The Eastern Conference's Top Five Middle-of-the-Road Teams
After the biggest summer in NBA history, the landscape of the league has severely changed. For better or worse, the powers of the league have shifted.
What a difference a year can make
I wrote this same article last season when the Miami Heat ranked sixth out of seven teams on the slide show. Now, after the acquisitions of Lebron James and Chris Bosh, the Heat are early favorites to make it out of the East, and potentially dethrone the Los Angeles Lakers for the NBA title.
Many of my predictions last year didn’t go as planned: for instance the Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers were two teams I expected to make the playoffs. Turns out they were owners to the first and second overall picks in this year’s draft.
On the other hand, I had the Milwaukee Bucks finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference; however, led by point guard Brandon Jennings, they made the playoffs and took the Atlanta Hawks to seven games.
Some of my predictions did go right, for instance I knew the Atlanta Hawks were going to be among the East’s top four, as I had them ranked as the best middle of the road team in the East.
This slide show won’t feature teams like the Heat, Magic or Celtics. It will feature teams who are just a tier below in the Eastern Conference.
These are just predictions, but one thing I know for sure: this season will be nothing like the previous.
5. Charlotte Bobcats
Last season, the Bobcats earned their first playoff berth playing in the city of Charlotte. Unfortunately, they were no match for the Orlando Magic, losing four out of four games. The Bobcats managed to win 44 games in the regular season and a huge reason for that was their defense.
Charlotte led the league in defensive efficiency last season, and if they hope to make the postseason they will have to keep up their defensive intensity.
The Bobcats aren’t flashy. They get it done with a defensive led by a scrappy group of players such as Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace. The Bobcats are going to try and get it done with defense again.
They lost their starting point guard Raymond Felton, which is a huge loss, because Felton was a playmaking point guard who had some ability to shoot the ball and score. 2008 first rounder D.J. Augustin is going to try to fill the void at the point guard position.
Augustin disappointed last season as he only averaged six points and two assists, compared to his rookie year when he averaged 11 points and three assists. The team has a lot of stock in Augustin considering he was picked ninth in the 2008 draft ahead of players like Brook Lopez, Anthony Randolph and Javale McGee, and the team didn’t see retaining Raymond Felton as a priority.
The Bobcats roster looks weaker and the Eastern Conference has gotten significantly stronger, but if the team can repeat their defensive performance from last season, and they can get some good point guard play, this team should be good for another 40-plus win season and their second-straight playoff berth.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks were one of the better stories of the previous NBA season. Considering I had them pegged to finish dead last in the East, they surpassed expectations, and they owe it all to rookie point guard Brandon Jennings, center Andrew Bogut and head coach Scott Skiles. The Bucks finished the season 46-6, earning their first playoff berth in four years.
The Bucks success starts from the top, GM John Hammond, made two decisions that didn’t seem popular at the time but proved to be good moves. When Hammond drafted Brandon Jennings 10th overall in the 2009 draft, there were many questions surrounding Jennings after a questionable stint in Italy. Jennings was viewed as a risk-reward guy but he payed off big time and ran the point for a playoff team as a rookie. Jennings looks to be the cornerstone of this Bucks franchise for years to come.
Hammond then acquired veteran John Salmons at the trade deadline, many league execs thought the Bulls had got the better end of this deal because Salmons’ contract was off the Bulls hands, and Salmons was not having a good year, averaging 12 points, and shooting 42 percent in 51 games with the Bulls.
Salmons then came to the Bucks and led the team in scoring, averaging just under 20 points, and shooting 46 percent. Salmons was a key cog, and provided some needed scoring out of the shooting guard position for the Bucks. The Bucks then re-signed Salmons to a five-year deal in July.
Bucks center Andrew Bogut may have been the most important piece to the Bucks last season. Bogut proved he could stay healthy, until a devastating injury. Had it not been for Bogut's injury the Bucks may have advanced to the second round. Bogut earned third-team All NBA honors, averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks.
The Bucks hope to have Bogut back healthy next season, and if they can get the Jennings-Bogut-Salmons core playing at a high level, don't be surprised if this team advances to a second-round series.
3. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks were embarrassed by the Orlando Magic in a second-round series last year, and while the team didn’t impress in the playoffs, they didn’t make any roster changes either. The team fired head coach Mike Woodson and replaced him with former player Larry Drew.
After five straight years of improvement, the Hawks may have reached their ceiling with this current roster, but they are still good enough to compete for a top four seed, and their core remains intact.
The Hawks made Joe Johnson the biggest winner this summer when it came to money. Johnson (not LeBron James or Dwyane Wade) was the highest-paid player this off season—pretty bizarre. The Hawks did overpay for Johnson, shelling out 119 million over six years. If you do the math, Johnson is going to be paid about 20 million a year at 35. That’s a pretty bad contract.
But the Hawks couldn’t afford to let Johnson go and have roughly seven million dollars in cap room to replace an all star shooting guard. They couldn’t risk returning to being a team right on the playoff bubble.
The Hawks also have Josh Smith who made a huge leap last season in becoming a much more efficient player. Expect Smith to fill up the stat sheet, and compete with Dwight Howard for the defensive player of the year award due to his shot blocking.
Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford should be set to have another solid year coming off the bench, and Al Horford should continue to play at an all star level.
