Two seasons ago, the Cavaliers lived through the longest losing streak in NBA history – a 26-game trail of tears that stretched from late December through early February. Last season, with the assistance of two rock-solid rookies, only Minnesota boasted a bigger jump in winning percentage.
With the addition of two more rookies, both of whom showed much promise in Vegas, how big of a leap can the Cavaliers make in 2012-13? And more specifically, can they return to the postseason in an ever-changing Eastern Conference?
The smoke hasn’t completely cleared on this offseason, but with Dwight Howard’s excruciating exodus from the Magic Kingdom, we have a pretty good picture of how the Eastern Conference might look when the regular season tips off in late October.
The dog days of the offseason are winding down and Training Camp is only six weeks away. While we wait, here’s a look at how the East was reshaped this summer …
The Big Boys
MIAMI HEAT – LeBron James finally got the Championship monkey off his back, but if he wants to be considered among the all-time greats, he’ll have to do it all over again – then three or four of five more times. The Heat are still the class of the Conference and didn’t have any major defections. Instead, they added a pair of perimeter gunners in Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. The rich just got richer …
BOSTON CELTICS – The Celtics still have two-thirds of their Big Three and got younger at the other third’s position – signing Jason Terry and dealing for Courtney Lee. They also bulked up on the frontline – which hasn’t been the same since they traded Kendrick Perkins – drafting seven-footer, Fab Melo, and OSU’s Jared Sullinger. The aforementioned “window” has been supposedly closing on the C’s for the past few years, but Doc and Danny Ainge continue to find a way to prop it open.
CHICAGO BULLS – Every Championship contender has to deal with the dreaded “window.” And the Bulls are no different. Former MVP Derrick Rose doesn’t turn 24 until October, but he’ll also turn 24 while recovering from major knee surgery. The Bulls have won 75 percent of their games under Tom Thibodeau, but they’ve fallen flat in the postseason and still have offensive concerns. The addition of Marco Belinelli, Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson doesn’t exactly put those questions to rest.
BROOKLYN NETS – The Nets want to compete in the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division, but they also need to compete for interest in the same metropolitan area. In New Jersey, the Nets were an afterthought. At the new Barclay’s Center in Prospect Heights and with a flashy ownership group, Brooklyn looks to take a bite out of the Knicks’ ownership of New York hoops. Although they failed to land Dwight Howard, they did retain Deron Williams, Brooke Lopez and Kris Humphries and acquired All-Star guard Joe Johnson from Atlanta.
NEW YORK KNICKS – The Knicks didn’t make a slew of offseason moves this summer and one of those non-moves – not re-signing Jeremy Lin – still kept them on the front pages. Instead of stirring the pot, New York returns with a nucleus of Amar’e Stoudemire and Olympic gold medalists, Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks did add Ramon Felton, plus golden oldies, Jason Kidd, Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby – as well as re-signing the league’s top three-point shooter, Steve Novak – as they try to return to the top half of the playoff picture.
INDIANA PACERS – Buoyed by a strong playoff showing and their re-signing of Roy Hibbert, the Pacers are looking to make their move into the Conference’s top tier. The signed Gerald Green and guard D.J. Augustin and dealt for Ian Manhimi as a backup big. With Danny Granger, David West and Paul George returning, Indy can contend with Chicago for top dog in the Central Division.
ORLANDO MAGIC – Over the summer, Superman wannabe Dwight Howard got into a phone booth and came out a Laker. The Magic came out as Clark Kent, picking up some pieces from the massive three-way trade, but not enough to keep them in the upper strata of the East. Orlando acquired players like Arron Afflalo, Gustavo Ayon, Christian Eyenga, Mo Harkless, Al Harrington, Josh McRoberts, and Nikola Vucevic. Howard’s departure, coupled with the loss of the league’s Most Improved Player, Ryan Anderson, should put Orlando back into the middle of the pack.
ATLANTA HAWKS – With former Cavs GM Danny Ferry at the helm, the Hawks immediately rid themselves of Joe Johnson’s cumbersome contract. Johnson, along with the disappointing Marvin Williams, left the ATL and guys like sharpshooter, Kyle Korver, supersub Lou Williams and roles players Devin Harris and Anthony Morrow arrived. The Hawks, however, might still be stuck in the middle. Josh Smith and Al Horford are top level talents, but they haven’t gotten the Hawks to the promised land yet.
PHILADELPHIA 76ers – Unlike the previous two teams, the Sixers might actually be on the cusp of reaching the top half of the East’s playoff bracket – thanks largely to the acquisition of Andrew Bynum. The former Lakers center joins Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner –plus Nick Young – and suddenly Doug Collins’ club looks like one of the most exciting young clubs in the Eastern Conference. The new-look Sixers also help the Atlantic Division make the case that it’s the toughest grouping in the East.
MILWAUKEE BUCKS – The Bucks didn’t make many moves in the offseason. Their big splash came at the deadline last year when they acquired high-octane scorer, Monta Ellis. And their big free agent signing was to retain gradually improving forward, Ersan Ilyasova, They dealt for Samuel Dalembert right before the Draft, then tabbed forward John Henson and guard Doron Lamb a day later. Like the Hawks, the Bucks are a team that seems to be stuck in the middle – good enough to make the postseason tournament but not good enough to make noise when they get there.
Up and Coming
DETROIT PISTONS – Like the city they play in, the Pistons have been attempting to return to their glory days. They made some strides last year but were relatively quiet in the offseason. Perhaps their biggest addition was selecting Andre Drummond on Draft night, which will allow them to move promising big man Greg Monroe to the four. They got Ben Gordon off the books and dealt for Corey Maggette, but the Pistons are still a couple seasons away from true contention.
TORONTO RAPTORS – In many ways, Toronto’s growth depends on one man. Granted, he’s a very large man. He is Jonas Valanciunas, who the Raptors selected one pick after Cleveland tabbed Tristan Thompson two Junes ago. The Lithuanian center has drawn rave reviews for his play overseas, but we’ve heard that before. Toronto also signed Landry Fields and acquired Kyle Lowry. But the rookie center is likely the key. If the big man can fulfill the huge hype – and Andrea Bargnani can move away from the pivot – Toronto can make a big step up.
WASHINGTON WIZARDS – The Wizards made a couple mid-sized moves before Draft night – acquiring Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor to give them some much-needed veteran leadership. And they finally parted ways with enigmatic big man, Andray Blatche. But their big move came when they tabbed Florida two-guard Bradley Beal in the 2012 Draft. Beal was impressive in Summer League and his pairing with John Wall has renewed hoops hope in the nation’s capitol.
CHARLOTTE BOBCATS – Air Jordan’s squad has a long, long way to go after turning in one of the most dismal seasons in NBA history, but they had a productive Draft night – nabbing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeff Taylor – and added a couple of scorers to their backcourt: Ben Gordon and former Cavalier, Ramon Sessions. Bismack Biyombo looked like a keeper after a solid rookie season, but the young Bobcats are still a couple more trips to the Lottery away from competing for a postseason spot.