2015–16 NBA Outlook Pt. I

The Cavaliers fell short of winning a championship in their first year since LeBron’s return, but that was without Irving and Love. What will the future hold in year two when all three are healthy
A complete breakdown of each team in the Eastern Conference for the 2015–16 season

You won’t convince me there isn’t exciting basketball to watch in the Eastern Conference, you won’t. Sure, Brooklyn and Boston made the playoffs last year with a sub .500 record while Oklahoma City and Phoenix were left out in the West. Sure, the West has the defending champs in Golden State, Harden and Dwight in Houston, the Spurs doing Spurs things, and even Kobe holding the Lakers’ franchise together with surgically repaired knees, shoulders, and fingers. But the East has LeBron and the Cavs. Plus they resigned Love. Maybe Derrick Rose will return to his former glory? Maybe another contender presents themselves? What about LeBron’s former counterparts in Miami? Perhaps it will be the 60 win Hawks, a team everyone has already seemed to write off. Throw in John Wall, Paul George, and an up-and-coming Milwaukee team, and the East could easily create it’s own rodeo.

Predictions include each team’s expected win total according to the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook and whether or not I think each team will go over or under that total

EASTERN CONFERENCE

15. Philadelphia 76ers

It kind of feels like Sam Hinkie thinks he’s Obi-Won Kenobi in the original Star Wars during that scene where he uses the force to insist that R2-D2 and C-3PO aren’t the droids the Empire were looking for. He keeps expecting us to concede like that stormtrooper, but we keep looking back at him with more questions. Last year he traded away Michael Carter-Williams months after winning Rookie of the Year and watched as third overall pick Joel Embiid sat out the entire season (something he will actually do again this year too). But count me as a guy who actually wants to trust the process in Philadelphia. I want to see how Sam Hinkie can continue to turn real assets into more potential assets. I want to see Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor become franchise cornerstones. I want to see Robert Covington go from an overachieving three-point shooter to an actual part of the plan. But with little else to be optimistic about, the 76ers still seem to be a year or two away from any real signs of improvement in the win/loss column.

14. Orlando Magic

Take a quick glance at Orlando’s roster and you’ll see a lot of intriguing things. It’s hard not to love the tenacious Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo, in theory, but on paper they rank as one of the worst backcourts in the league. They just don’t make shots, or get to the line nearly enough, and when the game winds down you don’t get the feeling you can’t trust either of them on the court. Enter fifth overall pick, Mario Hezonja, a 20-year-old rookie from Croatia just oozing with potential and big play ability.

If the backcourt isn’t your fancy, then how about down low where Nikola Vucevic was one of only four players to average 19 points and 10 rebounds (LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins being the others) and Tobias Harris posted career highs in points (17.1), 3PFG% (36.4), and minutes (34.8) all while resigning for four-years $64 million. Channing Frye will also look to improve on a disappointing first year with the Magic even if he’s yielding minutes to second year forward Aaron Gordon along the way.

While Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles get all the attention for being the league’s doormats over the last couple seasons, it’s Orlando that’s been the real loser. They have a ghastly 68–178 record over the past three seasons, and despite the presence of all the intriguing pieces, it looks like another year in the cellar for Orlando.

13. Brooklyn Nets

Brooklyn, unlike their resident basketball team, has become the one of the most desirable destinations in the country. And while real estate in New York’s second most popular borough skyrockets, the well-being of the Nets have plummeted. Which is disappointing considering all the natural elements of success the franchise had when they across the Hudson from New Jersey three years ago. They had the location, the fan base, franchise cornerstones with Brook Lopez and Deron Williams, and an owner with pockets deeper than anyone in the league.

They traded three first-round picks and when deeper into the luxury tax than any team in history to win one playoff series. And despite making the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, the team has gotten worse. Gone is the optimism that surrounded the Nets two seasons ago when Williams, Lopez, KG, Pierce and first-year coach Jason Kidd were suppose to compete for a title. In it’s place, a forecast which predicts rain. Rain that could ultimately go on for years.

