Seeds planted for tougher Heat challenge this season
MIAMI — There are two ways to look at a season for teams not looking ahead to the next lottery: Good enough to contend for a championship? Good enough to make the playoffs?
The Miami Heat stand in the latter group, which makes the math a bit simpler when it comes to the Eastern Conference postseason equation: eight teams make it, seven don’t.
Some of the arithmetic is relatively simple: The New York Knicks are facing the possibility of most or all of the season without Kristaps Porzingis in the wake of last season’s knee injury. The Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic continue to operate taking the long view. The Brooklyn Nets have prioritized restocking draft picks.
That takes care of five of the non-playoff seven.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, for the moment, are standing by Kevin Love and playoff aspirations. But we all know how it went in Northeast Ohio the last time LeBron James left.
And the Charlotte Hornets remain trapped with bad contracts and the possibility of having to deal Kemba Walker before he walks in 2019 free agency.
So assuming those seven are out, a look at how the Eastern Conference is setting up two months before camps open.
1. Boston Celtics: With Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving to be injected into a mix that advanced within one game of last season’s NBA Finals, an argument could be made that the
2018-19 Celtics stand to distance themselves more from No. 2 in their conference than the Golden State Warriors could in the West (if the Warriors actually choose to go for the top seed this season).
No one in the East comes close to a starting lineup of Al Horford, Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Irving. Plus, the fact that the Celtics reupped with Marcus Smart shows that Danny Ainge very much is living in the moment.
2. Toronto Raptors: There will be chemistry Dion Waiters and the Miami Heat may find themselves in the middle of the pack of Eastern Conference again this season.
issues to sort out in the wake of swapping out a go-to scorer, in DeMar DeRozan, for a player coming back from a lost season, in Kawhi Leonard.
But there still are Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and the rest of a roster that has to be energized and encouraged by LeBron’s shift west. Danny Green should help, as will the ability to shift OG Anunoby to a potent second unit that also features Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and C.J. Miles.
3. Philadelphia 76ers: The 76ers went into the offseason seeking to make a major splash. Instead, LeBron James signed with the Lakers, Paul George returned to the Thunder and Kawhi Leonard was dealt to the Raptors.
Instead, all of that cap space went to the likes of JJ Redick, Wilson Chandler, Amir Johnson and Mike Muscala.
Philadelphia, in fact, might take a dip if they follow through with the plan of starting Markelle Fultz at point guard, shifting Ben Simmons to the wing and playing Redick off the bench. Simmons off the ball is an entirely different equation for a team that pushed to last season’s No.
4. Milwaukee Bucks: Some might view this as a bit too high for a team that finished No. 7 last season and then lost Jabari Parker in free agency.
But the best player in the East (LeBron) has won the
East each of the past eight seasons. The best player in the East now is Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova will help, but what will help most is the huge coaching upgrade to Mike Budenholzer.
5. Indiana Pacers: The view here is that many have overstated the additions of Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott. Evans has appeared in four career playoff games; let’s see if his stats translate to victories. McDermott has struggled to gain an NBA foothold as anything more than a shooter.
What continues to matter, though, is what Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner have become — two of the best players in the conference. And there already was plenty in place to complement, in Darren Collison, Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovich and Domantas Sabonis and Cory Joseph.
6. Washington Wizards: There is no pretense here — it is win or wilt by the wing. And the Wizards have plenty of them, adding Austin Rivers and Jeff Green to the mix of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter.
While Dwight Howard might not be what he once was, he figures (at least in the short term) to inject more into the mix than Marcin Gortat. If the Wizards get anything close to what Howard offered last season, they could surge to homecourt in the first
7. Miami Heat: The middle of the pack is where ensemble basketball got the Heat two seasons ago
(41-41), last season (No. 6 in East, one game ahead of No.
8) and likely where it will place the Heat again.
If Hassan Whiteside can get back to where he once was (and if Erik Spoelstra can find a way to make that happen) and if Dion Waiters proves to be more than a two-month revelation, there then could be hope for more.
Otherwise, you likely are looking at a team without an All-Star, when everyone else above and even some below will have one.
8. Detroit Pistons: This is somewhat of a default pick, based on who likely won’t make it (Cleveland with Love committed to his extension could push), simply because of the fullseason presence of Blake Griffin, as well as Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, packaged with the optimism of Dwane Casey.
For years, the Pistons have set up better on paper than on the court. As for the injection of Zaza Pachulia, Jose Calderon and Glenn Robinson III? Meh.
8a. Cleveland Cavaliers: The wildcard. Could be Dan Gilbert be so committed to making it work without LeBron that he again will go all-in with the luxury tax? In that case, Heat-Pistons-Cavaliers could involve two playoff spots divided by three. STEPPING IN:
Michael Beasley said he was so excited to be contacted in free agency by Magic Johnson that the former Heat forward told Lakers.com that he had to put his phone on mute just to collect himself. “A guy I’ve dreamed of meeting my whole life,” Beasley said of the Lakers’ president and former Showtime point guard. “To play for him is surreal.” Beasley spoke fondly of again being LeBron James’ teammate, with the two together on the Heat in 2013-14. “He’s one of the few guys that doesn’t have to, but plays the game the right way,” Beasley said. “And not only knows, wants to play the game the right way.” Part of an eclectic Lakers remix that includes himself, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee, Beasley warned not to sell short this new LeBron supporting cast. “You have 14 guys other than LeBron James who know how to play basketball,” he said. “And I think you have 29 teams overlooking the fact that they know how to play basketball.”THE RING THING: Having boosted his own championship legacy with his move to the Heat, Shaquille O’Neal said at a benefit appearance in New Orleans that he viewed James’ shift from the Cavaliers to the Lakers as a lifestyle move. O’Neal said if winning was the priority, there likely would have been a different approach. “When I had my three rings, I wanted to get four before Kobe [Bryant] did,” O’Neal told the Times Picayune. “Now, we got four, then Kobe got five. I didn’t want Tim Duncan to get five. So, I thought LeBron’s process was going to be, ‘I got three, Steph Curry’s got three. I’m going to stay here, bring some people or go to a team I can get four before he got four.’ I don’t see that happening because Golden State just added [DeMarcus] Cousins. So when I was playing, I didn’t want anyone saying they had more rings than me. Seems to me Golden State is going to get at least two more.”