Wednesday, July 17, 2013
My Way Too Early Eastern Conference Predictions
Here we are, in the middle of July. The NBA Draft has come and gone, and Summer League play is nearly over. I figure this is an appropriate time to release my way too early Eastern Conference predictions.
1. Miami Heat
Picking the Heat to finish first in the Eastern Conference is a no-brainer. They've reached the NBA Finals the last three seasons, and have won two of those three. I realize that Dwayne Wade may not be quite the same player, but he averaged 21, 5 and 5 on 52% shooting last year, and he's able to lean on LeBron to a point when he struggles. Chris Bosh is another player who their may be some question marks about, but people forget that he's still an elite player. Bosh doesn't get as many looks close to the basket as he needs to free up space for LeBron and Wade to get to the rim, but he's excellent at spacing the floor and he's still an above average rebounder.
Miami returns Chris Andersen who was huge during the Heat's Finals run, and they also return Ray Allen who saved their championship hopes last season with a clutch shot in game 6. They also return some very good role players in Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller (he may be amnestied, we'll see), Udonis Haslem, Norris Cole and Shane Battier. This is pretty much the exact same team they just won a championship with, and they still may add some other veterans, and potentially Greg Oden, who if healthy, could have a significant impact for Miami.
Oh, they've also got LeBron James, so there's that.
2. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers finished 3rd last year behind the New York Knicks, and then promptly destroyed the Knicks in their playoff series. Indiana will have a healthy Danny Granger if they don't trade him, and Paul George made strides towards becoming a bonafide star in the NBA last year. The Pacers also have one of the most tenacious front courts in Roy Hibbert and David West and because of this they were able to take the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Both Hibbert and West are back next year, and I fully expect both of them to continue playing at a high level.
The one issue with the Pacers is their bench is a little weak. With the loss of Tyler Hansbrough who brought a great deal of energy off the bench, the bench starts to look even weaker. However, if Danny Granger is able to return to form in the starting lineup, that would allow Lance Stephenson to come off the bench in a 6th man role, and he can be some scoring power off of the bench. The Pacers also added Chris Copeland this year in free agency. Copeland is coming off a solid season in New York and he should be a valuable bench player for the Pacers as he can score, defend, and rebound at a good rate for someone coming off the bench. Miles Plumlee also looks like he's taking strides into becoming what Hansbrough was off the bench, Orlando Johnson looks much improved, and Solomon Hill could also be another solid forward off the bench in his rookie year.
Overall, the Pacers look like they're going to continue to trend upward, and I really like where Frank Vogel has this team heading.
3. Chicago Bulls
Let me start off by saying I know that a majority of my friends are going to criticize me for putting the Bulls at three, but I have some very legitimate reasons. Also, let me add that I think the Bulls and the Pacers could almost be interchangeable at these spots, but as of right now I like the Bulls at three.
Here's the thing, the Bulls are great because of Tom Thibodeau. I can honestly say that I have never seen a coach get more out of every single player on his bench, and get every single player on his team to buy into his system. Thibodeau preaches tough, hard defense and when you're undermanned (as the Bulls very much were last season) this is the best way to win games, something the Bulls showed us last season by not only making the playoffs, but also by winning their first round playoff game.
The Bulls waived Rip Hamilton, which I find hilarious considering several Bulls fans thought he would be the answer to some of their issues when they acquired him, but they replaced him with Mike Dunleavy which I think as of right now is a good move. Dunleavy will space the floor well and he's a decent rebound and a nice G/F, I'm concerned somewhat about his injury issues but as of right now I like the move. The Bulls drafted Tony Snell who I like, as he seems to be a perfect fit for Thibodeau's system. They also drafted Erik Murphy who is a decent stretch forward from Florida who will be able to play some spot minutes for Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson.
Jimmy Butler is a player to watch for next season, as he really came into his own this year and his confidence looks sky high. Butler improved on his shooting, and proved that he can defend just about anyone in the league, this kid is someone that should have Bulls fans very, very excited. Luol Deng continues to be mentioned in trade rumors but it appears he will be back and healthy which will help the Bulls on both ends of the floor.