With no first-round picks to look forward the Nets really have no choice but to try and win. They’re in the unenviable position of being the only franchise that truly is trying to win and failing miserably at it. Lopez and Johnson provide coach Lionel Hollins with a foundation, albeit a dismal one. Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bagdanovic have some ability as well, but they don’t really move the needle as starting caliber players either. The 34-year-old Johnson could potentially be used as a trade chip for future assets if it wasn’t for his outrageous $24.9 million salary. There just really isn’t a lot to like in Brooklyn from a Nets standpoint and it doesn’t seem like there will be any time soon.

12. Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets were suppose to be frisky. They got rid of Lance Stephenson after one disastrous year and revamped the roster with the additions of Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lin and rookie Frank Kaminsky, all of whom should help an offense that ranked 28th in the NBA a year ago. But building a competitive team in a non-destination city is no easy task.

Two years ago Al Jefferson helped lead a surprising Bobcats team to the playoffs after signing a three-year deal. In year one, he was dominant, averaging 21.8 PPG and 10.8 RPG and even making the All-NBA Third-Team. Last year he spent the majority of the season going through the motions and trying to get healthy on a Hornets team that stumbled out of the gate. But I expect a big season from Jefferson in year three, where he’ll be looking to earn a new contract before next summer’s anticipated cap raise.

Any expectation for making the playoffs probably went out the window when it was announced that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would miss the entire season with a torn labrum suffered in the preseason. To make matters even worse, the injury came days after the fourth year forward signed a four-year $52 million extension. While Batum’s presence gives coach Clifford a more than serviceable replacement on the wing, Kidd-Gilchrist’s development was one of the few things in Charlotte worth paying a considerable amount of attention to.

11. Detroit Pistons

The Pistons are going to keep improving under Stan Van Gundy. That’s a pretty popular notion. It’s been six years since the Detroit made the playoffs and while 2015 doesn’t project to be the year the slump breaks, there’s a lot of reason to think that a return to the postseason will be coming soon. After a miserable start to the ’14 season, Van Gundy set out to remake the roster in a form that more closely resembled that of which was so successful during his tenure in Orlando. So he sent non-shooters Greg Monroe and Josh Smith out the door for Marcus Morris and Ersan Illyasova. Then he resigned Reggie Jackson, as the point guard of the future, and drafted Stanley Johnson, a polished rookie from Arizona. Add these pieces around an improving Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and future All-Star Andre Drummond and suddenly there’s a pretty interesting dynamic in the Motor City.

The success of the Pistons in the post-Dumars era rests with Van Gundy’s track record. During hist first and second seasons in Miami, the Heat’s record improved by 17 games. In Orlando, it was seven. If Detroit can just land somewhere in between that gets them to 40+ wins, which almost guarantees a playoff spot in the East. I wouldn’t necessarily bet on the Pistons to reach the playoffs in 2015, but they will keep getting better. That being said if Stanley Johnson is good or Drummond makes a “Dwight Howard-like-leap” all bets are off.

10. New York Knicks

The Knicks face an uphill climb to reach Eastern Conference relevance. Something that two years ago wasn’t such a foreign concept. The Knicks are only two years removed from winning 54 games and winning their first postseason series since ‘99. But they regressed a year later and ultimately bottomed out to 17 wins a last season under first year coach Derek Fisher and first time executive Phil Jackson. Despite striking out on bigger name free agents this summer, there’s reason for some optimism in New York.

While Jackson couldn’t hit the home run and bring in a star to play with Anthony, adding guys like Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo on reasonable deals will help make them competitive. Rookie Kristaps Porzingis wowed scouts with pre-draft workouts and seems to be a guy who could contribute right away. But temper your expectations Knicks fans, the kid is only 20-years-old.

At the end of the day everything will start and end with Anthony. Many consider the 31-year-old All-Star to be a guy on the decline. After missing 42 games a year ago how could you not? But with four years and a small fortune still owed to Anthony, he will be the focal point of the Knicks for better or worse. Fisher has embraced the idea of playing Anthony some at power forward, and that’s interesting.

Ultimately the Knicks probably don’t have enough talent to make the playoffs. Jose Calderon figures to rank as one of the worse starting point guards in the league and there isn’t much depth on the bench beside the slightest of intrigue surrounding Derrick Williams. While I’ll bet on Jackson and Anthony making the Knicks better than most people think, I wouldn’t bet on them making any real noise until they can acquire some more complimentary pieces next summer.

