Breaking Down The New Eastern Conference Contenders

With one Sports Illustrated essay, the entire hierarchy in the Eastern Conference was destroyed.

The Miami Heat, the champions of the Eastern Conference for the last four seasons, lost their best player. The Cleveland Cavaliers, an Eastern Conference laughing stock for the last four years, instantly became Las Vegas’ favorites to win the championship next year, and between all that, a number of other teams improved as well.

What was once a two-dog race in the Eastern Conference between the Heat and Indiana Pacers is now seemingly a free-for-all, featuring at least five teams – maybe even more – that have a legitimate case to be considered the conference’s favorite.

Is the East slowly turning into the West? Absolutely not, but the gap between the top teams and the bottom teams of the conference has gotten a whole lot smaller.

So if the LeBron-less Heat aren’t still the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, which team is? There’s a lot of time left for moves to be made, but as of right now, here are the contenders and the favorites in the Eastern Conference.

Honorable Mentions: Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks

All five of these teams should compete for playoff spots in 2014-2015, but none of them appear good enough to take down the top dogs in the conference. The Hornets have added some nice pieces to put around Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker, but Lance Stephenson isn’t enough to put them over the top.

The Nets not only lost two key contributors in Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston, but they lost their head coach as well.

The Hawks missed out on a number of top tier free agents – again – but should still have enough firepower with Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, and a healthy Al Horford to make some noise.

Phil Jackson pulled off some zen magic to keep Carmelo Anthony in the Big Apple, but the Knicks are still a year or two away from being championship contenders.

The Raptors, meanwhile, missed a golden opportunity to improve its roster when the team drafted Bruno Caboclo instead of a proven player with the No. 20 pick in this year’s draft. Toronto is still talented, but not talented enough.

Click here for a breakdown of the Eastern Conference’s real contenders…

Now let’s get to the real contenders. Keep in mind, this list is in no particular order.

Miami Heat

Say what you want about the Heat, but give Pat Riley a ton of credit for what he’s done in free agency after losing LeBron James. Miami put all of its time and effort into retaining The King, but still managed to put together a competitive squad after missing out on the first wave of free agents.

Luol Deng isn’t nearly the player James is, but he’s not a bad replacement considering the market. Miami also went out and acquired forwards Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger, who should both be solid rotation players for Erik Spoelstra. Riley convinced Chris Bosh to return to South Beach, along with Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, and Chris Andersen. The Heat’s 2014-2015 Heat roster won’t be as talented as it’s been in years’ past, but it’s still strong enough to compete in the East.

Without LeBron in Miami, look for Bosh to take over the lead scoring role, something he’s more than capable of handling. As Toronto’s top option from 2005 to 2010, Bosh averaged 22.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. Every single one of Wade’s critics came out and bashed his NBA Finals performance, so expect to see a motivated and rejuvenated Wade next year. He’s still a Hall-of-Fame player, and will want to prove that he has enough left in the tank to perform like one.

That duo flanked by a supporting cast of Deng, McRoberts, Granger, Chalmers, Andersen and Miami’s No. 1 pick this year in Shabazz Napier may not be enough to win it all, but it’s definitely enough to compete. Until someone dethrones them in the East, the Heat are still contenders.

Chicago Bulls

Despite playing without Derrick Rose last year, the Bulls managed to win 48 games and grab hold of the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference. Chicago’s defense was once again the league’s best in 2013-2014, but its offense was putrid. A healthy D-Rose will certainly help out the team on that end of the court, but the additions of Pau Gasol and Doug McDermott should make the Bulls’ offense exponentially better.

Rose, when healthy, can create his own shot at any time. He’s too quick to stay in front of and his arsenal of dribble moves allows him to break down any defender. That ability to create for himself will open up more opportunities for Chicago’s other players to operate, including Joakim Noah and Gasol on the block. Chicago featured a frontcourt of Noah and Taj Gibson last year, and while the duo was superb defensively, neither proved very reliable offensive option. Cue Gasol, who is one of the more versatile big men in the NBA. Gasol can be a force on the block, but he has the ability to step away from the basket and be effective from the high-post, too. Look for Gasol to get a lot of touches from at the elbow area due to his ability to score and distribute from the perimeter. Not many 7-footers can pass like he can.

Having a guard who can get to the rim and a big man on the block that can score is great, but it doesn’t mean much if there aren’t shooters on the floor to give them space to operate. Last year, Chicago didn’t really have any reliable three-point shooters, which is why the Bulls traded up in last month’s NBA Draft to select McDermott, the sharp-shooting forward out of Creighton. McDermott will likely never score 25 points per game like he did in college, but he should be an elite three-point shooter even as a rookie.

Any team coached by Tom Thibodeau will be very good defensively, and now the Bulls have a roster that can be solid on both ends of the court.

Cleveland Cavaliers

It really doesn’t matter what the Cavaliers do throughout the rest of the free agency period. Getting James to agree on a homecoming is the best move of the summer, and the Cavaliers are the league’s biggest winners.

