With the NBA regular season just a few weeks away, The Point Forward examines the best- and worst-case scenarios for each team in 2013-14. Rob Mahoney has outlined the scenarios for the Western Conference's 15 teams. Here's a look at the Eastern Conference.
Best-case scenario: A rosy outlook has "No. 6 seed and a first-round exit" written all over it. General manager Danny Ferry has turned his salary-cap books into a lean, mean fighting machine, but the above-average trio of Al Horford/Paul Millsap/Jeff Teague isn't quite enough to crack the conference's upper echelon.
Worst-case scenario: The Hawks have been remarkably resilient in recent years, surviving long-term injuries to Horford in 2011-2 and guard Lou Williams last season. How well this new roster -- which will seek contributions from both youngsters and relative unknowns -- is able to stand up to a major injury is another question. Horford, who has been fairly durable during his six-year career, is clearly the linchpin. Losing him for an extended period of time could trigger the franchise's first lottery trip since 2007.
Ferry has put on a spending efficiency clinic, highlighted by his two-year, $19 million deal for Millsap, which stands as one of the summer's best values. Right now, the Hawks are hovering under the salary cap, have no long-term commitments except those to Horford, Teague and proven sniper Kyle Korver, and are in a position to be players in free agency next summer. Ferry accomplished that without drastically collapsing his team's ceiling, but it's difficult to imagine any team making real noise with such a small payroll.
Best-case: NBA TV concocts a split-screen set-up that allows the viewer to watch the Celtics play defense while displaying a giant black bar across the screen whenever Boston has the ball on offense. Meanwhile, first-year coach Brad Stevens acclimates to life in the NBA without sacrificing too many ping pong balls, which should be the desired endgame here.
Worst-case: President Danny Ainge seems shrewd enough to make the necessary moves to prevent his team from getting stuck in the middle, but he's also on record saying, basically, that tanking is easier said than done. Still, without the makings of a clear young nucleus, up should be down and down should be up this year. The worst-case scenario, then, would be the one with the most wins.
Listing off the veteran names -- Rajon Rondo (injured, for now), Jeff Green, Gerald Wallace, Brandon Bass, Kris Humphries -- can quickly lead to the conclusion that this has the makings of a bubble playoff team. Even setting aside the fact that Ainge is savvy and experienced enough to properly weigh short-term and long-term goals, there are some major holes here: The offense will be anemic with or without Rondo, there's a doughnut hole in the middle, the Green/Wallace combination is virtually guaranteed to be infuriatingly inconsistent and this is a team stripped of its heart/soul/defensive anchor (Kevin Garnett) and its leading scorer/captain (Paul Pierce).
Put all of that together and there's a decent chance Boston is the leader in trade rumors come deadline season. Finding some way to dump the $20.2 million that's owed to Wallace over the next two seasons would be a major win, even if his energetic style is bound to endear him to Celtics fans during an otherwise rough season.
Best-case: Owner Mikhail Prokhorov gets to remain a bachelor for life as his exorbitant spending delivers the franchise's first NBA championship, freeing him from his famous promise to get married if the Nets weren't able to win a title by 2015.
Worst-case: Deron Williams can't capture his top form for a full season, age limits Garnett's impact during the regular season, first-year coach Jason Kidd takes awhile to get his bearings and, together, that combination drops Brooklyn to fifth among the East's clear-cut top-five (Miami, Indiana, Chicago, New York and Brooklyn). That would leave the Nets as the odd man out when it comes to home-court advantage in the playoffs; a first-round flameout would be a forest fire given Brooklyn's $100-plus-million payroll and narrow championship window.
Betting big -- and Prokhorov's gambles are the league's biggest, by far -- erases any middle ground between triumph and ruin. Should the Nets fall short of the Eastern Conference finals, a seriously lofty standard this season with Derrick Rose back and so many contenders improving this summer, the season will be perceived to be a failure. That's true despite the fact that the Nets haven't won a playoff series since 2007 and the fact that that they are led by Kidd, who is just months removed from his Hall of Fame playing career.
Best-case: A perfect draft storm -- one that is both realistic and exhilarating -- is brewing for GM Rich Cho. Thanks to trades involving Wallace and Ben Gordon, Charlotte could possess three 2014 lottery picks if Detroit finishes outside the league's bottom eight and Portland finishes outside the bottom 12. Of course, Charlotte's own pick once again has a decent chance to be a top-five selection.
Worst-case: The Pistons sputter back toward the bottom of the standings despite adding Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings during the offseason, while the Blazers fall out of the playoff hunt early and opt to tank down the stretch for the second straight season.