9. Indiana Pacers

Life as an NBA contender is tough. The Pacers found out the hard way that navigating injuries can be a slippery slope. Last summer, Paul George broke his leg in a scrimmage with Team USA basketball, and the All-NBA forward was limited to just six games. Two years ago George was going toe-to-toe with LeBron James, the league’s ultimate star, before bowing out in consecutive Eastern Conference Finals. This year, George will be fighting just to get Indiana into the playoffs. That’s even with good health.

With the departure of mainstays like Roy Hibbert and David West, out goes the notion of thought that the Pacers will continue to play as a rugged defensive juggernaut. Gone is the slow methodical pace favored by Frank Vogel and in comes a more fluid offense that more closely resembles that of the rest of the league. The Pacers gave it a shot for three and a half years, being different. But if you can’t beat them, then why not join?

Credit should be given to Larry Bird, Vogel, and the Pacers organization for trying. They could have taken a year to let George return to form, bottom out, and try and secure a top-5 pick. Instead, Bird signed Monta Ellis, Jordan Hill, and brought back Rodney Stuckey. That doesn’t exactly strike fear into opponents, but it definitely keeps the Pacers competitive. With Paul George beginning the year penciled in as the starting power forward (something he’s adamantly been against both internally and publicly) that gives Vogel and Bird a unique opportunity to play small. If Jordan Hill, Ian Mahinmi, or rookie Myles Turner can hold down center position, it could be interesting.

8. Boston Celtics

Danny Ainge has something interesting brewing in Boston. A year ago the Celtics parted ways with the last remaining connection to the Doc-KG-Pierce-Allen championship in ‘08, Rajon Rondo. For years, Rondo battled bigger guys, defenders disrespecting his jumpshot, and countless questionable personnel decisions on his way to every Celtics fan’s heart. This came three years after Danny Ainge reloaded a veteran roster with Jeff Green, Jason Terry, and Courtney Lee in the hope of challenging Miami and only two years after trading KG and Pierce to the Nets, a firm sign of a looming rebuild. When former coach Doc Rivers split because the Celtics weren’t competitive (let’s just call it what it is right?) Ainge got Brad Stevens. Usually, the arrival of coaches from the college ranks creates a divide in fan support. But not with Stevens. After leading Butler to national fame and consecutive Final Fours, Ainge knew that he had a guy who could help turn the Celtics back into contenders from the ground up.

So in ‘13 they stunk. With lottery picks galore and a bad record to match, Ainge dreamed of landing a top-3 pick to draft a guy like Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, or Jabari Parker. But when they fell just outside of the top-5 the path had to change. In ‘07, Ainge used his top-5 draft pick to get Ray Allen to play alongside Pierce and a newly acquired Kevin Garnett. He tried to do it again with Kevin Love, but he went to Cleveland. In a position where many GM’s would have opted to tank another season, Ainge and Stevens decided to do the opposite. So they went all out for the 8-seed; drafting Marcus Smart, overpaying to re-sign Avery Bradley, taking flyers on guys like Tyler Zeller, Evan Turner, and Jae Crowder when everyone else had left them for dead, and committing to their younger players no matter the result. And the team responded by submitting to Stevens’ request for excellence. They gave 100% on every play last season, even if an overtime win over Philadelphia would take them out of contention for another lottery pick.

The process didn’t stop once the season started either. Ainge traded Green to Memphis for Brandan Wright and Tayshaun Prince, who he later sent to Detroit for Jonas Jerebko. Then at the deadline he surprised everyone by trading Wright and Marcus Thornton to Phoenix for Isaiah Thomas, who had seemingly been dismissed from Jeff Hornacek’s rotation only months after signing a 4-year $27 million contract. All in all, there were 22 players to suit up at least five games for the Celtics in 2014. And in a weird roundabout way, it kind of felt like each one of them contributed in some way to the improbable 40–42 record that allowed Boston the opportunity of being swept by Cleveland in the first round. The question is, what’s left over, and how much excited should Celtics fans really be about it?

