Pacers’ small forward Paul George suffered a devastating injury, 2 weeks ago, which ended his season. It’s questionable whether in the long run he’ll be able to return to the level of play he was at before his leg fracture. Even with George it was going to be difficult for the Pacers without Lance Stephenson. Stephenson was arguably their best player at taking opponents off the dribble and was a key component to their late season success.
For Brooklyn, this type of injury for Indiana’s leading scorer could give them the opportunity to creep further up the rankings in the Eastern Conference. With Indiana likely losing the crown for the top team in the regular season and Miami having lost the best player in the world, the best teams in the Eastern Conference this past season will undoubtedly experience a drop in play with the Pacers likely missing the playoffs.
That leaves Toronto, Chicago, Washington, and the Cavaliers to fight with the Nets for top dog in a conference that could play out with any of those teams ending the season with the best record in the East.
With Toronto re-signing Kyle Lowry and one year of playoff experience in the books, they’ll be hungry to take the next step with Brooklyn in their sights after their first round series battle this past season. Toronto is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with only 1 player, Chuck Hayes, older than 28. Instead of changing their core, the Raptors are hoping for growth. DeMar DeRozan took a leap forward last season reaching the 20 point per game plateau for the first time in his career and earning himself a chance to make the roster for Team USA. If DeRozan can continue his improvement and Lowry lives up to his new contract, the Raptors should be able to challenge the Nets for the Atlantic Division title. That challenge becomes much more formidable if Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas take a marginal leap in play similar to DeRozan’s.
With little depth at small forward, Ross will be depended on for major minutes if DeRozan spends most of his time at shooting guard. After a strong start last season, his played noticeably tailed off and he made a very minor impact in the playoffs. Valanciunas like Ross became inconsistent towards the end of the season and despite his efficiency around the basket, his lack of assertiveness for a player of his skill level hurt his possible potential numbers. If the Raptors coaching staff allows him to become a greater focal point of the offense and he takes the reins, expect the Raptors to thrive with shooters like Patrick Patterson, Lowry, DeRozan, and Greivis Vazquez all capable of shooting over 35% from three for the season.
The Nets return most of the team that beat Toronto in the playoffs minus Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston. If likely new starter Andrei Kirilenko, a healthy Brook Lopez, and whoever the Nets install at the other forward position can help decrease the impact of those losses, the Nets should have an excellent shot of taking down Toronto for the division crown and in the post-season. Barring a major decline in play from Lowry, Toronto should once again be a threat in the Eastern Conference.
Chicago unlike Toronto took major strides towards improving their offense this past season despite losing out on the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes. With Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott, and the hopeful return of Derrick Rose, the Bulls will be able to keep up with opposing offenses while focusing on playing Tom Thibodeau’s stifling defense. After amnestying Carlos Boozer, the Bulls went out and signed his replacement in Gasol, a better scorer and rebounder at this point in their respective careers. Most importantly, Gasol, gives the Bulls, arguably the best tandem of passing big men in the league by adding him to Joakim Noah. It also allows Gibson to continue being a sparkplug off the bench and gives Noah more potential for rest as Gasol can play center.
McDermott had a great showing at the Las Vegas Summer League and despite likely splitting minutes with Mike Dunleavy, will give the bulls another shooter on the court. With an improved Tony Snell and McDermott playing on the second unit with Gibson and Montenegrin forward, Nikola Mirotic, the Bulls aren’t short on young players capable of giving them the scoring punch they lacked off the bench last season.
No matter how well all of those players play, however, the Bulls season success will be dependent on the return and health of point guard Derrick Rose. Rose has had two knee surgeries over the past two years and is working back into playing shape with Team USA. Although he looks like he hasn’t lost much of his athleticism during drills, no one knows what to expect from guard and whether he’ll return to anything close to his former MVP level. What Brooklyn and all other teams do know is that Chicago will continue to play the type of hard-nosed basketball they’ve played since Thibodeau took over. If Rose has trouble regaining his “sea legs” after being off the court for two years or the Bulls young bench doesn’t live up to their potential, the Nets should have the offensive firepower capable of challenging them for the top spot in the conference.
