July Power Rankings: East rising
With free-agency season just about settled and both Las Vegas and Orlando Summer League wrapped up, it's time to stop and examine how the league is shaping up in 2013-14. A handful of big-name free agents have yet to find their homes for next season (Nikola Pekovic, Brandon Jennings and Greg Oden, to name a few), but we still have a pretty good feel for each team.
On Wednesday, Kevin Pelton ranked the Western Conference teams, which leaves me to fill out the Eastern Conference standings. With the obvious disclaimer that things can change between now and the end of October, here's a tentative look at how the East ranks one through 15.
1. Miami Heat (2012-13 finish: 1st place)
Are you surprised? While there's some uncertainty at the top of the Western Conference, there's a sliver of separation between the defending champs and the rest of the Eastern elite. With the exception of Mike Miller, the Heat's championship core will be returning for its 2013-14 three-peat bid.
The biggest obstacle for the Heat next season won't be Miller's departure, but Dwyane Wade's health. If Wade's battered knees can hold up for a full season, the Heat will likely find themselves right back in the Finals for the fourth consecutive season. Sure, returning to the status quo might not seem like enough, but when the status quo includes LeBron James, little else needs to be done.
2. Brooklyn Nets (2012-13 finish: 4th)
With the additions of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko, Shaun Livingston and Jason Terry, this might be the deepest team in the league. A lot of ink (err, bandwidth) has been spilled on the aging core, but let's not forget that their two best players -- Deron Williams and Brook Lopez -- are in their primes.
The Kirilenko addition should do wonders to keep Pierce and Garnett fresh for the playoffs, which will be huge with their lofty goals for next season. There's a very real possibility that the Nets show their age and fail to make strides in 2013-14, but they've cooled those concerns with a monster bench.
3. Chicago Bulls (2012-13 finish: 5th)
There promises to be some internal growth with Jimmy Butler and Marquis Teague, and the Bulls did well to bring in sweet-shooting Mike Dunleavy Jr. on a very team-friendly deal (two years, $6 million). Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich should be healthier, but let's be serious: It all hinges on that guy Derrick Rose.
If Rose returns to perennial MVP-candidate form, or something close to it, the Bulls figure to challenge the Heat for the top seed out East and separate themselves from the rest of the pack. But that's a big if for someone so reliant on burst and athleticism.
4. Indiana Pacers (2012-13 finish: 3rd)
Why not higher on this list? While the Bulls added Rose and the Nets revamped their roster, the Pacers won't look appreciably different than their 2012-13 squad. Danny Granger's return could help, but he's been in decline for a few seasons now and that was before a balky left knee gave him a lost season in 2012-13.
There are legitimate questions whether Roy Hibbert and Paul George can maintain their breakthrough performances in the playoffs, but the duo is young enough to produce an encore. They'll need it to continue the franchise's upward trend.
5. New York Knicks (2012-13 finish: 2nd)
The Nets stole the headlines in the Big Apple for good reason. It's hard to figure out how the Knicks will improve on their 2012-13 campaign that gave them a No. 2 seed and an exit in the East semis. J.R. Smith had major knee surgery that will table him for 3-4 months, Andrea Bargnani won't help their porous defense and newcomer Metta World Peace is a 33-year-old coming off knee surgery.
If the Knicks consider Amar'e Stoudemire a $22 million sunk cost and commit to playing Carmelo Anthony at the 4 full time, they could make some more noise in the East. But this looks like a big step back for the Knicks.
6. Atlanta Hawks (2012-13 finish: 6th)
The general public probably responded to the Hawks' offseason with a resounding "meh," but there's a good chance that the post-Josh Smith era will pick up where it left off. Paul Millsap remains one of the more underappreciated players in the league (seriously, how did he sign for just $19 million?) and the rest of the core remains intact, including supersub Lou Williams, who missed the end of last season with a torn ACL.
The additions of summer league standout Dennis Schroeder and Elton Brand should bolster their bid to crash the top-four party, but they'll happily take the sixth seed without Smith.
