The LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Lance Stephenson free agency decisions have created a kind of futile parity in the NBA Eastern Conference: the door to the Finals is wide open, but there is absolutely nobody in the East capable of winning the title. It’s an uncomfortable place to be in for a lot of these franchises, but there is opportunity for them to go further than many expect. Now that the biggest free agent chips have fallen, it’s clear that the East is, once again, miles behind the West right out of the gate.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers – In a wide-open East, there is one player who stands head and shoulders above the rest, and that player is on the Cleveland Cavaliers. He’s joining three of the last four #1 picks, two of whom (All-Star point guard and 2011 #1 Kyrie Irving and this year’s #1 pick, shooting guard Andrew Wiggins) are clearly going to have long, productive NBA careers, and the third, forward Anthony Bennett (probably a power forward but that remains unclear) looks to be rounding into shape this season after an awful rookie campaign. The current Cavs roster also boasts two other talented former lottery picks in Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters, and an aging-but-still-mediocre Anderson Varejao to clog up the middle. If I’m Cleveland, I’m doing whatever I can to shore up veteran depth around these guys (they just signed old Heat friends Mike Miller and James Jones) and trying to leverage some of my young assets into a trade for Minnesota’s very-available power forward Kevin Love. Cleveland could easily have a poorer record than the Bulls and Wizards, but as long as they have the best player on the planet, they are my pick to make it to the Finals next year — where they would no doubt get slaughtered by the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Mavericks, Warriors or Grizzlies.
2. Chicago Bulls – The Bulls essentially paid $16 million per year for three back-ups this summer. This is a bit of a step down from LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, Lance Stephenson, Chris Bosh, Chandler Parsons, Luol Deng, and some of the other starrier names that could have been had this summer for the right price. Though they still lack an additional wing creator to spot Derrick Rose (James, Anthony, Stephenson and Parsons in particular would have all been great for this), the Bulls DID vastly improve their shooting, and with Rose in the line-up, they have a real shot to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, maybe even the Finals… where they too would no doubt get slaughtered by the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Mavericks, Warriors or Grizzlies.
3. Washington Wizards – People are hyped about John Wall and the big steps he took in playing so under control as to warrant an All-Star team selection and second-round playoff berth last season. People are excited about the mild overpay (five years, $60 million) for Marcin Gortat, a nice starter and good fit alongside Nene for a nice competitive front court (aside from our #2 team, that is). People are really, really excited about 37 year-old Paul Pierce agreeing to come over at the full Mid-Level Exception for only two years. But what people don’t talk about enough is the biggest X-factor in Washington’s growth next year, and that’s shooting guard Bradley Beal. Beal has the tools (positional size, shooting ability, immovable self-confidence, crazy athleticism, and youth) to make a huge impact at a position of need across the NBA. John Wall is a nice All-Star piece, but if this team wants to leapfrog the Pacers, Bulls and Cavaliers in the East, Bradley Beal must realize that he is the most talented player on this squad. They just added back-up power forward Kris Humphries to a great-value deal, 3 years and $13 million, and re-signed back-up center Drew Gooden to a one-year veteran’s minimum deal ($1.448 million), shoring up their big-man depth.
4. Indiana Pacers – They let Lance Stephenson walk for nothing in an extended game of chicken, and replaced him on the cheap by signing Pistons off-guard Rodney Stuckey to a veteran’s minimum deal, all in the name of staying under the cap. You’ve got to think they take a big step back this year, especially considering how awful Roy Hibbert and George Hill looked in the second half of the season, pre-playoffs. Their championship window might suddenly be closed, unless they get creative (maybe a sign-and-trade of Hill and Hibbert to Phoenix for PG/SG Eric Bledsoe and former Pacers center Mason Plumlee?).
5. Charlotte Hornets – The off-season was looking grim for Charlotte just a few days ago: they lost Josh McRoberts for nothing, then the Utah Jazz matched the Hornets’ offer sheet for restricted free agent Gordon Hayward. They, like the Bulls, had a glaring need for a big offensive piece on the wing. Suddenly, Wednesday morning, the news broke that they had nabbed what could be the steal of the summer (besides, you know, LeBron James to Cleveland, that was pretty big): unrestricted free agent Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson inked a three-year, $27.5 million deal with Charlotte, and immediately the Hornets ratcheted up these Eastern Conference playoff rankings from “interesting first round playoff out” to “frisky second-rounder.” Pairing Lance with a 20-10 low-post beast like Al Jefferson should have owner Michael Jordan salivating. Are they even done making moves? They could still use some depth pretty much everywhere, although if high-upside draft picks P.J. Hairston and Noah Vonleh pan out, that could be a big help in the depth department.
6. Atlanta Hawks – The Hawks were poised to make a big off-season splash, with some money heading into free agency and a fluid roster packed with shooters and passing. Following another unfortunate season-ending Al Horford shoulder injury, the Hawks lucked into depth with an un-drafted NBA rookie last year, the then-30 year-old center Pero Antic, a banger with a jump shot who’s a great fit for what they’re trying to do. A savvy vet wing along the lines of Luol Deng or restricted free agents Chandler Parsons or Gordon Hayward would have been a wonderful next-step roster addition this summer. Lamely, they have yet to land any impact free agents, and most have already signed elsewhere.
7. Toronto Raptors – Huge overachievers last year, Toronto retained their big-ticket free agent this summer, Kyle Lowry (signing him to a reasonable 4-year, $48 million contract), as well as his back-up, Grevis Vasquez, and back-up power forward Patrick Patterson. Their only real roster upgrade came in the form of signing defensive specialist James Johnson, an athletic small forward who can play some power forward. Though Kyle Lowry may be the best point guard in the East, I see the Raptors taking a step back this season after so many other Eastern Conference semi-contenders made significant improvements to their rosters.
8. Miami Heat – Luol Deng at $20 million over two years was a nice value get — Deng is kind of an old 29 (next season will be his 11th in the league) and a bit brittle, but a good two-way player and a nice locker-room guy (and apparently an absolutely fantastic human being). Josh McRoberts would have been a great hustle-guy piece at the full Mid-Level Exception (four years, $23 million total) for a championship contender, but on this Heat team he’s suddenly their fourth-best player, and is about to get asked to do too much for a Heat team with a paper-thin front court. I do appreciate that, knowing his title window was closed, Riley rewarded some key championship role players with generous overpays ($4 million per year for Mario Chalmers! $5 million per year for 36 year-old Birdman!). The big coup for Miami is retaining Chris Bosh (for which they had to fork up a five-year, $118 million maximum contract). It’s also nice that they signed Dwyane Wade to a fair deal (two years, $31 million), although he is now officially a part-time player and may never be an All-Star again.
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