Although the Eastern Conference is often mockingly referred to as the “JV” to the powerful Western Conference’s “Varsity” (or the “Leastern Conference”), the East can claim the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
And while the East may not contain another elite team, that’s part of what should make the conference so exciting and unpredictable next season. As detailed in the way-too-early rankings below, after the front-running Cavs, there is very little separation between the rest of the teams:
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
Death, taxes and LeBron James representing the East in the NBA Finals. A child under the age of seven knows only this: The team with LeBron will be the team that represents the East in June. And there is certainly no reason to believe that will change next season.
LeBron is still very much in his prime and is undoubtedly the best player on the planet. Also, in the 2016 Finals, we saw Kyrie Irving step up and play some of the best basketball of his career on the game’s biggest stage – outshining back-to-back MVP Steph Curry.
Steph Curry: 22.6 ppg (40.3 FG%), 3.7 apg, 0.9 steals, 4.3 TO's
Kyrie Irving: 27.1 ppg (46.8 FG%), 3.9 apg, 2.1 stls, 2.5 TO's
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) June 20, 2016
The Cavs lost Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov this summer, but they were only used sparingly in the postseason. Assuming the Cavs re-sign J.R. Smith and don’t trade Kevin Love, Cleveland will bring back essentially the same rotation and will be heavy, heavy favorites to advance to the Finals yet again.
2. Boston Celtics
The Celtics won 48 games last season, tied for the third-highest number of wins in the conference. Can they make the leap from scrappy, up-and-coming team to legit threat next season?
Of all the free-agent additions made by teams in the East this summer, Boston adding Al Horford might be the most significant. The C’s have a cadre of capable defenders on the perimeter and the wing. Avery Bradley is arguably the best defensive guard in the NBA. Marcus Smart is limited offensively, but is a bulldog on the defensive end. Jae Crowder is a solid, versatile two-way player. Isaiah Thomas, the newly minted All-Star, takes and makes big shots. Yet, while Boston had some decent size and athleticism upfront, they were missing a true stud center. Enter Horford. It’s possible that Horford’s offensive and defensive contributions push the C’s past the Raps and Boston captures their first Atlantic Division crown since 2011.
3. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors have had great regular season success the last three seasons, winning three straight division titles. However, the playoffs had been far less fruitful. Toronto made amends this past postseason, squeaking past both the Pacers and the HEAT, before falling to the Cavs in the Conference Finals. The Raps are bringing back essentially the same roster – save the losses of Bismack Biyombo and Luis Scola. Toronto will bring in Jared Sullinger to replace Biyombo as a back-up big off the bench.
Guard play is so important in today’s NBA, and the Raptors are powered by their dynamic backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and (the newly rich) DeMar DeRozan. Thus, along with the improved team defense, it would be foolish to assume the Raps don’t win around 50 games next season and return as a high seed heading into the 2017 postseason.
4. Indiana Pacers
If we are looking for a sleeper to climb into that upper echelon of the East, the Pacers are my pick. Indiana made some shrewd moves this offseason. They stole Thad Young (and his valuable contract) from the Brooklyn Nets. They inked Al Jefferson to an affordable deal. They traded for Jeff Teague (although I do think they’ll miss George Hill). You add these new pieces to their existing core and there is plenty for Pacer fans to be excited about.
Foundation cornerstone Paul George is arguably the second-best player in the entire conference. Myles Turner is only 20 years old, but is already developing into a monster down low. The future is bright in Indy. They have a chance to make serious noise next season.
5. Detroit Pistons
After re-signing Andre Drummond, the Pistons are bringing back essentially the same roster as last season. Detroit finished with a 44-38 record last year and have room for improvement.
The growth of the Pistons will be determined by how much their young players improve. Their top six scorers from last season (Reggie Jackson, Drummond, Marcus Morris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson and Tobias Harris) are all 26 years of age or younger.
6. Washington Wizards
After the top five, the rest of the conference is a completely jumbled mess. I would not be shocked if any one of six teams finish as high as the sixth seed, or as low as 11th. The grouping will likely be that tightly bunched.
