2013-14 NBA Preview (Eastern Conference)
Unlike the Western Conference (which I did a preview of last week), it seems pretty obvious who is going to win the East in the NBA. The Miami Heat won the Conference by 12 games a season ago, and are the two-time defending NBA champions. We are in the midst of LeBron James' legendary prime of his career, and Dwyane Wade is healthy once again.
However, the rest of the East is up in the air. Indiana continues to grow as a team, Chicago has their MVP back, Brooklyn added two future Hall of Famers and the bottom-feeders of the Conference have improved and are ready to compete for playoff spots. It will be exciting to see who can make the jump from bad to mediocre and squeak into the playoffs with the bottom seeds.
1 - Miami Heat (64-18)
Miami's second-straight 60+ win season certainly seems on the horizon to the horror of other teams in the NBA -- I think the Heat have gotten better since winning their second of back-to-back championships. LeBron James has separated himself from everyone else in the league, as he has won two MVPs to go with the championships of the past two seasons, and is the clear-cut favorite to go three straight for both accomplishments.
Many people wondered if the Heat could succeed with a very hobbled Dwyane Wade throughout the season and playoffs. They shut the critics up harshly by defeating the San Antonio Spurs in seven games, and now it seems Wade has recharged and has another solid season ahead of him for the best team in the world. When healthy, Wade is still one of the best shooting guards in the league.
The roster remains sneaky deep with key contributors like Chris Andersen, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Udonis Haslem returning. And of course Chris Bosh remains as the third best option on a team with two of the best players in the NBA of the past two decades. The intriguing addition of the once first overall draft pick Greg Oden to a team desperate for size could prove to pay off tremendously. Oden's knees may be shot, but his size is still there and if he can alter a few shots a game and pull down close to 10 rebounds then Miami will profit greatly from a potentially incredible signing.
Michael Beasley has returned to Miami after originally being a bust. He has all the makings to be one of the best bench cheerleaders in the NBA as Miami cruises to another Eastern Conference title.
2 - Chicago Bulls (56-26)
This is not a test, this is not a practical joke -- Derrick Rose is back. The youngest MVP in the history of the NBA missed the entire 2012-13 season recovering from a devastating ACL tear he sustained in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, and while being hyped all through the first half of the NBA season a year ago, he never returned to action for the Bulls. While impatient fans may have been frustrated with one of the most exciting players in the world sitting out a full season, it may pay dividends in the end.
Preseason is preseason, any sensical sports fan knows it means nothing. However, the Bulls went undefeated during the meaningless games and Derrick Rose played tremendously. If anyone is allowed to pretend like exhibition games mean anything, it is Chicago fans anxiously waiting to see if Rose still has the ability to play as a superstar in the NBA. All signs point to yes.
Missing in all the hubbub of Derrick Rose's injury and return is the injury woes all-star forward Luol Deng went through. He played through debilitating wrist issues all season, and reports coming out of Chicago suggest he is 100% healthy. Between those two all-stars, and the Bulls' all-star center Joakim Noah and consistent Carlos Boozer, the Bulls have a legitimate shot at contending for an NBA championship and being Miami's biggest competition. The emerging Jimmy Butler rounds out a very solid starting five.
Miami has owned Chicago in the playoffs since the formation of the "Big Three." This could be the year Chicago finally punches back.
3 - Indiana Pacers (50-32)
Give it a few more seasons, and Indiana may be the leaders in the East. Paul George is a budding superstar and Roy Hibbert is so excruciatingly close to being a completely dominate big man -- if he can take advantage of his massive size, then he could be the wild card that helps the Pacers win the East.
An old friend in Danny Granger is set to return within the first few weeks of the season. The former all-star is ready to go from the star of the Pacers to contributing role player. His presence on this team creates great depth. David West has had a career resurgence in Indiana as he has returned to form as a very good big man, as well as the epitome of great locker-room presence. Lance Stephenson showed a lot of impressive flashes in the playoffs last season, and him and George Hill make up a very formidable combo-guard duo for Indiana.
