Re-Ranking Eastern Conference Contenders Following Gordon Hayward Injury
With one ill-fated alley-oop attempt, the landscape of the Eastern Conference changed. The loss of Gordon Hayward, who has now undergone bony and ligamentous stabilization surgery on his left ankle, per the Boston Celtics' official Twitter feed, drastically weakens a primary contender to the Cleveland Cavaliers' longstanding supremacy in the NBA's weaker half.
Now, the Boston Celtics belong to Kyrie Irving.
But how far do they fall with him serving as the unquestioned alpha? Are they still the leading challenger to the Duke product's former teammate, or do they fall behind one of the other upper-echelon squads in the East?
Rest assured they still remain one of the six teams with a legitimate shot at ascending into the conference's top four and holding down home-court advantage in the postseason's opening round—it's a matter of where they fit within that group.
6. Miami Heat
Don't be fooled by the Miami Heat's season-opening loss to the Orlando Magic. Plenty of quality teams drop contests on the first day of the NBA calendar, and the South Beach residents are still trying to forge an identity with new pieces factoring into the equation. Once they do, they should resume last year's second-half dominance and potentially grow even more dangerous with Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo added into the frontcourt rotation.
And that would be terrifying for the rest of the Eastern Conference.
After sinking to 11-30 at the midway point of the 2016-17 campaign, Miami bounced back with a 30-11 record to come tantalizingly close to the No. 8 seed. During that stretch, it outscored foes by 7.0 points per 100 possessions—a net rating that trailed only the season-long marks of the San Antonio Spurs (7.6) and Golden State Warriors (11.7). On March 11, after a victory over the Toronto Raptors, it was on such a tear that its 20-game rolling team rating, per NBA Math, was superior to that of every other team in the league.
Maybe regression is inevitable. Perhaps that motivated bunch was always overachieving.
But Miami made significant progress because it switched up its schemes, relying on a drive-and-kick offense that featured points and assists coming from unorthodox spots. Hassan Whiteside is more comfortable operating in those half-court sets now. Justise Winslow is healthy and starting to initiate offense for the Heat. Goran Dragic and James Johnson are still in place, and Dion Waiters will surely improve after his 7-of-17 showing against the Magic in the season-opener.
Since it's relatively devoid of superstar potential, this team might not have the upside necessary to compete for one of the East's top two seeds. But the floor is higher here than for the other No. 6 spot. Miami boasts across-the-board depth and an elite coaching staff ready to build upon what it learned during last year's roller-coaster ride.
Next in Line: Charlotte Hornets, Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons
5. Milwaukee Bucks
Let's take a pessimistic approach here.
Malcolm Brogdon goes through a bit of a sophomore slump after winning Rookie of the Year in his first season out of Virginia. Tony Snell doesn't take the next step, and Thon Maker continues looking like a high-upside player who isn't yet ready to realize any of that potential.
Even in that situation, the Milwaukee Bucks would have a quality player at every single position.
Brogdon would still be palatable, especially paired with Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, a healthy Jabari Parker and Greg Monroe. Plus, there's no reason to expect the aptly nicknamed Greek Freak to do anything other than continue to look every bit the part of a top-10 player. That type of star power, plus a good bit of depth, could win in the Western Conference; it's borderline elite in the NBA's weaker half.
But what if everything goes right?
What if Brogdon continues playing like he did on opening night, when he went for 19 points (on 10 field-goal attempts) and four assists while showing off his defensive skills against the Boston Celtics? What if Snell proves worthy of his new contract, while Maker performs like he did in short spurts during the 2017 playoffs? What if Antetokounmpo is ready to compete for MVP right now?
As you might expect because of their overwhelming youth at so many key spots, the Bucks are a volatile team. The range between their floor and ceiling is higher than that of any other squad populating this countdown.
But that does mean the roof is raised to a rather lofty position, and it's by no means inconceivable to expect Brewtown to vault up the ranks in expeditious fashion.
4. Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors, coming off a year in which they won 51 games and lost a tiebreaker to finish third in the Eastern Conference, could be even better in 2017-18.
But "could" is the operative word.
Losing P.J. Tucker forces more defensive responsibility onto wing liabilities (DeMar DeRozan) or unproven commodities (Norman Powell). The roster is another year older, and that's not a good thing for an aging point guard such as Kyle Lowry. Confidence may be an issue after the demoralizing sweep at the hands of LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in the postseason's second round, which left Lowry bemoaning the enduring presence of the Eastern bogeyman midway through the series.
On the flip side, everything could go right.
Lowry and DeRozan remain an elite backcourt pairing—the No. 4 starting duo, based on my offseason rankings—and increased chemistry with Serge Ibaka should go a long way. Powell is ready to take on a bigger two-way role, given his physical defense and ability to run pick-and-rolls as a secondary ball-handler. OG Anunoby and Delon Wright add more depth at key positions, while it's still possible for Jonas Valanciunas to end his career stagnation and develop into a truly impactful center.
Quite simply, this is a talented bunch. And, as Doug Smith explained for the Toronto Star while providing reasons for optimism, continuity helps:
"There’s something to be said for having groups of players who are familiar with each other. Not only can they figure things out as a group during games, but they have the ability to get on each other away from the games to draw out the best in each other. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas have been together for six seasons, which gives them a leg up on much of the competition."
Too much remains unproven for the Raptors to elevate into the third or second spot without first playing through the tough opening salvo of their schedule and asserting themselves as worldbeaters, but they're certainly within striking distance.
