The NBA Eastern Conference has been dominated by one man for the past 6 seasons, and that man is LeBron James. There has been a sense for most of the last decade that the other teams in the East have merely been competing to see who gets to loose to James in the Conference Finals. If James and the Cavs remain healthy and focused there is no reason why this should change, they have been a class above the rest of the East for the last two years. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some intriguing story lines to keep an eye on in the 2016-17 season. Here are 5 of them.
Celtics on the road to becoming serious contenders
Over James remarkable 6 year run no team has come closer to beating LeBron in the East than the Boston Celtics. However, since the team led by Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen delivered a championship to Boston in 2008 broke up there have been a few leaner seasons at The Garden. What Boston GM Danny Ainge has done in the aftermath of that team is keep the Celtics stocked with young talent and refused to mortgage the teams future for short term success. The 2013 trade with the Brooklyn Nets is the perfect example. Boston sent two of their superstars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn and received a treasure trove of future draft picks in return. This trade has allowed Ainge to build a young talented roster which also has cap flexibility and bargaining chips to attract top free agents.
Whilst Ainge’s strategy has kept the Celtics reasonably competitive there has been a feeling that the Celtics have been missing the legitimate superstar to propel themselves towards the top of the league. That was all meant to change this offseason. Boston was loaded with draft picks and there was real belief in Boston that they could put together a package to lure marquee free agent Kevin Durant to the Celtics. Unfortunately for Boston Durant chose the Warriors, but the Celtics didn’t finish the off season empty handed. In signing big man Al Horford from the Atlanta Hawks Boston have added one of the most versatile big men in NBA and a legitimate All-Star. Coach Brad Stevens will hope that Horford can provide the inside presence to complement their crackerjack point guard Isaiah Thomas. The Celtics also got some veteran help in swingman Gerald Green who returns to Boston for a second spell with the team that drafted him in 2005. Green along with defensive standout Avery Bradley and chaos merchant Jae Crowder provide the Celtics with good wing options.
The 2016-17 season is probably to soon for the Celtics to mount a serious challenge on mount LeBron. However, they still retain top draft assets and the future and are well placed to compete for future free agents. Not this year but maybe very soon the Celtics can become a power in the Eastern Conference once again.
Dwyane Wade’s homecoming
It seems very likely that Dwyane Wade’s return to his hometown of Chicago will not have a particularly happy ending on the basketball court. The Bulls have decided to move on from one native son in Derrick Rose to another who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. The thing is that Wade is entering his 14th season in the league and father time remains undefeated. Wade is not the force of nature he was in his youth, a slasher of epic proportion who’s ability to finish through contact was legendary. He is still a good player who uses his intelligence and experience along with sound fundamentals to make up for the ravages of time. Wade is not however, capable of putting a team on his back for an entire season and leading them to the promised land.
The arrival of Wade means that Chicago’s best player Jimmy Butler will probably slide over to the small forward position from his favoured shooting guard spot. This in turn will leave Nikola Mirotic out of the starting line up just as he was starting to look promising. In terms of pure basketball there are numerous reasons this move makes little sense.
Off the court there is more of a natural fit. Wade is still beloved in his home town and much of his family still live in the area he grew up. This along with Wade becoming one of many high profile NBA players to speak out against gun violence makes the move seem more logical.
Chicago is a city that has been plagued with gun violence and Wade grew up with it, regularly experiencing the horrific consequences of gang shootings as a child. In addition to this only 10 days ago Wade’s cousin Nykea Aldridge was shot and killed when she got caught in the crossfire of a gang related shooting. Chicago has one of the highest murder rates in America and there have been more murders in Chicago than either New York or Los Angeles despite the fact it has roughly a fifth of the population.
Wade is uniquely placed amongst the Chicago community as being a high profile, black athlete who understands better than most the cost of gun violence in the city. His move back to Chicago puts Wade back in the centre of issue and better placed to try and bring about some kind of change. If he can do that then I think playing his last two seasons on an average Chicago team will be well worth it.
Derrick and Joakim reform the band in NYC
For a while it looked like Derrick Rose was gonna be the frontman of a multi platinum team in Chicago for a decade. Joakim Noah looked like he would be one of the great defensive backup singers for years to come. However, injuries and declining form have had other ideas and Rose and Noah find themselves taking their talents on the road to try and make it in New York City.
The story will be very different this time round, New York is Carmelo Anthony’s town and he is face of the New York Knicks. Both Rose and Noah will have to prove themselves in the rhythm section before coming to the front of the stage with Carmelo and young star Kristaps Porzingis.
Right enough with the band metaphor.
The success of the duo in New York is going to be all down to fitness, can they stay healthy and rediscover their mojo from around 2010. There is no doubt that there is immense talent there but both players games are so reliant on their athleticism that you fear the injuries have taken too much of a tole. Will we ever see a Derrick Rose as explosive as the 2011 vintage who won league MVP? Can Noah rediscover the raw athletic ability that made him one of the most feared defenders in the league? Noah has looked positively arthritic over the past few seasons and Rose always looks fearful that the next big injury is just around the corner.
Perhaps it is time for both of these guys to take a back seat for a while and provide Carmelo with the competent supporting cast he has been missing for so long. Either way both Rose and Noah’s careers will be defined under the harsh and unforgiving glare of the New York Media. Let’s hope they’ve got a few hits left in them.
Bad Boys back in town?
The Detroit Pistons weren’t overly competitive in their playoff series against the Cavs last year, sure they made a few games close but the 4-0 sweep always seemed inevitable. What the upstart Pistons did show was an attitude that reminded us of the greatest Pistons team ever, The Bad Boys of late 80s and early 90s.
The Bad Boys lead by Isaiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer were one of the most fearsome teams in the history of the NBA. Their mix of physicality and skill saw off Bird’s Celtics, Jordan’s Bulls and Magic’s lakers in a glorious period for basketball in the late 80s. They were rewarded with back to back NBA titles and a reputation as one of the meanest teams to ever play the game.
This vintage of the Pistons lacks the talent that The Bad Boys had to go with the attitude but Detroit is a tough city and their Basketball team should play to reflect that. Plus it would be nice to get a little bit of attitude back into the NBA, let’s see if Stanley Johnson and co. can bring it.
The Greek Freak to position himself as the nest dominant force in the East
Giannis Antetokounmpo is nicknamed The Greek Freak for good reasons. His body is literally the perfect shape to play basketball. Giannis stands 6’ 11” tall with a wingspan of 7’ 3”, he has hands the size of dinner plates and the proportions and agility of a much smaller man. This combined with his explosive speed makes Antetokounmpo the most terrifying athlete to enter the league since LeBron James. Much like James Giannis is so much more than just an athletic marvel his court vision and distribution meant that Bucks coach Jason Kidd played him at the point for much of last season. In time he will revert to his more natural small forward position and as his frame fills out he will become one of the premier perimeter players at both ends of the floor. The NBA just hasn’t seen a guy this tall with the speed and agility to play on the wing and if he can keep developing Giannis will become more than a one man highlight reel. Could he be the man to finally take King James’ crown in the East.