Updated NBA Eastern Conference Power Rankings, Post-Brandon Jennings Trade

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 31, 2013

Updated NBA Eastern Conference Power Rankings, Post-Brandon Jennings Trade

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    The Detroit Pistons have added Brandon Jennings to their offseason overhaul, but is it enough to change the balance of power in the deeper-than-advertised Eastern Conference?

    According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Jennings will have a new three-year, $24 million contract to greet him in Motown. As part of the sign-and-trade swap, the Pistons will send Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Slava Kravtsov to the Milwaukee Bucks.

    While the defending champion Miami Heat have seen their biggest threats to the conference crown (Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, etc.) reload this summer, Erik Spoelstra's squad has been confident (or cocky) enough to stand pat for the most part.

    Will that trust come back to haunt the Heat as one of these retooled teams unseats the reigning beasts of the East? Or was this a sound strategy built around this group's banner-raising successes?

    Read on to find out where the Heat, Jennings' Pistons and the other 13 teams now rank in the Eastern Conference's pecking order.

     

    *Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

15. Philadelphia 76ers

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    2012-13 Record: 34-48

     

    Addition by subtraction.

    That's the motto for the Philadelphia 76ers entering the 2013-14 season.

    The subtraction portion is already underway. All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday was sent to the New Orleans Pelicans for No. 6 pick Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected 2014 first-round pick.

    If new general manager Sam Hinkie hears the right offer, no veterans are safe from being included in this fire sale.

    After years of floating in and out playoff contention, the 76ers have stunted the cycle of mediocrity and are prepared for a prolonged rebuilding project. With Noel sidelined indefinitely while rehabbing a torn ACL, it will be a while before Philly fans even catch a glimpse of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

    There are still some serviceable parts that might prove worth holding on to, but no one outside of the 2013 draft class is untouchable at this point.

    Expect the Sixers' record at season's end to reflect that.

14. Orlando Magic

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    2012-13 Record: 20-62

     

    The Orlando Magic are further along in their reclamation project, but they're still set to serve as evidence of just how long these roster overhauls can take.

    Rookie Victor Oladipo joins a youthful, athletic bunch that should be improved defensively under Jacque Vaughn next season.

    Tobias Harris looked like a star after landing in Orlando at the midway point last season (17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds in 27 games with the Magic). Nikola Vucevic is a walking double-double (13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds), and Maurice Harkless fits the physical profile (6'8", 210 lbs.) of the perimeter stopper needed in today's NBA.

    Still, this is largely an unproven core that figures to be in line for some on-the-job training.

    There are going to be some bumps in the road (see last season's 109.1 defensive rating). And there isn't a go-to scorer for those pressure-packed moments.

    Orlando's upside is high, and the chance for some upward mobility in the conference standings is there. But another lottery appearance looks to be the likeliest outcome, which would not be the worst-case scenario for Magic fans if the 2014 draft class lives up to its hype.

13. Milwaukee Bucks

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    2012-13 Record: 38-44

     

    No, this is not meant to suggest that the Milwaukee Bucks should have kept the Monta Ellis-Brandon Jennings backcourt alive.

    In fact, it's just the opposite. While Milwaukee's primed to slide down the standings next season, that could wind up being its key to landing the impact player Ellis and Jennings never were.

    Points are going to come at a premium for any team that faces the Bucks. Larry Sanders had his breakout campaign last season (9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks), and John Henson could be primed for one this time around.

    With Zaza Pachulia, Ekpe Udoh and Miroslav Raduljica also factoring in the frontcourt rotation, the Bucks have as much length on the interior as any team in the league.

    Unfortunately, points might be even harder to come by on the offensive end.

    There are some intriguing complementary scorers on the roster (O.J. Mayo, Ersan Ilyasova, Gary Neal and Brandon Knight), but no one to consistently break down opposing defenses.

    Bucks fans have been waiting for an efficient table-setter since Jennings first arrived in Milwaukee in 2009. Knight, Neal and Luke Ridnour will not be filling that void.

12. Charlotte Bobcats

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    2012-13 Record: 21-61

     

    The Charlotte Bobcats have quietly pieced together one of the most impactful offseason plans this summer.

