What’s the Scenario?
July 9, 2014 by Jonathan Lowe • Print Story •
Okay. I'm feeling dizzy at this point. It's not due to holdover from the fireworks displays on the Fourth. It's not due to the muggy heat that early July brings to the Midwest (don't forget to hydrate). It's actually due to the whirling dervish of speculation surrounding the current round of NBA free agency.
When someone isn't talking about whether LeBron James will stay on South Beach, he/she/they turn the conversation to where Carmelo Anthony will settle down. There are other pieces being moved during this process, but there's no doubt that James and Anthony are the two biggest prizes in this Summer's crop of available players. When and where they go may dictate the Association for the next 4-5 season. While their movements would have an impact on the Western Conference, there's no doubt that these two ... just these two ... could completely reshuffle the "deck chairs" of the Eastern Conference.
As information continues to change from day-to-day and hour-to-hour, I figure why not throw my hat in on all of the fortune telling. However, I'm taking my forecast out a little bit further. How about taking a peek into next April? Many of the franchises east of the Mississippi struggled through a major portions of the season. Some (Toronto, Washington) surged beyond expectations. However, save Miami and Indiana, the conference's playoff spots appeared to be up for grabs.
Heading into next season, there should be more teams playing for not only the postseason, but with the thought that they could be in the race for the East's number one seed. Now, all of this could be rendered moot with one statement. If James re-signs with the Heat, the road to the NBA Finals will more than likely have to go through Miami.
Then again, if 'Bron makes another "decision," you have four contenders waiting in the wings. Looking at the teams that finished 1, 3, 4, and 5 in last season's pecking order, you can find a key similarity. All four squads have a core of young players led by someone you could probably put in the pool of the Association's 20 best players. So, what scenario could put each team in a position to fight for home-court advantage in nine months?
The Pacers can contend if...
Yes, I understand that Indiana did enough to have the East's best record this past season. But anyone who follows the sport knows how the team really had to hold on late for that distinction. If they wish to return to the lofty heights of that regular-season pedestal, they may have to add through subtraction.
Lance Stephenson is a talented player. He led the league in triple-doubles last season. Even with that stat, you have to factor in his on-court antics, (especially in the postseason) which left many shaking their heads. It appears that Lance could be the next Dennis Rodman or Ron Artest (for the sake of past transgressions, we'll reference the player previously known before Metta World Peace). However, if reports are true that he had a bit of a hand in the team's fractured chemistry down the stretch, Stephenson might have taken his quirkiness a step too deep.
There are other problems that Larry Bird and Frank Vogel need to figure out. But the healing may start by letting Stephenson leave for other pastures.
The Raptors can contend if...
For my money, Toronto was the biggest surprise of last season. They came out of obscurity to win an Atlantic Division that was all but assured to Brooklyn. The Raptors will enter this season trying to live up to increased expectations, while hoping to draw on the experience of that division race. The veteran-laden Nets will get a year older, and that core could be hurt if Paul Pierce decides to join back up with Doc Rivers.
Sure, Pierce is in "last wind" cycle as a player, but he contributed around 13.5 points and 4.6 rebounds during the regular season (the numbers were almost identical in the playoffs). And if "The Truth" decides to finish his career in his hometown of L.A., where does that leave Kevin Garnett? Brooklyn's hiring of new head coach Lionel Hollins may be key in keeping Pierce (and possibly Garnett) at the Barclays Center for 41-plus more games during the upcoming season.
The Bulls can contend if...
Chicago's case appears to be simpler than the rest. This squad is the best defensive force in the NBA. When you have the Defensive Player of the Year (Joakim Noah) roaming the middle and the best defensive coach (Tom Thibodeau) going, you know you can slow most everyone down. The problem is that pesky action of putting the ball in the bucket.
Two in-house moves could really help the offense. The first was their draft day trade to acquire Doug McDermott. The collegiate Player of the Year finished fifth on the all-time Division I scoring list. The second, of course, would be the healthy return of Derrick Rose. When not in need of injury rehab, the former league MVP has been the most potent potion for the team's weak scoring punch.
The one move that would be the cherry on top, no doubt, is the addition of Carmelo to the roster. Mixing Rose's 20.8 ppg back into the fold returns the squad to an Eastern threat. But adding Anthony's 25.3 ppg into the lineup provides a huge boost that could make the Bulls the favorite to get home-court.
The Wizards can contend if...
Washington has been building for a couple of years. It started through John Wall's growing pains and continues through Bradley Beal's emergence. With Wall (basically) back to full strength, and Beal shooting with NBA precision, the backcourt is set. The organization also got their front-court shored up when they re-signed Marcin Gortat. That means full-steam ahead with a core group good enough to swipe a playoff series a couple of months ago.
The big question, though, is how the other contenders take care of their own business. The Wizards can continue to improve. However, unless LBJ leaves Miami and Carmelo stays out of Chi-town, Washington won't have enough (yet) to surpass those two franchises over an 82-game schedule.