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Raptors, Wizards: The Only Sure Things In The NBA East

Last season it was the Pacers and the HEAT in a two-way race during the regular season that ended in the inevitable Eastern Conference Finals matchup. Everyone else was just along for the ride. This time, with only a couple of shoes left to drop, the only teams will any level of certainty are the Raptors and the Wizards as the rest of the pretenders in the Conference have undergone so many changes, even they don’t really know what they have.

The Eastern Conference is wide open heading into 2014-2015 and a quick start could determine who steals the top spots in each of the Divisions. Even those teams that are only realistically wishing and hoping can see the possibilities this year.

What’s a sure-thing in the East?

There are a couple teams in the East coming back intact enough to know what to expect.

Toronto Raptors

In Toronto, of the top 11 players for minutes played that were on the roster when the season ended only the 34-year-old John Salmons and his wonky back won’t be back in October. The team that went on a 54-win pace starting in early December has youth, continuity and a couple of solid upgrades to their bench in guard Lou Williams and forward James Johnson. The Raptors Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas set a club record for wins as a starting unit last season and will be ready to hit the ground running on opening night and that will not be a theme in the East.

Washington Wizards

The Wizards lost Trevor Ariza to the Rockets and Trevor Booker to the Jazz, but they picked up veterans Paul Pierce and Kris Humphries as solid replacements and retained most of their rotation. Washington was a win-a-few / lose-a-few team all of last season, but their young players should continue to get better and their additions – especially Pierce – should bring some veteran smarts and stability. The Wizards won 44 games last year and they should be safely penciled in to win more this time.

Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Orlando and Boston could be placed in the sure-thing category as well. They all have a lot of young players in need of development and baring some mega trade of youth and draft picks to land a star, they’ll just be fun to watch.

High Expectations

There are teams in the East with high expectations – if everything goes right.

Chicago Bulls

The Bulls have been waiting (forever?) to see Derrick Rose back on the court and are hoping he’ll look good enough to play for Team USA in Spain before the season starts. A lot – everything actually – hinges on Rose returning to form and there just isn’t a way to know what the Bulls will be getting back until he plays some games.

The Bulls made a couple of risky moves by amnestying an effective offensive player in Carlos Boozer and signing Pau Gasol who was in and out of the Lakers lineup with injuries and mysteries over the last couple of seasons.

A great coach and decent depth should keep the Bulls in the hunt, the question will be is it a hunt for first or eighth? How (or if) Rose and Gasol play will determine where the Bulls finish.

Cleveland Cavaliers

So, just how many victories does one add to the Cavaliers 33 wins of last season to adjust for the addition of LeBron James. The safe answer is 10 games, but there is so much more going on in Cleveland than just the Return of the King.

The Cavs will try to add another star in order to challenge for first place in the East and that possibility should not be discounted in the slightest. However, it’s not a sure thing either, but if Kyrie Irving can stay healthy – he’s missed a lot of games every year going back to college – and willingly let the King run the offense plus if Anderson Varejao can kick his run of injury bad luck, the Cavaliers will be better than expected even without getting a little Love from the trade market.

James instantly made the Cavaliers a playoff team, but where they will finish is to be determined.

Charlotte Bobcats Hornets

And the other big prize of the free agent scramble goes to Charlotte for scooping up the triple-double waiting to happen (and maybe waiting to grow up) Lance Stephenson. Talk about getting an impact player at a bargain basement price even if the bargain comes with a bit of baggage.

The Hornets were a top ranked defensive team before adding the very versatile Stephenson, they will be downright annoying to play against now. Add in the reliable veteran forward Marvin Williams and Charlotte made some outstanding free agent additions to a bright young core. They won’t be considered contenders because of their youth, but they will win more games than last year and will not be any fun to play.

Charlotte should be eyeing Miami and Washington and thinking – we can beat those guys.

Taking A Step Back

Miami HEAT

The Big Three era is over and Miami goes from contender to pretender as quickly as James packed for Cleveland. Pencil Dwyane Wade in for 30-plus missed games, there is no miracle cure for his ailing knees. Chris Bosh is a fine power forward who could almost lead the Raptors and some solid role players to the playoffs half of the time putting up huge numbers. The Big Two will probably do okay, but just okay and when Wade sits, the HEAT will be in real trouble.

Indiana Pacers

The Pacers won’t miss Stephenson’s immaturity, but they will desperately miss his scoring (3rd in points on the Pacers), rebounding (1st), playmaking (1st in assists) and minutes played (2nd).

Indiana doesn’t have a true point guard in their starting lineup and it is going to be really interesting to see what evolves as this bottom six offensive team tries to make plays and find points. They will miss his defense too, but the Pacers probably have enough defensive talent to hide most of that problem – at least during the regular season.

Indiana always seemed like a team that played better than the sum of their parts and that theory is going to be severely tested. In the new East, first place looks like a hill that is too high to climb this time.

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets stole a first round playoff series from the Raptors behind Joe Johnson and Pierce, but Pierce is gone and hope now rides on the twice surgically repaired foot of Brook Lopez. They also lost Shaun Livingston who saved their regular season by starting in 54 games and whose contribution shouldn’t be understated. A crushing payroll means there isn’t likely to be much help on the way and this team’s dimming playoff hopes will ride on Deron Williams’ very bad ankles and Lopez’s comeback attempt.

Wishing and Hoping

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks were a .500 club with Al Horford (16 wins and 13 loses) in 2013-2014 and it’s hoped that he’ll be ready to play in time for training camp although how much off season work he can get in is yet to be determined. Atlanta survived losing streaks of 8 games, 6 games and 6 games in February and March to sneak into the postseason, but that won’t happen again. They’ll need Horford for a full season to have a shot at the playoffs this time.

New York Knicks

The Knicks snapped a 7-game losing streak to go 16-5 down the stretch and finish only 1 game out of the playoffs – note, New York only won 37 games last season. For most of the year, the Knicks were an old injured dysfunctional mess, but Carmelo Anthony took the monster offer to come back anyway, so the wishing and hoping can continue in New York.

This team might actually be better this year with Jose Calderon running the show and it would be tough to play any worse. They were “good enough” the year before, so if New York can avoid injuries maybe they can get back to the playoffs.

Detroit Pistons

The Pistons have talent, however, no one knows how new Head Coach Stan Van Gundy is supposed to make it work together, but they have talent. In the meantime, it might be a good idea to extend an olive branch (some kind of deal) to restricted free agent Greg Monroe before he feels any less appreciated.

The Pistons were undisciplined and played no defense last year. They didn’t shoot or pass very well and the only redeeming stat they produced was a number one ranking in offensive rebounding (they missed a lot of shots). Van Gundy will either whip them into shape or lose his voice trying – this we got to see.

The Unpredictable East

Thanks to James and Stephenson changing teams and the promise that Rose brings to Chicago, the NBA East suddenly gets very unpredictable, unless of course you happen to be in Toronto or Washington. Those two teams should hit the ground running and very quickly know exactly what they’ll bring to the season.

Unpredictability gives hope to some and the possibility of realizing some very high expectations to others. This season should be about as good as it gets for fans in cities across the Eastern Conference.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.