Eastern Conference roundtable: Taking stock of the offseason
As free agency winds down, five SI.com NBA writers take stock of the good and the bad from the offseason in the Eastern Conference and assess how all of the wheeling and dealing has affected the race to dethrone the Heat.
Editor's Note: The writers' analysis does not take into account Monday's news of a trade agreement between the Bucks and Pistons that will send Brandon Jennings to Detroit and Brandon Knight to Milwaukee.
1. On a scale of 1 (spectacular flop) to 10 (championship contender), how bullish are you on the new-look Nets?
Ben Golliver: 8. Especially after the Andrei Kirilenko addition, which simultaneously addressed the Nets' two biggest remaining needs (injury protection for Kevin Garnett and injury protection for Paul Pierce). It's telling that so many people have latched onto Brooklyn's luxury-tax bill and rookie coach Jason Kidd's lack of experience as points of critique. What else is there to complain about? The Nets have talent and experience at every position, at least two key players in their primes (Deron Williams and Brook Lopez) and a logical, balanced reserve unit. Analyzing the East often comes down to: "Which team is best positioned if disaster strikes for the Heat?" The Nets will be strongly in that mix by the time the playoffs roll around, as it will surely take at least a few months to work out the kinks on this new roster.
Lee Jenkins: 6. No one has a more prominent starting lineup or a more intriguing coach. It will be hard to match up with them at the end of games, when Williams, Pierce and Joe Johnson can alternate as closers, and it should be difficult to score on them, with Garnett buttressing their defense. However, I remember saying something similar about the Lakers last summer, and these Nets could also be derailed by injury, disharmony and advanced age.
Rob Mahoney: 8. The Nets still have a bit to prove before claiming a place in the East's top tier, but summer additions give them a ton to work with on both ends of the floor. Everything on offense should come more easily because of Brooklyn's newfound versatility; Garnett, Pierce and Kirilenko can contribute in ways that were clearly beyond forwards Gerald Wallace (who was traded to Boston) and Reggie Evans (who is likely to have his minutes reduced) last season. Garnett's addition alone should also pay huge defensive dividends. But it's still unknown if Kidd can piece together a creative playbook and cogent defensive scheme.
Chris Mannix: A solid 8, with the potential to be even more. It's easy to look at the talent and declare the Nets to be Miami's chief rival, but if last season's Lakers taught us anything, it's that talent doesn't always translate to wins. Still, the pieces that the Nets acquired fit. Garnett fills a gaping hole at power forward, and with KG and Pierce on board, the Nets will get an infusion of heart (not to mention hatred for Miami) as well. Equally important was the addition of Kirilenko, an elite defender who will give the likes of LeBron James, Paul George and Luol Deng fits in the playoffs.
Ian Thomsen: 7. The Nets are going to be a tremendous regular-season team, with Garnett and new coach Kidd generating energy and helping to restore Williams' status as an elite point guard. But it's asking too much of Garnett, Pierce, Terry and Johnson (along with Kirilenko, who has missed double-digit games his last eight NBA seasons) to survive the long regular season with enough energy to beat the younger Heat, Bulls and Pacers.
2. True or False: The Celtics are having a good offseason.
Golliver: True. It's been an emotional, necessary and ultimately "good" offseason for the Celtics. I didn't love Boston's draft, but the picks they acquired in the Pierce/Garnett trade and the hiring of Butler's Brad Stevens to replace Doc Rivers (who fetched still another first-round pick, from the Clippers) brought to life the rebuilding vision that's been formulating over the last few years. I particularly liked that general manager Danny Ainge didn't try to talk himself into one more go-around and that ownership was on board with the slash-and-burn roster moves, which are surely painful after so much recent success.
Jenkins: True. As painful as it is to break up a proud champion, the Celtics' core was not going to deliver another title. They were able to parlay two players at the end of their careers, plus a coach making $7 million a year, into financial flexibility and four future first-round picks. Then they hired the kind of wunderkind coach who is best suited to eventually nurture the prospects selected with those picks.
Mahoney: True. The dissolution of Boston's roster was sudden and startling, but Ainge did a good job under the circumstances of getting value for both Pierce, who will be a 36-year-old free agent next summer, and the 37-year-old Garnett, who could be dealt to only select teams because of his no-trade clause. Boston received Brooklyn's first-round picks in 2014, '16 and '18 and has the ability to swap first-round picks with the Nets in '17. That's a hell of a starting kit for a rebuilding team.