I adore the addition of Luis Scola to this team. He did not have a great year in his one season in Phoenix, but we won't hold it against the guy who has averaged 50% shooting for his career as well as 14 points a game mixed in with 7.5 rebounds. He gives Indiana more depth on the block, and stretches defenses with his ability to shoot from the wing. Luis Scola playing at a high level with Roy Hibbert and David West could give the Heat issues in a playoff series
Being a third seed will not mean much once the playoffs begin for Indiana, any one of the top four seeds in this Conference could find themselves playing for the title.
4 - Brooklyn Nets (48-34)
Pretty nice to have a Russian billionaire owning your team who can add two future Hall of Fame players to your playoff team as they begin their quest for the elusive final championship. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are in Brooklyn now after being traded by Boston along with Jason Terry. They join an already talented Nets team led by Deron Williams at the point, Joe Johnson at shooting guard and Brook Lopez in the paint. Those guys make up one of the best starting lineups in the NBA, and with Terry, Andray Blatche, Andrei Kirilenko and Reggie Evans coming off the bench, Brooklyn has plenty of talent to compete for the Eastern Conference championship.
One of the more compelling situations is taking place in Brooklyn this season with Jason Kidd manning the helm for the first time as an NBA coach. Kidd, who just retired a few months ago, will have former head coach Lawrence Frank as an assistant to help him along the way.
Consider the Brooklyn Nets the less-storied and unproven version of the San Antonio Spurs in the East. They have a deep squad full of players used to winning, and the regular season is not the main goal here. It is competing for a championship.
5 - New York Knicks (47-35)
Carmelo Anthony won his first scoring title of his career last season, and all New York had to show for it as a team was a second-round exit to the Indiana Pacers in six games. The Knicks are a great team to watch with 'Melo leading the offense, J.R. Smith shooting daggers off the bench and Iman Shumpert emerging as a floor general, but I don't think they have a roster ready to win in the playoffs.
Tyson Chandler is fresh off a Defensive Player of the Year award in 2012 and his first all-star nod in 2013. In his early 30s, it seems Chandler has finally entered the prime of his career many hyped about when he was chosen second overall in the 2001 draft. And while Chandler's presence has improved coach Mike Woodson's team's defense, it still stands as an issue. The Knicks' best player is atrocious on defense, and it does not matter if Amar'e Studemire is healthy or not, he continues to be a revolving door in the paint. With more than just one step lost due to injuries, Stoudemire and the Knicks will continue to struggle slowing down elite offenses.
We have three notable newcomers to the Knicks this season. Former number-one-overall draft pick Andrea Bargnani is in New York to fill in for Stoudemire as Amar'e is assuredly going to miss plenty of games this season. Overall, Bargnani has been seen as a bust in his career, but a new team and less expectations for someone now simply a role player could be a very good thing for the Italian big man. He joins Beno Udrih, who provides solid depth to the PG core for New York and Metta World Peace in Madison Square Garden. This will be a very interesting year for New York.
At times the offense will be spectacular, but the defense will continue to falter as the addition of Bargnani does not help an already subpar defensive core. Regular season success is almost assured, but another exit in the first or second round of the playoffs is likely.
6 - Atlanta Hawks (43-39)
The face of the Hawks for the past several seasons is gone. Josh Smith is now a Detroit Piston, and the reins have been handed to Al Horford. While the win/loss record may not reflect this, I believe this is a positive move by Atlanta. The East is a bit deeper this season -- more so than recent years -- and the Hawks may struggle to match their win totals of the past few seasons. But Al Horford is absolutely ready to assert himself as a top big man in the NBA and the leader for Atlanta as they look to get over the hurdle and become true contenders in the East.
Paul Millsap is in Atlanta now in one of the best -- and underrated -- acquisitions of the offseason. Josh Smith is a fun player to watch, but he is not the type of player that helps a team win long-term. Paul Millsap can be that type of player for the Hawks. Do not be surprised if Millsap explodes for an impressive career year in his first season with the Hawks.
