HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — We’re still two days away from the NBA’s moratorium on free-agent signings and trades being lifted. So, Dwight Howard isn’t officially a Houston Rocket and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce aren’t officially Brooklyn Nets until Wednesday.
None of what we’ve seen shake out over the past seven days can become official until then.
But that doesn’t mean the business of basketball isn’t going on. From summer leagues to free-agent deals being agreed upon and trade opportunities still being explored, the ball never stops bouncing.
That’s why we’re skipping ahead to training camp and the 2013-14 season here at the hideout and forecasting — fearlessly, mind you — to April 2014 and who we believe will shake loose from the pack and be the cream of the playoff crop in the Eastern Conference (the Western Conference list will drop Tuesday morning).
We’ve got the usual suspects and a surprise or two as well, listed in projected order of finish:
The last time we saw the Heat, they were popping bottles in the locker room at AmericanAirlines Arena after winning their second straight Larry O’Brien trophy. Apparently Larry really does love Miami. They are the only franchise in the league capable of sitting out both the Draft and free agency and maintaining their position atop both the Eastern Conference and the league. Ray Allen sticking around for another year is certainly a good thing. But the most important thing for the Heat to accomplish during this offseason is to make sure LeBron James gets as much rest as possible, Dwyane Wade takes care of his knees and Chris Bosh brushes off all of the criticism he took last season and comes back ready to redeem himself for that pedestrian playoff performance. No one has done anything to put the Heat’s hold on the league in jeopardy. Team boss Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra will sort out the rotation and add and subtract the periphery pieces necessary to ensure the Heat start the season where they’ve finished each of the last two … on top!
Larry Bird couldn’t stay away, not with the team he built so close to achieving the ultimate goal of bringing a championship to his basketball-made home state. Bird’s first order of business was to make sure Pacers’ locker room and emotional leader David West didn’t get away in free agency. West, Paul George and Roy Hibbert comprise one of the best inside-out trios in the league. Add in a healthy Danny Granger for the 2013-14 season, and the Pacers have every reason to believe that they will finally catch a Heat team that might be worn down from the grind of three straight Finals trips. Adding role players like C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland gives the Pacers an edge and shooting stroke in the backcourt and frontcourt they didn’t get from D.J. Augustin and Tyler Hansbrough. Whatever changes were made, the Pacers’ title hopes rest on what point guard George Hill and Granger (and, to a lesser extent, Lance Stephenson) can give them now that George has taken over as the All-Star face of the franchise. Anyone expecting him to take a backseat to a healthy Granger (or anyone else) is dreaming. George’s coming out party lasted the entire 2012-13 season, culminating in an eye-opening performance against James (in particular) and the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Expect it to keep going for years to come.
What looked like a lost season to some in Chicago was more of a revelation of what the Bulls are working with sans their best player, Derrick Rose. His absence from the court (well, for anything but the practices he was rumored to dominate) shined a light on a supporting cast that is far tougher than they’ve been given credit for in recent years. All-Star Joakim Noah‘s playoff effort, while battling injury himself, should not be overlooked. He’s moved up our list of quality big men, well into the top five and perhaps the top three. Having smoothed out the rough edges offensively, Noah became a two-way force to be reckoned with and an ideal inside counterpart for Rose. Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng (who needs to get healthy this summer as well) provide the sort of veteran leadership teams overspend for every summer. But Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has shown us that no matter what the parts look like, he will put a team on the floor capable of grinding with anyone in the league. What he’ll have in a ticked off Rose, who will carry all of the foul things said about him last season with him to the court every night, is a game changer that no other team in the East can match. No draftee or free-agent pick up this summer is better than adding the former MVP back to your mix.
The Nets have the stars lined up. From rookie coach Jason Kidd to a starting five — of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Pierce, Garnett and Brook Lopez — that looks as good or better than any starting five in basketball, at least on paper. Translating all of this from paper to the floor is where the Nets will run into the same issues that have plagued other franchises that have tried to fast track their way to a championship (the 2007-08 Celtics are the last team that rode the wave from summer construction to championship parade the next summer). The irony of this whole thing? The Nets were the team Howard named as his preferred destination when he forced his way out of Orlando. Had things gone the way he and Williams had planned, there would have been no need for all of the trades that have reshaped this seasoned and expensive starting five into the unit that it has become. The expectations for this crew will dwarf anything that Williams, Johnson and Lopez experienced in their inaugural season in Brooklyn. There was a tempered excitement with everything from the roster to the arena being so shiny and new. There was hope that things would turn out well, but certainly no concrete expectation that a championship contender was on the immediate horizon. This time around, anything short of a spirited charge to the conference finals will be considered a colossal failure.
