A way too early ranking of the Eastern Conference

Last week we took a look at how the teams stack up early in the Southeast Division.

Now let’s see how the entire Eastern Conference stacks up now that free agency is in the rearview mirror.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs just won the championship. Cleveland just re-signed LeBron James to a three-year deal. Not much else to discuss here. Let’s keep moving.

2. Toronto Raptors

The Raptors are here by default. After making their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance in team history, the Raptors are looking to build on that momentum to carry them even further. They re-signed All-Star DeMar DeRozan to a five-year $145 million dollar year to keep the dynamic backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeRozan intact.

Bismack Biyombo played out of his mind during the playoffs earning him a large payday but with the Orlando Magic. Many think that Biyombo’s departure could potentially set the Raptors back. I disagree. Biyombo is a backup center and a rim protector. He averaged 5.5 points and eight rebounds during the regular season but those numbers jumped 6.2 points and 9.4 rebounds during the postseason. Biyombo is a force to be reckoned with on the defensive end but is very limited on the offensive end. He’s a classic energy guy who happened to explode on a national stage at the right time. Yes, they’ll miss his defensive presence and shot-blocking; it’s just, I don’t think that’s enough to set the entire team back.

The Raptors replaced Biyombo with the acquisition of Jared Sullinger. As a starter last season, Sullinger averaged 10.3 points and 8.3 rebounds for the Celtics. However this year, he’s expected to come off of the bench for the Raptors. Sullinger’s playing style is the opposite of Biyombo. Sullinger is shorter in stature but throws his weight around to gain position in the paint. Sullinger can stretch the floor and is effective in doing so as he shot 44.1 percent from shots 5-9 feet from the basket and 44.9 percent on shots 20-24 feet from the hoop.

He isn’t a great three-point shooter but is capable of knocking them down as he shot a modest 28.2 percent from distance last season which is better than most centers.

The Raptors did what they had to do to stay at the top of the Eastern Conference. They may not scare Cleveland, but keeping DeRozan and other key players intact will make them a force to be reckoned with next season.

3. Boston Celtics

The Celtics return four of their five starters from last season. They upgraded at the center position in acquiring Al Horford to fill the void left by Jared Sullinger. Although Horford is 30 years old, the former All-Star is an instant upgrade over Sullinger as he averaged more points (15.2), shot better from the field (50.5 percent), and shot better from three-point range (34.4 percent).

Plug in rookie Jaylen Brown and now the Celtics have another long wing to go alongside Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, and Gerald Green.

Additionally, according to ESPN.com, the Celtics are projected to have the easiest schedule in the league next season.

This team still lacks an “alpha dog” as I don’t believe Isaiah Thomas has reached that level yet. However, they still have a very good roster and one of the top coaches in the NBA. The arrow continues to point up for this team.

4. Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers didn’t get much publicity but positioned themselves very well for next season. The Pacers upgraded at point guard acquiring Indianapolis native Jeff Teague from the Atlanta Hawks in a three-team trade. Teague and Hill shot almost identical shooting percentages from three-point range and from the field, however,Teague averaged more points (15.7) and assists (5.9).

Us Wizards fans know that Ian Mahinmi is now gone from the Pacers. The Pacers seem very pleased and confident to move forward with second-year player Myles Turner at center and they also signed a Swiss Army Knife player in Thaddeus Young.

The Pacers secured up the center position with Al Jefferson and it’s very clear that Paul George is back to his superstar ways. The Pacers do have a new coach in Nate McMillan to get used to, however; this team looks poised to take a step forward after getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

5. Detroit Pistons

The Pistons bring back essentially the same roster that they had last season after re-signing All-Star center Andre Drummond. In somewhat of an under the radar move, the Pistons acquired Boban Marjanovic from the Spurs to play the backup center position. He is still somewhat of an unknown as he didn’t get too much playing time in San Antonio, however, he’s coming from the best culture in the NBA and will practice against one of the best centers in the NBA in Andre Drummond.

Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris will now have the entire offseason to get acclimated with the team rather than learning on the fly in just 30 games prior to the postseason. The Pistons have a nice core of players and young guys such as Stanley Johnson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who should continue to get better with time.

