With the news of LeBron rejoining the Cleveland Cavaliers, the East was shaken to its core. No more was the Heat’s reign over the rest of the conference, a reign that included four straight Eastern Conference titles. No more was the Cavs’ reign of lottery king, getting the top overall pick in three of the last four years. But, are the Cavs going to instantly turn into Title contenders, like Vegas thinks? That seems pretty unlikely, even if the Cavs do manage to get Kevin Love. After all, the Cavs only won 33 games in the depleted East last season. With the addition of LeBron, they should easily flirt with 50+ wins, but expecting them to beat any of the top teams in the West is premature.
But what about the rest of the East? Are the Pacers still going to try and shop Roy Hibbert? Will they make sure to re-sign Lance Stephenson, no matter what, realizing the East is wide open now? What about the Wizards–will they be able to keep Trevor ‘Plan B’ Ariza, and build on last year’s success? And the Bulls: will Derrick Rose be able to stay healthy and be an All-Star caliber player again? What if the Bulls get Carmelo–would they be the favorites in the East then? (Probably, yes.) And will the Raptors take another step forward and win 50+ games next season? Crazy to imagine them seriously contending for a Conference title, but wouldn’t they?
Let’s do a way-too-early power ranking of the top eight spots in the East and sort this mess out:
1. Indiana Pacers
Hard not to laugh at this, given how they finished last season. This team will win a lot of games in the regular season, but right now they just don’t have the mental makeup of a championship team. They have to decide whether they’re going to pay Lance Stephenson, but given the LeBron news, it’s hard to see them letting him walk. And it’s hard to see them trading Roy Hibbert now too. Keep the core together, hope to rejuvenate the bench, and pray that Lance Stephenson can stay motivated after getting paid. The Big 3 is no longer in your way, Pacers.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
Of course, LeBron is still in the Pacers’ way. Don’t forget LeBron led the Cavs to 66 wins with Boobie Gibson, Sasha Pavlovic, and Anderson Varejao in 2008. So the addition of LeBron will surely vault the Cavs from a 33-win team to a 50+ win team this time around with Kyrie Irving and company. It’s probably too early to declare the Cavs no-question favorites in the East, unless they also add Kevin Love before the season starts. Nonetheless, the Cavs will be contenders in the East.
3. Washington Wizards
Maybe I’m being a homer here, but assuming the Wizards keep Trevor Ariza, they should take a leap forward. There are tons of question marks surrounding the Wiz roster, but their starting lineup is not one of them. Assuming they keep Ariza, they’ll put out a starting five of Wall-Beal-Ariza-Gortat-Nene. That is a lineup that can win 50 games, at least in the East. Losing key bench player Martell Webster to back surgery will force Otto Porter, or someone else, to step up at small forward, but that’s not a huge concern. This team will go as Wall and Beal go.
4. Toronto Raptors
They won 48 games last season and maybe should be ahead of the Wizards. Only behind the Wiz because of the leaps that Wall and Beal might take next year. But the Raptors have a great young core with Lowry and Derozan in the backcourt. The Raptors are a team, like Washington, that enjoyed surprising success last season, and should be able to build on it and get around 50 wins again this year. If Jonas Valanciunas, just 22 years old, can become a borderline All-Star talent (and he has enough talent to do so), the Raptors will be better than people expect.
5. Chicago Bulls
Maybe the hardest team to rate. So much depends on Rose’s health and if they sign Carmelo. If they get Carmelo, the Bulls are probably the top team in the East. And if Rose is an All-Star type player, even without Carmelo, the Bulls are a top three team in the East. If Rose hobbles through the season having lost a few steps, and is only a good player, then the Bulls are still a quality team, but not a true contender in the conference.
6. Atlanta Hawks
Nearly upset the Pacers in the first round, and will have All-Star Al Horford back now. The nucleus of Teague-Korver-Milsap-Horford is underrated and good enough to net around 45 wins. Add DeMarre Carroll and Thabo Sefolosha on the wings, and the Hawks have a nice little roster. Good enough to potentially get to the second round of the playoffs, but probably nothing else.
7. Charlotte Hornets
If the Hornets get Gordon Hayward, they could be surprisingly good, but the Jazz will probably match their offer. Charlotte managed to win 43 games last year behind Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker. They drafted power forward Noah Vonleh 9th, a pick they received from the Pistons. Between Vonleh, last year’s fourth overall pick Cody Zeller, and 2012’s second overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Hornets will have three young players drafted high in the draft. They’ll need some of those guys to contribute for the Hornets to improve on last season’s success.
8b. Brooklyn Nets
A painfully old roster that will rely on heavy production from Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez. The Nets have only been in the news this offseason for the odd Jason Kidd power-move-turn-firing story. The Nets are an expensively old team that needs an influx of young talent.
8b. Miami Heat
Behind a duo of of Bosh and most likey Wade, the Heat will have enough ammo to make the playoffs next year. We’ll see if Bosh can take on the lion share of the duties in Miami without LeBron, but in the depleted Eastern Conference, Miami won’t have to start from scratch like most people expected.