Projecting the East’s Playoff Teams: Where do the Pacers Rank? Although some may contend it is too early to start projecting the Eastern Conference standings, it is important to remember that most impactful free agent signings are already complete and that the new draftees have already been showing off their skills at Summer League for the past two weeks. Below, readers will find the Pacers’ Eastern Conference rivals projected playoff position. Notably, the Pacers are not included. After reading about each team’s notable additions, projected starting line-up, as wells as strengths and shortcomings, where do the Pacers rank in the East?
1. Miami Heat – As long as the Heat has LeBron James on its roster, Miami will likely continue to top the list of teams in the Eastern Conference. The Heat resigned Birdman and Ray Allen this offseason. Nevertheless, due to their desire to be able to possibly sign Greg Oden and avoid a high luxury tax bill they also decided to amnesty sharp shooter, Mike Miller. Miami seems very determined to be one of the few teams in NBA history to ever 3peat, and they are not going to want to lose home court advantage going into the playoffs next season (What might have happened if their two game 7s this year would have been in Indy or San Antonio?). The only hindrance to the Heat topping the East, once again, next season concerns the health of Dwyane Wade. If Wade really does have an arthritic knee, another 82 game season will be extremely grueling (not to mention Wade is another year older). Of course, everyone on this roster will be a year older (most notably Wade due to injury, and Ray Allen), and going to the NBA Finals 3 seasons in a row could cause fatigue. It is also possible, though not probable, that LeBron’s impending free agency and rumors about returning to Cleveland could cause a bit of a distraction for his teammates.
Notable Additions: Greg Oden? At the current time, no one quite knows with which team Oden plans to sign. He has recently been linked, in rumors, to the Boston Celtics, Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs, and Miami Heat. Nevertheless, Oden has quietly made it clear that his preference is to join LeBron in Miami and compete for championships. Unless one of the teams not based in San Antonio or Miami can convince Oden that he should make his comeback far away from the bright lights of the playoffs, it is likely that the Heat will finally have an answer for their rebounding problems. Of course, the level of impact Oden will make is dependent on his health. If he is close to being as healthy as he was when he played for Ohio State, he could be a difference maker for Miami in their quest for a third title in three years.
2. Brooklyn Nets – The Nets have spared no expense in their quest to fulfill their owner’s 2010 promise that the squad would win a championship in five years. In fact, sparing no expense is almost an understatement. When the NBA lockout ended, the impression was that super teams would be almost impossible to form under the purview of the new CBA’s heightened penalties on taxpaying teams. Where some ownerships groups have made it clear they will not be taxpayers (i.e. OKC, Memphis, and Indy), the Nets have not shied away from a massive $83M luxury bill for the 2013-2014 season. Due to this spending and a blockbuster trade that involved bringing three former NBA champions to Brooklyn, it is not farfetched to project the Brooklyn Nets as finishing behind the Heat in the Eastern Conference. The only obstacles in the Nets path are durability and age. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have logged a lot of minutes in their storied careers. Without Rajon Rondo in the playoffs, their age became abundantly apparent as they were forced to create offense for themselves and carry most of the scoring burden. That being said, maybe their age will not show when Brook Lopez, Deron Williams, and Joe Johnson are playing alongside them. Of course, the issue of durability is also a problem for Lopez, Williams, and Johnson. All three of them suffered immensely from the injury bug in the last season and offseason – most notably, surgery to straighten a screw in a foot, ankle injections, and plantar fasciitis. Perhaps, age will even be a problem for new head coach, Jason Kidd. Will Kidd as a rookie NBA coach, fresh off a season playing for the Knicks, be able to coach a team to the top of the Eastern Conference?
Projected Starting Line-up – Deron Williams (PG), Joe Johnson (SG), Paul Pierce (SF), Kevin Garnett (PF), Brook Lopez (C)
3. Chicago Bulls – Before Derrick Rose went down with a torn acl, the Bulls topped the Eastern Conference. It might be possible to project the Bulls being back on top with Rose’s highly anticipated return, if not for the improvement of their Eastern Conference rivals. Since having the best record in the East, the Heat, Pacers, Nets, and Knicks have all improved their rosters. Meanwhile, the Bulls have remained somewhat stagnant, and, as a collective team, they struggle to score. Electing not to resign Nate Robinson or Marco Bellinelli will not help this problem. Sure, the squad will still be defined by the leadership of a former league MVP and Tom Thibodeau’s signature defense, but will adding Mike Dunleavy be enough to vault them back to first in the East?