Mannix: True. Even though the Celtics are lottery bound, they have the potential to rebuild quickly. Ainge turned Garnett, Pierce and Rivers into four first-round picks, and the roster has some solid young talent in Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger. Ainge loves to trade, and it wouldn't surprise me if he flips some of the picks and assets for one or two All-Star-level players over the next two years. The wild card is Stevens, who arrives from Butler with no pro coaching experience.
Thomsen: True. They're making the best of a bad situation. They turned Rivers, Garnett, Pierce and Terry into four first-round picks, and the hiring of Stevens was an investment in the long term. But the transformation is just beginning. The Celtics are going to invest the next few years in trying to build up the value of their young roster. Depending on Rondo's health, the Celtics could be in that limbo of hopelessness next season -- out of the high lottery but short of the playoffs.
3. Which 2013 lottery team has had the best offseason?
Golliver: Cavaliers. This is the product of a process of elimination more than anything. The Bobcats overpaid Al Jefferson; the Magic didn't do much; the Wizards preserved their core; the Raptors' best move was addition by subtraction (trading Andrea Bargnani); the Pistons are opening up a can of worms with the signing of Josh Smith; and the Sixers blew up their roster in anticipation of the 2014 draft. That leaves Cleveland, which made a nice move to snag point guard Jarrett Jack, took the plunge with center Andrew Bynum and blew everyone's mind by drafting UNLV forward Anthony Bennett with the first pick. There's definitely some backfire potential at play here, but none of the other options are all that palatable.
Jenkins: Pistons. The acquisition of Smith gives the Pistons a potent front line -- along with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe -- while the addition of Chauncey Billups provides leadership for a young and often rudderless team. Billups will mentor point guard Brandon Knight (and possibly Smith, as well) while improving Detroit's outside shooting. The Pistons are by no means a contender, but in the top-heavy Eastern Conference, they should at least make the playoffs.
Mahoney: 76ers. The Sixers have been drifting in mediocrity for years. They finally opted to liquidate assets and bottom out under direction from new GM Sam Hinkie. The timing couldn't be better; if all goes well, Philadelphia could wind up next year with a potential top pick (through its intentionally dismal record) and another lottery selection (a top-five-protected pick, from a draft-night trade with New Orleans last month) in one of the deepest drafts in years, while also adding a then-recovered Nerlens Noel to create a new core. Even at the cost of being terrible this season, that strategy is far preferable to inertia.
Mannix: Cavaliers. Bennett was a gutsy pick, but you won't find too many people who question his talent and think he will be a bust. Jack is a quality sixth man who will also mentor Kyrie Irving, while Bynum figures to be (somewhat) motivated to prove that he can still play after sitting out all of last season with a knee injury and drawing criticism (again) about his commitment to the game. The bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff field is wide open. If the Cavs stay healthy, they should slide easily into one of those slots.
Thomsen: Bobcats. The Cavaliers and Wizards have positioned themselves for playoff contention, but I'm going to take this opportunity to give rare credit to the Bobcats, who added a major post presence in Jefferson and an athletic rookie big man in Cody Zeller and moved toward a smart contract with restricted free agent Gerald Henderson. The Bobcats are going to be a professional outfit next season under new coach Steve Clifford.
4. Which team has taken the biggest step back?
Golliver: 76ers. The two obvious candidates are Boston and Philadelphia. I'll go with the Sixers because of the cumulative effect of their moves over the last 12 months. This is a franchise that has now lost Andre Iguodala, Bynum and Jrue Holiday with only Jason Richardson (for two more years) to show for it when the 2013-14 season starts. The rewards are coming: Noel, who will miss the beginning of the season while recovering from knee surgery after being acquired in the Holiday trade, and the possibility of multiple first-round picks in next year's draft make it smart to punt this season. Personally, I'd go all the way with it and give Noel the Derrick Rose "see you next fall" treatment to maximize the lottery Ping Pong balls.
Jenkins: 76ers. Two years ago, they beat the Rose-less Bulls in the first round and came within one game of the conference finals. Last year, they finished ninth in the East. This year, they should be one of the worst teams in the league, with All-Star point guard Holiday in New Orleans and rookie center Noel uncertain of his return date. However, a step back will precede a huge step forward, with the Sixers as primed as any team to take advantage of the ballyhooed 2014 draft.