    Draft night yielded them Cody Zeller, a mobile 7-footer with smooth footwork and deft shooting touch from mid-range. Al Jefferson, a rare talent as a true back-to-the-basket offensive force, arrived early in free agency.

    The Bobcats also swung deals to retain Josh McRoberts and Gerald Henderson and shed the remaining two years and $19 million left on Tyrus Thomas' contract via the amnesty clause.

    Charlotte's offense needed a jolt after managing just 93.4 points per game last season, 26th in the league. Jefferson's low-post presence will help spread the floor, while Zeller will add another weapon to the transition game paced by the speedy Kemba Walker.

    Defense, however, remains an issue.

    The Bobcats allowed a league-worst 111.5 points per 100 possessions last season, and that number could get even uglier. The plodding Jefferson is a liability in pick-and-roll coverage, and Zeller was too easily moved off the block by collegiate post players.

    Still, Charlotte's baby steps up the conference ladder should continue. When you're sitting on a two-year winning percentage of just .189, any positive movement is a welcome sign.

11. Boston Celtics

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    2012-13 Record: 41-40

     

    Boston Celtics team president Danny Ainge says his team isn't tanking for an elite-level prospect. As long as Rajon Rondo is calling Beantown his hoops home, that's probably true.

    But at some point in the not-so-distant future, these Celtics will need to be scrapped and sold for spare parts.

    Rondo is the most creative setup man in the business, but he needs consistent scorers around him to be effective. Right now, his top point producers either hold less-than-impressive career scoring averages (Jeff Green, 13.6, and Brandon Bass, 8.7) or lack a usable sample size (Jordan Crawford, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger).

    Boston was bullied on the boards last season (league-worst 47.5 rebounding percentage, via NBA.com), and that was before its top two glass-eaters (Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce) were stripped from the roster.

    No matter how strong the Celtics are on the defensive perimeter with Rondo, Green, Avery Bradley and Gerald Wallace, the performing without a rim-protector at their backs will make the team defense suffer. Unless Fab Melo miraculously fits all of the pieces together in training camp, Boston will struggle to defend throughout the season.

    The Celtics are closing in on a worst-case scenario.

    By the organization's standards, a bottom-five finish in the conference will feel like they've bottomed out. But without some lottery luck, they won't have a top pick to show for all of those losses.

10. Toronto Raptors

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    2012-13 Record: 34-48

     

    If Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri can carve out a path to relevance, he'll be worth every penny of his $15 million contract.

    To make a long story short, there is no quick fix for this roster.

    The Raptors aren't short on talent, but they're far from being a championship contender.

    Rudy Gay can score points in bunches, but his seven-year track record suggests they'll rarely come efficiently (career 16.1 player efficiency rating). The legend of Jonas Valanciunas continued to grow at the Las Vegas Summer League, but his rookie-season scoring average (8.9) suggests it might be a while before he's able to carry a franchise.

    There's a similar give-and-take with the rest of the rotation.

    Kyle Lowry is serviceable, but it's been a while since he looked like anything better than that. DeMar DeRozan is a dynamic slasher, but athleticism shouldn't be the strongest asset of a player with a $9.5 million salary. Amir Johnson does a little of everything well, but it remains to be seen how those skills will translate to a full-time starting role.

    The Raptors are too expensive, $70 million via Hoopsworld.com, to be battling for a low-end playoff berth and too talented to fall completely out of the race.

    Unless Ujiri can work miracles, neither prime postseason positions nor desirable draft slots will be seen north of the border for some time.

9. Atlanta Hawks

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    2012-13 Record: 44-38

     

    The Atlanta Hawks have a nice blend of experienced and youthful talent, and not one player is vastly overpaid. They also have a new leader, Mike Budenholzer, who has firsthand knowledge of the keys to sustained success after spending the previous 18 seasons in the San Antonio Spurs organization.

    So what keeps them out of the playoff picture?

    Well, part of their avoidance of costly contracts is a direct result of their lack of a superstar. 

    Al Horford could be a lethal secondary option on a championship team but looks miscast in a leading role. Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap are similar complementary pieces, but they don't have the elite building block to complement.

