We are entering a time in the NBA where the conferences are unbalanced. The Western Conference is loaded with talent while the Eastern Conference is top-heavy. It is safe to say the Cleveland Cavaliers will land the top seed in the Eastern conference, but the next best teams in the conference are equal. The 2nd seed in the East is up for grabs. So, who is the second best team in the Eastern Conference?
After missing the 2015 NBA Playoffs, the Miami Heat spent this offseason building an Eastern Conference contender. Pat Riley has done a fantastic job. He sweetened Dwyane Wade’s contract to keep him in Miami, stole Justise Winslow in the NBA draft, and kept both Goran Dragic and Luol Deng to what is the 2nd best starting five on paper in the East. To top it off, Chris Bosh is healthy. The Heat are now balanced at every position and have the talent to give Wade rest to ensure he is 100% ready for the NBA Playoffs. But, if the Heat want a shot at the two seed, Wade is going to have to stay healthy all season. Unfortunately, Wade hasn’t played in over 70 games in the last four seasons, but he still averaged over 19 points per game during that span. If Wade can keep the Heat consistent all season, this Heat team could challenge the Cavaliers for the top spot in the East
The Atlanta Hawks were the one seed in the Eastern Conference last season because of elite teamwork, defense, and ball movement. They are well structured and well coached with Mike Budenholzer, who was named 2014-2015 NBA Coach of the Year. This year will be much tougher with DeMarre Carroll signing in Toronto, but the Hawks roster still holds four 2015 Eastern Conference All-Stars. To replace Carroll, the Hawks traded for Tim Hardaway Jr and anticipate the return of Thabo Sefolosha, the most underrated defender in the NBA. Tim Hardaway Jr will replace Carroll on the offensive end, but he doesn’t play defense at all, so Sefolosha and Hardaway Jr will be in constant rotation. The quietest move the Hawks made this offseason was acquiring Tiago Splitter, who will play a similar role in a Spurs type system in Atlanta. The Hawks still have talent, but they will go as far as Mike Budenholzer takes them.
Due to new NBA rules, the Chicago Bulls have a chance at the two seed in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls now have a new head coach, new system, and new face of the franchise. Their organization wanted change, and big changes have been made in Chicago. Fred Hoiberg is the new head coach, and the Bulls will be playing much quicker. I didn’t watch many Iowa State games last season, but when I watched, the Cyclones were always running and attacking the rim. Last season, the Bulls offense was slow, revolving around consistency and draining the clock. A healthy Derrick Rose and a rising star in Jimmy Butler are perfect for Hoiberg’s system. Rose can attack the rim and Jimmy Butler will always be sprinting up-and-down the court, but can they get along? If Fred Hoiberg can get the most out of Rose and Butler, watch out for the Bulls. Steve Kerr proved first year coaches can be successful in the NBA.
The Toronto Raptors elite offense scored the most points per game in the Eastern Conference last season per ESPN.com, but their defense has prevented them from taking the next step to elite team. DeMarre Carroll will help the Raptors take that next step. With Carroll, the Raptors are getting a strong, tough, and versatile wing defender who shot 39.5% from the three-point line last season per ESPN.com. Carroll became the best scorer for the Hawks in the playoffs, and played his best in the spotlight. They finally have someone who can cover the best scorer on opposing teams. Other than Carroll, the Raptors have Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, and Jonas Valanciunas, so the offensive firepower is still together. DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross are entering contract seasons with something to prove, so they will need to earn their next contracts. The Raptors are all in this season, and in the weakest division in the NBA, the Raptors could sit behind the Cleveland Cavaliers as the second best team in the Eastern Conference.
A healthy Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was the difference maker in my prediction. The NBA is a star driven league, and Wade and Bosh are NBA stars. Alongside Wade and Bosh, the Heat have Goran Dragic, Luol Deng, and Hassan Whiteside which is one of two balanced starting lineups in the Eastern Conference. On the bench, Mario Chalmers, Justice Winslow, and Gerald Green bring energy and give the Heat depth behind Wade as he gets older. As I said earlier, Wade has to be healthy all season if the Heat want the two seed in the Conference. If Wade is healthy, no team outside of Cleveland is better than the Miami Heat in the East.