NBA Eastern Conference Preview

With the NBA season here, I’ve laid out my thoughts on each Eastern Conference team below. I discuss realistic expectations for the season and what goals fans should be rooting for. I’ve broken up all 15 teams into four categories: tankers, playoff hopefuls, playoff locks, and East elite. Enjoy and let me know you’re thoughts!

Tankers (or teams that should be tanking)

15. Chicago Bulls (under 20 wins)

The Chicago roster was gutted following the trade of Jimmy Butler, departure of Rajon Rondo, and buyout of Dwyane Wade. It’s easy to forget that the Bulls were up 2–0 on the Celtics in the first round before losing Rondo to injury and subsequently dropping the series in 6. In hindsight, Bulls fans would’ve preferred a Jimmy Butler trade a season prior given the poor return because Kris Dunn and Zach Lavine are hardly franchise cornerstones. (Why this trade involved a pick swap and not Minnesota giving up their pick is beyond me. Why rookie Jordan Bell was sold to the Warriors on draft night is beyond me) Lavine is out until at least November as he rehabs from his ACL tear that ended his season last February. As a player that relies on his athleticism and bounce, you hope he can get back to the level of play we expect from him. However, a healthy Lavine is little more than a volume three-point marksman at this point in his career. With a higher usage rate as he escapes Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Lavine will be in an excellent spot to prove he can do more on the court. The same is true for Kris Dunn who had one of the worst rookie seasons ever.

The rest of the healthy starting lineup on paper is Paul Zipser, Bobby Portis, and Robin Lopez. Unfortunately Dunn is out two–four weeks to start the year with a finger injury and Bobby Portis is suspended eight games for punching teammate and sixth man Nikola Mirotic who is now out four–six weeks with a face injury. The rest of the Bulls roster is incredibly young and/or devoid of talent with sweet shooting but flawed lottery pick/new starter Lauri Markkanen and second year man Denzel Valentine the only other players fans should be invested in.

The Bulls will be lucky to win 20 games but will be in excellent position to win the lottery and add a foundational player. Justin Holiday will lead this team in scoring until Lavine returns. Dump GarPax.

14. Atlanta Hawks (low 20s wins)

With the departure of Paul Millsap in free agency, the last bastion of the 60 win 2014–15 Atlanta Hawks is gone. What remains is Dennis Schröder, a decent point guard who gets to the rack and runs the break well but is only an average shooter (much like his Hawks predecessor Jeff Teague). With a soon to skyrocket usage rate, fans should root for Schröder to improve his efficiency and ball distribution. He showed major flashes against John Wall in the playoffs last year and just turned 24. I’m still holding my Schröder stock. Second year man Taurean Prince is in line for a breakout as the starting three while Kent Bazemore angles to justify his big contract in a larger role. Ersan Ilyasova should get major buckets at least until summer league standout John Collins pushes him for minutes. Sophomore Deandre Bembry could be someone. That’s about it. With more veterans and experience on the roster, the Hawks will be better than the Bulls but their fans should be rooting for a similar result.

Tank and get a high pick before the lottery rules change.

13. Orlando Magic (high 20s wins)

Horrific GM Rob Hennigan and his whiteboard may be gone but the Magic are still struggling because new lottery pick Jonathan Isaac is their only foundational piece. Although Aaron Gordon can finally play his natural position at the four, he still doesn’t consistently make jumpshots. Ditto for point guard Elfrid Payton. Mario Hezonja is a colossal bust and has one last chance this year to show he can be even a rotation player. Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis were traded to OKC for Serge Ibaka before last season. That’s the state of the last five Magic lottery picks. Tanking remains the best way to acquire star talent in the NBA, especially when playing in a small market, but you still need to draft well in order for tanking to work. Evan Fournier is fine. Nikola Vučević‘s skillset limits him to a bench role. At this point, no Magic player besides Isaac is untouchable. If Magic fans want to look for hope they should watch how Payton performs this year. He played well down the stretch last season (five triple doubles last season) after the departure of Ibaka and return of Gordon to the four opened up driving lanes.

A high pick for new GM John Hammond is the best way to find a partner for Isaac and restart the rebuild in earnest.

12. Brooklyn Nets (high 20s wins)

Yes, I have Brooklyn in the tanking category although they have zero reason to tank because Cleveland (via Boston) owns their first round pick. A lot of credit is due to GM Shawn Marks for building a passable roster out of nothing much faster than anyone expected but Brooklyn still won’t sniff the playoffs. Jeremy Lin, D’Angelo Russell, the corpse of DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Allen Crabbe, Timofey Mozgov, Caris Levert, and Sean Kilpatrick at least passes for a NBA rotation while rookie Jarrett Allen waits in the wings. The Nets were competitive last season when Lin was healthy but no longer have the reliable offense of Brook Lopez. They also lost Jeremy Lin for the season in Game 1. Russell will have as much usage as he can handle and will be motivated to build off a strong second half last year. Although Carroll could return to form, Crabbe could grow as a scorer, and RHJ could develop a jumpshot, I’d like to see it first before projecting Brooklyn to win much of anything without Lin.

