NBA / Jul 22, 2014 / 4:30 pm

Breaking Down The New Eastern Conference Contenders

Joakim Noah, Nene

Joakim Noah, Nene (Geoff Burke, USATODAY)

With one Sports Illustrated essay, the entire hierarchy in the Eastern Conference was destroyed.

The Miami Heat, the champions of the Eastern Conference for the last four seasons, lost their best player. The Cleveland Cavaliers, an Eastern Conference laughing stock for the last four years, instantly became Las Vegas’ favorites to win the championship next year, and between all that, a number of other teams improved as well.

What was once a two-dog race in the Eastern Conference between the Heat and Indiana Pacers is now seemingly a free-for-all, featuring at least five teams – maybe even more – that have a legitimate case to be considered the conference’s favorite.

Is the East slowly turning into the West? Absolutely not, but the gap between the top teams and the bottom teams of the conference has gotten a whole lot smaller.

So if the LeBron-less Heat aren’t still the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, which team is? There’s a lot of time left for moves to be made, but as of right now, here are the contenders and the favorites in the Eastern Conference.

Honorable Mentions: Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks

All five of these teams should compete for playoff spots in 2014-2015, but none of them appear good enough to take down the top dogs in the conference. The Hornets have added some nice pieces to put around Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker, but Lance Stephenson isn’t enough to put them over the top.

The Nets not only lost two key contributors in Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston, but they lost their head coach as well.

The Hawks missed out on a number of top tier free agents – again – but should still have enough firepower with Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, and a healthy Al Horford to make some noise.

Phil Jackson pulled off some zen magic to keep Carmelo Anthony in the Big Apple, but the Knicks are still a year or two away from being championship contenders.

The Raptors, meanwhile, missed a golden opportunity to improve its roster when the team drafted Bruno Caboclo instead of a proven player with the No. 20 pick in this year’s draft. Toronto is still talented, but not talented enough.

Click here for a breakdown of the Eastern Conference’s real contenders…

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  • 2cents

    Those that sleep on the Raptors are going to a nasty shock

  • Evander

    Bruh the Raptors only have lowry and derozan. They aren’t gunna make any noise. In order for that to happen they need to elevate their game to a superstar level. They will not compete against Pacers, Bulls,Knicks and etc

  • Onaje

    That depends on Valan?i?nas really…if he comes prepared to be the consistent dominant Big man in the East that he showed signs of I can see that…

    Also the Derozan that we saw who consistently made and TOOK the mid-range jumper is key as well.

    The other key is Terrance Ross making the next step to turning those flashes of brilliance into consistent numbers game to game, so Derozan and Lowry aren’t getting worn out…

    Raptors draft was a huge missed opportunity to me at this point…they gambled and it certainly doesn’t look like it will help them this year…don’t even no if you can call what they did a Gamble when they could have made moves and got Bruno in the late 2nd round and still grabbed any number of better players…

  • Onaje

    Raptors are better than the Pacers and Knicks for sure. They play better offensively and harder defensively as a unit. Vasquez, Valan?i?na, Ross, Amir are not players you can dismiss so easy. Knicks and Pacers have a lot to prove this year first

  • 2cents

    Doood – I respected everything you said, until your comment about the Knicks. The same team that grabbed the 4th seed last year is coming back with more experience, Jonas V ain’t no scrub at center and they added a few good role players. How on earth do you figure the Knicks are better than the Raptors?

  • 2cents

    Yeah I thought about the draft pick that way at first too. But honestly, Ujiri said it best when he said “do you recall the last GREAT player drafted at 20″?

    Bruno might actually be a home run in a few years, so the signing of James Jones should cover them until Bruno develops.

    DD took a major step forward, and I feel Ross can make that same leap this year. Agreed JV needs to show he can contribute consistently, but even this early in a his career, looks like he will be a solid low post solution.

    I’m not saying the Raptors will win the chip this year, but honestly think a top 4 spot again this year is doable.

  • Onaje

    I agree that the Heat will be much better than people are projecting, but not because the lame idea of what they accomplished last year, but rather the fact that there is a level of continuity to what they’ve done that still exist. People dismiss the fact that Wade was super efficient last year prior to the Finals. I want to see what Ennis adds to the team too. This team will need a true point guard as well and I see Napier brushing off his shooting woes and showing his ability as a lead guard by mid point of the season.

    I think Washington and Chicago as currently constructed are one and two…with Cleveland growing their young guys up at an accelerated pace to be more of a factor in the playoffs and going to the conference Finals.

  • Onaje

    So Version 2.0 of my outlook:

    Chicago – We hear so much about their D and how they are the best at that…they won’t be that this year, but rather they will be a more balanced complete team and those years of 18-22 second offensive possessions looking to get a shot off will pay off as their guys are now more creative and better ball movers…now you bring in Gasol, a healthy Rose, a rook that makes the Bulls look like a crook as they got a steal at 11 in the draft. Snell looks improved and not just without those dreadful braids, but his game too, hopefully Butler is working on his corner 3s…Noah is vaulted into the MVP talk last year and he will be able to be even more energetic with the increase in help this year…yikes. I don’t know much about Mirotic outside of him being deemed the best international prospect out there…playing with a Gasol, Gibson and Noah in the front court makes his transition that much easier as he will be able to adjust and not be under as much pressure to produce. Bulls are poised to be even more of a problem.

