The Wizards went 44-38 and were the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference last season. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

With LeBron James returning to Cleveland, the East is wide open for the taking. The four-time reigning conference champion Heat have made moves to remain a contender, but they are definitely not the same without their King. So where does this put the Wizards among the East’s elite?

1. Bulls

The addition of Pau Gasol is nice, but the Bulls’ return to the top of the Eastern Conference all depends on the health of former MVP Derrick Rose. Chicago had the best record in the NBA in 2010-11 and 2011-12, and even without Rose last year, the Bulls were a No. 4 seed. Joakim Noah emerged as an MVP candidate in 2013-14, and he should have a lot more help on offense next season with Rose back and Gasol giving Chicago another option in the post.

2. Cavaliers

If the Cavaliers trade for Kevin Love, they’ll be the East favorite. But even with their current roster, the Cavaliers could compete for a title immediately. They’ve got the world’s best player, an All-Star point guard and the past two No. 1 picks. They’re young and LeBron James is one of the few players on the team with playoff experience (which won’t change if they get Love), but they’re talented enough to make a deep playoff run in a weak conference.

3. Pacers

Lance Stephenson may be a little crazy, but the Pacers need to re-sign the free agent swingman who led the NBA with five triple doubles last season. If he does come back, Indiana will be near the top of the conference again. For a team that was viewed as somewhat dysfunctional at the end of the season, the Pacers still managed to have the best record in the East and make it to the conference finals. There’s no reason to think Indiana will take a step back.

4. Heat

Miami did the best it could to address the void left by James, adding Luol Deng and bringing back Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. The Heat’s fate, though, may rest in the hands of free agent pickups Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger. McRoberts gives the Heat a nasty interior presence they missed last year, while Granger could provide a spark off the bench. Bosh and Wade also will have to become more of the go-to guys they were earlier in their careers.

5. Wizards

Right now, the Wizards lack that second All-Star-caliber player who can transform them from a playoff team to a championship-worthy squad. Maybe Bradley Beal will take that next step in 2014-15, but that seems like a stretch. John Wall is capable of being one of the best point guards in the league, and the Wizards shouldn’t lose a beat by replacing Trevor Ariza with veteran Paul Pierce. How will this group handle postseason expectations next year?

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What Advanced Stats Say …

To measure which Eastern Conference team has the edge after the free agency frenzy, here’s a look at the projected starting lineups of the top squads with the players’ 2013-14 win shares per 48 minutes (the league average is approximately .100). For these calculations, let’s assume Lance Stephenson goes back to Indiana, Dion Waiters starts over rookie Andrew Wiggins (to have a stat from 2013-14), and use Derrick Rose’s career win share per 48 minute average rather than the numbers from his injury-shortened 2013-14 season.

1. Pacers
George Hill .154
Lance Stephenson .130
Paul George .178
David West .157
Roy Hibbert .108
Team total .727

2. Cavaliers
Kyrie Irving .128
Dion Waiters .037
LeBron James .264
Tristan Thompson .106
Anderson Varejao .144
Team total .679

3. Bulls
Derrick Rose .135
Jimmy Butler .131
Mike Dunleavy .121
Pau Gasol .076
Joakim Noah .190
Team total .653

4. Heat
Mario Chalmers .106
Dwyane Wade .149
Luol Deng .098
Chris Bosh .152
Josh McRoberts .132
Team total .637

5. Wizards
John Wall .128
Bradley Beal .076
Paul Pierce .119
Nene .098
Marcin Gortat .146
Team total .567

 

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