By Ben Golliver
On Thursday, Rob Mahoney outlined the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Western Conference's 15 teams. Now: the Eastern Conference.
Best-case scenario: New general manager Danny Ferry wins Executive of the Year for dumping hordes of future salary obligations in the offseason and still managing to assemble a new-look roster that nabs home-court advantage in the playoffs as the East's No. 4 seed.
Worst-case scenario: Josh Smith winds up more distracted than motivated by his contract year, Devin Harris struggles to put it all together again and the Hawks are fighting just to make the postseason.
Ferry seemed to reach an important conclusion early in his tenure: Al Horford was the only indispensable player on last year's roster. The plan, then: break up the core four and rebuild on the fly. Plan executed, at least so far, with Joe Johnson sent to the Brooklyn Nets (goodbye, $89 million over four years) and Marvin Williams sent to Utah (so long, $16.8 million over two years), leaving a major decision on Smith looming. To replace the cap cloggers, Ferry assembled a solid cast of veterans (Devin Harris, Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow) who are all on expiring contracts and then signed proven scorer Lou Williams to a three-year, mid-level deal. Smart, savvy stuff that leaves Atlanta with a solid playoff team this year and a roster with loads of flexibility heading into 2013 free agency.
Best case: Rajon Rondo takes another leap forward, the veterans stay healthy enough to hang on for the ride and Doc Rivers works his locker-room ego-juggling magic to grind out an Eastern Conference finals victory over the Miami Heat. Revenge! (And then a Finals appearance.)
Worst case: Kevin Garnett, 36, can't stay healthy during the playoffs, leaving Boston unable to replace the 20/10 nights that were a staple of the 2012 postseason and vulnerable to a first- or second-round upset.
There's so much to like about the Celtics' offseason. They addressed their biggest need -- athleticism and defense on the wing -- by adding Courtney Lee and Jeff Green. They replaced their biggest departure, Ray Allen, with a scorer who can create his own shot in Jason Terry. They bought low on Darko Milicic, an extra frontcourt body capable of giving six fouls, and they will get the supremely talented Avery Bradley back from a shoulder injury. On paper, it's a deeper, younger, quicker and more versatile squad than the group that pushed the Heat to seven games in the East finals. If Garnett's abilities meaningfully decline because of age, or he gets bitten by the injury bug, the moves will all be for naught. Cross your fingers.
Best case: The Nets ride a powerful home-court advantage at the new Barclays Center straight to a top-four seed, incorporating Brook Lopez back into the fold after his injury problems last year and profiting from Deron Williams' ability to balance his own scoring with enough distribution to keep Joe Johnson happy.
Worst case: Avery Johnson never finds a defensive formula and Lopez proves far less valuable than his new four-year, $60 million max-level contract would suggest. Brooklyn finishes as the No. 7 or No. 8 seed, stuck with an impossible first-round matchup.
The Nets had their boldest summer in recent memory, signing eye-popping deal after eye-popping deal to ensure they would have sufficient star power to capture the Big Apple's hearts and minds in their first season since moving from New Jersey. That commitment gives Brooklyn a solid starting five, plus a number of capable reserves to fill out the rotation. After a lackluster season and a half with the Nets, this is a reputation-making season for Williams, who no longer has any excuses for losing. Management gave him everything he could possibly ask for -- a $100 million contract, an All-Star backcourt partner in Johnson, a veteran defender in Gerald Wallace, a scoring big man in Lopez -- and it's time for him to deliver.
Best case: No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft.
Worst case: No. 6 pick in the 2013 NBA draft.
GM Rich Cho is playing bizarro basketball, whereby wins are losses and losses are wins. Cho is searching for a young core to build around. In Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 pick this year, he has a promising keeper. In Bismack Biyombo, the No. 7 pick last year, he has a project who could make it. In Kemba Walker, the No. 9 pick last year, he has a guard too flawed to do the things he needs done. After that, Cho only has the hope that comes from knowing a high lottery pick is a virtual certainty. Last season, the Bobcats set an NBA record for worst winning percentage. They will, unavoidably, be terrible again, and their season will ultimately be judged by how favorably the lottery Ping-Pong balls fall this time around. Hopefully, it's a better result than last season, when the season-long suffering didn't pay off with Anthony Davis.
