Through trades, injuries and free agency, the Eastern Conference has undergone a fairly dramatic reshuffling this offseason. Neither of last year's conference finalists are likely candidates to return. Cleveland -- which finished last season with the East's 10th-best record -- is the preseason favorite. The other playoff teams all added or dropped talent, in some cases (Lance Stephenson to Charlotte, Paul Pierce to Washington, Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts to Miami) even in trades with one another. Below is a first look at where the East stands with the smoke settled.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
– Picking up LeBron James
and Kevin Love
sends Cleveland to the top of the power rankings with a bullet. There's a lot to sort out in how the Cavs will defend against quality opponents, but in the meantime there should be stark and immediate offensive chemistry among Cleveland's new superstar core. The games of James, Love and Kyrie Irving
are all innately compatible; it shouldn't take long for them to get up to a blistering offensive clip, putting the rest of the East at a clear disadvantage.
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2. Chicago Bulls – The most credible in-conference challenger to the Cavs is also the beneficiary of significant upgrade. Derrick Rose is set to return in more confident and effective form after missing most of last season, which at the very least will give the Bulls the dribble-drive creator they so clearly lacked. Also vital are the additions of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic at the expense of Carlos Boozer -- an exchange that broadens the horizons of Chicago's offensive execution. Such is a through line of the Bulls' offseason maneuvers: Those players added make for a more capable roster, suited to uphold Tom Thibodeau's defensive standards while building out a suitably robust offense.
3. Washington Wizards – Frankly, Washington underperformed for much of the 2013-14 season. Too often the Wiz played down to the level of their competition, which resulted in 44 wins and the No. 5 seed (out of a tiebreaker with the No. 6 Nets) for a team that should have been in the running for third. Another year of progress for John Wall and Bradley Beal should help, as will the keynote acquisition of Pierce. With the latter, Washington adds a needed creator to get its offense out of all-too-familiar jams, all while maintaining defensive competence. That on its own would be valuable, but to bring in Pierce while also retaining Marcin Gortat and fleshing out the frontcourt reserves (with Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair) positions the Wizards for a fascinating run.
4. Toronto Raptors – In terms of net rating (pace-adjusted point differential), only two teams in the East last season outperformed Toronto: Miami and Indiana. Neither will be as formidable as they were last season, setting up the Raptors to fill the void as one of the better teams in the conference. It wouldn't come as much of a surprise for Toronto to finish third to Cleveland and Chicago, particularly with DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross all still developing. The Raptors aren't threatening to unseat the best teams in the conference yet, but rare are the two-way teams with legitimate upward mobility.
5. Atlanta Hawks
– Oh, how quickly we forget Al Horford
. Atlanta's best player suited up for just 29 games last season, of which Atlanta won 16. During that time the Horford-led Hawks were the third-best team in the conference (and 10th-best in the league) by net rating, a mark earned by quality play on both ends. When Horford went down Atlanta naturally followed, though in his absence it found ways to stretch the talents of Paul Millsap
and Kyle Korver
to their fullest. Those qualities should be synergized into a better Hawks team in 2014-15, made fuller with the additions of another competent wing defender (Thabo Sefolosha
) and another shooting big man (rookie Adreian Payne).
6. Charlotte Hornets – Steve Clifford, apparent master of the arcane arts, turned a Bobcats team without a rim protector and without many standout individual defenders into the No. 6 defense in the NBA last season. Such wizardry should extend into this season, all while the roster of the Bobcats-turned-Hornets has found better balance. A creative void will be filled by Lance Stephenson, who for better or worse steps into his biggest role yet. The need for spacing around Al Jefferson could be partially addressed through the introduction of P.J. Hairston, Marvin Williams and rookie Noah Vonleh. In all there's better balance for Charlotte than there was a year ago. Clifford -- who ran a good offense last season -- was able to get a lot out of a limited team. Let's see how he does with a few more capable pieces.
How does Kevin Love trade impact each team?
Sports Illustrated's Matt Dollinger breaks down the three-way trade between the Cleveland Cavaliers
, Minnesota Timberwolves
and Philadelphia 76ers
7. Miami Heat – The remodeled Heat are the most difficult team to peg by far. They could be altogether solid, perhaps snatching one of the middle postseason seeds. It's just as likely that they could slide to the bottom of the playoff bracket or worse, as the construction of this strange new roster is untested. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade will have to reinvent themselves in the wake of LeBron's departure. Luol Deng, McRoberts and Danny Granger will join a team without much form or identity. Erik Spoelstra can be trusted to make the most of these circumstances, yet so much hinges on Wade's health and the chemistry of this odd brew.
