NBA Free Agency 2012: Updated Eastern Conference Power Rankings

David Heeb@@DavidHeebCorrespondent IJuly 3, 2012

NBA Free Agency 2012: Updated Eastern Conference Power Rankings

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    Dwight Howard is probably headed to the Lakers. Roy Hibbert might play in Portland next year. Atlanta is shipping Joe Johnson to Brooklyn.

    The Earth is shifting under our feet in the Eastern Conference, and it's only Tuesday.

    In Chicago, the Bulls can't possibly know how soon Derrick Rose will play like an MVP again. Boston talked KG into sticking around, but still have to persuade Ray Allen to do the same. Meanwhile Philly, Cleveland, Washington and Toronto should all receive major contributions from their draft picks.

    Charlotte is still terrible, and Miami is still the best team in the East. Other than that, buckle up, hold on tight, and get ready for a wild ride. It's going to be a lot of fun in the NBA Eastern Conference this year.

    Here are my updated power rankings, based on the latest trade rumors...

#1: Miami Heat

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    The Heat still have LeBron James, and he is the best player in the world. It's scary to think that the Heat just won the NBA championship with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh both playing at far less than 100 percent. Those three players will be a year older, a year smarter, a year tougher, a year better and most importantly, one more year "gelled together" next season. With modest contributions from the rest of their roster, the Heat will again be atop the Eastern Conference.

    If Mike Miller retires and the Heat are able to use that money on a veteran role player like Ray Allen (doubtful), Grant Hill (maybe) or Marcus Camby (want a ring?), then the Heat could be almost impossible to beat in the East.

#2: Boston Celtics

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    How many times have we written this team's obituary? Yet, here they are, still alive and kicking.

    Before you scream at me and say this is too high for the Celtics, hear me out. They had Miami on the ropes, up 3-2, playing in Boston. It took the game of LeBron James' life to get Miami off the hook and into the NBA Finals. The Celtics managed to push the champs to the brink without Avery Bradley (missed the series with an injury), Jeff Green (who missed the season with a heart condition) and with Ray Allen playing at half speed (ankle).

    If the Celtics re-sign Allen, they'll run out a starting five of Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. Off the bench, they'll have Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger (draft pick), Greg Stiemsma and Fab Melo (draft pick). If the Celtics lose Green as a free agent, they could re-sign Mickael Pietrus, a very nice role player, or bring in a bargain free agent.

    Either way, the Celtics are a veteran team; they have a bona fide super star in Rajon Rondo, and they will be a much deeper, more talented team than the group that took Miami to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals

    Just think about that for a minute. 

#3: Chicago Bulls

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    The Bulls could be anywhere from first to fifth on this list depending on the health of Derek Rose. If Rose is good to go, then the Bulls are a legit threat to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals and challenge the Heat. If Rose misses half of the season, or even worse, if he isn't the same player we're used to seeing when he does return—a likely possibility this season—then the Bulls could really struggle.

    The Bulls had the deepest team in the league two years ago, and that depth really showed last season when the Bulls managed the best record in the NBA, despite the fact that Rose missed so much time during the regular season. However, that depth is slowly starting to erode.

    The Bulls don't know if Luol Deng will be 100 percent healthy to start the season. Omer Asik just got an offer sheet from Houston, meaning he might not be on the roster next season. Rip Hamilton didn't provide the spark the Bulls needed out of a shooting guard. Carlos Boozer is still playing like a really good role player, even though he makes more money than LeBron James.

    I loved Bulls draft pick Marquis Teague, who can fill in for Rose until he gets healthy. I also really like the core group of Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, Boozer and Deng. I just don't think the Bulls have enough talent—specifically, a second scorer—to compete with the Heat, and in my opinion, they are no longer deeper/tougher than the Celtics.

    Basically, as the kids would say, Rondo's supporting cast > Rose's supporting cast.

#4: New York

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    New York will move up ahead of teams like Orlando and Atlanta simply because their roster will remain mostly intact. The Knicks are capped out because of the bloated contracts they are paying to Carmelo Anthony and A'mare Stoudemire.

    I also think the Knicks will be better with a full offseason and a regular "getting to know you" process with head coach Mike Woodson. I think Woodson is a good-but-not-great coach. He did a really good job in Atlanta, where his teams made the playoffs and even managed to get out of the first round.

    I think he can do the same in New York, but ultimately, this roster is simply too flawed to work. Tyson Chandler, Stoudemire, Anthony, Jeremy Lin, Iman Shumpert, Landry Fields, Toney Douglas and bargain free agent to be named later will form a nice core group. They will win some games, and they might even win a playoff series.

    In the end, as usual, it will be a disappointing finish for Knicks fans, as their team won't get past the second round of the playoffs.

#5: Philadelphia 76ers

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    I love what the Sixers are doing. Maurice Harkless (draft pick), Arnett Moultrie (draft pick, acquired from the Heat), Spencer Hawes, Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Louis Williams and Andre Iguodala form a young, athletic group that is exciting to watch.