Best case: Franchise point guard Derrick Rose returns from knee surgery with just enough time to get sharp before the postseason. Though not exactly his old self, Rose's will and multidimensional offensive game lift the Bulls (who avoid Miami early in the postseason) to back-to-back playoff-series victories and a rematch of the 2011 East finals with the Heat.
Worst case: Rose takes longer than expected to return, the offseason stripping of the Bench Mob adds up and the remaining rotation members buckle under coach Tom Thibodeau's constant demands. Chicago is eliminated in the first round for the second straight season.
The Chicago Bulls are Derrick Rose and Derrick Rose is the Chicago Bulls, especially this year after the offseason losses of Omer Asik, C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer and John Lucas III. Chicago is banking on Kirk Hinrich holding down the fort until Rose can get right; that's asking a lot. Chicago is once again banking on good health and gigantic minutes from Luol Deng; that's asking a lot, considering that he spent the summer playing in the Olympics rather than addressing a troublesome wrist injury. Chicago is banking on a bounce-back year from Rip Hamilton; that's asking a lot, considering he is 34, doesn't have Rose to create for him and has seen his numbers plummet over the last two seasons. The list goes on. The Bulls need Joakim Noah back at top form and Carlos Boozer to perform to the level of his contract; at least one of those things almost certainly won't happen.
Rose is the panacea for this laundry list of questions and he's never been a bigger question during his NBA career than he is right now. For Chicago diehards, this season is all about looking out over Lake Michigan and contemplating the long-term benefits rather than agonizing over the short-term hiccups. With expectations properly lowered, Rose just might get the opportunity to play the hero.
Worst case: Anything negative happening with Irving's health. For now, nothing else really matters all that much, relatively speaking.
The Cavaliers continue to pursue a long-haul approach. Besides Anderson Varejao, the Cavaliers essentially have no money committed past this season except to players on rookie deals. Now that's flexibility. The goal in coming summers will be to land a top-shelf talent to pair with Irving, forming a duo that can push the Cavs back toward the deep playoff runs that were routine during the LeBron James years. This year will be tougher sledding. Big picture, Irving is the player to watch. He already does so many thing so well -- score, shoot, pass, run an offense -- at such a young age that it's startling. This year will simply be about more repetitions, developing counters and finding ways to steady an offense through tough stretches. (Improving his defense is important, too.)
The smart money says Irving's contributions don't go unnoticed, and he finds his way onto the All-Star team. Cavaliers fans would trade that recognition for good health. After a serious foot injury during his one season at Duke, a concussion during the 2011-12 season and a broken hand suffered in a freak accident during the summer, nothing would be sweeter than seeing Irving take the court for 82 games.
Best case: Andre Drummond shows enough flashes that he looks like the early steal of the 2012 class, Greg Monroe has enough double/doubles to be on the fringes of the All-Star discussion and Brandon Knight progresses as you would expect a second-year point guard to progress. (Charlie Villanueva deciding to retire would be great, too.)
Worst case: Drummond looks more like a project than an impact player, Knight doesn't become a more efficient scorer and the veterans (Villanueva, Corey Maggette, Tayshaun Prince, Rodney Stuckey) take on too many responsibilities, stunting the younger group's development in an ill-conceived playoff push.
Pistons fans might not want to hear this, but this team is better off being bad than good, as the young talent base (Monroe, Knight, Drummond) is solid but shy of excellent and the rest of the pieces are way too expensive and/or meaningless on a middle-of-the-road team. This is still talent-acquisition time. Detroit owes its 2013 first-round pick to the Bobcats if it's not a lottery pick; keeping that pick, considering the roster landscape, would be far preferable to squeezing in as the eighth seed. The good news is that Drummond brings a watchability factor that has been absent over the last three seasons, all of which ended in the lottery. Good or bad, he will have you asking, "What will he do next?"
Best case: The Pacers win their first Central Division title since 2003-04 and repeat their performance from that season, advancing to the conference finals. The key ingredients to get there: continuity from last season, a burst from Paul George and another season of team-first culture that helped push the Pacers to the East semis in 2011-12.
