Monday 23 October 2017 / 10:38 PM

Changing face of the Eastern Conference

The 2013-14 NBA season was a topsy-turvy affair for the Eastern Conference. The first half of the campaign saw teams from the East systematically annihilated by Western Conference squads, and by the All-Star break it was plain to see that the road to the finals was a two-horse race between Indiana and Miami.

Up until February, the conference as a whole was embarrassing. They looked like a bunch of kids who had peed their pants on the first day of school.

Fast forward to season’s end, however, and we see quite a few clubs strap on their jocks and start to put two and two together. While the East still saw its number eight seed go to a team with a losing record (Atlanta, 38-44), cumulatively they had crawled back to respectability.

And during two months of playoff basketball, fans were able to catch a glimpse of what the not-so-distant future might look like. Sure, the Pacers and Heat wound up once again facing off in the Conference Finals, but many of the middle seeds looked ready to turn the corner, especially Washington. Heck, even the Hawks gave the number one seed a run for their money.

OK, the Bulls dropped the ball and put up a turd of a series in the opening round, but they ended up tied with Toronto for the third best record in the conference and only got better as the season wore on. Regardless of the licking they suffered at the hands of the Wizards, Chicago is clearly a team on the rise.

The thing is, the Eastern Conference was poised for big change before the draft and roster shuffles came into play, but looking at what’s transpired thus far in the off-season, we’re looking at a massive shift in the balance of power out East.

I’m not the only one who sees Chicago as a legitimate contender in 2014-15.

 

While the Bulls’ front office makes no bones about the fact that they’d really hoped to pry Carmelo Anthony out of New York for their blockbuster off-season acquisition, the sign-and-trade deal for Pau Gasol is one hell of a back-up plan.

And the Spanish post player made it clear that he came to Chicago in the hopes of adding a third ring to his collection. “I turned down bigger offers”, he said, “and I prioritized being on a championship-caliber team.”

Well, if Pau says it, it must be true. Right?

Sure, the Bulls will still only feature one truly dynamic offensive scorer in Derrick Rose (assuming he can stay healthy), but Gasol is a versatile threat from both the inside and outside and his veteran presence will allow the young and promising Joakim Noah to thrive.

And let’s not forget that Chicago drafted Doug McDermott out of Creighton. He only led the NCAA in scoring in 2013-14. Furthermore, finally getting 6’10” PF Nikola Mirotic to slide over from Europe to the NBA will add an extra boost to their roster.

Win, lose or draw, this will be the most exciting Bulls roster since Scottie Pippen played with that other guy.

As the 2014-15 season approaches, we’ll see more and more sportswriters plugging the Bulls in as their pre-season number one pick in the East.

Myself? I’ll pass judgment until all the cards have fallen from the deck. I’ve got a feeling a few more surprises still lurk behind GM doors.

A little “Love” for the King?

 

We already know that LeBron is heading home to Ohio. What we don’t know is which number he’ll be wearing.

It’s safe to say that the arrival of King James will make Cleveland everyone’s instant favorite to bring home the title of “most improved”, but how improved are we talking here?

Are they legitimate contenders? Hmm… tough call.

Adding the league’s best player via free agency is certainly a move worth recognizing, but we’re still speaking about a team that won 33 games last season. In the previous three they tallied 19, 21 and 24 victories respectively. Sure, it’s an improvement but it’s also a sign of a team in disarray.

Kyrie Irving is a legit All-Star. Andrew Wiggins is extremely promising. But I still think that all these Cavs fans dreaming of hoisting a trophy in 2015 are prematurely ejaculating, even if the head office makes good on trade rumors that involve bringing three-time All-Star Kevin Love over from the Timberwolves. And we’re still very much in “if” mode on this trade.

The Cavaliers will be better. Much better. They’ll make the playoffs. They might even be good. But you can’t throw together a championship team in a one off-season. Even the Big Three couldn’t pull off the feat the last time LeBron took his talents on the road.

Tell me “The Truth”.

 

When swingman Trevor Ariza headed to the Houston Rockets to collect a bigger paycheck, the Wizards looked to be taking a big hit. Ariza hit 40.7 per cent of his three-point shots last season and played monster lock-down defense.

But instead of whining, Washington’s front office went out and scored the top steal of this off-season’s free agent crop. Paul Pierce opted to leave the Nets so that he could play under his ex-teammate assistant coach Sam Cassell, and he signed for a measly $10.8M over two seasons. That’s quite a bargain for a future Hall-of-Famer.

Not only did “The Truth” prove last season that he’s still got some gas left in the tank, he’ll be bringing veteran leadership to help the Wizards get even more out of their very young and very gifted back court.

John Wall and Bradley Beal were 23 and 20 years old respectively last season. If they can add a dash of maturity on top of their natural talent, we could be looking at a couple of true super stars. Don’t be fooled by Wall’s disappointing stat line in the 2013-14 playoffs; he’s the real deal.

The Wizards have also added even more veteran leadership and support off the bench in a trade with Boston that brings Kris Humphries down to Washington. Humphries may not be a super sexy pick-up, but during last season with Boston he averaged 8.4 points and 5.9 rebounds in just 19.9 minutes. Quiet production off the bench matters – just ask the San Antonio Spurs.

The East will be wide open in 2014-15 and the Wizards have just as strong of a claim as any other team out there to represent the conference in the Finals.

Never say never, but we won’t be seeing Heat vs. Pacers Version 3.0 in next season’s Eastern Conference Finals.

 

Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade will have an incredible opportunity this season. They’ll get the chance to prove that they were just as valuable to Miami’s Finals runs as LeBron James.

They didn’t call them the Big Three for nothing, but I just don’t see the Heat making a deep post-season run without number six. They’ll waltz into the playoffs without too much of an effort but most likely as one of the middle to upper-middle seeds.

We’ll have more on the Heat as we get closer to the season, but for now Erik Spoelstra’s got to be scratching his head. I think it will take at least one full year before any new game plan can fully hatch into fruition, regardless of what he comes up with.

Indiana, on the other hand, is still in a strong position to stay put at the top of the pile. The loss of Lance Stephenson is huge, but not insurmountable.

What’s crazy about Stephenson’s decision to leave is that he gave up $26M in guaranteed money to earn a couple hundred grand more a year for the next couple of seasons and “maybe” cash in on a big-time payday three years down the road.

He turned down $44M over five years and could have stayed with a championship caliber team on the cusp of winning it all. 44 million dollars. Guaranteed.

Seriously, what the hell else can he possibly need to buy? He must be getting financial advice from Allen Iverson.

I guess you don’t wind up playing in the NBA if you don’t have a big ego.

But the bottom line here is that the Pacers are losing a great player and the Heat are losing one of the greatest of all time. It’s simple math: Miami’s out and Indiana will need someone else to step up off the bench to pick up the slack.

But who from the East can challenge the Spurs? Or the Thunder, Rockets, Clippers or Trailblazers?

The Eastern Conference will be vastly improved in 2014-15, but with the Heat and Pacers both losing a key cog we will very much still be looking at a heavily favored Western Conference as a whole heading into next season.

I’d still put my money on a team from the West winning it all come next June. However, at least this time around the East won’t be standing around midseason in soiled boxers.

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Michael Airhart

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