NBA Sunday: Who Will Challenge Out East?


The NBA offseason is where dreams either come true or shrivel up and die.

Free agents either sign huge contracts and give themselves and their loved ones the financial freedom they’ve dreamed about since they were young, or, conversely, find themselves continuing the check-to-check and living out of a suitcase lifestyle that NBA players detest.

Team executives usually find a way to fortify their squads and improve their odds of becoming a contender or see what little hope they had in the first place dashed and shattered worse than a car-wrecked windshield.

And, of course, the fans live and die with every move.

With an almost unprecedented amount of impact-player movement this summer, it has been incredibly difficult to handicap the Eastern Conference and determine which teams have improved the most. So despite most people predicting that the Cleveland Cavaliers will win the Eastern Conference for a third consecutive year, there are enough interesting story-lines brewing in the conference to keep my attention this coming season.

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After spending four years as the teammate of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade was forgotten about.

His somewhat underwhelming performance in a few of their appearances in the NBA Finals had many thinking that Wade was over the hill and that he was no longer capable of being one of the more dominant performers in the NBA. Miraculously, though, in the two years since the departure of James, Wade has proven otherwise. Specifically, his performance during the 2016 NBA Playoffs was inspiring, as he put together his finest output since the 2012 postseason.

Now, as Wade takes his talents to his hometown of Chicago, he will join up with Rajon Rondo and Jimmy Butler to try to get the franchise back to the playoffs. With Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic as his primary running mates, Wade was able to help the HEAT to 48 wins and the third seed in the conference.

There are a great many that don’t believe that the Bulls will amount to much. They don’t think that the perimeter heavy triumvirate that Fred Hoiberg will be depending on can compete in the tough Eastern Conference.

But long ago, I learned to not bet against Dwyane Wade.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Central Division, the Indiana Pacers are quietly rebuilding around Paul George. After suffering a horrific leg injury about two years ago, George quietly enjoyed what could be argued as the finest season of his professional career during 2015-16. His Pacers put up a valiant fight against the Toronto Raptors—a team that dominated the Eastern Conference last season—and now, will enter 2016-17 with perhaps the most underrated offseason of them all. Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson each upgrade the team’s overall talent while the recent signing of Aaron Brooks probably served as the final missing piece for the team that seems to be the most complete in the division (aside from the Cavaliers).

In the meantime, despite not walking away from the 2016 NBA Draft with an impact player like Jimmy Butler, Danny Ainge and his Boston Celtics managed to recover quite nicely by adding Al Horford. The Celtics were amongst the teams that were believed to have a serious chance of convincing the Oklahoma City Thunder to part with Russell Westbrook, but even with his re-signing, the Celtics will continue to be involved in conversations with any team that has a superstar or two that it may need to surrender. There are not many other teams out there with more assets to offer, so any question related to the Celtics is not all about who they are today, it is very much about who they can be tomorrow.

Indeed, the Bulls, Pacers and Celtics each give us plenty of reason to watch the developments of the Eastern Conference this coming season. It is difficult to imagine any of those three teams not qualifying for the playoffs. But there are only eight spots available, so the question as to which other teams will fill the slots is perhaps the greatest question of them all.

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Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, Miami HEAT, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons were the eight respective teams to qualify for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.

A few weeks ago, Tommy Beer and I got together for a Basketball Insiders podcast and had some discourse related to which teams in the conference had improved most, which signings we liked least and who we expected to see in the playoffs. It was an impossible thing to predict. Even now, as training camp draws nearer, it remains incredibly difficult.

Of the eight teams that qualified last season, without Dwyane Wade, the HEAT seem most likely to fail to qualify this coming season, though that may depend largely on whether or not Chris Bosh is able to resume his basketball career. There will be questions about the Atlanta Hawks as Jeff Teague and Al Horford have been replaced by Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard and the Charlotte Hornets will be expected to take a step back after losing Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin, amongst others.

And while all of that was happening, quietly, Phil Jackson was laying in the weeds, readying for his opportunity to strike. The New York Knicks acquired Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings this past summer. All things considered, they are perhaps the most interesting Eastern Conference team to keep an eye on this coming season. If things go right and if everyone stays healthy, the Knicks would probably have a realistic shot at ending the reign of the Toronto Raptor at the top of the Atlantic Division and earning a top four seed in the conference. The health issue, however, is a huge if. At worst, the Knicks could very well find themselves in the lottery against come May. There is simply no predicting how this season will turn out for them.

The Milwaukee Bucks are a team that tickled everyone’s fancy, but a train wreck of a season saw them win just 33 games and had them finish with just the 12th best record in the conference. The addition of Thon Maker will give head coach Jason Kidd another young body to include amongst an impressive young core that features Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Michael Carter-Williams and John Henson. How far that team goes, however, will be determined by whether or not Jabari Parker can remain in shape and healthy for an entire season and whether or not one of the youngsters on the team can emerge as a leader for Jason Kidd’s team. As rumors continue to circulate concerning Greg Monroe and his availability, there seem to be a lot of variables that will determine whether or not Milwaukee is able to go to the next level.

In it all, the Washington Wizards are the team that has been overlooked and forgotten about. With Scotty Brooks having been brought in, he will immediately have two of the brightest young stars in the league at his disposal: John Wall and Bradley Beal. With Nene Hilario having taken his talents to Houston, the Wizards will effectively replace him with Ian Mahinmi. After being the understudy to Paul Pierce for a season, Otto Porter is still searching for the consistency that we saw in flashes, while Kelly Oubre doesn’t yet seem ready to be an everyday impact player, either.

Andrew Nicholson and Trey Burke have been added to the fold and give the team some relatively fresh faces that will get rotation minutes from day one.

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Entering the 2016-17 season, in the Eastern Conference, there are three different categories of teams. Of course, everything relies on health, but the Cavaliers, Celtics, Raptors and Pacers are the teams that we can rest assured to be in the the playoffs. On the other end of the spectrum, the Sixers, Nets, Magic and, if Bosh is unable to contribute consistently, HEAT are the teams that are probably outside looking in.

Essentially, what that means is that there will be eight teams battling for the final four playoff spots. It’s quite difficult to predict how it will all play out in the end, but that, in and of itself, makes this coming season quite exciting.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.