Father-time remains undefeated and in the NBA East that may be the only thing that can stop the reign of King James. Soon to be 32-years-old, LeBron has taken his team to the NBA Finals six times in a row and he is the overwhelming favorite to carry his Cleveland Cavaliers there again this season. With many of the Cavs so called rivals choosing to hold onto draft picks and young developing talent, no Eastern Conference team even looks like they have made a serious attempt to dethrone the King this summer. Almost everyone in the East seems to be waiting on James to get old and/or injured for now.
The Cavs aren’t going to make it easy to compete either. They’ll be a luxury tax team again this this season – expected to be the only tax team in the East. The sole remaining outstanding question is how deep into the tax will re-signing J.R. Smith push them? Can Smith extract the $15 million per year out of Cleveland he’s looking for before training camp opens? The Cavs aren’t losing to anyone because of money.
While there were a number of outlandish contracts handed out this summer and a lot of good players got paid, there were some cheap head scratching deals done by players that would have helped any Eastern Conference team that actually thought they had a shot this season and some veterans who could help a team’s depth that are still available, such as:
David Lee – 2 years, $3.1 million, Spurs
Zaza Pachulia – 1 year, $2.9 million, Warriors
Marreese Speights – 2 years, $2.8 million, Clippers
Brandon Bass – 1 year, $1.5 million, Clippers
Terrence Jones – 1 year, $980,000, Pelicans
There are a lot more names that could be added to either list who would be better than just about anyone’s 11-15th player.
The 56 win second place Toronto Raptors seemed to be in the best position to make a bold move by cashing in their two first round draft picks and some young talent to go for it in the upcoming season, but the mantra in Toronto continues to be “we’re not a finished product.” That Toronto isn’t a finished product is true, but with two returning All-Star guards, a breakout playoff performance by center Jonas Valanciunas before he got hurt and the anticipated return of a healthy ‘3-and-d’ stopper in DeMarre Carroll, president and general manager Masai Ujiri didn’t seem to even try to fill out his roster with veterans like the Cavs have done. After deeming other teams trade demands were too high, he ignored the numerous playoff proven veterans that were available on the cheap and in the East, he wasn’t alone.
With 8/10ths of last season’s rotation returning, the Raptors will be a 50+ win team again this season with a shot a first in the Conference, but they know the Cavaliers don’t really care about that and with good reason. It’s hard to identify any possibly available player or combination of players that would tip the scales in Toronto’s favor in a seven game series with the Cavs especially without Ujiri giving up the best of his young talent. So the Raptors doubled down on developing talent and kept their youth and their picks and signed four prospects to training camp invites to see if they could find another player to develop.
If the 48 win Celtics could have found a way to add another star player after picking up Al Horford in free agency, then maybe, just maybe, they’d be considered a threat to the King. The Celtics had more draft picks than any team could possibly add in one season, so when the trade market wasn’t any friendlier to them than it was to Toronto, they went about stashing what they could in Europe and jumping back on the player development bandwagon.
Boston should be a 50+ win team this year and challenge Toronto’s claim on the Atlantic Division , but with so many young players deserving and needing playing time to develop, it’ll be another interesting season for head coach Brad Stevens as he tries to balance between winning now and finding out what he’s got for a couple of years down the road when the James led Cavs might finally be gettable.
Then there’s the Pacers. Indiana is betting on the resurgence of superstar Paul George to carry a veteran laden team to the next level. Respected head coach Frank Vogel was replaced by Nate McMillan and the team waived good-bye to Ty Lawson, Solomon Hill and Ian Mahinmi. George Hill was traded for Jeff Teague, they traded a draft pick for Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson was picked up in free agency. Where Toronto and Boston brought back essentially the same rotation with tweaks they hope will fit in seamlessly for the better and are loaded with young prospects, Indiana used a wrecking ball and added veterans.
The Pacers won 45 games last year and should, if everything comes together as hoped, be better this year and no one can say they are waiting for James to get old. On the other hand, no one seems to believe the changes will put Indiana ahead of Boston or Toronto either.
Myles Turner is a player to watch for the future, but after that, the Pacers are a win now team that aren’t being given much of a chance of advancing beyond the second round of the playoffs.
Realistically, the East is treading water waiting on King James to let them back in the game. Not that anyone would (should) admit to that, but waiting on LeBron to get old isn’t such a bad idea. He’ll be 33-years-old in another year.