Just felt like sharing my views on my current outlook on the league's standings. In this fanpost, I'm going to divide Eastern Conference teams into specific tiers so as to show which franchises are specifically competing with one another based on my own subjective take of their roster strength and quality. I'll give some explanation as to the thought process behind these rankings just so that you all have some insight into my logic. Feel free to provide any feedback. My Western Conference rankings will be posted very soon.
Defending champions: Heat. Not much explanation needed here: the Heat are the two-time defending champions with the undisputed best player in the league. They're the favorites until (and if) they are eliminated from the playoffs.
Title contenders: Bulls, Pacers, Nets. Not necessarily in that order, but probably what I'd expect to see when the regular season concludes. These teams are all franchises that pose legitimate threats to the Heat. The Bulls have come back to prominence with the return of the only other player to have won an MVP award in the last five years: Derrick Rose. They will easily finish with a top 3 record and I would not be surprised in the least if they capture the conference yet again. They are a historically dominant regular season team, even though their postseason runs have left much to be desired.
The Pacers have arisen as one of the few teams equipped to take down the Heat, owing to their size and stifling defense. Theoretically speaking, they were just one LeBron James-layup away in Game 1 of the conference finals from advancing to the Finals last season. Given that their core players are all young, with the exception of David West (whose game doesn't rely on athleticism) and Danny Granger (who will probably be traded, anyway), the future looks very bright for Indiana.
The Nets have gone all-in on their owner's stated promise to deliver a championship by 2015. Some might deem it foolish, but if your only concern (at the moment, at least) is to win, then you simply can't hate what the Nets have done. They've acquired two of Boston's three best players last season while still managing to keep their core of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez all intact. The team's advanced age is often exaggerated as a weakness (keep in mind that the Heat are actually older with an average age of 30.4 vs the Nets' 29.5), but it can't be denied that age will be a factor in why this team will likely not be extremely dominant in the regular season. It's already been stated that Kidd intends to sit Garnett and Pierce as much as possible so as to keep them fresh for the playoffs. You'll notice that teams which tend to clinch conferences often do so by playing their starting five as often as possible. Since that's not the goal with the Nets, it's probably not reasonable to expect them to finish with one of the best records in the league. That said, they'll more than likely be up there.
The Knicks: Knicks. This isn't intended as some kind of slight to the Knicks -- they're just in a really weird, murky category of their own. I don't believe the Knicks, as currently constructed, are capable of winning a title. I do believe that they'll still be a good team, particularly in the regular season. I also believe that while they're not going to win a title, they're easily better than the remaining Eastern Conference teams. As such, I fully expect to see the Knicks finish with the fifth best record and a first-round exit. The Knicks aren't good enough to beat any of the aforementioned four teams in the playoffs; they're also not good enough to draw anyone besides the aforementioned four teams, i.e. they will not end up finishing with, say, the third seed and draw a sixth seed. Their ceiling and their floor for this season is solidly set at 5.
Playoff hopefuls: Wizards, Cavaliers, Pistons, Hawks. This tier is marked by three teams hoping to make a return to relevancy after extended postseason droughts (the former three) and one team that has been stuck in the dreaded treadmill of mediocrity. The four teams are theoretically going to be fighting it out during the season (or more likely, until the trade deadline -- more on that later) for the three remaining seeds. Of the four, I would say the Wizards, Cavaliers, and Pistons have more upside than the Hawks (in that they're trying to make the playoffs for the first time in forever, whereas the Hawks have pretty much sleepwalked into the playoffs for the last several years). As such, I'd expect those three to make it over Atlanta.
John Wall transformed the Wizards from a 5-28 bottom feeder while he was out with injury to a respectable 24-25 team when he returned (with the last six losses being clear lottery positioning). The mantra for this season, as stated by the front office and Wall, who's taken to penning this on his sneakers before every game: "playoffs." Rather than roll the dice with an injured Emeka Okafor and potentially end their season with another lottery ticket, they made a trade for Marcin Gortat, insuring that they will see the postseason this year. Some might question the logic in playing to win now when the best draft in a decade is upon us, but given the Wizards' poor recent drafting history and the fact that they've acquired a core and probably no longer need the draft, I see nothing wrong with that. Even if they're a first-round exit this year -- which they certainly will be -- it's a starting point and easily better than not even qualifying for the playoffs.
Cleveland has a very promising young core headlined by Kyrie Irving, who has the trajectory to become a top 5 point guard in the next two or three years. If Andrew Bynum's corpse can give them something -- anything -- they will be a force to be reckoned with. Don't be surprised to see them be a little aggressive in the trade market this year, either: they could certainly use a Danny Granger or a Luol Deng to address their weak spot at the small forward. As an added benefit, if they're show they're reasonably competitive this year with a stopgap 3, this might make them a bit more attractive to a certain player down in Miami this summer, infamous for having left Cleveland a few years ago...
Detroit, likely fueled by a desperate drive by Joe Dumars to save his job, is now in the mix for playoff contention. After a fairly solid offseason marked by the additions of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, it's easy to see why. Despite those two players striking fear in the hearts of analytics supporters everywhere, one cannot deny that Smith and Jennings are both talented players. Smith is versatile, athletic, and a surprisingly good defender. Jennings is capable of adequately facilitating an offense and running a team. Also, he's not Brandon Knight. Couple that with the return of Chauncey Billups as a wise mentor and a burgeoning young stud in Andre Drummond and you have a team that could prove to be really imposing in due time. I do have to wonder how the Smith-Greg Monroe-Drummond frontcourt will work, though... my money is on Monroe eventually hitting the trade market, probably sooner than later if the experiment proves ineffective early on.