7. Washington Wizards (2012-13 finish: 12th)
Whether the Wizards extend John Wall to the max ranks as one of the biggest remaining questions of the offseason -- they're currently discussing a five-year deal in the $80 million range -- but that shouldn't have much effect on the team's bullish outlook for 2013-14. The Wiz were quietly a top-10 defense for the second half of last season and they drafted Otto Porter Jr., who figures to step in right away at the small forward position.
With the 20-year-old Bradley Beal returning from injury, the Wizards could have the biggest jump in the Eastern Conference next season. Speaking of big jumps …
8. Cleveland Cavaliers (2012-13 finish: 13th)
If only they could trade for the Phoenix Suns training staff. With the talent on the roster, the Cavaliers could vault as high as the No. 5 seed in the East, but the talent could also be in street clothes for much of the season. No team possesses more "if healthy" qualifiers than the Cavaliers, with Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao and Andrew Bynum all battling various leg injuries.
To counteract the injury risk, the Cavs could use big developmental strides from Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett. A Heat-Cavs first-round playoff matchup is a real possibility, though I can't imagine we'd find anything to talk about.
9. Milwaukee Bucks (2012-13 finish: 8th)
This could work. Underline, double-asterisk, highlight "could." With all the point guard openings being filled, Brandon Jennings figures to re-up with the Bucks on a qualifying offer and help try to lead the Bucks back to the playoffs.
Ironically, O.J. Mayo is a statistical twin to J.J. Redick, who never found his footing in Milwaukee. But don't count out Larry Sanders and John Henson as the East's best young frontcourt. While the franchise's sideways direction could be questioned, the Bucks will be vying for the playoffs once again in 2013-14.
10. Detroit Pistons (2012-13 finish: 11th)
I'd be more excited about the Pistons had they addressed their spacing issues brought about by Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, but then they exacerbated the problem by signing notorious long-2 maven Josh Smith.
No doubt, Smith will improve their score prevention on the defensive end, but I'm still not sure how this team can put up enough points to be a playoff team. Can Kentavious Caldwell-Pope rescue a dreadful backcourt?
11. Toronto Raptors (2012-13 finish: 10th)
After winning summer league MVP in Vegas, Jonas Valanciunas appears to be right on track to becoming one of the league's most promising young centers. The Raptors' season could hinge on his continued development. If he falters, they could shift into tank mode and look to deal Rudy Gay. If Valanciunas continues to blossom, a push for the playoffs could be in order.
Any way you slice it, this is a young team that's probably a little too talented for its own good, with the loaded 2014 draft class on the horizon.
12. Orlando Magic (2012-13 finish: 15th)
The Magic seem prime for a veteran firesale at some point. Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Arron Afflalo, Glen Davis and Al Harrington are all on sizable contracts that could be attractive to playoff teams looking to clear future cap space and/or bolster their rotation.
Such a move would make sense if Orlando wants to keep their names in the "Riggin' for Wiggins" hat for 2014. A core of Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic is promising but not good enough to keep themselves out of the East basement.
13. Boston Celtics (2012-13 finish: 7th)
As is, the Celtics figure to be in the running for not just the league's worst defense, but I struggle to see how they score enough to fight their way into the playoff picture. Remember, this was the 20th-ranked team in offensive efficiency last season, and that was with Pierce, Garnett, a healthy Rajon Rondo and Terry. Who's their No. 1 scoring option next season? Jeff Green? Yikes.
14. Charlotte Bobcats (2012-13 finish: 14th)
The Bobcats desperately needed scoring in their point-starved frontcourt last season, and they made their two big offseason moves with that in mind. Cody Zeller might have been a reach at No. 4 and Al Jefferson might have been an overpay at $41 million, but both will help their anemic offense.
But that defense? It might be historically bad next season. We'll see if it's bad enough to "win" Tankapalooza 2014.
15. Philadelphia 76ers (2012-13 finish: 9th)
By dealing Jrue Holiday for an injured Nerlens Noel and a top-5 protected pick in 2014, new GM Sam Hinkie put the ball in Evan Turner's hands, which is the equivalent of waving a white flag on the 2013-14 season.
The 76ers figure to be horrifically awful on both ends of the floor, but that's the idea. For a team previously stuck in the cycle of mediocrity, being very bad ahead of the 2014 draft class might be the very best thing for the 76ers franchise.