The more things change, the more they stay the same. In the eyes of many the Eastern Conference still holds its "Leastern" Conference designation, but that may change soon. Roster moves galore have reshaped the landscape from top to bottom, and the arrow is now trending upward.
New Big Three LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love are all high IQ, offensively skilled players. They are both adept at scoring inside and out, rebound well for their position, and are willing passers.
LeBron saw some slippage on the defensive end due to either fatigue or age; Irving has never been even average defensively, and Love will never be a deterrent inside. Love and Irving are both young enough to improve, and their growth will show how far this team goes.
X’s & O’s: Coach Blatt is surely going to incorporate his Princeton offense (lots of movement, passing, and cutting), with an emphasis on getting out in transition. Plan on seeing plenty of threes. Based on personnel don’t expect the trapping defenses that are all the rage, instead think about a buffer defense similar to what the Portland Trail Blazers ran last year.
Prediction(s): 55 – 65 wins. The Cavs lead the NBA in offensive efficiency, but lose in the NBA Finals to the San Antonio Spurs. LeBron is the league MVP. Love, Irving, and James are All-Stars. Anderson Varejeo plays in 60+ games.
Derrick Rose’s Health: I know that Bulls fans will openly point to his FIBA USA appearance as a reason from optimism, but Rose was sub par in that event. He shot 35% on 2-pointers and 1-19 from beyond the arc. The last time Rose was on an NBA court the explosiveness was there, the effectiveness was not (35% FG, 15.9 ppg). It’s not his health that should be the concern, it’s his ability to return to near-MVP form.
New Pieces: The big man rotation that now includes Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Pau Gasol, and Nikola Mirotic, will be the key to how far the Bulls go. Who starts? Who finishes? Will Pau help enough offensively? Are Mirotic and Gasol liabilities on defense?
Also head coach Tom Thibodeau doesn't like to play rookies, will needed sharpshooter Doug McDermott even see the floor? Rotation management will be key.
Prediction(s): 50 – 60 wins. Rose turns in an 18 point, 7 assist year with solid 3-point shooting. The Bulls take the Cavs to seven games in a classic playoff series.
Third Best Team in the East: John Wall and Bradley Beal are poised to be the best backcourt in the East, if not the league this season. Bradley Beal is the real key to this team taking off. His eye-opening playoff run that has fueled greater expectations. He flashed a drive game to go with his solid outside shooting, even distributing the ball as well as any 2-guard in the NBA.
Will Marcin Gortat fall to earth after receive his somewhat overpaid new contract? Will Paul Pierce be old and slow or wise and crafty, replacing Trevor Ariza’s perimeter contribution? Will Nene stay healthy? What about that bench?
John Wall’s Slights: Have we ever seen a perceived "star" player slighted so much in one summer? First it was his exclusion from the 2014 FIBA US Men’s Basketball team, then it was his being listed 31 on SI.com’s NBA top-100 players list, now this "best backcourt in the NBA" feud with Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters has him up in arms. It’s safe to say, Wall is a man on a mission.
Prediction(s): 45 – 50 wins. Wall and Beal are named to the All-Star game, Nene misses at least 20 games, and Wizards still make within two games of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Third Best Team in the East: Toronto has a solid defense, nice bench pieces (Lou Williams, Greivis Vasquez), and a good core in guards Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and center Jonas Valanciunas. It seems like none of those three are the franchise player that real contenders have.
World Cup Impact: DeRozan and Valanciunas had breakout FIBA World Cup performances this summer. Can Jonas use this summer as a launching pad to sustained play in the post and on the glass? After his first All-Star season, can DeMar DeRozan continue his year-over-year improvement or an increase in workload drop his efficiency?
These questions are usually the difference between the being a gatekeeper and a contender.
Prediction(s): 43 – 50 games. Their core three experience small incremental improvements in their game, but they fall to a surprise Hornets team in the first round.
5. Charlotte Hornets
Old Name, New Outlook: Going back to the old (new) Hornets nickname, coupled with a sure playoff run has brought a sense of nostalgia back to Charlotte. Like the Hornets of old they have a centerpiece in the middle (Alonzo Mourning/Larry Johnson/Al Jefferson), an all-around wing (Kendall Gill/Glen Rice/Lance Stephenson), and a feisty, if not underrated point guard (Muggsy Bogues/Kemba Walker).
Lance Stephenson joined this summer, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has seemly fixed his jumper, the great defense (fourth in defensive points per game – 97.1, fifth in defensive rating – 103.8) returns, and head coach Steve Clifford is addressing his need for more shooting.
