2014-15 Eastern Conference PreviewThe biggest story entering the 2014-15 NBA season is LeBron James' return to Cleveland. James' arrival transforms the Cavaliers into a legitimate championship contender and relegates the Miami Heat to, at best, second tier playoff status. When James fled Cleveland for the sunny shores of Miami, he had not yet fully developed a championship mentality nor had his jump shot or postup game completely evolved. In Miami, James learned what it takes to be a champion and he led the Heat to two titles and four NBA Finals appearances in four seasons. Barring a serious, career-threatening or career-ending injury, the 29 year old 11 season NBA veteran likely has at least three or four elite years left in the tank and perhaps another three or four high level campaigns after that. If James is surrounded by the right talent and guided by the right coaching, he can keep the Cavaliers at or near the top of the league until past 2020.
Perhaps the two next biggest Eastern Conference stories revolve around one returning superstar and one departing star: Injuries have limited Chicago's Derrick Rose, the 2011 regular season MVP, to just 49 regular season games in the past three years. If Rose can regain elite status and maintain his health, Chicago should be the best team in the East. Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers, who posted the Eastern Conference's best regular season record in 2013-14 before falling to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, lost All-Star Paul George to a season-ending leg injury and lost valuable--but volatile--swingman Lance Stephenson to free agency. After making back to back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers will be fighting just to make the playoffs as opposed to having realistic hopes of winning a championship.
Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs; as usual, I have ranked the teams based on the likelihood that they will make it to the NBA Finals (as opposed to how they will be seeded in the playoffs, which is affected by which teams win division titles).
1) Chicago Bulls: The Bulls finished with the third best record in the East last season and have now added a healthy Derrick Rose plus free agent signee Pau Gasol to the roster. They released Carlos Boozer. The obvious key to the Bulls' championship aspirations is Rose's health. As long as Coach Tom Thibodeau is around, the Bulls will be an outstanding defensive team that annually qualifies for the playoffs but Rose gives the Bulls the necessary offensive spark and superstar dynamic that can put them over the top. Gasol has never been a rugged player but he is a legit seven footer who will add offensive punch and rebounding plus valuable size as a rim protector alongside Joakim Noah. Gasol has yet to win a single playoff game in his career without playing alongside Kobe Bryant but he is ideally suited to being the third best Chicago player behind Rose and Noah. If Rose plays at least 70 games at a high level, the Bulls will win 55-60 games and be a very tough out in the playoffs.
2) Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cleveland Cavaliers have been terrible for the past few years not just because LeBron James left but also because the franchise gutted the front office, the coaching staff and the rest of the roster that helped James lead the team to the 2007 NBA Finals and to the best regular season record in the NBA in 2009 and 2010. James picked a good time to return home, because the Cavaliers have finally rebuilt a legitimate NBA roster. Kevin Love is a scoring and rebounding machine who is also a good passer, though his defense is questionable. Kyrie Irving, the 2014 All-Star MVP, looks like he will be a perennial All-Star. Anderson Varejao has been hobbled by injuries since James left town but he is a high energy player who is an excellent screen/roll partner for James. James is the best player in the league, while Irving and Love could easily both be top 10 players if they are healthy and motivated. James is wise to publicly dampen expectations as opposed to promising to win "Not one, not two..." championships but the Cavaliers have both talent and depth. The two question marks for this team are coaching and defense. Rookie Coach Dave Blatt has had a brilliant FIBA coaching career but now he is in the big leagues and he will face a steep learning curve while undergoing tremendous media scrutiny. Can he devise a championship level defensive scheme for the Cavaliers and can he get Love, Irving and the rest of James' teammates to buy into that scheme? James is an elite defender, though he has slipped just a bit at that end of the court, but NBA defense requires five players to react as one and it requires a good game plan that is well executed.