The combination of Jeff Teague and Louis Williams is impressively quick and explosive. Williams is your typical score-in-bunches spark plug off the bench, while Teague has continued to improve every year he has been in the NBA. He'll take another positive step forward as he enters the second tier of point guards in the NBA.
Atlanta is the best of the best in terms of the rest of the Eastern Conference teams outside the big dogs. The top five seeds are the best in the conference, while everyone else vies for those final spots for the playoffs.
7 - Cleveland Cavaliers (42-40)
No more lucking their way into the number one pick for Cleveland. This team is ready to compete for a playoff spot with this roster of talented young players, and I think they will find themselves playing in the postseason.
Kyrie Irving is a future MVP candidate, and right now, he is an elite point guard. His ability to score at the point is on the level of Derrick Rose, and his handles are out of this world. We have seen point guards like Rose, Deron Williams and Chris Paul all make monster leaps in terms of production in their third year. It is Irving's time and with a top notch backup in Jarrett Jack now, he will flourish.
Irving's natural ability is there, but what will help him make the jump this season is the roster around him. His assists numbers should improve with fellow third-year player Tristan Thompson showing the necessary improvement his sophomore year as the former fourth overall pick looks to assert himself as the anchor at the block for the Cavaliers. Joining him in the frontcourt is rookie Anthony Bennett. The Cavaliers surprised some folks by taking the Canadian with the top pick of the 2013 NBA Draft, but the former UNLV freshman has a game compared to Larry Johnson's. There is very little pressure on Bennett as any sort of consistent contribution from him will do nothing but solidify Cleveland as legitimate playoff contenders.
And then there's Andrew Bynum. Bynum was traded to Philadelphia as a part of the big Dwight Howard trade over a year ago, and he still has not played an NBA game in anything but a Laker uniform. He has not been ruled out for the season opener for the Cavaliers, and if he can actually return to the court and play basketball again; the Cavaliers may have the piece that puts them over the hurdle into the playoffs. When healthy, Bynum is one of the top centers in the NBA, and with Bennett, Thompson and Anderson Varejao, the Cavaliers would have plenty of depth and size to compete.
And with all the talk of the young talent in Cleveland, I have yet to even mention Dion Waiters who was the fourth overall pick in last year's draft and on the NBA's All-Rookie First Team.
The Cavaliers have had an unprecedented amount of luck in the draft lottery, and a plethora of young talent as a result of this. It's team to reap the rewards.
8 - Washington Wizards (41-41)
Had I written this preview last week, I would have had the Wizards out of the playoffs. However, as it stands, with the addition of Marcin Gortat and a new commitment to compete, I'm ready to dub the Wizards as the final playoff team in the East.
John Wall is a thrill to watch run the point, as he scores and bursts past defenders with ease. Wall managed nearly 8 assists a game while on a bad team, and with Bradley Beal growing in his second year, and Gortat now anchoring the frontcourt along with Nene, expect that number and Wall's overall efficiency to improve. A possible all-star nod is very possible.
The Wizards added rookie Otto Porter Jr to the squad with the third pick in the draft and he is a legitimate dark horse to win Rookie of the Year. The 6-foot-8-inch swingman will only compete with Trevor Ariza for minutes and a starting slot, which I think he will earn sooner, rather than later in the season. Once he gets past the learning curve of the NBA, he should post solid stats across all the categories of the box score.
The bottom two seeds of the East are up for grabs. There are more than a couple teams competing for the final spots, and the Wizards figure to play prominently in the battle.
9 - Detroit Pistons - (39-43)
No longer content with competing for the best lottery pick, the Pistons brought in two big names to try and turn their roster around. Brandon Jennings is about to embark on his first season with the Pistons after beginning his career with the Milwaukee Bucks. He's not the prototypical point guard as he scores first, passes second, but his speed and special scoring ability will provide a big boost to Detroit. Joining Jennings is Josh Smith, who came over with Jennings from the Hawks. Smith adds in superb blocking skills, with a still-raw offensive game. If Smith can stop drifting out past the wing taking bad jumpers, then his addition will be another lasting positive one for Detroit.