    The Hawks have a few nice pieces floating through the pipelines (sophomores John Jenkins and Mike Scott and rookies Dennis Schroeder and Lucas Nogueira), but they aren't ready to assume the leadership role. 

    Their lone shot at lengthening their current six-year postseason roll may come from Budenholzer's ability to increase the tempo. Despite having the necessary track stars, the Hawks haven't attacked with a top-10 pace since the 2001-02 season.

    All of the pieces are still in place for Atlanta to become a run-and-gun offensive force. 

    Teague and, in a smaller sample size, Schroeder have flashed the ability to make sound decisions in the open court consistently. Jenkins and Kyle Korver are lights-out shooters built to bury those efficient transition triples. Horford, Millsap and Nogueira all possess mobility not typically afforded to players of their size.

    The Hawks might buy into Budenholzer's teachings and soar into a top-six spot, but that missing cornerstone piece may leave them just shy of basketball's real big dance.

8. Washington Wizards

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    2012-13 Record: 29-53

     

    By the time John Wall made his 2012-13 debut, the Washington Wizards had just five wins to show for their first 33 attempts. Once the electric point guard got back in the mix, though, Washington was a near-.500 ballclub (24-25).

    With a few more pieces since added to the equation (reserve Eric Maynor and rookies Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr.), a .500 season seems like the basement projection for this rising roster.

    The lone potential hang-up, Wall's contract situation, is no longer an issue, as Sam Amick of USA Today reports the two sides have agreed to a five-year, $80 million contract extension. In other words, nothing outside of the medical realm should keep this team out of the playoff picture.

    With Emeka Okafor and Nene anchoring the interior, the Wizards suffocated their opponents last season with the league's fifth-best defensive rating (103.0). Adding a long, versatile defender like Porter should only help their defense.

    The offensive end of the floor painted an entirely different picture, though. Washington's 100.2 points per 100 possessions was the worst such mark in the league.

    But there are logical reasons to think that better days lie just around the bend.

    Wall and sophomore Bradley Beal have another offseason to grow together as an explosive backcourt pairing. Porter and Martell Webster should help spread the floor and create room for Washington's dynamic duo to score more efficiently off the dribble.

    Nene's ability to pass out of the post should be exploited at every opportunity with slashers like Porter, Trevor Ariza and Wall.

    An eighth-place finish feels a bit like an undersell with this roster, but Washington's five-year postseason drought makes it tough to predict confidently in anything higher.

7. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    2012-13 Record: 24-58

     

    We've all heard of boom-or-bust players, but the 2013-14 Cleveland Cavaliers are the rare boom-or-bust franchise.

    And that starts and stops on the broad shoulders of Andrew Bynum.

    Just last summer, the former Los Angeles Lakers star looked headed for a nine-figure deal. But after having the entire 2012-13 campaign sapped by his surgically repaired knees, he "settled" for an incentive-laden two-year, $24 million deal with the Cavaliers.

    If he's healthy—which is a huge question mark—Bynum solves so many questions for this club.

    He's the consistent scoring option that this frontcourt doesn't have otherwise. If defenses are forced to pay extra attention to the interior, imagine the kind of damage Kyrie Irving (22.5 points per game last season) and Dion Waiters (14.7) will do.

    Bynum's also the perfect blend of rim protection and rebounding. Name any logical four-man defensive unit for the Cavs next season, and its potential for stifling success grows exponentially with Bynum's inclusion.

    But the big man's not the only reason to be bullish about this Cleveland bunch.

    Irving is a rising star without an identifiable ceiling at this stage. Top pick Anthony Bennett brings loads of offensive ability regardless of which forward spot he fills. Jarrett Jack adds veteran savvy along with insurance if Irving is once again bitten by the injury bug.

    Still, Bynum is Cleveland's ticket to cracking the Eastern Conference's elite.

    If he's 100 percent, the Cavaliers could be hosting a first-round series. If he's absent like he was last season, Cleveland could be hoping for more of Nick Gilbert's lottery luck.

    I'll predict a mixed bag for Bynum, with some dominant outings sprinkled in with trips to the training table. That might not be enough to meet all of his contract stipulations but should propel this team back into the playoffs.