8. New York Knicks
– This season's Knicks will mostly set themselves apart from last year's team in function rather than form; the changes made were notable, but not of all that much import to the club's internal structure. More relevant is the arrival of Derek Fisher
as coach, and along with him the installation of the triangle offense. Some pieces (Carmelo Anthony
, Jose Calderon
) are a better fit for that system than others (Samuel Dalembert
, Andrea Bargnani
), but regardless the shift could give the Knicks a needed tactical overhaul. The old formula had grown somewhat stale, to the point that the players tuned out former coach Mike Woodson and sniped at one another. They can do better, and will likely surpass their 37-win mark of a season ago.
9. Brooklyn Nets – In contrast with their crosstown counterparts, the Nets will undergo some pretty dramatic changes this season as a product of Brook Lopez's return and coach Lionel Hollins' hiring. Brooklyn's defense will likely be more traditional and its offense more post-centric -- neither of which is damning on principle, though in doing so the Nets will step away from those qualities that made them so fascinating and dangerous last season. A more predictable Brooklyn team built around Lopez's work on the block should still be a playoff contender, but the losses of Pierce and Shaun Livingston in free agency make the Nets less adaptable to particular matchups.
10. Indiana Pacers – A Pacers team without Paul George and Stephenson isn't all that menacing, particularly if Roy Hibbert can't find his way out of the sinkhole he inhabited last we left him. The offense will naturally suffer for the loss of the two players on the roster who could actually create off the dribble, which doesn't bode well for a team that already ranked 29th in offense last season after the All-Star break. Without George's and Stephenson's stellar work in guarding the perimeter, though, the integrity of the Pacers' team defense might also be forfeit. C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey -- both of whom were signed this summer -- are fine players but poor substitutes.
11. Detroit Pistons – Stan Van Gundy has his work cut out for him in turning this fundamentally weird roster into a playoff contender. That said, it's not outside the range of possibility. Andre Drummond will thrive under the coach who helped make the similarly talented Dwight Howard a star, and there is talent around him even if it doesn't fit just so. There may be no clean resolution to the positional glut of Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith, but Van Gundy will best put all involved in a position to succeed. Detroit's growing core of role players (including newcomers Jodie Meeks, Caron Butler, D.J. Augustin and Cartier Martin) offer more perimeter support, perhaps to the point of better balancing the floor and the Pistons' rotation.
12. Orlando Magic – The rebuild continues. Orlando isn't ready to make a run in a conference with such a crowded middle class, but it made some interesting plays this summer that should be good for the long term. Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton give the Magic a wealth of defensive potential at its core, if also a dearth of shooting. Veterans Channing Frye and Ben Gordon were imported this summer to address the latter, though neither will influence the offense enough to make the Magic a team of note.
13. Boston Celtics
– Brad Stevens did a fine job in his first season at the helm of an ill-equipped Celtics team, but he'll be asked again to make the most of relatively little. Rajon Rondo
's better health doesn't hurt, but the probability of his being traded by the deadline looms over yet another of Boston's seasons. Regardless, these Celtics primarily trade in youth. Avery Bradley
, Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk
, Tyler Zeller
, James Young and Jared Sullinger
give Boston a hefty complement of rotation pieces 23 or younger. Among them Smart, in particular, looks to be a star in the making.
14. Milwaukee Bucks – A flash of early injuries urged the Bucks to punt on their 2013-14 season relatively quickly. From that point there was no stopping Milwaukee's losing; a roster once intended to make a playoff push showed an amazing capacity for losing streaks. This season should be different, though, with the arrival of Jabari Parker and the full-time return of Larry Sanders anchoring the Bucks on both sides of the ball. This will still be a year of development that ends with a lottery pick, but Milwaukee's first season under Jason Kidd should be both more constructive and competitive.
15. Philadelphia 76ers – A patient rebuild has brought the Sixers to the bottom by design. Philadelphia has traded every veteran of even marginal value and drafted three players (Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric) over the past two years set to either miss significant time or sit out the entire season. That those three players are tremendous basketball talents folds into Philadelphia's mode of asset collection without much regard for the present -- the eventual result of which will be a matter of league-wide interest. Never has a team been so honest in its pursuit of the league's worst record, and never has a team inspired so much fuss about the very concept of tanking. Strategically speaking it's so far, so good for the Sixers. The only thing objectionable about their practices is the basketball product in the interim.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.