With the NBA set to release the 2014-15 schedule, you’ll have to forgive those of us admitted basketball junkies for already beginning to obsess over all of the potential storylines, expectations and eventual outcomes of what was truly one of the more active summers we’ve seen in quite some time.
Although it was actually less than two months ago when the San Antonio Spurs won its fifth title in franchise history, it almost seems like an eternity ago at this point. Part of that is because of the fact that San Antonio tends to go about doing things in such a “bring your sneakers and go to work” manner, but we can also attribute it to the fact that we almost went directly into the 2014 NBA Draft and then immediately into the LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony watch.
Once James decided to return to Northeast Ohio, it sent a shock wave throughout the league, which included Anthony determining that staying with the New York Knicks was ultimately his best choice, and kick-started a much-needed resurgence within the Eastern Conference. Even though it appears both men decided on a slimmer-and-trimmer approach as they enter their 12th NBA season, the impact of their decisions could potentially be felt throughout the NBA for years to come.
The Eastern Conference, in particular, should be significantly improved as we move forward, which is particularly settling after a season in 2013-14 that many considered to be one of the single-worst in terms of overall competitive balance. Even though we all feel for the Indiana Pacers and that dedicated fan base –having lost its best two players in Paul George (injury) and Lance Stephenson (free agency) over the span of about 20 days – we also cannot lose sight of just how much the conference will benefit from the overall talent redistribution.
While some may automatically ‘crown’ the Cleveland Cavaliers as the expected Eastern Conference representative for next year’s Finals especially in the wake of the pending transaction that will reportedly send Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a protected first-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for All-Star Kevin Love, teams like the Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Miami HEAT, Toronto Raptors and even the Charlotte Hornets should be expected to at least make it interesting.
To be clear, the Cavs will be successful and should be one of the more dynamic offensive teams with James, Love and Kyrie Irving. That said, those of us that tend to respect and appreciate the process of developing team chemistry as well as establishing its defensive identity are at least pumping the brakes in terms of automatically anointing them as the eventual champions. James has the ability to be an all-world defender in his own right, but made it clear during his last couple years in Miami that he is no longer looking to grind throughout 82 games and the accompanying playoff run as his team’s sole ‘Grade A’ defensive player.
Put simply, while Love rebounds exceptionally well, neither he nor Irving would be considered “stellar” defenders by any stretch of the imagination. First-year head coach David Blatt will have the enviable “problem” of having to develop and implement schemes that can mask some of the team’s perceived deficiencies on that end of the court. That could have played into the initial resistance to trading a player like Wiggins – who figures to be a highly effective perimeter defender at this level – but the immediacy of James’ two-year contract, which has an with an opt out clause after just one season, and a desire to fully capitalize on his remaining “prime” years made for a relatively easy decision regardless of Wiggins’ potential.
On a side note, the thought of Ricky Rubio leading a fast break with the likes of Wiggins and Zach LaVine on the wings is something Timberwolves fans should eagerly await. They’ll take a few years to develop, but each of those two electrifying rookies should buy GM Flip Saunders some time to continue reshaping their roster and also have the potential to be highly entertaining along the way, but we digress.
Fresh off his first All-Star appearance and being caught up in a numbers game that resulted in the 23-year-old being cut from Team USA’s roster, John Wall will almost undoubtedly return with a chip on his shoulder. As one of the NBA’s more talented point guards, the less-heralded Wall seems intent to prove his name belongs alongside the best of what is truly one of the more talented crops of floor generals the league has seen.
“Not even (against) just those (Team USA point guards), but the NBA, period,” Wall told CSNWashington.com’s Ben Standig. “I guess I’m overlooked again. I guess I have to prove myself one more time.”
Those words should actually be encouraging for Wizards fans, as they likely mean we’ll be seeing the very best that Wall and his team have to offer, yet again. Their run to the semifinals was impressive, but the Wizards are hungry and looking to build upon last season’s relative success. If their playoff run was any indication of what is to come, it appears Bradley Beal is poised to take the next step and could even make a run at joining his backcourt mate in the All-Star discussion as we move forward. The additions of veterans like Paul Pierce (former Finals MVP), Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair combined with the continued progress of younger players like Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. could give Randy Wittman and his staff the strongest core the Wizards have seen in some time.
Outside of teams like the Bulls, HEAT and Raptors – which should also be highly competitive depending upon relative health – even the perennial cellar dwellers throughout the conference have made significant improvements. The Milwaukee Bucks are far from a contender, but were finally able to land what they hope can be their franchise player for years to come in Jabari Parker. His development would have been fun to watch in itself, but an another layer of intrigue was added for better or worse when the organization decided to jettison former head coach Larry Drew in favor of Jason Kidd shortly after the season ended.
The Orlando Magic have been in the NBA’s lottery in each of the two seasons following Dwight Howard’s exodus, but have gone about stockpiling a ton of young talent in the form of Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton just to name a few. Sooner or later, you would imagine that much young talent would have to pan out, and this could be the season when we witness the start of their journey back into the playoff picture.
The Hornets completed their franchise turnaround last year and look ready to make some noise again with the recently added Stephenson. When you take into consideration their drafting of Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston to go along with the additions of free agent veterans like Stephenson, Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts, the Hornets may have had one of the more productive offseasons around the league.
It will also be interesting to see what Lionel Hollins can do with an aging, but every-bit-as-expensive roster in Brooklyn. They were a playoff team in 2014, but find themselves mired in what ESPNLA’s Max Kellerman refers to as “second-round purgatory” just the same. Deron Williams will eventually return from reportedly having double-ankle surgery, and the team is also looking for a healthy return from starting center Brook Lopez. Hollins’ no-nonsense and defense-oriented approach could be just what was needed for a team that was 29th overall in team rebounds and in the bottom half of the league at defending against both two-point and three-point field goals.
The Knicks remain one of the conference’s biggest question marks, but there are already signs of improvement from a stability and player commitment standpoint. We knew that was to be expected once the franchise turned the reins over to Phil Jackson, and Anthony’s recent request for ‘patience’ and dedication to being in top physical condition have Jackson’s fingerprints all over it. It’s probably an act of futility to even ask such a rabid fan base to temper expectations (1973 was a long time ago), but Knickerbockers diehards should have plenty to be excited for as first-year head coach Derek Fisher and Jackson mold things in their preferred image over the next 12-18 months.
All in all, the conference seems to be in a much better standing as we move forward, which can only be seen as a good thing. After four years of all-out domination from Miami, even if the conference title still goes through James and his Cavs, this is the first time in half a decade where at least five teams have a legitimate shot at representing the East. That type of competitive balance simply wasn’t something any of us could have anticipated as we headed into the summer.