6. Detroit Pistons

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    2012-13 Record: 29-53

     

    On paper, it's tough to imagine the new-look Detroit Pistons completely buying into the age-old adage that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    Still, there's enough talent among the individual parts in the Motor City to envision an end to the franchise's four-year playoff drought.

    Not everyone's thrilled about GM Joe Dumars' combined $78 million investment in Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith, but this is nothing like tying up $89 million in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.

    Jennings isn't the pass-first point guard the team might have been looking for (career 5.7 assists in 34.6 minutes per game), but he'll still be a valuable addition on this roster. He protects the basketball (career 2.4 turnovers per game) and has a three-point stroke (37.5 percent last season) that defenses have to respect.

    With Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond flooding the frontcourt, the Pistons needed some hired guns to maintain effective floor spacing. Rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (37.3 three-point percentage as a sophomore at Georgia) and Italian import Luigi Datome (41.9 three-point percentage last season, via Sportando.net) help form a formidable perimeter threat alongside Jennings.

    Up front, the Smith-Monroe-Drummond trio is long, athletic and productive.

    Smith (4.3 assists per game last season) and Monroe (3.5) are willing passers out of the post, and Drummond looks destined for stardom after his five-game assault at the Orlando Summer League (15.5 points and 14.8 rebounds per game).

    Defensively, this unit can cover plenty of real estate, and the Pistons look primed to elevate their already solid standing on the glass (plus-0.35 rebounding differential last season, 13th in the NBA).

    There's the potential for this to all go south in a hurry, but there's some upward mobility with this group, too.

5. New York Knicks

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    2012-13 Record: 54-28

     

    The New York Knicks couldn't find the secondary scorer Carmelo Anthony wanted, but they did manage to add depth and insurance on limited funds.

    For a team fresh off a 54-win season, the need for wholesale changes just didn't exist.

    The Knicks will still ride Anthony as far as he can carry them, but head coach Mike Woodson has options now for when his other starters are struggling.

    The perimeter is packed full of stretch shooters who will allow the reigning scoring champion to continue compiling numbers on the low block. If Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert and Metta World Peace are missing their mark, Pablo Prigioni, J.R. Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Andrea Bargnani can bring a spark off the bench.

    As long as the triples are falling, the Knicks present a series of puzzles for defenses to solve. Take away the long ball, and Anthony and Smith will wreak havoc off the dribble. Pay too close attention to Anthony and Smith, though, and New York can do damage off the pick-and-roll or drive-and-kick.

    Up front, Tyson Chandler will still see the lion's share of the interior minutes. But Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin can spell the oft-injured star and keep him at his lane-clogging best.

    Defensively, newcomers World Peace and Bargnani will help keep Anthony free from the physical abuse that stems from defending the low block. As Shumpert moves further away from his April 2012 torn ACL, New York moves that much closer to having that badly needed perimeter stopper.

    The Knicks might eventually need a more efficient complementary scorer to prolong their postseason stay, but a path back to the playoffs shouldn't have many twists or turns.

4. Chicago Bulls

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    2012-13 Record: 45-37

     

    The last time the Chicago Bulls had a healthy Derrick Rose, they raced to an Eastern Conference-best .758 winning percentage.

    Until there's proof that the Bulls will have that same Rose back in action, it's impossible to return this team to the top of the East's food chain.

    With that being said, Rose is such a tremendous talent at full strength that he's an impactful addition even at something less than his former MVP form. He'll bring stability to the backcourt that the Bulls wouldn't otherwise have given Kirk Hinrich's injury history and Marquis Teague's inexperience.

    But Rose isn't the only reason for excitement in the Windy City.

    Jimmy Butler is a star-in-training, Joakim Noah is staking his claim as the game's most versatile center, and Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer only add to one of the league's most well-rounded starting units.

    Mike Dunleavy (42.8 three-point percentage last season) provides an added perimeter punch without sacrificing too much on the defensive end. Rookie Tony Snell is the latest Swiss army knife to be added to the roster, while second-round selection Erik Murphy brings a new wrinkle to the offense as a stretch 4.