3. Boston Celtics
Even with Gordon Hayward likely out for the rest of the season after his devastating injury on opening night, the Boston Celtics should still be in the hunt for home-court advantage. This is a loaded roster with interchangeable wings to satisfy head coach Brad Stevens, a deep stable of guards and an enduring star in the frontcourt (Al Horford).
Terry Rozier has looked phenomenal through his first two games, offering hope that he and Marcus Smart could become an imposing offense-defense punch off the bench. Jayson Tatum has already shown flashes of excellence, and some consistency from him during his rookie season would just add to the wing depth Boston will boast after Marcus Morris returns from the right knee soreness nagging him at the beginning of his first campaign in green.
Remove Hayward from the equation, and this remains an impressive depth chart (only including those who should factor into a 12-man rotation):
- Point guard: Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart
- Shooting guard: Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Abdel Nader
- Small forward: Jayson Tatum, Semi Ojeleye
- Power forward: Marcus Morris, Guerschon Yabusele, Daniel Theis
- Center: Al Horford, Aron Baynes
An established or high-potential player populates every position—plus a bunch of intriguing backups. But "intriguing" doesn't always win games, and the second unit will inevitably experience the occasional downticks against some top-tier benches as the youngsters work through their growing pains.
And speaking of growing pains, Irving will struggle through some of his own in the lead role.
He already did in the Celtics' second game, shooting 7-of-25 in a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks and taking far too many forced attempts down the stretch. Even Boston's notoriously over-the-top fan color commentator Tommy Heinsohn grew tired of his isolation proclivities.
Though Irving has established himself as one of the NBA's deadliest scorers and a perennial All-Star, he hasn't yet proved his style of play is conducive to racking up victories while he serves as the unquestioned alpha dog. That's his role in Boston, and he could be far better in it with this mix of players surrounding him. But when he operated in Cleveland with LeBron James on the bench, his team was outscored, per nbawowy, by 6.6 points per 100 possessions.
By the end of the season, Boston might have re-ascended up into the same realm as the Cavs. But it has a lot of proving to do first, and that starts with Irving sparking wins as the No. 1 option on offense.
2. Washington Wizards
The Washington Wizards may be a bit overreliant on their starting five, but that's only because it was so damn good throughout the 2016-17 season. When John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat were on the floor, they outscored the opposition by an astounding 8.1 points per 100 possessions.
And yet, they finished the year "just" 49-33, looking up at the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors. A weak bench consistently held them back, negating the work of the starters by blowing leads and failing to close gaps when the team's best players were taking breathers.
That should change now.
This could be the year Wall asserts himself as a legitimate MVP candidate. Beal and Porter should have their sights set on the All-Star Game. Gortat is trucking along as a non-glamorous two-way presence who sets screens as well as anyone. Once Morris returns from sports hernia surgery, he'll resume functioning as the glue guy who can contribute in myriad areas. But it's the bench that elevates these Wizards enough to put them in striking distance of the East's true powerhouse.
A healthy Ian Mahinmi makes a big difference on the defensive end, while Tim Frazier and a more experienced version of Tomas Satoransky can provide convincing depth behind D.C.'s best player. Jodie Meeks and Mike Scott are in place to throw up some deep attempts. And best of all, a future star is developing.
After a stellar preseason, Kelly Oubre Jr. began his potential breakout campaign in style, moving into a bigger role after Jason Smith left with a right shoulder sprain and justifying the change with 14 points, eight rebounds, two assists, two steals, two blocks, zero turnovers and a thunderous putback slam. He played with confidence, passion and effectiveness on both ends, looking like he'll spend much of the year serving as a front-runner in the Most Improved Player race.
If he does, Washington might not have too many exploitable weaknesses.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
Did you expect anything else?
Even with Gordon Hayward fully healthy, the Boston Celtics were mere challengers to the Cleveland Cavaliers; they hadn't yet ascended all the way up the Eastern Conference hierarchy, and the burden of proof rested firmly on their collective shoulders. Sure, they won more games than the Cavs during the 2016-17 campaign before improving the roster, but that's not quite as relevant as LeBron James and Co. dropping just a single game before another Finals clash with the Golden State Warriors.
Oh, and the Cavs might've gotten even better.
Once Isaiah Thomas returns from his ongoing hip issues, he can step into the role Kyrie Irving used to fill. Jae Crowder figures to be a perfect fit alongside James and Kevin Love, while Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Jeff Green can contribute in smaller roles. Rose and Wade may not be who they once were, but they should eventually settle in as high-quality depth pieces, assuming they're willing to take on such lessened responsibilities and yield the starting gigs to Thomas and J.R. Smith. Both less-heralded players simply make more sense alongside the other starters.
But even if they attempt to force an awkward fit, the Cavs have a certain four-time MVP leading the charge, ready to put up yet another fantastic campaign with more motivation than he's had in a while. Things got personal over the summer with Irving's request to depart, and James won't be playing somnambulatory basketball at any point during the regular season.
Cleveland probably won't win 60 games. It might not be as strong as a number of teams in the Western Conference, though we still have to wait and see how chemistry will develop for the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Nevertheless, the Cavs remain the clear-cut class of the East, and that status grew clearer still with a potentially season-ending injury to a leading rival. The King can still rest comfortably in his throne, though he's probably busy working on a VersaClimber.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.