Tuesday, October 28, 2014

NBA: EASTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW WITH RANKINGS


By: Connor Glowacki



 Cleveland's new 'Big Three'.
LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
photo courtesy of mstarz.com



     The NBA season is finally here and with games kicking off tonight, let's take a look at where all of the teams in the Eastern Conference stack up at the beginning of this season.

*Note: PPG=Points Per Game, APG= Assists Per Game, RPG= Rebounds Per Game,              BLKPG= Blocks Per Game.

15.) Philadelphia 76ers.    
     
PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP (With 2013-2014 Stats)

PG: Michael Carter Williams (16.7 PPG, 6.3 APG, 6.2 RPG)
SG: K.J. McDaniels (2nd Round Draft Pick. Averaged 17.1 PPG for Clemson last season)
SF: Hollis Thompson (6.0 PPG, 0.9 APG, 3.2 RPG)
PF: Nerlens Noel (Missed 2013-14 season due to injury. 2012 First Round Draft Pick out of Kentucky)
C: Henry Sims (7.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG)

76ers forward Nerlens Noel.
photo courtesy of philly.com.
     Philadelphia's plan to go 'Winless for (Andrew) Wiggins' failed, but the Sixers did get some intriguing pieces through the draft that included center Joel Embiid, forwards Dario Saric and Jeraci Grant and guard K.J. McDaniels. But Embiid and Saric, Philadelphia's top two draft picks won't play at all this season!
     Embiid is recovering from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot and Saric is playing another year overseas. When you count the Sixers losing their top scorer (Thaddeus Young) and rebounder (Spencer Hawes) to free agency, it's clear that this team could be even worse this season.
     That being said, there is some hope in Philadelphia. Point guard Michael Carter Williams had a stellar rookie season and will return as the primary playmaker. And 2014 will mark the NBA debut of former Kentucky center Nerlens Noel. Noel missed the entire 2013 season due to recovering from ACL surgery.
     If Carter-Williams builds on his rookie season and Noel develops an offensive game, the Sixers could have something intriguing for 2015 when Embiid and Saric will be ready for NBA action.

14.) Milwaukee Bucks

PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP (With 2013-2014 Stats)

PG: Brandon Knight (17.9 PPG, 4.9 APG, 3.5 RPG)
SG: Giannis Antetokoumpo (6.8 PPG, 1.9 APG, 4.4 RPG)
SF: Khris Middleton (12.1 PPG, 3.8 RPG)
PF: Jabari Parker (#2 Overall Draft Pick. Averaged 19.1 PPG and 8.7 RPG for Duke last season)
C: Larry Sanders (7.7 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.7 BLKPG)

Bucks' star rookie forward Jabari Parker.
photo courtesy of nypost.com
     The Bucks had the worst record in the entire NBA last season with just 15 wins and 67 losses. Even with that, the Bucks still didn't land the number one pick in the NBA draft. However, Milwaukee still landed a possible star talent with their number two pick in Duke forward Jabari Parker, who was an offensive juggernaut as a freshman in college.
     The Bucks did have a few bright spots from the 2013 season and that included point guard Brandon Knight, who showed what kind of offensive playmaker he could be in the NBA. Add in former first round picks Giannis Antetokoumpo, Khris Middleton and Larry Sanders, as well as former first round picks on the bench that include guards O.J. Mayo and Kendall Marshall and forward Jared Dudley, and Milwaukee seems to have the players to lead this team back to relevancy.
     The big questions for the Bucks are if new head coach Jason Kidd can turn Knight into a top-tier point guard and if Parker can become the star player that this organization desperately needs him to be.

13.) Orlando Magic

PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP (With 2013-2014 Stats)

PG: Elfrid Payton (#10 Overall Draft Pick. Averaged 19.2 PPG, 5.9 APG, 6.0 RPG, 2.3 SPG for Louisiana Lafayette last season)
SG: Evan Fournier (8.4 PPG, 1.5 APG, 2.7 RPG)
SF: Moe Harkless (7.4 PPG, 1.0 APG, 3.3 RPG)
PF: Tobias Harris (14.6 PPG, 1.3 APG, 7.0 RPG)
C: Nikola Vucevic (14.2 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 0.8 BLKPG)

