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Ranking the NBA’s Eastern Conference

Tommy Beer ranks the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference after a busy offseason.

Tommy Beer

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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.

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!

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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G-League Watch: 10-Day Contracts

David Yapkowitz looks at five potential G-League callups for 10-day contracts.

David Yapkowitz

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Since Jan. 10, NBA teams have been able to sign players from the G-League to ten-day contracts. A few have already been signed, such as DeAndre Liggins with the Milwaukee Bucks and Kyle Collinsworth with the Dallas Mavericks.

Once a ten-day contract expires, teams have the option of signing that player to another ten-day contract. After the second ten-day, teams must either sign the player for the remainder of the season or release that player.

Some players have used ten-day contracts to essentially jump-start their careers. Bruce Bowen was once a ten-day contract player before becoming a key piece of multiple championship teams in San Antonio. Famed New York Knicks enforcer Anthony Mason also got his first chance in the league off a ten-day contract.

With a few guys already being called up via ten-day as well as the NBA’s new two-way contracts, here’s a look at some of the remaining names who might be next in line.

1. Christian Wood

Christian Wood was once a highly touted prospect coming out of high school. He played two college seasons at UNLV before declaring for the NBA draft in 2015. Despite being projected to be drafted late in the first round or early second round, he did not hear his name called on draft night. He’s spent some time in the NBA since then, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Charlotte Hornets, but he currently plays for the Delaware 87ers, the Sixers G-League affiliate.

His 22.0 points per game are tied with James Young for top scorer on the team. He’s shooting 53.9 percent from the field, and he’s also displayed a nice outside touch for a big man at 35.2 percent from three-point range. He leads the team in rebounds at 9.6, as well as in blocked shots with 2.0. He’s very mobile and could certainly help a team as a stretch big man who can play defense and crash the glass.

2. Jameel Warney

Jameel Warney has been a candidate for an NBA call-up for quite some time. The former Stony Brook standout had a big summer with Team USA basketball. He was the tournament MVP of the 2017 FIBA Americup and was named USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year for 2017. He got as far as training camp/preseason with the Dallas Mavericks in 2016, and he’s currently playing for their G-League affiliate, the Texas Legends.

With the Legends, he’s fourth on the team in scoring with 19.4 points per game. He’s second on the team in rebounding with 10.4, and he’s tied with Johnathan Motley leading the team in blocked shots with 1.5. He’s shooting 52.5 percent from the field. What could be hindering his NBA chances is his lack of an outside shot, especially with the way the game is being played today. Nonetheless, he’s still one of the G-League’s top players and he deserves a shot in the big leagues.

3. Melo Trimble

After a solid three years at the University of Maryland, Melo Trimble was one of the best players not selected in this past summer’s draft. He played well for the 76ers’ summer league team in Las Vegas, which in turn earned him an invite to training camp with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He ended up being one of their final cuts at the end of preseason, and he went on to join their G-League affiliate, the Iowa Wolves.

He’s third on the Wolves in scoring with 18.5 points per game. He’s shooting 44 percent from the field, and a decent 34 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also leading the team in assists per game with 5.7. He’s got the potential to be a decent backup point guard, and if he can get his shooting numbers, especially from three-point range, up a little bit, there’s no question he’s NBA caliber.

4. Joel Bolomboy

Joel Bolomboy is a name that should be familiar to Utah Jazz fans. He was drafted by the Jazz in 2016, and although relegated to mostly end of the bench duty, he showed a bit of potential and flash here and there. The Jazz cut him after a year, and he ended up in Milwaukee before they too cut him to make room for Sean Kilpatrick. He’s currently playing for the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks G-League affiliate.

At the recent G-League Showcase that took place from Jan. 10-13, Bolomboy had one of the best performances of the event. In the two games played, he averaged 25.5 points per game on 73 percent shooting from the field and 13.0 rebounds. He was named to the All-Showcase First Team. He’s had eight double-doubles so far in the G-League this season. He’s already gotten his feet wet in the NBA, and if he continues putting up similar production, it won’t be long before he finds himself back on an NBA roster.

5. Jeremy Evans

Jeremy Evans is a name that should be somewhat familiar to NBA fans. He’s spent six years in the league with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks. He also participated in two dunk contests in 2012 and 2013. Unfortunately for him, dunking was probably the one thing he was known for. It might be why he found himself out of the league after only six years.

With the Erie Bay Hawks, the Atlanta Hawks G-League affiliate, his 15.9 points per game are good enough for fourth on the team. His 62.3 percent shooting from the field is a team-high, as is his 10.3 rebounds per game, and 1.4 blocks. Not known as a shooter during his time in the NBA, he’s only shooting 25.6 percent from three-point range in the G-League. If he can get his outside shooting percentages up, he has a shot at getting an NBA call-up and keeping that spot permanently.