    Getting rid of Elton Brand's contract is only going to help this team going forward.

    Depending on what a couple of teams behind them do with their personnel, the Sixers could drop on this list because, despite their impressive depth and balance, they lack a true star player. Unfortunately for Sixers fans, that lack of a star, in my opinion, will keep them in "no man's land," always being the fourth to seventh seed in the East.

    Basically, they are going to win games, and they'll be fun to watch, but in the end, they will be stuck in neutral, a team with a high floor and a low ceiling.

#6: Indiana Pacers

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    If the Pacers re-sign Roy Hibbert, then they could jump as high as No. 3 on my list. I really, really like this Pacers roster. They are deep, big, tough, physical, nasty, and they play hard.

    Basically, the Pacers are the Bulls, minus Derek Rose, with slightly more talent everywhere else.

    The problem with a team in this range is that they are about as good as they're going to get. Their best player, Danny Granger, is an All-Star, but he isn't on the same level as the elite players in the NBA. Because of this, the Pacers just aren't going to win many games where it's "my best guy vs. your best guy" down the stretch of a close game.

    If the Pacers are going to win, they're going to have to find a different way to win.

    That's why I don't hate the fact that they drafted Miles Plumlee out of Duke. The Pacers, unlike the rest of the NBA, are trying to load up on size. With Plumlee, Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough, David West, Granger and Paul George, the Pacers have assembled a big, deep and rugged team. This model has worked well for the Memphis Grizzlies in the West, and if the Pacers do it just right, they might just surprise everybody.

    Of course, if they lose Hibbert, their anchor, then all bets are off.

7: Brooklyn Nets

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    If the Nets do land Joe Johnson, via trade from the Hawks, then they will immediately have one of the best backcourts in the NBA. Johnson is a pure scorer. Put him beside Deron Williams, one of the best point guards in the game, and the Nets have a solid place to start building a team.

    Throw in Gerald Wallace, who they hope to resign in free agency, and Brook Lopez, a young big man who is capable of putting up 20-10 every night, and the Nets have their core. Marshon Brooks had a great rookie year, averaging over 12 points per game. I also really like the pickup of Tyshawn Taylor, the athletic guard out of Kansas.

    If the Nets could somehow resign Gerald Green and Kris Humphries, two of their free agents, this team could be a scary first-round matchup for somebody.

    Then again, maybe Deron Williams, a free agent himself, will bolt for Dallas. If that happens, the Nets will be terrible, and they'll be paying Joe Johnson a ton of money over the next four years.

#8: Washington Wizards

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    John Wall, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, Nene, Emeka Okafor...

    If you roll out that starting five, how are they not going to be better than the rest of the teams on this list? If Beal is as good as advertised—and I believe he is—then how is he not going to make John Wall better? Speaking of Wall, as he enters his third season in the league, doesn't he look like the kind of kid just waiting to break out?

    I think the Wizards have the most talented pair of young guards in the NBA. If Wall figures it out, and he will, then this is going to be a team to reckon with over the next decade. They are a year or two of development and a year or two of not handing out some stupid free agent contract away from being a scary team.

    You heard it here first. I think Washington makes the playoffs next year.

#9: Milwaukee Bucks

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    Here is another team in "no man's land," a team without a star, but their roster makeup is really curious.

    They have two shoot-first, shoot-second, shoot-third and think about maybe-almost-sometimes passing-the-ball-fourth in Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. Say what you want, but both players can really fill it up. The Bucks also have some very talented players up front, with Ersan Ilyasova, Samuel Dalembert, Ekpe Udoh, Luc Mbah a Moute, Larry Sanders and John Henson (draft pick) providing a ton of size, length, rebounding, and shot-blocking.

    Basically, this is the most confusing roster in the league. They really don't have a ton of in-between talent. I vote right now that they just let Jennings and Ellis shoot as much as they want and send all their athletes to the glass, kind of like a summer AAU game.

    I think the Bucks could make the playoffs, or they could lose Ilyasova as a free agent, or they could trade some of their forwards for some more perimeter help, or Ellis and Jennings could get into a fist fight at half court one night.

    All of these things are possible, and all of them would be entertaining.

#10: Atlanta Hawks

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    This was a team with a window to really make some noise. Alas, that window has closed.

    I think it's a really smart move to trade Joe Johnson, as he is vastly overpaid. I also think it's a good idea to turn the page on Marvin Williams, if for no other reason than we're tired of people saying "they should've drafted Chris Paul instead."

    What the Hawks are left with isn't a bad young team. Josh Smith and Al Horford are young and talented. Jeff Teague is a decent point guard. Other than that, you can blow the rest of this team up and start over. You can bet new GM Danny Ferry will learn from some of the moves (mistakes) he made in Cleveland, when he surrounded LeBron James with aging, overpaid players like Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison.