At some point, every team that undergoes a full-scale rebuilding effort must decide when it's time to stop thinking about ping pong balls and start putting wins first. That time isn't now for Charlotte, not quite. There are reasons to watch the Bobcats on the court this year: Free-agent addition Al Jefferson has a chance to be the first 20-and-10 player in franchise history, 2013 lottery pick Cody Zeller is an intriguing and versatile new face, and 2012 lottery pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist possesses plenty of upside and eye-catching athleticism. That said, the real action for the Bobcats will come from other markets, as the fate of the Pistons and the Blazers will determine exactly how full Cho's pockets will be on draft night.
The absolute best case: Charlotte lands the No. 1 pick itself and gets Detroit's pick at No. 9 and Portland's at No. 13. A more realistic scenario would see Charlotte hovering around No. 5 while the other top picks fall in the 13-18 range; a more cautious evaluation would suggest that Portland will be in a position to keep its pick by season's end.
Best-case: Rose wins his second MVP and powers the Bulls to the league's best record and the franchise's first title since Michael Jordan made Bryon Russell sit down. With Rose, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Joakim Noah and the indefatigable Luol Deng leading the way, Chicago must be regarded as a solid championship contender, just as it was in 2011 and 2012.
Worst-case: It's not even fair to conjure up a worst-case scenario for the Bulls, not after Rose caught the Chicago fan base by surprise by not returning from his knee injury last season, while Noah played through plantar fasciitis and Deng suffered through a life-threatening spinal tap gone wrong. These guys have had more than their fair share of "worst-case" for the time being.
The early returns on Rose's play back up the positive reviews he received all summer, and that's bad news for the rest of the league. In his last two full seasons, Rose is 94-26 (.782), which equates to a 64-win pace over a single 82-game season. Chicago shouldn't just be excited about its centerpiece: The emerging Jimmy Butler and the summer signing of Mike Dunleavy provide Rose some extra firepower to work with on the wings. The team's defense has been elite for three straight seasons, regardless of the changing roster parts and various injuries, and that's enough to put Chicago near the top of the conference's class to start the season. Opening night against the Heat can't get here soon enough.
The addition of Andrew Bynum makes the Cavs the one of the most volatile teams in the league. (Mark Duncan/AP)
Best-case: Taking a flier on Andrew Bynum would seem to give the Cavaliers the largest range between "best-case" and "worst-case" of anyone in the conference. Pretend that Bynum and Anderseon Varejao are actually 100 percent healthy. Couldn't this team, which shored up its backcourt depth by adding Jarrett Jack, challenge for a top-five seed? Sure, why not? And it would be a lock to make the playoffs.
Worst-case: The hypothetical worst-case scenario isn't as bad as the 2012-13 Sixers' worst-case reality, if only because Kyrie Irving is a better all-around talent than Jrue Holiday and because Cleveland didn't gut its roster assets to acquire Bynum like Philadelphia did. Even with Jack, Earl Clark and No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett in the fold, a fourth straight trip to the lottery is a possibility for the Cavaliers, if their two veteran centers can't make a consistent impact.
Best-case: New coach Maurice Cheeks sends out a team-wide memo with the subject line "Shot Selection," and everyone on the squad reads and fully comprehends the message. Andre Drummond blossoms into a reliable full-time starter with All-Star potential down the road, and Brandon Jennings and former Hawk Smith enjoy the happiest, and most productive, seasons of their careers following their summer changes of scenery. That adds up to the No. 6 seed and, maybe, giving someone a scare in the first round.
Worst-case: The jumbo-ball configuration of Drummond/Greg Monroe/Smith doesn't thrive and Jennings fails to deliver on his vow to be a bit more judicious in pulling the trigger on his jumper. Anything short of the playoffs would be a serious disappointment, given the landscape at the bottom of the postseason picture and the fact that the Pistons handed out a total of $78 million worth of multiyear deals to Smith and Jennings.
Detroit's season could seemingly go so many different directions, but there doesn't seem to be enough proven talent on hand to justify any talk of a first-round upset. What we should see, with any luck, is a magnetic group that plays with far more vigor and joie de vivre than the Pistons of the recent past. All eyes should be on Drummond, first and foremost, as his career arc will be the primary factor in determining whether Detroit has a chance to crack the East's top tiers in the near future.
Best-case: The talking heads spend two solid weeks in June whining about how the Finals television ratings are terrible thanks to this pesky small-market team that cares way too much about defense. Yes, that's right, a title is a reasonable ceiling for this group, thanks to a busy summer focused on bench upgrades with the additions of Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland.
Worst-case: Danny Granger's return from a lost season winds up being a chemistry minus, or newly maxed All-Star forward Paul George isn't able to take the next step from an offensive efficiency standpoint, leaving Indiana vulnerable to higher-powered attacks in the playoffs.
