May 30, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers forward David West (21) is defended by Miami Heat players Dwyane Wade (3) and Chris Bosh (1) during the first half in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Eastern Conference Preview: Where Are The Pacers?

The summer is always a slow sports time to for me. I terribly miss the NBA and NFL and while I follow Major League Baseball enough to be a warm body in a friend’s fantasy baseball league and I keep tabs on the WNBA, the summer just isn’t the same sports-wise. With so many questions surrounding free agency up until in July 1, it was the summer happening I was looking forward to most. Well…that and the Ninja Turtles movie.

Nonetheless, I thought I knew how the summer would go. LeBron James would remain in South Beach, Lance Stephenson would stay in the Circle City, and Carmelo Anthony would be the only free agent star (keywords:  “free agent”) to change zip codes.

Good thing I’m not a betting man.

Anthony stayed in the Big Apple, LeBron Prodigal Son’d his way back to Cleveland and Stephenson took his talents to Charlotte, all while Larry Bird’s goal was to “stay the course” and replace Lance with the likes of Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles, and Damjan Rudez.

The Eastern Conference had three turning points throughout the course of the summer: LeBron’s return and Chicago upgrading their power forward slot by getting Pau Gasol and dumping Carlos Boozer, both of which occurred in July. And then, on July 31, the Central Division figured to have three horses in the race: Cleveland, Chicago, and Indiana. But on August 1, following George’s injury, the conference changed once again.

With all that being said, here’s a preview on the Eastern Conference from yours truly, focusing on the teams that will be of note to the Pacers.

#1 Seed – Chicago Bulls

One of the two biggest winners in the East, Chicago managed to get radically better without trading any valuable young assets. They added Pau Gasol who, at 34 years old, is still more than serviceable. If nothing else, much more efficient in terms of dollars-to-production than his predecessor Carlos Boozer. Gasol brings his near-double-double average to the Windy City, adding to a strong starting lineup of Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, and Joakim Noah, bench stud Taj Gibson, and rookies Nikola Mirotic and Doug “Dougie McBuckets” McDermott (I really hope that Bulls get a nicknamed jersey game this year, solely for McDermott.)

The big question, as it has been the last couple years, is the health of Derrick Rose. But if his comeback form in Team USA play carries over/sustains into the regular season, I expect the Bulls to bring their phenomenal roster, tough-as-nails coach Tom Thibodeau, grit, and playoff experience to the top of the conference this year. If Derrick Rose, God forbid gets injured again, the Bulls will probably have enough to avoid a first round exit again, but the Bulls’ first title since the Michael Jordan era, as always, hinges on Rose’s health.

#2 Seed – Cleveland Cavaliers

Once upon a time, LeBron James took Cleveland to the Finals more or less by himself. A team that relies on the likes of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao, Sasha Pavlovic, and Daniel Gibson rarely has any business being four games away from a championship. That was in 2007, pre-Lebron’s prime and pre-LeBron’s titles.

Fast-forward to 2014 and James has a vastly better supporting cast. Varejao is still there and Cavs GM David Griffin brought in some of LBJ’s former Miami running mates such as James Jones and Mike Miller, but the major players of the roster are now top-flight point guard Kyrie Irving, the serviceable but inconsistent Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters, and inevitably elite stretch-4 Kevin Love (nothing can become official until the last week of August when a 30-day moratorium following draft pick Andrew Wiggins’ contract signing). Plus, instead of Mike Brown’s “give it to LeBron strategy,” they’ll be guided by European transplant David Blatt in his first NBA coaching gig. The only issue? How many playoff games of combined experience do Love, Irving, Thompson, Waiters, and Blatt have? The same as me.

When James joined up with fellow superstars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami in 2010, it took those elite players a while to gel. I find it hard to believe that those players and Blatt will be able to adjust to life in the NBA as the hunted. Of the recent “super teams,” only the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce/Ray Allen/Rajon Rondo/Doc Rivers went straight from assembly to winning it all. The 2010 Heat, 2013 Kobe Bryant/Pau Gasol/Steve Nash/Dwight Howard Lakers nearly missed the playoffs, and the 2014 James Harden/Dwight Howard/Jeremy Lin/Chandler Parsons/Omer Asik Houston Rockets locked up home court advantage in the first round, but a historic buzzer-beater from Portland’s Damian Lillard sent them packing after six games.

In the end, pure talent will get them to the #2 seed, but not enough time to overtake the Bulls.

#3 Seed – Toronto Raptors

Apr 22, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) and center Jonas Valanciunas (17) and guard Kyle Lowry (7) come off the court after a play against the Brooklyn Nets in game two during the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Brooklyn 100-95. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Toronto Raptors seemingly came out of nowhere. They stumbled out of the gate, but a trade that shipped swingman Rudy Gay out of town seemed to be the turning point in vaulting them into the playoffs and was step one in coach Dwane Casey, who had taken out a lease on the proverbial hot seat, earning a contract extension starting this coming year.

