The NBA’s Eastern Conference has always been somewhat ambiguous. In the past decade or so, the trend in the east is that it has been overwhelmingly top-heavy. There are always around four teams that are given a realistic chance to even make the finals and in recent years, that number has dwindled to around two or three teams.
The 2013-2014 season could prove to be different. With the big offseason moves in the east and looking at the teams who failed to make any moves whatsoever, it is beginning to look like a much more balanced top eight in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Of course, there are still the teams that are deemed the ‘powerhouses’ of the conference. In the past few years, the Heat have solely held that title, but with some revamped squads it looks like a few more teams will be joining them and it is no longer realistic to deem just one team the beast in the east.
To start off, the Indiana Pacers are immediate contenders. After a hard-fought seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Finals just a few months ago, it’s hard not to believe that this young Pacers squad will do anything but dramatically improve. Paul George emerged as one of the leagues newest superstars and proved that he has the ability to be the leader of his team at just 23 years of age. Indiana also possesses another young talent that the Heat continuously failed to match up with: Roy Hibbert. Hibbert, 26, completely dominated Miami’s front court in the conference finals while completely nullifying the work of Chris Bosh and Chris Anderson for the entirety of the series. On top of those two young talents, the Pacers will also see the return of Danny Granger, who once was one of the league’s best young talents and has the ability to help bring this team to an elite level.
A team looking to get back to that elite level is the Chicago Bulls, and with the return of former MVP Derrick Rose, their chance at a title rockets. Without Rose, Tom Thibodeau and his ruthless squad were able to secure the fifth seed in the east and pull off a first-round upset over the Nets. The Rose-less Bulls were still one of the best defensive teams in the NBA and were never an easy win on anyone’s schedule. With the elite defense already locked in, Derrick Rose will be able to restore a lacking offensive attack: he’s the only player in Chicago who demands additional defenders. If he does not get double teamed, then it’s only a matter of time before he makes defenders look silly with his ability get by just about any guard in the league. With that, players like Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah are going to thrive on the offensive end because they won’t have to create plays for themselves; they’ll be feeding off of the pressure Rose puts on the opposition.
The team in the east that made the biggest offseason moves has to be the Brooklyn Nets. A starting lineup of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez is one of — if not — the most complete lineups in the league and will be hard for just about any team to match. Just this April, the Nets were able to secure the fourth seed in the East through their balanced offensive attack between Williams and Lopez. The one thing the team lacked was the toughness to hang with other elite teams on the defensive end – a determining factor in their first-round loss to Chicago. Garnett and Pierce fill in any holes the Nets had in their lineups because they are tough and championship-tested players, which exactly what the Nets needed to get on the same contention as the Heat. Lopez, while a great threat on offense, was easily pushed around on the defense end, but now with the addition of Garnett the Nets gained that aggressive mentality in the front court that they have been missing. Pierce no longer needs to be the primary scorer he was in Boston for so many years; in fact, he’s now more of a third-or-fourth option as a scorer and will be able to get his shots easier with the Nets’ balanced attack. On top of the starting lineup, they also managed to put together a quality bench led by former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry, as well as Andrei Kirilenko, Reggie Evans and Andray Blatche. With the moves the Nets made in the offseason, look for them to be a serious title contender as the season gets underway.
The one team who did not make many moves this offseason is the New York Knicks, who were able to put together an impressive 2012-13 regular season, entering the playoffs as the two-seed and losing to the Pacers in the conference semifinals. A best-case scenario for the Knicks this season is a fifth-seed finish. They failed to make the appropriate moves in order to get to that championship level that the Pacers, Bulls and Nets did to match up with the reigning Miami champions. They’re going to pick up where they left off with Carmelo Anthony averaging about 25 shots a game. When he is on, they have the ability to compete with anyone — but when he is off, they can just as easily lose to a cellar-dwelling team. The Knicks just did not adapt enough in order to contend in this ‘new look’ conference.
The back end of the Eastern Conference playoff picture has also changed and I believe three teams that have not seen the playoffs in a few years will be back into the mix. The Pistons, Cavaliers and Wizards all seem to be ready to make the push back into the playoffs and actually give other top teams in the east some matchup problems, which is different from past years where the bottom three seeds could make the playoffs with losing records and pose no threat to the top three seeds in the playoffs.
It may be fair to say that the Pistons are good enough to pass the Knicks in the playoff standings with their revamped roster. They made huge moves this offseason to acquire Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith, as well as the return of their 20004 Finals MVP Chauncey Billups. If the Pistons can play team basketball, they will be a tough team to beat. But for that to happen, players like Smith and Jennings are going to have to be willing to make some sacrifices to their own games in order to benefit the team. They are both prominently renowned scorers, but both often times have shot their former teams out of games rather than keeping them in it. It will be interesting to see how well the Pistons can harness their talent in order to produce a very solid team.
With the acquisition of Andrew Bynum, the Cavs also greatly improved — but only for as long as Bynum can stay healthy. One thing that is overlooked in the NBA is how far a dominant point guard-center combination can take a team, and that is exactly what Cleveland has. Kyrie Irving and Bynum can both be dominant players at their respective positions and it will be fun to watch them play together and give opposing teams problems on the offensive end.
Lastly, the Wizards will be hoping to pick up where they left off at the end of last regular season when they finished on 25-25 regular season close. With a healthy John Wall and Bradley Beal in the backcourt, along with Nene and Emeka Okafor down low, the Wizards will be able to make a genuine push for the playoffs. While they will not be a championship contender, they will certainly give a top team in the east a better first-round matchup than the Bucks could do last season, and that’s all any fan can really ask for.
With the offseason moves that teams in the Eastern Conference have made, look for a much more balanced playoff race and more respectable conference as a whole. It’s been a long time since the East has had an opportunity to match up with all eight seeds in the west. This year could prove to be a new beginning for the once-weak Eastern Conference.