The eastern conference as a whole made big moves this off-season. Which team goes into the upcoming season as the top dog?
The whirlwind that has been NBA free agency is finally settling down. Most of the big impact names have signed and the dust is starting to settle.
After all the trades, signings, and homecomings, a new power structure has emerged in the East. Cleveland no longer stands alone against the beasts of the West and Boston has found it a star in Al Horford who could push the team into the upper echelon of the East once more. Indiana has made several moves to produce one of the most exciting, young starting line-ups in the league. Also, the New York Knicks are hoping to revitalize the core of the Bulls from five years ago by bringing in Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
The new top five teams in the East are stronger than any group the conference has produced in recent years, but who exactly constitutes the elite of the East?
5. Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta’s summer has been a mixed bag; signing Dwight Howard has been the highlight of the Hawk’s summer. Howard added size and inside scoring potential to a team desperate for his talents while also signing point guard Malcolm Delaney. They kept their own by resigning Kent Bazemore and drafted two promising forwards in DeAndre Bembry and Taurean Prince.
Trading Teague and losing Horford to Boston, however, will have repercussions.
Teague has been Atlanta’s most clutch scorer for the last few seasons. The team will need to find someone to step up and make baskets late in the game if the Hawks hope to continue where they left off last season.
Exchanging Horford for Howard will have some benefits and drawbacks. Howard is a solid rim protector and one of the best rebounders in the league. His defensive presence will improve a team that had already been one of the best defensive teams in the league by the end of last season. And hopefully we will see more of the Dwight Howard who came to Houston three years ago and not the one who struggled this season offensively.
That said, Atlanta will miss Horford’s ability to shoot with range and his leadership on the court. Dwight Howard is still a star-caliber player, but he is a far cry from an on court leader the way Horford was
The Hawks have made moves this offseason that will improve their weaknesses in rebounding and inside scoring, but other teams have improved more so, which leaves Atlanta just outside the realm of the East’s elite.
4. Boston Celtics
At the start of the season, the belief about Boston was that they were a talented young team that was a couple seasons and star players away from competing for a championship.
Fastforward to the end of the year, and analysts were proposing that Boston could possibly be the only team that could stop Cleveland’s march to the finals.
Boston, of course, failed to have a chance, falling to the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs. The future however, is sparkling.
Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas took huge strides this past season, showing the potential to be an elite point guard in the NBA. His assist and scoring ability led a young Celtics team to a playoff spot .
Boston sought to be aggressive this offseason and find the star it so desperately needed. And they found it in Al Horford.
Horford gives the young team an on-and-off the court leader, some one who can be worthy of trust late in games, but strong enough to take responsibility when things go wrong.
Horford provides excellent D, especially on mid-range shots. He should help already strong defenders such as Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley. His abilities will be even more useful if he can spend time at power froward while Kelly Olynick gets time at center. And his ability to score both inside and from mid-range gives Boston options in its offense.
Success in Boston depends on several factors including how quickly Boston’s 1st round draft picks adjust to the big time. The Celtics have high hopes for Jaylen Brown, Ante Zizic and Guerschon Yabusele. If Brown can score at the rate he did in college, Boston has a secret weapon the league would not be prepared for.
Success also depends on Thomas building off of last season. He must prove that it was no fluke and he was not playing above his capabilities.
Shutting down the doubters can make or break Boston’s season. But, if they can play at a top notch level, they have the ability to be lethal.
3. Toronto Raptors
Toronto has had a long history of NBA struggles. Not since Vince Carter graced the city with his talents has Toronto been relevant, until last season.
DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry stepped into super stardom last season, bringing flashbacks to the Carter era. Pair that with a young, impressive big man Jonas Valanciunas, and you have a team on the cusp domination.
The need to resign DeRozan prevented Toronto from being a free agent hot spot, but that shouldn’t prevent the Raptors from fighting for a championship again.
Toronto drafted Jakob Poeltl out of Utah with the 9th pick in the draft last month. Poeltl will learn a lot from Valanciunas and may develop into a key asset off the bench by the end of the season.
Toronto is a young team with ample talent. Maturation alone should see the team improve from where it left off last year.
2. Indiana Pacers
Indiana has shaken up the East; a mediocre team with an MVP-esque player in Paul George is now an intriguing, exciting dark horse to compete with Cleveland.
The Pacers came into the offseason with a plan and executed it. Trading for both Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young should provide energy to a team that lacked excitement at times. Bringing in Teague to replace George Hill is a forceful move for Indiana. Teague’s speed and ability to take the ball to the hole should create a quicker pace in the Pacer’s offense, particularly when Myles Turner is on the floor.
The Pacers also brought in Al Jefferson to sure up their centers. He will join Young in the front court, creating an impressive forward-center duo. Adding Jefferson will also allow the Pacers flexibility in playing Myles Turner. Turner can relieve both big men when needed, allowing Indiana to rest its starters without costing Turner many minutes.
The new supporting cast in Indiana expounds George’s potential. He had an MVP caliber season last year in his first full season following his horrific FIBA leg injury summer 2014. George will no longer be the lone man in Indiana which should relieve some pressure. He won’t always have to take the last shot or play stellar defense. He can pass the ball more and pick his moments more often.
George can become a maestro much like LeBron James and Stephan Curry. He will be the leader of a team bursting with potential. With a solid mixture of young guys fresh from college, stars currently reaching their prime, and respected veterans who still have many years left to play, Indiana is one of the most well balanced teams in the league.
It may take some time to come together, but Indiana has the potential to overpower the reigning champs.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
Was there any doubt? Cleveland comes off a year where they put it together, mostly thanks to its hometown hero in historical fashion.
As long as Cleveland has James, there’s no doubt about them being perennial favorites. Even in a year that saw growing rifts between James and Kyrie Irving, while also watching Kevin Love’s reputation become demolished and rebuilt in the playoffs, the Cavaliers proved that they are champions.
Cleveland didn’t add any big names this past season, but they didn’t need to. Their core is staying together and that only strengthens their bond and trust as teammates.
James is a free agent, but he wouldn’t dare abandon his hometown team. Not after becoming as close to a god as possible in the city. J.R. Smith also has the opportunity to leave Cleveland, but he is expected to return as well.
Cleveland’s goal this offseason should be to figure out how Kevin Love fits into their system. He struggled to find his place at times last season. By the end of the playoffs, however, he found a rhythym. Maintaining that rhythm and securing it long term would be as beneficial to the Cavs as signing any free agent could be.
As impressive as the moves Boston and Indiana made this season have seemed, they won’t matter unless they can overthrow King James and his merry men.