Overall this Hawks team doesn’t look any better than last season’s, but they’re still a lock for the postseason. The Hawks don’t have the flexibility to make any major roster moves, so as of now I expect them to finish in the bottom half of the East, and likely be knocked out of the first round.
2. New York Knicks
After being the laughingstock of the league for the past decade, it’s time for the New York Knicks to return to the playoffs. The Knicks weren’t considered players in the regular season, but they came into the off season dreaming of the ultimate prize: LeBron James. The Knicks had spent the last two seasons doing do things, trying to clean the stain Isiah Thomas left on the franchise, and put all their chips in the summer of 2010.
The Knicks didn’t come out on top in the LeBron James sweepstakes, but they didn’t strike out either. They actually made some solid roster moves. Solid enough to improve the team’s win total by 10 games.
This year’s starting five will be significantly different than last year’s. There’s no way Donnie Walsh would give Mike D’Antoni the same pieces to work with after two years of preaching to the fans that a winning product will take the floor at MSG, a six-year playoff drought, and a whole decade of bad basketball.
Walsh knew that he had to add at least one superstar caliber player to a team that won 29 games last season, and a future mortgaged in trades that set up the Knicks for the summer of 2010.
It starts with Amar'e Stoudemire. First off, the Knicks added the best power forward on the market. Yes, the Stoudemire signing was a huge risk considering he has had three major injuries, and the team has invested 100 million over five years in Stoudemire, but it was a move the team had to make. Stoudemire alone improves this team's win total by at least 10 games.
But the Knicks added some other pieces, they netted three solid pieces in the David Lee trade including a potential young superstar in Anthony Randolph, a dynamic shooting guard in Kelena Azuibuke, and a defensive big man in Ronnie Turiaf.
The Knicks also added a true point guard, one that should be capable of running D'Antoni's offense. Raymond Felton should step in and be an upgrade over the likes of Chris Duhon and Nate Robinson. Felton's play should increase because he's playing for an offensive coach in Mike D'Antoni, in contrast to his former coach Larry Brown who put a great emphasis on defense.
Overall, this Knicks team is going to be much better than the 29-win team, and while the team is no match to the Heat or Magic, they should be a playoff team and finally relevant again.
1. Chicago Bulls
I consider the Bulls a middle of the road team for now; however, they are the only team on this slide show that could sneak into the upper tier of the east that includes Miami, Orlando and Boston.
The Bulls were one of the teams who gave up on last season at the trade deadline and shed salary in order to make room for two superstars, putting all their chips in 2010 free agency. The Bulls didn’t land LeBron James, but they did put the bat on the ball: they acquired all star power forward Carlos Boozer, and at a cheaper price then the other big men on the market.
Boozer isn’t on the same level of a Stoudemire or a Bosh, but when healthy he’s a top power forward in the league, and he’s a nightly double double. Boozer has averaged a double double over his eight-year career, and he’s exactly what the Bulls need, a low post scorer, and a pick and roll partner for Derrick Rose.
Speaking of Derrick Rose, Rose hasn’t taken this summer off as he’s spent countless hours working on a three point shot, and he’s trying to make the final 12 man roster for team USA.
Rose is the complete package as a point guard, he’s the Bulls' franchise changer, he’s right on the cusp of becoming of the league’s elite players, and I think this is the year he breaks out and emerges as one of the top 10 players in the NBA.
Last year the Bulls had an inability to score inside, and make outside shots. Carlos Boozer, and Kyle Korver who should strengthen the Bulls bench, should make the Bulls a more efficient offensive team.
The Bulls also hired a new head coach in Tom Thibodeau, former Celtics assistant. He is known as a defensive mastermind as he was one who figured out Kobe Bryant in the 2008 NBA finals, and shut down LeBron James in the Eastern Conference semis. Thibodeau is relatively unproven, but he should be a better fit over Vinny Del Negro.
With all the off season moves they made, plus a core of Rose-Noah-Deng, if healthy the Bulls should exceed 50 wins, climb into the East’s upper tier and potentially challenge the elite.
The Next Tier
These are the teams that are just below the middle of the road teams, but could sneak into the playoffs. A hot start, an injury, or a break out player—who knows, any of these teams could find themselves in the playoffs. Look at the Milwaukee Bucks last season.
John Wall alone should make this team relevant again; Wall is the kind of player that can turn a team’s fortunes upside down. Pair him with Gilbert Arenas in the backcourt, and the Wizards could find themselves competing for a playoff spot.
The Sixers added Evan Turner who could be a superstar and they expect point guard Jrue Holiday to make a huge leap after he showed great promise last season. Plus, new head coach Doug Collins always gets more than expected out of his teams, especially in the first year.
The Pacers have missed the playoffs for the last five years; over that span they haven’t made any bold moves. This year, however, they acquired two pieces in the draft who are big risks but could have a huge payoff: Paul George who has a great upside, and Lance Stephenson the guard out of New York City who has some Tyreke Evans in his game and could be an early contributor.
This is a stretch but if they have everyone healthy they could field a relevant team capable of making the playoffs. Rodney Stuckey is going to have to prove that he can be a starting point guard, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva are going to have to live up to their contracts, and Joe Dumars is going to have to make some bold moves regarding the team’s uncertain future.