By CHRIS GOFF
ISL Assistant Editor
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett found out that the world really can be black and white. Good coaches like Mike Brown and Brad Stevens signed on. And the top two picks in the draft reside in Cleveland and Orlando.
When a new season kicks off next week, the Eastern Conference will look different. But – with apologies to many challengers – the Miami Heat are again the team to beat.
Each week during the season IndySportsLegends.com will rank the East. Here is an expanded preseason listing for a conference that should be more competitive than last year.
1. Miami Heat: The Big Three era has resulted in three Eastern Conference titles and two NBA championships in three seasons of existence. A dynamic offense and intimidating defense make Miami the most well-rounded team in the league, while LeBron James is still the best player. Greg Oden, the 7-foot-1 veteran center, will try to resurrect his injury-plagued career and add size for this small team. A while after Oden signed, the Heat gambled on free-agent forward Michael Beasley to come off the bench and add firepower. Sixth man Ray Allen is back and so is energetic, 6-10 big Chris Andersen, who sparked Miami with energy and rebounding and even a bit of scoring after signing in the middle of last season. The last team to win three straight NBA Finals was the Lakers from 2000 to 2002. The big question is if Dwyane Wade can avoid the knee injuries that make Miami vulnerable in the playoffs. While the Heat are the favorite, pulling off a three-peat is not easy.
2. Indiana Pacers: David West and Paul George signed new contracts, Larry Bird ended a one-year hiatus to return as team president, and the Pacers got better off the bench. George might make 10 more All-Star games in a row, Lance Stephenson will continue to learn and Roy Hibbert showed his potential in a dominant playoff run. What’s not to love? It is difficult to rank the teams behind Miami, but Indiana has more cohesion than Brooklyn and more talent than Chicago. The Pacers will again rely on stifling defense and a balanced offense. Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland provide new scoring threats, as does the return of Danny Granger from knee surgery. The five-star front office executed a dynamite offseason without any blockbuster moves. The Pacers will again contend for a title. There is a mix of youth and wise veterans. Their size and athleticism overwhelms many opponents. New assistant Nate McMillan is expected to help alleviate problems with turnovers. Players are embracing expectations of a trip to the Finals, a place Indy hasn’t been since 2000.
3. Chicago Bulls: A former MVP is returning from a missed season. That gives the Bulls’ skilled core a chance to win the conference. Derrick Rose looked good in the preseason and feels he is better in some ways than he was prior to tearing an ACL. Rose will be joining rising guard Jimmy Butler and stars Joakim Noah and Luol Deng as he seeks to reclaim his spot as one of the most explosive and feared guards in the sport. Coach Tom Thibodeau got a banged-up team to finish with the No. 5 seed and advance to the second round. One of the questions this winter will be how the Bulls divvy up playing time at power forward between Carlos Boozer, a scorer, and the defensive-minded Taj Gibson. Each is paid well and Gibson is seen as having more of a future in Chicago even though he comes off the bench. The Bulls will have a great defense. They finished atop the East in 2010-11 and 2011-12. Another run at the top seed is likely.
4. Brooklyn Nets: The inaugural season in the Big Apple ended with a Game 7 home loss to Chicago in the first round. Enter Pierce, Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry, who headlined an offseason overhaul that dramatically remade the Nets – who won 49 games last season – into a title contender. The Nets will be a tough matchup because of their size and skill up front with Garnett and Brook Lopez, and they field a killer starting five with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Pierce. The bench is frightening now that Kirilenko, Terry, Shaun Livingston and Reggie Evans are teamed up with Andray Blatche. The main questions revolve around age, rookie coach Jason Kidd and team chemistry.