    An injury-depleted Bulls team proved to be a tough playoff out last season. A healthy Chicago core should be something so much greater.

3. Indiana Pacers

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    2012-13 Record: 49-32

     

    The Indiana Pacers fell one game shy of dethroning the defending champion Miami Heat in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. For as supremely skilled and physically imposing as their starting five was, their bench was equally inept, particularly on the offensive end.

    That fact did not go unnoticed by Indiana's front office.

    The Pacers added a go-to post scorer (Luis Scola), a versatile two-way contributor (Solomon Hill) and a lights-out shooter from distance (C.J. Watson, 41.1 three-point percentage last season). Oh, and they might be keeping a former All-Star, Danny Granger, as a reserve, except this year he'll likely be healthier.

    Scola (33 years old) and Granger (30, with a history of knee problems) might not be the players they once were, but the Pacers won't need them to be. Working off of the pine diminishes the workloads for the pair along with the quality of defenders they'll be battling.

    But a strong group of understudies alone wouldn't garner a top-three slot here. This prominent position comes courtesy of Indiana's headliners.

    Paul George needed just three years to crack the All-Star ranks, and the do-it-all wingman is just scratching the surface of his ability. George Hill and Lance Stephenson set the toughness tone for these blue-collar ballers, while Roy Hibbert and David West cause nightly headaches for opposing bigs on both ends of the floor.

    Indiana has improved its postseason finish in each of the last three seasons. If that trend continues, the NBA Finals will be back in the Circle City for the first time since 1999-00.

2. Brooklyn Nets

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    2012-13 Record: 49-33

     

    So much has been made of the Brooklyn Nets' nine-figure payroll and astronomical luxury-tax bill. But since I won't be the one signing those checks, the money is not my concern.

    Where I come into play is assessing owner Mikhail Prokhorov's costly investments and how they will translate to the hardwood.

    Brooklyn's collection of talented, battle-tested players runs as deep as any in the league. 

    The Nets have All-Stars at each of their starting spots, another one (Andrei Kirilenko) off the bench along with a former Sixth Man of the Year (Jason Terry).

    Looking through a one-year lens, it's hard to identify any holes in the roster.

    There's a competent floor general, Deron Williams, and a pair of sharpshooting running mates (Terry and Joe Johnson) to play alongside him. There's a potent post scorer (Brook Lopez), a deadly mid-range shooter (Kevin Garnett), a big who does a little of both (Andray Blatche) and a glass-eater with an insatiable appetite (Reggie Evans).

    Defensively, Williams can frustrate opposing guards, Kirilenko can fill in wherever he's needed, and Lopez and Garnett can form a wall around the rim.

    There are plenty of mouths to feed, though, and a rookie coach, Jason Kidd, left to find the right combination of satisfying servings.

    If the falling stars (Garnett, Pierce, Johnson) cede the spotlight to those at the top of their game (Williams) or on their way up (Lopez), Brooklyn won't just be basketball's newest city; it could be the new home of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

1. Miami Heat

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    2012-13 Record: 66-16

     

    It's good to be the King. It's probably even better to have him on your roster.

    Until they're dethroned, the two-time defending champion Miami Heat have exclusive rights to the Eastern Conference's most prominent perch.

    If last season proved anything, it's that Miami can survive its talented trio being reduced to a solo act. LeBron James would surely welcome any support, but if he's forced back into his "Cleveland days," per Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated, he'll do whatever's needed for a victory.

    Save for the amnestied Mike Miller, the Heat will return all key contributors from last season's title team. There are no real potential surprises on the rosterunless Norris Cole makes an unlikely leap in his third yearbut that's probably a good thing considering this group's collective accomplishments.

    A low-cost addition is still a possibilityGreg Oden perhaps, per Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spearsbut the fate of this franchise still rests on James looking like an all-time great and his teammates doing everything they can to complement his strengths.

    A top-10 team on both ends of the floor last season, the Heat don't have to force their will on their opponents. Their strongest hand usually trumps that of their competitor's, whether in a grind-it-out setting or an uptempo-basketball-game-turned-track meet.

    The Eastern Conference is getting heavier on the top, but make no mistake about which team is tipping the scales the most.