It started with the abnormal amount of coaching changes—a dozen new head coaches in all (not to mention several teams bringing in new top executives), with the Philadelphia 76ers the last team that hasn’t made a hire—and a handful of interesting maneuvers leading up to and during last week’s draft.
The flurry of activity in the league only picked up with the beginning of NBA free agency this week, with stars such as Dwight Howard, Andre Iguodala and Josh Smith all relocating.
The NBA’s landscape has already changed drastically, as playoff teams like Houston, Brooklyn and Golden State are now expected to go much further than this spring’s early-round exits, lottery teams like Portland, Washington and New Orleans should be much improved and former powers like the Celtics and Lakers don’t exactly have a lot to look forward to next season.
Before beginning a team-by-team divisional breakdown, an obligatory note on everyone’s favorite topic: Howard.
[RELATED: Bulls free agency update]
Love him or hate him, Howard is still the best center in the game—even last season, at less than 100 percent health—and while he may have deserved criticism in the past, his decision to go to Houston is a no-brainer.
Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni’s style of play clearly is a bad fit for his skill set, the one-year trial period with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol didn’t go too well and despite the franchise’s storied history and the allure of Los Angeles in general, the team itself doesn’t have a particularly bright future, as presently constructed.
It’s fine not to care for his perceived public persona, but the Rockets have a much better chance of success and for him to turn down not only $30 million, but an extra contract year, regardless of Texas tax laws, displays at least a semblance of commitment to winning.
The Rockets, led by All-Star shooting guard James Harden, played at an up-and-down pace last season and while much of that fast-breaking style will continue, look for Kevin McHale—a Hall of Famer because he was one of the best post scorers in league history—to make adjustments to suit his newest acquisition’s strengths.
It might not result in a championship, but there’s no question Howard made the right choice.
With no further adieu, here’s a look at how Eastern Conference teams have fared thus far in the offseason.
Boston Celtics: After trading future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, as well as allowing head coach Doc Rivers to take the Clippers job, it’s clear that the Celtics are in for a rebuilding phase. There’s been plenty of speculation about whether new hire Brad Stevens’ college success at Butler will translate to the next level, but equipped with a six-year contract, it appears that he’ll have plenty of time to figure things out. All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo is a question mark—his recovery from ACL surgery aside, whether he buys in to a new coach and a decimated roster are concerns—but with young role players like Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger and MarShon Brooks, acquired in the Garnett-Pierce trade, it’s not completely bleak in Boston.
Brooklyn Nets: The beneficiary of the aforementioned deal, it’s apparent that money is no object to Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prohkorov, as adding Pierce and Garnett will cost the organization heavily in luxury-tax penalties. But the Nets are clearly in win-now mode and expect to be in contention, even with rookie head coach Jason Kidd, fresh off his playing days, at the helm. Brooklyn’s age is an issue and so is its bench after losing backup point guard C.J. Watson—they did manage to add replacement Shaun Livingston, retain free-agent big man Andray Blatche, as well as jettison Kris Humphries —but the experience and firepower of their starters, including holdover backcourt Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, as well as All-Star center Brook Lopez, along with the toughness and winning mentality of the newcomers, could make up for a lot of flaws.
New York Knicks: It’s still too early to say that the Knicks are no longer the marquee team in the Big Apple, but for their usual, splashy standards, the offseason has been relatively tame, as they held on to free-agent reserves Pablo Prigioni and J.R. Smith, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, while losing rookie revelation Chris Copeland. Their trade to acquire former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani garnered a lot of attention, but New York should be more concerned with various health issues, particularly that of Amar’e Stoudemire. If one of the previously elite big man can give them anything close to his production of a few years ago, center Tyson Chandler bounces back from a slight dip last season, point guard Raymond Felton can remain steady and All-Star Carmelo Anthony continues to thrive at power forward, it should be another solid, playoff-bound season, though the Knicks’ present personnel doesn’t appear to be at a contending level when compared to other Eastern Conference foes.
