Despite the Miami Heat winning two of the last three NBA championships, the difference in quality between the NBA’s Eastern and Western conferences over the last few seasons has been an embarrassment. While Western teams have routinely delivered 60-plus win seasons, Eastern squads often crept into the playoffs with sub-.500 records, incomplete rosters and a lack of superstars. The 2014 NBA Draft may help alter that balance.
In a draft deemed the “deepest” in years, five of the top six picks landed with Eastern Conference teams, infusing the conference with some premiere young talent. The best overall drafts came from the first three teams to make a pick: the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers. Each team took blue-chip college players with loads of potential and athleticism to spare, which could propel them out of the lottery and back into the playoffs.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Andrew Wiggins. The 6-foot, 8-inch Wiggins is going to be a real asset for the Cavs. He can play shooting guard or small forward while still guarding both positions—and even point guard—with ferocity. The 19-year-old Wiggins was placed in the same class as former Cleveland star LeBron James just a few years ago, when he gained recognition as a super prospect while still a high schooler in West Virginia. Wiggins has NBA bloodlines from his father, Mitchell Wiggins, and he recently recorded a 44-inch vertical at the NBA combine, leaving no doubt as to his athleticism. Cleveland could easily insert Wiggins into the small forward spot or start him alongside Kyrie Irving in the backcourt while moving combo guard Dion Waiters to a better suited sixth-man position.
Still unpolished as a shooter, Wiggins will make an immediate impact on defense and running the court with Irving and Waiters. With Irving’s pending free agency a major topic, Wiggins could ultimately become the face of the franchise should the point guard defect. With his athleticism, potential and pedigree, Wiggins has the tools to either become Irving’s successor or his running mate.
Milwaukee Bucks: Jabari Parker. The Chicago native will get a chance to play near his hometown as he becomes the new face of the Bucks franchise. The 19-year-old combo forward is a dominant scorer with good handle and a big body who could evolve into a post threat. Equally adept at shooting from deep, rebounding and scoring at midrange, Parker should walk into the Bucks’ program and instantly become their most decorated player. Last year’s first-round pick Giannis Antetokounmpo gives Milwaukee two long, athletic wing players. Several scouts have already made strong comparisons between Parker and Carmelo Anthony, but even if Parker becomes just 75 percent of the player that Anthony is, his selection will be graded as a huge success for the Bucks.
Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid. The 7-footer’s selection by Philadelphia was a bit curious, considering that the Sixers have yet to see their lottery pick last year, Nerlens Noel, play a game after sitting out all season with a torn ACL. Embiid’s recent back injury and broken foot were enough to knock him out of becoming the top overall selection but the Sixers had no problem taking advantage of an injury discount. Embiid could pair with Noel to become one of the premier front courts in the league if both players can return successfully from their injuries. The pick was a brilliant move for the Sixers because they won’t be ready for contention anytime soon, affording them an opportunity to stash Embiid on the bench and set themselves up for another lottery selection next year.
Embiid, like the prior two picks, wowed the basketball world as a freshman before declaring for the draft. Maybe the most tantalizing prospect in this year’s draft class, Embiid has played organized basketball for only a few seasons. He’s still very raw, but boasts major upside as a mobile center who can defend the rim and rebound at ease. A better natural post scorer than Noel, the Sixers could have the next “twin towers” duo if all goes as planned. With last season’s rookie of the year, Michael Carter Williams, firmly entrenched as their point guard of the future, the 76ers have restocked their roster far faster than many imagined possible.