Magic rookie point guard Elfrid Payton.
photo courtesy of basketballinsiders.com.
      I was originally going to put Orlando higher on my Eastern Conference rankings list, but that was before the news about guard Victor Oladipo's injury came out. Oladipo was drafted by the Magic with the second pick in the 2013 NBA draft and impressed in his rookie season as he averaged 13.8 PPG, 4.1 APG and 4.1 RPG with the Magic. Right now, he is expected to miss a month after undergoing surgery to repair a facial fracture. And with Aaron Affalo leaving in free agency, Orlando will have to rely on Evan Fournier and Ben Gordon to produce at the shooting guard position.
     The Magic had two frontcourt players in Harris and Vucevic who really overachieved last season for Orlando and they will be the top offensive targets for rookie point guard Elfrid Payton. Payton is quick and can drive past defenders to get into the paint to create a shot for himself or his teammates. Another player to watch for will be center Channing Frye who has built a reputation in his NBA career for being one of the top three point shooting big men in the game.
   

12.) Detroit Pistons

PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP (With 2013-2014 Stats)

PG: Brandon Jennings (15.5 PPG, 7.6 APG, 3.1 RPG)
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5.9 PPG, 2.0 RPG)
SF: Josh Smith (16.4 PPG, 3.3 APG, 6.8 RPG)
PF: Greg Monroe (15.2 PPG, 9.3 RPG)
C: Andre Drummond (13.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.6 BLGPG)

Pistons center Andre Drummond.
photo courtesy of usatoday.
     On paper, the Pistons have lots of talent at multiple positions and a decent amount of depth. And yet Detroit finished the 2013 season with a 29-53 record and now have a new head coach in Stan Van Gundy. Led by Drummond, Jennings and Monroe, the sheer amount of athleticism is off the wall for this team, but something still hasn't clicked yet.
     Drummond has the raw talent, but has to be kept off the court at points during the fourth quarter because of his free throw percentage at just 41%. Add in Monroe who shot just 65% from the free throw line and the big men have work they need to do to improve at the pinstripes. And Josh Smith needs to improve from three point range after shooting just 26% last season.
     D.J. Augustin, Jonas Jerekbo, Kyle Singler, Jodie Meeks are nice players off the bench, but Detroit's season will depend on the continued development of their younger talent in the starting lineup.

11.) Boston Celtics

PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP (With 2013-2014 Stats)

PG: Rajon Rondo (11.7 PPG, 9.8 APG, 5.5 RPG)
SG: Avery Bradley (14.9 PPG, 1.4 APG, 3.8 RPG)
SF: Jeff Green (16.9 PPG, 1.7 APG, 4.6 RPG)
PF: Jared Sullinger (13.3 PPG, 8.1 RPG)
C: Kelly Olynyk (8.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG)

     The Celtics didn't really have a memorable 2013 season, but in head coach Brad Stevens' first season in the NBA, Bradley and Green matured into leaders for a team that saw promising campaigns out of young players such as Sullinger and Olynyk.
Celtics rookie point guard Marcus Smart
photo courtesy of bleacherreport
     And don't look now, but Boston's offseason has been quietly impressive. The Celtics picked up guard Marcus Thornton, forward Evan Turner and center Tyler Zeller to add some much needed depth at key positions. And in the draft, Boston selected guards Marcus Smart and James Young in the first round. Smart and Young are perceived as the future backcourt for the Boston Celtics and if the team decides to finally trade Rondo, that future could become more immediate.
     Celtics fans should be extremely excited about Smart in particular after he averaged 18 points, 4.8 assists and almost 6 rebounds a game last season for Oklahoma State.

10.) New York Knicks

PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP (With 2013-2014 Stats)

PG: Jose Calderon (11.4 PPG, 4.7 APG, 2.4 RPG)
SG: Iman Shumpert (6.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG)
SF: Carmelo Anthony (27.4 PPG, 3.1 APG, 8.1 RPG)
PF: Amar'e Stoudemire (11.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG)
C: Samuel Dalembert (6.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.2 BLKPG)
   
     Knicks fans everywhere rejoiced when legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson was named President of the New York Knicks with a whopping five year/90 million dollar contract. They also rejoiced when star forward Carmelo Anthony decided, after an insanely long free agent process, to stay with the Knicks and become the highest paid player in the NBA.
Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony
photo courtesy of foxsports.com.
     It's a new era in the Big Apple as Jackson hired his former Lakers point guard Derek Fisher to be the team's new head coach and implement the well-known 'Triangle Offense'. Jackson brought in free agents such as Calderon and Dalembert, but the spotlight will be squarely on Anthony.
     That being said, New York has limited depth and if Stoudemire can't reclaim his offensive game, the Knicks don't have a viable second scoring option. Jackson and the Knicks have an eye for the 2015 free agent class, with the hopes of pairing Anthony with another star player. Until then, this will be a year of adjustment for the Knicks.

