Rising in the East: Which Team is Second Behind the Cavaliers?

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

 

By Chris Molicki

The upcoming NBA season may be like watching a TV show years after it airs: spoilers exist. And sorry to ruin this one for everyone, but the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers (barring massive injuries) will meet for the rubber match in the NBA finals this year. However, if you’re an NBA nerd like me, there’s plenty of awesome things to watch for besides who comes out on top.

One intriguing storyline will be who finishes second in the East behind Cleveland. There’s several teams that are building their squads and biding their time for LeBron’s eventual demise. While that might not happen anytime soon, this is still an exciting race to watch. Here are the contenders:

Toronto Raptors: We’ll start with the team that played second fiddle to the Cavs last year. Toronto made a big leap forward and actually took Cleveland to a Game 6 in the Eastern Conference Finals. However, there’s not a ton here that makes me think that the Raptors will be any better than they were last year. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are still manning the backcourt, but not many reinforcements were added. The team will hopefully have a healthy DeMarre Carroll, but they swapped Bismack Biyombo for Jared Sullinger. If anything, I see Toronto dropping a few pegs. They may have reached their ceiling.

Boston Celtics: The Celtics acquired arguably the biggest free agent not named Kevin Durant in Al Horford. The former Hawk is the perfect fit for this team and will provide defense, shooting, and versatility. Combine that with Isaiah Thomas, an enticing rookie in Jaylen Brown, and all of the other chess pieces that mastermind coach Brad Stevens has to play with, and this is a team that could not only finish second in the East, but actually give the Cavs some problems. Plus, they’re a big trade away from becoming a full-blown contender. Boston is my pick to grab the silver medal in the East.

Indiana Pacers: Indy made two “we’re going for it” moves in trading for Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young. I’m unsure if those will wind up being good moves, but in the short term, the Pacers will be better. They solidified an already solid bench by adding Al Jefferson, and they’ve got a superstar (Paul George) and a true breakout candidate (Myles Turner). To me, Turner is the key. If he can make a big leap this coming season, he’ll provide an extremely unique weapon in a center that can shoot and protect the rim. Not many teams in the NBA have a unicorn like this, and Turner would provide the Pacers with more precious flexibility.

Detroit Pistons: Stan Van Gundy is building something here, and he’s doing it in a shrewd way. After buying low on Tobias Harris, the Pistons have a promising young core in Harris, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, Ish Smith, and of course, Andre Drummond. The more these guys play together, the more their chemistry will build. Having a smart coach like Van Gundy is a big advantage that not many teams have. But the question still remains: can they eventually win a title with a big man as their best player?

Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets might not be a flashy team, but when you’ve got a coach like Steve Clifford and the ability to defend, you’ve got a great foundation. The emergence of Kemba Walker as a true star has helped. But the resigning of Nic Batum, as well as seeing players like Jeremy Lamb, Cody Zeller, and Marvin Williams make real contributions in the playoffs, are what makes me high on the Hornets. Losing Jeremy Lin hurts, but they’ll also get Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back. Charlotte has plenty of potential to improve off of last year, and last year they were pretty damn good.

Miami Heat: I wasn’t sure if I wanted to include the Heat after they lost Dwyane Wade. The three-time champion means so much to this organization both on and off the court, and he’s going to be impossible to replace. But with Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside running the show, there’s some promise here. Justise Winslow, Jason Richardson, and Tyler Johnson will all need to flourish in larger roles to truly contend. But if that happens and we see a Chris Bosh return, Miami will be back in the mix.

Washington Wizards: This is a make or break year for Washington. There have been rumblings that John Wall and Bradley Beal aren’t too thrilled about sharing a backcourt, so if things turn sour, you might be able to write off the Wizards early. But this is still a team who, before this season, spent two years on the brink of the Eastern Conference Finals. Health was a big issue last year, but regardless, some of the young guys need to step up. I’m looking at Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr., specifically, but positive contributions from Andrew Nicholson and Ian Mahinmi would also be welcomed.
New York Knicks: Trust me, as a pretty pessimistic Knicks fan, I wasn’t sure if I should include them. But let’s look at a best case scenario: Carmelo Anthony has another year of efficient scoring and distributing, Kristaps Porzingis makes a big leap into true stardom, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah stay healthy and have resurgent seasons, and Courtney Lee and the rest of the players settle in their roles. If all of that happens, it’s possible to see the Knicks second in the East. Hey, a kid can dream.

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