The impossible happened: a team from Cleveland won a championship. Off the strength of LeBron's all-time performance in the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers won. Despite being branded as the weaker conference since Michael Jordan's retirement, I think the Eastern Conference has caught up with the West. I ordered this list by where I expect team's to finish in the standings next year. For each team, I give a short idea of what they should do for the future and an assessment of their current roster.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: Milk LeBron for every win possible.
The Cavs are the best team in the Eastern Conference. Period. LeBron James is still the best basketball player on this planet and he'll let you know in a heartbeat. Kevin Love's defense against Steph Curry on a crucial possession ensured his safety, and he's still one of the best stretch-4's in the league. Kyrie is a legitimate star, a top 10 guard J.R. Smith is still valuable. Tristan Thompson is one of the best rebounders in the league. Iman Shumpert provides both great defense and awesome hair (shout out to flat tops). Keep riding this wave and hope that the rebuilding process after King James retires isn't too stressful.
2, Toronto Raptors: Hold onto key pieces, hope for the best.
Bad news: The Raptors can't beat the Cavs in a playoff series unless LeBron gets hurt. Good news: LeBron is old and his game is almost certain to fade as he ages since it hinges almost entirely upon his athleticism. If they can simply hold onto their core of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and the tallest Nordic punk artist in the world, they'll be poised to wrest the crown away from the Cavs in the post-LeBron Eastern Conference. Considering the rocky history of the Raptors, that's a solid W.
3. Boston Celtics: Get Boogie.
DeMarcus Cousins is upset with the Sacramento Kings organization. And rightfully so. Instead of surrounding him with talent in the backcourt, they've instead drafted big man after big man. Boogie wants out and is absolutely not going to re-sign with the Kings. And the Celtics have the situation for him, the pieces to trade for him, and a head coach in Brad Stevens who can utilize DeMarcus to the best of his abilities. If the Celtics would trade some combination of Isiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, Jaylen Brown, and the Nets' draft picks, they could easily get him. The ideal trade for both organizations would probably be Isiah Thomas (since he already played there) and Jae Crowder plus a first round draft pick for Boogie. The best center in the league, playing next to Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford, plus with a few more draft picks from the Brooklyn Nets? I take it. Strong defense, great post play, and a stretched floor that is ideal for big men who can jump shot effectively.
4. Indiana Pacers: Improve your lineup.
The Pacers quietly had the second best offseason (behind the Warriors, of course). Acquiring versatile forward Thaddeus Young, post master Al Jefferson, and skilled point guard Jeff Teague were all great moves to surround young talent Paul George with good teammates. The Pacers' organization has wanted to trade Monta and they can, for Rudy Gay. A lineup of Teague, George, Gay, Thad Young, and developing big man Myles Turner, with Al Jefferson off the bench for minutes at both power forward and center, has great potential and could maybe even beat the Cavs after a few years as Myles Turner goes into his prime.
5. New York Knicks: Just win, baby.
I don't think the Knicks can win a championship this year. I don't even think they'll make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Cavs and Celtics are both much better teams, and the Pacers and Raptors are better than the Knicks. The Knicks are like a fantasy basketball team. Post-injury Derrick Rose with mediocre defense and almost no inside presence to speak of, solid role player Courtney Lee, offensive star and underrated defender Carmelo Anthony, basketball freak-of-nature Kristaps Porzingis (who is part young Dirk Nowitzki and part Kevin Love, with stats comparable to prime Charles Barkley), and former Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah coming back to his hometown. The less efficient version of J.R. Smith, Brandon Jennings, is also in town. It'll be interesting to see how (if) this team can mesh. Regardless, they have committed to winning NOW instead of building gradually towards a future with the Porzingod as the first piece. Good luck, Knickerbockers. Since the Nets will be pure trash, you'll certainly have a captive audience.
6. Chicago Bulls: Stop being stupid. Rebuild for the future instead of trying to win with old players.
The Chicago Bulls got busy this offseason. Sort of. They started by trading hometown hero to the Knicks. along with young guard Justin Holiday and a 2017 second round pick, in exchange for defensive center Robin Lopez, point guard Jose Calderon, and young guard Jerian Grant. Considering that Rose has been more consistently injured than healthy, he was in a contract year where he is slated to earn around $21,320,000 next year, and that he has been extraordinarily inefficient from the floor, I think it was a good move. But where their logic went from there, I don't understand.