It's difficult to pencil anyone besides the Heat into the East's second round of the playoffs just yet because one of the top five seeds will open on the road. Even so, the Pacers are a solid bet to make the second round, and they're fully in the mix for a return trip to the conference finals. Indiana's biggest leg up over the Knicks, Bulls and Nets is its continuity: The Pacers return a starting unit that posted a superb plus-12.1 net rating last year.
Best-case: The confetti comes down from the American Airlines Arena rafters, completing just the second three-peat of the post-Jordan era. LeBron James, clutching his third consecutive Finals MVP award, invites Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to join him at the podium, and the Big Three simultaneously announce that they will opt in for the 2014-15 season. Ray Allen peeks in from the back of the media room and whispers to no one in particular that he'll be back on a veteran's minimum deal, too. (Nobody even notices that Greg Oden never played a game all season.)
Worst-case: It might seem unfathomable at first blush, but the presence of four solid challengers in the East means there's a decent chance that the Heat's streak of Finals appearances is halted at three, perhaps as early as the conference semifinals. Under almost any scenario, the Heat will need to beat at least two of those four -- Brooklyn, Chicago, Indiana and New York -- just to get to the Finals, where San Antonio, Oklahoma City or the Los Angeles Clippers could be waiting. Wade's troublesome knee will need to hold up for three full series against top-shelf competition. What happens next summer if this turns out to be the year Wade finally can't massage his way through the pain?
The Heat are about as vulnerable as a defending champion that won 27 consecutive games and brings back virtually its entire rotation, including the undisputed best player in the world, can be. That might seem unnecessarily alarmist, but the Heat havenn't faced this much depth at the top of the conference during the Big Three era and they've dodged bullets when it comes to injury (both to Wade and Bosh) for the last two years. The oh-so-close call in the 2013 Finals proved that the Heat aren't invincible, but anything short of a title in 2014 will be regarded as a disappointment given James' stature (and his impending free agency).
Best-case: Squeak into the playoffs and go home early.
Worst-case: Barely miss the playoffs and go home even earlier.
You've read the same "The Bucks seem content, almost eager to be stuck in the middle of the East" analysis 100 times and I've written it 100 times. There's no need to go there again.
The minor wrinkles created during a busy summer: Can Larry Sanders lead Milwaukee to a top-10 defense? Will John Henson get a chance to play enough minutes to become an under-the-radar darling of the advanced stats community? The long-armed Henson's averages of 16.5 points, 12.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes as a rookie are more than a little thought-provoking, as is the possible pairing with Sanders, which would register off the- charts in wingspan.
Here's the best for last. Milwaukee has crafted a "totally forgettable" reputation for the last decade, yet it may have stumbled on a "totally unforgettable" prospect in Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 15th pick in 2013. Take a look at the following highlight tape from the Greek forward's 14-point debut against the Cavaliers. (Video via Dawk Ins.)
At 18, Antetokounmpo shows off a Kevin Durant-esque stepback, a moonball three-pointer, an attack mentality in transition, a smooth passing touch and plenty of length and leaping ability. What more can you ask for from a guy who was totally off most people's radars less than a year ago? Maybe the "best-case scenario" for the Bucks just boils down to any situation in which Antetokounmpo isn't pinned to the bench for the whole season.
The Knicks enter the season with J.R. Smith and Amar'e Stoudemire battling injuries. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
NEW YORK KNICKS
Best-case: You might have to squint really hard, but the Knicks just barely belong in the discussion of teams with a shot at a title. What must go right? Andrea Bargnani must prove all the doubters wrong. J.R. Smith must recover fully from his knee surgery and his peeving immaturity. Carmelo Anthony must continue to shoot at a decent clip from three-point range (37.9 percent on 6.3 attempts last year). Amar'e Stoudemire must give them something come playoff time. And Tyson Chandler must return to his 2011 game-dictating form when push comes to shove in May and June.
Worst-case: Nets guard Jason Terry gets "King Of New York" tattooed on his head after one of the many variables on the list above goes wrong, leading the Knicks to go one-and-done in the playoffs.
Some in the Knicks' organization feel that their team is the most overlooked squad in the league, a result of the negative reaction to the Bargnani trade and the injuries to Smith and Stoudemire. New York is a 54-win team returning a vast majority of its key pieces, their thinking goes, with the understanding of how to craft an elite offense around Anthony, one of the league's most potent threats.
It's a convincing line of thinking, but New York just has so many different players who fail the "Would you want him in your foxhole?" test. Raymond Felton's streaky shooting and shaky decision-making are issues. Bargnani is one of the league's biggest question marks (with far too few rebounds to show for that size). Smith's unreliability is well documented. Stoudemire is probably the most baffling of all, and Anthony recently referred to his teammate's ongoing knee problems as "just sad." That's probably not the best motto for a title hopeful.