Most importantly for the Bulls obviously is the fact that Derrick Rose has officially announced his return and will be playing game one. Whether or not Rose brings the same athleticism and quickness to the game has yet to be seen, but if I'm a Bulls fan I'm not too worried about him returning to form.
4. New York Knicks
The Knicks may be the most intriguing team here as they could very well finish anywhere in the 2, 3, or 4 spots. I'm most comfortable putting them at four, however as Indiana cleaned their clocks in the playoffs, and the Bulls have Derrick Rose back as well as some other new key pieces that make me believe they'll finish ahead of the Knicks.
The Knicks had a pretty solid offseason, inking JR Smith, who appears to have found a niche in Mike Woodson's system, to a long term deal. They also just recently signed Metta World Peace, who despite his age is still a very good defender and should help shore up the Knicks offensive issues. Perhaps the biggest move the Knicks made was trading for Andrea Bargnani. Bargnani is definitely overpaid, but he should fit right in as a stretch forward in the Knicks' offense.
Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler appear to be healthy, and with the acquisition of Bargnani it looks like Stoudemire will come off the bench. Should Stoudemire embrace this role he and JR Smith could be some solid offensive fire power for the Knicks' second unit. Iman Shumpert is also an interesting piece as he will probably now be able to move over to the starting shooting guard position and won't be playing out of position. Shumpert is a tenacious defender and has a pretty versatile game. Furthermore, it looks like he'll be completely healthy, something that he was not last season.
Carmelo Anthony is coming off of a scoring title win, but he struggled in the playoffs. Obviously, this Knicks team goes as he goes and this would appear to be the best team that Anthony has ever played with. If Carmelo is ever going to win a championship, this may very well be the year he has to do it.
5. Brooklyn Nets
The Nets made some huge splashes this offseason acquiring both Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the Celtics. Add them to the Nets' already star studded starting lineup and it would appear that you have a championship contender, but I'm not convinced.
Deron Williams obviously played at an extremely high level as the season progressed last year, Joe Johnson didn't look exactly comfortable playing off the ball as much but he still played well, and Brooke Lopez finally grew into his own. Paul Pierce is obviously still a great scorer, and Kevin Garnett will continue to be excellent on both ends but I just don't know how well all of these players can gel together. Throw in the fact that first year coach Jason Kidd just retired and spent last year competing against these guys and their could be some conflicting egos. Deron Williams is obviously a guy who wants to run things and do things a certain way, but then again so is KG, then take into account that Jason Kidd is going to want to do certain things and you could easily have some headbutting going on in the locker room. Then again I could be completely wrong and everything could go smoothly. Jason Kidd is one of the best point guards to ever play the game so he certainly commands a level of respect and that could end up being very beneficial for the Nets, I guess we'll see.
The Nets managed to hang on to Reggie Evans who is a force underneath in terms of defense and rebounding purposes, and they picked up Andrei Kirilenko on the cheap which very much bolsters their defense. They were also able to add Shaun Livingston, and acquired Jason Terry from the Celtics which makes their bench look a lot more formidable than last year.
Realistically I expect the Nets to look something like Miami did their first month or so when Wade, LeBron, and Bosh all started playing together but I expect they'll figure it out. The Nets' offseason moves make the East a lot more exciting as well, when you consider that they could easily be challenging for any of the 2-5 spots.
6. Cleveland Cavaliers
Some people might consider this a bold pick, and in all honesty it very well could be. The Cavaliers look like they got a whole hell of a lot better this offseason, and barring some major injuries I don't think it's crazy to see them finishing 6th in the East. Honestly, 6-8 in the East is a crapshoot, but I really like Cleveland here.
Cleveland is still fairly young with Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson coming into just their third seasons, and Dion Waiters coming into his second. However, all three of these guys have proven they can play at a high level. While I'm not completely sold on Waiters as he struggles somewhat on defense and can at times have lousy shot selection I'm willing to attribute that to it being his first year in the league last season, as well as the fact that injuries forced the team to lean on him more than a team should lean on a rookie. Kyrie Irving is clearly now in the elite point guard discussion, and if he can stay healthy he should be able to lead this team to the playoffs. Tristan Thompson appears to be becoming more comfortable with his game and I'm very excited to watch him continue to grow. Anthony Bennett was the 1st overall pick by Cleveland this year and I think he's very much NBA ready. Given the situation he's coming into I think he'll be a great piece for Cleveland and would not in any capacity be surprised to see him starting at the small forward position on opening night.
