How is everyone enjoying the rock bottom of the offseason? From about the last week of July until the middle of September, basketball just goes on hiatus, save for the annual Team USA skirmish, Summer Olympics, or Eurobasket madness. Most of the major free agents have signed, save for a few restricted free agents and guys who don't really have a market (Any day now, J.R.!), and there's nothing really notable coming out of the college circuit at this time, either. Even worse, there's nothing going on elsewhere in sports. NFL training camp is boring, College football and hockey haven't started. Baseball is baseball. This dead period serves no academic purpose and should be banned.
That said, we have to kill time somehow. So how about some power rankings? The Cleveland Cavaliers should be runaway favorites to win the Eastern conference, and there really isn't another team that will touch them unless things go sideways, in my early and biased opinion. However, that doesn't mean we can't do a way-too-early power rankings of Eastern conference teams purely as a vehicle to criticize everyone else's offseason. So, let's do that. Here, in reverse order, is an early survey of the Eastern conference for 2015-2016.
This pains me to say, but I feel like Philly is going to be way better next year in terms of overall talent....but still won't avoid one of the worst two records in the conference. Adding Nik Stauskas and getting Pierre Jackson, Tony Wroten, and Isaiah Canaan back from injury will certainly help the team in terms of offensive spacing, and Carl Landry/Jahlil Okafor lineups mean that the team has improved their frontcourt scoring power by about 200%. However, they still don't have anyone I'd consider even a rotation-level NBA point guard, their frontcourt depth behind Noel, Okafor, and Landry is gross, and by virtue of improving their frontcourt, they're going to move their most consistent shooter, Robert Covington, out of position for a majority of his minutes. Philly will be better, and will be way more watchable next year. However, I think several teams around them improved just enough to keep them firmly in lottery land for another season.
14. Orlando Magic
Another team that I think has more talent, but will not improve in the win column. A full season of Aaron Gordon will be fun, and he, Elfrid Payton, and Victor Oladipo should all get at least marginally better. Mario Hezonja looks like a fun player, even if he struggled in Summer League. But they still have very iffy depth, are insanely young, and don't have many indicators that they'll be any good defensively on the interior, even if the perimeter D should be strong. The offense was horrendous last year, and they decided to double down on that, by both hiring Scott Skiles and re-signing Tobias Harris, a player I enjoy watching, but who isn't a good fit for a bad offense with no spacing and who could nuke the locker room given his previous experiences with Skiles in Milwaukee. I like Orlando's young pieces, but I hate pretty much everything else they have going on.
13. Detroit Pistons
This roster is totally uninspiring. Yeah, they have Andre Drummond, a player I think is going to explode this year now that he doesn't have Josh Smith or Greg Monroe around to hog space on the block. Yes, Stan Van Gundy is a good coach who actually has a roster to somewhat fit his system. But their point guard situation is kinda gross, even if they were somewhat boxed into paying Reggie Jackson because of the uncertainty around Brandon Jennings' Achilles. They're probably relying on Ersan Ilyasova and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to give them way more than they are capable of. And who's the 8th-best (healthy) player on this team? Aron Baynes? Anthony Tolliver? Spencer Dinwiddie? And even if Drummond and Caldwell-Pope break out and Jennings gets healthy, does this team really have that high of a ceiling? Everything going right for them gets them what......the 7 seed? The ceiling for this squad just isn't high at all.
12. New York Knicks
Yup. I liked most of the moves the Knicks made this summer. Porzingis is a gamble, but a good one for a team like this to make; Jerian Grant can probably do something this year; Robin Lopez brings versatility inside, and Arron Afflalo brings it on the perimeter. We have to question Carmelo Anthony's health and Derek Fisher's coaching ability, but I think this team has more talent than Detroit or Orlando, and there is enough here that, if Melo can stay healthy, they should at least have a somewhat competitive offense. Plus, their bench will be way less depressing this year, even if it isn't actually talented. Lou Amundson is back! Derrick Williams can dunk! And.....wait. Wait wait wait. What is this?