Detroit has the makings of a dominate duo on the block with second-year man Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Monroe is already a budding star and all-star nominee, while Drummond led all rookies in PER (Player Efficiency Rating) last season. These two allow Josh Smith to stick to small forward which allows his athletic game to flourish.
Returning to Detroit to finish his career and provide some good wisdom to young guard Brandon Jennings is Chauncey Billups. Billups wil be that proverbial coach on the floor type of player for Detroit and is probably auditioning for future coaching jobs this year.
Detroit has their most talented roster in years, and they can enjoy a year where they are back to flirting with .500 once again.
10 - Toronto Raptors (37-45)
Toronto has one of the more intriguing players to keep your eyes on this season. Jonas Valanciunas showed a lot of improvement down the stretch to end the season and could be a prime candidate for Most Improved Player. He will help to lead the resurgence of centers in the NBA. He may end the season as one of the top big men in the NBA.
Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan are the two most talented players on the roster outside of Valanciunas and it remains to be seen how much they will contribute to the Raptors in an overall positive fashion. Both guys have jump-out-the-gym athleticism with Gay flashing superior skills overall as a player, but they have to prove they can lead a struggling team towards the right side of .500.
Toronto continues to be hindered by PG Kyle Lowry. While Lowry has the ability to fill up box scores occasionally, his overall struggles on offense in terms of efficiency and passing do not help in the slightest. He is better served as a bench option playing 15-20 minutes a game. As a starter, he does more harm than good and until Toronto can get a legitimate floor general, they will continue to struggle.
Another season of not being terrible, but not being good is in store for the Raptors.
11 - Charlotte Bobcats (31-51)
The Bobcats have Al Jefferson on their team now. That means the Bobcats have a legitimate number one option on offense who can get the ball on the block, perform some post-moves and lead the offense. That is finally a step in the right direction for this putrid team.
Get this -- the Bobcats have more than one player, other than Jefferson, who is worth watching. Rookie Cody Zeller was taken fourth overall and is many experts' pick for Rookie of the Year. He has the size, at 7 feet tall, and can join Jefferson to create Charlotte's first ever true dominating duo of big men. Not to mention Bismack Biyombo, who while certainly not worthy of his seventh overall selection in the 2011 draft, still has potential to be a contributing big man in the NBA.
Gerald Hendeson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will continue to grow as swingmen, while Kemba Walker seems primed to take the next step in his career and become an above-average point guard in the league. Walker has all the tools to lead a young team towards the promise land of .500.
30 wins for a terrible Bobcats team is actually a sign of improvement, so take this season for what it's worth, Charlotte. The beginning of true growing pains, but at least your team has direction finally.
12 - Boston Celtics (31-51)
It will be a strange sight to behold when the basketball world watches the Celtics play with no Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett. The Celtics shipped them to Brooklyn for prospect MarShon Brooks and multiple first-round draft picks. It is time to rebuild in Boston, and Rajon Rondo is the only player left to lead the way.
Rondo is still one of the best pure point guards in the NBA, but with less talent around him, his ability to pad his assists numbers is greatly hindered. He will have to shoot more and create his own shot, which for a player with a limited offensive game like Rondo's, may prove to be disastrous for any sort of hope Boston may have for winning.
Coming with Brooks to Boston as part of the trade with Brooklyn are Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries. Both guys are once good players who have fallen off a bit. Humphries much more quickly than Wallace. While both guys may see increased production thanks to more minutes, neither one will contribute to that many wins for the storied Celtics.
There is very little to get excited for out of Boston for Celtics fans this season, but rookie Kelly Olynyk may become a fan favorite very quickly. The big man out of Gonzaga will have all the opportunities in the world to become a mainstay in the rotation and is a dark horse for Rookie of the Year.
It feels weird writing about the Boston Celtics so late into a preview, but the Celtics have closed the window on their once championship-contending team and committed to rebuilding. Bad Eastern Conference or not, Boston is just not good enough to truly compete anymore.