Let’s start with what’s good. On the positive side, the Celtics have one of the league’s most energetic point guards in Thomas on arguably the league’s best contract. No matter if they start him or bring him off the bench, Thomas thrives and fit in very well during his 21 games under Stevens (19 PPG, 5.4 APG). With Bradley, the Celtics have someone to provide toughness. He can matchup on the other team’s best guard, and has seemed to improve over each of the past three seasons. Zeller came over in what was essentially a throw away trade from Cleveland and responded with the best season of his young career (10.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG). After striking out on some of the bigger names, Ainge brought in veterans Amir Johnson and David Lee to help shore up the power forward position. At his best, Lee was a true 20 and 10 guy. But on low-risk high-reward contracts, both guys should prove their value pretty quickly. Stevens will also get another year with the former second overall pick, Evan Turner, who at times looked like a potentially valuable contributor and other times looked like a player trying too hard to live up to the expectations of being such a high pick. All that plus Jae Crowder is still underrated and James Young looked like one of the best prospects in the Summer League there’s plenty of reason for optimism.

While there are plenty of reason to excited, there’s an equal amount of question marks. What if Lee can’t contribute enough points to stay on the floor? He’s never been regarded as a good defender. How will Thomas and Bradley fare as the smallest backcourt in the league? I guess that’s where Marcus Smart, a ferocious defender, comes in. Though it’s unclear whether or not he’s a guy who can help push the team to another level or the second coming of a guy like Tony Allen, a valuable piece with a singular skill set. I didn’t love either of the Celtics draft picks. R.J. Hunter was one of the best stories of the tournament, but is he good? How about Kelly Olynyk? He had moments last year but enough to earn minutes next to Zeller over the two veterans? I’m not sure. And Jared Sullinger has to be the most questionable of them all. The often injured former Buckeye was suppose to spend the majority of his off-season getting back into shape after years of struggling with his weight. But early reports suggest he did the contrary.

I really wouldn’t be surprised to see Boston improve on last years record or bottom out and totally get worse. They’re one of the most interesting teams in the league because there’s no doubt they have a few really good pieces. They just don’t have the star to build around or even the All-Stars to fake it around.

7. Toronto Raptors

A of time and attention was spent focusing on the Raptors a year ago. NBA media adopted them as the team that could surprise everyone and really take that infamous “next step.” The Raptors were in position to establish themselves as contenders, sort of like Atlanta did. And they got off to a hot start going 37–17. Kyle Lowry was also named an starter in the All-Star game. Things were good. But then something changed. Like a thoroughbred who blows the lead on the third turn, the Raptors just started to suck. They finished the year 12–16 limping into the playoffs.

Two first-round exits later and it’s fair to wonder if Toronto has passed their peak. They brought in DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph, two quality pieces, even though neither are going to help the Raptors’ two biggest weaknesses, interior D and shooting. Kyle Lowry is in the best shape of his life, but how much better can he be than starting the All-Star game? DeMar DeRozan presents one of the biggest dilemmas teams in this run-and-gun era face. He’s an All-Star caliber scorer lacking efficiency. A heavy isolation player who gets to the line at a high rate but can’t hit a corner three. Jonas Valanciunas presents similar though very different problems — a strong center who doesn’t move well or play much defense but does a pretty good job finishing around the basket. Because he was a liability on defense and even offense when guys like DeRozan and Lowry so strongly favor an isolation heavy gameplay, he can’t play much in the fourth quarter.

Fortunately for Raptors fans, this team is simply too talented not to be competitive. Even if they can’t shoot or defend in crunch time they’re still talented enough to win 40+ games. In the East, that’s good enough.

6. Washington Wizards

Like most of the teams in the East, the Wizards looked to improve their team internally rather than acquire conference altering talent. Losing Paul Pierce to the Clippers is something that could prove costly even with the additions of Gary Neal, Alan Anderson, and more minutes for Otto Porter. Pierce’s leadership and big-shot making ability can’t be replaces with journeymen or a 22-year-old. If the Wizards are going to exceed expectations, John Wall and Bradley Beal will have to be the guys who replace Pierce’s intangibles, not someone else. But perhaps there’s another reason why Wizards’ brass left the small forward position with question marks.

The Wizards figure to be major players Kevin Durant’s free agent decision next summer, and don’t think that’s not on the minds of fans, players, or executives in Washington. One of the biggest tasks this year will be to establish a winning culture and present the idea that Durant’s hometown would be worth leaving Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and Oklahoma City for. That’s not something that has been synonymous with DC in the past. The Wizards have been perennial losers, and even though they’ve experienced a slight revival with Wall and Beal, a star like Durant’s caliber could catapult this franchise to a level they’ve never been.

