It's early August and the majority of roster-finagling is finished for NBA teams. Sans a major trade between now and late September, what you see on your team is mostly what you'll get for the 2015-2016 season.
The Indiana Pacers were one of the busiest teams of the summer, adding seven new players, committing to brand-new offensive and defensive schemes, and essentially washing their hands of the Smashmouth Era; an era that resulted in four consecutive trips to the playoffs, and two Eastern-Conference Finals showdowns.
Because of the overhaul, the Pacers are widely viewed as a mystery team in the East, a fringe-playoff team with little chance of breaking into the East's elite.
The lukewarm projections are fair. Without knowing how the new roster and system will jell, it's nearly impossible to foresee this iteration of the Pacers grinding it out against LeBron's Cavaliers in the Eastern-Conference Finals. Simply put: predicting a seven or eight seed for the Blue and Gold is the safest route in a world where everyone's a prognosticator.
Something else we've learned so far this summer is that the Pacers won't be lacking competition for a back-end playoff spot. On paper, several wannabe playoff teams in the East improved to some degree, which should make for an entertaining race come March and April of next year.
Taking these changes into account, I profiled five teams that I envision competing with the Pacers for a playoff spot in 2016. For purposes of clarity, allow me to remove the Hawks, Cavs, Bulls, Wizards, Raptors, and Bucks from the conversation. This exercise was dedicated strictly to projected fringe-playoff teams going into next season.
So, without further ado:
2014-2015 Record: 37-45
Key Offseason Additions: Goran Dragic (re-signed), Chris Bosh (injury), Josh McRoberts (injury), Justise Winslow, Amar'e Stoudemire, Gerald Green
Consider the Heat the darlings of the offseason in the East. Goran Dragic returns on a five-year deal to team up with the omnipresent duo of Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Luol Deng and former NBA-castoff, Hassan Whiteside, top off what looks to be one of the more imposing starting lineups in the NBA.
The good news doesn't stop there. The Heat snatched up a free-falling Justise Winslow in the late Lottery, and then signed Gerald Green to fortify their wing rotation. McRoberts aims to return from a serious knee injury, while Amare Stoudemire lugs his own pair of 70-year-old knees to South Beach to add further potency to the bench.
What might be the Heat's undoing? Injuries. Bosh, Wade, Stoudemire, Deng, and McRoberts have all missed large chunks of games in recent seasons. If healthy, however, look for the Heat to be fighting for more than a bottom-rung playoff seed.
Playoffs' Confidence Level: 8
2014-2015 Record: 40-42
Key Offseason Additions: Amir Johnson, David Lee, Jae Crowder (re-signed), Terry Rozier, Jonas Jerebko (re-signed).
The Celtics claim to be eyeing more than a low-seed double-dip. If you recall, they beat out the Pacers by two games in last season's losing-records-galore playoff squabble. Unable to swing a trade for a star in the summer, Danny Ainge settled on adding more youth and talent to an already young-and-talented core.
The Celtics now sport six rotation-worthy bigs (Johnson, Lee, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller, Jerebko), a pair of shooting-deprived physical specimens at point guard (Marcus Smart, Rozier), and some adequate fill-ins on the wing (Avery Bradley, Evan Turner). Add in arguably the game's most inventive coach, (Brad Stevens), a Sixth Man of the Year candidate (Isaiah Thomas), an improving Energizer Bunny (Crowder), and you have the makings of a playoff team in the East. While depth and youth are on the Celtics' side, elite talent is not, which is the very reason many are gunshy to predict anything beyond an eight-seed finish in Boston. Assuming those reservations hold true, count the Celtics as one of the Pacers stiffest challengers for playoff positioning.
