East forecast: Heat, Hornets face major challenges to keep rosters intact
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
Pistons fans accustomed to – perhaps spoiled by – those seven straight 50-win seasons and six straight trips to the conference finals were reminded over the past six years the difficulty of making the playoffs.
Teams that get there tend to stick around. The roster Stan Van Gundy and Pistons general manager Jeff Bower rebuilt with remarkable speed and discipline is one set up for another lengthy playoff stretch, given reasonably good fortune on injury and assorted other fronts.
But it’s also a different environment now than it was a decade ago when the Goin’ to Work-era Pistons were in the midst of their run. The East is a growth stock again. There were three teams that fell out of the playoff field this season, an unusually high turnover rate from one year to the next, but all three – Chicago, Washington and Milwaukee – have reasonable optimism that it was a one-year blip and not the start of a drought.
Here’s a look at the seven Eastern Conference playoff teams in addition to the Pistons from this season and their outlook for next year. We’ll take a look at the seven Eastern lottery teams later this week and their path back to the postseason.
CLEVELAND – LeBron James has a player option that he’ll most likely exercise. The likelihood is that he’s not going anywhere, but who knows? J.R. Smith also can opt out, as can Mo Williams. Timofey Mozgov, Richard Jefferson and James Jones are the other unrestricted free agents. Mozgov might get a better deal elsewhere. As long as James stays put, it’s almost certain the Cavs will be able to cobble together a complementary roster around him – one built to contend for titles. The caveat here is that James, 31 and with tremendous wear on his tires, isn’t getting any younger.
TORONTO – How these playoffs turn out could radically influence what happens with the Raptors. After a terrific regular season in which there was a greater gap between Toronto and the rest of the East field than there was between the Raptors and Cleveland, Toronto barely escaped the first round of the playoffs – on the heels of other recent postseason flops – in which both All-Star guards, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan shot less than 32 percent overall and less than 17 percent from the 3-point line. DeRozan is expected to opt out of his contract. Bismack Biyombo, a key cog on one of the East’s top second units, also is certain to do so. General manager Masai Ujiri has proven an innovative streak that he’ll likely need to put to use this summer.
MIAMI – No team in the East faces a more uncertain summer than Miami, though the Heat’s advantages – the lure of South Beach, no state income tax, Pat Riley’s mystique and recent NBA titles – put them at or very near the front of the line in attracting free agents. Only Goran Dragic among Heat starters is certain to be back next season. Dwyane Wade surely will be, though there’s a delicate dance done each summer in negotiating an appropriate salary for him while still allowing Miami the wherewithal to sign other high-caliber players. Also hitting unrestricted free agency are Luol Deng, Joe Johnson and the most intriguing case of all, Hassan Whiteside. He’ll likely command a max salary, given the teams with cap space and his meteoric ascent as a defensive pillar. The Heat’s Andy Ellsburg has performed cap wizardry over the years; he might have his most challenging off-season ahead.
ATLANTA – Mike Budenholzer has successfully introduced many of the organizational tenets he carried with him from San Antonio. Now comes the part where he keeps the core together – or not. The Hawks lost DeMarre Carroll last off-season and they regressed from 60 to 48 wins, though they hit the postseason this season playing at a higher level than a year ago. They were one of the league’s most lethal offensive teams a season ago and this year hung their hat on defense. Al Horford is central to their defensive prowess, though, and his extended shooting range makes the Hawks a unique offensive team with the ability to play with five perimeter shooters for 48 minutes. Both Horford and Kent Bazemore – who ably replaced Carroll in the starting lineup – are unrestricted free agents. They’ll each have plenty of suitors. There were rumblings at the trade deadline that the Hawks were shopping Jeff Teague, a nod to the reality that Dennis Schroder – a restricted free agent in 2017 – will command a big salary, whether in Atlanta or elsewhere.
BOSTON – The Celtics – like Miami, Atlanta and Charlotte – won 48 games this season before losing to Atlanta in six games in the first round of the playoffs. Brad Stevens mixed and matched from a deep roster without a ton of star power – though Isaiah Thomas was worthy of his All-Star selection this season in emerging as a full-time starter for the first time in his career – but the consensus is the Celtics need to convert quantity into quality. They’ll have every opportunity to do so this summer and GM Danny Ainge isn’t a gun-shy gambler. The biggest bullet in Ainge’s chamber is Brooklyn’s lottery pick, which is slotted at No. 3 headed into the lottery. Boston also has the 16th and 23rd picks. Only Evan Turner among Boston’s rotation is an unrestricted free agent. The Celtics have team options on both Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko. Ainge might decline either or both to give him even more ammunition in free agency. It’s conceivable Ainge goes into July 1 with enough cap space to sign two superstars.
CHARLOTTE – Remember what we said about Miami and no team facing a more uncertain summer? Charlotte’s in a dead, uh, heat. Like Miami, Charlotte has only one starter, Kemba Walker, certain to return, at least if you consider Al Jefferson and not Cody Zeller Charlotte’s No. 1 center. Jefferson, Nicolas Batum, Courtney Lee and Marvin Williams will all be unrestricted free agents. Jeremy Lin soundly outplayed his contract and is fully expected to opt out, giving the Hornets five key free agents. And Charlotte doesn’t have South Beach’s allure or Miami’s title history to sell. Steve Clifford has injected coaching stability and 48 wins gives the Hornets momentum, so don’t expect a mass exodus. But keeping enough of this team intact to prevent a backslide looks difficult.
INDIANA – The Pacers bounced back after a year out of the playoff field as Paul George rehabilitated from his 2014 leg injury while participating with USA Basketball, squeezing ahead of the Pistons for the No. 7 seed – avoiding Cleveland in the first round – and pushing Toronto to seven games. Most key Pacers are under contract for next season, though Ian Mahinmi played his way to a much bigger payday as a starter for the first time in his career. Three other fringe rotation players – Solomon Hill, Jordan Hill and Ty Lawson – will also be free agents. There is some buzz that Frank Vogel might be on the hot seat, though it would seem an unnecessary gamble to go in another direction for the Pacers. George is the key. Beyond him, rookie Myles Turner is the most intriguing player on the roster. He proved much more ready than most expected this season and could blossom into a star. If he does, the Pacers will be tough to root out of the playoffs so long as George remains an elite player.