But the Wizards aren’t only about the future. With Wall, Beal, and Gortat the Wizards have a top-3 good enough to match up with anyone in the East. Whether or not coach Wittman decides to go with Humphries or Nene at the four depends on whether or not he wants to adopt this fast-paced mentality that has captivated the league. Gortat runs the floor as well as any center in the league, and Wall in the open court is always advantageous to the Wizards, but getting the rest of the team to buy in could be challenging. Nene and Humphries certainly aren’t chasing power forwards out to the three-point line. Jared Dudley could slide down to the four, but he won’t star the season healthy. Drew Gooden or DeJuan Blair? Come on.

Washington has plenty of talent, but getting them anywhere near 50 wins will be challenging if they can’t establish an identity. But with Durant’s free agency only one summer away, you can’t really blame the Wizards for standing pat either.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

In Jason Kidd’s first year with the Bucks he helped guide a shocking 26-win improvement. It all started when an emphasis was put on length. That’s what made 6'11" Giannis Antetokounmpo and 6'7" Khris Middleton so intriguing. Length was also the deciding factor in trading away fringe All-Star Brandon Knight for the 6'6" prospect Michael Carter-Williams. With length just dominating the backcourt, the Bucks were able to get to the postseason while forcing the highest turnover rate of the last three seasons. The next step for Kidd has to be the other end of the floor.

A healthy Jabari Parker should help. The talented second year pro from Duke averaged 12.8 PPG on 49% shooting in 25 games a year ago. But he won’t be healthy until sometime in November. That means a lot of the low post work from the power forward spot will fall on guys like Chris Copeland and John Henson for the time being. A task that became very manageable when free agent big man Greg Monroe spurned New York, Los Angeles, and Portland to sign with the Bucks. In Detroit, Monroe averaged a healthy 16.5 PPG and 10.6 RPG over five seasons as a power forward, but in Milwaukee he’ll look to duplicate those stats as a center.

The biggest thing keeping Milwaukee from soaring is their lack of shooting beyond the arc. Middleton (40%) is the best of the bunch but Mayo (35%), Bayless (30%), Giannis (15%), Carter-Williams (14%) could certainly improve. Rookie Rashad Vaughn was a sharpshooter in college, but he’ll have to defend to see the court. Greivis Vasquez (36% career) was also brought as well. Despite some concerns, the Bucks are still one of the more interesting teams heading into the year. If Parker gets healthy and they even marginally improve from behind the arc, the Bucks’ ceiling goes through the roof.

4. Miami Heat

LeBron leaving Miami was suppose to crumble the franchise. At least that’s what so many of us thought. The King’s departure, and subsequently return to Cleveland, all but assured the fact that Miami would need to rebuild. But instead Pat Riley did it again. He rebuilt the Heat into one of the most interesting teams in the league only one season later. Not making the playoffs last year was the best thing that could happen because it allowed Riley the flexibility to make decisions that would guarantee a respectable future beyond Dwyane Wade.

If the Heat had been good, they wouldn’t have been able to take Justice Winslow — a player some scouts had projected to go as high as 3rd — with the 10th overall pick. But it’s more than that. If Miami is good maybe Spoelstra doesn’t give Hassan Whiteside the opportunity to become star. Maybe he doesn’t average 11.8 PPG, 10.0 RPG, and 2.6 BPG in 32 starts. And if that doesn’t happen would Riley be as willing to mortgage the future for Goran Dragic when the alternative may have been a top-5 pick? Would Wade and Riley have been able to reach terms to keep him with Miami this summer if Dragic wasn’t in the fold? See everything is intertwined in Miami.

Now with Dragic (resigned through 2019–20), Whiteside, Wade, a healthy Bosh, and Luol Deng on an expiring deal while Winslow grows, Miami has one of the best starting fives in basketball. That’s not even mentioning the versatile Josh McRoberts (signed last summer but missed the entire year), Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Chris Anderson, Amare Stoudemire or Gerald Green coming off the bench. On paper, this Miami team should be able to compete with anyone in the Eastern Conference. But games aren’t played on paper or in suits on the sideline. If Miami wants to live up to their full potential they’ll need to stay healthy. Last year no one came even close to playing a full season. Deng led the Miami starters with 72 games played but after that it’s a steep fall — Wade played 62 games, Bosh 44, and Whiteside 48.