Chicago could have and should have traded Jimmy Butler to either the Timberwolves (for Ricky Rubio and the #5 draft pick ) or the Celtics (for versatile forward Jae Crowder and two of the Net's first round draft picks) and built for their future. The Bulls instead decided to overpay an aging and oft-injured Dwayne Wade along with signing assist-hog Rajon Rondo. This team is destined for mediocrity. Of these 3, Butler is the only one who can really space the floor and he isn't exceptional from 3 anyways, shooting 31.2% from downtown and making 64 3-pointers overall. This team would've been good maybe 3 years ago, or if they were transplanted to the 1980's. But I see a 5th place in the East showing or below. And they certainly won't win any playoff series. They could've rebuilt with Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, Dougie McBuckets, and Mirotic tanking in the short tern while developing their players and building through the draft. Instead, they're chasing Jordan's ghost with a gameplan as old and useful as a pair of crumbling OG Jordans.
7. Washington Wizards: Try to get Brook Lopez.
The Wizards have a solid, All-NBA level point guard and an improving, but oft-injured, shooting guard with inside-the-gym range. Both are young. This is a great start, but it's only a start. The Wizards have gone pretty far in the past few years, but they can do better. Kelly Oubre Jr. or Otto Porter, combined with Ian Mahinmi and Trey Burke, for Brook Lopez and Anthony Bennett would be a solid move for both teams. The Nets might as well aim high since they don't have draft picks for the next 2 years. And this could be the move to make the Wizards truly competitive in the increasingly-strong Eastern Conference.
8. Milwaukee Bucks: Develop, develop, develop!
The Bucks and Timberwolves are both poised to be amazing, NBA-changing teams in the future. The Point Giannis project has high promise: a 7-foot point guard who can rebound like a center, run the floor like an athletic forward, play defense at an All-NBA level, and dunk with reckless abandon. Dangerous and downright scary to most teams. Oh, did I say that he's only 19 too? Not to mention he has one of the NBA's quietest (but most effective) young guards in Khris Middleton, along with stretch-4 Jabari Parker, highly efficient big man Greg Monroe, defensive big man John Henson, and promising rookie Thon Maker. A lineup where, potentially, the shortest player in the starting lineup is 6'8. Imagine the defensive potential. Imagine the transition game. This team could potentially be the perfect counter to the Warrior's small-ball: a lineup where everyone is gargantuan and athletic, straight out of the LeBron James factory. That's not including Michael Carter-Williams' potential trade value. That's not counting Matthew Dellavedova's ability to contribute defensively and teach defense to younger players nor Mirza Teletovic's 3-point shooting at the power forward (and his high-value, low-risk contract). Look out for at least one NBA Finals matchup between the Timberwolves and the Bucks in the early 2020s. I can almost guarantee it.
9. Atlanta Hawks: Hope that Dwight and Dennis work out.
Dwight has gone home. While Dwight is, career-wise, far superior to Al Horford, I think Horford was a better fit for Budzenholder's offense. Now, Millsap will have to post up and hope that Dwight can get offensive rebounds off of his misses since Dwight's post game has deteriorated so much. If Dwight can do well with offensive rebounding, he will add value to the team. If not, the Hawks will dearly miss Horford's ability to stretch the floor. Dennis Schroder will get his chance to start at last and I suspect he will do well. The perimeter shooting of Kyle Korver is not in question. Kent Bazemore will also be valuable off the bench and perhaps Tim Hardaway Jr. can show off the same flashes of brilliance he once displayed in NYC.
10. Detroit Pistons: Get perimeter shooters.
If only the Pistons got Ryan Anderson. A lineup with Anderson's 3-point shooting ability and Drummond's post moves and dominance on the boards could be deadly. Andre Drummond is clearly the center piece, as he should be. Tobias Harris was a smart addition last season and could potentially be an All-Star this season. The Pistons need a shooting guard and some bench players who Drummond can pass to out of the post for wide-open 3 pointers. And that's definitely feasible. Plus Reggie Jackson is a solid player who doesn't get enough recognition.