5. New York Knicks: This team had a poor offseason, from overpaying J.R. Smith to forcing general manager Glen Grunwald into an advisory role. Although Mike Woodson somehow coached New York to a 54-28 record last year, the conference is a lot more difficult this time around and the Knicks did not improve. Andrea Bargnani is not much of a winner and harms the defense. Metta World Peace is nowhere near the player he used to be. Those were the major offseason additions, along with first-rounder Tim Hardaway Jr. Offense was their strength last season, and that won’t change as long as Carmelo Anthony is around. Smith, Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert played well in Woodson’s 3-point system. Center Tyson Chandler, an excellent defender and New York’s second-best player, must overcome back issues that caused a brutal playoff run. Can Woodson work more magic?
6. Atlanta Hawks: A playoff constant for the past six years, Atlanta is suddenly unpredictable under new GM Danny Ferry. The Hawks could gut the roster or add to the current group. If Ferry plays this out, Atlanta could be quite good, with Jeff Teague and Lou Williams in the backcourt and Paul Millsap joining Al Horford, still the team’s best player, in the frontcourt. Atlanta failed to land a big fish and let Josh Smith walk, but recovered well by bringing back Kyle Korver and inking Millsap to a team-friendly deal at $19 million for two years. The depth behind Millsap and Horford should be decent between Elton Brand, Gustavo Ayon, Pero Antic and Lucas Nogueira. Most thought Mike Budenholzer was a strong hire, though he has never been a head coach and replaces a quality leader in Larry Drew. Odds are, Atlanta is still good, even without Smith. Teague and Williams are fast and Millsap and Horford are smart. The Hawks aren’t a threat to go deep into the postseason, but they’ll pick up plenty of victories on their way there. Keep an eye on Dennis Schroeder, the German point guard prospect who excelled in summer league.
7. Cleveland Cavaliers: It’s actually plausible to envision the Cavaliers higher because this young, dynamic team figures to benefit from its new coach, Brown. Owner Dan Gilbert told his front office to make a playoff push and that resulted in the signings of Andrew Bynum and Jarrett Jack. While Anthony Bennett was a surprise pick at No. 1 in the draft, he has huge potential and could fit at small forward. Kyrie Irving will soon be an All-Star and he already had a nice cast around him with Dion Waiters, rugged center Anderson Varejao and emerging power forward Tristan Thompson.
8. Washington Wizards: A team that might have made the playoffs with better injury luck last season kept its roster together and succeeded in the draft with Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. Most of what makes Washington tough is their quick and skilled backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. But coach Randy Wittman’s bunch finished eighth in the league in defense last season and scoring on them should remain tough. Nene Hilario is always hurt and must stay healthy for the Wizards to break a five-year playoff drought. Wall also can continue the roll he was on in March and April, when he played like an elite point guard. Beal is only 20 and will keep getting better, too.
9. Detroit: This could easily mesh into a playoff team with the big talent upgrades of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings. Andre Drummond has huge upside and a front line that includes Smith, Drummond and Greg Monroe will do immense damage on both ends.
10. Toronto: New GM Masai Ujiri inherits a roster that includes Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Center Jonas Valanciunas has breakout potential. Will this team still be together by March?
11. Milwaukee: There are some nice pieces here with Larry Sanders, John Henson, Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Zaza Pachulia, Ersan Ilyasova and Gary Neal. But playing in a tough division will weigh down their annual playoff push.
12. Boston Celtics: As a new era officially begins, with Pierce and Garnett and coach Doc Rivers leaving memories behind, there’s not a whole lot to look forward to. Boston’s best player, Rajon Rondo, may well be traded by February. The team isn’t good enough to compete for a playoff spot.
13. Charlotte Bobcats: With Al Jefferson coming aboard and the front office selecting Cody Zeller with the No. 4 pick, Charlotte improved a little. Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist figure to grow individually. The Bobcats must adjust to yet another coaching change. Steve Clifford is the latest occupant of the hot seat.
14. Orlando Magic: This team is full of nice-looking young prospects and declining veterans. Victor Oladipo complements Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic to form a core with great potential. Still, the Magic are years from contention. The days of Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy are long gone.
15. Philadelphia 76ers: Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young must feel so alone. GM Sam Hinkie’s rebuilding project has left the roster with few passable NBA players. He cares more about the 2014 draft than winning this season.