Although there’s no guarantee that any of these guys get NBA call-ups on ten-day contracts, they have some of the best shots out of anyone in the G-League. Don’t be surprised if, by the end of the season, all of these guys finish it out on an NBA roster.

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NBA Daily: Potential Trade Targets to Get the Sixers to the Playoffs

On the cusp of a playoff appearance for the first time in six years, the Philadelphia 76ers could cement their postseason status with a move at the trade deadline.

Dennis Chambers

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At times this season, the Philadelphia 76ers look like they’re capable of going toe-to-toe with some of the league’s best teams. With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at their disposal, along with capable three-point shooters, the Sixers have shown flashes of being a force to be reckoned with.

And at other times, well, they look like a discombobulated young team, with serious flaws in the construction of its roster.

Despite the lapses they display, the Sixers are still right in the thick of the playoff race. Currently, at 21-20, they hold a half-game advantage over the Detroit Pistons for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference.

While they await the return of top overall pick Markelle Fultz, who has still yet to hit the court after being shut down earlier this season with a shoulder injury, the Sixers will continue to miss depth on the wing and a particular skill set that holds them back from winning games they seem to have locked up with double-digit leads. For all the greatness that is Embiid, and all of the promise that is Simmons, when the former isn’t on the court, the latter struggles to shoulder the scoring load due to his inability to shoot jump shots.

Initially, that’s what Fultz was drafted for. A player that head coach Brett Brown has said many times before, has the talent to tie everything together with the Sixers’ roster. What he means by that is Fultz represents a scorer from multiple levels of the court who forces the defense to lock in on, potentially leaving the teams’ shooters open on the wing.

Without Fultz, and when Embiid is on the bench, the team lacks a player who can put the ball on the floor, create and knock down jumpers. Although long-term success is still very much the attention for Philadelphia, that doesn’t discount the fact that a team that finished with 10 wins just two seasons ago is on the verge of making a playoff appearance for the first time since 2011-12 with a core of young, promising players.

Because of that possibility, and because of the clear holes in team’s makeup that could prevent this from happening, the Sixers could become an interesting player at the trade deadline — especially considering the names that appear available, according to reports.

It’s no secret that Sixers’ president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo wants to keep financial flexibility heading into this summer, that’s the main reason players like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson were signed to one-year deals last offseason. Before the team has to start signing their own players to big extensions, the Sixers are in a unique position where they not only have elite homegrown talent, but the money to complement those players the best they can. Because of that, any deal that would return a player with money on the books past this season seems unlikely.

That being said, it just so happens that two players potentially on the trading block right now fulfill the Sixers’ most crucial need, and also aren’t on the hook for money past this year. Marc Stein of The New York Times reported that Rodney Hood could be moved before the Feb. 8 trade deadline, and that multiple teams are expressing interest in his services.

Along with Hood, Stein also reported that Lou Williams, who’s been the center of many trade talks around the league given his career-year and impending free agent status, was involved in specific discussions that would send him to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

What should intrigue the Sixers about these two players is not only their ability on the court but also their flexibility off of it.

Let’s start with Hood. Before the rise of Donovan Mitchell this season, Hood looked to be in a position to assume the role as the dominant scorer on the Utah Jazz following Gordon Hayward’s departure. At just 25 years old and in the final year of his rookie contract, Hood may not be worth the price tag for Utah this summer considering their find with Mitchell.

Should the Jazz actually move on from Hood, it’s unclear what they would ask for in return at this point. Yes, Hood his an impending free agent, which could diminish his value. But the team trading for him would assume his Bird Rights, therefore giving them a better shot at retaining him this summer should they choose to do so.

The best part about his potential fit in Philadelphia is that he fits the timeline of the rebuild while also addressing a need in the present. Being just 25, Hood fits alongside the core of Embiid, Simmons, Fultz, Dario Saric and Robert Covington as a young player. If the Sixers were to miss out on whoever they were planning to target with their financial flexibility this summer, Hood would still be there to plug in for years with a contract extension.

Shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc this season, and displaying the track record of being able to fill up the score sheet, Hood could become the go-to-scorer for Philadelphia when Embiid isn’t on the court, or late in games when they need to stop an opposing team’s run.

While he appears to at least be on the table as of now, Hood is certainly worth checking in on from the Sixers’ standpoint.

Now, onto Williams. Drafted by Philadelphia all the back in 2005 with the 45th overall pick, Williams is enjoying the best season of his career for the Los Angeles Clippers. At 31, he doesn’t represent the long-term upside that Hood does, but for this season alone, bringing Williams on to this current Sixers’ roster could be that extra jolt to get them cleanly into the postseason.

Averaging 23 points per game and shooting 41 percent from downtown, Williams fits the role as an iso-scorer better than any player on the Sixers’ current roster. Alongside Simmons and Embiid, Williams could assume the role Fultz was supposed to this season.

