There's still so much unsettled in the jumbled Eastern Conference, so much can change in the coming months. That said, now's about as good a time as any for an offseason discussion starter on where the Wizards stack up among the rest of the Eastern Conference.
First, last season's records:
- Indiana Pacers: 56-26
- Miami Heat: 54-28
- Toronto Raptors: 48-34
- Chicago Bulls: 48-34
- Washington Wizards: 44-38
- Brooklyn Nets: 44-38
- Charlotte Bobcats: 43-39
- Atlanta Hawks: 38-44
- New York Knicks: 37-45
- Cleveland Cavaliers: 33-49
- Detroit Pistons: 29-53
- Boston Celtics: 25-57
- Orlando Magic: 23-59
- Philadelphia 76ers: 19-63
- Milwaukee Bucks: 15-67
- Were they better than the Wizards last year? Absolutely. Look, they collapsed like crazy late in the year, but they won 12 more regular-season games, then beat the Wizards in the playoffs in six games. I know there's a subset of folks who believe the Wizards blew that series, but Indiana still won it. There's no way to argue the Wizards were a better team based on available evidence.
- Their outlook in a word: Cloudy. Indiana went all-in this year and now lack much salary-cap flexibility to improve. Roy Hibbert struggled and has a huge contract; his trade value is extremely low. Lance Stephenson will probably get a big contract; letting him walk isn't much of an option unless you really believe in addition by subtraction. David West is slowing down. George Hill is turning into an albatross. The bench still stinks. No first-round pick arrives this year and few young assets exist. Their best chance to improve is if Paul George and Stephenson take big leaps forward.
- Key free agents: Stephenson.
- Cap situation: About $65 million tied up for next season already. They will not have much cap room.
- Verdict: The Pacers are a tough spot and I suspect this year was their best chance, but it'd be tough to envision them being worse than the Wizards next season.
- Were they better than the Wizards last season? Duh.
- Their outlook in a word: Blank. If the Big 3 opt out, nobody will be under contract. They can pretty much do anything.
- Key free agents: Everyone.
- Cap situation: Depends on what the Big 3 do.
- Verdict: I don't see a scenario where Miami is significantly worse unless LeBron James leaves. Even if the Heat bring the band back together, there's a long fall to reach the rest of the conference.
- Were they better than the Wizards last season? Yes, via wins and a significantly higher point differential. They experienced less postseason success because they drew a tough matchup with a veteran Nets team. I think they would have defeated the Wizards in a first-round series.
- Their outlook in a word: Confusing. The Raptors are in a bit of a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't situation with Kyle Lowry, who had an All-Star caliber season and is now a free agent. It will likely cost at least $10 million to keep him and likely more. If Ty Lawson is worth $12 million a year, surely Lowry is too. The Raptors need to keep him to maintain this level ... but he's unlikely to duplicate this year's effort and he could get a fat contract that hampers their flexibility, especially because they have new deals for Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross on the horizon. That said, a core of Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Ross and Valanciunas offers lots of room for internal growth.
- Key free agents: Lowry (unrestricted), Patrick Patterson (restricted), Greivis Vasquez (restricted).
- Cap situation: Pretty similar to the Wizards', actually. Toronto has $51 million committed, but that number is fluid. It does not include Lowry and his massive cap hold, of course. It also includes non-guaranteed deals for John Salmons ($1 million guaranteed), Amir Johnson (who will surely not be waived) and Tyler Hansbrough ($1 million guaranteed). Key bench pieces Vasquez and Patterson are also restricted free agency. Theoretically, the Raptors could renounce Lowry, Patterson and Vasquez, release Salmons and Hansbrough and open up enough cap room to chase a max free agent, but I doubt they do that. It's more likely they keep Lowry and Patterson and approach the tax level.
- Verdict: Same spot. I'd lean Toronto based on last season's results, but the Wizards could pass them.
- Were they better than the Wizards last season? They had more regular-season wins, but the playoff result sure made a clear statement. The Wizards were a good matchup, but the fact that they won so decisively means we can throw out the regular-season records.
- Their outlook in a word: Enticing. The Bulls have the opportunity to open up a lot of cap room by using the amnesty clause on Carlos Boozer, as everyone expects. It's not quite enough for a max contract, but it's enough to get them in the discussion. Chicago also has ace European prospect Nikola Mirotic coming over this year, though his contract will cut into their cap room. Chicago also has an elite coach and the Defensive Player of the Year in Joakim Noah, seen as an ideal teammate.
- Key free agents: Mirotic (only they can negotiate), Kirk Hinrich, D.J. Augustin.
