years after Lebron’s exit. However, laden with youth and a proven All-Star in Kyrie Irving, the move was an obvious one to homesick Lebron James. The deal got even sweeter when rumors circulated involving an oncoming trade to bring Kevin Love along. Now we all know that as Lebron moves, the rest of the league moves and to say his decision didn’t make tidal waves around the league would be laughable. The dismantled Miami Heat would have to pick up the pieces. The addition of Pau Gasol and emergence of a healthy Derrick Rose heightened the Bulls championship aspirations. The hiring of Phil Jackson had given the New York Knicks a new found hope. The youthful Wizards and Hornets have begun drafting their blueprints for success. The Eastern Conference would never be the same again. Whenever the best player in the game unexpectedly switches teams, your damn right things are gonna start changing!
Now let’s rank the Top 5 Eastern Conference teams based off their current NBA rosters as of August 29, 2014. Draftees and new free agents are included.
1. Chicago Bulls
Key Additions: F/C Pau Gasol (Free Agency), F Nikola Mirotic (Free Agency), F Doug McDermott (Draft)
We can’t talk about the Bulls without first starting with the status of G Derrick Rose. The former MVP has wowed critics and fans alike with his performance and it’s safe to say he’s back to his old self. However, durability will always be an issue for him and his presence is key for Chicago to go anywhere. C Joakim Noah is coming off of an MVP-like season and will return to his defensive dominance with newfound help. F/C Taj Gibson and G/F Jimmy Butler will return for another productive season. The addition of Gasol and Mirotic fills the hole left by F Carlos Boozer’s departure. Gasol’s length and experience will be invaluable while Mirotic will have high expectations as a former Euroleague All-Star. G Kirk Hinrich will continue to be a solid backup, G/F Mike Dunleavy has proven to be an invaluable source of scoring, and F Tony Snell will build off his rookie campaign. This roster is playoff-tough and I expect Tom Thibodeau to produce with a healthy team for once.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
Key Additions: F Lebron James (Free Agency), F Kevin Love (Via trade), F Shawn Marion (Free Agency), G/F Mike Miller (Free Agency), F James Jones (Free Agency), C Brendan Haywood (Free Agency)
Much about this team can be summed up in the three All-Stars they bring to the forefront. G Kyrie Irving is top notch and can only get better, Love is in the same boat bringing an abundance of three’s and rebounding. Lebron is Lebron. C Varejao is solid but has durability issues. G Dion Waiters has room to grow and will look to become more consistent along with backup F Tristan Thompson. The rest of the bench consists of veteran backups bought off free agency. A recipe for success? Not yet. A lack of a rim protecting big man will give Lebron many of the same problems he saw in Miami. But expect this dominant group to be a major part of the equation going forward.
3. Miami Heat
Key Additions: F Luol Deng (Free Agency), F Josh McRoberts (Free Agency), F Danny Granger (Free Agency), G Shabazz Napier (Draft)
Miami is able to avoid catastrophe after Lebron’s exit by re-signing G Dwayne Wade and F/C Chris Bosh thus solidifying their position as a contender. Luol Deng will never live up to his predecessor, but he is a fine replacement if you take away the durability issues he’s been plagued with throughout his career. G Mario Chalmers will need to take a step forward if this team plans on getting better. He will have plenty of opportunities to score now. McRoberts and Granger will fill out roles on the bench along with C Chris ‘Birdman’ Andersen and G Norris Cole. This team has alot of playoff experience and will still dominate much of their competition in the East. Erik Spoelstra will be exposed this season without Lebron to lean on.
4. Washington Wizards
Key Additions: F Paul Pierce (Free Agency), F Kris Humphries (Free Agency), F Dejuan Blair (Free Agency)
Despite the loss of F Trevor Ariza over the offseason, Washington brings back most of their playoff group from last year. G John Wall and G Bradley Beal will need to continue improving if this team wants to get better. Wall’s lack of a perimeter shot will be his downfall. C Marcin Gortat and F Nene Hilario will lead a robust frontcourt and, barring injury, will produce just as well as last season. Expect Gortat to make a jump as flashes in the NBA playoffs series against Indiana gave us a glimpse of his immense talent. G Andre Miller and F Drew Gooden will provide veteran leadership for this young team along with Pierce who is expected to flourish as a closer and leader. F Otto Porter Jr. will be looked at to make the next step before skeptics being to toss the ‘bust’ label on him.
5. New York Knicks
Key Additions: G Jose Calderon (Via Trade), C Samuel Dalembert (Via Trade), G Shane Larkin (Via Trade), G/F Cleanthony Early (Draft), F Thanasis Antetokounmpo (Draft), F/C Jason Smith (Free Agency), HC Derek Fisher
After a joke of a season, the New York Knicks will bounce back and set up a foothold among the top teams in the East. F Carmelo Anthony has given a long term commitment that gives the team a chance to build for the future. G Raymon Felton and C Tyson Chandler were dealt as a step to improve bringin in Calderon who will step into the starting PG role. Dalembert will help replace Chandler, but the move is more for financial opportunity than roster improvement. F/C Amare Stoudemire who has seen a renewed emergence in a reserve role will finish out his destructive contract. F/C Andrea Bargnani will need to improve after an injury plagued season to give the Knicks a reason to keep him moving forward. G Iman Shumpert, G Tim Hardaway Jr. and G J.R. Smith will battle for playing time and a trade is expected before the season’s end. Each are potential starters with Shumpert’s defense and Hardaway Jr’s 3-point shooting being hot commodities around the league. Carmelo will carry this team as he usually does but with help from front office led Phil Jackson expect a bounce back season from last year’s terrible campaign.
Charlotte Hornets – G Kemba Walker and C Al Jefferson led this young group to the playoffs last season and nothing says they cant do it again. Adding G/F Lance Stephenson bolsters their starting five and draft pick F/C Noah Vonleh gives a low post scoring threat for the future. Expect G/F Kidd-Gilchrist to take another step forward and rookie G P.J Hairston who raised alot of eyebrows in the Summer League will prove a scoring commodity. A young team full of lottery picks could break out this season and is a potential threat for years to come.
Indiana Pacers – The loss of Paul George dashes any hope of an Eastern Conference Championship and with no real replacement this team is doomed to complacency. C Roy Hibbert and F David West will be relied upon to provide a bulk of the scoring. G George Hill needs to get better. Someone new needs to step up and improve in preparation for Paul George’s return next season as well.