Expect Kenny Atkinson to continue his culture building while leading the Nets to 25–30 wins.

11. New York Knicks (low 30s wins)

The Carmelo Anthony era is over. Phil Jackson is long gone (thank god). The New York Knicks are finally focused on the development of young players, namely unicorn Kristaps Porzingis and rookie Frank Ntilikina. The Knicks should tank for another piece while focusing on the development of KP, Ntilikina, Willy Hernangomez, and rookie Damyean Dotson (not Ron Baker). Unfortunately, the Knicks don’t seem openly interested in tanking as evidenced by the signings of journeymen point guards Ramon Sessions and Jarrett Jack and lack of a Courtney Lee trade. In Game 1, Baker was the first guard off the bench (over Ntilikina) and O’Quinn was first big off the bench (over Hernangomez). The Knicks need to reverse this trend as the season progresses in order to fully commit to player development. The Knicks won’t be good but they can certainly be good enough to miss out on the top talent in the upcoming draft. While Porzingis probably doesn’t want to be on a tanker, he’d forgive management if he got to play with Luka Doncic or Michael Porter Jr. next season.

The silver lining to all of this is that the Knicks are relatively inept defensively. Sessions, Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway Jr. are poor to terrible defenders. Although Ntilikina projects to be a great defender across multiple positions, he’s still a 19 year old rookie in an NBA era dominated by elite point guards. Porzingis is a great rim protector but with the presence of Kanter, Hernangomez, Kyle O’Quinn, and Joakim Noah’s contract, how much time will KP really spend at center? As a stretch 5 that blocks shots, Porzingis was made to play center in today’s NBA but the Knicks roster is completely unable to accommodate him. Porzingis is less effective when he’s chasing players on the perimeter and it showed as Porzinigs — Hernangomez lineups bled points last season. Knicks fans should hope that these systemic defensive problems lead to losses while Ntilikina acclimates to the speed of the NBA game and Porzingis improves his rebounding. This is a big year for Porzingis with Melo no longer around as an offensive crutch. Porzingis needs to have a healthy All-Star season and prove he can handle a larger offensive workload without tanking his efficiency as he faces regular double teams for the first time.

As a Knicks fan worried about the lottery odds changing, I desperately want the Knicks to be bad because winning pointless games in an effort to earn the right to be swept in the first round just isn’t worth it.

10. Indiana Pacers (high 30s wins)

Paul George was traded to OKC for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Jeff Teague left in free agency and was replaced with Darren Collision and Cory Joseph. None of that matters because the Pacers are all about Myles Turner now. With the usage vacuum left by Paul George, we will see just how much of the offense the defensive stalwart Turner can command. Only 25, Oladipo will have a nice opportunity to play with the ball and get back to his slashing ways now that he’s away from Westbrook’s ball dominance. Now let’s see if Oladipo can improve his shooting. Ultimately, this Pacers team will be like all Pacers teams. They’ve won at least 30 games every season since 1989–90. This is what they do. Unfortunately they’d be better served finding a running mate for Myles Turner because Turner is unlikely to become a number 1 option on a winning team despite his promise. No matter how much faith you have in Oladipo and Sabonis, the Pacers still need more.

The Pacers have enough veteran talent (Thad Young is still there) that they’ll win 30 something games again.

Playoff Hopefuls

9. Philadelphia 76ers (high 30s wins)

Philly wants it this year. A healthy Joel Embiid is an unstoppable force. My rookie of the year pick Ben Simmons is primed to run the offense in all his 6'10" glory. The newest first overall pick Markelle Fultz, funky free throw mechanics aside, will get buckets as he earns minutes. They brought in JJ Redick to rain 3’s and be a veteran locker room presence. Robert Covington is an excellent defender across multiple positions and strokes a sweet J. Second year player Dario Saric showed his offensive ability last season when Embiid went down. Jerryd Bayless will play a fair amount until Fultz is ready. The injured Richaun Holmes is a cult favorite. Nik ‘Sauce Castillo’ Stauskas is still there. Philly has all the pieces to make a run at the playoffs in an Eastern Conference with 2 playoff teams from last season (Atlanta and Chicago) having no hope of returning to the postseason.