Worst case: Indiana takes its foot off the pedal during its second season under coach Frank Vogel, playing with less urgency than it did during last season's 42-24 campaign. Persistent knee trouble limits Danny Granger and the Pacers bomb out in the first round.
The time is now for the Pacers. With the Bulls reeling from Rose's injury, the Pacers put together their second consecutive solid offseason. In December 2011, Indiana signed David West, a key difference-maker last season. This summer, Indiana re-signed Roy Hibbert and George Hill (overpaying for Hill, if we're being honest) while also adding Ian Mahinmi, D.J. Augustin and Gerald Green to the rotation mix. The only key departure was point guard Darren Collison, who had his spot taken by Hill, anyway. Two key X-factors: Granger's health and George's emergence. Granger is still the go-to guy, even if he's not an A-lister. If he's limited by knee pain, that could be a serious problem. George is a rising star who has all the tools to become a force on both ends. Will he get there? And will this be the season that he does it?
Best case: Repeat.
Worst case: Anything besides a repeat.
James has taken his game to new levels and his partners in crime -- Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- enter the season fully healthy. The roster has been reshaped to play to James' strengths, with shooters added around him and versatility becoming the mantra. Every season, including this one, carries all-or-nothing stakes during James' prime. He declared recently that he wants to become the best of all time; that title requires, literally, more than a handful of rings. He needs to add to his collection and there's no time like the present.
Best case: Against all odds, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis make an all-offense, undersized backcourt duo work, reaching better levels of efficiency than we've seen in recent years. Everyone else agrees to do the dirty work, thanks to constant prodding from coach Scott Skiles, and the Bucks hover around .500, good enough for a low playoff spot and a pedestrian first-round exit.
Worst case: Jennings and Ellis never establish chemistry, Skiles' demands wear on key player(s) and Milwaukee's front office spins the wheel at the trade deadline with the hope of reducing future salary commitments. The leftovers head to the lottery for the third season in a row.
This is a "prove something" year for GM John Hammond and Skiles, as one would think a third straight sub-.500 season would be enough for ownership to pursue a different direction somewhere. The Bucks haven't extended Jennings' contract, adding another element of uncertainty to a totally uncertain roster and season.
Give Hammond this much: There are a lot of pieces here, especially in the frontcourt. Tobias Harris and John Henson both looked good at the Las Vegas Summer League and you know what you're getting from re-signed Ersan Ilyasova and veteran center Samuel Dalembert, a summer trade acquisition. Perhaps there's room for some roster redistribution via trade, as someone will be on the outside looking in. (Not to mention, Larry Sanders has already butted heads with Skiles during the preseason.) The Bucks are an enigma for now, and not in a particularly intriguing way. Maybe some deadline fireworks will change that.
NEW YORK KNICKS
Best case: Carmelo Anthony commits himself to more than just scoring, and his new, more balanced game provides a perfect complement to another Defensive Player of the Year-caliber season from Tyson Chandler. Meanwhile, Raymond Felton delivers on his promises of a bounce-back season, Iman Shumpert rejoins the rotation at midseason and the octogenarian bench holds up well enough to affect a playoff series. New York wins a playoff series for the first time since 2000.
Worst case: Injuries wreak havoc, Carmelo checks out and the Knicks crash and burn into the lottery without a sequel to Linsanity to save them.
If Amar'e Stoudemire happened to still be really good, the Knicks would have a much brighter prognosis. As is, the presence of his monster salary is a major limiting factor on New York's moves. Credit management for its creativity this summer, pulling players in from overseas (Pablo Prigioni) and out of retirement (Rasheed Wallace), while orchestrating sign-and-trades (Marcus Camby, Raymond Felton and Kurt Thomas) to fill out the roster. Persuading J.R. Smith to stay under a modest deal was an underrated move, too, despite his obvious flaws and red flags.
The bag of tricks pays off only if Anthony takes his game up a major notch, which seems unlikely but not impossible, or if Stoudemire, who is already missing time with knee issues, has an unexpected renaissance. No matter what, the Knicks are dead in the water if they have to face Miami or Boston in the playoffs. If the Knicks dodge those two and draw the Pacers, Hawks or a Bulls team without a fully healthy Rose, they might have a puncher's chance. That's not horrible, considering the franchise's last 12 seasons of futility.