Prediction(s): 39 – 47 wins. Charlotte makes it to the second round for the first time in franchise history and the Hornets have at least one All-Star player.
The Cloud: Like the Donald Sterling fiasco in Los Angeles, I believe there will be periods of distraction in conjunction with the selling of the team from Bruce Levenson and whatever happens to Danny Ferry. The distractions off-court will be just as critical as the play on it.
Ferry’s absence may be the biggest concern. He was masterful in making deals to rid Atlanta of Joe Johnson’s contract and three point marksmen Josh Smith. The Mike Budenholzer hire was a good one, as he helped push Atlanta in a competitive first round loss to the first seed Indiana Pacers in the 2014 Playoffs.
Al Horford is Back: The Hawks retain everyone of note from their roster last season, minus 10.1 per game scorer Lou Williams. The additions of Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha should cover that.
The real addition is the return of center Al Horford. Horford played in 29 games last season, the Hawks went 16-13 in those games and 22-31 (.415) in all other games. It’s not far-fetched to think that the Hawks could have won between 44 and 48 games given their recent history, if he played 82 games.
Prediction(s): 38 – 46 wins. The Hawks have another first round exit and the continued standard barrier of mediocrity.
7. Miami Heat
The Old Guard: Can they really carry a team without LeBron James and at their ages (32 and 30 respectively)? Is Bosh ready to be Toronto Raptors Bosh again? After playing in 172 out of 246 possible games over the last three seasons, does he have anything left?
If the over/under line on games played for Wade was 65, I’d take the under. Wade has not developed a dependable outside game, and with the new additions on the perimeter I doubt he’ll be pressed to do it now. That means achy knees and sitting out games.
The New Additions: Incoming players Josh McRoberts, Luol Deng, Danny Granger, and Shannon Brown provide the Heat with legit depth. With Deng having been run into the ground in Chicago, and regressed in Cleveland, does he have less in the tank than originally thought? Can Granger and Brown step up in increased roles from their previous teams?
Prediction(s): 35 – 45 wins. Mario Chalmers doesn’t get yelled at, Wade misses enough games, but performs better than we thought in the ones he does play. Bosh gets worn down from all the double teams, and they get soundly beat in the first round of the playoffs.
The Bermuda Triangle: How far will Phil Jackson’s influence stretch? Given the recent practice footage (lots of passing and cutting), maybe the Knicks are a tad bit underrated? Add in better passing (Jose Calderon > Raymond Felton), some good spot up shooters, and a focused Carmelo Anthony, and you have a recipe for improvement.
On the other hand, have you looked at that roster? Amare Stoudemire is wasting away, Samuel Dalembert is a downgrade from Tyson Chandler, we have yet to see any really development from Iman Shumpert, and the immortal Andrea Bargnani still plays in the NBA…..on this team. Enough said.
Prediction(s): 32 – 42 wins. Carmelo Anthony turns in an underrated season, the Knicks are a top 15 offense, but struggle to field a competent defense. leading to playoff charge in late April.
Fleeing The Scene Of A Crime: Nets owner Nikhail Prokhorov is in talks to sell a "combination of assets" to the Guggenheim Sports and Entertainment Assets. Seems he just has an affinity for selling off assets.
The Nets hemorrhaged draft picks and young players, and anything resembling development for over-the-hill veterans like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, and Jason Terry. It was a massive failure. The Nets never won more than 49 games, reaching the second round last season.
What's left? A decrepit Kevin Garnett, an injury-prone Brook Lopez, the henceforth named What’s Left Of Deron Williams, an overly dependent Joe Johnson, and a few glimmers of hope in Mirza Teletovic, Bojan Bogdanovic, Sergey Karasev, and Mason Plumlee. On any other team, those players behind a solid starting five would vault you into the upper level of the conference. Not in this case.
Prediction(s): 32 – 42 wins. What’s Left Of Deron Williams and "Achy Feet" Brook Lopez heal slowly, the other New York team leaps them and lands the last playoff spot.
10. Detroit Pistons
The Stan Van Gundy Era Begins: Stan Van Gundy likes one big and a bundle of shooters. What he has is three big men, and slim pickings when it comes to shooters. Jodie Meeks is their best shooter. Let that sink in. As much as SVG is a step up from the incompetence of former GM Joe Dumars, the stink of questionable personnel moves still remains. The Pistons’ primary options (Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith) are wholly inefficient and Van Gundy has an entire lineup mess to sort out.
