The Knicks and Nets, who both had title aspirations, sit way at the bottom of the East standings. The Cavs, who many people picked to make the playoffs, are right there, too. Meanwhile, the Bulls are coping with another Derrick Rose injury and the Lakers still don't know what they'll get from Kobe Bryant when he returns to the court.
How much hope should fans of these teams have? Let's debate ...
1. Scale of 0 to 10: How much hope should Knicks fans have?
Jim Cavan, Knickerblogger: 5. Last season's early success -- a sweet stretch that saw the Knicks rattle off wins with ball-moving aplomb -- has quickly become a distant memory, as a slew of injuries and defensive woes have everyone in Knickland on edge. All of this aside, 35 games might well win this division, so New York can still afford to do a bit of tinkering. Emphasis on "a bit."
Bradford Doolittle, ESPN Insider: 2. Abandon hope all ye who enter here. As long as Jimmy Dolan is running the show, why would anything be any different from how it has been for the past 15 years?
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: 7. That's assuming the "hope" scale is relative to expectations going into the season. The Knicks, contrary to their owner's thinking, weren't going to win it all this season. What they can hope for is recovery from this mess. Fortunately for them, the rest of the East is also quite a mess. I just have a hard time believing Carmelo Anthony (.426), J.R. Smith (.322) and Raymond Felton (.390) will continue shooting this poorly.
Justin Verrier, ESPN.com: 2. Things are about as bad in Manhattan as they are in Brooklyn. Better, perhaps, when you consider that the Knicks are without their second-best player and have cap space on the horizon. But Jim Dolan has traded away any glimmer of hope from this fan base. That future money? There's probably already a cap hold designated to a confounding player to be named. Iman Shumpert is like the last newborn on Earth in "Children of Men" to Knicks fans.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: 5. They have one of the best players in the league, and the weakness of the conference will allow them to rebound from a poor start and have a reasonable chance to make the playoffs. They are not a serious contender, but realistic fans should've known that from the start.
2. Scale of 0 to 10: How much hope should Nets fans have?
Cavan: 5. Copy and paste New York's prognosis -- slow start, rotational uncertainty, consistent defensive ineptitude, but somehow safe knowing a truly putrid division allows for learning curves. You can almost see the cruel narrative now: Two overpriced rivals dueling down the wire to snag the lowliest of divisional crowns -- and the 4-seed -- while the loser risks bowing out, and blowing up the back pages, completely.
Doolittle: 4. The only way to spend your way to a title is to sign one of the truly transcendent players, of which there aren't more than two or three in the league at a given time. The Nets don't have one of those players, and they won't have the flexibility or the trade assets to acquire one any time soon. They get a couple of extra points on the scale because, despite it all, there is still a glimmer of upside for this season.
Gutierrez: 7. Same story as the Knicks here, except with more health issues. They currently look like a team that has no business in the playoffs. But despite any philosophical difference between Jason Kidd and assistant Lawrence Frank, someone should be wise enough to realize that this team should still revolve around Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, when healthy.
Verrier: 4. The only thing bleaker than the Nets' long-term future is the state of the Eastern Conference, so no matter how rough things look at the moment it's hard to see a team with this much talent missing the playoffs. Remember: Last season's tormented Lakers team still made the playoffs with 45 wins, to which the Nets won't need to come close. Things will only get worse from season to season, so enjoy what they could be now from game to game.
Windhorst: 6. The Nets' situation is not a true representation of their team. Most of their goals are still attainable, even getting a top-four seed. They have the type of talent and experience that would be somewhat dangerous in any playoff series. And they have one of the most valuable things on their side: time. What they need now is health.
3. Scale of 0 to 10: How much hope should Cavs fans have?
Cavan: 4. When you're booing a 20-year-old rookie, you can be certain the scorn's source lies elsewhere. Like, say, in the fact that your team's two backcourt cornerstones have to deny having fought; or that your certifiably sports-obsessed fan base is fast approaching 50 years without a title. Right now, this is less a team on the rise as it is one hoping for a King's rescue.
Doolittle: 6. You can always change coaches again if Mike Brown's return continues to go sour. Cleveland still has talent, flexibility and draft picks.
Gutierrez: 5. Much of the hope going into this season was built around an even more improved Kyrie Irving and some kind of positive contribution from No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett. Instead, Bennett has offered close to nothing, Irving is struggling with his efficiency and distribution (1.8-1 assist-to-turnover ratio) and there are reports of a highly dysfunctional locker room. Those are bad signs for a young team. Oh, and Andrew Bynum remains a medical mystery.