11. Boston Celtics
I think Boston is probably the biggest regression candidate this season. Much like Phoenix and Charlotte two years ago, this was a team last year that wasn't supposed to compete for anything last year, but had a bunch of things break right and took advantage to become a playoff competitor. Like Charlotte, they actually made the playoffs; like Phoenix, they had very good injury luck among their core; and like both the Hornets and Suns did in the summer of 2014, they didn't really move the needle in terms of making significant improvements to their roster (I mean yeah, Lance, but I didn't think that moved the needle for Charlotte last summer even had he worked out). Both of those teams regressed mightily last season and blew things up to an extent. In a related note, here's Boston's current prospective depth chart, from Kevin O'Connor at Celtics Blog:
If you see a part of this roster that says, "This is a group that can make a second consecutive playoff appearance while inevitably regressing to the mean," please enlighten me in the comments.
10. Brooklyn Nets
Kudos to Brooklyn for getting under the tax line for this season and still being able to keep Thaddeus Young and Brook Lopez. They still won't have their own first-round pick available until 2045, but not paying the GDP of a mid-sized country for a 38-win team is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the Nets still don't have a group that makes anyone excited, and there are four (FOUR!) LeBron-hiatus Cavs on the team. That's never a good omen for your season's prospects. Though if the Nets could sign Henry Sims and roll out a lineup with Sims, Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark, Sergey Karasev, and Wayne Ellington, I might just ascend to the afterlife.
9. Charlotte Hornets
I seriously considered putting Charlotte in every spot from 14th to 7th, and I still have no idea what to do with them. I like pairing Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the perimeter, and the flexibility those two give them defensively. Jeremy Lin is a great fit here, and I'm very high on Cody Zeller's prospects heading into his third year. But their backcourt is still ugly, they don't have NBA-caliber outside shooting for a third straight year, and they have the most punchable-faced reserve frontcourt in the NBA in Tyler Hansbrough and Spencer Hawes. They should once again have a decent defense, but their offense is still remedial-level, and no one has any idea where this team is going, aparently including Rich Cho and Michael Jordan. Ninth feels right, but I wouldn't be surprised with the Hornets finishing anywhere in the bottom half of this conference.
Paul George fixes a lot for this team, and if the Pacers just let Monta Ellis Have It All, this group may surprise offensively. It's weird to say that I have doubts about the Pacers' defense, but here we are. Ellis, Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles aren't exactly imposing defenders, George will probably slip a bit on that end as he returns from his leg injury, and Myles Turner, who has upside as a rim protector, probably will not be a good one this season. Offensively, this group will be quirky but fun, because George is great, Ellis and George Hill should work well together, and Miles and Stuckey should be good for about 15 random 25-point explosions a season. But this season obviously looks like a transition year for Indiana, so I'm gonna bet low on their prospects.
7. Miami Heat
The opposite of Charlotte. I bet high on the Hornets' prospects compared to other Eastern Conference teams, and I feel like 7th is a bit low for where Miami should be. If this team stays healthy, I think they're a certain top-four seed. However, the "if" list for that to occur is long. The Heat could be a top four seed!.........if Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh stay healthy. If Josh McRoberts returns to 12-13 form. If Hassan Whiteside doesn't regress. If Chris Andersen and Amar'e Stoudemire can still move. There is undeniable talent here, but the odds of all of that talent staying on the floor is very low, so 7th or 8th, with the major threat of scaring some team in the first round if they're healthy in April, sounds right.
Toronto made some decent moves this offseason, stealing DeMarre Carroll from Atlanta and taking a flier on Bismack Biyombo and Luis Scola. But I'm dropping them a couple of spots because it feels like they didn't really address their biggest issues from the second half of last season. Biyombo helps them defensively on the interior, but he's a zero offensively and plugs a gap by creating another unless he's playing with Patrick Patterson, who can space the floor for him. Carroll provides efficient outside shooting.....if he's not the best three-point shooter on the floor, which he could be in many lineups in Toronto. It feels like, unless Demar DeRozan is late-2013 DeRozan for a full season or Jonas Valanciunas becomes what many think he can be (I'd bet on the latter being way more likely), Toronto is going to be the same team they were after January 1st last season; and that team fits in about 6th or 7th in this conference.
