Steve Smith, the NBA TV analyst and former Heat guard, said with LeBron James headed to the Lakers, the Eastern Conference’s new math is pretty simple.
“Everybody moves up a spot,” he said off the air this week.
But in what order is the question.
If Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto end up the top three teams in the East in some order — as many expect — that leaves the Heat, Indiana, Washington, Milwaukee and possibly Detroit in heated competition to claim the fourth seed, which means home-court advantage for a first-round playoff series.
Cleveland, the fourth seed last year, is widely expected to tumble in the standings after losing James.
The Pacers, Wizards, Bucks and Pistons have augmented their rosters in the first two weeks of free agency, and the Heat (the sixth seed last season) helped itself by re-signing Wayne Ellington and giving a standard contract to Derrick Jones Jr., who flourished in summer league before an ankle injury.
And Dwyane Wade’s return remains a strong possibility, with Wade continuing to keep himself in prime condition but not yet having informed the Heat if he will play another season or retire.
So which of those five teams is best positioned to supplant Cleveland as the fourth seed potentially?
ESPN analyst Amin Elhassan, the former Phoenix Suns scouting coordinator, said before Ellington’s re-signing that Indiana, Milwaukee and Washington are now a cut above Miami “talent wise. But Miami’s strength is we are better than the sum of our parts.”
But one general manager for a team that’s not in that Eastern Conference playoff race said he believes Miami has an excellent chance to be the fourth seed, even though the Heat (at 44-38) won four fewer games than Indiana last season, and even though the Pacers have improved their roster.
That GM said if Hassan Whiteside can revert to his 2016-17 level, the Heat is as good as or better than those other teams, adding that Indiana might have been a one-year overachieving wonder and expressing concern about Dwight Howard’s impact in the Washington locker room.
A look at how the East’s potentially eight best teams have fared this offseason:
THE TOP TIER
▪ Boston: Drafted Texas A&M center Robert Williams and re-signed center Aron Baynes, who averaged 6.0 points and 5.4 rebounds during the regular season and gave the Celtics good minutes in the playoffs.
▪ Philadelphia: Lost Marco Belinelli to San Antonio and Ersan Ilyasova to Milwaukee but re-signed J.J. Redick (17.1 ppg, 42 percent shooting on threes last season), traded with Denver for swingman Wilson Chandler (10.0 ppg last season) and signed forward Nemanja Bjelica (6.8 points, 41.5 percent on threes for Minnesota last season).
Also, the 76ers acquired Texas Tech rookie guard Zhaire Smith in a draft-day trade with Phoenix that also netted Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick.
▪ Toronto: Re-signed valuable backup point guard Fred VanVleet to a two-year, $18 million deal. With James finally out of the East, the Raptors could bypass major changes.
THE NEXT TIER
▪ Indiana: The Pacers upgraded a 48-win team by adding guard Tyreke Evans (19.4 ppg, 39.9 percent shooting on threes for Memphis last season), guard Doug McDermott (7.8 points, 42.6 percent on threes for Knicks and Mavericks last season) and center Kyle O’Quinn (7.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.3 blocks for Knicks last season). They also drafted UCLA point guard Aaron Holiday.
▪ Heat: Kept Ellington (one year, $6.27 million) and signed Jones Jr. (two years, $3 million).
▪ Washington: The Wizards, the eighth seed last season, seemingly have improved on paper by signing Dwight Howard (16.6 points, 12.5 rebounds for Charlotte last season), trading center Marcin Gortat to the Clippers for guard Austin Rivers (15.1 ppg, 37.8 percent three-point shooting) and signing swingman Jeff Green (10.8 pgg for Cleveland last season). Also, the Wizards drafted Oregon guard Troy Brown Jr.
▪ Milwaukee: The Bucks, who matched the Heat’s 44 wins last season, filled their need for a center by signing Brook Lopez (13.0 points, four rebounds for Lakers) and added more frontcourt shooting with Ilyasova (10.9 ppg, 5.9 rebounds per game for Philadelphia and Atlanta last season). The Bucks also drafted Villanova guard Donte DiVencenzo.
▪ Detroit: The Pistons — who finished 39-43, ninth in the East, and four games behind No. 8 Washington — not only get back point guard Reggie Jackson (limited to 45 games last season because of injury) but made three modest signings: center Zaza Pachulia (5.4 points, 3.4 rebounds for Warriors last season), guard Jose Calderon (4.5 ppg, 2.1 assists per game for Cleveland) and small forward Glenn Robinson III (4.1 ppg, 41.2 percent on threes for Indiana). The Pistons didn’t have a first-round pick because it was used in the Blake Griffin trade last season.
Among notable additions from the East’s seven other teams — all of whom would be underdogs to overtake the aforementioned eight for a playoff berth — Cleveland hasn’t made a veteran pickup after losing James but has publicly insisted it will keep Kevin Love; the Knicks signed former Magic lottery pick Mario Hezonja and Charlotte added a good piece in longtime Spurs point guard Tony Parker.
Meanwhile, Heat guard Dion Waiters is thinking big.
“We coming!” he told TMZ this week. “This year, the East is wide open. So why not us?”
▪ The Heat announced Wayne Ellington’s signing, which was reported here on Thursday. “It’s great to have Wayne back,” Heat president Pat Riley said. “He is one of our leaders. We are very pleased that he made the choice to stay. It means a lot to us.”
Here’s my story from earlier Friday on what players the Heat has made available in trades and a Carmelo Anthony update.