Today is August 1st, the day that unofficially marks the beginning of the NBA’s “dead period,” during which teams sit back, assess their rosters and begin preliminary preparations for the upcoming season. By this date, the majority of the league’s offseason transactions have been completed and cap space and roster spots are hard to come by. The marquee free agents are gone and most clubs are reticent to make a splashy trade when things are in stasis. Right now, for most of the league, the key pieces are locked in place, expectations have been set, and there isn’t much left to do but get healthy, stay sharp and count the days until October.
One benefit to this brief window of quiet is it affords us the opportunity to finally survey the new NBA landscape that lies before us, replete with its tankers, strivers and legitimate contenders. We finally know what we’re working with, so naturally, some prospective analysis is in order: who took steps to further their title aspirations? Who is in the running for the NBA’s most ignominious distinction, the Eastern Conference’s eight-seed, reserved only for the most exceptionally mediocre, accidentally-okay-team-that-was-trying-to-tank-but-ended-up-loafing-it’s-way-to-a-sub-500.-record-that-was-somehow-“good”-enough-to-qualify-for-the-final-spot (or the Milwaukee Bucks, who bizarrely covet the “overmatched playoff doormat” title and seek to remain within five games of 40 wins at all times)? We’ll start at the top and work our way down, covering seeds one through four in Part 1. Ready? Let’s go.
1st Overall Seed: Miami Heat
With the exception of Miami’s lockout-shortened season in 2010-11, no team with LeBron James in his prime has won fewer than 58 games. Yes, Dwyane Wade and Shane Battier are vital cogs that appear to be on the decline, and the toll exacted by playing into June three consecutive years should not be underestimated, but such concerns are better applied to the prospects of Miami’s three-peat than their ability to win regular season games.
The weaknesses of the Heat (rebounding, interior defense, streaky outside-shooting) are such that they could be exploited over an intense seven-game series, but not on the second night of a back-to-back in the dog days of February. There’s no way around it: at this juncture, with LeBron at the height of his powers and in the prime-of-his-prime, the Heat are a mortal lock to win 60 or more games. He’s simply too good, and though his supporting cast may have regressed, it’s still a better team than the ’08 or ’09 Cavaliers squads he dragged to 66 and 61 wins, respectively, when he wasn’t even as good a player as he is now. Barring a serious injury to the King of Kings—in which case all bets are off, hide your kids, hide your wife—the Heat should once again claim the top seed in the East. Predicted record: 62-20
2nd Overall Seed: Indiana Pacers
Larry Bird is back in the fold in Indiana, and his ingress has led to the egress of every player he didn’t personally sign, draft or trade for during his previous tenure as the Pacers GM. Normally such a move would trigger a rebuild, but Larry was only gone briefly, and with a couple of slick moves he managed to purge his roster while not only preserving the core of his team but improving it.
Gone to Phoenix are Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green—two non-factors in the rotation—and in is Luis Scola, a scrappy interior presence who combines grit and effort with a deft touch around the basket. Scola is a composed, intelligent player who at this stage in his career would perhaps be a weak spot in the starting lineup, but as a bench player is overqualified and incredibly valuable. His rebounding and interior defense are average at best, but against bench units the issue becomes less glaring. Scola will also play alongside the league’s best interior defender in Roy Hibbert and share time with the re-signed David West, who is himself no slouch on D. Luis will not be on an island, unless (gulp) foul trouble strikes.
Indiana also let Tyler Hansbrough walk this offseason, banking on the hope they could find someone to replace him at a similar price. They not only succeeded—Scola is signed for $13.53 million over three years and makes only about $1 million more than Hansbrough this season—but upgraded noticeably from Tyler’s directionless energy to someone with defined skills who can actively contribute. Combine that pleasant reality with the fact that the Pacers added some cheap shooting in the form of gunner Chris Copeland and managed to find in C.J. Watson a level-headed, capable replacement for the dreadful D.J. Augustin, and it becomes clear that Indiana is serious about contending and dead-set on adding some punch to their anemic offense.
These signings, along with the return of Danny Granger, the further development of Lance Stephenson (now a weapon off the bench), Paul George and Roy Hibbert, and a newfound sense of belonging in the upper-echelon of the NBA should leave the Indiana Pacers poised to challenge Miami for the top seed. I have them finishing second here, but come playoff time, don’t be surprised if Indiana topples Miami and ends up competing for the crown. Predicted record: 58-24
3rd Overall Seed: Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn is obviously going all-in this season, blowing away the luxury tax threshold and spending every last dime on veteran talent. Unlike last year’s high-priced, under-performing juggernaut, though, this iteration of the Brooklyn Nets has real depth and should sport one of the most prolific offenses in the league. Gone are Gerald Wallace and Keith Bogans, whom the Chicago Bulls flagrantly abandoned on the wings and in the corners during last season’s first-round upset. Filling their roster spots are Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Hall of Fame talents who were asked to do far too much last season in Boston—to the point that it wore them down and left them inextricably gassed.
With the Nets, Pierce will neither be the lone playmaker on the roster nor the team’s number one option on offense, and should thrive from an efficiency standpoint. This is a man who put up 19/5/5 at thirty-five years of age last year against defensive game plans centered around stopping him. Imagine what he’ll be able to accomplish when teams overload on his teammates and he’s allowed to operate on the wing against role players with no help coming. It’s gonna be a slaughter.
As for Garnett, he is still a defensive powerhouse who not only makes plays himself but directs traffic and backline rotations with impeccable precision. His influence should make Brooklyn an above-average defensive team, and his efficiency on those jumpers is still high and a valuable pressure-release valve for an offense that’ll be using him as a fourth option, at most. Jason Terry, the other import from the Boston deal, should provide some value as a spot-up shooter as well, while free agent Andrei Kirilenko is the prototypical stat-stuffing small forward, more than capable of guarding three positions and overqualified for his bench role.
On paper, Brooklyn is a definite contender for a high seed in the East and looks like a potential Miami challenger; the question is whether all these big-money parts can fit together to form a functioning machine, particularly under the stewardship of an untested head coach. A lot has to go right for Brooklyn to reach their potential, but when you consider the cast of characters involved in the scheme, why should it fail? Predicted Record: 55-27
4th Overall Seed: Chicago Bulls
Gone are some of the tenacious underdogs (Marco Bellinelli, Nate Robinson) who stepped up and filled the holes left by Derrick Rose’s torn ACL, Luol Deng’s spinal tap and Rip Hamilton’s general inability to stay on the court. But with a new year comes new possibilities for a squad that achieved remarkable things considering all their injury woes. Derrick Rose is finally, finally 100 percent and ready to (hopefully) take the league by storm.
Luol Deng should be feeling better and able to contribute at his usual level. Jimmy Butler’s emergence remains an intriguing storyline and could turn Deng into a legitimately valuable trade chip around the February deadline. Carlos Boozer can still contribute (particularly by yelling—“GIMME DAT!”) and Joakim Noah is a fantastic player who does nothing but win you games. The Bulls also brought back Taj Gibson on a reasonable deal—between $32 and $38 million, depending on his performance, over four years—which solidifies one of the best big-man rotations in basketball.
Chicago didn’t do a whole lot to change their look, but when you consider that they finished 45-37 without their former league MVP playing a single minute, it’s hard to argue they should’ve done anything but stand pat. Come playoff time it’s hard to dismiss the Bulls as anything less than a darkhorse contender, especially when you take into account their suffocating defense and stellar discipline, but whether their play-style translates to an elite regular season record remains to be seen. Predicted Record: 50-32
Seeds five through eight will be covered in Part 2! Stay tuned.