In the summer of 2014, the Raptors had a similar ideology to Indiana. Stay the course. They managed to do what the Pacers didn’t and re-sign one of the lynchpins who got them back to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 – Kyle Lowry. Lowry was re-signed and the only other move of note was trading for combo guard Lou Williams who will help them when healthy, which is no given (Williams has not played in more than 40 games in the last two years).

Otherwise, the usual suspects are coming back – underrated guard Greivis Vasquez, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, and wings DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. With the New York Knicks in the beginning stages of trying to undo a lot of recent front office mismanagement, Brooklyn Nets getting older and losing Paul Pierce, and Boston and Philadelphia still very much in rebuilding, the division should be Toronto’s to lose.

#4 Seed – Washington Wizards

Last year, Randy Wittman seemed like a bottom-of-the-barrel coaching name in the NBA. But Washington managed to lean on their steady veterans such as Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza, and Nene, while continuing to develop their dynamic back court of John Wall and Bradley Beal, and became easily the most surprising team of the East last year. The usual up-and-down start turned into a late-season rally to lock up the No. 5 seed and then take all three games in Chicago in the opening round to knock off the Bulls before being knocked out by Indiana in six games.

This summer, the Wizards set their sights on the future while still remaining competitive, including leaving enough projected salary cap room to hopefully lure D.C. native Kevin Durant back to the nation’s capital LeBron-style. How did they do that? By refusing to give Ariza a long-term deal and living with him leaving for Houston, but brilliantly replacing him with Paul Pierce on a two-year deal. Do the math and notice when Pierce’s contract expires. Signing Pierce may be the most underrated signing of the summer league-wide and have a much better shot at taking the division now that Miami is much weaker. A starting lineup Wall/Beal/Pierce/Gortat/Nene should be enough to finally get the Wiz home court advantage in the first round, plus they strengthened their front court by bringing back Drew Gooden and bringing in Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair. So the team that outrebounded the Pacers by nearly 40 in a playoff game last year should be even more formidable, both on the glass and in the back court.

#5 Seed – Miami Heat

There’s no such thing as replacing LeBron James. Once in a fantasy basketball keeper league, I traded LeBron James for Kevin Durant, pre-superstar Paul George, Brandon Knight and a future pick. What a coup for a fantasy leaguer, huh? But the task of replacing James in real-life is near impossible. But Heat prez Pat Riley did about as good of a job as he could.

Riley has been the architect behind all three Miami titles, and have set up the Heat for a nice post-LBJ era. Although LeBron bolted for Cleveland, he kept Chris Bosh in town after nearly losing him to Houston, as well as retaining stalwarts Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, and bringing in versatile new blood in Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts, rookie two-time college champ Shabazz Napier, and former Enemy No. 1/former Pacer Danny Granger. While the East has gotten much better, it’s still very top heavy, meaning there should be plenty of room for the new-look Heat to still make the playoffs and be the annual team that “nobody wants to face in the first round.”

Should South Beach-ers expect a fifth straight trip to the Finals? Unlikely. But as this offseason as shown, never say never.

#6 Seed – Charlotte Hornets

First off, it feels great to say ‘Charlotte Hornets’ again. Finally. But on the court will be a better product again as well.

For a team that still isn’t that far removed from a historically bad season a couple years ago, they have made incredible strides, led His Airness Michael Jordan and gritty coach Steve Clifford. Additionally, Charlotte has added a top-tier free agent each of the last two years: Al Jefferson in 2013 and Lance Stephenson in 2014. Despite being personally one of my favorite cities in the U.S., Charlotte will never be the free agent draw that the likes of Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Miami are, which is why it’s important for Charlotte to not go for the home run free agents, but can settle for singles, doubles, and triples.

Stephenson unfortunately got attention for all the wrong reasons in last year’s playoffs. Ear-blowing, flopping, and face-touching all became good for memes and viral videos, but not for the goal of a team with deep playoff aspirations. If Stephenson can indeed control his emotions and not focus on the perceived stat-stuffing of last year, Charlotte will be entertaining to watch.

Coach Clifford has a bigger task ahead of him in terms of personality management. Stephenson is quite the character and talented rookie P.J. Hairston’s troubles in college have followed him into his professional career already. Plus, this is still an extremely young team considering that Jefferson is the old man in town at just 29, Stephenson will be 24 next month, Kemba Walker will be entering his fourth season, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is entering his third, former Hoosier Cody Zeller is entering his second, and another former Hoosier Noah Vonleh is entering his first. That’s a lot of youth to go along with the characters for Clifford to manage.

Based on Clifford last year, he’s up to the task, but way more eyes will be on Charlotte this year and they should have more than enough to gain their first playoff victory since the NBA made its return to the city since 2004.

