The Hardwood Blues 2014-15 Eastern Conference Preview

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (59-23, 1st in Central Division)
Head Coach: David Blatt
Best Player: LeBron James
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Matthew Dellavadova

I think there are more than enough Cavaliers season previews floating around the basketball blogosphere, so I’ll keep I brief: They are going to be great. The offensive possibilities of lineups involving the LeBron/Love/Kyrie trio break projection models, and all indications are that David Blatt is the kind of coach who will allow this group to reach its frightening potential. My skepticisms regarding their defense still stand, but they ought to be so strong offensively that it won’t matter until the Conference Finals or so. The Cavs are the class of the Eastern Conference, if not the entire NBA.

2. Chicago Bulls (52-30, 2nd in Central Division)
Head Coach: Tom Thibodeau
Best Player: Joakim Noah
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Nikola Mirotic

Tom Thibodeau has been squeezing winning teams out of poor offensive outfits in Chicago for so long that it’s easy to get excited about their recent infusion of offensive talent. Las Vegas has taken a bold stance on the new-look Bulls squad, placing the over/under at 55.5 wins after an offseason that saw them net offensive aces Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, and Doug McDermott. In a weak Eastern Conference, 56+ wins is certainly plausible, given that they won 48 games last season without Derrick Rose and the trio of offseason additions. This projection seems dependent on the return-to-form of Derrick Rose, who hasn’t looked right since suffering an ACL tear in the 2012 playoffs and is an ever-present injury risk. The Bulls will be improved, but there are too many question marks for me to anoint them as an elite team.

3. Toronto Raptors (48-34, 1st in Atlantic Division)
Head Coach: Dwayne Casey
Best Player: Kyle Lowry
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: James Johnson

The Raptors aren’t championship contenders just yet, but I like what Masai Ujiri is doing in TO. It’s clear that he values roster continuity, as he spent the offseason retaining integral parts of last year’s squad in Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson, and Greivis Vasquez. He also picked up Lou Williams and Lucas Nogueira basically for free. Bonus! A good bit of upside could be hidden in the frontline of Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunus, an underrated duo of bigs who impact the game at both ends.

4. Miami Heat (46-36, 1st in Southeast Division)
Head Coach: Eric Spoelstra
Best Player: Chris Bosh
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: James Ennis

I already wrote a bunch of words about my optimistic outlook on Miami’s post-LeBron era, and that was before the emergence of James Ennis! As I mentioned in the article, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Heat finish anywhere between 2nd and 5th in the East, but they seem to have a low degree of risk because of quality vets and coaching.

5. Washington Wizards (45-37, 2nd in Southeast Division)
Head Coach: Randy Wittman
Best Player: John Wall
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Kevin Seraphin

Following an exciting playoff run led by the young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wiz have become a sexy pick to contend in the Eastern Conference. Wall and Beal are awesome – Wall in particular seems headed towards superstardom – but this was a team that struggled to hit .500 last season and downgraded from Trevor Ariza to Paul Pierce at the three. Washington has already been hit with injuries to Beal (out 6-8 weeks) and Kris Humphries and it’s only a matter of time before Nene gets hurt. There is obviously potential here, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Wiz hovering around .500 again this season.

6. Atlanta Hawks (44-38, 3rd in Southeast Division)
Head Coach: Mike Budenholzer
Best Player: Al Horford
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Mike Scott

Front office turmoil aside, the Atlanta Hawks have a pretty good thing going. Last season, Spurs transplant Mike Budenholzer imported a Pop-inspired, three-ball happy offense, and the Hawks pushed the top-seeded Pacers to the brink behind basketblog heroes Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap. And now Al Horford is back. Don’t sleep on the Hawks.

7. Brooklyn Nets (39-43, 2nd in Atlantic Division)
Head Coach: Lionel Hollins
Best Player: Brook Lopez
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Mirza Teletovic

I have Detroit and Brooklyn just about neck-and-neck because they are the two Eastern Conference teams that would seem to have the widest variance of outcomes. Brooklyn is especially difficult to get a handle on. There are clear positives: two All-Stars (Johnson and Lopez), a solid PG (Deron Williams), a pair of intriguing young big men (Plumlee and Teletovic), and a battle-tested head coach in Lionel Hollins. On the flipside, they are dangerously thin at the wing (where they are expected to start Bojan Bogdanovich), their bench is dreadful, and they are one injury to DWill or Lopez away from being a bottom-feeder.

8. Detroit Pistons (38-44, 3rd in Central Division)
Head Coach: Stan Van Gundy
Best Player: Andre Drummond
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Jonas Jerebko

I paid money to watch the Pistons play live twice last season and they were probably the most dispirited NBA team I’ve ever seen, lead by two of the league’s most loathsome stars in Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith. While I’d love to be able to write them off again this year, Stan Van Gundy came along in the offseason and paid handsomely to surround budding superstar Andre Drummond with spot-up 3pt shooters. If Drummond can grow into the Dwight Howard prototype and SVG can somehow harness the erratic assortment of talent in Detroit, the Pistons could make some noise in the East.