The Wiz were supposed to build off a promising 2014-15 campaign and take a step forward last season, but instead they went backwards. Their win total dropped from 46 to 41 and their disappointing season ended with them on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Led by stud point guard John Wall, the Wizards have the talent to bounce back. Washington committed major money Bradley Beal this summer; they will need him to stay healthy and produce.
7. Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets lost a few important contributors such as Courtney Lee, Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin. They did, however, retain their most important free agent, Nicolas Batum, and also brought back underrated power forward Marvin Williams.
The X-Factor for the Hornets next season will be Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The former No. 2 overall pick missed all but seven games in 2015-16 due to a torn labrum. What can we expect from MKG in 2016-17? That answer will have a significant impact on the Hornets’ prospects next season and going forward.
8. New York Knicks
As discussed in-depth on the Basketball Insiders podcast this past weekend, the Knicks are an extremely interesting experiment. If (and this is a big IF) injury-prone pieces such as Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Brandon Jennings stay healthy, the Knicks have significant upside and could flirt with 45+ wins. For this reason, and others, there are significant reasons for optimism as a result of the D-Rose trade.
There is also serious ‘dumpster-fire’ potential here. Mounting injuries could result in New York crashing and burning, and missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Only one thing is guaranteed in NYC: It will be fascinating to watch it all play out.
9. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks have averaged 54 wins the last two seasons, so it is difficult to justify them falling all the way back to .500 next year. However, I’m of the belief that losing Al Horford will be more damaging than most anticipate. Dwight Howard is an Atlanta native, and Hawks fans are hoping he can reclaim his All-Star form in the ATL. I wouldn’t bet on it. I’m also not sold on Dennis Schroder as the point guard of the future.
10. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls, like the Knicks, have a boom-or-bust feel to them. Adding legendary Chicago native Dwyane Wade and the 2015-16 assist leader (Rajon Rondo) seems like a significant upgrade in the backcourt. However, the advanced metrics on Rondo indicate that the Kings actually often performed better with Rajon on the bench last season. And if Jimmy Butler had issues co-existing with Derrick Rose, will he get along with ball-dominant Rondo?
11. Milwaukee Bucks
The upstart Bucks have long, exciting athletes but they stumbled to just 33 wins last season. Milwaukee added Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic this summer, but other than that the team stayed mostly static. They have room for improvement, but they’re likely still a year or two away from jumping into the playoff picture.
12. Miami HEAT
The HEAT lost Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng and Joe Johnson from a squad that won 48 games last season. It’s usually foolish to underestimate Pat Riley, but Miami may have to deal with a down season before looking to re-tool and re-establish themselves in a major way by adding a stud free agent or two next summer.
13. Orlando Magic
It was a busy summer in Orlando. The Magic traded away former lottery pick Victor Oladipo in exchange for Serge Ibaka. They brought in Bismack Biyombo and also brought back Evan Fournier, and gave a big one-year deal to Jeff Green. They have plenty of size up front, which may lead to an eventual trade of Nikola Vucevic. The Magic’s long-term future likely hinges on the development Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja.
14. Philadelphia 76ers
Can the Sixers crack the 20-win plateau? Amazingly, it’s been three years since Philadelphia won more than 19 games in an NBA season.
Encouragingly, there is hope that the seedlings Sam Hinkie patiently planted in years past will finally begin to bear fruit. Still a number of question marks remain. Will Joel Embiid actually play? Will they trade from their abundance of big men to acquire a guard? Nonetheless, it’s possible that the 76ers will actually be competitive on a nightly basis as soon as this season.
15. Brooklyn Nets
New Brooklyn general manger Sean Marks attempted to begin rebuilding and reinventing the Nets this summer. But after the Portland Trail Blazers matched his offer sheet to restricted free agent Allen Crabbe and the Miami HEAT surprisingly did the same for Tyler Johnson, Brooklyn had to settle for second- and third-tier free agents. Worst of all, Nets fans will have to suffer through a unexciting season and won’t have their lottery pick to show for it.
What do you think of these rankings? Leave your thoughts in a comment below!
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