Sizing Up the 2014-15 Eastern Conference’s Potential
Who is the favourite to win the Eastern Conference next season? Many experts can’t answer this question. Where do the Toronto Raptors fit into everything? It’s hard to answer this question, too.
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Everybody has a chance. Well, mostly everyone does… perhaps omitting Milwaukee from the conversation, but even they must be more excited than last year (but everything is relative, right?). But “mostly everybody” has a strong case for their team. Maybe we should review every team starting with how they finished last year?
This column will be a regular feature, looking at the NBA’s Eastern Conference and projecting where each contending team will finish. It begins at the top of the standings from 2013-14 and looks at the conference from the perspective of the Raptors.
Brooklyn: For me, this is a hard one to do. Brooklyn is a very uncertain pick…
The potential good: Look at their division. Boston: not ready. New York: trying, but not there. Philadelphia: a year away from being a year away. That leaves just one team: Toronto, who Brooklyn tanked to face (and beat) in the playoffs last season. Toronto is the favourite in the division this coming season – they almost have to be with their post-Rudy Gay record – but Brooklyn looks like the next duck in line, fairly easily… unless we have a big surprise (calling Phil Jackson…).
May 14, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Brooklyn Nets center Kevin Garnett (2) reacts during the second half in game five of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Miami won 96-94. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
The potential bad: However, Brooklyn is getting old, fast… some say their window is already closed, as they were all-in last season. Deron Williams is an old 30, Joe Johnson is a sneaky 33, and Kevin Garnett is 38. KG played just 54 games last year – is he too old to hold up? He did only average 6.5 measly points last year, according to NBA.com.
This year the new New Jersey team brings in several young bucks – seven players on their listed roster are 25 or younger. However, Mason Plumlee and Marquis Teague (out of Kentucky) are the only two I solidly know. The young crop may be good, but they are unproven and look iffy at best (aside from Plumlee). And it’s hard for players to gel, especially young ones who are used to having touches in the presence of Joe Johnson, a volume shooter.
Not good, nor bad: The result of being all-in is being way in the red with salary cap (or it may just be having Joe Johnson on the roster). Despite so, Mikhail Prokhorov doesn’t seem to mind paying the luxury tax (which is the good here). And he hasn’t ditched half his team trying to loosen the cap (he did lose Paul Pierce, who was a big cap hit, as well as Shaun Livingston, but he gained a decent backup point guard in Jarrett Jack).
Nov. 5, 2012; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov speaks to the media before the game against the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
More potential good: The Nets ended the season going 34-17, and they even threw the last few games in order to avoid the Bulls in the playoffs. If they can continue that torrent pace, it’s going to be difficult not to crown them as the new Atlantic Division champions.
The biggest potential good: Brook Lopez returns from injury, and that is huge… as he is probably the Nets’ best player. Lopez is a very skilled center who was averaging a career high in points (20.7) while shooting a very high field goal percentage (56.3) before going out for the season.
May 13, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins during the post game interview of game four of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder at FedEx Forum. Memphis Grizzlies defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder 103-97, and lead in the series 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports
Also, Lionel Hollins takes over as the Nets’ coach. Although Jason Kidd had the team on fire to end the year, it took him forever to get them on track (they started 10-21). There could be a time of transition, but Kidd was a first-time coach… Hollins is not. Hollins has plenty of experience, so don’t count on such a dreadful start.
More potential good about Hollins, you ask? He had Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, pretty good big men on his squad. And Memphis had much post-season success under Hollins. The next big man to thrive under Hollins should be Brook Lopez – it seems preordained that should be the case.
The biggest potential bad: In the same boat with the biggest potential good being stock in Lopez’s health is the question if he isn’t injured. Can he stay healthy? The past tells us no, as he missed 65 games last season, and 61 games the season prior.
May 14, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Deron Williams (8) shoots past Miami Heat guard Mario Chalmers (15) during the second half in game five of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. Miami won 96-94. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
And that same question applies to Deron Williams, who missed 18 games (for the third time in four seasons, he’s missed at least 11 games). But when he did play, was it that great? His points, assists, rebounds, and even his minutes played sank to levels most comparable to his rookie year. That’s not encouraging.
Last year’s Eastern Conference regular season rank: 6th place
This year’s potential pre-season FS rank: 7th place
With the variable of health and age at stake, it’s hard to trust the Nets. However, under Hollins, Lopez could become the MVP for all I know (most improved player is more likely though…). Or he could repeat his last two seasons on the IR. Williams could end up there about as easily… and for those reasons, the Nets can only be given the FS potential 7th seed in the Eastern Conference.
Whatever the case, the door is wide open for any Eastern Conference team to step up, and if the cards fall just right, it could be the Nets. The Nets range of finishing is winning the division at 3rd place all the way down to slide out of the payoffs at 9th place.
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