9.) Indiana Pacers

PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP (With 2013-2014 Stats)

PG: George Hill (10.3 PPG, 3.5 APG, 3.7 RPG)
SG: Rodney Stuckey (13.9 PPG, 2.1 APG, 2.3 RPG)
SF: C.J. Miles (9.9 PPG, 2.0 RPG)
PF: David West (14.0 PPG, 6.8 RPG)
C: Roy Hibbert (10.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.2 BLKPG)

Pacers center Roy Hibbert
photo courtesy of indystar.
     Where to begin with the Indiana Pacers? Well, 2013 could best be described as the year that the Pacers completely self-destructed. After owning the best record in the East for months, they faded during the final two months of the regular season and barely held onto the top overall seed in the playoffs. And the Pacers gave some of the most disappointing efforts in the postseason that I have ever seen. There were rumors of internal strife in the locker room and head coach Frank Vogel's job was on the line for months.
     The team lost Lance Stephenson to free agency and star froward Paul George to a season ending leg injury during the summer. West, Hill and Stuckey are solid veterans, if unspectacular, and they have pretty good role players off the bench in Luis Scola and Chris Copeland.
     But the pressure is on Hibbert this season. There were points last season where it seemed he didn't even know how to play basketball. For a guy that is 7 feet and two inches tall, there is no excuse to have zero points and zero rebounds in a playoff game.


8.) Atlanta Hawks

PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP (With 2013-2014 Stats)

PG: Jeff Teague (16.5 PPG, 6.7 APG, 2.2 RPG)
SG: Kyle Korver (12.0 PPG, 2.9 APG, 4.0 RPG)
SF: DeMarre Carroll (11.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG)
Hawks center Al Horford
photo courtesy of nba.com.
PF: Paul Millsap (17.9 PPG. 8.5 RPG, 1.1 BLKPG)
C: Al Horford (18.6 PPG. 8.4 RPG, 1.5 BLKPG)

     The Atlanta Hawks overacheived last season, given the injuries to a number of key players that included center Al Horford. With a depleted lineup, they still pushed the Indiana Pacers to the brink in the first round of the playoffs. Teague showed that he can be one of the top point guards in the league last season and the Hawks could potentially have two viable options in the post in Horford and Millsap.
     The main downside to Atlanta continues to be a lack of depth. The only players on the bench that have a chance at cracking the rotation are forwards Mike Scott, Thabo Sefolosha and Adreian Payne. That will hurt them throughout the regular season and the playoffs, especially if it forces the starters to play a ton of minutes ever night.
   

7.) Brooklyn Nets

PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP (With 2013-2014 Stats)

PG: Deron Williams (14.3 PPG, 6.1 APG, 2.6 RPG)
SG: Joe Johnson (15.8 PPG, 2.7 APG, 3.4 RPG)
SF: Andrei Kirilenko (5.0 PPG, 3.2 RPG)
PF:Kevin Garnett (6.5 PPG, 6.6 RPG)
C: Brook Lopez (20.7 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.8 BLKPG)

Nets guard Joe Johnson
photo courtesy of brooklynballing.com
     The Brooklyn Nets have solid talent on their roster, but it hasn't translated to any success in the postseason. Williams was inconsistent last season and is no longer the elite point guard that he once was with the Utah Jazz. At 38 years old, Garnett is a shell of himself after having a severe dropoff in production last season.
     Johnson was solid and ended up being the clutch player that Brooklyn relied on late in games, but the best player on this team is center Brook Lopez. He's one of only a handful of players that can average 20 points and 10 rebound each game, but he's been limited by injuries for the past few seasons. And outside of Mason Plumlee and Jarett Jack, there's no one that you can really trust for the Brooklyn Nets to be a factor off the bench.
 

