There have been a lot of roster changes that should have significant impacts on the NBA’s Eastern Conference standings next season. The battle for playoff spots in the East will be very competitive all the way through the eighth and final position.
With Derrick Rose watching from the sidelines at the start of next season, the Miami HEAT is expected to take the top seed in the conference with little opposition and the improving Indiana Pacers should be able to edge out the Chicago Bulls for first place in the Central Division. The Boston Celtics reloaded, adding Jason Terry and Courtney Lee to a proven roster that could hold onto the Atlantic Division crown. The Atlanta Hawks are still playoff material and the Brooklyn Nets added Joe Johnson so they should have enough to get over the hump. The inconsistent New York Knicks have the star power to be a playoff team again, assuming Raymond Felton can still be an effective starting point guard and the Knicks’ rollercoaster chemistry stays on track.
The opportunity for a newcomer to the East’s playoff picture will most likely come at the expense of the evolving Philadelphia 76ers and the drama-laden Orlando Magic.
Orlando Magic, 37-29, sixth place last season
The Magic will be entering next season without the best center in the NBA and nothing they could have received in return was going to replace the impact of Dwight Howard. Orlando managed to off-load Jason Richardson, Earl Clark and Chris Duhon and brought in Al Harrington, Arron Afflalo, Nikola Vucevic and Moe Harkless.
While Harrington and Afflalo will be contributors right away, the other pieces the Magic acquired are for the future. Next season is the start of another rebuilding project in Orlando after losing the most dominant center in the game for the second time in team history.
Philadelphia 76ers, 35-31, eighth place last season
76ers President Rod Thorn was finally able to get full value for All-Star Andre Iguodala after years of speculation by landing All-Star Andrew Bynum in yesterday’s four-team deal. The trade also netted Jason Richardson and sent out young center Nikola Vucevic and rookie Moe Harkless, but everything may not be as rosy in Philadelphia as it appears.
Before the trade, the 76ers’ roster had regressed significantly. Thorn had moved out two of their best players in Lou Williams and Elton Brand and replaced them with the questionable maturity of Nick Young and the journeyman Kwame Brown. Now, with Iguodala gone, the 76ers will barely resemble last year’s playoff team and while Richardson will give them a much needed veteran presence at shooting guard, his play has fallen off so badly that Orlando had good reason for wanting him gone.
Iguodala was his team’s heart and soul and a big part of the reason Philadelphia was top three in points allowed and opponent’s field goal percentage. While Bynum is generally considered to be the better player, he is no leader and the overall impact on the 76ers may not be as big as expected. Head coach Doug Collins has a lot of work to do if he is to recreate the chemistry that unexpectedly snuck this team into the playoffs for each of the past two seasons.
Milwaukee Bucks, 31-35 last season
The Bucks flirted with a playoff spot for much of last season and wasted their chance to grab the eighth seed by losing seven of their last 10 games, but “Fear the Deer” is no more in Milwaukee as this lineup is far from overwhelming. An undersized backcourt led by Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis can score, but is suspect on defense. Without Andrew Bogut, the Bucks relied on the emergence of the 25-year-old Ersan Ilysasova to carry the scoring and rebounding load in the frontcourt.
There is room for hope in Milwaukee, however, as Samuel Dalembert has replaced Kwame Brown at center and the Bucks held onto their “show me the money” free agent power forward Ilysasova. This team looks to be at least slightly better than last season and in the hunt for eighth once again.
Toronto Raptors, 23-43 last season
The Raptors would never admit it, but they spent the past two seasons tanking to get better draft picks. Incoming rookie center Jonas Valanciunas will make them better plus this year’s pick, Terrence Ross, could eventually be an upgrade over DeMar DeRozan. However, the Raptors’ immediate playoff aspirations will be resting on the big strides made this off season with the acquisition of Houston’s starting point guard Kyle Lowry for a future lottery pick.
Under head coach Dwane Casey, Toronto is no longer a defensive sieve and the addition of free agent Landry Fields will further improve the Raptors’ small forward position. The veteran Jose Calderon is currently slated to backup Lowry and gives the Raptors one of the better point guard combinations in the league, at least until Toronto pulls the much anticipated trade to relieve the point guard log jam and cash-in on this asset.
Toronto’s last two seasons collapsed after Andrea Bargnani went down with a calf injury and there has to be at least a little concern about whether this team can score enough points without him. However, heading into next season with a healthy roster, the Raptors believe they can capture eighth or better with some justification.
Washington Wizards, 20-46 last season
Washington has cleared out a dysfunctional locker room and replaced the misfiring pieces with solid veterans. Next season, John Wall will have Nene, Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor to work with plus third-overall pick Bradley Beal at shooting guard.
The Wizards have improved dramatically from the self-centered group that started last season and this new environment is one in which young players like Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker and Jordan Crawford should be able to develop in. However, they will have to exceed expectations to be in the hunt for the eighth seed and the only reason the teams ranked ahead of them have to be concerned is just how much better Wall will be when he’s not surrounded by knuckleheads.
Detroit Pistons, 25-41 last season
It may be hard to find a team that has made more moves to confound their fans and the media alike than Detroit, but through the confusion, the Pistons have acquired some very good young talent.
After just two seasons, Greg Monroe has become a beast down low with his rare combination of true center-size, quickness and good hands and the addition of rookie Andre Drummond gives Detroit the potential of having a dominant frontcourt. At the point, Brandon Knight had a solid rookie campaign and the now 26-year-old Rodney Stuckey continues to prove he is very good combo-guard, even if these two players do look like duplicates of each other.
Detroit’s playoff hopes for next season are resting on the unlikely combination of incoming Corey Maggette actually playing most of the games next season, Charlie Villanueva rediscovering the productivity he demonstrated before signing that big free agent contract and Drummond developing some of that vast potential. As all of this happening at once is somewhat unlikely, Detroit will remain on the outside looking in, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the Pistons out-of-hand as the talent is there to do better.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are sticking to their rebuilding plan and willing to let the chips fall where they may. The Cavaliers’ focus on developing their young players will push any playoff aspirations off to future seasons. The Bobcats are attempting to dig out from an even deeper hole than the Cavaliers were in after losing LeBron James and will be happy if they can just be competitive in most of their games.
By the time April rolls around, the battle for eighth should be down to a three-way struggle between Toronto, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Experience tells us Collins will get the most out of whatever the 76ers give him to work with, Milwaukee almost made it last year and should be better this time around and Toronto is poised to make the biggest jump in the East after the Nets.