- Cap situation: Open, but perhaps not as open as you'd think. Amnestying Boozer gets Chicago down to about $47 million, which isn't quite enough to sign a max free agent outright if you also add in Chicago's two first-round picks (the cap is expected to rise to $63 million, but first-round cap holds and open roster spot penalties will add to Chicago's number). Another move will have to happen to drop them far enough down. As noted, Mirotic can also eat into that cap space; it's tough to see what kind of deal he'll get considering the Bulls can only pay $500,000 towards his buyout per league rules.
- Verdict: If the Bulls land Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love another top free agent, they leapfrog way up to the top of the Eastern Conference, much less ahead of the Wizards. But I'm skeptical that'll happen because it's never happenes with that franchise, which means Chicago needs Derrick Rose to be healthy to jump ahead of the middle of the pack. Let's just say I'm skeptical about that.
- Were they better than the Wizards last season? It's tough to say because Brooklyn essentially had two seasons. In the first two months with Brook Lopez healthy, they were among the worst teams in the league. Then, once he went down, they dramatically changed their style and were one of the best teams in the conference.
- Their outlook in a word: Clogged. That's because of outrageous contracts for Deron Williams' (which may now be the worst in the league) and Joe Johnson. Lopez's deal, if he can't recover from another foot injury, may be heading that way too.
- Key free agents: Paul Pierce, Andray Blatche, Shaun Livingston, Alan Anderson
- Cap situation: Welp.
- Verdict: It sounds like the band will be back together next year, with other vet minimum guys replacing Livingston, Blatche and Anderson. Thus, it all depends on Lopez. If he's healthy and worked in properly, the Nets can win the conference. If not, their old guys certainly aren't getting any better. I'd lean the latter over the former.
- Were they better than the Wizards last season? You could certainly argue that they were. They finished behind the Wizards, but beat them in two must-win situations and might have finished higher without a slow start. They got a difficult first-round draw and were screwed once Al Jefferson went down, but don't let that be the lasting image of their season.
- Their outlook in a word: Clean. The Hornets have tons of cap flexibility, some promising young players in Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller and were gifted an extra lottery pick via Detroit's bad luck. The only issue is that there's no star-caliber player in that young core; Kidd-Gilchrist's slow development been disappointing.
- Key free agents: Josh McRoberts, Luke Ridnour, Chris Douglas-Roberts.
- Cap situation: The Hornets can hand out a max contract this summer if they want, though they likely won't because it's still hard to attract a free agent to Charlotte and because Walker's extension will eat into that flexibility in a year. But they have the rare combination of cap space and their core locked down.
- Verdict: Don't sleep on these guys. That extra lottery pick is huge and will allow them to add a potential core piece if they find the right guy. There are no superstars in the group, but this was a good team last year that has lots of room for internal growth.
- Were they better than the Wizards last season? No, though that was mostly due to devastating injuries. I'm not only talking about Al Horford -- they also had stretches where key players like Pero Antic, Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague were out of the lineup.
- Their outlook in a word: Flexible. The Hawks have very few long-term commitments -- only Horford, Teague and Korver are under contract past 2015, and each are locked into team-friendly contracts ($12 million, $8 million and just under $6 million). There's plenty of room to sign a top free agent and there's also ample room to trade for it. There's also enough room to go in the other direction and trade away key players for future assets. The Hawks also have two first-round picks this year.
- Key free agents: Shelvin Mack, Mike Scott.
- Cap situation: They don't have quite enough to offer a max contract, but they do have enough to sign another player in the Paul Millsap range should they choose.
- Verdict: Another team that's often neglected in discussions about the East's pecking order. Big questions: will Horford stay healthy and is Teague good enough?
- Hate to say it, but Cleveland deserves our attention now that it has yet another No. 1 pick. Of course, Kyrie Irving's future is the big question. Neither side seems especially enamored with the other, but I'd be stunned if he leaves or is traded. This is a club that could make a huge jump, or it could Cavs it away like they have the last few years.
- The Pistons are interesting with Stan Van Gundy now in charge, but I suspect they'll need more than a year to rebuild.
- The Knicks are not a threat to me. Either Carmelo Anthony leaves and they are stuck or Anthony stays and they're stuck for a year.
- The Celtics become a threat if they get Kevin Love, but I'm not sure how a team with Love, Rajon Rondo and their rag-tag core is any better than the Timberwolves team Love would leave.
- Orlando has tons of young assets that could coalesce quickly, but jumping from 23 wins to contention is tough.