In the NBA, few things are as fluid as a team’s standing in the Eastern Conference. Last season, the Western Conference had seven returning playoff teams, and if the tiebreakers had gone the Thunder’s way, it would’ve been eight. The East, on the other hand, only returned five playoff teams from the year before, with both the first and second place teams from the 2013-2014 season missing the playoffs. Granted, injuries and LeBron James changing teams are a big reason those shifts happened, but by being worse, the Eastern Conference is also a lot more volatile and subject to change.
When the competition isn’t as ruthless, small changes can have big effects. Adding one or two players to the Suns isn’t going to be enough for them to compete with the likes of San Antonio or Houston, but if they were competing with Toronto or Milwaukee for those spots, those moves could be enough to get them a ticket to the dance. With free agency winding down and rosters starting to take their shape, here’s a stock watch for some of the teams in the East.
Going up: Bucks, Pistons, Heat
The Heat are in this category for the simple fact that they’re getting back their best player from injury. Chris Bosh returning from his health scare will obviously be a huge boost to a team that was ravaged by health problems last year. Add that to Goran Dragic having a full offseason with the team, Hassan Whiteside hopefully continuing to develop and the draft steal of Justise Winslow, and the Heat should be an interesting playoff squad.
The Pistons mostly just need to continue their post-Josh Smith pace from last year in order to improve. They went 27-27 without Smith, up from 5-23 with him. I expect them to remain a .500 team with Ersan Ilyasova in the fold and Reggie Jackson back on a big new deal, and a .500 record could potentially get them in the playoffs.
The Bucks added Greg Monroe, a strong interior presence when the team was lacking exactly that. If Milwaukee’s young players improve even a little from last year, they should be moving up the Eastern Conference ladder.
Coming Down: Hawks, Nets
The Hawks aren’t missing the playoffs next season, but they’re not going to be the top seed in the East either. Between losing DeMarre Carroll, looking vulnerable in the playoffs and the Cavaliers getting another year to figure out how to play together, the Hawks are going down at least one spot in the rankings.
The Nets have bought out Deron Williams and have added some intriguing young players, but if the conference around them is getting better, there’s nowhere for this team to go but down.
Staying the Same: Celtics, Pacers, Cavaliers, Bulls
The Pacers have a long way to go after losing David West and Roy Hibbert this offseason. Bringing back Paul George helps, as do the signings of Monta Ellis and Jordan Hill, but it’ll still be tough to make up for the frontcourt losses.
The Celtics team will be better than it was last year, adding Amir Johnson, David Lee and having Isaiah Thomas for the full season, but it won’t change their place in the Eastern Conference hierarchy. They might get lucky and advance to the second round, but they won’t be good enough to beat the Cavaliers or a healthy Bulls squad.
Speaking of the Cavs and Bulls, no two teams have done more to change less than these two Central Division teams. Both are re-signing as much of last year’s teams as they can. The Bulls have changed coaches, which shows they know they need to do something if they want to unseat Cleveland from atop the conference.
Unfortunately, the Cavs spent all of last year learning about themselves and their team. They’re going to have a better sense of what works, what doesn’t and what they need to do to get better. There isn’t a team in the East that’s better than the Cavs right now. As much as the East shifts and changes, no one in the East has had a team better than LeBron’s for the past five years.