With a strong starting five, a solid bench, and plenty of postseason experience the ceiling is as high as Miami allows it to be. With the right breaks it’s not unforeseeable that the Heat could challenge Cleveland, Atlanta, or Chicago for the Eastern Conference title. But in the same way, you could just as easily see a scenario where Wade doesn’t stay healthy, Deng continues to decline, Whiteside verifies the beliefs that last season was a fluke, and Bosh isn’t really Bosh after season ending heart surgery that almost took his life. That Miami team would be right back in the lottery.

3. Atlanta Hawks

The recipe for becoming a perennial contender in the NBA isn’t as complicated as you might think. First, you have to string together multiple winning seasons. And you have to do this with players who not only excel on the court, but also possess a high sense of character. Next, you need the support of an organization that’s willing to develop their young players and ultimately pay them when the time is appropriate. It always helps when you have someone that can sift through the pretenders in free agency to find the hidden gems too. Finally, you need a coach that can keep all the madness together over the course of an 82 game season. The biggest question in Atlanta isn’t really whether or not the Hawks have this recipe, they clearly do. The question is whether or not they can sustain the success from a year ago.

In ‘14, the Hawks were able to win 60 games for the first time in franchise history behind a combination of chemistry, teamwork, and a 40–8 start to the season (highlighted by a 19-game winning streak between the end of December and the beginning of February). Coach Budenholzer took Atlanta from a low-end contender to a team that played both ends of the court in a way only familiar to that of his predecessors in San Antonio, where he spent years as an assistant. If the Hawks were an orchestra, Budenholzer was what all good coaches should be, the maestro. Fundamental smart basketball… who knew?

While a lot the Hawks’ success can be attributed to coaching, it would be for nothing without the unique collection of players who made up one of the most versatile rosters in the league. It all started two seasons earlier when Paul Millsap signed one of the most unique free agent contracts of the past decade, two-years $19 million. Many around the league believed that the then 28-year-old forward would be able to cash out on a slightly bigger deal after spending years hidden away on a plummeting Utah team behind guys like Al Jefferson and Carlos Boozer. But Millsap didn’t sign with the Hawks for money. He signed there because he wanted something that many of his potential suitors couldn’t offer, a chance to be a part of something special. And from day one he outperformed his deal, making consecutive All-Star teams, and becoming the defacto go-to-option for an offense built around ball movement and pace rather than isolation and post ups. Despite underperforming in the post-season, Millsap was rewarded this summer with a three-year $60 million extension ensuring that he will stay one of the Hawks’ focal point for years to come.

Jeff Teague earned every penny of his semi-controversial extension in ’13 by putting together the best season of his young career (15.9 PPG, 7.0 APG, 1.7 SPG). Kyle Korver had one of the best shooting seasons in NBA history (49% FG, 49% 3P, 90% FT). DeMarre Carroll broke out as a two-way player and earned one of the biggest contracts of the summer when he signed with the Toronto. Guys like Dennis Schroeder and Mike Muscala emerged as contributors off the bench. There was so much unselfishness. Whatever the team needed, that’s what they got from the top of the roster to the bottom.

Despite all of these savvy moves the most important decision Atlanta made in the past few seasons was to hold on to Al Horford. When the Hawks took the top seeded Pacers to seven games in the First Round of the ‘13 postseason without him, the writing seemed to be on the wall. The Hawks were beginning to show signs of a team that was developing a chemistry. There was definitely a risk to bringing Horford back into the fold last year, and while no one in the league could find a bad thing to say about him, there were definitely trade rumors when his name got brought up. But the Hawks stuck with Horford, deciding to gamble on the belief that he and Millsap could coexist and that the Hawks could continue to grow into a team more successful than that of the one’s Horford previously thrived on (i.e. the three-headed Josh Smith-Joe Johnson-Horford monster). When the time came for the starless Hawks to be rewarded, they were. Budenholzer was named Coach of the Year and Teague, Millsap, Korver, and Horford all represented Atlanta in the All-Star game.

