With the start to the NBA regular season fast approaching, I’m back at it again with a preview of the Eastern Conference. The East was a much improved Conference last year with teams like Toronto stepping up to new heights, Boston taking a step forward, and the Cavs making it to the promised land. But how will the Beast-Coast look this year?
Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs had a storybook ending to a phenomenal season last year with a Championship comeback against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors. Coming off of a 57-25 win season and a chip, I believe this Cavs team is yet again poised to make another Finals run. I see Kyrie Irving leading the team in scoring, LeBron taking it easy until the last 15 games, and a confident Kevin Love playing more consistently all season; add this all up and I think the Cavs will win somewhere between 51-54 games this year. My two under the radar players to watch in the ‘Land are diminutive backup PG Kay Felder and Jordan McCrae.
Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks had a somewhat busy summer, as they brought in hometown hero Dwight Howard after losing Al Horford to free agency. While the loss of a versatile big like Horford will hurt ATL, they did retain their best player in Paul Millsap. The Hawks also unloaded former starting PG Jeff Teague this offseason, placing a lot of faith in young guard Dennis Schroder, a move I believe benefit ATL in the long run. The question with Atlanta now is how will they cope with a change to two core positions; I expect Millsap to have a great contract year leading the team in scoring, while his frontcourt partner in Howard will be solid as well, bouncing back from a poor year in Houston. Schroder will have to do a lot for this team as its new full time point, improving his playmaking and reducing his erratic play. I see this team dropping from 48 to 42 wins in ’16-’17. My under the radar players for ATL are rookie wing Taurean Prince and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Miami Heat: It is safe to say the Heat had one of the more unfortunate summers this offseason, losing Miami legend Dwayne Wade to the Chicago Bulls, and most likely never seeing Chris Bosh in a Heat uniform again. Yet their is a silver lining in every situation, and I see this as the perfect opportunity for the young guns on Miami, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, to flourish. Retaining Hassan Whiteside will help as well, in what I expect to be a rough season in South beach. Miami will drop from 48 wins to somewhere between 31-37. Keep an eye out for my under the radar guys in Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic.
Boston Celtics: The Celtics were one of the quiet offseason winners this year, as they were able to lure Al Horford to the squad as well as draft a legitimate off the bench player in Jaylen Brown. After going 48-34 last season, tied for the three seed, I can honestly see the Celtics improving that record this year barring injuries. If Isaiah Thomas can continue to develop as a fringe All-Star, Jae Crowder remains the glue to this team, and Avery Bradley takes a step forward on offense while maintaining his elite defense, this team could win 50 games. My under the radar guys for Bean town are Marcus Smart and Jordan Mickey.
Toronto Raptors: The Raptors made history in the Six last year, going a nice 56-27 on their way to a Conference Finals berth against Cleveland. With a shaken up Eastern Conference, I think this team will win 54-58 games this year. I expect to see a DeMar DeRozan at the top of his game leading this team in points and free throw attempts, I hope to see Jonas Valanciunas finally take a step forward and put up a nice double-double, and am confident Kyle Lowry will remain a top point guard in the East. I think Toronto will like what they see in the recently acquired Jared Sullinger as a scorer at the PF position, and am excited to see a full season of a healthy DeMarre Carrol. My under the radar guys in the Six are Jared Sullinger and a developing Delon Wright.
Detroit Pistons: The Motor City finally took the step forward last year and made the Playoffs; I believe they will do this again this year. While the loss of Reggie Jackson for the early parts of the season will hurt Detroit, his backup in Ish Smith is no slouch either and someone I had garnering Sixth Man of the Year votes. This being said, Detroit won 44 games last year with a less talented team than they have now, this is why I see them winning about 45 games or so in ’16-’17. I expect another All-Star year from Andre Drummond, a developing Stanley Johnson, and an aggressive Tobias Harris. Keep an eye out for my under the radar guys, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Jon Leur.
