Is it possible that I haven’t written an article since the before the end of round of one of the playoffs? All things are possible through our faith in LeBron, hallowed be his essay. But putting faith aside, I’ve had a crazy summer and am coming back with a vengeance today (possibly followed by another 3 month absence).
Let’s catch up on the things we’ve missed:
Spurs = incredible. Should be favorites to repeat until we see some kind of improvements among the Thunder / Clippers / Surprise WC Contender. Tim Duncan did not go to some other super-duper star level with this 5th championship. He was already there. Anyone who doesn’t view Tim as a top 10 player all time isn’t paying attention.
Heat flaws that we detailed during the season did come back to bite them just a bit in the Finals. Less aggressive defense than the last two years. More turnovers. Poor rebounding. Too much reliance on only taking excellent shots (layups, free throws, open threes), and when a good defense finally took those things away, they just weren’t used to taking tough contested shots (particularly James who could have been more assertive with his midrange game against a sagging Spurs defense). On the other hand, if Bosh and both PGs hadn’t gone ice cold from beyond the arc, the whole series might have been different.
Also a 4 time MVP and the consensus best player in the league just changed teams of his own accord and left the best team in the East for the 2nd time in 5 years. This is a bizarre league sometimes. I want to take the rest of our time in this post to consider the Eastern Conference in the wake of the dissolution of its 4-time Finals representative.
LeBron James bolting for Cleveland completely disrupts the power dynamics in the East. Everybody outside of Miami is proud of LeBron for making this family / community decision and bringing his market growing powers to a city in need of a boost. I concur, but I’m a little disappointed that this Heat team won’t get its best chance to make it 5 straight NBA Finals, which hasn’t happened since Bill Russell’s Celtics.
The Heat, who managed to keep Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, still have a ton of talent (particularly if Wade can pick up his shot attempts without killing what was a career best year for shooting efficiency), and depending on how they revamp their system, might actually remain a contender to make the Finals. I genuinely think that 2011 team could have made and possibly won the Finals with Luol Deng instead of LeBron and an upgrade at center with the rest of LeBron’s salary. That was four years ago. This team’s chances hinge entirely on what Wade has left in the tank. If he can go back to being a 2400+ minute, 30%+ usage first option creator, they have a strong chance to make it to the Finals. If not, I don’t see it happening.
However, another transaction from a top East team has cleared the way for basically anything to happen. The Indiana Pacers lost Lance Stephenson, who was pretty clearly their second best player and the one guy with the most potential to join Paul George as cornerstones for the future. Lance was Indi’s most creative pick and roll player, most aggressive slasher, and a great wing defender who played two positions and even provided some back-up point guard skills. Without him the Pacers could slide back to the pack, and with the Heat a huge question mark as well, there has to be a lot of hope among the other teams out East.
Chicago is the default favorite in many expert opinions (Vegas has the Cavs) based on the signing of Pau Gasol and the return of Derrick Rose. I need to see both of them perform at a high level before I’ll get excited about them and this team in general. The rotation is interesting. Rose and Kirk Hinrich at the guard spots, Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell and the rookie Doug McDermott at the wings, and Gasol, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson up front. They need to stay healthy or add a little depth, but they sound terrific on paper. The offense can’t be any worse than last year, and if the defense holds, they stand to improve. But Rose has to show us what he’s got before we can put them ahead of the pack.
Cleveland by virtue of LeBron is immediately a Finals contender. People who are concerned about his fit with this relatively young team need to relax. James can fill any skill gaps. We got used to him operating in that Hakeem Olajuwon mid-post, but if the Cav shooters aren’t up to spacing the court for him, he can do other things. Put him in a high pick and roll / pop set with Kyrie Irving, and good things will happen. Let him set a strong down screen for a curling Dion Waiters, and force the defense to switch a guard onto him on the block or leave Waiters open on the wing. He’s a man-mountain with all the skills the modern NBA has to offer. He’ll fit. Especially if they pull a trade and bring in Kevin Love to clear up that big man shooting issue.
Atlanta is interesting because people are probably not paying enough attention to their under-the-radar All-Star center pick up of Al Horford. This was a very well-coached team with great chemistry who competed at both ends last year, and they were missing their best player for most of the season. They are the Chicago of the South East division with much much much better shooting and not as much continuity and defensive dominance. Okay. They are nothing like the Bulls. But they are getting their best player back from injury, and they do have the potential to make a huge leap this season.
Washington lost Trevor Ariza, which I think will hurt them because he was doing a really good prime Bruce Bowen impression for them with more athleticism to boot. My main man Paul Pierce has lost a step and isn’t up to defending guards any more which means Bradley Beal and John Wall will have to guard their position every night instead of handing off the best opposing perimeter player. This is a very solid team with a spectacularly talented point guard and solid players at every position. Depth could be an issue, but they will be a tough out in the playoffs.
Toronto stayed the course, holding onto all the chief assets from last year’s run. They should be better with more experience together. Kyle Lowry was a top 4 guard in the East last year and may be again, and his back up is very solid as well. I don’t know if the overall talent level is high enough (what positions do they “win” against say the Wiz or Cavs?), but they have continuity and they compete hard, so in the upheaval of the Eastern Conference, you can’t write them off completely.
The Nets are headed downhill unless they get a remarkable return to form (from five years ago) from Deron Williams. That is really their only hope for getting better after losing Pierce.
The Knicks are looking to 2015 and don’t even want to be great next year. I keep hearing from New York representatives that Andrea Bargnani is going to have a bounce back year, and I keep asking myself “bounce back to what?” Hasn’t the mystique of being a #1 pick worn off yet? Carmelo Anthony came back, and they picked up Jose Calderon for a respectable PG presence. Those two factors coupled with the institution of a system offense by Derek Fisher might be enough to make the playoffs, but they aren’t contending.
The one other playoff team from last year that looks to be improved is Charlotte. The HORNETSNOTBOBCATS picked up Lance Stephenson which adds a lot of strength and versatility to their wing rotation. They can roll out Lance, Gerald Henderson, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with each playing in the low thirty minute range. That could make for some very nice perimeter defense and very shaky shooting. Losing Josh McRoberts will hurt as he was a legit 6’ 10” and could pass and shoot out of the high post. They need to find another complementary big to pair with Al Jefferson. Speaking of Big Al, he needs to come back healthy and repeat his excellent performance from last season. If Kemba Walker continues his upward trajectory, and they can plug a couple holes, this is a very solid team. Probably not a contender, but who knows. If Lance makes a leap, they could be a threat. Maybe. Unless Lance does something insane and Michael Jordan clubs him to death with a Brand Jordan 7-iron.