Verrier: 4, to match their win total. Sign LeBron? Let's start with keeping Kyrie for the long haul, because the Cavs still haven't figured out how to surround their star player with a capable core. Building through the draft is a better plan than overpaying Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall, but that Thunder-y approach only works when you hit on your high picks, and GM Chris Grant is batting around the Mendoza line in the lottery.
Windhorst: 5. I'm not sure they can play much worse, especially Bennett. They are underachieving and being tested by a coach who is sacrificing offense to focus mostly on defense, even if it isn't showing much. Brown's teams historically improve as the season goes on and the Cavs have very limited options other than to ride it out and hope more time and more home games help them out.
4. Scale of 0 to 10: How much hope should Bulls fans have?
Cavan: 7. Last season Chicago showed just how important toughness and chemistry can be to a team battling sans its biggest bulwark. But it's hard to believe the Bulls -- once more left to mourn the loss of their superstar -- won't suffer their own psychological setback. Getting Derrick Rose back healthy and confident renders making the playoffs in a fractured East almost a secondary concern.
Doolittle: 8. Chicago may have to delay its 2014 plan for another season, but the Bulls still are stocked with future assets, a solid core and an elite coach. Rose is a huge concern, of course, but players return fine from meniscus tears. Patience.
Gutierrez: 3. And it's only that high because there are fans who'd be satisfied with another gutsy playoff run. Fact is, the Bulls would be better off losing big, cheering on the Bobcats (Chicago gets Charlotte's draft pick if it's outside the top 10) and praying for Rose to return at full strength next season with a much better, younger supporting cast around him. Two picks in the top half of the first round in a deep draft would be great for Chicago.
Verrier: 3. Last season proved the Bulls can still win without Rose, but a moral victory is tough to stomach for a team that, when healthy, has won the most games in the NBA twice. The pieces are there for rebuilds of various extremes, but given Rose's uncertain future and the fickle nature of a championship "window," it's not outlandish to suggest this may be the end of these Bulls as we know them.
Windhorst: 7. The Bulls won't win the title this season but there is no reason they can't have a successful season and a chance to advance in the playoffs again; look around the East. And if they're really feeling bad about themselves, look up to all those banners and give thanks they were generally lucky when it came to health for Michael Jordan.
5. Scale of 0 to 10: How much hope should Lakers fans have?
Cavan: 6. With the West playoff picture poised to start crystallizing, the Lakers probably will find themselves on the outside looking in. As such, the focus shifts to the future, where a freshly minted Kobe Bryant looms large as the team's Tinseltown magnet. Whether the gambit can attract a LeBron or Melo remains to be seen, but you can bet the drama will be well worth watching.
Doolittle: 9. No matter how things look at the moment, this is still the Lakers. History tells us that they will be an elite team at some point, either with Kobe or after he retires. This franchise does not stay down for long.
Gutierrez: 9. This was a team that most people had out of the playoffs to begin with. Instead they're looking at a .500 team without Bryant. Even with Kobe, this may never turn out to be a team that gets 10 games over .500 at any point. But it has to be encouraging to think adding Kobe to this group, in this system, can make it a legitimate playoff team.
Verrier: 5. Kobe extremists would probably offer an 11, but Bryant's hefty extension only obfuscates what was a blue-sky future. For better or worse, these Lakers are about what you'll be getting until 2016. But it's really not so bad! These patchwork Lakers scrap, run and score in Mike D'Antoni's carnival offense, and a healthy Bryant will likely push them into playoff contention. Times are indeed heady ... at least until they strike out in free agency this summer.
Windhorst: 4. The Lakers play in the West. They have now committed $34 million to Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash next year and, if they want to keep Pau Gasol, who is having a pretty good season by the way, they probably won't be able to really add a star. They did prove their loyalty to Kobe, that was nice. Now the fans are going to have their loyalty really tested. The Lakers have been great at reloading over the years but so many of the rules are different now and the competition is so much more fierce in their conference.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Israel Gutierrez and Brian Windhorst cover the NBA for ESPN.com. Bradford Doolittle writes for ESPN Insider. Justin Verrier is an NBA editor for ESPN.com. Jim Cavan writes for the TrueHoop Network.
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