Other than Bennett, Cleveland's biggest offseason move was the signing of Andrew Bynum to a two year deal worth $12M. Bynum is an elite center, and now that he's had a full year to rest and rehab his knee I expect him and Kyrie Irving to be absolutely deadly on the pick and roll. The addition of Bynum also allows Anderson Varejao to move to the bench giving the Cavaliers a solid defensive/rebounding center off the bench which every team needs.
Cleveland also signed Jarrett Jack who is coming off of a huge year with Golden State, and also drafted Sergey Karasev who may be the steal of the draft as the Cavaliers picked him at 19. Tyler Zeller is also back, and I expect him to have a solid impact off the bench. Seriously, if you're a Cleveland fan you should be extremely excited for the prospects of your team next season.
7. Detroit Pistons
I'm not kidding, I can't believe I just wrote that. Honestly, I had completely written off Joe Dumars as a terrible GM and then he somehow redeems himself. First off let me go back to last year when he traded Ben Gordon's heinous contract for Corey Maggette's expiring deal, and then he drafted Andre Drummond who I fully expected to be the second coming of Hasheem Thabeet (ok, maybe not that bad but you get my point). Drummond turned out to be quite a nice player and his ceiling is extremely high at the moment. With Maggette's contract coming off the books Dumars was able to make cap space to sign Josh Smith which obviously helps turn the team around big time.
Chauncey Billups is back in a Pistons uniform, which is nice because it finally gives the Piston's a true point guard and they won't be relegated to playing Brandon Knight at the point anymore. Brandon Knight will be able to move to the shooting guard position which is his natural position and I expect to see his game improve tremendously. Kyle Singler's game also improved leaps and bounds last year and he should continue to get better as he adjusts more to the NBA game. Singler has a very high basketball IQ and the intangibles to be a solid small forward whether he's starting or coming off the bench.
Dumars drafted Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with the 8th pick in this years draft, and he should provide some quality scoring off of the bench for the Pistons, alongside Rodney Stuckey, who despite regressing somewhat is still a formidable player off the bench. I would also be remiss if I left out Greg Monroe who was the Pistons lone bright spot for awhile. Monroe's game has improved vastly from season to season and a front court featuring him and Josh Smith, and Drummond when they go big will be a very difficult team to match up with offensively.
8. Washington Wizards
For the second time in this post I sincerely cannot believe that I just wrote that. The Wizards have been an absolutely atrociously run organization over the past few years, but it appears that they've finally shed the last remnants of the Gilbert Arenas years and are poised to become a serious player in the Eastern Conference. I'll admit, if they were playing in the Western Conference this team still has a ways to go, but since they are not I'm fairly certain they will make the playoffs this year.
I understand that Washington went 29-53 last season, but John Wall only played in 49 of those games. While Wall hasn't exactly been the franchise changing superstar everyone expected him to immediately be, his game is improving more and more each season and he is clearly the motor behind this team. I should mention the averaged 18.5 points, and 7.6 assists per game which are pretty damn good numbers. This kid plays the entire season, and I'm pretty certain they're overtaking the Bucks for that 8th playoff spot last season.
The Wizards are still fairly young, but they look like they've finally gotten rid of some cancerous pieces. I suppose I shouldn't necessarily call Jordan Crawford and Andray Blatche cancerous, but they were chuckers who were only concerned about their stats and little else. The young talent the Wizards have looks like it's actually young talent, and they appear to be guys who have a desire to win. Bradley Beal is probably the face of the younger guys (other than John Wall obviously) and he looks to be a great 2nd or 3rd option next season. Beal made it through 56 games before going down with a leg injury, but he averaged pretty good numbers albeit with fairly low shooting percentages. I think those shooting percentages can be attributed to having to play a bigger role in the offense early on since John Wall sat out the beginning half of the season. I would expect Beal to improve greatly this season and he should be a fantastic offensive weapon for Washington.