#7 Seed – Indiana Pacers

That’s right, despite everything that has gone on this offseason, yours truly is predicting that the Pacers still have enough to make the post-season. Vogel is a fine coach for all of his faults of not corralling the locker room during last year’s collapse, not adequately using the bench, and not being creative enough on offense.

In this column, we won’t go into all the things that Vogel needs to do this year. There’s plenty of posts on InkOnIndy.com already. But I firmly believe that the core of David West, Roy Hibbert, and George Hill will be able to lead newcomers Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles, and Damjan Rudez. Of the projected playoff teams, the Pacers have the most current and future questions surrounding them, such as when Paul George will return in 2015 and will Larry Bird and the front office opt for the traditional rebuild? I’m not betting on either happening.

Even if the Pacers stand pat from today onward, I still think they have enough to give Indy its fifth straight postseason. And based on my projections, there will be a rematch with LeBron James, he just won’t be wearing the jersey I expected.

#8 Seed – Atlanta Hawks

Much like Chicago, the Atlanta Hawks haven’t known the post-season without their franchise All-Star Al Horford for a couple years. Horford was injured in Atlanta’s first round playoff showdown in 2013 or 2014. But in both meetings, the Hawks put the fear of God into the blue and gold, taking them to six games in 2013 and the full seven last year, leading to all kinds of questions about the job security of nearly everyone on the floor not named David West or Paul George.

With Horford, I expect the rest of the Hawks’ roster that gave Indy all kinds of fits, including Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague, Mike Scott (I’ll give you a minute to Google him) and Pero Antic (I’ll give you another minute) to all take steps forward with more attention directed back to Horford. Hawks GM Danny Ferry seems to have no interest in remaining in basketball purgatory, which is where the Hawks are right now, so don’t be surprised if some kind of trades or movement out of the ATL this season. But for how the team is constructed today, which is all we can go on, I expect the Hawks to make another playoff appearance.

Other teams of note:

  • New York Knicks: New front office leader Phil Jackson has a lot of bad decisions to undo, but step one was re-signing Carmelo Anthony, with that out of the way, he has to play the waiting game and allow some nasty contracts such as Amar’e Stoudemire’s to finally come off the books in the summer of 2015. That’s when some real changes can begin, but for 2014, expect the Knicks to be in the conversation for a low playoff seed, but come up short again, at least Carmelo Anthony knows what life without the postseason is like now.
  • Brooklyn Nets: Russian owner of the Nets Mikhail Prokhorov gave GM Billy King the green light on spending, redefining what it means to try and “win now” with an aging roster of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, and Andrei Kirilenko, plus oft-injured Brook Lopez. All those guys are a year older, Pierce is now a Wizard, and Lopez still needs to prove he can be leaned on all season long. The Nets got so deep into salary cap hell, even multi-billionaire Prokhorov started to blink at the nine-figure financial losses the team posted last season. Doesn’t bode well for competing for a playoff spot next year. Talented incoming coach Lionel Hollins is a phenomenal coach (he was the one name I would’ve been at all okay with had Frank Vogel been replaced this summer), but he can only do so much.
  • Detroit Pistons: They’re on this list because they’re in the Central Division. Stan Van Gundy is now steering the ship, both in the front office and on the sidelines, which is a million times better than the revolving door of coaches post-contention in the Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace era. But the fact of the matter is that the frontcourt is still a grab bag of mismatched parts of Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, and Josh Smith.  Plus spending free agent money on Caron Butler, Jodie Meeks, and D.J. Augustin? Expect an improved version of the team that gave Pacers fits at points last season – including being the first team to defeat Indy at Bankers Life Fieldhouse last season. They’ll be better, if not following a better example in SVG, but not enough to make the playoffs in a better Eastern Conference.
  • Milwaukee Bucks:  Again, they’re here because they’re in the Pacers’ division. Having to “settle” for Jabari Parker falling into their lap instead of Andrew Wiggins as the second pick of the draft is quite a get for a team that needs a jolt of excitement to the fan base and needs to take quick steps into getting a better arena situation. But when the biggest story for the Bucks in the offseason became the controversial manner in which Jason Kidd became the new head coach, that’s a problem. And now Kidd won’t have a team of self-coachable veterans on the roster like he did in Brooklyn. He’ll need to prove he’s a competent developmental head coach with a lot of young talent on the roster including Parker, the electric Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo, Brandon Knight, John Henson, O.J. Mayo, and talented-but-troubled big man Larry Sanders. At least you have more of a reason to watch Milwaukee the four times they’ll square off with the Pacers this year.

As always with professional sports, there’s always the potential for a lot of moving parts. But the big dominoes appear to be in place heading into 2014-15. The Pacers’ season won’t be what anybody thought, for the most unfortunate of reasons, but the NBA is always entertaining and there will be a lot of storylines to keep tabs on.

But until then, we’ll watch and wait for Paul George’s progression back to the court, and hopefully back to his old self.

Tags: Eastern Conference Indiana Pacers Nba Playoffs

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