By KELTON BROOKS
The major pieces on the board have made their move in free agency with Carmelo Anthony re-signing with the New York Knicks, both Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade opting to keep their talents in South Beach, and LeBron James coming home to Cleveland.
Lesser pawns have also made splashes on the open market and another possible big jump is looming with Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love reportedly in a tug-of-war between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors—albeit, the Cavs are currently winning.
I’m sure I’ll do this again in October during the start of the NBA season, but the landscape has drastically changed in the Association will all the wheeling and dealing. Here is my way too early Eastern Conference seeding:
8. New York Knicks
You can book a ticket for the Knicks to make the playoffs in the 2014-15 NBA season. The sole reason: Phil Jackson. If player-to-coach Derek Fisher can teach the Zin Master’s triangle offense correctly, then it will create open shots on the wing and the midrange.
To do this, the Knicks needed to upgrade the point guard position to create ball movement. They did so in trade that sent Tyson Chandler and struggling point guard Raymond Felton—averaged a career-low 9.7 points and hit just 39 percent of his shots— to Dallas for guards Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin and Wayne Ellington, center Samuel Dalembert and two second-round draft picks.
Calderon is one of the league’s top shooting point guards averaging 45 percent from beyond the arc and is a smart and a decisive passer. The triangle offense will eliminate solely relying on Anthony to create shots on his own in isolation plays. Anthony led the league averaging 6.6 isolation points per game, according to Synergy Sports.
7. Charlotte Hornets
On the court, Michael Jordan was arguably the greatest player to have ever played, but as a general manager, Jordan is as bad as his Kwame Brown and Adam Morrison picks.
But after the making the playoffs for the first time as the Bobcats last season, Charlotte has pieced together a dynamic backcourt with Kemba Walker and signing of the tumultuous Lance Stephenson to a 3-year, $27 million contract. The combination of Walker and Stephenson is nearly the perfect match. Walker is more of the scoring-type point guard, who showed up big time against the Heat in Game 4 scoring 29 points and hit 4-for-7 on 3-pointers. Stephenson is a playmaking two guard who lead the NBA with five triple-doubles in the regular season.
If the Hornets can squeeze production out of the former No. 2 overall pick, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who has underachieved yet is still frustratingly talented, and pair him with the like of the Al Jefferson and promising rookie Noah Vonleh, the Hornets can become the team nobody wants to play in the playoffs.
6. Miami Heat
And then there were two. Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade lost some player in free agency who decided there was no place like home. That player is LeBron James, the best basketball player in the world who carried Miami to four straight Finals appearances while winning two in back-to-back fashion.Not to mention two regular season MVPs along the way.
The Heat signed Bosh to a max deal of 5-years, $118 million. Which means two things: 1) He is the player that the Heat will build around; 2) Wade is no longer, well, Wade. Wade’s production on the court has sadly, visibly declined before our eyes, but with or without James, the Heat still have a champion pedigree.
Miami has gotten much deeper in their rotation this offseason with the signing of Josh McRoberts, Luol Deng, Danny Granger and drafting Shabazz Napier. Maybe this year audiences will appreciate the expertise of coach Erik Spoelstra as he orchestrates an underrated team back into the playoffs.
5. Toronto Raptors
No one saw the Raptors locking in the 3 seed in the Eastern Conference last season. It was arguably the biggest playoff surprise in either conference. Expect them to take a step down next year. Not because Toronto is lacking in a particular aspect, but because the competition around them has gotten better.
Re-signing Kyle Lowry to a 4-year, $48 million deal was a great investment for a team who made it to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Lowry had a career year averaging 17.9 points, 7.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game while making 38 percent of his three-pointers in the regular season. While Lowry and the budding DeMar DeRozan—averaged a career-high 22.7 points per game—played admirably against the Brooklyn Nets, starting guard Terrance Ross was a no show averaging a measly 5 points per game the Brooklyn series.
4. Washington Wizards
Speed kills. And the Wizards have a whole of it with John Wall and Bradley Beal. Like the Raptors, the Wizards were the surprise team in the playoffs last season as the 5 seed led by their two young stars in Wall and Beal.
They made an underrated signing in forward DeJuan Blair who will provide toughness and rebounding. The Wizards lost athleticism and youth in Trevor Ariza, but replaced him with the 37-year-old Paul Pierce. The addition of Pierce will do wonders for this hungry and young team. His locker room presence alone and fourth quarter calmness is what the doctor ordered for Washington. But at 37, Washington may be his last stop.
And don’t be surprised to finally see production out former No. 13 overall pick Otto Porter Jr. and second-round pick Glenn Rice Jr. who las led the NBA summer league in scoring averaging 25.2 points on 50.7 percent shooting.
3. Indiana Pacers
Losing Stephenson was a big blow.
There is still an amber alert on Roy Hibbert. The Pacers were better off playing four-on-five instead of placing Hibbert in the starting lineup. Averaging 10.8 points per game and only 6.6 rebounds per game in the regular season for a 7-feet-2 center is not all-star caliber center and not worthy of the status as a top-5 center in the NBA. Hibbert also went scoreless in four games in the playoffs, including a game when he tallied zero points and zero rebounds in the opening series against Atlanta.
The Pacers still have Paul George, but he has shown inconsistencies of is he-a-star-or-not type of player. George has to continue to step his game up to the next level. Shades of his monster Game 5 clinic, scoring 21 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter has to become a regular occurrence. Aside from adding Lavoy Allen and Chris Copeland, Indiana hasn’t improved the offseason.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
If the Kevin Love trade happens, then the Cavaliers will be the No. 1 seed in the East, but for now, lets say that Love is not a Cavalier.
When you sign LeBron James, a team that missed the playoffs going 33-49, can become a top team in the East the following year. For now, a backcourt of Kyrie Irving and No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins is an explosive highlight reel duo who can carry the Cavaliers long after James retires. Two 6-feet-8 players in James and Wiggins will make it tough for imposing players on the perimeter who look to drive to the basket. And third-year forward Tristan Thompson quietly averaged 11.7 points per game and 9.2 rebounds. Even without Love, Cleveland is a legitimate favorite in the East.
James has successfully recruited shooters in Mike Miller and James Jones to Miami, and the two are actively pursuing Ray Allen to join the ex-Heat players. For the sake of interest, if Cleveland was to complete the trade for the double-double machine in Love, then yes, they are the favorites to represent the East in the Finals. But a front court of Love and Anderson Varejao doesn’t strike fear into opponents as rim protectors. Cleveland lacks interior bulk and defense inside. They have to address this during the season.
1. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls ranked dead last (30th) in points per game last season averaging 93.7. What did they do? After drafting Michigan State guard Gary Harris, Chicago traded Harris for instant offense in Doug McDermott. McDermott is my sleeper pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year on a team that’s starving for buckets.
The Bulls also signed pick-and-pop big man Pau Gasol, who can firmly play his finesse-style next to the rumbling and active Joakim Noah. Chicago is still led by the defensive minded coach Tom Thibodeau who has managed to make Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson into a defensive stalwarts. Both also averaged 13 points per game this past season. Still, this team needs its star back.
This team needs Derrick Rose. The one-time MVP has played in just 50 NBA games over the last three seasons. He has to come back healthy and strong, and remain that way. Rose is still young at 25-years-old, but with multiple knee injuries, he may not revert back to the acrobatic player we are accustomed to seeing out on the court. If he can get to at least 80 percent of that level, then the Bulls are the favorite to win the East.