There is change coming to the anticipated top five teams in the NBA Eastern Conference for 2014-15. Teams that stepped up unexpectedly last season are looking for more, player movement during the summer will have a huge impact and risks abound all around the Conference. However, make no mistake, the top five teams in the East this season will finish with better overall records than the top five did last year.
As always, injuries, hidden agendas and plain old fashioned luck will impact the final standings and being first during the regular season doesn’t always mean much in June.
The Top Five
1. Cleveland Cavaliers – Projected 57-25, last season 33-49
Ignore everything about the last few Cavaliers seasons, the King has returned and the expectations LeBron James brings with him are in Cleveland.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Cavs get off to a relatively slow start, most of the roster has turned over and it will take time for James, Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Kevin Love to get used to sharing the ball. However, barring injury, the Cavaliers should easily reside in first place.
The risk in Cleveland is the injury history of Irving, Love and Anderson Varejao. Depth could become an issue and first place will be tough to hold onto if the injury bug bites too hard.
2. Chicago Bulls – Projected 54-28, 48-34 last season
Derrick Rose is back and Pau Gasol was a huge addition, but the Bulls have question marks all over this season and falling short of second place remains a distinct possibility.
The risks for Chicago this year are pretty much the same as last season.
Rose, who couldn’t find any offensive rhythm in 10 games last season and had a nightmare offensively in Spain, may have lost a step – yeah think! Rose looked okay on the court right up until he had to do something with the ball during the World Cup. That Rose will lead the Bulls to last season’s record. They need him to be the “old” Rose to contend.
Pau Gasol replaces Carlos Boozer and that’s a big upgrade in size, passing and rim protection if he can stay healthy, but both Joakim Noah and Gasol have experienced foot problems in the past and this big upgrade requires them to stay reasonably healthy. At least in Gasol’s case, he looked fantastic at the World Cup and was arguably the best player in the tournament.
The Bulls will miss Luol Deng if they end up in a Conference Final with the Cavs, but they can count on Head Coach Tom Thibodeau to keep Chicago competitive no matter what obstacles they face.
3. Toronto Raptors – Projected 52-30, 48-34 last season
Toronto went on a 54-win pace after the Rudy Gay trade in early December last season and the team returns to the court with the same starting five, two key backups, two key reserve big men to cover injury concerns and added sixth man Lou Williams and defensive forward James Johnson.
The Raptors strengths heading into this season will be team chemistry, depth and a massive chip on their shoulders from a feeling that they aren’t respected. Toronto doesn’t have the star power of Cleveland or Chicago, but they believe in themselves and like last season, the whole might be a lot better than the sum of the parts.
A net +3.5 points per 100 possessions was the best in the East after Miami and Indiana last year and suggests this team may be underestimated, however, they are a young team counting on the continued development of both Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas as they head into their third seasons and that team chemistry can be a fickle thing.
4. Washington Wizards – Projected 48-34, 44-38 last season
The Wizards were inconsistent last season and probably should have sported a better record, but with another year under their belt, it is reasonable to expect they will.
Paul Pierce is a solid replacement for Trevor Ariza from a leadership standpoint and the team added depth at the big man positions with Kris Humphreys and Juan Blair. The only real question marks revolve around whether this team will start investing playing time in guys like Otto Porter or Glen Rice Jr. as they should.
Like Toronto, Washington kept their core together and should get off to a fast start. If the Bulls and Cavs struggle early, the Raps and Wiz will be more than happy to fight for first in the East.
5. Charlotte Hornets – Projected 46-36, 43-39 last season
The Hornets (as Bobcats) impressed last year with a tough defensive style and some badly needed offensive punch from Al Jefferson. This team tasted the playoffs and they’ll be back.
Kemba Walker has evolved into the clutch scorer and leader he was at the end of his college career and with the addition of the veteran Marvin Williams and last season’s triple-double leader Lance Stephenson, the Hornets are a dark horse team that could be a lot better than anyone expects.
There will be battles for minutes in Charlotte, roles to be defined and some very young big men who probably aren’t ready for the demands that will be put upon them. It’s hard not to see Charlotte making roster moves during the season, but once they get their team chemistry straightened out, they could be scary good.
Risks and Obstacles
Miami, Brooklyn and Atlanta could all say, what about me? They are not going to be bad teams. Actually, as a group, the playoff teams in the East this season should all sport better records than last year’s crop. All that means to the top five is don’t falter because there is someone waiting to take your spot this time.
At the end of season, Cleveland should prevail. In Chicago, Rose will prove to either be back to his old self or not. The Raptors young players and team chemistry will have taken them another step or not. The Wizards will know if they can find some consistency and Charlotte will have discovered if they can blend Stephenson into their group to become a potential (future) contender.
Who do you think will put forth the effort and has the luck it takes to be first in the NBA Eastern Conference at the end of the season? Which one of these teams do you think gives up home court in the first round of the playoffs? Can any other team crack the top five in the East? Let us know in the comments below.