The Wizards also have a decent amount of size with Nene and Emeka Okafor manning the paint, and Kevin Seraphin has improved by leaps and bounds since he came into the league. If Nene and Okafor can be as consistent as they were last season, and Seraphin can continue having an impact off the bench the front court should be pretty solid. The only big question mark is Trevor Ariza and whether or not he can step up and do what he was brought in to do. Ariza needs to play tough, physical defense, and hit shots when he is open, rather than trying to force the issue offensively which he has been known to do. Overall, the Wizards need to start showing that they've matured in the past four seasons, if they do that, they should make the playoffs.
9. Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta is a team, who despite me having at number nine could very well make the playoffs as a low seed. They lost Josh Smith to free agency this season, and were unable to sign a marquee free agent themselves. The team loses a lot of players to expiring contracts, and there aren't a lot of (read: any) franchise changers left on the market. Atlanta did sign Paul Millsap from Utah to a two year deal, and he's still as good as ever. Millsap can score and rebound, but I don't know how well he can fill the void that will be left by Josh Smith.
Other than Paul Millsap Atlanta's biggest signing was Elton Brand, who's game has begun to deteriorate somewhat, but he should still be a very serviceable man off the bench. Atlanta also resigned sharp shooter Kyle Korver to a 6yr/$24M deal, which to me is a head scratcher. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love Kyle Korver, the guy is from Iowa and played at one of my favorite non Big 10 schools and is an absolute sniper from deep, which I love, but I don't know how you justify that contract. I'll concede that he averaged 10.9 points per game, along with 4 rebounds while shooting 46% from the floor and 46% from deep, but he's also 32 years old and his defensive game is subpar at best. Perhaps Korver will surprise me, but I still don't think he's worth $6M a year.
The Hawks did manage to keep Jeff Teague, deciding to match the Milwaukee Bucks' offer sheet. This is a solid move as Teague is long and athletic and has a high basketball IQ. Teague sees the floor well and I expect his game to continue to improve. Atlanta also drafted Dennis Schroeder and Lucas Nogueira, two players that I can see having immediate impacts off the bench in their rookie seasons. Schroeder will be great in terms of giving Teague breaks, and the two could probably play alongside each other when they go small. Nogueira looks to be a pretty good defensive/rebounding force and he should be a solid front court addition.
The Hawks could make a push for the playoffs, but as of right now I'm keeping them one spot out.
10. Boston Celtics
I'm sure everyone will have Boston far lower on their lists than I do, but until they trade Rondo I'm not buying it. Yes, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are gone, and I realize this team barely finished above .500 last season, but they also only had Rondo for 38 games. In the current NBA, you need a good point guard, whether that guard is a scorer, or a pure point guard, you need a good point guard to make your team go. Rondo has done it all for the Celtics the past few seasons, garnering a few triple doubles and has averaged a double-double in points and assists the last three seasons. Other than maybe Chris Paul, Rondo could very well be the best point guard in the league in terms of running an offense, and just because Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are gone doesn't mean that's going to change.
The Celtics also still have a decent amount of talent around Rondo to not finish in the basement of the Eastern Conference. Jeff Green is a pretty good player, and although a lot of Boston fans were somewhat upset with his 5yr/$40M deal Green has shown that he is still a good player worth about that amount of money. Green will be featured much more in the offense with the departure of Boston's two stars and I think he will rise to the challenge and be a very viable option for the C's on offense. With the trading of Garnett and Pierce, Boston received Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, and Marshon Brooks. I know a lot of people are ready to give up on Humphries and Wallace, but I am not one of those people. Yes, Gerald Wallace had a disgusting end to his season last year, and was abysmal in the playoffs but I do not expect that to continue. Wallace is still a premiere defender, and he should be able to work well off the ball with Rondo running the point, as opposed to playing more perimeter oriented to fit the styles of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson like he had to with the Nets. Kris Humphries can still play defense and can still rebound, and I think his struggles last season were a result of the ridiculous media scrutiny he had on him from his failed marriage with Kim Kardashian. Brooks is somewhat of an enigma, he has a great offensive game, but doesn't look like he gives a crap on the defensive end. Hopefully this can be changed.