9. Charlotte Hornets (37-45, 4th in Southeast Division)
Head Coach: Steve Clifford
Best Player: Al Jefferson
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Bismack Biyombo

Like the Wizards, I am afraid that the Hornets have become the object of misplaced optimism. They overachieved last year and, while I like the terms of the Stephenson deal, I’m not sure he solves their court-spacing woes. Their other offseason move was replacing departed FA Josh McRoberts with Marvin Williams, a rough downgrade in my opinion. Steve Clifford is a good defensive coach and there is enough here to make the playoffs in the East, but I am not sure this year’s Hornets will be any better than last year’s Bobcats.

10. Indiana Pacers (35-47, 4th in Central Division)
Head Coach: Frank Vogel
Best Player: Paul George
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Chris Copeland

No team was hit harder by the offseason than the Pacers. Indiana’s 23rd ranked offense saw their best playmaker (Lance Stephenson) leave in free agency and their best scorer (Paul George) suffer a devastating leg injury in FIBA. Perhaps there is a coach who could squeeze a league-average offense out of guys like George Hill, C.J. Watson, and David West, but based on how bad their offense was even with PG and Lance, it’s unlikely that Frank Vogel is that coach. Superior defense and coaching may keep Indy afloat and in the playoff conversation for a while, but I am not in a hurry to watch the Pacers this season.

11. New York Knicks (32-50, 3rd in Atlantic Division)
Head Coach: Derek Fisher
Best Player: Carmelo Anthony
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Pablo Prigioni

So begins the Phil Jackson era in New York. Jackson and the Knicks made a few splashes this summer; shipping Tyson Chandler back to Dallas, re-upping Melo, and tapping the Zen Master’s long-time PG Derek Fisher as head coach. Fisher is expected to install a Jackson-inspired triangle offense, which ought to be better than Mike Woodson’s iso-heavy clusterfuck, if only by default. Without the services of Chandler, their outlook at the other end of the floor leaves little room for optimism. A lineup of Calderon/Smith/Melo/Stoudemire/Bargnani, which is certainly conceivable (and would be some degree of dangerous on offense), could challenge the worst defensive units in basketball history.

12. Orlando Magic (31-51, 5th in Southeast Division)
Head Coach: Jacque Vaughn
Best Player: Nikola Vucevic
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Kyle O’Quinn

Things are beginning to take shape in the post-Dwight era in Orlando. GM Rob Hennigan has used the last two drafts to build up a core of athletic, defensive-minded players (Oladipo, Gordon, Peyton) and enlisted a few veteran specialists (Channing Frye, Ben Gordon, Willie Green) to help space the floor offensively. A brutal preseason injury to Frye, an unsung hero of last year’s surprising Phoenix squad, will allow Orlando to give extended looks at young players like Kyle O’Quinn, Andrew Nicholson, and Mo Harkless, whose long-term fit in Orlando is not as clear as, say, Aaron Gordon. The Frye injury likely killed whatever slim chance the Magic had at a playoff run, but it will be fun to watch this group develop into a defensive stalwart and a future Eastern Conference power.

13. Boston Celtics (26-56, 4th in Atlantic Division)
Head Coach: Brad Stevens
Best Player: Rajon Rondo
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Phil Pressey

The Celtics are easily the least interesting of the Eastern Conference cellar dwellers and, without the services of Rajon Rondo, they may also be the least good at basketball. Defensive specialist Avery Bradley is back, as is mid-range assassin Brandon Bass and his band of jump-shooting big men, but that’s about it. The defensive potential of a Bradley/Marcus Smart backcourt is intriguing, but I have trouble identifying a single, unequivocal strength of this team. Unless coaching wunderkind Brad Stevens can make something unforeseen out of this inverted roster, expect another bland, 20-30 win Celtics team.

14. Philadelphia 76ers (21-61, 5th in Atlantic Division)
Head Coach: Brett Brown
Best Player: Michael Carter-Williams
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Hollis Thompson

The Sixers spent the offseason following a 19-win campaign by drafting two unavailable players and sitting (more or less) idly on a massive pile of cap space. Some call that “tanking”, but no personnel move was likely to elevate the Sixers from league’s worst to playoff caliber, so they will spend another year developing youngsters and mining the NBDL for league-average contributors. With lineups involving the hands-y MCW and rookie shot-blockers Nerlens Noel and K.J. McDaniels, Philly might approach league-average levels on defense, but that’s about as bullish as I am willing to get. They seem likely to repeat as the league’s least efficient offense, and are still awfully young and inexperienced across the board. The Sixers will be plenty bad, but probably not the 15-win atrocity that Vegas and the basket blogging world expect them to be.

15. Milwaukee Bucks (18-64, 5th in Central Division)
Head Coach: Jason Kidd
Best Player: Brandon Knight
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Khris Middleton

From an outsider’s perspective, it’s unclear just how much of Milwaukee’s struggles last season were due to coaching, injuries, and inconsistent playing time. The Bucks roster would appear to have more than 15 wins on it, so if Jason Kidd can succeed where Larry Drew did not, perhaps they make a significant step forward. Or maybe not! Larry Sanders, O.J. Mayo, and Brandon Knight are nobody’s idea of proper veteran leadership, and I am skeptical about Jabari Parker or Giannis Antetokounmpo being positive contributors this early in their careers. It might come down to guys like Khris Middleton and Nate Wolters emerging as starting caliber, which should just about say it all.

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