Philadelphia 76ers: New general manager Sam Hinkie hasn’t hired a head coach yet, but he’s already put his stamp on the 76ers with his draft-night trade of Philadelphia’s best player, All-Star Jrue Holiday. It was clearly a move for the future, as the Sixers acquired the rights to center Nerlens Noel, whose status for next season is uncertain as he continues to recover from an ACL injury, as well as drafting Holiday’s de facto replacement, talented point guard Michael Carter-Williams and then acquiring a player Hinkie is familiar with from his days with the Rockets, controversial, but talented forward Royce White. It’s highly unlikely free-agent Andrew Bynum will be back after not playing at all last season, shooter Dorell Wright is already gone and fellow wing Nick Young will probably be right behind him.
Toronto Raptors: Upon his return to Toronto, new Raptors top executive Masai Ujiri freed the franchise of the albatross that’s been weighing it down for the past few seasons, Bargnani, whose lack of consistent production and hefty contract, along with resentment over his top-pick status, meant it was time for him to go. Since then, the team has been quiet, as they didn’t have a first-round pick, backup point guards Sebastian Telfair and ex-Bulls sparkplug John Lucas III will play elsewhere next season (as a potential replacement, Ujiri acquired 6-foot-7 Julyan Stone, who was with him in Denver, but buried deep on the Nuggets’ bench) and an emphasis will be placed on the following summer. Meanwhile, last season’s big acquisition, Rudy Gay, will play a full season in Canada alongside the likes of promising young center Jonas Valunciunas and athletic wing scorer DeMar DeRozan.
Chicago Bulls: A topic covered ad nauseum in this space, but it should be reiterated that although the Bulls haven’t and likely won’t make a lot of noise this summer, targeting and agreeing to terms with veteran swingman Mike Dunleavy Jr. was an underrated move. Furthermore, bringing back Chicago native Nazr Mohammed was solid and first-round pick Tony Snell has the look of an eventual rotation player, though those aren’t things that wow people and concern over where postseason hero Nate Robinson and to a much lesser extent, Rip Hamilton will end up is a bigger deal to the fan base. Of course, the most significant addition the Bulls will make next season is the return of former league MVP Derrick Rose.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Mike Brown’s return to the sidelines at “The Q” after his short Lakers stint will hopefully give the young Cavs a defensive identity moving forward to pair with the brilliance of All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving. Whether or not No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Bennett makes a major impact immediately is still to be determined, but with the acquisition of free agent Earl Clark, along with Bennett’s countryman, developing power forward Tristan Thompson, in the fold, it seems as if Cleveland has to have some roster tweaks in store, though picking up top-tier backup point guard Jarrett Jack is a start. Veteran center Anderson Varejao is seemingly always supposedly on the trading block, but perhaps next season is when it makes the most sense, as the Cavaliers also parted ways with holdovers Wayne Ellington and Marreese Speights, both freeing up future cap space and meaning that a run at potential 2014 free agent and prodigal son LeBron James is their primary objective.
Detroit Pistons: Never good enough to make the playoffs nor bad enough to get a top-five draft pick over the past few seasons, the Pistons did have the available funds to be a major player in free agency. The offseason started off well enough with the eventual hire of Mo Cheeks and making two solid choices in shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and second-rounder Tony Mitchell to add to the young nucleus of scoring guard Brandon Knight, underrated power forward Greg Monroe and explosive center Andre Drummond. But rather than just finding a way to foist the unwieldy contracts of Rodney Stuckey and Charlie Villaneuva on a team willing to take on the salary or managing to keep veteran floor general Jose Calderon in the fold, the Pistons instead acquired Josh Smith, who is certainly a top free agent and is unfairly criticized enough that he’s now become underrated, but his presence will likely impede the development of their big-man duo, his Atlanta tenure showed he’s less effective at small forward and his reported new contract won’t be very attractive to trading partners.
[RELATED: Bulls plans clear with free-agency approach]
Indiana Pacers: After the Pacers’ conference-finals run, it became obvious that retaining veteran leader David West was a priority, which they accomplished early on in free agency. Improving their shallow reserve unit was also important for Indiana and the additions of Copeland and Watson, a former divisional rival, should help. The status of restricted free agent power forward Tyler Hansbrough is still murky and additional post depth remains a concern, but with Danny Granger’s return and young players like All-Star Paul George, center Roy Hibbert and the emerging Lance Stephenson continuing to blossom, this is a team that’s expected to contend for a title.