Ultimately it’s the same 60 wins last season that could prove to be Atlanta’s downfall this season. See sixty wins comes at a price. On the one hand, you know what you have is valuable, you know you’re capable of beating anyone, and that either a minor move or convenient break could catapult you to the Finals. At the same time, sixty wins means everyone in the league knows you’re good. They know you can beat them with a series of cuts, screens, and Korver threes. Sixty wins now means that you get every team’s best shot, every night, in front of sold out arenas. It means you can’t take breaks anymore, because winning 60 games against everyone’s best is a hell of a lot different than winning 60 games as an upstart team taking the league by surprise. See 59 wins without a star means that you’re a really good basketball team. But that pesky 60 turns even the most staunch critics into believers and fair-weather fans into die-hards. At the very least, it makes everyone pay attention.

But it’s hard to duplicate. Since 2000 the only teams to win 60+ games in back-to-back seasons were Dallas (‘05-’06), Boston (‘07-’08), and Cleveland (‘08-’09). Shaq and Kobe never did it, neither did San Antonio, or even the big-three in Miami. So that’s what the Hawks face this year. They stand at this proverbial fork in the road where they can either try and ride this unintentional superstarless wave they’ve adopted or take the safer road and keep adapting on the fly. Atlanta never asked for this. They never asked to be the martyr that took down the misperception that you needed a top-10 talent to compete for a title. Remember when the Hawks spent three straight top-five picks on Marvin Williams, Shelden Williams, and Horford? They tried to find that superstar and eventually settled on Horford, Josh Smith, and Joe Johnson. But it meant nothing. They kept making the playoffs, kept winning first round match-ups, and kept getting swept by the real contenders. When Danny Ferry unloaded Johnson on to the Nets, Atlanta lined up with max-space just like the big market teams for free agent meetings with guys like Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and LeBron. But no one bit. Frankly, no one even nibbled. So they flipped the script. They decided if they couldn’t buy a team like everyone else they would just become one themselves. Last year it finally worked. They broke the mold. No matter how bad they looked against Cleveland in the ECF, no one can tell you that the Hawks weren’t four wins away from the Finals, no one.

But how does last year’s success translate into the 2015 season? They let Carroll walk and replaced him with a once promising exiled Knick prospect, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha. They added Tiago Splitter who will provide backup minutes in the post. Millsap is no longer playing for a big deal and there’s no way Korver could duplicate the season he had in ‘14 right? I have no doubt that the Hawks will be pretty good, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet on them to be quite as good as they were a year ago. But at the same time maybe it’s that doubt that will propel them to even more unfound heights?

2. Chicago Bulls

You don’t make the decision to part ways with a guy like Tom Thibodeau unless you really have some high expectations. Chicago pretty much parted ways with Thibodeau because he couldn’t get along with Jerry Reinsdorf. The Bulls never won a title during his five years with the team, but that was largely due to injuries in the playoffs which were — in some cases — out of his control. Reinsdorf now hopes that the future of the franchise can progress under first-year head coach Fred Hoiberg, who comes to Chicago after turning a successful Iowa State program into a powerhouse. With a decade of NBA playing experience under his belt, there’s no doubt that Hoiberg will adjust to the lifestyle and culture just fine. The question really is whether or not he can take this team — with a core that remains largely intact from the last five seasons — to the another level. Under Thibodeau, Chicago was a defensive juggernaut but could never quite find the perfect balance of offense. They could hold even the best offensive teams under a 100 points, but if you can’t score more than 90 yourself, you’re not going to win a lot of games that matter. Hence their inability to defeat LeBron’s Miami teams, or last year’s Cleveland team.

The Bulls have one of the premier players in the league with Jimmy Butler. After years of living in his teammate’s shadows, Butler emerged last year as the team’s number one option offensively all while providing exceptional defense and playing more minutes per game than anyone in the league. But Hoiberg knows what he has with Butler. What he doesn’t know is what he will have with guys like Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Rose’s injuries have been well documented. He’s torn his ACL, then the meniscus, another ACL, another meniscus, a hangnail, a bad back, another ACL, a bruised head, and everything in between, it’s been four seasons since we got to enjoy MVP Rose. He showed flashes of his old self playing alongside Butler, but it was far too often at the expense of the offense and Hoiberg’s biggest challenge will probably getting Rose to pick and chose his spots. Transitioning from the spotlight to the background is never easy, especially when you’re 26. But Rose has to reinvent himself. It’s best for the team, and probably best for himself too. Noah’s status is still up in the air heading into the season. There’s rumors that he will start the year off the bench despite only being two seasons removed from winning Defensive Player of the Year. At his best, Noah is the heart and soul of a defense that always limits their opponents opportunities. He can switch onto point guards, play against bigger guys, and clean up the glass on a missed shot.