The Hawks... well:
"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." - Albert Einstein (except not really).
After trading away Marvin Williams and Joe Johnson, Atlanta (wisely) decided to allow Josh Smith to walk and build around Al Horford. Maybe? Truth be told, no one really knows what's going to happen with the Hawks. To their credit, they've mitigated the Smith exit by signing Paul Millsap to a very cap-friendly 2-year, $19 million deal, and using some of the newfound cap space to bring in other complementary pieces and retain the services of Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. They've been largely competitive in recent times, having just finished their sixth straight playoff run; their offseason moves, at least at face value, seem to indicate some sort of desire to maintain that status quo. That said, I use the word "competitive" very liberally: they've never advanced any further than the semifinals, having been swept two out of the three times they've gotten that far. Are they really interested in yet another disappointing playoff run or is Danny Ferry going to blow this team up just in time for the 2014 draft? Who knows? We'll see soon enough. There's a decent chance we'll see a firesale in Atlanta right around the All-Star Break.
The mediocre teams: Raptors, Celtics, Bucks, Bobcats(?). This is where we get into the first tier of lottery teams: those that aren't good enough to make the playoffs, but also aren't so bad that they're among the worst franchises. These teams are going to look to make moves to either go up a tier or down one: no one wants to be the first loser, especially if all it gets you is a lower draft pick.
Toronto has a new GM in town: Masai Ujiri, better known as the former Nuggets GM and mastermind behind the Carmelo Anthony trade which saw the Knicks sending out everything besides Amare Stoudemire's knees. Ujiri has been pretty tightlipped on his plans for the Raptors, but he certainly made his entrance with a splash. Not being content with robbing the Knicks for virtually all of their young assets two years ago, he then somehow convinced them that amnesty candidate Andrea Bargnani was worth a first-round pick, two second-round picks, and Steve Novak. The respectable upgrade Bargnani presents over Novak aside (who is literally useless if he's not shooting wide-open 3s), that trade will go down in history as highway robbery for Toronto. That said, the Bargnani trade doesn't necessarily provide any insight as to what Ujiri plans to do in the future: Bargnani was virtually a non-factor for the Raptors in recent times. Will he look for buyers for Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry, and/or DeMar DeRozan? Will he try to acquire another star to pair with the existing core? All I know is I'll be keeping an eye on this team, if not just to see what magic he'll pull from his hat next.
The Celtics are in a clear rebuilding phase, but even still, they have enough talent on this team to keep them out of the "worst team in the league" discussion. They'll be bad, but they'll also manage to win more games than quite a few other teams. Given the fact that this topic has been discussed ad nauseum on this site, I don't feel I need to go into too much detail on the Celtics' forecast for this season.
The Bucks have been in similar territory as the Hawks over the past few years, but unlike their southern counterparts, they didn't manage to effectively reload following the losses of Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings, J.J. Redick, and pretty much their entire 2012-13 roster. Instead, they brought in a few patchwork fixes of considerably less talent in Caron Butler, Zaza Pachulia, and O.J. Mayo, among others. Many suspect that this season will be a stealth tank for Milwaukee: the owner, Herb Kohl, is noted for his refusal to mail in a season, so there's a growing sentiment that this roster was constructed so as to give the impression that they're trying to remain competitive while simply not being all that good. I'm not sure if that's the case, but I do know that regardless of it being intended or not, they're not going to be good this year.
I suffixed the Bobcats with a question mark purely because they're a bad team, but I don't believe they belong in the next tier since they've at least made some kind of move for legitimacy with their signing of Al Jefferson. Jefferson won't make them a good team, but he at least signals that they're trying to become good, as opposed to just hopelessly floundering. It might seem a bit questionable that they'd sign Jefferson now when there's an amazing draft next June, but the Bobcats are a prime example of why hoping for luck in the draft is a risky maneuver. When it works, you end up with the Thunder; when it doesn't, you have the Bobcats.
The unabashed tankers: Magic, Sixers. Make no mistake -- these teams aren't good. They aren't trying to be good, they aren't trying to pretend to be good and in the case of Philadelphia, they want you to know they'll be absolutely terrible. But that's alright, because these teams are in full-out rebuilds. They're playing purely with an eye on the future.
A year after the Dwight Howard trade, the Magic have victoriously emerged as the winners of that deal: they're the only team to retain the noteworthy players that they've acquired (Bynum never played a minute for the Sixers, Iguodala jumped ship to the Warriors, and we all know about the Lakers' Dwight Howard saga). They've built a really young, but very talented core of players, many of whom can be used as assets later on to help speed up their rebuild. The immediate forecast for the Magic is murky, but the future is bright is Orlando.
The Sixers stand a legitimate chance of fielding the worst team ever seen in the NBA. In fact, if this were any other season, they very well could set the NBA record for fewest wins in a season (coincidentally set by an earlier iteration of the tanking Sixers in 1972-73, with a 9-73 record). However, given that many teams are commiting themselves to the #tankforwiggins this season, the Sixers stand to win games here and there just by being outawful-ed on any given night by other bad teams. With their best player in Jrue Holiday now enjoying quality cajun cooking in New Orleans, look to see Philly try to ship out Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, and Spencer Hawes. Those guys could potentially win them games, which is the exact opposite of what the team wants to do this year. This team is going to be bad; as bad as people here think the Celtics might be without Rondo, I can assure that they'll look like the Heat compared to the Sixers on a bad night.