So after free agency and more than a few trades, the NBA landscape has been reshaped dramatically. Today, I’ll run down how the new-look Eastern Conference will play out, and tomorrow, it’s a look at the West. There’s been much talk about the “improved” and “deeper” Eastern Conference since all of the transactions began. Really? Where, exactly, do you see that much improvement? Sure Miami and Chicago will be better and Milwaukee might be better, but Orlando, Boston and Atlanta will stay about the same (or regress), with Cleveland totally falling apart and Charlotte likely following. None of the non-playoff teams from last year improved significantly, either. There are possibly 12 or 13 teams in the West who could be legitimate playoff-caliber clubs. The East has 6. That’s some improvement, all right.
15. Toronto Raptors- Worst team in the league. They have absolutely nothing. Not even worth talking about. When Leandro Barbosa is your best player, get ready to start counting ping pong balls for the 2011 Harrison Barnes sweepstakes. Twenty wins would be an accomplishment.
14. Cleveland Cavaliers- A lot of people are being very generous with their assessments of the Cavs post-Lebron, some even going so far as to suggest possible playoff basketball. Sure, I feel for them, too, but let’s be real here. Without James, this team flat sucks. By the end of the season, they will have moved every tradeable piece on the roster (except J.J. Hickson) and will be praying for a dynamic high lottery pick. If they reach half of their win total from last season, Byron Scott should be Coach of the Year.
13. Charlotte Bobcats- Hope you enjoyed the playoffs, guys, ’cause it’s back to the lottery. Larry Brown will be out of town before mid-season, if not sooner. The team, meanwhile, has no scorers (other than Stephen Jackson), limited depth, no point guard and, basically, no chance.
12. Washington Wizards- John Wall looks to be really good and all, but one player, unless his name is Jordan, can’t turn this train-wreck of a roster around. Wait a minute, even Jordan couldn’t make the Wizards a winner. Maybe Yi Jianlian, Al Thornton and Andray Blatche all reach their potential in unison, Wall runs away with rookie of the year, Arenas comes back as a superstar and Washington finds the playoffs. Then again, maybe not.
11. Philadelphia 76ers- This is a mis-matched hodge-podge of a roster with borderline useless and virtually untradeble parts like Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand. And in case no one noticed, Mr. Can’t Miss rookie Evan Turner stunk it up in the summer league. I’d put the over-under at 30 wins.
10. New Jersey Nets- I actually considered making the Nets a playoff team, even though the 12-win franchise added nothing of consequence but a project power-forward in Derrick Favors and some actual good teams’ bench rejects like Jordan Farmar and Travis Outlaw. That is how bad the bottom 2/3 of the East is these days, this kind of off-season passes for positive progress. Still, they could win 15-20 more games than last season if for no other reason than a big chunk of the conference fell back to their sorry level.
9. Detroit Pistons- Fairly soon, Rip Hamilton and Tayshawn Prince will be goners, leaving Detroit bereft of anyone who even remotely knows about winning basketball games. Even so, they’re better than most of the trash making up the bulk of the East. 35 wins would be a great season. And it could net a playoff spot. That’s pretty sad.
8. Indiana Pacers- How is it that a team that won 32 games last season, and has added absolutely nothing in the off-season, can ascend to the playoffs? Do I have to say that the East is really, really lousy one more time? Indiana has the best player on any of the teams from 7-15 in Danny Granger. They have a couple serviceable parts around him, and as good a shot as anyone. The Hawks 2010 playoff record of getting beat by a combined 101 points in a four-game sweep could be in jeopardy.
7. New York Knicks- So the Knicks executed their plan after all, and it may well get them back into playoff basketball. With Amare Stoudemire, Anthony Randolph and Raymond Felton added to coach Mike D’antoni’s system, they will be exciting and score some points. The added benefit of all three of those guys no longer having to worry about defense helps, too. That, and the fact that not one of the teams below them look capable of even reaching 35 wins makes a playoff appearance not only possible, but even likely. Maybe we should just give the top two teams in the East a bye this season.
