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JR Smith + Al Horford + Joakim Noah

Unleashed in the East

August 21, 2013
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

The landscape of the league changes every offseason. And in the Cavaliers’ conference, there were some changes this offseason that could shift the balance of power in the East. From mid-August, we can probably predict four or five squads that will definitely reach the postseason. The final few spots could be up for grabs after that.

Last year at this time, the Celtics were considered one of the few teams that could beat the Heat. One year later, Boston is in rebuilding mode while two of their former stars are busy building Brooklyn into Miami’s biggest challenge. But the Nets are the only club that made some major moves this summer.

How might the Easter Conference stack up this season? With teams readying their rosters for Training Camp, here’s an abbreviated overview ….

The Chosen Ones – The Heat (66-16 last season) are the cream of the crop in the East and topped San Antonio for their second straight title. Other than Mike Miller being amnestied and the signing of Greg Oden, Miami brings the same crew into the 2013-14 campaign. Some of their stars are getting up in age, but they still boast the best player in the NBA.

Ready to Rumble – Indiana (49-32) feels like it can stick with the Heat and after taking them to seven games in last year’s East Finals, why wouldn’t they? Their bench gets a big offensive lift, replacing Tyler Hansbrough with Luis Scola. They drafted versatile guard Solomon Hill (a guy Campy Russell liked in the Draft, and he’s rarely wrong). If the Pacers can find some offense from their second unit, they’re still the best bet to dethrone Miami in the East.

Going Green – No team in the East underwent a facelift like the Brooklyn Nets (49-33), who added a head coach straight off the hardwood and brought in a pair of Celtic icons – Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett – along with Jason Terry and the AK-47 to challenge the Pacers and Heatles. Already strong in the pivot and at the point with Brook Lopez and Deron Williams, Brooklyn has all the pieces to make their big move.

Rosey Outlook – The Bulls (45-37) went further than anyone might have expected in last year’s postseason, with Nate Robinson in the role of Derek Rose. Chicago hopes to get the real thing back this season, and if they do, with the tenacious D they bring every night, they could also give Miami and the East’s top dogs all they can handle. They’ll replace Marco Belinelli’s outside shooting with Mike Dunleavy, but the roster remains pretty much the same. Guts and grit are great, but for the Bulls, reaching the next level depends on the health of their former MVP.

Apple Slice – It didn’t take the relocated Nets long to take a bite out of the Knicks (54-28) hoops monopoly in New York City. And the fickle fans’ love affair with Carmelo Anthony could be further strained if it’s another one-and-done in this year’s playoff run. After re-signing J.R. Smith, the Knicks were relatively quiet in the early offseason. But they traded for former top pick, Andrea Bargnani and inked free agents Beno Udrih and Metta World Peace to bolster their bench. One way or another, this is going to be an interesting season in the Big Apple.

Added Horsepower – The Pistons (29-53) haven’t reached the postseason since 2008-09 and have averaged just 27 wins over their last three seasons. So this offseason, Detroit opened its wallet and inked Josh Smith to a big free agent deal. About a month later, the Pistons dealt for erratic-but-talented point guard Brandon Jennings. Detroit won’t be running teams out of the gym, but – with the frontline of Smith, Andre Drummond and Moose Monroe – they’ll be extremely tough to score against in the halfcourt. Mo Cheeks replaces Lawrence Frank as the Pistons look to return to the good old days of Deeee-troit basketball.

Capital Gains – Unlike other teams trying to return to the postseason, the Wizards (29-53) have taken a more methodical approach to building the roster. In 2010, they drafted their point guard (John Wall). In 2012 they got their 2-guard (Bradley Beal). And this past June, they filled their small forward spot with Georgetown’s Otto Porter Jr. Along with veterans, Nene, Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor, the Wizards – like the Pistons and Cavaliers – are hungry for a return to the tournament.

Changing of the Guard – Remember that high-scoring backcourt duo that the Bucks (38-44) sported over the past season-and-a-half? It’s in Detroit and Dallas now. Milwaukee still managed to get Brandon Knight out of the deal and inked O.J. Mayo to a free agent deal in July. Fellow free agent, Zaza Pachulia, will help solidify a frontline that includes Ersan Ilyasova and the up-and-coming Larry Sanders. The Bucks were the East’s 8th-seed last season and, with the roster changes they’ve made this summer, that’s about where they could end up again.

Ferry’s Facelift – The Hawks (44-38) have reached the postseason for the past six seasons but haven’t made it past the second round in any of the six and not past the first in the past two years. Something had to give and the Cavs former GM continued the shakeup that began with the Joe Johnson trade last offseason. This summer, Ferry parted ways with Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia and brought in free agents Paul Milsap, Elton Brand and Kyle Korver and drafted a pair of interesting international first-rounders in point guard Dennis Schroeder and center Lucas Nogueira. Ferry also poached head coach Mike Budenholzer from the Spurs – another piece to the culture change taking place in the Dirty South.

Canadian Bakin’ – It’s hard to know exactly which direction the Raptors (34-48) are taking. They have some talented young players (Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan) and some dependable vets like Rudy Gay and Tyler Hansbrough, but they’re still lacking a true playmaker. The Raptors haven’t been back to the postseason since 2008, but seem to building patiently around their young guns.

Jelling Jordanaires – The Bobcats (21-61) have been to the playoffs just once in their nine-year existence and they’ve still got a little ways to go to get back. But if Summer League was any indication, the Bobcats have the beginnings of a solid frontcourt with Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller. Fans groaned when Jordan’s ‘Cats selected the former Indiana standout, but the brother of Cleveland’s Tyler showed his impressive skill-set in Vegas. Add Big Al Jefferson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker into the mix and things suddenly look a little sunnier along Tobacco Road.

Howard’s End – After Dwight Howard left the franchise in tatters two seasons ago, the Magic (20-62) are finally starting to get back on their feet. Jameer Nelson is the lone survivor from Orlando’s Finals run, as Orlando begins to restock its roster with young talent. Rapidly-improving Nikola Vucevic is already one of the most talented bigs in the East (and a potential Cav-Killer) and the Magic tabbed one of the most athletic and tenacious players in the Draft with No. 2 overall pick, Victor Oladipo. Forwards Tobias Harris and Mo Harkless are nice pieces, but Orlando still has a long way to go before returning to their recent glory days.

Massachusetts Metamorphosis – The Nets might have taken the biggest step up in the East, but they did so at the expense of the Celtics (41-40), who lost a pair of franchise pillars on the floor and relinquished their head coach in the same summer. Aside from Rajon Rondo, the Celtics are a completely different squad than the one that fell in six games to the Knicks last spring. New coach Brad Stevens is about the same age as Pierce and Garnett, and he’ll be the man in charge of turning around the new-look Celtics. Danny Ainge did load up on draft picks through the purge, so Celtic-haters shouldn’t get too excited about Boston being down for now.

Young Philly – The Sixers (34-48) made it quite clear on Draft night that they intend to tear it down and build it back up. They dealt their lone All-Star (Jrue Holiday) and landed Nerlens Noel – thought by some to be the top player in the Draft. Andrew Bynum is a Cavalier and Nick Young is a Laker. Philly still has a couple pieces – (Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young) – to keep them relatively competitive. But in Noel, Michael Carter-Williams and Royce White (if he can get himself together enough to contribute), the Sixers are definitely looking beyond this year and into the future.

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