Another interesting ripple to the potential Williams fit is that he was on the last Sixers’ roster to make the playoffs. Adding him to this roster would bring his career full circle. This summer, Williams is most likely going to test the market and given his age and potential price tag he may not fit so well into the Sixers’ plans moving forward. But with his history with the club and city, getting him on board for another playoff run with an exciting young team could arguably help in the negotiation process this offseason.

Neither of these potential trades are slam dunks, and it remains to be seen if either player will even be moved. But for where the Sixers stand currently, coupled with their growing postseason expectations, checking in around the league on trade targets that can fulfill obvious needs should be at the forefront of Colangelo’s agenda for the next few weeks.

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Payton Blocking Out Trade Talk, Believes Magic Will Turn It Around

Spencer Davies sits down with Elfrid Payton to discuss his fourth year, trade rumors and a trying season for Orlando in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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It’s hard for a team to look for positives when it’s living in the basement.

The Orlando Magic have had a rough go of it this year. They’re 13-32 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they’ve have had a ton of setbacks, and they currently rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating.

There is a bright spot hidden in there, though, and head coach Frank Vogel sees it growing as the season progresses.

“We’re frustrated with our record, but we’re encouraged with the development we’ve had with our young players,” Vogel said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “Aaron Gordon, Mario [Hezonja], and [Elfrid Payton] have all had strong individual seasons and continue to get better. All those guys are improving individually and at some point, it’s gonna lead to more Ws.”

While Gordon stands out more to some than the others because of his star appeal, Payton is right up there with him as far as making the next step goes.

“Elfrid’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter and at the rim,” Vogel said. “He’s worked on his left hand. He’s worked on his floaters. Shooting 52 percent from the field and that’s pretty darn good for a point guard, and the 39 percent from the three as well.”

Those are your more traditional statistics that don’t address the leap he’s taken in efficiency. Sure, Payton’s scoring the same amount of points per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting that’s been most noticeable.

According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, he’s making nearly 70 percent of his tries between 0-3 feet and ranks third among point guards in restricted field goal percentage (min. four attempts).

But Payton doesn’t like to evaluate himself using numbers, so he doesn’t know how to feel about how he’s played for Orlando this year.

“It’s tough to say because I like to measure my success by winning and we haven’t been doing that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “So tough to say.”

He’s not kidding. Since starting out the season 8-4, the Magic have taken a hard fall, only winning five games since November 10. In this stretch, there have been three hefty losing streaks—two 9-game slides and most recently a 7-game skid.

“Not to make excuses—we had a lot of injuries,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of what happened. “Haven’t really been playing with the group of guys that we started the season with, so kinda derailed us a little bit.”

As the losses pile up, so does the chatter. Indicated by multiple recent reports, Orlando has made it clear that many players on the roster are available on the trade block. Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Payton were recently brought up as names who could possibly on the move if the right deal presents itself.

When asked about the rumblings, Vogel claimed he doesn’t have a message for his guys.

“They understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “Just focus on playing the game.”

Like his coach, Payton doesn’t have a reaction to the noise.

“I don’t get caught up into the things like that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Today I’m an Orlando Magic. I play for the Orlando Magic and I’m gonna give them 100 percent of me. I’m somebody that likes to finish what I started, so I definitely would like to see this through and try to turn this organization around.”

So who does he see on this team that can help jump-start the process in flipping the script?

“Everybody,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I like Vuc. I like AG. Evan [Fournier] is somebody who can fill it up. T Ross is somebody who can fill it up when healthy. I think we have a lot of talent on this team. Even the rookies—Wes [Iwundu] plays well for us in stretches. Jon [Isaac] when he was playing he’d do well.

“You could see the potential there. So I think we have a lot of weapons on this team. I’m very confident in the group we have here. I think we have a lot of talent, we just have to do it.”

Saying you’re going to right the ship is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other challenge. With where the Magic sit in the standings currently, their work is cut out for them. That being said, Payton isn’t giving up.

In fact, he’s still got his eyes on making it to the postseason, and it starts with him.

“Definitely trying to get a run going,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Make a playoff push. It’s definitely not out of sight right now, especially with the way the East is. We win a few games and we right back in the thick of things.

“Do whatever I can to help us to get more wins, man. I think that’s what it all boils down to. I figure if I’m playing well, that means we’re winning for the most part.”

Defense matters the most, and it’s something Payton and his group know they need to get better at if they have a chance to play past mid-April.

“Just be tied in together a little bit more,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I think sometimes we have too many breakdowns on the backside. So just being more in-tune with each other.”

One thing is for sure—Orlando is going through this difficult time as a team, but refuses to fold. Payton says Vogel has constantly stayed in their ears with uplifting advice.

“Keep fighting,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of his words. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one’s gonna feel sorry for you, so just keep fighting.”

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