Detroit Pistons (64-18)
2005-06 Finish: 1st Place (Lost in Eastern Conference Finals to Miami)
Projected 2006-07 Finish: 1st Place
The Pistons championship dreams came to a screeching halt against the Heat last season and the club will feature a significantly different look following the departure of four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace. After dealing former No. 2 overall pick Darko Milicic to Orlando in order to free up cap space for the re-signing of Wallace, it was surprising that the club lost out to the Chicago Bulls for his services. The team tried to fill the void by signing former Spurs C Nazr Mohammed, but it seems unlikely the club will be as good in 2006-07.
Aside from Wallace, who may have been the biggest loss by any club in free agency, the Pistons also inexplicably dealt promising swingman Maurice Evans to the Lakers for the draft rights to Cheick Samb. Add these departures to the late-season deal that sent the aforementioned Milicic and backup PG Carlos Arroyo to Orlando and it has been a tough year for the Pistons personnel wise.
The team’s biggest addition was Mohammed, though the signing of Flip Murray could prove to be a valuable one as he offers good scoring punch off the bench and a little insurance in case of a Rip Hamilton injury. The team also brought back Lindsey Hunter, who is still a capable defender with occasional deep range.
The Pistons got worse while everyone else in the Central should be improved, though they should still have enough pieces in place to capture another Central Division crown and if things fall right they could still compete for an NBA title.
Indiana Pacers (41-41)
2005-06 Finish: T-3rd Place (Lost in First Round to New Jersey)
Projected 2006-07 Finish: 2nd Place
Viewed as legitimate championship contender entering the 2005-06 season, Indiana suffered through a tumultuous .500 campaign that included a myriad of injuries and the final chapter of the Ron Artest saga. Things then looked bleak when it appeared that Peja Stojakovic (the player acquired in the Artest deal) would leave without compensation, but the club manager to engineer a sign-and-trade, which left the club with a sizable trade exception. The Pacers were then able to land Al Harrington from the Hawks in another sign-and-trade, bringing in a talented small forward to fill the gap left by the departures of Artest and Stojakovic. Another satellite deal with Dallas strengthened their bench and with a healthy Jermaine O’Neal the team could push into the second round of the playoffs.
Stojakovic was the biggest loss of the off-season for the Pacers, though the club also dealt away solid reserves Austin Croshere and Anthony Johnson (who did a nice job filling in for the oft-injured Jamaal Tinsley). Also gone is F/C Scot Pollard, who provided size off the pine.
Beyond the acquisition of Harrington, the club also added talented G/F Marquis Daniels and tough-minded veteran Darrell Armstrong from the Mavericks, both of whom should contribute off the bench. Keep an eye on Orien Greene, who was waived by Boston, as he could see some time at the backup point if he shows the defensive tenacity and toughness he is known for.
Adding Harrington and the talented Daniels for spare parts puts Indiana back on track and there is no reason to think they can’t at least make a push towards the top of the Eastern Conference this season.
Cleveland Cavaliers (52-30)
2005-06 Finish: 2nd Place (Lost in Eastern Conference Semi-Finals to Detroit)
Projected 2006-07 Finish: 3rd Place
The city of Cleveland breathed a collective sigh of relief when superstar Lebron James decided to accept a three-year extension that will keep him with the Cavaliers through the 2009-10 season. James and the Cavs came very close to knocking off the Pistons in the second round last season, but eventually bowed out in seven games. Cleveland will take the floor with virtually the same club as last season so they will be counting on the continued development of James’ supporting cast, perhaps most notably F/C Drew Gooden (who was re-signed) and emerging defensive stopper F Anderson Varejao, to take the next step towards the NBA Finals.
The only departure of note is that of Ronald Murray, who had some big moments during his brief stint with the Cavs. Murray averaged 13.5 PPG with the club, but that was done while filling in for Larry Hughes who will once again try to make it through a season healthy, which is something he hasn’t done since 1999-00.
The Cavs added a pair of savvy veterans for depth with F/C Scot Pollard and G David Wesley, but neither is expected to log heavy minutes in Cleveland.
Following a very quiet off-season it is clear than the Cavaliers will go exactly as far as James can take them and with improved clubs in Indiana, Chicago and Milwaukee it is hard to see them making it out of the first round this season.
Chicago Bulls (41-41)
2005-06 Finish: T-3rd Place (Lost in First Round to Miami)
Projected 2006-07 Finish: 4th Place
After extending the Heat in the first-round of the playoffs the Bulls decided to take a very aggressive approach to reshaping their roster in the off-season as they try to build into viable title contenders for the first time since the end of the Michael Jordan era. They made perhaps the biggest splash in free agency with the signing of Ben Wallace from the Pistons and rounded out the reshaping of their frontcourt by dealing Tyson Chandler to the Hornets for crafty veteran P.J. Brown. The team is hopeful that these moves, coupled with the development of budding stars Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and Andres Nocioni will put them deep into the playoffs.
The team finally cut ties with Chandler in the Brown trade, which means Brown is now all the Bulls have to show from the deal that sent Elton Brand to the Clippers five years ago. Chicago also released Othella Harrington and saw Eric Piatkowski and Darius Songalia depart via free agency.
In addition to the Wallace signing and the Brown trade, the Bulls also added a pair of high first-round draft choices in Tyrus Thomas and Thabo Sefolosha, though how much the Bulls expect out of them in their rookie seasons remains to be seen. One move that barely registered a blip on the radar that should help the team in 2006-07 was the signing of forward Adrian Griffin, a tough-minded veteran who provides depth.
The Bulls are definitely heading in the right direction and with a favorable draw in the playoffs (New Jersey, perhaps?) they could reach the second round, but I don’t see them as a legitimate threat in a seven-game series to Detroit or Miami… yet.
Milwaukee Bucks (40-42)
2005-06 Finish: 5th Place (Lost in First Round to Detroit)
Projected 2006-07 Finish: 5th Place
After a fast start to the 2005-06 season, the Bucks faded as the pairing of Jamaal Magloire and Andrew Bogut only seemed to slow down an otherwise fast-paced attack. In response, the Bucks made several trades during the off-season, including the aforementioned Magloire going to Portland for backcourt (Steve Blake) and frontcourt (Brian Skinner) depth. The team’s biggest and best move however was landing 6-foot-11 All-Rookie Team member Charlie Villanueva in exchange for lightning-quick, but defensively atrocious T.J. Ford in a big-for-small swap. These two deals mean that last season’s top pick will return to his natural center spot while Villanueva mans the power forward position, giving Milwaukee a talented young frontcourt to pair with All-Star shooting guard Michael Redd on the perimeter.
Gone are last season’s starting point guard (Ford) and center (Magloire), along with top frontcourt reserve and clubhouse leader Joe Smith. All there are significant losses, but all three were part of trades and therefore are offset by the players Milwaukee got back.
The biggest addition is clearly Villanueva, who along with Bogut should form the Bucks frontcourt for the next several seasons at least. The re-acquisition of Skinner was a solid move as he enjoyed his best season with the Bucks in 2003-04, and Blake’s inclusion in the Magloire deal helps soften the loss of Ford. The Smith trade returned Ruben Patterson, who gives the Bucks a quality backup to Bobby Simmons and a strong defensive presence off the bench.
If the Bucks played in the Atlantic they could challenge for a division title, but stuck in the Eastern Conference’s most competitive division they seem destined for another run at the playoffs with an early exit.