Expect a big step forward from the Pistons this season.

6. Charlotte Hornets

The losses of Jeremy Lin, Al Jefferson and Courtney Lee sting; No doubt about it. But as Kemba Walker enters his sixth NBA season, I feel that he’s on the verge of a breakout year. Walker scored a career-best 20.9 points last season. After getting snubbed from the All-Star game, Walkers’ numbers ballooned to 25.2 points, 6.1 assists, and 5.6 rebounds in the three weeks afterward. Walker has had his superstar moments evidenced by his 52-point game against the Jazz last season. We’ve seen Walker perform at All-Star levels in stretches; now’s the time where he does it for an entire season.

Outside of Walker, the Hornets kept many key guys intact by re-signing Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams. With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist still around along with young, fresher guys in Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky, and Jeremy Lamb to round out the roster. That’s enough to make the Hornets the early favorites to win the Southeast division.

7. Washington Wizards

The Wizards return their starting five (after the All-Star game) from last season. The big X-factor this season will be Bradley Beal. Will he stay healthy? That’s the $128 million dollar question. Although he feels his injury woes are behind him, the elephant in the room will remain until Beal proves that he can stay healthy as the four-year player averages just 62 games played per season in his short four-year career.

Another uncertainty for the Wizards is Otto Porter’s development. He has continued to develop over the past three seasons, however if the Wizards are going to be relevant in the playoff race again, they’ll need Porter to take yet another step forward. He needs to continue to increase his scoring as the front office is all in on him and Kelly Oubre at the small forward position.

John Wall on the mend from knee surgery and Bradley Beal’s health are a constant question mark, so if Porter can take on more of a scoring load for this team early; that will pay dividends down the road.

8. Miami Heat

Let me preface this by saying this ranking assumes Chris Bosh DOESN’T play next season.

The Heat lost key players in Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, and Joe Johnson to free agency. That hurts. The team will now be counting on Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside and up and comer Justice Winslow to carry the torch for this team.

The Heat should be just fine defensively as Eric Spoelstra is known for his defensive schemes however the offense is another question. Hassan Whiteside is limited offensively, the team replaced Wade with Dion Waiters, but will count on Goran Dragic to carry the scoring load. Dragic has averaged 20 points for a season just once in his career and if the Heat are going to be competitive this year, he’ll need to do that again.

The wildcard here is Chris Bosh. As mentioned, Bosh has been dealing with blood clots over the past two years causing him to miss 67 games over the past two seasons. If Bosh is cleared to play and can stay healthy, that should be enough for the Heat to make the playoffs. If he can’t, the Heat will probably be on the outside looking in.

9. Chicago Bulls

Will the Bulls make any three-pointers next year? It can be assumed that Rondo, Wade, and Butler will be starting at the point guard, shooting guard, and small forward positions. None of them shoot threes very well. That leaves Nikola Mirotic, the team’s power forward, as the Bulls’ best three-point option.

10. Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks lost Jeff Teague and Al Horford in the offseason. Yes, they signed Dwight Howard but he has proven that he’s not the easiest teammate to play with. In addition, Dennis Schroder will now be counted on to lead this team. There’re too many unknowns right now. Expect the Hawks to fall out of the playoffs.

11. New York Knicks

Derrick Rose was right. The Knicks did form a “Super-Team”…… if the year was 2011. The Knicks should have an improved record now that there’s more talent surrounding Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. It’s just the players they signed in Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Courtney Lee are injury prone or are already past their prime.

12. Milwaukee Bucks

I thought the Bucks would break out last year but they didn’t. They have youth, size, athleticism, and a good coach (so we think). They fooled me last year. Now I need to see the improvement to believe it.

13. Orlando Magic

The Magic added size and athleticism in the offseason. Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka are good players; however, scoring is not their strong suit. Scoring for this team will be difficult.

14. Philadelphia 76ers

They went 10-72 last season and drafted the preseason favorite for rookie of the year in Ben Simmons. Can only go up from here, right?

15. Brooklyn Nets

Close your eyes Nets’ fans.

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