Column: RICK SOLEM
The NBA's Eastern Conference is not deep, but it holds the league's best player and best team.
Here's the East, from worst to first - or so I think.
15. Philadelphia 76ers: Michael Carter-Williams is being handed the keys to the car, it’s a Pinto, and he doesn’t know how to drive yet. James Anderson is the shooting guard. He’s averaged 3.7 points in his four seasons in the NBA. Spencer Hawes isn’t a bad center, but he’s not great. Everyone points to Evan Turner breaking out this season, but the No. 2 pick of the 2010 draft didn’t last year with a better roster, shooting 41.9 percent and averaging 2.3 turnovers. He won’t this year. Thaddeus Young isn’t someone many have heard of but he’s the team’s best player and will fill the boxscore. He averaged 14.8 points on 53-percent shooting to go along with 7.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals. Philly will have the most ping pong balls come next season.
14. Charlotte: They signed Al Jefferson to a three-year, $40.5 million deal and nobody understands why. While all the other teams are trying to tank, this team has never had to – they just tank as if it’s a natural way of things. But they signed this big veteran center – maybe to teach Bismack Biyombo some post moves. They drafted Cody Zeller, who a lot of people are high on, but he seems to be just another Zeller. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist apparently spent the offseason working on his jump shot, which begs the question as to what he was working on before. In five preseason games, he’s shot 38 percent. Keep working K-G. Kemba Walker is a shoot-first guard, while Gerald Henderson is a shooting guard who isn’t great at shooting. They’re not very good.
13. Boston Celtics: They’re all in on the 2014 draft lottery after trading away Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The question now: Who remains on this team? Rajon Rondo is recovering from an ACL tear. The Celtics could rest him like the Bulls did Derrick Rose or play him a few games to prove the knee is healthy and land more picks in next year’s talented draft. For now, Jeff Green is the focal point – until he, too, is perhaps traded. Avery Bradley will run the point. Gerald Wallace appears to be rejuvenated, but why now on team built to lose? This team is barely worth mentioning and not worth watching.
12. Washington Wizards: They had a very confusing offseason right through the start of the season when they traded a top-12 protected pick for Marcin Gortat for some reason. They re-signed Martell Webster for a boatload (4 years, $21.99 million) to come off the bench. They still have Nene (three more years, $13 million per), and Trevor Ariza is still the small forward, though his expiring contract is likely to be traded. What this team does have is a superstar in the making in Bradley Beal and a ridiculous talent at PG in John Wall. A talent that signed a max deal (5 years, $80 million). A talent that can’t shoot jump shots (24% from 3 in his career).
11. Toronto Raptors: The only name that might be recognized on this team is Rudy Gay and he’s highly likely to be traded this year. SG DeMar DeRozan can score in bunches, but isn’t a great shooter and does little else. Amir Johnson is slowly making a name for himself – despite this being the 26-year-old’s eighth season. He’s a shot blocker, rebounder, who will compliment breakout center Jonas Valanciunas well. Kyle Lowry is a solid point guard when healthy. He’s rarely healthy. He’s injured now. This team is playing for draft picks, but has enough competent players to win games.
10. Cleveland Cavilers: This is the tipping point of the East. Cleveland could be solid or awful. It may depend on how Andrew Bynum plays – or IF he plays – and the odds are he doesn’t. On top of that, Kyrie Irving could be the league’s best PG, but he needs to play a full season, too. He hasn’t yet (51 games last year, 59 his rookie year). What they have is a plethora of bigs – Anderson Varejao (likely to be dealt), Tristan Thompson, Bynum and No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett. They signed Earl Clark, who steps in at SF, and Dion Waiters needs to develop at SG. He hasn’t done much, yet.
