A Way Too Early Ranking of the Eastern Conference

So much for a calm and quiet offseason.

With the NBA a draft a distant memory and free agency coming and going; we’ve now officially reached the dog days of the NBA offseason, or so we thought. Now that all major free agents have re-signed or found a new home, let’s take a look at how the Eastern Conference stacks up.

*These rankings were made under the assumption that Kyrie Irving plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers next season*

Tier 1: Still the best in the East until proven otherwise

Cleveland Cavaliers

Key Additions: Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, Jose Calderon

Key Losses: None

The Cavs have won the Eastern Conference for the past three seasons and LeBron James has won seven straight Eastern Conference titles dating back to his Heat days. Rumors swirled that Kevin Love was on the trade block in hopes of landing either Paul George or Carmelo Anthony but neither of those deals materialized. And recently, Kyrie Irving has requested a trade out of Cleveland as he no longer wants to play alongside LeBron.

In addition, it’s been rumored that LeBron is less than thrilled with Cleveland’s management and may be peeking ahead to the summer of 2018 when he’ll be an unrestricted free agent, again.

The Cavaliers are on the brink of implosion and are hanging on by a thread but even with all the turmoil, as long as LeBron is on the roster, I’m not betting against them.

Tier 2: The Contenders

Boston Celtics

Key Additions: Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum, Aron Baynes

Key Losses: Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk

After beating Washington in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Boston’s luck quickly evaporated as they ran into Eastern Conference Buzzsaw also known as LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Yes, Isaiah Thomas got injured early in the series but even so, it was clear that they needed to make a move this summer to compete with the Cavs.

They did just that by signing Gordon Hayward in free agency. Hayward will be reunited with his college coach Brad Stevens in Boston, which will now boast one of the best starting units in the NBA. However, to make the deal work, they had to trade Avery Bradley for Marcus Morris to clear the space to sign Hayward. It also worked essentially a future salary dump since Bradley is projected to get a max or near-max deal next summer.

Boston will count on young players like Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum to step in and contribute right away in what should be one of the NBA’s best offenses. However, the Celtics didn’t address their rebounding, which was one of their biggest issues last season. And if we’re looking really far ahead, it’s going to be harder to hide Isaiah Thomas on defense in next year’s playoffs now that Bradley is gone.

Regardless, I believe that the Celtics have taken a minor step in closing in on Cleveland (although that probably says more about the Cavs than the Celtics). Yes, they made a huge addition with Hayward, it’s just hard to ignore that they also traded away an All-NBA defender.

Washington Wizards

Key Additions: Tim FrazierJodie MeeksMike Scott

Key Losses: Bojan Bogdanovic

Unlike many other Eastern Conference foes, the Wizards pretty much stood pat during this offseason and locked in their core trio for the long haul. After reaching the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the third time in four years, the Wizards made a Hail Mary attempt to rent Paul George for a year but it was all for naught and probably for the best.

One thing was clear though: The Wizards had to do something to beef up their bench that was non-existent for most of the year. Washington didn’t make any huge splashes but traded away their second-round pick to get Tim Frazier, and shore up a position that has eluded the Wizards over the years. In addition, they signed Jodie Meeks who has proven he can be a reliable scorer off of the bench, when he’s healthy.

Even though none of the offseason additions seem like much of a big deal, the bar for the reserves has been set extremely low. So things can only go up from here, right?

With many Eastern Conference All-Stars leaving for Western Conference teams, standing pat wasn’t all that bad for the Wizards and they still find themselves in a pretty damn good position entering next season.

Tier 3: The Fringe Contenders

Toronto Raptors

Key Additions: C.J. Miles

Key Losses: Cory Joseph, P.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll

After an impressive regular season where the Raptors won 51 games, their campaign came to an anti-climactic ending as they Cavs made quick work of them and swept the Raptors in four games. Despite the underwhelming finish, the Raptors locked in Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka to three-year deals to keep their key players together.

Even with Lowry, DeRozan, and Ibaka intact for the foreseeable future, it feels like their window of opportunity to win the Eastern Conference has already closed. They lost some of their muscle in P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson, and traded away backup point guard Cory Joseph for C.J. Miles in hopes that he can produce a scoring punch off of the bench. In addition, they got rid of DeMarre Carroll who has struggled since arriving in Toronto.

Once again, this team appears to be constructed for another successful regular season, but it’s hard to see them making a deep run in the playoffs.