Milwaukee Bucks: Although the Bucks made the playoffs and the play of defensive-minded center Larry Sanders was encouraging, it was clear that Milwaukee was a team in need of some changes, which started with hiring former Atlanta Hawks head coach Larry Drew, as well as drafting for the future, evidenced by the drafting of 18-year-old Greek product Giannis Antetokounmpo, a player with a ton of potential, but a long way to go before fully displaying it. The team’s crowded backcourt situation has started to resolve itself, as trade-deadline acquisition J.J. Redick was sent to the Clippers in a three-team, sign-and-trade deal that netted the Bucks future draft picks. O.J. Mayo was signed to fill the void, but while it’s a known fact that Monta Ellis, who opted out of the final year of his deal, will play elsewhere next season, restricted free agent point guard Brandon Jennings hasn’t agreed to stay in Milwaukee yet.
Atlanta Hawks: Longtime Spurs assistant Mike Budzenholzer signed on to coach the team former San Antonio colleague Danny Ferry is putting together, one that will look dramatically different next season. While elite sharpshooter Kyle Korver was retained, Josh Smith and Devin Harris have found new homes in free agency and former Utah forwards Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll are now Hawks, with Millsap specifically being a major positive. Restricted free agent point guard Jeff Teague’s status is still reportedly up in the air and though the futile chase for hometown product Howard was always unlikely, there’s a sense that Atlanta, now undoubtedly led by big man Al Horford, was prepared to rebuild anyway.
Charlotte Bobcats: Relatively speaking, things are looking up for Charlotte, as they found a way to attract an upper-echelon free agent in big man Al Jefferson, immediately giving them both one of the league’s top post scorers and go-to guy on offense, providing the young team with an anchor. New head coach Steve Clifford still has his work cut out for him, but the expected amnesty of former Bull Tyrus Thomas also helps and assuming restricted free agent swingman Gerald Henderson returns, there’s reason to be more optimistic than in past seasons. On the other hand, Cody Zeller seemed like a curious pick and tanking for another season with a stellar draft class looming doesn’t sound so bad, but if the likes of Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist continue to improve, the Bobcats will take what they can get.
Miami Heat: The back-to-back defending champions retained key free agents Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers, and it looks like key in-season pickup Chris Andersen could be next. Regardless if the “Birdman” returns or not, finding a quality true center willing to play a reduced rate should be a priority for Miami. Sure, All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh could be healthier and more assertive, respectively, going into next season, but with reigning two-time MVP LeBron James around, the Heat will figure things out when it matters most.
Orlando Magic: The young Magic went for leadership, defense and athleticism with the second overall pick by tabbing Victor Oladipo, who might not ever develop into a superstar, but has many characteristics of a high-level role player. Rumored to be after former Clippers point guard Eric Bledsoe, Orlando looks like it will enter the season with veteran free agent Jameer Nelson running the show and it’s uncertain as to whether free agent Beno Udrih will return. But with an underrated nucleus featuring promising youngsters like athletic swingman Maurice Harkless, double-double machine Nikola Vucevic and versatile forward Tobias Harris, head coach Jacque Vaughn and general manager Rob Hennigan, both under 40 years old themselves, can afford to be patient, not to mention hope for a high pick in the 2014 draft.
Washington Wizards: A team that has struggled with injuries and controversy for years now, Washington had a strong second half to last season on a high note behind the backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal. By drafting Georgetown product Otto Porter, already used to playing in the Verizon Center, stealing D-League standout Glen Rice Jr. in the second round, bringing back shooter Martell Webster and signing backup point guard Eric Maynor, the Wizards have enhanced their perimeter unit. If veteran big men Nene and Emeka Okafor, who exercised his team option, can stay healthy and other reserves are steady, sneaking into the postseason isn’t out of the question.