By Benjamin Bornstein, Project Spurs.com
The San Antonio Spurs are certainly going to be given good odds to get back to the NBA Finals and repeat with the roster they are bringing back for the 2014-15 season. But who would be challenging them in the East? It will most likely not be the Heat again, as LeBron James bolted for home and there’s been some serious shakeup elsewhere in the conference.
The Indiana Pacers were weakened, the Chicago Bulls strengthened their interior, the Heat won’t be AS good, the ‘zards (Washington Wizards) have seen “The Truth”, and Cleveland may not be as good as people think. I am going to explore the teams that pose the biggest threat to the Spurs, although if you ask me, their biggest threat will come from the West.
Let’s start with the weaker of these teams in the Indiana Pacers. They lost Lance Stephenson to Charlotte, and didn’t get anyone to replace the kind of offense he can bring to their team. They are an elite defensive team when people aren’t messing around with each other off the court, but they have always had trouble scoring the ball, and losing Sir Lance-a-lot, was not a help to them. They will be highly dependent on Paul George, David West, and George Hill for offense, not to mention they will probably be expecting a big leap from Donald Sloan, who averaged less than 10 minutes per game last season. Their best chance at being good/great is playing some of the most epic defense the league has ever seen, which is always a possibility when Roy Hibbert is anchoring your paint.
The Bulls might have made some of the best decisions in the offseason, as they were able to snag Pau Gasol and finally amnesty Carlos Boozer’s incredibly horrific contract. They traded for Dougie McBuckets (Doug McDermott) on draft night, as well as grabbing a potential backup big man in Cameron Bairstow in the draft. McDermott might be a liability on defense individually, but fortunately, Thibs (Tom Thibodeau) is a mastermind on that end, and can certainly find a way to hide him, or make him a viable defensive player. They did lose D.J. Augustin, a nice backup point guard, but with Derrick Rose back, he became almost redundant. Captain Kirk (Kirk Hinrich) will be able to go back to being the second point man, and hopefully things get balanced back out. I can definitely see this team having the best record in the East and being the one seed, but they know all too well that that doesn’t mean anything once the playoffs get going.
The Miami Heat are obviously not going to be as good as last year with James skipping town to go home, but they did make some moves to put themselves in contention. They went out and got frat star, Josh McRoberts, while also signing Luol Deng and Danny Granger. They retained Norris Cole and Justin Hamilton (a solid big man who can stretch the floor a little bit), while re-signing Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers (for whatever reason), Chris “Birdman” Andersen, Dwayne Wade, and of course Chris Bosh (at a max level deal). They will likely not be the best regular season team in the East, but will surely give everyone in the playoffs (that they see) a scare, and a reason to be afraid of them. They also got Shabazz Napier in the draft and signed sharp shooting and overall athletic freak, James Ennis, from their summer league team.
The Wizards are a very fun team to watch in my opinion, and I love how John Wall and Bradley Beal play together. They have the right mix of veterans in Marcin Gortat (who they just re-signed), Nene, Drew Gooden (yes, he still plays), and Andre Miller. They made some nice moves in the offseason by grabbing DeJuan Blair, Paul Pierce, and a proven rebounder in Kris Humphries. They aren’t being talked about by a lot of people, but I truly think they have a sneaky good chance of toppling anyone in a seven game series. The athleticism in their backcourt is incredible and paralleled by none, while their frontcourt is made up of three solid veterans who can be trusted at all times. They will probably try to play an up-and-down style of ball that is effective against the older teams in the league, or the ones that like to play big (like Indiana and Brooklyn). However, their biggest challenge will be controlling shot selection and not settling for a lot of mid-range jumpers, which Wall specifically has gotten better at over the past couple of seasons.
Cleveland will surely be a contender in the East because that’s what happens when you get LeBron in free agency. They have great pieces in Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters (both have told the media they are willing to change their games for LeBron), Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett (there’s still a chance for him!), and now Andrew Wiggins. All of those guys will be learning on the fly from James, and so I don’t think they’ll have the best record coming out of the East, but it will be more than good enough to get into the playoffs and likely a top-4 seed. What will really be interesting to watch is who will take over come the postseason, because this league is a point guard driven one, however Mario Chalmers wasn’t much of a factor in Miami, and rarely handled the ball over Wade or James. Fortunately for Irving, he’s not Chalmers, so he will undoubtedly be seeing more touches and I’m still not sure if that’s going to be good or bad for this team.
If I had to pin down one of these teams to pose the greatest threat to the Spurs in a potential Finals showdown, I think I would be most afraid of the Bulls. This is assuming a lot of things: that LeBron can’t get the young guns up to speed to how to play with him and how to play to his liking, Derrick Rose comes back at full strength, and the Heat fizzle out because of missed time from Wade. A lot of this will also depend on how much the Wizards learned last time out, and if they have enough fire to want to beat the pulp out of teams when they have the chance instead of trying to cruise, and letting teams come back on them. Any which way you peel the onion, there is certainly going to be a tough and deadly opponent coming out of the Eastern Conference this season.