6. Boston Celtics- Sure, they’ll win the Atlantic Division, probably by a wide margin, but this team, over a long season, is another year older and more like the one that played .500 ball for the last 50 games or so last year. They may be able to upset someone when the playoffs roll around, if they have enough healthy pieces on the floor, but another title run? I don’t think so. Remember, they’ll have to play at least the first couple months with Jermaine O’Neal at center instead of Kendrick Perkins. That’ll work wonders for their toughness and rebounding.
5. Milwaukee Bucks- The sexy pick for an under-the-radar, up and coming team in the East. Why’s that? Because they over-paid for journeymen John Salmons and Drew Gooden and traded for Corey Maggette. Uh-huh. If Andrew Bogut comes back as the same player as last season and Brandon Jennings continues to progress, the Bucks could get home court in the first round. Otherwise, it’s likely a one-and-done playoff run.
4. Chicago Bulls- The Bulls have added Kyle Korver and Carlos Boozer. And the Jazz, both of their former team, spent about 15 seconds weeping their loss and replacing them. Joaquim Noah and Derrick Rose are both big stars, and that alone makes Chicago one of the better teams in the East and the likely replacement for Cleveland as central Division Champion. Taj Gibson has a nice upside, Luol Deng can score some when he’s actually healthy enough to play. The Bulls will be much better than last year, but they’re still a second or third tier contender that can’t beat the big boys.
3. Atlanta Hawks- Atlanta caught hell for massively over-paying for Joe Johnson. But that kept a team together that won 53 games and a first round series last year. Another season together could mean a few more wins before a second round stomping again. This is the very image of a good to great regular season team that doesn’t have what it takes to win when it counts most.
2. Miami Heat- After The Decision by Lebron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwayne Wade and a crew of over-rated or has-been veterans on the Heat, many people have been anointing the team as the winner of the next 5 or 6 championships. Well, the top-heavy talent notwithstanding, not so fast. First off, this is the season where Chris Bosh gets exposed as a fraud. He’s going to have to rely on the occasional scraps falling from ball-hogging Wade and James. When mid-season rolls around and Bosh is averaging about 15 or 16 ppg, let’s see how happy he is to have taken less money to end up in Miami. Bosh is a guy who has put up monster numbers for years on bad Toronto teams with no other viable scorers. CB4’s contract will go down as one of the worst of this free-agent season. Secondly, Mike Miller is nice and all but he really hasn’t been a relevant performer since winning sixth man for Memphis in 2006-07 season. Udonis Haslem was a great role player when the Heat won the title five years ago. Everyone else they’ve signed is a washed up vet. Thirdly, with Lebron and Wade’s propensity to pound the ball looking for their own glory, is there any chance that Miami will be able to run even the slightest semblance of an offense? They’ll win lots of games in the regular season on sheer talent, but when the playoffs roll around, that kind of basketball doesn’t win very often. Plus, if they struggle at any point this season, how quickly will the inevitable “fire Erik Spoelstra, Pat Riley’s taking over” media circus become deafening? By the end of this year, Riley could conceivably be saying about the “Miami Thrice” experiment, “well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
1. Orlando Magic- So does that mean that Orlando will get back to the Finals? Well, no. They still have the same problems as last year; Dwight Howard hasn’t matured or grown enough as a player, and they still have notorious shrinking violets Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter as key guys for a title run. Still, they have continuity on their side, unlike anyone but Atlanta in the East, will probably get near or above 60 wins again and lose somewhere along the way. Barring a major trade that reshapes these guys a bit, The Magic will disappear in the money season one more time.
So the East is pretty far from the beastly conference we’re being told it is. Barring Miami really getting things together quickly, and/or Orlando and Chicago adding another genuine prime time player via trade at some point, whoever comes out of the East this year will get soundly whipped by the West champion. The East is not, in fact, deeper or stronger than last season. It’s just the opposite; weaker overall and a far more shallow pool of really good teams. Don’t buy into the hype.