I believe Philly will be an excellent League Pass team but ultimately will fall short of the playoffs for two reasons: health and youth. Joel Embiid, despite what his max contract extension suggests, has logged only 31 games coming into this season. He will be on a minutes restriction to start the season and will sit out back to backs. We need to see Joel Embiid play 60 games in a season before we project him to do so. Without Embiid, Philly still has a lot of blue chip talent but not enough experience to consistently win. The track record of rookie point guards leading teams to winning records is not pretty. I don’t expect the Simmons/Fultz combo to change this trend.

Keep trusting the process because Philly will be great soon. We’ll see flashes of it this season.

8. Charlotte Hornets (high 30s wins)

I had Charlotte has a playoff lock until Nicholas Batum went down for 6–8 weeks with an elbow injury. Kemba Walker is an All-Star and averaged 24 points/game last season but remains a mediocre point guard. The loss of Batum, who averaged nearly 2 more assists per game than Kemba last season, is big. The Hornets still have Cody Zeller’s screen game but ultimately will need Kemba to carry a heavy scoring load until Batum returns because fellow starters Jeremy Lamb and Marvin Williams are not reliable scorers. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s total lack of a jumpshot won’t help matters much more than Dwight Howard’s antiquated inefficient post game or questionable fit with Zeller. Frank Kaminsky can score off the bench but also gives back all the points on the other end. Expectations for rookie sharpshooter Malik Monk may need to be tempered initially considering he was outplayed by Dwayne Bacon in the preseason.

That being said, I expect the Hornets to stay afloat until Batum returns and make the playoffs anyway. A big part of this is my tempered expectations for Philly who will need Charlotte or Detroit to vastly underperform in order to sneak in.

7. Detroit Pistons (low 40s wins)

Stan Van Gundy is coaching for his job. The core of this Pistons squad made the playoffs two seasons ago as the eighth seed. This year they’ve upgraded the 2 guard spot by swapping out Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for Avery Bradley, a more consistent shooter and better defender. They are still anchored by Andre Drummond who reportedly is in a better headspace and in better shape coming into the season. Tobias Harris is a capable wing. Reggie Jackson will look to rebound following a poor injury-riddled campaign that saw the Pistons play better with backup Ish Smith running the offense. Rookie first round pick Luke Kennard brings the much needed shooting lacking from Stanley Johnson who remains a defense first player. If Reggie Jackson can run the offense better and get back to the Drummond pick and roll of two seasons ago, the Pistons could surprise people. This is a make or break year for Drummond who needs to prove that he is a starting caliber center who does more than gobble rebounds. There is enough veteran talent on the Pistons to win 40 games in a week Eastern Conference and make the playoffs.

Fans should expect a playoff berth and return to the All-Star team for Drummond because anything less severely dampens any hope in the future success of this roster.

Playoff Locks

6. Miami Heat (low 40s wins)

The Miami Heat started last season horrifically before finishing on a 31–11 tear to just miss the playoffs. Although the Heat lack a star, Hassan Whiteside should push for an All-Star berth while Goran Dragic will continue to hold down the point. Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Wayne Ellington, and Tyler Johnson are all returning from last season and will be joined by free agent signing Kelly Olynyk and rookie Bam Adebayo. The x-factor is Justise Winslow who was lost to injury before the Heat went on their run. It is possible that Winslow’s lack of a jumper will stall the offense and prevent him from having a larger role. With the Heat committed to a serviceable but unspectacular core and the questions surrounding Winslow, they will be a key trade machine team.

Even if Pat Riley doesn’t a make a move for a star, the Heat have enough talent and roster continuity to make the playoffs. The sixth seed is probably their ceiling.

5. Milwaukee Bucks (mid 40s wins)

Giannis Antetokounmpo will win MVP one year. If he develops a three-pointer he could be the best player of all time. After averaging 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1.6 steals per game last season, Giannis became only the 5th player to lead his team in all 5 major categories. He became the first player in NBA history to finish in the top 20 in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He doesn’t turn 23 until December.

The rest of the Bucks core compliments Giannis well. Maclolm Brogdon and Tony Snell are good defenders with length. Khris Middleton is a great wing with a very underrated offensive game. The 20 year old Thon Maker is raw but already can defend on the perimeter as a five. This core is young enough to wait out the current contenders and make a run down the line if Giannis continues to improve. I haven’t even mentioned former second overall pick Jabari Parker who will be out until February after his 2nd knee injury. Greg Monroe could be in the running for sixth man of the year. The questionable future of Bucks management is concerning and Jason Kidd could eventually be on the outs after his defensive scheme was exposed last season.

Despite the management concerns and Jabari’s uncertain future, the Bucks are primed to make noise in the East this year and if all goes right they could jump Boston in the playoff seeding. I don’t see them winning 50 games this season but the Bucks are waiting in the wings. Fear the Deer.