Before netting LeBron, the Cavs added No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins to an already up-and-coming roster featuring Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, and last year’s No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett. If adding the league’s best player to that unit wasn’t enough already, Cleveland found a way to lure veteran sharp-shooter Mike Miller to Northeast Ohio as well, even though the team could only offer him roughly half of what the Denver Nuggets did.

As currently constructed, the Cavaliers have the most talented roster in the East. The Cavaliers’ offense should create a ton of matchup nightmares for opposing teams. Irving is one of the better one-on-one players in the league, and he’s going to get a ton of isolation opportunities playing alongside LeBron. The same goes for Wiggins, whose offensive game isn’t anywhere near refined enough to score against defenses that are focused on him. Waiters has the ability to go off offensively as well, and as Cleveland’s third or even fourth option, should have plentiful to attack his defender with limited weak-side help. Oh, and LeBron will probably score about 25 points per game, which is always a nice luxury to have.

Defensively, Cleveland is going to have a lot of options to work with. LeBron is the league’s most versatile defender, and Wiggins’ combination of athleticism and length should make him an immediate force on that end. Thompson and Anderson Varejao do a good enough job defending the paint that the Cavs should be able to be super-aggressive on the wings, which could cause fits for opposing offenses. Not many teams have the length on the perimeter and in the paint that the Cavaliers feature.

Click here to see our Eastern Conference favorite…

Indiana Pacers

Last season was the Pacers’ best chance to dethrone the Heat, but they couldn’t capitalize. Now, as the rest of the Eastern Conference improves, the Pacers find themselves back in the pack with a number of other teams.

Despite losing Lance Stephenson to the Hornets in free agency, the Pacers bring back the majority of the roster that led them to 56 wins in 2013-2014. Paul George is still a star, David West one of the most reliable bigs in the league, and the team signed Rodney Stuckey to be Stephenson’s replacement. While Stuckey isn’t a player of Stephenson’s caliber was, he has the ability to play either guard position, making George Hill bench-able if he’s not playing up to par.

The key for the Pacers moving forward is Roy Hibbert. When he’s playing well, the Pacers’ defense is elite and extremely difficult to beat. But when Hibbert is off his game, the Pacers are a shell of the team they could be. It’s almost unfathomable how Jekyll-and-Hyde this team can be, but when they’re on, they’re good.

Losing Stephenson will definitely hurt the Pacers’ on-court product, but it will help the team’s chemistry in the locker room. For a close-knit group like Indiana that has been together for a few years now, getting rid of a bad locker room guy – even if he’s valuable on the court – may actually do more good for the team than bad. Look for the Pacers to use last year’s playoff failure as extra motivation in an attempt to claw their way back to the top.

Washington Wizards

Beware of the Washington Wizards. Last year’s playoff Cinderella squad has had a terrific offseason and appears ready to take a big step forward in the Eastern Conference.

Led by the dynamic backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards can put up points – and fast. While the team may not be all that young, their amount of playoff experience indicates otherwise. Well, that was the case until the Wizards went out and signed Paul Pierce in free agency. Pierce may not be the 20-point per game scorer he once was for Boston, but his leadership skills and intangibles will be priceless for Washington’s young players. Losing Trevor Ariza to the Houston Rockets definitely hurts, but the addition of Pierce helps ease his loss. Adding Kris Humphries to the team’s frontline also affords them much-needed depth.

After getting a slight taste of success by reaching the second round of the playoffs a year ago, the Wizards should come out hungry and aggressive in 2014-2015. Look for Beal, who started to emerge into a real offensive force in the playoffs, to continue his ascent towards stardom and for Wall to develop into one of the league’s most dynamic playmakers. With those two and Pierce on the perimeter, Nene should have plenty of room to operate on the block, and he’s one of the league’s best post scorers when healthy. In last year’s playoff series against Chicago, Nene practically took Noah’s Defensive Player of the Year award trophy and smashed it over his head. Noah had no answer for the Brazilian’s array of post moves.

The Wizards are a young team on the rise, and sometimes, those are the most dangerous ones.

My Pick

There’s still a lot of time for things to change, but after looking at all the teams in the Eastern Conference, I think the Chicago Bulls have to be considered the favorites.

Thibodeau is a proven coach, and the additions of a healthy Rose, Gasol and McDermott are ideal compliments to a team that won 48 games a year ago. The Bulls aren’t a perfect team by any means, but for my money, they’re the top dogs in the East.

The Cavaliers would be my second choice, but I just don’t think this team is ready quite yet. The roster is still extremely young and inexperienced, and don’t forget that Cleveland hired a European coach with zero NBA experience, David Blatt, to try and put all the pieces together. I’m just not buying into that recipe quite yet. On paper, the Cavs are the best team in the East, but paper never won a championship.

Who do you think should be Eastern Conference favorites?

Follow Mike on Twitter at @mlukes14.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.