Boston lost Doc Rivers to the Clippers, and then decided to hire Brad Stevens. Look, I like Brad Stevens, I really do and I had hoped that he was next in line for the Duke job. However, I don't know that he's ready to coach in the NBA. Brad Stevens wasn't an NBA player, and he's still pretty young so I don't know how much respect he'll have from some of the older veterans on the team. Though the Celtics are fairly young themselves so they may all come together, but as of right now I don't feel that this was a great hire, only time will tell I guess.
11. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors don't have a terrible squad by any means, and I think they could finish anywhere from 8-11, but as of right now I like them here. The Raptors didn't really make any offseason moves that would make them get significantly better, but they did trade Bargnanis horrendous contract so they're moving in the right direction. They picked up Tyler Hansbrough in free agency, and picked up Steve Novak as well. They did receive Marcus Camby in the deal for Bargnani and if he can still play all three of these guys should be at least decent front court additions.
The Raptors traded for Rudy Gay last year in a move that looked like a sort of desperation move. I didn't like the trade then, and I don't like the trade now. While I'm a Rudy Gay fan the problem with a guy like him is that he's hit his ceiling, and he hit it early. Gay is going to give you somewhere in the neighborhood of 19 points per game along with around 8 rebounds. These are pretty solid numbers, but not solid enough when you realize this guy is making Kevin Durant money and not doing Kevin Durant things. Maybe Rudy Gay will break through the ceiling this year but I doubt it.
Toronto brings back Kyle Lowry who is good enough as a point guard, but if the Raptors want to make the playoffs Lowry will need to step up his game. DeMar DeRozan's game improved quite a bit last season and should continue to improve. DeRozan is pretty overpaid, but if his game continues to improve and he can develop his outside shot he may end up being worth every penny. Jonas Valancunias looked like the center of the future last year and if he can get stronger and develop his defensive game he should help out the Raptors quite a bit this season.
Realistically if the Raptors can get just a tick more out of their starters, and pair that with at least decent bench play they could be in contention for the playoffs.
12. Milwaukee Bucks
This might be low for the Bucks, but honestly I don't know what we're going to get out of this team next season. The team and Brandon Jennings haven't come to an agreement on a contract extension, and the only big move the team made was signing OJ Mayo to a three year deal. Monta Ellis is finally gone, which will help as he won't be forcing terrible shots and playing no defense. (Seriously, side note, I don't get what GMs see in the guy, he can score, yeah fucking great, what the hell else does he do? He plays piss poor defense and he shoots the ball every time he touches it, please stop giving this guy so much damn money) I understand why the Bucks don't want to give Brandon Jennings a max deal because he definitely hasn't earned it. Jennings is good, not great, but he has some of the same problems Monta Ellis has and you don't give a guy like that max money, you just don't. The question with Jennings is, if they don't reach an extension, and he plays on the qualifying offer how hard is he going to play? He could get hurt and risk a fairly significant pay day, and obviously that doesn't bode well for him and his future. Brandon Jennings will be interesting to watch next season, and hopefully he can mature into the player that he very well should be.
The Bucks do return Larry Sanders who was a defensive player of the year candidate last season, and Ersan Ilyasova will be back giving the Bucks a pretty strong front court. With Ellis gone, Ilyasova should get more looks, even with OJ Mayo because unlike Ellis, Mayo is a pretty good passer, which may strengthen the Bucks offensive game. John Henson looks pretty improved, and Giannis Antetokunmpon could be a pretty solid defender guarding both small forwards and shooting guards.
Realistically, this team doesn't have a whole lot of depth, or offensive fire power so I wouldn't expect them to contend for the playoffs at all. Hopefully Milwaukee can get it straightened out soon.