Mahoney: Celtics. By trading Pierce and Garnett, Ainge has openly accepted his team's downward trend and the drop-off that comes with Rondo's injury. Such a transition was inevitable, and was staved off as long as possible. But now comes the fall. The Celtics were good enough only for a middle seed as it was, and without so many prominent pieces, they figure to fall deep into the lottery. It should be a tough season, but a necessary dip for a rebooting franchise.
Mannix: 76ers. When the Sixers acquired Bynum last summer, many (this reporter included) listed them as dark-horse title favorites. Today, they are beginning a massive rebuild. The development of Noel and rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams will shape the next few years in Philadelphia. The Sixers don't seem to care if they stink next season, and they are hoping that New Orleans stinks, too, so that Philadelphia can have two lottery picks in a loaded 2014 draft. But with playoff success seemingly at their fingertips a year ago, the Sixers are now looking at a long season.
Thomsen: 76ers. The Celtics and Bucks are likely to miss the playoffs after qualifying last season, but the Sixers will suffer the biggest drop. They could finish last in the East after sending Holiday to New Orleans in a trade meant to benefit them after next season. Hinkie has yet to hire a coach or make moves in free agency, but he has already committed to rebuilding from a new point of view. The reliance on rookie point guard Carter-Williams ensures that the Sixers will be in the sweepstakes for Andrew Wiggins next June.
5. How many teams are shaping up to be legitimate threats to the Heat?
Golliver: Three. Indiana, Chicago and Brooklyn, not necessarily in that order. The Pacers improved their biggest weakness by upgrading from D.J. Augustin to C.J. Watson at backup point guard; re-signed power forward David West, a must-have, to a very fair three-year, $36.6 million contract; and strengthened their big-man rotation with the acquisition of power forward Luis Scola. With those moves and the return of former All-Star swingman Danny Granger, they should be fully capable of another deep run after taking the Heat to seven games in the 2013 conference finals. It will be interesting to see how Chicago's Rose responds after missing last season, but the team's defensive consistency under coach Tom Thibodeau makes the Bulls worthy of inclusion here. The Nets have a true center, Lopez, to make things difficult for Miami, they have different looks to throw at LeBron and they have Garnett, who can't ever be counted out in the playoffs, even now at age 37. I'd still take the Heat over any of these three, but they will be forced to work for a fourth consecutive NBA Finals trip.
Jenkins: Three. Brooklyn, with its fantasy-league lineup; Indiana, with an improved bench, thanks to Scola, Watson and Chris Copeland; and Chicago, with Rose finally back. No team since the 1980s has been to four straight Finals, a tidbit that will follow Miami all season. The Pacers pushed the Heat to seven games in the conference finals, and if George makes anywhere near the strides this summer that he did last, they can topple the champs.
Mahoney: Three. Chicago and Indiana are sure bets, and I'll give the Nets the benefit of the doubt. With no pertinent additions and the release of Mike Miller via the amnesty provision, Miami has stood pat in the face of a narrowing gap. The second- and third-tier teams are climbing, and while any one of these three could conceivably challenge the Heat in a playoff series under the right conditions, it's their collective weight -- as a string of potential playoff opponents -- that should worry the defending champs.
Mannix: Three. Indiana, Brooklyn and Chicago are realistic threats. I love -- repeat, love -- the Scola deal for Indiana. Scola will give the second unit offensive punch and allow coach Frank Vogel to rest West and Roy Hibbert more during the season. Throw in the return of Granger -- or whatever the Pacers get for him before the trade deadline -- and Indiana is loaded up for another run at a team it nearly eliminated last season. Brooklyn obviously has the talent. With Rose back, the Bulls, who win a lot of regular-season games with the way they defend, could challenge the Heat for home-court advantage, something Chicago has claimed in two of the last three seasons.
Thomsen: Two or three. The Bulls and Pacers should cause problems for Miami throughout the season and into the playoffs by creating mismatches and matching up to the Heat's energy. Rose is going to be hungry after missing the last two postseasons (he sustained his knee injury in the 2012 playoff opener), while the Pacers strengthened their advantages up front by adding Scola and the three-point shooting of Copeland while keeping a spot open for Granger to return from knee surgery. The Nets and Knicks figure to contend for 50 or more wins as well, though I don't see them keeping up with the three top teams in the playoffs.