6.) Miami Heat

PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP (With 2013-2014 Stats)

PG: Mario Chalmers (9.8 PPG, 4.9 APG, 2.9 RPG)
SG: Dwanye Wade (19.0 PPG, 4.7 APG, 4.5 RPG)
SF: Loul Deng (16.0 PPG, 2.9 APG, 5.7 RPG)
PF: Udonis Haslem (3.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG)
C: Chris Bosh (16.2 PPG, 6.6 RPG)

Heat guard Dwanye Wade
photo courtesy of Page Six
    Yes, losing LeBron was a huge blow to this team. But President Pat Riley responded by signing Bosh to a ridiculously lucrative contract deal and signed veterans Loul Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger in free agency, as well as drafting point guard Shabazz Napier in the first round of the NBA Draft. Bosh and Wade will have to step their individual performances up to make up for LeBron's absence. Bosh, in particular, might have to play more in the post with his back to the basket, like he did when he played for the Toronto Raptors.
     The big question for the Heat is if Wade can stay healthy. He barely played half of the 2013 season and his knee injuries led to him fading down the stretch in the postseason.
     The Heat are now a good team that can make the playoffs, with the potential of making a deep run in the playoffs. If they can stay healthy.

5.) Charlotte Hornets

PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP (With 2013-2014 Stats)

PG: Kemba Walker (17.7 PPG, 6.1 APG, 4.2 RPG)
SG: Lance Stephenson (13.8 PPG, 4.6 APG, 7.2 RPG)
SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (7.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG)
PF: Marvin Williams (9.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG)
C:  Al Jefferson (21.8 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 1.1 BLKPG)

Hornets center Al Jefferson.
photo courtesy of bleacherreport.
     The Hornets, formerly known as Bobcats, had one of the most sucessful seasons in franchise history since Michael Jordan became the team's owner. Charlotte pushed Miami in the first round of the playoffs and Jefferson made a strong case for some MVP votes. One of the tougher teams last year got even tougher mentally with the addition of Stephenson, who was the only player on the Indiana Pacers that seemed to have the mental tenacity and willpower to beat his opponents.
     Add in an emerging young point guard in Walker and the future looks bright for the Hornets. The team also has several talented young players on the bench, including Cody Zeller, Noah Vonieh and P.J. Hairston. The main questions include a lack of depth at the point guard and center positions.
     But if the Hornets can stay healthy, look for them to challenge the top tier teams in the Eastern Conference.

4.) Toronto Raptors

PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP (With 2013-2014 Stats)

PG: Kyle Lowry (21.1 PPG, 4.7 APG, 4.7 RPG)
SG: Terrence Ross (5.0 PPG, 2.0 RPG)
SF: Demar DeRozan (23.9 PPG, 3.6 APG, 4.1 RPG)
PF: Amir Johnson (11.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG)
C: Jonas Valanciunas (10.9 PPG, 9.7 RPG)

Raptors guard Demar DeRozan.
photo courtesy of cbssports.com.
     The Toronto Raptors earned the third overall seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs last season and we saw the emergence of two potential star players in DeRozan and Lowry. They were both dyanmic in an uptempo offense that allowed Lowry to feed the ball into post players like Johnson and Valanciunas.
     Toronto has some solid players off the bench that include Bruno Cabelo, Landry Fields, Chuck Hayes, and Grievis Vasquez, but do they have enough firepower to contend at the top of the Eastern Conference?
     Keep an eye out for Ross this season as he only played in seven games last season. Expect him numbers to increase with the amount of minutes that he is going to be playing in 2014.