3) Toronto Raptors: The Raptors surprised me and many other people last season. I fully expected that General Manager Masai Ujiri would turn the team around but I did not expect the Raptors to make the playoffs last year. Toronto lost a tough seven game first round series to Brooklyn but the Raptors have a young nucleus led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and they figure to make a deeper postseason run in 2015.
4) Washington Wizards: Like the Raptors, the Wizards are a young squad that went further than many people expected in 2014. I predicted that Washington would sneak into the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference but I was surprised that they made it past the first round. The John Wall-Bradley Beal backcourt is very dynamic and Washington's frontcourt size causes a lot of matchup problems.
5) Miami Heat: Without LeBron James, the Heat will not make a fifth straight NBA Finals appearance. That is obvious--but what may not be obvious to casual fans is that the cupboard is not completely bare. Chris Bosh sacrificed a lot of his individual game in order to help the Heat be successful but he is a top notch postup threat who can score from anywhere on the floor while also being a major factor as a rebounder and defender. If the Heat coaching staff uses Bosh the right way and Bosh accepts the challenge, Bosh can once again be a 20-10 player and the Heat can win at least 45 games. What about Dwyane Wade? The most that can reasonably be expected from him at this stage of his career is 50-60 games played, decent offense, bad defense and random cheap shots delivered to opposing players. Wade is an undersized shooting guard who has always relied on his formidable athletic ability, so the back end of his career will not be kind to him; he is not going to suddenly become 6-6, nor is he going to suddenly become a consistent postup threat or a consistent jump shooter.
6) Brooklyn Nets: The Nets are an aging, overhyped team. Last year, while many people touted them as a serious threat to dethrone the Heat, I picked them to finish fourth in the weak Eastern Conference. The Nets ended up fifth, though they did have some transitory glory by winning a game seven on the road versus Toronto in the first round before being smashed 4-1 by the Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Paul Pierce is gone, Kevin Garnett is running on fumes, Deron Williams apparently left his game in Utah and Joe Johnson is a solid All-Star caliber player but not a superstar who can carry a team to a title. Jason Kidd did the best that he could in his rookie season as a head coach--enduring some unfair and uninformed media criticism along the way--but he lost a power play with management and was replaced by Lionel Hollins, who was foolishly chased away by Memphis two years ago. Hollins will maximize this team's potential but all that amounts to is a first round exit.
7) Charlotte Hornets: Michael Jordan has hardly covered himself in glory as an NBA executive/NBA owner but the Hornets made serious strides last season. Al Jefferson is a low post beast, Steve Clifford turned out to be a surprisingly good coach in his first season and the Hornets made the playoffs just two years after posting the worst record in NBA history. The ceiling for this current roster is well short of legitimate championship contention but there is no reason to think that they cannot once again win 40-plus games and qualify for the playoffs.
8) Indiana Pacers: Yes, the Pacers lost arguably their two best players. Yes, the Pacers face planted down the stretch in the regular season before regaining their bearings and advancing through the weak Eastern Conference playoffs to what once had seemed to be an inevitable showdown with the Heat. Yes, many people criticize Coach Frank Vogel's decisions and Larry Bird's player moves. So why do I still think that the Pacers will qualify for the playoffs? You may have noticed a recurring theme in this article: the Eastern Conference is weak (even though Chicago and Cleveland are legit title contenders). Who am I supposed to select over the Pacers? The dysfunctional Knicks? The dysfunctional Hawks? Some other dysfunctional team? Maybe Phil Jackson will turn around the Knicks but right now the Knicks have a rookie head coach, an overrated best player and a motley cast of knuckleheads, has-beens and never weres. The Pacers have a proven defensive system, quality big men and a recent track record of playoff success. That should be enough for 42 or 43 wins, at least--and that should be just enough to edge out the four or five Eastern teams that will finish with between 30 and 40 wins.
I correctly picked six of the eight 2013-14 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:
2006-2014 Total: 56/72 (.778)
posted by David Friedman @ 7:12 PM