Now that the bulk of Free Agency has came and went, it is safe to start ranking teams for next season. Now, minus any trades that happen from when I publish this post(Cleveland I am talking about you) it is safe to start judging these moves. The Eastern conference has always been top heavy, and the conference as a whole has suffered because of that. This year will be no difference. Teams have not made themselves truly better than their contemporaries.With news of Kyrie and Carmelo possibly being traded this year, the conference is having a problem building and staying competitive from top to bottom. The only thing stopping the West from sweeping the Finals every year was Lebron James, and his time is almost done.
1. Boston Celtics: Boston has done an amazing job of rebuilding while staying relevant, and Danny Ainge is a huge reason because of it. He has yet to mortgage his teams future while keeping them relevant in the present. The only thing stopping them from making the Finals is, Lebron James. If it was not for the “The King” the Celtics would have made the Finals last year. This offseason was a mix bag of results because they went and signed the most coveted player on the market in, Gordon Hayward, but they did not execute a trade to bring in another great player like: Jimmy Butler and/or Paul George(both of whom were traded to the Western Conference). Besides for not making those trades, they still have pieces to be great for the foreseeable future and their is always a trade out there especially in New Orleans. As the team is currently constructed, they will win many games this year. With the addition of Hayward and Marcus Morris, they become a deeper team. This game is dominated by wing players and you need many of them to succeed. Golden State is able to accomplish this with an array of guys 6’7-6’11 to deploy on teams. Hayward, Morris, Crowder, Tatum, and Brown help the Celtics throw multiple bodies at Lebron while giving Isaiah Thomas an ability to rest on defense. Also I trust the ability of their coach, Brad Stevens, to help make this team win around 60 games this year for the first time since the 2008-2009 season.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavaliers have had a very interesting offseason this year, and the only reason they are this high is because they have Lebron James and he has not been lower than a 2nd seed since the 2007-2008 season. His teams have had sustained excellence for years and as long as they have him, they will be a top team in the East. Besides for that, this team is searching for a direction, and it is hard to say where they might go this year. If their was ever a time to dethrone the King(Possible article coming later) than the time will be now. The Cavaliers just came off a humiliating Finals run where the Warriors totally outclassed them, and the current construction of the team left no room for growth. Kyrie and Lebron are one of the best duos in the league, but their time playing does not let anyone else on their team room to get better. Now Kyrie wants to be traded, and the reasons can be many but he wants to lead his own team. Will that affect how the Cavaliers operate this season? I do not know because Lebron is one of the best leaders we have ever seen in the NBA, but this does cause confusion in the locker room. Richard Jefferson said on his podcast, how he think Kyrie feels, and it is not crazy to believe why he wants something different.
If they keep Kyrie then they will continue their dominance because they provide an offensive power that no team can match at the moment. The key to the Cavaliers’ season will be the play of, Derrick Rose and Tristan Thompson. Thompson was not able to be a rebounding force like he was in the previous two seasons. He has to become more dominate on the boards, if they hope to challenge the Warriors. The signing of Rose can either be a hit or a miss this season. He was able to stay reasonably healthy last year with the Knicks, but his play was not making his teammates better or helping Porzingis. If Rose can be a solid contributor to their bench than this will be a success. He gives them a different look than the past PGs they have had, and that could be a good thing.
3. Washington Wizards: The Wizards are an interesting team because we have been in this same situation before with them. After their Conference Semifinal loss to the Atlanta Hawks in 2015, many pundits believed they will be a top team in the East the following year. The 2016 season ends and the Wizards miss the playoffs and were one of the most disappointing teams that year. Now here we are in the same situation, and we love the Wizards and John Wall. Coming off of one of his best seasons ever, John Wall has cemented himself as the best overall PG in the Eastern Conference. Wall has been wanting respect for his play for years, and many of his quotes show he did not feel respected. Wall has commented on his contract situation and was baffled that guys like, Reggie Jackson, were getting an equal deal to him. Now he has signed a $170 million extension and now he has to just play, but he is not going to lead this team to the playoffs by himself. Bradley Beal has been teaseing the league every other year about what he can be. Injuries have plagued this guard’s career and last year he was reasonably healthy. He played in 77 of 82 games and the team flourished with him and Wall on the court together. During the 2015-2016 season, Beal played in only 55 games and started in just 35 of those. He has to stay healthy because with him and Wall they have the best backcourt in the Eastern Conference. They help free up their teammates like, Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre for open shots. If Beal or Wall miss time, this team will crater because they do not have the depth to contend. We saw that in the playoffs this year. Against the Celtics, Wall and Beal averaged 39.2 minutes that series. While Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley averaged 36.6 and 35 minutes respectively. The Wizards have to increase their depth before they can be considered true contenders.
4. Toronto Raptors: The Raptors are in “good team purgatory” because they do not have the resources to start a rebuild and they have enough talent to just lose to the Cavaliers or the Celtics. They missed their time to be a serious contender and now they are waiting to see if they will be the next Dallas Mavericks type of team to win a championship surprisingly. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are great guys to have in the regular season because they can grind a team down with their type of play, but they play ISO heavy basketball and that leads to them not having many assist. They were last in the league this year in assist and that showed itself in the playoffs. Their lack of three point shooting and motion offense has destroyed the potential of this team. Lowry also has been two totally different players between the regular season and the playoffs. In the regular season he plays at an All Star level: 22 points a game and a PER of 22.9, but in the postseason he forgets those statistics. In the postseason last year he averaged 15 points per game and his PER dropped to 15. He is the second best player on the team and his play in the postseason does not alleviate any pressure away from DeRozan and that must change this year. The Raptors gave him a very generous contract this year and he must play up to that contract. For this team to prosper, it is dependent on Lowry because they are all in on trying to win a championship. With the looming possibility of Lebron leaving next year and Kyrie wanting to get traded, it is not surprising for the Cavs to look at all their options. Kyrie and Iman Shumpert for Kyle Lowry would be an interesting trade option. Now the Raptors cannot trade Lowry until December, but I like this idea.