Best case: No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft.
Worst case: No. 6 pick in the 2013 NBA draft.
Do those scenarios sound familiar? They should. They are the same parameters that govern the Bobcats' season, outlined above. In the first year of the post-Dwight Howard era, new GM Rob Hennigan can't expect anything but futility. Not after he finally dealt Howard to the Lakers. Not after he agreed to sign-and-trade Ryan Anderson, the team's best player not nicknamed Superman, to the New Orleans Hornets. Not after the Magic re-signed the middling Jameer Nelson to a multiyear deal. Not in Year One for a first-time head coach in Jacque Vaughn.
Hennigan, like the Bobcats' Cho, is a former Oklahoma City Thunder assistant GM. The two executives will wage a battle for the Southeast Division's basement, and the extra lottery balls that come with that distinction. Magic fans have gone through this cycle before and come out just fine, but that doesn't help push the fast-forward button on this season, which will feel as if it's unfolding in brutally slow motion.
Best case: Andrew Bynum dominates the boards and the paint, solidifying his status as a franchise-type big man who can carry the Sixers for a decade. More immediately, he makes his case for a max contract next summer by getting Philadelphia into the conference semifinals for the second year in a row.
Worst case: "Andrew Bynum's knees" overshadow Andrew Bynum and hopes are dashed.
When the 76ers traded Andre Iguodala to the Denver Nuggets to acquire Bynum and Jason Richardson, they exchanged a "good but not great" reality for a riskier "could be great but could be a disaster" fork. With Bynum on the shelf because of knee issues throughout the preseason, "could be a disaster" is already picking up momentum. It's not that the Sixers are totally lacking in size without Bynum; Kwame Brown, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young can fill up most of the power forward/center minutes if push comes to shove. But that group has a firm ceiling; a Bynum-led squad simply has a much higher one, especially in the East where there isn't a center around who can match his physicality and overall skill set.
The backcourt rotation of Jrue Holiday, Richardson, Nick Young and Evan Turner should hold up well enough. A breakout year from Turner, however unlikely, would mean Philadelphia has the chance to really scratch at something special. Like the Bulls and Rose, though, the Sixers will go where Bynum takes them, this season and into his next deal. Management knew that would be the case when it traded for him; he was deemed an acceptable risk. Now everyone holds on for dear life as it unfolds.
Worst case: History repeats itself for the fifth straight season.
It doesn't appear as if the Raptors have assembled enough to drag themselves out of the post-Chris Bosh lottery muck. This year's group should be more competitive than comical, though, thanks in large part trade acquisition Lowry, an above-average point guard who averaged 14.3 points, 6.6 assists and 1.6 steals per game for the Rockets last season despite a health scare and a frazzled relationship with coach Kevin McHale. Lowry will take on the primary ball-handling duties and the added responsibility of helping a host of young players, including DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Ed Davis and Valanciunas, succeed.
Coach Dwane Casey is taking an "us against the world" tack during preseason, pointing out pessimistic prognostications as motivation for his young guys. Effort is a huge deal, especially on the defensive end, where the Raptors improved from No. 30 in points allowed per possession in 2010-11 to No. 14 last season in Casey's first year. If that progress holds and Lowry orchestrates, a run at the No. 8 seed isn't totally out of the question.
Best case: The Wizards challenge for a playoff berth thanks to John Wall's fixing his jumper and getting his turnovers under control and the new-look front line's staying healthy enough to make major gains in the rebounding and defense departments.
Worst case: Wall flat-lines or injuries carve up the bigs; if that happens,a fifth straight trip to the lottery is a guarantee. Bad news, already. Wall hasn't had the opportunity to improve or flat-line, as he's out with a knee injury. It's not serious, but it's not nothing, either. More bad news: Expensive center Nene, the most important big man, didn't play at all during the preseason because of a foot injury. This just isn't a team that can afford to spot its East counterparts a game, let alone the month it is expected to take to get Wall back. In the meantime, all eyes turn to lottery pick Bradley Beal. Still a teenager, Beal carries himself with a veteran's calm and he has a full offensive repertoire. Can he consistently knock down his jumper? That will define his ceiling.