3.) Washington Wizards

PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP (With 2013-2014 Stats)

PG: John Wall (19.9 PPG, 8.8 APG, 4.1 RPG)
SG: Bradley Beal (17.1 PPG, 3.3 APG, 3.7 RPG)
SF: Paul Pierce (13.5 PPG, 2.4 APG, 4.6 RPG)
PF: Nene Hilario (14.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG)
C: Marcin Gortat (13.2 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 1.5 BLKPG)

Wizards point guard John Wall.
photo courtesy of twitchy.com.
     The Washington Wizards made the playoffs last season for the first time in seven years and even made a strong push against the Indiana Pacers in the second round. The mix of athletic youth and veteran leadership showcased Wall and Beal as the potential best backcourt in the league as well as the strong inside play of Nene and Gortat.
     Yes, the Wizards could struggle early with the absence of Beal for another month or so due to a wrist injury, but they have added enough depth on the roster that should help them get by until Beal returns to the lineup. Washington added veterans such as forwards Pierce, DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries to help out in the paint and Glen Rice Jr. and Martell Webster will have to fill in at the shooting guard spot in Beal's absence. Keep an eye out for forward Otto Porter Jr., the number three overall pick in the 2013 draft, who has had a full schedule of summer league and training camp basketball unlike in his rookie season when he was battling injuries.

2.) Chicago Bulls

PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP (With 2013-2014 Stats)

PG: Derrick Rose (15.9 PPG, 4.3 APG, 3.2 RPG in 10 games last season)
SG: Jimmy Butler (13.1 PPG, 2.6 APG, 4.9 RPG)
SF: Mike Dunleavy Jr. (11.3 PPG, 2.3 APG, 4.2 RPG)
PF: Pau Gasol (17.4 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 1.5 BLKPG)
C: Joakim Noah (12.6 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 1.5 BLKPG)

Bulls point guard Derrick Rose.
photo courtesy of chatsports.com.
     The Chicago Bulls are a great team on paper that is filled with depth. Noah and Butler took their offensive and defensive games to new levels last season and veterans such as guard Kirk Hinrich and forwards Taj Gibson and Dunleavy Jr., played pivotal roles in getting an undermanned Bulls squad to the playoffs. Add in the free agent acquisition of Gasol and drafting Doug McDermott in the first round and the Bulls look like they have almost all of the pieces on both sides of the ball to make a championship run in 2014.
     BUT let's be honest, that only happens if Rose can actually stay healthy. He only played in 10 games last season after injuring his knee and the Bulls couldn't score enough points to win in the playoffs. It's easy to forget, but Rose won the MVP award in 2011 and was arguably on LeBron James' level, in terms of being the best player in the NBA.
     Head coach Tom Thibodeau will have to not only monitor how Rose plays on the court, but also the minutes of the other players of his standard rotation. At the end of last season, Butler and Noah, in particular, were playing heavy minutes in games and understandably faded down the stretch.
     If Rose stays healthy and resembles any bit of the MVP player he was in 2011, Chicago could definitely represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. This is a very well built roster, but Rose is the key to this roster winning a championship.

1.) Cleveland Cavaliers

PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP (With 2013-2014 Stats)

PG: Kyrie Irving (20.8 PPG, 6.2 APG, 3.6 RPG)
SG: Dion Waiters (15.9 PPG, 3.0 APG, 2.8 RPG)
SF: LeBron James (27.1 PPG, 6.4 APG, 6.9 RPG0
PF: Kevin Love (26.1 PPG, 12.5 RPG)
C: Anderson Varaejao (8.4 PPG, 9.7 RPG)

Cavaliers forward LeBron James.
photo courtesy of bleacherreport.
     Owner Dan Gilbert and the Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off the ultimate heist in recent sports history. In one offseason, they transformed themselves from an irrelevant and mediocre franchise into an instant championship contender. The fact that the Cavaliers were able to convince LeBron to come back home was obviously the biggest acquisition that they could have possibly made. But then they acquired Love in a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and then acquired multiple free agent veterans that included forwards Shawn Marion and James Jones, guard Mike Miller, and center Brendan Haywood.
      Add in the talented young players that were already with the Cavaliers the last few seasons, including Irving, Waiters and forward Tristan Thompson, Cleveland has the most loaded team (from top to bottom), out of any other team that the NBA possibly has ever seen.
     There will be some looming questions. How fast will these players fit in with one another? How will head coach David Blatt manage minutes and the rotation of players in his first NBA season? And how will the Cavaliers organization afford all of these players in the next few players? But it's all about winning the championship this year and if LeBron and company can bring a title to Cleveland, he will be in the discussion of being the greatest basketball player that the NBA has ever seen.

Coming soon will be a preview of the Western Conference!

Until then, do you agree or disagree with these rankings? Leave a comment below or tweet me your comment @ConnorGlowacki.

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