    Washington – They are big, they are skilled, they are quick at every position, and they are deep…No more excuses for John Wall. He needs to be be a top 3 pg this year no question and I think he will be. Beal looked legit in playoff action which should bleed over and add to his confidence. Otto and Rice Jr. seems to be ready to be contributors right now. Pierce and Andre Miller are two vets that know pace and will help late games and to steady team at times where they were inept last year. Again they are a big team with depth (Blair, Gooden, Gortat, Nene, Humphries, Seraphine)…wow. All productive live bodies to be able to rotate…no reason for them to go into the playoffs with tired legs…

    Cleveland – Bottom line as currently built Cavs have one of the most versatile teams in the East. The issue is we don’t know what youth will serve. Wiggins as raw as he is is a better player than a number of starting wings right now…he is not getting recognized as having that one elusive thing that makes an average wing a dynamic wing in having a mid-range game…he will add range to his J and muscle in time, but he had a nice J and his Athleticism is about 2nd to none…Bennett looks poised to be beast off the bench as one of the more versatile utility players…his J is more true, weight down, more explosive and is healthy. He rebounds his position, is quicker than most fours and already stronger than most threes…Kyrie is going to have greater access to his own potential playing with LeBron who will make the game not just easier, but FUN…they will be having All-star game moments in regular season games being two ridiculous playmakers…Thompson is solid and will get some of his easiest baskets this year. AV needs to be healthy and he has more motivation to make sure he is. Dion Waiters need to know his role or be ready to roll to a loser (see Sixers…)They need some pieces (Center, backup PG)…I would rather have Zeller than Haywood at this point, but *shrugs*…Cavs will be highly energized and their home court advantage will propel them further than their talent dictates

    Toronto – Locked in Lowry, Derozan progresses as a borderline all-star, Ross hopefully is putting in the work physically to consistently play at a high level and be more of a factor physically on defense. Valan?i?nas size and talent should be a bigger factor this year, he and Amir were very effective for Raps last year. They hamstrung themselves a bit with a poor draft paying a 3rd round talent 1st round money, but maybe Bruno will show us all and be a slightly slower Gannis Antetokounmpo, but unfortunately as long as he is being an impact player this year is still out of his reach…

    Pacers – No Lance No Chance for this team…with the exception that Paul George becomes a top 5 player in the league this year. Stuckey, Miles, and Copeland collectively will replace the statistical impact Lance had for the Pacers, but the shallow heartbeat is the question…speaking of shallow heartbeats Roy Hibbert is getting assistance from Kareem who is “Getting him ready”…umkay…David West is going have to not look as old and ineffective as he got away with looking last year at times as well, but as a unit Pacers under Bird will be a factor come playoff time

    Nets – Rested KG back, Joe J more pressure to be what he showed in the playoffs, HEALTHY LOPEZ is major as he is a 20 and not quite 10 guy with Plumlee being their to add to the physicality the Nets Frontline can dish out. AK47 gets a more expanded role with no Pierce and Blatche (did they resign him)…I’m not a believer in Diva Williams, but if he has his ankles in order he is a legit starting pg, but Jarett Jack help in a major way to make that less of an imposition for Diva to miss games.

    – Contract year for JR, Healthy Melo with more offensive help, Tim
    Hardaway Jr looks ready to be more consistent, Solid Bigs that will be
    effective on the Defensive end and Jose Calderon being the setup guy
    Melo and the other shooter will benefit from including Andrea Bargnani

    – My sleeper…no one is talking about them, but SVG will get more out
    of Knight and Drummond…they need to figure out the Josh Smith/Monroe
    situations ASAP though

  • Onaje

    My only issue with what Ujiri’s statement is Everything lol…it kind of translates as if any picks past 20 are never great or never valued picks when it is exactly the opposite. You have an opportunity to lock in a contributor on a rookie contract for 4-5 years…cheap labor if you get good talent (buy low).

    Ask the Spurs how valuable picks can be after the 20th (Parker 28th and Manu 57th)…it just wasn’t a great move and isn’t a great explanation…If Burno turns into a homerun in 3 years and they aren’t planting him overseas right away what is the value? I heard talk of them sending DeAndre Daniels away for a year and not Bruno, but the summer league exposed that nonsense…I don’t get that.

    McGary, Jordan Adams, Hood, Hairston, Kyle Anderson, McDaniels, Cleanthony Early, Jerami Grant, Glen Robinson III, Nick Johnson, Antetokounmpo, McRae, Jefferson….all better than Burno right now and 3 years from now…I’m confident about that…

  • 2cents

    It’s a really valid point that the Spurs get talent at any draft position and Parker is a perfect example of that.

    But I also think it’s an example of drafting someone and helping them develop. The Spurs create a great atmosphere for younger guys to learn/develop. I don’t think Bruno is needed right now, but if the Raptors can let him develop, he might be something special. Think of a Brazilian version of Antetokounmpo. Raw, but with gifts that cannot be taught.

    Lets hit this topic again in 3-4 years time ;-)

  • 2cents

    Damn – just got around to reading your indepth review. You should contribute to Dime and get paid. Will be interesting to see if the Cavs can turn it around this year and truly become a contender. Don’t forget, this is a team that was in the lottery last year. Yes, LBJ helps, but it’s a lot to ask of him. The young players need to lift their game and that is a bigger ask than many realise.

  • Onaje

    I’ve been reaching out to Dime for years, but I’m not moving to NYC to intern and get put on lol…Since the days when the comment boards were on fire I was in here engaging everyone in our collective love of the game as Kudabeen…I’m about to start my own blog and try to link with a larger entity as I’m a bit more engaged…Appreciate you actually reading my novels lol

  • 2cents

    When you are ready, be sure to let me know your URL. Dime appears to have some articles where the forums are on fire, but in general not enough people take the time to engage. Maybe they just need content more like what you deliver.