The Heat and Pacers will not be fighting it out for Eastern Conference supremacy in the NBA this season. Both teams took huge hits to their rosters this summer and it will be a fight for them just to remain in the playoff hunt.
Other teams see their opportunity with the changing of the guard. There will be a battle to make the playoffs in the East this season and backing in with abysmal play like Atlanta did last spring may not be an option.
As usual injuries, hidden agendas and plain old fashioned luck will impact the final standings.
Ranking The Middle
6. Miami HEAT – Projected 44-38, last season 54-28
For all intents and purposes the HEAT have exchanged LeBron James and his career average 15 win shares for Luol Deng and his 6 win shares. It doesn’t require a lot more analysis than that.
The HEAT still have their hobbled superstar Dwyane Wade who will win them games when he isn’t too sore, too tired or just flat out being even the night off in an attempt to extend his career. They also have Chris Bosh who can significantly up his scoring and rebounding if he backs off on his defensive effort like he did in Toronto.
Miami won’t be a bad team, but Wade isn’t going to suddenly become “Flash” again and Bosh proved he couldn’t carry a team when he played for the Raptors. The HEAT are a decent enough collection of talent to have a good season and a thanks-for-coming handshake at the end of the first round in the playoffs after making their opposition work for it.
7. Atlanta Hawks – Projected 43-39, last season 38-44
The Hawks were three games above .500 with Al Horford and nine games under without him. Not a whole lot has changed in Atlanta. The good news is a torn pectoral muscle is kind of a fluke injury and there is reason to hope the Hawks will have their two-time All-Star back for the entire season.
This is a team that appears to be trending water at the back end of the Eastern Conference playoff picture with little reason to believe they will overachieve and only injuries knocking them out of their spot. A big concern is still Big Al. Horford torn his left pectoral muscle in 2011 and his right pectoral muscle in 2013, fluke or not, a reoccurrence would be bad news for the Hawks.
Atlanta is heading into a season full of distractions that will be hard to quantify on the court. The team is up for sale and new owners always signify change and that is a major distraction. General Manager Danny Ferry stuck both feet in his mouth this summer and how this eventually plays out is yet to be determined. As he’s on an indefinite leave of absence pending something or other, front office stability may be in short supply all year.
Fortunately, the Pistons, Knicks and the Nets can’t exactly claim to be bastions of stability either.
8. Detroit Pistons – Projected 40-42, last season 29-53
There is only one reason for believing the Pistons will resemble a cohesive basketball team and that’s Stan Van Gundy. The impact of coaching is often underestimated and a team with as much individual talent as Detroit should be better. Van Gundy will scream at Andre Drummond until he plays defense instead of chasing blocks. Josh Smith might actually start to cringe when he receives the ball on the three-point line and is thinking about shooting and Brandon Jennings will be hearing very loud messages about what a point guard’s job is. There’s a chance Van Gundy’s style of coaching will even get a very unhappy Greg Monroe to start buying in.
The revolving door in the coach’s office looks like it’s been fixed and the players should believe its Van Gundy’s team now and that can go a long ways to getting everyone on the same page and pulling together instead of working for themselves.
9. New York Knicks – Projected 37-45, last season 37-45
Front office logic might stop this franchise from ending up in ninth place for the second season in a row. If ever there was a team that should tank a season, the Knicks are it. In 2015, the Knicks have their first round draft pick (they don’t in 2016) and this team could desperately use an influx of high-end young talent.
New York made some moves during the summer to add pass-first point guard Jose Calderon and defensive center Samuel Dalembert, but it would be a stretch to say these changes have improved the Knicks prospects. Even the Knicks expected Amare Stoudemire to breakdown before the end of his contract and he cannot be relied upon. They also took on an injury prone Andrea Bargnani last summer and he’s lived up to that reputation.
Carmelo Anthony re-upped with a monster five-year deal and he could lead the NBA in scoring, but that isn’t going to result in more wins. It will be a year of waiting for contracts to expire and breaking in rookie head coach Derek Fisher.
10. Brooklyn Nets – Projected 35-47, last season 44-38
The Nets shot their load last season with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett supposedly taking Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, Garnett showed his age, Williams’ ankles were worse than a senior citizen’s and Lopez’s feet literally broke down again. The season was salvaged by Shaun Livingston and Pierce, but they both moved on during the summer.
The over/under on big men’s feet should probably be set at two surgeries and Lopez blew past that to become a charter member of the “show-me” club. The Nets need Lopez to just maintain last year’s pace and even at that, the season remains in some doubt. The 38-year-old Garnett and 33-year-old Andre Kirilenko are the Nets best forwards. 33-year-old Joe Johnson is their best player and 30-year-old Deron Williams has many more years of wear-and-tear than his age. A couple of injuries – which shouldn’t surprise anyone – and the Nets season could implode.
The best rationale for the Nets holding it together in the face of adversity is the hiring of Lionel Hollins as Head Coach. It was the best long term move the team could have made this summer. Then there’s the Hawks right to swap 2015 first round draft picks to motivate the front office.
Risks and Obstacles
Anyone in the middle of the pack could be a playoff team in the East if the breaks go their way and the Pistons, Knicks and Nets should all believe that last spot belongs to them. However, the risks in this group of teams are substantial. Injury prone players, new head coaches and controversy will make claiming one of the final spots in the postseason an adventure.
Who do you think takes 6, 7 and 8 in the NBA Eastern Conference and makes the playoffs? Which one of the teams in the middle will be first to embrace tanking? Can any of these teams crack the top five in the East? Let us know in the comments below.
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.