Playoffs' Confidence Level: 7
2014-2015 Record: 25-57
Key Offseason Additions: Tobias Harris (re-signed), C.J. Watson, Mario Hezonja, Jason Smith, Shabazz Napier
The Magic failed to remedy two of their greatest flaws in the offseason: the lack of an impactful vet and rim protection. Yet, there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the present and future: 1) The Magic's roster boasts an average age of 24-years old. 2) Many of their young players demonstrated rapid progress throughout the 2014-2015 season and Summer League. 3) The additions of Watson (healthy-version) and Hezonja should help space an offense that finished in the bottom half of the league in 3PT% and attempts.
Scott Skiles comes aboard to correct a leaky defense of Troy Murphy proportions, while also being tasked with accelerating the development of the young core. After three straight 20-win seasons, it's easy to be dubious of the Magic's playoff chances, but at some point you have to believe youth and talent will mature into competency as we witnessed with the Collison-George-Hibbert version of the Pacers.
While rim protection will undoubtedly be an issue, the Magic carry enough athletic and versatile defenders (Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon) to execute a hound-and-dash free-for-all. It might be a year too soon, but the Magic project as team on the cusp of Eastern-Conference relevancy.
Playoffs' Confidence Level: 4.5
2014-2015 Record: 32-50
Key Offseason Additions: Reggie Jackson (re-signed), Ersan Ilyasova, Stanley Johnson, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes
No longer are these The Bricks That Josh Smith Built of yesteryear. Nope, the Pistons have undergone a full Stan Van Gundy cleansing, rife with big men who space the floor (Ilyasova, Morris, Anthony Tolliver), an athletic center manning the middle (Andre Drummond), and a young point guard who averaged a double-double the last two months of the season (Jackson). Johnson, a Summer-League standout, fills in at small forward, a position of weakness since vintage Tayshaun Prince roamed the perimeter.
Question marks remain: Can Kentavious Caldwell-Pope be more than a chucker who occasionally heats up? Can Jackson play team ball over the course of an entire season? Does he need to? What about the bench? Will Brandon Jennings regain his form after tearing his Achilles? Can a winning team rely on the likes of Baynes, Steve Blake, Jody Meeks, and Tolliver to provide steady minutes?
Perhaps more questions surround the Pistons than any other team in the Central Division. One could envision them as a surprise playoff contender or stalwarts of mediocrity. For the sake of playoff hunting, the Pacers will hope for the latter.
Playoffs' Confidence Level: 4
2014-2015 Record: 33-49
Key Offseason Additions: Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lin, Spencer Hawes, Frank Kaminsky III (did you know he was a III? 'Cause I sure didn't. I refuse to acknowledge him as anything else from here on out), Jeremy Lamb, Tyler Hansbrough
*Crumples 20 pages of Lance-belongs-in-China jokes and throws them in the trash
This is Nicolas Batum's world and we're all just living in it ... or something like that, so says Michael Jordan. Or maybe it's Frank Kaminsky III's. The Hornets did reportedly turn down a treasure trove of future draft picks to ensure he landed in Charlotte. How about Al Jefferson? The Slow-Mo-O, No-D King himself. Don't forget Kemba Walker, he of sub-40% field-goal shooting in three of his four professional seasons.
You look at the Hornets' roster and it feels simultaneously barren and balanced. The mobility and marksmanship of Batum, Lin, and Hawes should nicely complement the plodding, bricking, and chucking of Jefferson, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Walker. Should.
Four-year senior and reigning Naismith Player of the Year, Kaminsky III, should be NBA-ready. Should. Freed from the ball-stopping chains of Durant and Westbrook, Lamb should be able to put that smooth shooting stroke and 10' 11" wingspan (or something like that) to use. Should. Tyler Hansbrough should ... should ... uh ... should ... do something, I guess.
You get the point. Of all the fringe-playoff teams on the list, this is the one in which I have the least amount of confidence. The direction of the team feels like one rooted in mere survival rather than any long-term growth or plan. But, hey, I'm sure many would say the same of the Indiana Pacers.
Playoffs' Confidence Level: 3