Three-Man Weave: Which Eastern Conference contender will make it up to No. 2?

Ball Don't Lie
Three-Man Weave: Which Eastern Conference contender will make it up to No. 2?
Three-Man Weave: Which Eastern Conference contender will make it up to No. 2?

With the draft and the bulk of free agency now behind us, it's time to start taking stock of what's transpired this summer and how it all figures to impact the upcoming NBA campaign.

First up for consideration: Which Eastern Conference team looks best primed to grab the second seed behind You Know Who?

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Dan Devine: I kind of can't believe that I believe this, but ... I think it's the Washington Wizards?

I believe Fred Hoiberg is an excellent coach, but I'm not yet sure I believe that firing Tom Thibodeau — even if the separation was a long time in coming — makes the Chicago Bulls demonstrably better. The Atlanta Hawks might take a step back without former starting small forward DeMarre Carroll. His new employers, the Toronto Raptors, might hit some bumps in the road after jettisoning three of last season's top eight (Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, backup point guard Greivis Vasquez and frontcourt cornerstone Amir Johnson) in a defense-first roster reload. The Miami Heat — as much as they've invested in their starry starting five — feel like a team dependent on an awful lot of health/chemistry-related ifs going its way to make that large a leap.

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Washington, on the other hand, seems poised to take another step forward behind All-Star point guard John Wall, rising sharpshooter Bradley Beal and dynamite dive man Marcin Gortat. While it certainly hurts to lose Paul Pierce, who was huge in the Wizards' playoff run, general manager Ernie Grunfeld has both given head coach Randy Wittman three new options to help replace "The Truth" — versatile veterans Jared Dudley and Alan Anderson, plus first-rounder Kelly Oubre — and opened the door for 22-year-old Otto Porter Jr., a revelation in the playoffs, to step into the larger role many envisioned when Washington tabbed the Georgetown product with the No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft. (And hey, if Martell Webster's finally fully recovered from last summer's back surgery and capable of shooting the long ball like he did before he went down, so much the better.)

With all those wings in the mix, veteran guards Ramon Sessions and Gary Neal on hand to spell the star-studded backcourt, and top reserve big man Kevin Seraphin off to Manhattan, as Seth Partnow noted at the Washington Post's Fancy Stats blog, the Wizards' roster seems much better suited to more regularly playing small-ball lineups during the regular season than last year's model did. Given Wall's remarkable skills as a pick-and-roll playmaker capable of creating open 3-point looks with the threat of his penetration and the promise of his passing, pairing him with a screen-setting big and surrounding him with shooting — the kind of Gortat/Nene-at-the-five, Pierce-at-the-four configurations that blitzed the Raptors out of Round 1 — seems like something that should be an everyday staple and not just an "in case of emergency, break open glass" postseason wrinkle.

Having more able, younger swingmen at his disposal — especially if/when Dudley gets back to full strength after his own summer back surgery — could allow Wittman to worry less about overtaxing one particular stretch four, a reported concern with Pierce last season. That, in turn, could make it more likely that the somewhat confounding success of #PlayoffWittman carries over to the regular season.

"We know what we have to do, the pieces that I'd like to add moving forward," Wittman said after the Wizards bowed out to Atlanta in May. "Brad and John are going to be here a long time. So we got to utilize what their strengths and capabilities are, and find the right people to put around them, which allows us to play the way that I think we were kind of playing in the [playoffs]."

Grunfeld seems to have done a sound job of finding those "right people," and considering how good the Wiz looked before Wall broke his left hand — and how achingly close Washington still came to knocking off the Hawks — doubling down on Wall, Beal, Porter and that four-out, bombs-away style might well move Washington to the front of the trail pack.

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Kelly Dwyer: The Chicago Bulls, frankly, were an embarrassment last season.