A Big Problem: Andre Drummond is becoming a leader, Josh Smith has sworn to be a post player and not a 3-point shooter, and Greg Monroe is open to coming off the bench. SVG is going to have a splendid time trying to divide up minutes, roles, and shots to this trio. Given Monroe's lack of interest in Free Agency, Detroit may only have offers worth pennies on the dollar to choose from, leaving them with this conundrum all season.
Prediction(s): 30 – 38 wins. Drummond is a beast, Smith does shoot less three pointers, but Jennings and Monroe regress, and the mess of a roster only takes a few stumbles forward.
11. Indiana Pacers
How The Mighty Have Fallen: Losing Lance Stephenson to a fellow Eastern Conference team was going to set them back, losing Paul George for the year took them completely out of the race. George and Stephenson were key cogs in a perimeter defense that led Indiana to the best defense in the NBA last season.
George Hill and some combination of Chris Copeland, Rodney Stuckey, and C.J. Miles are not going to replace that duo. Roy Hibbert seems to be on the trade block, David West is a year older and slower, and the bench is still bare. How is this team going to generate points? They were 23rd in defense last season, they’ll probably be dead last in this one.
Prediction(s): 25 – 32 wins. Roy Hibbert is on the trade block all year, the Pacers stumble to last in offense, but their defense remains average enough to keep them out of the bottom.
12. Orlando Magic
A Key Moment In The Rebuilding Stage: Orlando is at a critical juncture in the rebuilding stage. They have prospects that have shown sustained development (Maurice Harkless), uneven prospects (Tobias Harris), and prospects that are beginning to plateau (Nikola Vučević). Victor Oladipo is still about a year or two away from knowing what he really is, rookie Elfrid Payton showed flashes in Summer League, while Aaron Gordon is completely raw.
Orlando added Ben Gordon as cap fodder, and Channing Frye may help initially, but he’s not a long term piece. It has been two years since the rebuild began, this year will determine if Orlando is on the right track or if they are missing the boat.
Prediction(s): 20 – 30 wins. Oladipo, Harkless, and Payton take steps forward, Vucevic continues to churn out double-doubles, and Harris shows his inconsistency. With the best young group in the East, the Magic show they are still one year away from a major breakthrough.
13. Milwaukee Bucks
Drastic Times Call For Drastic Measures: Jabari Parker as a power forward? Giannis Antetokounmpo as a point guard? Can Parker handle the wear and tear of dealing with the caliber of forwards in this league? Are expectations for Giannis too high?
Kidd has bigger tasks ahead of him. Larry Sanders needs to regain his sanity and defense, Ersan Ilyasova needs to earn his contract, and who or what is Brandon Knight? Milwaukee is on its way up, but there are a lot long days ahead.
Prediction(s): 20 – 28 wins. Jabari wins the ROY of the year award in a chucking spree. Sanders still doesn’t reach his defensive potential, but is better than last year. The Greek Freak has his moments, but ends up a year away from where we think he is this year.
14. Boston Celtics
What To Do About Rondo: Why is Rondo still on this team? Trade chip in a larger deal for a superstar? The promise of a trade to bring a superstar to play with the point guard? Celtics GM Danny Ainge has done it before, but twice? I wouldn’t bet on it. Rondo is an unrestricted free agent this summer, I highly doubt Rondo re-signs with no roster changes and Ainge won’t let Rondo walk for nothing. I expect a trade at some point this season.
Prediction(s): 18 – 25 wins. Rondo is traded by the summer, Marcus Smart fails to impress, leaving Boston with a mess of a roster and no clear direction.
How Low Will They Go: Philly has taken tanking (Liam Neeson) to an entire new level. Drafting prospects that are scheduled to be out for the year in back-to-back drafts. Trading all the NBA caliber players for D-League level players. Drafting lottery players and stashing them overseas.
It's all about player development this season. Can Michael Carter-Williams show signs of developing an outside game, while improving his defense? What does Nerlens Noel bring to the table? Tony Wroten, Alexey Shved, Arnett Moultrie, Jerami Grant, anyone care to develop into a starter? The organization does seem to share the same goals: Tank and tank some more, all while throwing assets to the wall and seeing what sticks.
Prediction(s): 10 – 15 wins. MCW shows a minuscule uptick in his numbers, Nerlens shows flashes of defensive competence, but largely misses the mark, and Joel Embiid slays twitter all season long. Even with their league worst record, they still miss out on landing the number pick in the 2015 draft.