5. Milwaukee Bucks: The young Bucks are here and I think they are here to stay for a long time. Giannis made a huge leap last year, and led his team to a 6th seed without Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton for majority of the season. The Bucks will go as far as Giannis takes them and his progression is paramount for this team. Last year he was the first player ever to lead his team in all five major categories(Blocks, Points, Assist, Steals, and Rebounds). That production led them to only 42 wins, and maybe this year he should not carry so much of the load for his team. For this team to exceed my expectations, Thon Maker and Jabari Parker have to make tremendous strides this year. Maker was playing heavy minutes last year in the playoffs, but he was not much of a factor. The best thing about the Bucks is their length. Maker is a 7’1 wing who can handle and possibly shoot from the outside. If he can make strides on defense and become a better rim protector and rebounder than this team becomes dangerous. Overall as a team they have to limit the amount of threes opposing teams take and increase how many they shoot as well. They were in the bottom third of the league in three point attempts, but they allowed their opponents to make the 8th most threes on a per game basis. The testament of a good three point defense is not how many threes a team makes, but how many they allow, and the Bucks length should stop teams from shooting them. That is the opposite and Jason Kidd will have to fix that this year since his team is coming in reasonably healthy.
6. Miami Heat: The Heat were the best team in the second half of the season last year, but they were also one of the worse in the first half of the season as well. Now which team will we see next season? The numbers suggest a team in the middle. The Heat were very effective last year with castaways like: James Johnson and Dion Waiters, but those guys were on one year deals last year, and they have been paid now. Waiters was a great crunch time scorer for them and as a team the Heat were suffocating on defense. They allowed the least amount of made threes and threes allowed last year. They forced you to forgo a three for a contested two pointer. Erik Spolestra did a fantastic job last year with this team and he has elevated himself as a top coach in the league. The only problem is they need to develop a more reliable offensive option on the wings. Justice Winslow was thought to be the steal of the 2015 draft, but he has been plagued with injuries or inconsistent play that has dampened his progression. This year will be a huge one for him. If Winslow can developed into a good player than the Heat can take a step towards being a contender in the future. In this year’s draft they drafted Bam Adebayo. A versatile athletic center who plays above the rim, but is developing a post game. He should give them a safety valve if they plan to trade Whiteside in the future.
7. Philadelphia 76ers: Barring any injuries, the 76ers have one of the most talented rosters in the league. Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz are some of the most talented prospects in the league, but the best thing about this team is Joel Embiid. Embiid last year was phenomenal in minimal minutes for the Sixers and this year he has better help around him. The Eastern Conference is going to be bad this year and talent might win games over experience. Guess what?? The Sixers are a top 5 team in the East if we just look at talent in my opinion. Last year, the injuries to Embiid and Simons helped players like: Tj McConnell and Dario Saric gain great experience for the next season. This year they have what is neccessary to be a playoff team. Signing JJ Reddick and Amir Johnson helps them with shooting and veteran leadership during tough stretches. Also they coulds have one of the biggest lineups ever seen on the court at one time. Fultz is a 6’4 PG with a 6’10 wingspan who can play off the ball and on the ball. Then at SG they can throw Robert Covington at 6’8 and pair him with Dario Saric at the SF position. Then Simmons and Embiid round out your front court and you have a long team full of playmakers. The only deficiency at the moment will be how well Saric can defend opposing SF because he is a little slow on the ball. Now he could bang with opposing PFs and have Embiid as the rim protector behind him, but the possibilities with this team is endless this year. Brett Brown has done a great job coaching this team over the past few years and we can finally see how good of a coach he really is. He loves to play with pace and understands resting his players within the game to build a strong bench. It’ll be great to see the lineups and schemes he comes up with, now that he has a credible team to coach. If this team stays healthy they will be a tough team every night because Brown coaches his guys to play hard for all 48 minutes.
8. Charlotte Hornets: This was a hard decision and I just went with a gut feeling. Many teams can make this spot and I am not sold on the Hornets because they really did not improve drastically, but they did not get worse either. The Hornets have an underrated PG in Kemba Walker, but rightfully so. He is an undersized guard who relies heavily on threes and is not an amazing shooter, but he also does not have a lot around him. What makes this team so appealing is their new draft pick, Malik Monk. Monk was one of my favorite guys to watch and I thought the Sixers should’ve drafted him with the #3 pick, but they traded up for Fultz. Monk is a fun an exciting scorer who can finish above the rim as well. The Hornets needed a second scorer to pair with Walker since Batum forgot how to play after he got paid. If Monk and Walker can coexist, Steve Clifford could hide the defensive liabilities that Monk has by pairing him with great defenders around him. Lastly, Dwight Howard has only missed the playoffs once in the past 11 years, and the year he missed was because of injury and his team was there without him. I do not see that trend stopping now.