Milwaukee Bucks

Key Additions: None

Key Losses: None

Writers and fans everywhere were already salivating over Giannis Antetokounmpo after he was named to an All-NBA team and also won the Most Improved Player award. Expect that trend to continue and for the Milwaukee Bucks to be the trendy team expected to make a big jump this season. On the flip side, they didn’t add any free agents that will move the needle. That means this team will only go as far as Antetokounmpo and their young core will take them.

Thon Maker figures to make strides in his second NBA season while guys like Malcolm BrogdonMatthew DellavedovaJohn HensonKhris Middleton, and Tony Snell continue to be very serviceable role players. The big question for the Bucks is can these role players improve their level of play to get them over the hump?

Miami Heat

Key Additions: Kelly Olynyk, Bam Adebayo

Key Losses: Willie Reed, Josh McRoberts

After an 11-30 start to the season, most people wrote off the Miami Heat and you couldn’t blame them. But lo and behold, they turned things around going 30-11 over the second half of the season, and narrowly missed getting into the playoffs. No team would have wanted to see the Heat in the postseason, if they had gotten there. They were the best team in the East over the second half of the season and would have been a very bad matchup for anyone had they made the playoffs.

The Heat ranked fifth last season in defensive rating and that probably won’t change all that much as long as Eric Spoelstra is there. The Heat are bringing back all their key players from last season and added Kelly Olynyk to mix as well.

Even though they missed out on Gordon Hayward, who would have been a seamless fit in Miami, they’re in a good spot. They still have a solid core with Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside. Justise Winslow will be healthy at the start of the season and they also drafted Bam Adebayo out of Kentucky who looks like he’ll be able to contribute right away for Miami.

Tier 4: Not a contender but not a complete mess either

Charlotte Hornets

Key Additions: Dwight Howard, Malik Monk

Key Losses: Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli

After winning 48 games in 2016, Charlotte missed the playoffs entirely with a disappointing 36-46 record, even though Kemba Walker was an All-Star for the first time in his career.

To try to turn things around, the Hornets sent Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli to Atlanta in exchange for the now journeyman, Dwight Howard. In addition, the Hornets nabbed Malik Monk, who should be able to help right away, with the 11th overall pick.

Charlotte needs to clean up their defense a bit as they ranked dead-last in three-point defense. But like the Heat, I would be very surprised if Charlotte also didn’t make the playoffs next season; especially in such a watered-down Eastern Conference.

Tier 5: Because eight teams have to make the playoffs

Philadelphia 76ers

Key Additions: Markelle Fultz, J.J. Redick, Amir Johnson

Key Losses: None

The 76ers were able to trade up to get the top overall pick in this year’s draft in Markelle Fultz to complete their young core alongside Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons. Philadelphia will undoubtedly be a League Pass favorite throughout the season.

However, there will inevitably be a learning curve as the average age of these players is 21 and only Embiid has played in any regular season games. The 76ers signed veteran J.J. Redick to a one-year deal to take some of these younger guys under his wing as they go through their growing pains, but he won’t solve everything.

Philadelphia will be extremely fun to watch next season, no doubt about it. But before we pencil them into the playoffs, just remember all of the hype surrounding the Timberwolves prior to last season.

Detroit Pistons

Key Additions: Avery Bradley

Key Losses: Marcus Morris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aron Baynes

Like some of the teams mentioned before them, the Pistons underachieved in many people’s eyes missing the playoffs last season. As a result, Stan Van Gundy dangled Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond to gauge interest from other NBA teams as Jackson has issues staying healthy and Drummond is almost unplayable down the stretch of games due to his poor defense and horrific free-throw shooting.

On the other hand, Detroit was able to upgrade at the shooting guard position as they traded for Avery Bradley, even though it cost them Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Bradley isn’t as potent of a scorer as Caldwell-Pope but is one of the best defenders in the league.

With Detroit, it all boils down to if they can stay healthy while keeping the drama out of the locker room. On paper, they have a roster that should be good enough to get them to .500, but can they leave their baggage at the door? If not, there could be more roster shuffling on the way in Detroit.

Tier 6: Take your best guess

Orlando Magic

Key Additions: Johnathon Simmons, Johnathan Issac, Shelvin Mack

Key Losses: None

Doesn’t it feel like the Magic are always in rebuild mode? Orlando had a decent start to the season last year only to watch it fizzle away resulting in a 29-53 record and missing the playoffs for a fifth straight year. However, Orlando was able to lure Johnathon Simmons away from the Spurs in free agency as a key piece to their core.