Pau Gasol signed as a free agent last summer and quickly became the best post up option for the Bulls in more than a decade. While he’s no spring chicken, Gasol still managed his first All-Star appearance (18.5 PPG, 11.8, 1.9 BPG) since since 2010 and should have another excellent year, provided he like the rest of the roster, stays healthy. Rookie Bobby Portis could push for minutes early with Taj Gibson out. Nikola Mirotic definitely has an x-factor feel about him. But it’s unclear whether that’s in a Toni Kukoc or J.R. Smith type of role.

With the exception of the coaching change, Chicago stood pat this summer and opted to bring back the team in their entirety and give it one last shot at making the Finals. If Chicago doesn’t get off to a hot start, I suspect they will be on the phones heavily looking for ways to improve an already impressive roster. I don’t want to be too outrageous when I say this, but don’t be surprised if Chicago looks to get a guy like Carmelo near the trade deadline. They need someone on the wing to go against Cleveland, and they tried to get Anthony before when he was a free agent.

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers

Behind the prowess of LeBron James and a bevy of role players, Cleveland was able to take the historically great Golden State Warriors to six games in the NBA Finals a year ago. But coming up close in the Finals means nothing (ask Tim Duncan about ‘13). Last summer when James left Miami to come home to Cleveland expectations immediately shot through the roof. Just his mere presence was enough to revive a team that had been so bad they had just drafted Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett with back-to-back first overall picks. But when Cleveland extended Irving, their incumbent star, and flipped Wiggins and Bennett to Minnesota for All-NBA forward Kevin Love, dreams of Cleveland capturing the first professional championship for the city since ’64 became a real possibility.

And they nearly did it despite starting the year 19–20. GM David Griffin traded Dion Waiters for Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, LeBron took a week long sabbatical to reenergize (something only he could get away with), and the Cavs finished the year 34–9. They steamrolled opponents in the playoffs. They even swept the top-seeded Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals without Love. When Kyrie got hurt in Game 1 of the Finals LeBron was forced to revert back to superhuman levels (that ultimately helped burn him out and make him leave the Cavs back in ‘10. That’s not what LeBron signed up for.

If Cleveland were in the West, they would almost certainly be projected as a top-4 seed. But since they’re in the East, they can allow Love and Irving to come back slowly and still most likely finish with the top record in the conference. LeBron and the rest of the Cavaliers’ organization know that it’s a marathon not a sprint. So you might not see Cleveland start out super well. Shumpert and Irving will probably be on the shelf until late December. Love will start the year and it will be important to establish his confidence early. Tristan Thompson missed all of training camp with a contract dispute, and will likely need some time to get in game shape after signing his 5-year $82 million extension. Mozgov and Varejao will shore up the center position.

At this time two years ago the Cavaliers hoped that Irving, Waiters, Wiggins, and Bennett would be good enough to help Cleveland make the playoffs. Then LeBron came back. A year ago at this time some predicted that Cleveland could have one of the best offenses of all-time. While falling two wins shy of a title is no success in LeBron’s book, it was good enough to justify committing $292 million dollars to retain Love, Thompson, LeBron, Shumpert, and Smith. But Dan Gilbert won’t be on the hook for just salaries. Keeping this team intact also comes with the penalty of a massive tax bill. With only 14 guaranteed contracts, the Cavaliers now stand to pay upwards of $60 million in luxury tax, which would be the second highest in league history. In 2015–16 alone, Gilbert is likely to spend somewhere near $170 million. That’s the definition of “win now.” But when you have LeBron James on the other side of 30, you’re going to have to pay to win now.


Stay tuned for Part II of my NBA Preseason Outlook where I break down the Western Conference and predict all of the season’s awards…