11. Philadelphia 76ers: Applaud Sam Hinkie, applaud "The Process", make a trade or two, kick your feet up.
76ers, y'all deserve a slow clap. You've gotten as many wins in the past 314 games, as the Warriors have in the past 82. But the bitter tears have rolled away and the sun is shining again in Philadelphia. Joel Embiid is finally ready to play and he looks poised for a beastly "rookie" season. Okafor, despite his off-the-court issues, is a very good young center. Nerlens Noel (and his awesome flat top) will be a defensive beast in the very near future. Ben Simmons is an ideal small forward for the future, 6'10 and athletic as all hell. Sergio Rodriguez is gonna be filling up highlight reels and the stat sheet with his amazing, Nash-esque passes. You also can't forget about sweet-shooting big man Dario Saric. There's nowhere to go but up, literally. All the 76ers need to do is trade Okafor, perhaps to the Mavericks for Justin Anderson, Seth Curry, and a draft pick. A young 2/3 tweener, Anderson could provide some perimeter shooting and defense off the bench while Seth can be a solid back up to put up points off the bench. They could also do Okafor for Adreian Payne and Tyus Jones plus a draft pick from the Timberwolves? Or Okafor for former 76ers guard Lou Williams? The sky is truly the limit for the 76ers, as long as they don't let their talent walk away without getting something back in return.
12. Orlando Magic: Trade. Away. One. Of. Your. Big. Men.
Playing Aaron Gordon at small forward would be criminal. And bog down their offense terribly. Serge Ibaka will not re-sign, why would he? Why did you all sign Bismack Biyombo for so much when you have Vucevic, who is a truly awesome up-and-coming center? Biyombo averaged 5.5 points and 8 rebounds a game, to earn a 4 year, $70 million contract. Vucevic avergaed 18 points and 9 rebounds. Gordon, Ibaka, Vucevic, or Biyombo has got to go, and I'm not even sure who they should trade or what they should target. This is even worse since starting point guard Elfrid Payton shot 26% from downtown and now Evan Fournier, who improved steadily last season, will be relegated to the bench.
13. Miami Heat: Accept the losses and rebuild.
Dwayne Wade is no longer on the Miami Heat. The man who could probably be elected mayor of Miami is gone, to his hometown of Chicago. Unpopular opinion: that was a smart move. The Heat paid Tyler Johnson, a developing player, half of what they would've paid an aging Dwayne Wade. Hassan Whiteside is back in town and will continue his truly stellar defensive play. A Goran Dragic/Hassan Whiteside pick and roll isn't a bad option. The x-factor is whether Chris Bosh can come back. If Bosh is out, the Heat will have an abysmal season. If Bosh is back in full effect, the Heat may sneak into the playoffs. Pat Riley will have to rebuild the team through next year's incredible free agency pool and draft class, and I trust that he can.
14. Charlotte Hornets: Make a more cohesive team.
The Hornets have good players. But how do these players fit together? Kemba Walker has been a serviceable point guard. I think versatile forward Nic Batum at shooting guard has high promise. But Michael Kidd-Gilchrist needs to develop a jumpshot. Cody Zeller must develop as a rebounder and defensive player. Maybe Frank Kamisky will develop enough to start at power forward? There's too many questions with this team and not enough answers.
15. Brooklyn Nets: Cry. A lot. And very often.
Boy, did Billy King put a hurting on the Nets. Like, it's not unreasonable to think he was a Celtics double-agent. The Nets don't have their own first round draft pick until 2019. They're projected to be one of the worst, if not the worst, team in the NBA next season. Perennial cellars like the 76ers and Lakers now have future stars to show for it, with Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram respectively. The Nets got Jeremy Lin, who is admittedly underrated and undervalued. But, to put it bluntly, there is no future with Lin. There's a reason he's played on 6 teams in 7 years. You shouldn't build a team around Jeremy Lin; that's why no team has tried to. Maybe he'll get his mojo back in NYC. But Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez is not what you want as your primary offensive attack. The Nets can throw big money at free agents. They can try to trade Brook Lopez away for younger talent (and they should since his max contract ends in 2 years). They can just give up. It doesn't matter; they will be in the cellar of the league for at least the next 5 years, guaranteed. Basketball nihilism, engaged. Why would any free agents sign here? Why would any coaches with an inkling of talent coach here? I think the Nets will look paltry even compared to the opening seasons of expansion teams like the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors. Easily the worst positioned team in the NBA, and possibly in all of North American sports.
That's just my take on what should happen in the Eastern Conference. Thanks for reading.