The Magic have some young talent in Aaron GordonEvan Fournier, and Terrence Ross. The issue is, will it ever gel together? If things work out for the Magic, I can see them being a fringe playoff team. But at the same time, it wouldn’t surprise me either if they were on the outside looking in at the postseason, again.

Brooklyn Nets

Key Additions: D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, Timofey Mozgov

Key Losses: Brook Lopez

Yes, the Nets were the worst team in the NBA last year but look to be trending in the right direction. After mortgaging away their future in the Billy King era, Sean Marks is starting to navigate this team out of the woodworks with some nice moves that help the team immediately and down the road. Brooklyn traded away Brook Lopez for D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov. They also absorbed DeMarre Carroll in exchange for a pair of draft picks from the Raptors.

There’s room for the Nets to grow this season. Outside of Lin, Brooklyn’s core players – Russell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LaVert, and Isaiah Whitehead – are all under the age of 25. Plus, the team will have Jeremy Lin back this season. You could argue that the Nets wouldn’t have been a complete mess last year had he been healthy. The team was a more respectable 13-23 when he was on the floor last season.

They probably will not make the playoffs, however, this team has a ton of young talent on the roster now and cap space that will be freed up in the years to come. Of the non-playoff teams, Brooklyn has the brightest future of the bunch.

New York Knicks

Key Additions: Tim Hardaway Jr., Frank Ntilikina

Key Losses: Derrick Rose

With new management in place, there seems to be at least a little bit of stability in New York. Kristaps Porzingis is no longer dodging ownership and management and the team signed (and overpaid) the ultimate microwave scorer in Tim Hardaway Jr. Ironically enough, Carmelo Anthony, who has stated that he wanted to stay in New York even though it was against the former management’s wishes, now says he wants to leave the team which doesn’t mesh with the new regime’s plans.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s what will sting the most for the Knicks. I believe passing on Dennis Smith Jr. and Malik Monk in the draft in favor of Frank Ntilikina (Phil Jackson’s draft pick) will haunt the Knicks for years to come.

While it’s hard to see the Knicks making the playoffs, Porzingis should keep things fun, and there should be a couple of nights in the Garden where Hardaway Jr. explodes for 30 or even 40 points.

Tier 7: From playoffs to tank mode

Chicago Bulls

Key Additions: Zach Lavine, Justin Holiday, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn

Key Losses: Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo

The Bulls have officially pressed the reset button as they traded away Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves on draft day. The Bulls drafted Lauri Markkanen, a 7-footer who can knock down threes as well as do the dirty work down low. Zach Lavine, who is still just 22 years old might be the most athletic player in the league but is coming off a knee injury which could stall his comeback.

The Bulls have hints of talent scattered throughout the roster which could result in a few upsets this season, but outside of that, it’s going to be a cold winter in Chicago.

Atlanta Hawks

Key Additions: Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli

Key Losses: Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard, Tim Hardaway Jr., Mike Scott

Three years ago, Atlanta won 60 games and made the Eastern Conference Finals. Last year, the Hawks got the fifth seed and pushed Washington to a six game series in the first round.

With Al Horford and Paul Millsap gone, and Dennis Schroder, Taurean Prince, and Kent Bazemore as their core players; it’s safe to say there will be some growing pains this season. Atlanta has made the playoffs for ten-straight years but it looks like that streak is about to come to a screeching halt.

Indiana Pacers

Key Additions: Victor Oladipo, Cory Joseph, Bojan Bogdanovic, Domantas Sabonis

Key Losses: Paul George, C.J. Miles, Monta Ellis

This summer could not have been worse for the Pacers. After reportedly passing on a lucrative package from the Boston Celtics for Paul George on draft day, George informed the team that he intended on joining for the Lakers in 2018, and the Pacers wound up getting pennies on the dollar instead in their deal with Oklahoma City.

Now, the Pacers will have to hope for the best as Victor Oladipo returns to Indiana, where he played his college basketball. Other than that and Myles Turner, there isn’t much to get excited about. Bojan Bogdanovic will revert back to being a good scorer on a bad team, just like his days in Brooklyn, and Darren Collison is a big downgrade from Jeff Teague. It could be a very long year in Indiana.

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