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Eastern Conference Contender Offseason Winners and Losers: Fan’s Take
At the conclusion of last season, the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls reigned at the top of the eastern conference; with expectations to remain there for several years. Both teams boast an elite, young star (Chicago: Derrick Rose, Miami: LeBron James) and assembled complimentary role players for many title runs. In addition to the Bulls and Heat, other teams have genuine hopes of a championship season; including the Boston Celtics, who look to squeeze one more championship run out of their aging stars.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, Heat, and several other eastern conference hopefuls the Dallas Mavericks rose to the top of the NBA mountain and claimed the Larry O'Brien trophy. Heading into the off-season, the eastern conference was served notice that roster moves would be in order if any team had aspirations of supplanting Dallas in the spring of 2012.
All teams had to endure a lengthy lockout and could not plan for personnel acquisitions until the league's new financial structure could be determined. In November, the league announced the end of the lockout; along with shortened free agency, brief preseason and abbreviated regular season schedules. Each general manger scrambled to find and obtain the right players to fit team needs.
Here is a look at how last season's eastern conference contenders fared during the off-season.
Perhaps the biggest move this off-season was Chicago's securing league MVP with a long-term contract extension. The team's success begins and ends with Derrick Rose. His floor generalship and ability to take over games makes him an elite star for years to come.
One area of weakness that was exploited last season was Chicago's lack of a perimeter scorer to compliment the slashing style of Rose and the interior post game of forward Carlos Boozer. The team became beneficiaries of the Detroit Piston's amnesty release of veteran sharp-shooter Richard Hamilton. Once a cornerstone in Detroit, helping the Pistons win the 2004 NBA title; Hamilton fell out of favor with the Detroit coaching staff and front office in recent years. Recent friction over his role on the team and consistency in minutes made his release inevitable.
The one-time amnesty offered to teams after the lockout provides salary cap relief to teams in jettisoning players no longer worthy of the contracts they are held bound to. The Piston's trash may turn out to be Chicago's treasure and a missing piece to a championship run.
Beyond Miami's big three, there was little supporting cast to help propel Miami to the summit of the NBA in their first season together. A key element contributing to last season's failure was a weak bench consisting of cast off players who did not compliment one another. Another major factor was frontcourt depth, magnified by the late season start of Udonis Haslem due to an injury.
The team's re-signing of athletic perimeter threat James Jones and the signing of stable veteran defender Shane Battier may give some solid contributions. A healthy season from Haslem will also help matters but the other frontcourt reserves still leave much to be desired. In addition to re-signing aged Juwan Howard, the team signed former lottery pick Eddy Curry, who has played just ten games since 2008 due to weight-related injuries. Retaining perimeter threat Mike Miller will help matters but the Heat will again be counting on unproven and infrequently tested talent for another title run.
The Celtics completely overhauled their bench; obtaining seven new players since the end of last season. While the talent acquired was significant considering their lack of financial resources, the loss of returning reserve Jeff Green will have a significant impact on the teams plans this season.
In Keyon Dooling, Brandon Bass, and Chris Wilcox, the Celtics acquired stable veteran contributors to help support the aging core of the team. The remaining players are relatively untested and much will be dependent on the starters' health in determining whether this team can improve on last season's eastern conference semi-final appearance.
Much of the off-season discussion was whether Dwight Howard would remain in Orlando this season for one more playoff at the risk of losing him via free agency.
The team allowed Vince Carter to pursue other options while trading away another member of last season's team; trading Brandon Bass to Boston for Glen Davis and Von Wafer. Davis and Wafer add active bodies to the Orlando rotation but each come with some level of baggage. Davis departed Boston amidst rumors of gaining weight during last season and his occasional clashes with head coach Doc Rivers over playing time and shot selection. Wafer has the potential to add more outside shooting and can penetrate to the basket but missed significant time last year due to injury.
The area of greatest need on the Magic is an interior presence to take the burden off of Howard to be the sole offensive and defensive inside force. A lot of things will have to go well if the Magic hope for a long playoff run and little has been done to convince Dwight Howard that the team is committed to building a championship team around him.
The Hawks playoff appearance was an improvement; as the team defeated Orlando to advance to the conference semi-finals. The team returns a solid core of talent in Josh Smith, Joe Johnson and Al Horford. Last season's trade deadline acquisition Kirk Hinrich returns after a injury-shortened post-season.
The area of greatest need remains bench production and was greatly impacted by the free agent departure of Jamal Crawford to Portland for a two-year contract. The team responded by acquiring injury-plagued Tracy McGrady and aged Jerry Stackhouse to provide some relief; but the loss of the explosive Crawford will hurt Atlanta' playoff hopes this season.
Perhaps the biggest move this off-season in the east was New York's free agent acquisition of Tyson Chandler. Chandler provided a large defense and rebounding presence for the defending champion Dallas Mavericks and will add some toughness to a relatively soft front line.
Returning front court teammates Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire will benefit greatly with the knowledge that Chandler is manning the paint and will take pressure off the explosive duo from having to also provide defense; a skill not commonly associated with either player.
The team's signing of Chandler resulted in a surprising amnesty release of starting point guard Chauncey Billups; who provided veteran leadership and backcourt stability for New York. His absence will increase the responsibility on reserve guard Toney Douglas to step up and assume the team's reigns in the short term. The team attempted to bring veteran presence to the Knicks by signing veteran guards Mike Bibby and Baron Davis; both of whom have seen their best days pass them by.
The Philadelphia 76ers are coming off a productive season that ended in a competitive series loss to Miami in the first round. A team built around veterans Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala and budding young star in Thaddeus Young, the team did little in the off-season; instead counting on the development of their core talent to ascend into the upper ranks of the conference.
Head coach Doug Collins will have relatively similar team as last season heading into the abbreviated 2011-12 season. With the shortened season, continuity will play a bigger role and little roster movement may pay big dividends in the City of Brotherly Love.
One of the bigger names in free agency was former New Orleans Hornets all-star David West, who was coming off of major knee surgery. The Pacers entered free agency well under the salary cap and in need of frontcourt support for another all-star; leading scorer Danny Granger. The addition of a healthy West may turn out to be the best move in the eastern conference. Granger and West will play alongside improving young center Roy Hibbert to form a formidable frontline.
Former San Antonio Spur guard George Hill arrives in Indianapolis via a draft day trade. His presence will provide stable depth to a young backcourt led by point guard Darren Collison. If these moves do not pay immediate dividends for the Pacers, they significantly improve the team's long-term outlook in the eastern conference.
The key winners in the off-season may not be fully assessed until the spring; when most teams have worked out the kinks in implementing their new talent and finding the right player rotation. Initially the teams will less roster turnover stand a better chance of succeeding early; but for veteran teams of established players, the frequency of games may prove to be a daunting, physical task.
The favorites in the east appear to still be Chicago and Miami; due in large part to their young, talented returning players. The Celtics have a slight chance of maintaining their stance in the east, but will have a stronger challenge from division rival New York; along with several younger teams like Indiana and Philadelphia, who will be making a move up the ranks.
If nothing else, the unusual season that is upon us is likely to provide a variety of surprises; some which will keep NBA fans on edge throughout the year.
Scott Duhaime is a passionate fan of the Boston Celtics and avid follower of the NBA for over 30 years. His professional career includes a solid foundation of analytics that contributes to a better appreciation of player and team contributions.
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