4. Boston Celitcs (high 40s wins)

Man losing Gordon Hayward for likely the entire season sucks. The new look Celtics, lead by Kyrie Irving and Hayward, were poised to be really exciting and legitimate contenders for the top seed in the East. What remains is still a really good team but the massive roster turnover and loss of Hayward drops the Celtics down to the four seed.

The Celtics only returned four players from last season: Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier. With Hayward going down, the Avery Bradley for Marcus Morris trade will hurt the team in the short term. We now will see what Kyrie Irving can do in the Brad Stevens system that brought Isaiah Thomas so much success. The Celtics will be relying a lot on second year player Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum after the trade of Jae Crowder and loss of Hayward. Brown, Smart, and Horford are not big scorers and Tatum will be up and down as a rookie. Unless Kyrie makes a run for the scoring title, the Celtics offense could be very up and down.

This Celtics team will go as far as Kyrie and Brad Stevens can take them while giving lots of reps to the young players. They are no longer a threat to the Cavs.

East Elite

3. Washington Wizards (high 40s wins)

The Wizards will have Kelly Olynyk nightmares for a longtime because they played a great series against the Celtics. With the Celtics knocked down a peg, the Wizards are ready to make a run for the two seed. John Wall, Bradley Beal, rich man Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris (out till November), and Marcin Gortat is an excellent starting five and one of the best offensive units in the league. Apart from third year wing Kelly Oubre Jr. who will play major minutes, the Wizards team depth is abysmal. Tim Frazier, Ian Mahinmi, and Jodie Meeks should not be rotation players on a playoff team and Gortat is much less effective against top teams. The starters plus Oubre will handle a heavy workload again this season and hope that the wear and tear doesn't slow them down in the playoffs.

Depth concerns aside, Wall, Beal, and roster continuity will carry the Wizards to a top 4 seed at worst and any growth from Porter or Oubre only raises their team ceiling.

2. Toronto Raptors (low 50s wins)

The Raps may be on the playoff treadmill but that’s still good for a lot of wins in the East. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan now can team up with Serge Ibaka for a full season and no longer have to worry about DeMarre Carroll. Despite his aging play, Ibaka gives the Raps small ball flexibility for lineups without traditional center Jonas Valanciunas. The Raps also have third year man Norman Powell, a popular breakout pick who is expected to play big minutes off the bench. CJ Miles brings more consistent 3 point shooting than they never got from Terrence Ross. Last year’s lottery pick Jakob Poetl doesn’t have a path to playing time yet as a traditional center but rookie OG Anunoby could play his way into the rotation. Delon Wright will have an opportunity as the backup point guard to build on the flashes he’s shown in the past with Cory Joseph out of town. The loss of the underrated Patrick Patterson will hurt and Bruno Caboclo is still two years away from being two years away but overall this Raptors squad is in a great position to run it back on the strength of their strong offense.

The Raptors will duke it out with the Wizards and Cavs for a top 3 seed all season. The Lowry-DeRozan pairing is enough to propel the team to the playoffs with ease but we’re still waiting for playoff success. If DeRozan actually takes more 3’s as he alluded to, the Raptors will be even scarier.

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers (mid 50s wins)

The Cavs won’t necessarily be the number 1 seed. The Cavs were the second seed twice in the three seasons since LeBron returned to The Land. The Cavs won’t care about pushing for the top seed again this season, especially following Boston’s loss of Gordon Hayward. The Cavs will win around 50 games this season and turn it up for the playoffs. This is a smart plan given the older age of the roster as a whole, let alone the fact LeBron is the youngest player to play 50,000 minutes as he begins season 15.

With Kyrie Irving gone and Isaiah Thomas out until February at the earliest, Kevin Love should be the number two option on offense. The Cavs should be hard pressed to up Love’s usage and get him going. Love playing small ball 5 will do wonders for the team on offense although defensively it will be a big concern. The bigger problem is that temporary starting point guard Derrick Rose and starting two Dwyane Wade are not threats from deep and will hurt the spacing of the team. The Cavs identity the past few seasons revolved around jacking a lot of 3’s. Now they’ve replaced Kyrie with a non-factor from deep and benched JR Smith for Wade. This team will need to figure itself out. Rose won’t be expected to do a whole lot offensively but he needs to spread the ball around because teams will not respect him from deep. Although Jae Crowder is an overrated defender, he will help the team tremendously as their best wing defender since LeBron returned.

Ideally, the Cavs will bring JR Smith back into the starting lineup, minimize Derrick Rose’s role, and feed Love. They’re gonna win 50 games with or without Isaiah Thomas but they need to form an identity if they want to have any prayer against the Warriors. Do not expect the Cavs to trade the Brooklyn pick at the deadline for help. The pick is too valuable as insurance in the event LeBron leaves.

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