13. Orlando Magic
Orlando had the worst record last year, I realize that. However, they didn't have Glenn Davis or Arron Afflalo, teams two leading scorers for a majority of the season, as they lost them to injury. Both players will be back and will be healthy and should be solid leadership for the very young core Orlando currently has. While Orlando had the worst record last year, they ended up with the second pick in the lottery, which they used to select Victor Oladipo, the shooting guard from Indiana. Oladipo should be an excellent defender, and has a pretty good offensive game due to his quickness. I hate using the Summer League as a measuring stick, but Oladipo showed there that he has the ability to get to the free throw line, and that he may very well be a better shooter than many teams gave him credit for. Oladipo should be an excellent piece in Orlando's young core.
Nikola Vucevic, and Moe Harkless should be some solid young pieces for Orlando next season, as they both showed that they're very capable players at the NBA level. Harkless has shown that he has the potential to be an elite defender, and his offensive game improved greatly throughout the season, and as his minutes rose. Vucevic was the second best rebounder in the league last year grabbing 11.9 a game, and he averaged a very solid 13 points per game as well. Tobias Harris is another young player who Orlando managed to snag in a trade with Milwaukee at the trade deadline last year, and he looks poised to become a very, very good player. Harris will probably be one of Orlandos' go to offensive weapons next year, and he's shown that he can play either forward position, and is a capable defender. Whether or not Harris' high level of production was just a fluke or if he can really be a go to scorer remains to be seen this season.
Orlando should have a pretty decent year under second year coach Jacque Vaughn. The team is very young, but all of the players have a high amount of game experience now, and add in some veteran leadership in Afflalo and Davis and this team could manage to crawl out of the basement.
14. Charlotte Bobcats
Realistically, Charlotte could finish well above 14th next season. While they are still rebuilding they look like they've finally go some nice young pieces in place. Kemba Walker looks to be the next great NBA point guard, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist showed flashes last season. Charlotte signed Al Jefferson this offseason, which gives them a legitimate threat as a big man, and they also drafted Cody Zeller who should be a nice addition.
Things finally appear to be looking up for Charlotte as I mentioned previously, and Rich Cho looks like he's doing a good job of making this team start to look like well, a team. A lot of people maligned Cho for his selecting Zeller with the fourth pick, and I was hesitant on it myself but Zeller looks like the real deal. Again, I hate to give any merit to Summer League play (Adam Morrison averaged 25 points per game in Summer League, and boy, he was great in the NBA) but Zeller is rebounding well, getting good post position, running the floor well, and his footwork is impeccable for someone who is so young. When it comes to playing in the post in the NBA footwork may very well be the most important part of a big man's game and Zeller has some of the best footwork I've seen from a kid coming out of college in a long time.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has shown that he can defend anyone at the two or three spots, but his offensive game needs some work. MKG was fortunate playing at Kentucky as he got a lot of wide open looks off of cuts, double teams, and alley oops. MKG is athletic enough to beat people off the bounce, but that's difficult when you're jump shot is broker than Antoine Walker. Charlotte has brought in former NBA sharpshooter Mark Price to work with Kidd-Gilchrist and if he manages to add some semblance of an outside shot his game should improve. Kemba Walker is obviously going to be the point guard of the future, and his game should continue to improve. Hopefully with the addition of Al Jefferson, Walker will have a nice second option on offense. Bismack Biyombo looks greatly improved and should be a solid interior presence for Charlotte.
Overall, Charlotte isn't quite there, but hey, at least they're on their way.
15. Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers are in full tank, complete rebuild mode, and that's just fine. After trading for Andrew Bynum and having him not play a minute last season Philly decided to completely blow things up. Jrue Holiday was traded to the Pelicans for Nerlens Noel and a draft pick. Nick Young was not resigned, and they used the 10th pick to draft point guard Michael Carter-Williams.
There's not a whole lot to say about the 76ers right now, as they don't really have much of anything. I mean, that's totally fine when you consider that Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Durant 2.0, will be in this upcoming draft. They still have Thaddeus Young, and Evan Turner, but other than that their list of assets is very, very thin. The 76ers will more than likely be battling the Phoenix Suns for the worst team in the league next year, as they don't have very many offensive weapons, and they don't have very many young up and coming players.
Philly will at least have two picks next season in what should be an absolutely loaded draft class, so who cares if they're going to be bad this year? Rejoice Philly fans, for this rebuild should be very, very short.
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