Washington may be the biggest question mark of the top contenders for the Eastern Conference title. The later the season got, the more recognition the Wizards received as the type of team that could be competitive on an every night basis. With Trevor Ariza being replaced by Paul Pierce, it remains to be seen whether the defensive efficiency will decline, but the continuing evolution of John Wall and Bradley Beal should place them in the upper echelon of playoff teams. The Wizards have one of the most well-rounded teams in the NBA with players able to penetrate, shoot from the perimeter, and score in the post. Wall has developed into the type of dynamic point guard people expect when he was drafted and Beal has become one of the deadliest 3 point shooters in the league. If Washington’s young backcourt continues to evolve, the Wizards could become a perennial contender for the conference title over the next few years as teams try to catch up with their athletic arsenal.
Similar to Chicago with Rose, the health of Nene may have the biggest impact on the Wizards. The Brazilian power forward has only played 60 plus games only once in the past four seasons and his ability to bully players down in the post is vital to Washington’s success in their half-court offense. The saving grace in the, likely, case of injury may be the acquisition of Kris Humphries. Despite being mocked for his marriage with Kim Kardashian, Humphries has become a reliable and efficient player in the league. Averaging over 8.4 points and 5.9 rebounds in 20.0 minutes last year, the former Celtic should be able to soften the blow if Nene is forced to miss substantial time. Although not as efficient as Nene in the post as a scorer, Humphries could average something along the lines of 10 points and 9 rebounds in the Wizards offense, making him a very important bench piece.
Along with Humphries, Washington made the decision to sign Paul Pierce to replace Trevor Ariza. Even with his decline in play in Brooklyn, Pierce brings his veteran leadership and killer instinct to Washington along with an offensive skill set and ball handling ability that Ariza doesn’t maintain. He’ll play 3rd or 4th fiddle and provide around 15.0 points per game in the offense, but it’s his defense that will be scrutinized all season. After the Wizards were in the top half of most defensive categories last season including 6th in 3 point field goal percentage, the drop-off from Pierce to Ariza will be something that the Nets pay close attention to as they look to take down a Wizards team who lost their best perimeter defender.
With the Cavaliers, on the other hand, the first question is: How long will take to gel? Acquiring the best player and arguably a top fifteen player in the league to pair with an All-Star point guard is a pretty good offseason. Maintaining Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson, and Dion Waiters while doing so is something many wouldn’t have thought was possible before the offseason started. The addition of Lebron James, immediately, vaulted the Cavaliers into the top half of the Eastern Conference turning them from a 30+ win team to a 50+ win team. With Kevin Love reportedly being on the way in exchange for Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, and possibly a first round pick, the Cavaliers have the opportunity to compete for a championship this season. The Cavaliers are one of the few teams with three All-Stars in their starting lineup with all three unafraid to take the last shot in the game.
Love gives the Cavaliers the type of perimeter shooting that could make him James’ best teammate in his career. With James being a willing passer with excellent vision, Kyrie Irving at his best when creating penetration, and Love among the best big men in the NBA at coming off of screens, opponents will have their hands full every time Anderson Varejao sets a pick at the top of the key. With Varejao also capable of doing the “dirty work” inside the paint, it will also allow Love to roam the perimeter more often than he did in Minnesota. Like Nene, however, Varejao has also only played in 60+ games once the past four years. Whether he can stand the grind of a full NBA season will have a major impact on Cleveland’s season as outside of James, he’s the only player who has shown he’s capable of being an above average defensive player. If Varejao becomes injured Tristan Thompson, a natural power forward, would be forced to play center, something the Cavaliers hope to avoid.
As of now, the biggest weakness for the Cavaliers is their bench. Beyond their starting 5 of Irving, Dion Waiters, James, Love, and Varejao, there isn’t a lot of game changing talent on the Cavaliers bench. With Irving and Varejao possibly missing time with injuries next season, their bench gets even thinner. As of now their 2nd unit consists of Matthew Dellavedova, James Jones, Mike Miller, Tristan Thompson, and Brendan Hawyood. With none of those players capable of carrying the 2nd unit, the starting 5 should get plenty of minutes and possibly have the highest usage rate in the league by season’s end. With the Nets bench being stronger than Cleveland’s, the key to beating the Cavaliers will be tiring the first unit out and taking advantage when Irving, James, and Love need a rest.
As terrible and gruesome as the Paul George injury was, the impact for the Nets could potentially be positive as it removes an Eastern Conference power from contention. If healthy, the Nets should be able to put the type of team on the floor to move from the bottom half of the conference into the top while challenging the aforementioned four teams for the conference crown. As the George injury illustrates, health may dictate who comes out on top.