Let me start by saying, I am not Charles Barkley. Seriously, I am still pretty baffled by that slip up from Pioneer Press. How can they miss that?
In the days since the Lakers were crowned the NBA Champions and today there has been a ton of player movement and speculation among teams and trades. Some major names in the NBA landscape have switched teams and overall this off season has had a “hectic” feel to it.
Whats curious though is how much of that feeling towards things being hectic as been Eastern Conference related. While last years Eastern Conference generally felt like a three team race early in the season (Celtics, Cavaliers, Magic) became a one team race when KG and Jameer Nelson got hurt, or so we thought. Most thought LeBron’s Cavs would runaway and coast into the inevitable Kobe/LeBron matchup in the finals. And while the Cavaliers did coast through the first two rounds, it was the Magic who were the eventual victors.
Going into next season though it looks as if the East is going to have a totally different feel to it. While I still think it ultimately will be a three team race, its that fourth spot in the East that has me intrigued.
There still are lots of moves to be made, but already we had two of the East’s elite making power plays. The Cavaliers acquisition of Shaq was an obvious all or nothing move at winning a title and keeping LBJ in the process. An addition of Ron Artest makes them even more dangerous. The Magic who came three wins and a few breaks away from winning it all may lose their best all around player in Turkoglu, but have already replaced him with Vince Carter in a large five player deal.
The Celtics have had their name involved with various free agents including Rasheed Wallace. They also have been trying to quiet ongoing rumors of them looking to deal emerging star point guard Rajon Rondo. Despite all that, it can’t be forgotten that the Celtics are returning a core of players that won them an NBA Championship.
These three teams still are the class of the East. You can make a case that each of them has improved this season. Cavs with Shaq, Celtics with the addition (in theory of Garnett) and the Magic bringing in Carter. (While this is debateable if they’ve improved, losing Turkoglu and gaining Carter at the very least keeps them at the same level.)
I think the real compelling race next year is going to be for that fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. What team based off this off season is ready to make the jump?
Certainly this line of thinking was fueled by the Pistons making the first big splash of the free agent period with their signings of Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon. But does this make them good enough to be fourth best in the East? I think its safe to assume the Pistons are going to lose Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess. So moving forward into next year the Pistons will have a lineup of Stuckey, Hamilton, Prince, Villanueva and either Jason Maxiell or Oberto, with Gordon first off the bench. If they can somehow retain Walter Hermann or if rookie pick Austin Daye can give them anything, this would be a pretty solid lineup.
Of course the variable here is they still need to hire a new coach. Right now its looking like former Coach of the Year Avery Johnson is going to be the choice. He will have his work cut out for him to try and gel this relatively new lineup.
The Pistons perhaps will be using a different formula than what’s gotten them success in the past in that its a lineup more based on offensive talent than defensive grit. A clear change in philosophy from what we’ve known of the Pistons these past five years or so.
They won 47 games this past season and they were the fourth seed in this year’s playoffs. They took down the Miami Heat in the first round before falling to the Cavs in the second round. The Hawks have bolstered their lineup by adding Jamal Crawford. Crawford is going to bring them immediate help scoring the ball. He’s going to hopefully shed his streak of missing the playoffs as well.
The Hawks though need to make decisions on unrestricted free agents, Mike Bibby, Zaza Pachulia and Flip Murray. Of the three, Murray may become most expendable as Crawford is now going to play the “impact scorer” role off the bench for them, the role Murray held last year. If they lose Bibby they are going to be very thin at the point guard spot as they traded away both Speedy Claxton and Acie Law in the Crawford deal.
The Wizards would be a new team to join the middle of the pack in the East. Hurt by injuries the past two years, mainly Gilbert Arenas’ ongoing struggle with his knee, the Wiz may finally be healthy. When at full strength the Wizards still have three bonafide NBA players in Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler.
They also had a huge asset this off season in their #5 pick in the draft. They decided to use that pick to bring them players that can help now. In hindsight it may come back to burn them seeing that Ricky Rubio dropped to 5, but the Wizards were able to turn that pick essentially into Mike Miller and Randy Foye.
Now the Wizards have a nice set of talent and a bench which goes about nine deep. With these moves and the return of Arenas to health, I think the Wizards have jumped the Hawks in the Eastern Conference.
The Bulls and Heat are two teams everyone expects to improve heading into next season. The Bulls expectations were raised after their first round series against the Celtics which they lost in 7 games. The big question for them is going to be how they deal with the loss of Ben Gordon. Gordon brought them lots of scoring off the bench and as was evident in the Celtics series, he was their closer late in games.
They are going to get back Luol Deng from injury and they’re adding an athletic rookie, James Johnson. Will these additions, plus the growth of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah be enough to vault them ahead of the Pistons, Wizards and Hawks?
Miami may be the wildcard in this whole race. Last year they finished fifth in the East, but were handled pretty easily by the Hawks in the first round.
The Heat got to the playoffs behind the spectacular regular season put together by Dwayne Wade. There is a lot of pressure on Wade to perform like that again in the regular season for the Heat to make strides, but he should have more help this season.
Jermaine O’Neal and Jamario Moon were added midway through last season. Now with more games under their belt together and an entire training camp to go through, its safe to assume the Heat are going to have improving chemistry going into next season.
Also look for the improvement of Michael Beasely and Mario Chalmers who both were just rookies last season. Beasely has been working on his perimeter game and I expect his production to jump next year.
Pistons, Wizards, Heat, Hawks, Bulls
While a lot can change still, if the lineups were set today, this is how I think the East would look after the Big 3. Though as I said, the middle of the Eastern Conference this upcoming season is going to be pretty compelling.