With the start of the NBA season just weeks away, here’s my view on how the Eastern Conference will stack up in 2013-2014:
15. Philadelphia 76ers: After a successful 2011-2012 playoff run in which the eighth seeded 76ers upset the top overall seeded Chicago Bulls in six games, there were high expectations for Philadelphia basketball the year after. Unfortunately, poor play and injuries lead to a dismal 34-48 record in 2012-2013, forcing the organization to make numerous personnel changes during the 2013 offseason. The most significant of these changes was the trading of Philadelphia’s franchise point guard Jrue Holiday to New Orleans Pelicans for rookie center Nerlens Noel. Due to the loss of Holiday and overall lack of talent, to put it nicely, the 76ers will struggle this season.
14: Orlando Magic: It’s fair to say that Orlando benefited heavily from the 2012 trade that sent franchise center Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers. In return, the Magic received three first round draft picks, center Nikola Vucevic, shooting guard Arron Afflalo, and small forward Maurice Harkless who all appear to be building blocks for the franchise. In addition to Orlando’s returning core, All American shooting guard and Indiana University product Victor Oladipo will be in a Magic uniform next season. Despite the apparent talent, it will take some time for these inexperienced players to develop to form a contending team.
13: Boston Celtics: Out of all of the Eastern Conference teams that made changes this past summer, Boston’s trade that sent all-stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets might have been the most significant. Without the presence of Garnett and Pierce, this will not be the Celtics team that basketball fans are used to. Instead of the NBA championship expectations seen in years past, Boston will be lucky to finish outside the bottom third of the Eastern Conference.
12. Charlotte Bobcats: With the presence of star point guard Kemba Walker, the addition of former Utah Jazz star Al Jefferson, and a new coaching staff, the Bobcats appear to have their best team in years. If rookie Cody Zeller can quickly adjust to the pro game, watch for Charlotte to win more games than anticipated.
11. Milwaukee Bucks: After an unsuccessful attempt to build a championship contending ball club with two shoot-first guards in Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, the Bucks have transitioned into “rebuilding mode” in order to develop the talents of Brandon Knight, John Henson, O.J. Mayo, and Larry Sanders. Milwaukee will miss out on the playoffs this season, but look for the Buck's youth to improve as the year progresses.
10. Toronto Raptors: With the likes of Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry, and DeMar DeRozan, Toronto could easily be a playoff team this season. If mediocre teams such as Detroit, Cleveland, or Washington struggle, look for Toronto to be playing some playoff basketball next May.
9. Atlanta Hawks: After striking out on the Dwight Howard and Chris Paul sweepstakes in consecutive seasons, Atlanta is still missing a much needed superstar to carry the team into championship contention. This year, after losing forward Josh Smith to free agency, the Hawks might have a more immediate concern: making the playoffs. Unfortunately, due to Atlanta’s lack of front court size, the Hawks will find themselves out of the postseason mix.
8. Washington Wizards: After starting the 2012-2013 season with a 5-28 record, point guard John Wall returned to the Wizards in early January playing like a true superstar. After Wall’s return, the Wizards improved tremendously, winning 24 of their last 49 games. If Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal can continue to last year’s success, Washington can challenge for a playoff spot this season.
7. Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs are the wildest of wild cards in the East. If Andrew Bynum can return from injury in true form, if Anthony Bennett can live-up to expectations, and if Kyrie Irving can stay healthy, then Eastern Conference teams should start to fear games against the Cavaliers. On the other hand, if the “injury bug” hits Cleveland, then 2013-2014 could be another rough year for the Cavs. Despite the unknown, look for the Cavaliers to compete for a sixth through eighth seed in the conference in the 2013-2014 season.
6. Detroit Pistons: After an offseason in which the Pistons acquired the likes of Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Chauncey Billups, Detroit has a new look, and a playoffs or bust mentality. While there is no shortage of talent in the Motor City, the chemistry between these talented Piston players might be an issue. With Jennings, Smith, and forward Greg Monroe on the roster, (all whom are shoot-first players) ball movement could be a huge issue for Detroit. If individual egos prevail, the Pistons could find themselves out of the playoff mix. If not, Detroit could make a run for one of the top seeds in the Eastern Conference.
5. New York Knicks: It’s fair to say that things worked out perfectly in the regular season for the the New York Knicks last season as they exceeded expectations in an conference lacking top tier teams. Unfortunately, in an improved Eastern Conference, New York won’t see that same success. Instead, the Knicks will struggle to compete with the likes of Brooklyn, Miami, Indiana, and Chicago despite the presence of 2013 scoring champion Carmelo Anthony.
4. Brooklyn Nets: The Nets are one of many teams in the East that benefitted from the opportunity in the offseason to improve their respective roster. In addition to all-stars Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, the Nets loaded their team with two more veteran superstars in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Look for the Nets to be among the top four teams in the East this season.
3. Chicago Bulls: With the return of 2010-2011 MVP Derrick Rose )who missed all of last season recovering from knee surgery), Chicago should be back into contention for an NBA championship. If Rose can stay healthy, the Bulls have one of the most complete rosters in basketball with few points of weakness. If injuries plague the Bulls once again, expect Chicago to struggle competing against top tier NBA teams.
2. Indiana Pacers: Indiana will miss former Tar Heel Tyler Hansbrough's hustle and defensive ability, but found themselves an adequate replacement in veteran Luis Scola. Scola will look to energize the Pacer’s second unit that backs up the likes of Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and Lance Stephenson. Hopefully, Indiana and Miami can encore a fantastic Eastern Conference Final in 2014.
1. Miami Heat: Despite winning their second straight NBA title last season, Miami still has size issues that showed against the likes of larger centers such as Andre Drummond, Roy Hibbert, and Brook Lopez last season. Enter Greg Oden, the seven foot 275 pound center and once number one overall pick by the Portland Trail Blazers. Sources report that Oden won’t be a huge contributor during the first couple months of the season, but once the big-man he regains his defensive presence, he could become an important part of Miami’s frontcourt. Look for the Heat to compete for yet another NBA Championship.
Lead Hornets Writer: Jonathon Hoppe