    The Hawks are one rolled ankle away from being terrible, but I actually think they are in a better place today, without Johnson and his contract, than they were this time last week.

11: Cleveland Cavs

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    The Cavs could be a little better in 2012-2013 or a little worse, but either way, I'd rather be the Cavs than about half of the teams I have ranked ahead of them. At least the Cavs have some sort of sense of direction, and they have some great looking young players at key positions.

    It has to kill Cavs fans knowing they passed on Jonas Valanciunas last year. When they passed on the big Lithuanian, they made a huge mistake. Taking Tristan Thompson, a nice looking young power forward, led to them passing on Thomas Robinson this year, who also plays power forward.

    How good would the Cavs be moving forward with a core of Kyrie Irving, Valanciunas and Robinson? We'll never know. Instead, we have Irving, Dion Waiters, Thompson and Tyler Zeller. That is a nice young group, and I think Waiters is going to be a stud, but in the long run, Cavs fans are going to regret the team passing up on Bradley Beal, and they're going to regret passing up on Valanciunas.

    Still, Cavs fans have to be excited that there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

12: Toronto Raptors

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    If Steve Nash signs with Toronto, I reserve the right to bump them as high as fourth on my list. That is not a typo; I said fourth on my list.

    Toronto Raptors, four seed, Eastern Conference.

    Steve Nash has made a career out of making guys look better than they really are. Steve Nash has made more guys more money than perhaps any player in the NBA not named Jason Kidd. Imagine what Nash would do with a young stud like the aforementioned Valanciunas. Just try to picture Nash running the pick and pop with a guy like Andrea Bargnani, a pure shooting big man.

    The Raptors have sprinters on this roster also, with DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross (draft pick), Ed Davis and Quincy Acy (draft pick) on board. Nash would help an athlete like DeRozan put up All-Star numbers. Nash would allow Ross to come into the NBA and do what he does best—put the ball in the hole.

    If Nash doesn't sign with the Raptors, they have a scrappy team that is going to win some games, but ultimately, the point guard combo of Jose Calderon and Jerryd Bayless is, well...

    They're no Steve Nash.

13: Detroit Pistons

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    They're not the worst team in the East. At least you have that going for you, Pistons' fans.

    I really like Greg Monroe, a promising young big man. I'm really rooting for Andre Drummond, the Pistons' 2012 first-round draft Pick (No. 9 overall), a young man who has already had his game picked apart. Other than that, the Pistons are thin on talent.

    I've never been a big fan of Rodney Stuckey. I don't think he's a point guard. Charlie Villanueva isn't worth the money the Pistons are paying him, and because he makes so much, he is taking a roster spot they should just give to a younger player. Austin Daye was a disappointment in college; he's been disappointing so far as a pro, and he hasn't shown me anything to make me think he might change.

    Brandon Knight played well as a rookie, but just going by "the eyeball test," he isn't going to improve a great deal in the NBA. He is always going to be a role player, a tweener guard. He is good enough to start for a bad team or be in a playoff team's rotation. He's a piece of the future to be sure, but the hope for a turnaround in Detroit lies with Monroe and Drummond.

    If we're waiting on Drummond, it's going to take awhile. I think if the Pistons are patient and  can make good moves over the next couple of drafts, they could build a winner around Monroe, Drummond and Knight.

#14: Orlando Magic

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    This team isn't going anywhere with Dwight Howard, so just imagine how bad they are going to be without Dwight Howard.

    This roster is a mess. There is no sentence or paragraph to describe how incoherent the plan to build a team around Howard was. Who can blame him for wanting out? I mean, sure, blame the guy for how he is going about it, but don't blame him for wanting to get as far away from Orlando as he can get.

    Is there a possibility for Bill Simmons' Ewing Theory to kick in?

    Is it possible that J.J. Reddick, Jameer Nelson and the rest of the Magic roster goes nuts? Could they play an entire season with something to prove? I guess it's possible, but I'm not betting on it. I think it's safe to put the Magic in the lottery for the next three years.

    Hey, at least they're not the worst team in the East.

15: Charlotte Bobcats

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    It takes more than one offseason to get this stink off of you.

    I love the Michael Kidd-Gilchrist pick. I think the Bobcats are much better going forward with somebody like MKG, who will be a star in this league, than a package of three picks that would have wound up being Dion Waiters (maybe an All-Star), Tyler Zeller (best case, he's an average starting center) and Jeffrey Taylor (a sneaky good rotation guy).

    As we've already covered, you can get better with good players, but there is a ceiling for every team that doesn't have a superstar. MKG is going to be a superstar.

    If Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo become solid players and the Bobcats can draft well over the next couple of seasons (they gained an extra protected first-rounder from Detroit), the Bobcats will continue to climb. It's going to take time, but they already have their franchise player.

    That's the hardest part.

    So again, while the Bobcats might be the worst team in the East, I'd rather have their future right now than half of the teams ranked ahead of them. It's only a matter of time before they turn the corner with a young stud like MKG in the mix.