The squad held a 2-1 lead over a Kevin Love-and-Kyrie Irving-less Cleveland Cavaliers squad and were mere seconds away from getting an overtime shot at taking a 3-1 advantage in the Eastern semis when LeBron James’ game-winning three-pointer broke things. That shot allowed both its coaching staff and top players to act the role of the martyr instead of focusing on the task of downing an injured and top-heavy Cavaliers rotation in a best of three series.

Fred Hoiberg. Not a candidate. (Getty Images)
Fred Hoiberg. Not a candidate. (Getty Images)

It’s more than possible that former coach Tom Thibodeau’s schemes may have run the Bulls right out of chances. It turns out that Derrick Rose was rushed through injury too often during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, and that Joakim Noah’s career might be effectively over at age 30. No amount of minutes restrictions or back-to-back mindfulness can re-spend what has already been spent.

There’s also a chance that new coach Fred Hoiberg’s drag-happy schemes might spark some life into a team that underachieved on both ends in 2014-15. The Bulls were never better than the sum of their parts in 2014-15, and yet the team still won 50 games. There are new player combinations to be explored here, because despite the team’s typical injury woes the rotation and sets that were in place as Halloween approached last season were also in place mid-May. For worse. Not for better or worse. For worse.

Thibodeau never seemed to understand that a bit of a loss (or even, shock horror, an actual loss!) in December might pay off in spring, something even the notoriously stubborn Phil Jackson recognized during his time running the Bulls, and that philosophy not only caught up to the Bulls but to Thibodeau’s reputation.

Hoiberg is a college guy, but College Guys aren’t the same in 2015 as they were in 1995 or even 2005, and he’s a few years removed from helping run an NBA team and just over a decade removed from playing for these Bulls. He’ll think on his feet and dare to be wrong, and he’ll have an obvious role model in the man he was hired to replace as a player around the fin de siècle: Golden State coach and former Bull Steve Kerr.

Meanwhile, the East remains a mess. Atlanta’s range could stretch from 44 to 60 wins. Toronto will field a beefier lineup that will at the very least play more admirable basketball, in general manager Masai Ujiri’s eyes, but how that translates to more wins is anyone’s guess. The significance of the loss of Paul Pierce in Washington is probably overstated, but that team’s frontcourt remains a huge question mark despite Otto Porter’s gifts. Miami’s dream lineup is just that, at the moment. The Celtics are deep and well-coached, but assets alone won’t earn you trips to the free throw line. And is Milwaukee ready for the expectations that its potential cries out for?

As always, as it was last year, we’re left with Chicago. If Fred Hoiberg performs as advertised, we might have something.

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Joakim Noah attempts to emerge from the scrum. (Getty Images)
Joakim Noah attempts to emerge from the scrum. (Getty Images)

Ben Rohrbach: Understanding the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I still think the Bulls have the highest ceiling of any team in the East not featuring LeBron James, as has arguably been the case since 2010-11.

The Hawks did little to sway the opinions of everyone who predicted their playoff struggle to recreate the ridiculous 33-2 run through the middle of last season, and then they lost DeMarre Carroll to Toronto. I’m not convinced the Raptors, even with Carroll, and the Wizards, sans Paul Pierce, did enough to make that next leap. And as intriguing as the Bucks should be this year, they’d need to take two steps forward.

Meanwhile, Chicago has limped through a half-decade now, injuries preventing a return to the conference finals ever since their 62-win campaign in 2010-11. Despite a debilitated Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah lumbering through this past season, the Bulls still won 50 games and reached the conference semis. A return to form from either Rose or Noah, who each submitted an MVP-worthy season during these last five years, coupled with All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol, Rookie/Sixth Man of the Year candidate Nikola Mirotic and an otherwise veteran-laden bench, should, as always, translate into Chicago challenging LeBron & Co. for supremacy in the East.

Fresh perspective from Fred Hoiberg, whose offense may ultimately prove no more effective than Tom Thibodeau’s defense in the long run, might also help rejuvenate the roster in the now, even if the former Iowa State coach merely manages minutes better. And maybe, just maybe, the Bulls will finally finish a season at full strength and prove everyone who pencils them in as a contender every August right for once.

 

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