(Also that's the prospective Atlantic Division winner in 6th. Netw3rk was a year early).
I love the direction this team is headed in. Greg Monroe feels like a great fit here, the one offensively-dominant, possession-eating cog in a defensively-gifted, low-usage machine. They have Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokuonmpo, who both have great chances at being future stars. Greivis Vasquez plugs a lot of the holes Michael Carter-Williams creates, and I'm excited for the Damien Inglis experience. I think they'll be greatly improved offensively from where they were last year, even if they may take a slight step back defensively with Greg Monroe on the floor instead of Zaza Pachulia, one of the league's more underrated defensive centers. This team is deep, young, has individual talent on both ends, and a very good coach to tie things together. I halfway considered putting them into the top four, except for two things: A. MCW and Vasquez might have more turnovers than several NBA teams do, and B.
CAPTAIN OJAM OF THE H.M.S. DEER. I dock you 5 wins for that misstep alone, Milwaukee.
I don't have a real reason for thinking Atlanta will fall to fourth other than, "Regression!," "Maybe DeMarre Carroll was way more important than we realized!," and "The history of Atlanta Hawks basketball!" They basically return the same team if you swap Carroll for Tiago Splitter, but I feel they have more questions to answer than the Wizards, Bulls, or Cavs. Their bench should be good again, but it's less of a sure thing than last year's, what with Dennis Schroder's foray into chaos in the playoffs, Mike Scott's pending drug charge, Walter Tavares's rawness, and Tim Hardaway Jr's Knicks stink. Their starting lineup is going to probably need some adjusting without Korver regardless of who fills in. I think Atlanta could have a team good enough to be a top-two seed again, but it somewhat feels like they'll need a couple of months to get rolling, which, when competing with the next two teams here, could put them at a big disadvantage.
3. Washington Wizards
"Wait, you think the Hawks have more questions than a team coached by Randy Wittman?"
Remove the coach from this team, and, on paper, I like this group more than the Hawks. They probably get better this season with Jared Dudley and an improved Otto Porter replacing Paul Pierce, and they finally have a bench with multiple healthy NBA players under 30! Their frontcourt depth is a little thin, sure, but the team shifted more towards small-ball in the playoffs with a lot of success, and should attempt to recreate that this season if Wittman is smart! This also is totally the year John Wall finally outplays Kyrie Irving and Bradley Beal finally becomes an All-Star! Can you tell I am getting all of my nice comments out now before I revert to throwing monumental shade for the next 10 months!
(But I seriously mean that I think Washington is a top three team in the East. They stay healthy and don't get #Wittman'd, and this team is a legitimate threat to ruin someone's life in the playoffs)
2. Chicago Bulls
THEY JUST. WON'T. DIE.
They've survived injuries to every damn player on their roster. They've survived John Lucas, D.J. Augustin, Kirk Hinrich, and Nate Robinson as rotation point guards. LeBron has killed them four separate times, and yet here they are, with a new head coach who better fits what they need to take the next step, here to be the number one contender to the Cavs' Eastern Conference reign.
The Bulls are the NBA's Big Show, someone who always seems imposing and who you can market as a legitimate challenger, even if they never actually are one (Also working for this analogy: The Thibs offense is basically the equivalent of the Big Show's finishers, in that they just try to be a 500-pound man punching you in the face or falling on you). That's kind of how this season feels for the Bulls. Fred Hoiberg gives them hope that they may have some kind of offense, they should have less injuries now that they have a coach who will go further down the bench and not run guys into the ground, and their roster is the second best in the conference for what feels like the 30th straight year. However, even if they have a firm second-best standing, because of Derrick Rose's health, Joakim Noah's possible decline, and Kirk Hinrich's existence, they don't actually feel like a threat to actually beat the Cavs. They're just here to look imposing and make it feel like the title is up for grabs.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
As I've made clear here, I don't think anyone in the conference got significantly better to the point of being able to contend with this Cleveland team if it's running on all cylinders. Injury could create an opening for someone, but considering the Cavs lost two games in the East playoffs even with a team riddled with injuries, I don't know that it would allow anyone to actually take advantage. The Cavs are number one until proven otherwise, in my book.