Notable Additions: Mike Dunleavy.
4. New York Knicks – The Knicks are a bit of a wildcard in Eastern Conference rankings. Will Bargnani play better with the Knicks than the Raptors? How long will J.R. Smith’s recovery from knee surgery take? How will the flow of the Knicks offense fare with the loss of three point shooters, Steve Novak and Chris Copeland? Will their offense be affected by the addition of Metta World Peace? Will Carmelo Anthony be focused on his impending free agency and the possibility of joining Kobe in LA? As readers will notice, the Knicks have a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of money tied up in players with chronic and/or serious knee issues: Amare Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert, and J.R. Smith. That being said, the Knicks won 50+ games and the Atlantic Division last season. It is likely they will still be better than most of the Eastern Conference squads and it is not a stretch to place them in the upper half of playoff teams. However, all of these unanswered questions and the loss of Kidd, Camby, Novak, and Copeland leave the Knicks playoff position up to debate.
Notable Additions: Andrea Bargnani and Metta World Peace.
5. Atlanta Hawks – The Hawks have made a lot of underrated additions this season that will help them remain a playoff team. Even though they let Josh Smith walk to the Pistons, they matched Jeff Teague’s offer sheet with the Bucks. They resigned Kyle Korver. Lou Williams will be returning from a torn acl. More importantly, the Hawks managed to add Paul Millsap and Elton Brand this offseason, and drafted Dennis Schroeder (who arguably should have been the first point guard picked off the draft board with his explosive quickness and court vision). However, their most important acquisition might be hiring Mike Budenholzer as head coach. At a recent Las Vegas summer league game between the Hawks and Spurs, Teague noted that he was excited to start working with Coach Budenholzer. He also stated that the new coach planned to run a more up-tempo offensive system predicated on ball movement (sound familiar… San Antonio?). The stylistic changes, new additions, and coaching changes will be enough to keep Atlanta out of the lottery and, quite possibly, make them a sleeper team in the Eastern Conference.
Projected Starting Line-up – Jeff Teague (PG), Kyle Korver (SG), ? (SF), Paul Millsap (PF), Al Horford (C)
Notable Additions: Paul Millsap, Elton Brand, Dennis Schroeder (draft pick)
6. Washington Wizards – Finally, it looks like the Wizards will not be headed back to the draft lottery next season. John Wall is already involved in contract extension talks with Wizards management, and, rightfully so. The difference in the Wizards with and without Wall last season was like night and day. It looked like, at the end of the season last year that Wall’s game had finally started to resemble the play of a #1 lottery pick and budding star. The Wizards have made smart draft decisions the past two years adding Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr to play alongside Wall. Some NBA scouts have even projected Porter as an early favorite for rookie of the year honors. The Wizards are not likely to stage any upsets in the playoffs, but fans of the Washington squad should be excited about the trajectory of their team.
Notable Additions: Otto Porter Jr (drafted), DeJuan Blair (Blair and the Wizards have been rumored to have mutual interest
7. Cleveland Cavaliers – The last playoffs spot in the East was hard to determine. How much better does Josh Smith make the Pistons? Will the play of Rajon Rondo keep the Cs from getting a lottery pick? The biggest question: How healthy will Andrew Bynum be next season? If Bynum can be close to the level he was playing at when the Lakers won the NBA championship in 2010, then the Cavs might fulfill owner, Dan Gilbert’s wish to not return to the draft lottery next season. Bynum is a difference maker in the paint… when he is healthy and motivated. Also remember that Anderson Varejao could not play most of last season due to injuries and a blood clot in his lung. The team will also, of course, be adding #1 draft pick Anthony Bennett to the mix to help aid the Cavs in their push to the postseason. Cleveland, rather quietly, made some good offseason additions including Earl Clark and Jarrett Jack to play alongside flashy, all-star Kyrie Irving. Question it if you will, but it is looking more and more like the Cavs might finally make their way back to the playoffs after the loss of LeBron James in 2010. (How intriguing would it be if the Cavs faced Miami in the first round of the playoffs?)
Notable Additions: Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark, and Anthony Bennett (draft pick)
What do you think Pacers fans? Where do the Pacers rank? Feel free to sound off in the comments sections about projected rankings? Snubs? Overrated/Underrated teams? Should the Pacers consider themselves contenders for the ECF and the championship?