NEW YORK KNICKS
If Andrea Bargnani, the No. 1 overall pick by the Toronto Raptors in the 2006 Draft, has any chance of shedding that “bust” label that has plagued him throughout his NBA career, his pending stint with the Knicks might be his last chance to do so. His critics are probably chuckling at the idea of the big man thriving on a team with Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Amar’e Stoudemire. There are others, however, who feel that Bargnani has found the perfect fit for his skill set in coach Mike Woodson‘s system. “Listen, Andrea can play. He has a skill set that is undeniable,” said a former NBA coach of the Year. “You have to get over the fact that he’s not going to be Dirk [Nowitzki] or even Pau [Gasol], at his best, and realize that he’s a 7-footer that can shoot the cover off the ball. You put him in the right system, where he can play pick-and-pop and play his role, and he’s going to be dangerous.” The Knicks need dangerous and then some. They found that out in the playoffs, when it became clear that their hobbled group was not up to the task of dealing with a grimy Pacers crew that worked them over inside. The Knicks have likely fallen behind the Nets entering next season, but if Stoudemire is healthy and Anthony is refreshed, that could change quickly. The Knicks have the firepower to challenge for a top-three spot in the East.
Stunner, right? The lowly Wizards hanging out in playoff territory isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. If you watched the Wizards down the stretch last season, or at least when both John Wall and Bradley Beal were healthy and rolling, you know why we’ve got the Wizards this high. Drafting Otto Porter Jr. with the No. 3 pick was a no-brainer for a team in need of swingman capable of playing alongside Wall and Beal. Porter provides the defense Wizards coach Randy Wittman and his staff seek and is capable of stretching the floor as a 3-point shooter with the size (6-foo-8) necessary to worry teams who focus solely on Wall and Beal. The Wizards also have the workman-like bigs (Emeka Okafor and Nene) that will handle all of the dirty work and allow this ultra-talented backcourt to play at a pace that suits them. Fleshing out their roster by retaining shooter Martell Webster, picking up backup point guard Eric Maynor and snagging Glen Rice Jr. in the second round of the Draft, the Wizards finally have a top-to-bottom type roster capable of making an impact any night.
Paul Millsap. DeMarre Carroll. Kyle Korver. And maybe Monta Ellis? That’s not exactly the kind of superstar haul Hawks fans were expecting when the franchise made it clear that they were going to put that $34 million-$40 million in cap space to good use by chasing Howard and Chris Paul. Those dreams were dashed immediately. Howard gave the Hawks a courtesy meeting when he knew all along that there was absolutely no chance he was coming back home to chase rings. And the minute Doc Rivers went to the Clippers, the dream of making up for passing over Paul in the 2005 Draft (for Marvin Williams) was dashed. Still, the Hawks should have a nucleus of the aforementioned players added to Al Horford, Lou Williams and John Jenkins, a group capable of securing one of the final three playoff slots in a top-heavy Eastern Conference. New coach Mike Budenholzer will have his work cut out for him with a mismatched roster that Horford will have to anchor from the center position he was hoping to escape with the addition of a quality center in free agency (Andrew Bynum and restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic are still out there …). And there is till an unsettled point guard position to deal with. Restricted free-agent point guard Jeff Teague is rumored to be the target of the Milwaukee Bucks, who have a restricted free agent of their own in Brandon Jennings that might interest the Hawks. The franchise has a string of six straight playoff appearances going right now. They should have the necessary parts to make it seven straight.
The addition of Josh Smith, for four years and $56 million in free agency, does not put the Pistons into the playoff picture. Not by itself. But there is a void this crew can possibly fill for that No. 8 spot in the East. Adding Smith to a maturing frontcourt that includes Greg Monroe, rugged young monster Andre Drummond, rotation players Kyle Singler and Jonas Jerebko and second-rounder Tony Mitchell gives the Pistons the size, depth and versatility that screams playoffs. Adding an athletic specimen like Kentavius Caldwell-Pope, the No. 8 pick in the Draft, to pair with point guard Brandon Knight and it’s clear that the Pistons are working with resources that should finally get them out of the lottery mix. Perhaps the most important thing for the Pistons was the hiring of Mo Cheeks as their coach. He replaces Lawrence Frank, now the top assistant in Brooklyn under Kidd, who never could find the right connection with his young crew. Cheeks is coming into this situation having helped nurture an extremely talented and hard-working group of young stars in Oklahoma City. Expect him to have a clearly defined plan for all of these guys to improve their individual games. Cheeks and Pistons general manager Joe Dumars also have the ear and respect of Smith. They are the ones who swayed him during the recruiting process. If he plays the way they think he can, this should be a breakout season for the Pistons.
JUST MISSED THE CUT: Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors