NBA free agency is in full swing, and a series of staggering moves have totally reshaped the Eastern Conference landscape. LeBron James is back in Cleveland, Carmelo Anthony is still in New York, Pau Gasol joined the Bulls, Lance Stephenson spurned the Pacers to join the Hornets, and Paul Pierce will replace Trevor Ariza in DC. The East is no longer a laughing stock; this is now a deep and competitive conference. Who got better, who got worse, and who has a shot at the Finals?
The Favorite – Chicago Bulls
The Bulls adding Pau Gasol was a solid move that gave them another scorer and another strong veteran presence. Gasol and import Nikola Mirotic will add a scoring punch to the Bulls front court and will benefit from playing with a defensive stud like Joakim Noah. Noah, Taj Gibson, Gasol and Mirotic should form a deep and talented front court. The team also added rookie Doug McDermott to add shooting that was severely lacking in last year's playoff loss to the Wizards. The big question mark, of course, of point guard Derrick Rose. Coming off two serious knee injuries, it remains to be seen if Rose can return to his explosive, MVP form. But if he's able to stay healthy and solidify the point guard spot, this team should have the scoring to match their stifling defense and should seriously compete for the East crown.
Contenders – Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers
The Cavs may have added King James, but don't crown them champions just yet. While Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett are all talented, they also have a combined zero games of playoff experience. LeBron will elevate each of their games but this team may be too young and inexperienced to seriously compete for a title this soon, a fact LeBron himself seems to acknowledge. If the Cavs somehow manage to add Kevin Love, they would become the clear favorites, but as currently constructed, they aren't there yet.
The Heat recovered about as well as they could have from the loss of LeBron, bringing Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade back to Miami and adding free agents Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger and rookie Shabazz Napier. If Bosh can embrace his new leadership role and Wade can return to superstar form, this team will still be very competitive.
The Pacers appear to have taken a step back after losing Lance Stephenson from last year Eastern Conference Finals team. However, losing Stephenson may prove to be addition by subtraction. While uniquely talented, Stephenson was a volatile presence and reportedly clashed with teammates. If they can find a way to replace his production, losing his distracting behavior may benefit a Pacers team who thrive on chemistry and team play. Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert and coach Frank Vogel should keep them competitive.
Wild Cards - Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets, Toronto Raptors
This next tier of teams could either exceed expectations and battle for home court advantage or slip to the bottom of the playoff standings. The Wizards had a surprisingly strong offseason, resigning Marcin Gortat, adding Paul Pierce on a cheap contract and adding solid front court depth in Kris Humphries, Drew Gooden and possibly DeJuan Blair. John Wall, Bradley Beal, Pierce, Nene and Gortat form one of the best and most well-balanced starting fives in the league, and the bench is a solid mix of seasoned veterans and young talent. If Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. can break out and the team can avoid injuries, Nene and Beal in particular, this team has the talent to make the Eastern Conference finals.
The Hornets added an infusion of young talent in Stephenson and rookies Noah Vonleh and PJ Hairston. Coupled with center Al Jefferson and point guard Kemba Walker, the Hornets are making great strides in making fans forget about the horrific Bobcats of past seasons. If Stephenson fits in as a scorer and facilitator, Hairston stays out of trouble and Vonleh lives up to his potential, this should be a much improved team.
The Raptors did well to retain point guard Kyle Lowry, but failed to do much else this offseason. However, this team was the no. 3 seed last year and should prove to be a tough out once again. Lowry and DeMar Derozan comprise one of the best backcourts in the league.
The Rest – Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks
The Hawks came agonizingly close to upsetting the Pacers in the first round last year, and that was without center Al Horford. The Nets lost both Pierce and Jason Kidd and Kevin Garnett doesn't look like he has much left in the tank, but Lionel Hollins is a good coach, and the Nets have enough veteran talent in Garnett, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams to compete for a 6-8 seed. Say what you want about Carmelo, but he remains one of the most talented scorers in the league and should keep the Knicks competitive. But it will likely take Phil Jackson a bit more time to work his magic and get this team back into contention.
Nobody will be joking about the East this season. It should be a much more balanced and competitive conference and should produce a very intriguing playoffs. The East crown is up in the air, but one thing's for sure: whoever wants it is gonna have to earn it.
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