Free Agency Makes For an Intriguing Eastern Conference

By Lenn Robbins | @lennrobbins

Free agency didn’t lead to a realignment of the Eastern Conference. It just feels that way.

Not only is this not your father’s Eastern Conference, it’s not even last season’s Eastern Conference.

The Miami Heat, the team to beat the last four seasons, was scorched by LeBron James’s decision to return to Cleveland.

Chicago added a third talented big man to the Batman and Robin duo known as Joakim Noah and Brooklyn’s Taj Gibson. If Derrick Rose is healthy – big IF – the Bulls are back.

Indiana lost Brooklyn’s Lance Stephenson via free agency, which could be addition by subtraction. Wait, did someone just blow in my ear?

Franchises that had been afterthoughts – Charlotte, Washington, Toronto – emerged last season as playoff teams that got better with strategic additions.

You’ll notice we have yet to mention the Brooklyn Nets, which is exactly what a lot of NBA prognosticators have done.

After making the biggest off-season news last year, the Nets sat tight, believing the foundation has been laid to build on their 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals appearance.

With a healthy Brook Lopez, an improved Mason Plumlee, and an emotional Kevin Garnett, who likely will play his final NBA season – the 20th of his Hall of Fame career - the Nets are going to be a take-no-prisoners team.

New coach Lionel Hollins will see to that.

Those three big bodies, along with point guard Deron Williams and shooting guard Joe Johnson, make Barclays Center the place to see the best in the NBA go head to head.

The Western Conference was superior in 2014. But the Eastern Conference figures to be more intriguing in 2015. Here’s why:

HORNETS ARE BUZZING:

Part of us loves Stephenson’s Kings County mentality and his unquestioned, unbridled talent. Part of us wants to ask Lance: Really?

The former Lincoln High School star gives the Hornets an all-New York backcourt - Kemba Walker of the Bronx is on the cusp of greatness.

That backcourt, with Al Jefferson in the paint, makes Charlotte a sleeper in the East. Call them the Raptors of 2014-15.

IS SMART ENOUGH?:

For those that didn’t see Marcus Smart play at Oklahoma State, know this: He might be the most NBA-ready player taken in the 2014 draft.

Can he and Rajon Rondo thrive in Boston? Even if they do, the Celtics don’t have a lot up front. But Smart and Rondo could be quite the show, possibly explosive.

BULLS MARKET:

With Noah, Gibson and Carlos Boozer, the Bulls had the most bruising frontcourt in the East. Subtract Boozer, add Pau Gasol and what do you have?

Not only does Chicago remain a beast in the paint, but Gasol is a much better offensive player than Boozer. Which brings us to the question that has haunted Bulls’ fans for two seasons:

Will Rose remain healthy? If so, Chicago tops our preseason Eastern Conference power rankings.

LeKING OF CLEVELAND:

He’s baaaack.

James came home, instantly transforming the Cavs from a have-not to a have. And, he has the best point guard he’s ever played with – Kyrie Irving.

But the James Effect is this: He makes everyone around him better. Center Anderson Varejao, welcome to King’s Court.

And if Cleveland completes a trade for Kevin Love, well, has love and Cleveland ever been mentioned more in the same sentence than has been the case the last month?

LIFE WITHOUT LANCE:

In certain cases, we believe in addition by subtraction. Jennifer Lopez has gotten better without Casper Smart. Just sayin’.

And the Pacers are better without Lance, even if he did lead the league in triple-doubles. Sources tell us that the Pacers also led the league in aspirins consumed for what we’ll call Lanceaches.

The addition of Rodney Stuckey makes the Pacers a better shooting team. However, Indiana must solve one riddle:

How can it stop the vanishing act of 7-3 center Roy Hibbert? Hibbert must be a consistent force or the question of whether Indiana is better off without Lance is moot.

GLOBAL COOLING:

The belief here is that Coach Eric Spoelstra never has, and possibly never will, get the recognition he deserves. His preparation is meticulous and he’s a terrific in-game coach.

But Spoelstra will now coach without one of the greatest talents in sports history. The signings of Chris Bosh, Luol Deng, Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts give Miami a gritty, veteran team. It will look different, but the Nets-Heat rivalry remains red hot. Even if Miami has never felt colder.

PASS THE BUCKS:

Jason Kidd had a solid rookie season as an NBA coach. He also had veterans such as Johnson, KG and Paul Pierce.

In Milwaukee he has some potentially terrific players in first-round choice Jabari Parker and 2013 first-round choice Giannis Antetokounmpo, both of whom are 19. Kidd is 41.

He will not take Parker and Antetokounmpo to Disney World. The question is can he coach them?

WE THE NORTH:

All of those Toronto fans that packed Maple Leafs Square have been attending group therapy sessions since Kyle Lowry’s last-second shot in Game 7 of the series against the Nets was rejected by Paul Pierce.

Toronto re-signed Lowry who, when motivated, is an elite point guard. Lowry was motivated last season because he was about to become a free agent.

Lowry re-signed with the Raptors. If his motivation is to be great, this was a fantastic move by Toronto. Nets fans know how potent Lowry and DeMar DeRozan can be. They also know it got really quiet, really quick the night of May 4.

THE WIZARD OF WASHINGTON:

Like millions of boys growing up in the Big Apple, Ernie Grunfeld, became a basketball junkie. He didn’t just know the game. He could feel the game.

That upbringing has helped him emerge as one of the NBA’s best GMs. Grunfeld is working his magic again. Call him the Wizard of Washington.

The Wizards have one of the league’s best young backcourts in John Wall and Bradley Beal. They have a powerful frontcourt tandem in Marcin Gortat and Nene Hilario.

And Grunfeld signed Pierce, who helped the Nets get to the Eastern Conference semifinals last season. You can boo him for jumping ship or cheer him for blocking Lowry’s shot. Or both.

Bottom line, the Eastern Conference will be riveting. And Barclays Center is the place to watch it unfold.