9. New York Knicks: Everyone looks at Carmelo Anthony and immediately thinks contender, but is he really a teammate to build around? The 29-year-old, free-shooting SF arguably had the best season of his career averaging 28.7 points on 45-percent shooting to go with 6.9 rebounds. But his assist-to-turnover ratio was 1-1. He doesn’t block shots or get steals for as athletic as he is. He doesn’t get teammates involved and, this year, doesn’t really have any teammates of consequence - he may average 35 a game. Nobody else on the roster will make much of an impact. Tyson Chandler, when healthy, is good at defense and rebounding. Metta World Peace no longer can play defense and settles for chucking 3s, as does Andrea Bargnani. Amar’e Stoudemire will no longer play back-to-back games. Iman Shumpert has a funny haircut, but can’t shoot. And Raymond Felton is the league’s fattest starting PG.
8. Orlando Magic: The rumor is this team is going to try and tank for a high draft pick. The problem is the roster is full of young talent and what does young talent not do? Tank games. Young talent – Tobias Harris (21), Andrew Nicholson (23), Victor Oladipo (21), Nikola Vucevic (23), Maurice Harkless (20) – plays hard 48 minutes a game and doesn’t back down. NBA veterans are about pace and saving it for the playoffs. This team isn’t doing that. Whether that translates into wins isn’t known yet, but these guys are young and only going to get better. They also have veteran PG Jameer Nelson and SG Arron Afflalo to help in that all-important leadership capacity.
7. Atlanta Hawks: They stole Paul Milsap from the rest of the NBA for $19 million over two years. Al Horford became one of the best all-around centers in the NBA last year, coming back from a knee injury. The Bucks wanted Jeff Teague but the Hawks said no, and resigned the 25-year old. Their biggest hole is the one left by Josh Smith. DeMarre Carroll has it right now. This team is poised to either make a big trade for a player - Rudy Gay? - or go all-in on a rebuild, gutting the entire thing starting with Horford.
6. Milwaukee Bucks: The new-look Bucks gutted their backcourt for the Pistons’ Brandon Knight and Mavericks’ O.J. Mayo. They paid Larry Sanders, signed Caron Butler, Carlos Delfino, Luke Ridnour, Zaza Pachulia and Gary Neal. There’s no go-to player here and that may be the key after last season’s debacle. Ersan Ilyasova may get that role by default and it may just be a matter of him taking it. The Bucks are as deep as the Nets, but with less talent.
5. Detroit Pistons: They opened up the wallet and made it rain, signing Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings. Those two could spell disaster on offense, but what makes this team tough is how impossible it will be to score in the paint on Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Smith. Drummond is close to making the leap already. Monroe is as solid a center as there is in the league. They’re missing a shooting guard to compliment those players, however, but that’s where rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope could step in. Currently their SG is Chauncey Billups.
4. Indiana Pacers: Paul George came into his own, and Roy Hibbert to an extent, last year and now they’re a force to be reckoned with. David West has a year or two left in him, Lance Stephenson appears to be taking the next step and Danny Granger is supposedly coming back. The team added to its terrible bench with Luis Scola at power forward, but that’s about it. Still, with a defensive center like Hibbert – who is making strides on offens – a superstar in George and team players at every position make this team tough.
3. Brooklyn Nets: They snagged two of the greatest players in NBA history from the Celtics in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and stole Andrei Kirlenko from Minnesota – going from $10 million to $3 million a year. Add those three to a team full of veterans that were already close to competing for it all and they may have the formula to beat the Heat. With Brooke Lopez and Deron Williams the focal point, those three newcomers along with Joe Johnson supplementing, their biggest problem is deciding who sits the bench. This may be the deepest team in the NBA, as they have Andre Blatche, Reggie Evans, Jason Terry and Shaun Livingston as backups.
2. Miami Heat: The defending champs don’t need to win the conference. They’ve played what amounts to nearly four full regular seasons of games in the last three seasons, going to the NBA Finals three times in a row now. They tried to set the NBA all-time record for wins (33), but fell just short (27) and that, perhaps, burned them out a bit. This season, the No. 2 seed will be enough, despite what happened in the opener – which was maybe payback, since the Bulls ended the Heat win streak.
1. Chicago Bulls: They were second in the division (45-32) last year without Derrick Rose. They were 50-16 two years ago with him. He’s back. He actually has a competent shooting guard now in Jimmy Butler. Joakim Noah is the best center in the game. And Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer may be the most underrated at their positions, though both could be traded. They’re just built right, play defense and have few holes.