Boston Celtics: Complete Eastern Conference Preview

4 of 9

Oct 18, 2015; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor (8) and Philadelphia 76ers small forward Robert Covington (33) defend against Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez (11) at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets managed to make the playoffs last season with a 38-44 record. That’s not likely to happen again with other teams in the East leaping forward and the Nets doing nothing to improve. After taking on Joe Johnson‘s gigantic contract and trading away a boatload of assets to acquire Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, they have little to show for their first three seasons in New York’s trendiest borough. The Celtics own Brooklyn’s first round picks in 2016 and 2018 and the Nets have very little flexibility in terms of movable players or money to spend.

They parted ways with disappointing point guard Deron Williams during the offseason, opting to buyout the former All-Star’s contract and pay him $27.5 million to not play for them rather than the $43 million he was owed over the next two seasons. Some of that money “saved” went to signing Brook Lopez to a three-year, $60 million contract and Thaddeus Young to a four-year, $50 million deal. Both are solid players, but not franchise cornerstones. Still, they will form the Nets’ nucleus moving forward alongside Johnson, who’s been a rock solid pro for over a decade, but has never had much success in the playoffs.

Brooklyn bet the future for a win-now approach a few years back and they’ll pay for it this season. They have a roster that’s competitive enough to keep them out of the conference’s basement, but nowhere near capable of competing in the playoffs. It’s a classic NBA No Man’s Land scenario. To make matters worse, the Nets don’t even own their first round pick should they manage to bottom out this season. They appear destined to limp their way to about 30 wins and hand over a low lottery pick to the Celtics next June.

Charlotte Hornets

Another team toiling in mediocrity, the Hornets were dealt a tough blow earlier this month when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist tore his labrum and dislocated his shoulder in a preseason game, leading to a surgery that will likely sideline him for the year. This team does have some other interesting pieces. The versatile Nicolas Batum came over from Portland in an offseason trade and Jeremy Lin signed a modest deal to join Kemba Walker in the backcourt. Workhorse Al Jefferson remains in place to man the paint for Charlotte, but given who’s ahead of them in the East I don’t see this group cracking the top eight.

The Hornets went from 43 wins in 2013-14 to 33 last season. Owner Michael Jordan has said, “I’m always dreaming about that seventh ring,” but he and his home-state team still have a ways to go. Part of the Hornets’ problem has been their inability to cash in on numerous high draft picks over the past decade. Back in 2006, the first year Jordan was associated with the team, Charlotte selected college superstar Adam Morrison out of Gonzaga with the 3rd pick. He averaged 11.8 points his rookie year, but tore his ACL and missed his entire sophomore season. He would play just 44 more games with the team before being dealt to the Lakers and hasn’t played in the league since 2010. Charlotte made a poor call the year after selecting Morrison as well, taking Brandan Wright 8th in 2007, just ahead of Joakim Noah.

More from Chowder and Champions

They missed out on Anthony Davis by one spot in 2012 and took Kidd-Gilchrist with the 2nd pick, then grabbed seven-footer Cody Zeller with the 4th pick the next year, but the former All-American has yet to make much noise in the league. Jordan gambled on another celebrated collegiate big man this year, selecting Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky with the 9th pick. He’s the rare NBA rookie who actually played four years in college, which may help him in his transition to the pros.

Jordan desperately needs a home run draft pick. He hasn’t had one in his tenure, but Kaminsky could be the guy. Scouts were skeptical about his athleticism heading into the draft, still the 2015 National Player of the Year does a lot of things really well that are hard to measure simply by the numbers. He will need to contribute more than anticipated with the absence of Kidd-Gilchrist. As long as the legendarily competitive Jordan is running things, the Hornets will never be a team that packs it in. They’ll play hard every night, but I’m guessing third-year coach Steve Clifford is on a short leash after last season’s ten-win regression. He may be shown the door sooner rather than later if the Hornets get off to a rocky start, and I’m anticipating they will.

Indiana Pacers

I could be wrong here. The Pacers have been one of the league’s scrappiest teams for years and they’re getting their jack-of-all-trades small forward Paul George back at full strength, after the two-time All-Star missed all but six games last year with a broken leg. They also signed Monta Ellis, an explosive scoring guard with a 19.3 points per game career average. Still, I think this team is a long ways off from the 2013-14 Pacers that were the number one seed in the East and took the Miami Heat to six games in the Conference Finals.

That group had a true defensive force in center Roy Hibbert and veteran forward David West, as well as Lance Stephenson, who isn’t looked at all that kindly these days, but played lights out that year. All three have gone their separate ways and coach Frank Vogel must be banking on this year’s Pacers being better than the sum of their parts. Indiana finished 38-44 last season and with George back an improvement might seem like a given, but I believe they’ll struggle inside on both ends without Hibbert and West. Ellis is a guy who needs the ball in his hands a lot to be effective and working him in with incumbent point guard George Hill could be tricky.

For years, .500 ball has meant a playoff spot in the East. Indiana may sneak in at around that mark, but that will still be a frustrating finish for a team that had NBA Finals aspirations just two seasons ago. The Pacers are too good to hit the reset button. They have a player to build around in George if the 25-year-old can continue to improve, as he was so dramatically prior to his injury. With the right moves, Indiana could be in the mix to contend again a year or two from now. This season though, they’ll likely find themselves in the middle of the pack, grinding it out for less wins than they’d like.

Next: On The Up And Up