Best-case: Orlando strikes lottery gold for the fourth time in franchise history, earning the right to select Andrew Wiggins (or anyone else who strikes its fancy).
Worst-case: The extraordinarily young core overachieves its way out of a top-five pick in the 2014 draft.
Orlando appears to be one of the East's three bottom-feeders, along with Charlotte and Philadelphia. It's fair to say that the Magic are the least desperate member of the trio. Thanks to the Dwight Howard trade and winning the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, Orlando has an intriguing group of youngsters already assembled. There's no Wiggins to be found, but Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris is a fine start, and their development, along with that of Moe Harkless and Andrew Nicholson, offers plenty of reasons for Magic fans to care about what happens on the court this season.
The lottery balls are hovering in Central Florida, let's not get that confused, but they aren't front and center quite like they are in Charlotte and Philadelphia. Oladipo has to be viewed as a leading candidate for the Rookie of the Year award, and what he shows this season will surely influence management's thinking as the Magic craft their draft strategy for June.
Best-case: The tank is so on in Philadelphia and the bounty it could produce is incredible: Wiggins plus New Orleans' 2014 first-round pick (top-five protected, courtesy of the Holiday trade). Let's say the Sixers get perfect luck, winning the lottery themselves and drawing the No. 6 pick from the Pelicans. How does a 2014-15 starting lineup of Michael Carter-Williams, Evan Turner, Wiggins, Aaron Gordon and Nerlens Noel sound? It sounds like a top-five must-watch team on League Pass, immediately, and the beginnings of a team that could open a wide window of contention in three to five years.
Worst-case: Philadelphia gets bum lottery ball luck and falls out of the top three in the draft order despite having the NBA's worst record or very close to it. Then, one of two things happens with the Pelicans: Something goes terribly wrong and they wind up keeping their top-five-protected pick, or Anthony Davis leads a playoff push, and the pick winds up in the 15-18 range. A true nightmare would see complications for Noel as he rehabilitates from last year's season-ending knee injury, but surely the basketball gods will spare him and Philadelphia after the Andrew Bynum fiasco.
Even though the Sixers are one of the easiest teams in the league to peg -- they are guaranteed to be terrible -- there's actually a fair bit of distance between their best and worst outcomes. The "best" scenario described above would totally validate the decision to trade Holiday and blow things up, while the "worst" scenario would make for a more complicated picture. If New Orleans holds its pick, which seems unlikely given its aggressive offseason and the projected growth from Davis, Philadelphia's looking at another long, deflating year of hoping and waiting in 2014-15. If New Orleans does climb out of the lottery, the Sixers aren't likely to add two true core building blocks in the draft.
Best-case: Jonas Valanciunas enjoys such a fantastic breakout season that Drake and Adam Silver present him with the Most Improved Player award in the spring. The Lithuanian center's play is so singularly promising that no one bothers to get upset when new GM Masai Ujiri dumps Rudy Gay and/or DeMar DeRozan and/or Landry Fields and/or Kyle Lowry in a fire sale to shed salary and accumulate assets.
Worst-case: The Raptors flirt with a playoff run long enough that Ujiri opts to stay put at the deadline, only to fall back into the late-lottery down the stretch, leaving the team without its first postseason appearance since 2008 or a top lottery pick. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford gets arrested trying to smuggle drugs through an airport while wearing the team's dinosaur mascot costume.
You'll never believe this, but Toronto once again finds itself in no man's land -- not good enough to make the playoffs for sure, but not bad enough to land a top draft pick -- without a clear-cut core and without a roster that's efficient in its allocation of resources. That means there's plenty of work to do, and that's a good thing, because Ujiri is a proactive, talented executive with the proven ability to execute a big-picture vision.
Best-case: John Wall validates the second-half excitement from last season, earning his first All-Star berth and leading the Wizards to their first playoff appearance since 2008. The loss of Emeka Okafor to a neck injury right out of the gate was a bad omen, but the No. 7 seed seems like an achievable target.
Worst-case: Something, anything happens to Nene, and then everything falls apart so quickly that not even a franchise-player-type season from Wall or a breakout sophomore year from Bradley Beal can hold it together.
The Okafor injury makes for a frustrating Whack-A-Mole feel. Just when the Wizards thought their big man duo had the whole defensive efficiency thing down pat while a healthy Wall would fix last year's abysmal offense, Washington now needs to figure out how to squeeze some stops from the likes of Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Al Harrington and Jan Vesely or risk a regression on defense. Some of those guys -- many of those guys -- will need to play and contribute with Okafor's 26 minutes per night now open, and last year's on-/off-court numbers aren't particularly kind to any of them on the defensive end.