Brooklyn has assembled lineup of All-Stars. Chicago has regained an annual MVP candidate. Miami is, well, Miami. The Knicks just may have changed their identity in one fell swoop. The Pacers, of course, have tried to build a respectable bench.
But has there been much movement?
No team has made moves big enough to bridge the gap between the Heat and the rest of the contenders, which leaves the other four fighting for second place and hoping for some kind of break in the playoffs – which really isn’t all that different than last season.
The division title battles between the Knicks and Nets in the Atlantic and Bulls and Pacers in the Central should be riveting, not to mention combustible. But overall, Miami remains the class of the bunch.
Here’s a look at the East’s top contenders, now that most of the major moves in free agency have been made. It’s interesting to note four of the top five are presently heading for luxury tax penalties, the lone exception being the Pacers.
>> 1. MIAMI HEAT
When you’ve won two straight championships, you don’t necessarily have to be budget-conscious, but Miami’s biggest move of the offseason was using the amnesty provision to ditch Mike Miller’s remaining $25 million in salary over two seasons, thus reducing their projected tax bill by roughly $17 million. Ray Allen opted to return and Chris Andersen re-signed so the rest of the core is intact. This is still, by far, the best team in the conference and is set up to contend for a third consecutive championship in 2013-14.
>> 2. INDIANA PACERS
Danny Granger’s expected return will be a nice lift, but won’t have the same level of impact as that of Rose. If he comes all the way back, the starting lineup will be even more formidable both offensively and defensively. The key to this group remains a second unit that has been almost completely rebuilt with the acquisitions of Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson and the drafting of Solomon Hill. Throw in the pending shift of Lance Stephenson (or possibly Granger) to the bench and things are looking up. The Pacers did push Miami to a seventh game in the conference finals, but were 16.5 games back during the regular season, so they still much ground to cover to reach the top.
>> 3. CHICAGO BULLS
Another relatively quiet contender this offseason, the Bulls tweaked their second unit, replacing Marco Belinelli with Mike Dunleavy, a bigger and more complete player. Rip Hamilton is gone but first-round pick Tony Snell should pick up those minutes nicely. They key here is the return of Derrick Rose, but it comes with an asterisk. Though there was no public dissent from the locker room about Rose’s insistence on sitting out all of last season, he may have some relationships to rebuild. The nucleus of Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah is truly elite and Jimmy Butler appears poised to make a Paul Georgeian leap.
>> 4. BROOKLYN NETS
It’s easy to look at the lineup – Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett, Brook Lopez – and get stars in your eyes. Those five alone comprise 35 All-Star appearances and more than $82 million in salaries. But do the pieces fit? Ultimately, it’s up to Williams and rookie coach Jason Kidd to build some kind of chemistry on and off the court. If everyone gets on the same page, the Nets could be very, very good. If not, they could become a case study for management missteps.
>> 5. NEW YORK KNICKS
Trading for Andrea Bargnani may have changed the look of this team entirely. If Bargnani starts next to Tyson Chandler, Carmelo Anthony moves back to small forward and all of a sudden New York has a more traditional lineup. It’s still one that promises to jack threes from all corners of the court at all times, but the matchups will become easier for opposing teams. Losing Copeland to the Pacers hurts and J.R. Smith may miss the start of the season after undergoing knee surgery. When he returns, he’ll join Metta World Peace on a second unit that promises to be … well … let’s just go with explosive and leave it at that.
>> AS FOR THE REST …
Atlanta could be interesting with Paul Millsap replacing Josh Smith, giving the Hawks a much-needed post presence, not to mention some consistency and stability. Cleveland invested in Andrew Bynum and Jarrett Jack and could climb while setting the table for a potential return by LeBron James in 2014-15. Washington finished strong and added Otto Porter. Detroit has talent, including the aforementioned Smith, but the pieces seem mismatched. Toronto dumped Bargnani’s contract and brought in two players from one of the worst benches in the league (ex-Pacers Tyler Hansbrough and D.J. Augustin) but still might be in the fight for eighth. Boston isn’t going to be as bad as the world seems to think, but won’t be good.
Victor Oladipo could put up big numbers playing for a truly awful team in Orlando. Same for Cody Zeller in Charlotte. Philly still doesn’t have a coach or much of a lineup. The Bucks were extremely active in the marketplace but accomplished litte.
This is a year where you’ll read and hear a lot about teams tanking, given the quality of the 2014 draft class. You’ll also hear and read a lot of GMs denying that’s what they’re doing.
All of which could make it just as interesting at the bottom of the barrel as the top.