13 - Orlando Magic (26-56)
Victor Oladipo. That is all you need to know concerning the Orlando Magic. The rookie shooting guard had Orlando's second pick in the 2013 draft used on him and he will be thrust straight into the rotation and starting lineup. He is the favorite for Rookie of the Year, and for good reason. His athleticism is insane, and his ability to grab rebounds and steal on defense will make him a real contributor straight away. If he can hit jumpers, which many rookies struggle with coming out of college, then Orlando will have a true number one option on offense once again.
Admittedly, I am being crass in my opening paragraph, and would be remiss if I did not mention Nikola Vucevic and the job he did last season. Vucevic was second in the NBA in rebounds with 11.9 per game, as well as adding 13.1 points. Orlando will continue to struggle, but Vucevic figures to be the most consistent player for the second straight season.
Orlando has a lot of pieces who need to be replaced if they figure to compete again. Jameer Nelson should be traded at some point this season, as he is more valuable to other teams than he is to Orlando. Even Arron Afflalo could bring in a nice package of a pick and prospect.
It is tough for a team to cash it in and accept how bad they really are, but guys like Nelson and Afflalo are not going to help this team win. The Magic should cut their losses, get as many first round picks they can find, and try their hands at the hyped up 2014 draft.
14 - Milwaukee Bucks (20-62)
Any shred of competitiveness Milwaukee once had is long gone. The once exciting duo of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings has been split up as the former is in Dallas and the latter is in Detroit. Now it is Brandon Knight's turn to lead the offense, and if the first two seasons are any indications, a season at the bottom of the East is in store for the Bucks. Knight is still only in his early 20s, and there is plenty of time for him to improve his game, which I think he will. He just does not have a lot of talent around him in Milwaukee as O.J. Mayo figures to be the leading scorer with a very mediocre field goal percentage.
Larry Sanders anchors the defense and had a breakout season last year. Sanders could be a Defensive Player of the Year in the future and he even flashed a few signs of an offensive game in 2012-13 as well. He is on the verge of being an elite defensive player in the NBA, any offensive contributions will be gravy.
And from there you have a lot of journeymen. Guys like Caron Butler and Carlos Delfino who will get big minutes, but do nothing to add wins to the win/loss record. Gary Neal goes from being an exciting shooting spark for the San Antonio Spurs making a Finals run to fading into obscurity with the Bucks now.
The Bucks have gone from perennial bottom-seed contenders to contenders for the top pick in the next draft.
15 - Philadelphia 76ers (17-65)
The Philadelphia 76ers got bad very fast. Once sexy picks to breakout in the East, the 76ers are now the favorites to have the most balls in the NBA's draft lottery. However, if you are going to tank, the 76ers are doing it the right way. They traded their all-star PG Jrue Holiday for the draft rights for the sixth pick in 2013's draft Nerlens Noel. Noel is projected to be a special talent, but knee surgery is expected to sideline Noel for the duration of the 2013-14 season. All this does is add stock to Philly's hopes of grabbing the top pick in the very talented 2014 draft while continuing to build for the future.
One rookie who will play this season for the 76ers is Michael Carter-Williams out of Syracuse. The 11th pick has a chance to compete for Rookie of the Year and will replace Holiday at the point.
If Evan Turner is going to become a good player in the NBA, it will happen this season. A brutal rotation and roster may be a blessing in disguise for the former second-overall pick. He will have plenty of minutes to play and a boost in stats across the board is likely. He still has a ton of upside.
Philadelphia is putting all their eggs in the basket that is the 2014 NBA Draft. And I think they will wind up smelling like roses when it is all done. They could wind up with either Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins, as well as Michael Carter-Williams, Evan Turner and Nerlens Noel next year. They won't be bottom-feeders for longer than a season.
Follow me on Twitter and keep an eye out for my post tomorrow where I predict the playoffs as well as the awards in the NBA this season! @MichaelRyne