Orlando Magic: The summer started off slightly rough for the Magic, as they traded away Victor Oladipo and their draft pick for Serge Ibaka on draft night. Oladipo was looked at as the future for this tea by many, myself included, but the Magic didn’t completely mess up the offseason. They brought in Ibaka, a proven defender with a capable offensive ability, as well as bringing in a few vets like Jodie Meeks, Jeff Green, and solid defender and rebounder in Bismack Biyombo. Orlando was also able to hire defensive genius and former Pacers head coach, Frank Vogel, to lead this team, and I believe that is exactly what Vogel will do. I can see Vogel turning this young Magic squad into a defensive powerhouse focused on Ibaka on D, and highlighting Vucevic on offense with help from guys like Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon. Now don’t call me crazy, but if all works out for Orlando, it is possible this team wins 39-43 games this year, an improvement from their 35 win season in 2015-’16. My under the radar guys are the point guard Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja.
Washington Wizards: It is time for the Washington Wizards to get back on track and take that next step in reaching their potential as one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams. After a disappointing 41-41 season, I’m coming into 2016-’17 with the same mindset I had last season, if Bradley Beal and John Wall can both stay healthy at the same time and for at least 64 games, they will win 47-50 games. Marcin Gortat isn’t getting any younger and I think this team needs to utilize him while he is still effective; Trey Burke needs to embrace this role as a backup PG and improve his game with less minutes. The rest is in large part up to the backcourt of Wall and Beal, as well as the playbook of new head Coach Scott Brooks. My under the radar guys on Washington are Kelly Oubre Jr. and Andrew Nicholson.
Charlotte Hornets: Buzz City also had a quiet offseason after making the playoffs and bringing Miami to a game 7 battle, ending in defeat. The Hornets won 48 games last year, a very solid record, and while I don’t thin Charlotte will top that this season, they will be competitive. With a healthy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist entering the season, the Hornets have the potential to be one of the top defensive teams in the NBA. If head coach Steve Clifford decides to run a lineup with Nick Batum and MKG on the floor at the same time, this team could be exceptional. I am confident Kemba Walker will improve on his ’15-’16 campaign by leading his team in scoring and hopefully assists, while I think that an improved Michael Kid-Gilchrist will make a name for himself this year as a top two-way SF. I hope Nick Batum also continues being a versatile wing, and if Cody Zeller can find consistent minutes, I know he will be a difference maker for this team. Keep an eye on my under the radar guys, Marco Belinelli and Marvin Williams.
Chicago Bulls: The Bulls had a rough 41-41 season last year, I am confident this season will be a bit smoother. With the signing of Dwayne Wade and Rajon Rondo, the Bulls have their backcourt filled out with two proven players; Jimmy Butler will be at the head of this three-headed-hydra playing SF for Chicago in what I believe will be a phenomenal year for the Butler. The Bulls also made moves to gain pieces this summer, including Robin Lopez at the center spot, and two backup guards in Jerian Grant and Spencer Dinwiddie. I think this Bulls team has the potential to win 47-52 games this year behind a motivated Jimmy Butler as the new leader of the squad. My under the radar guys for Chi-town are a much-improved Bobby Portis and Doug McDermott.
Brooklyn Nets: To be completely honest, I am relatively positive that the Brooklyn Nets will be the worst team in the NBA this season, thanks in large part to Billy King. With that being said, I think that this will allow for young guys on the Nets to thrive, like rookies Isaiah Whitehead and Caris Levert. I expect to see an exciting Jeremy Lin back in NY, and a steady Brook Lopez down in the post. I see Brooklyn winning 22-24 games this year. My under the radar guys are Bojan Bogdanovic and Rondae-Hollis Jefferson.
Milwaukee Bucks: A few weeks ago I was absolutely positive the Bucks would have a stellar 2016-’17 campaign behind the seven foot point guard Giannis Antetokounmpo and the sharp shooting Khris Middleton. Now, with recent trade talks and the injury to Middleton, I am unsure about the Buck’s upcoming season. While I am confident in running Giannis at point and excited about a vastly improved Jabari Parker, the loss of Khris Middleton will hurt this team. I have faith in the offseason additions providing depth as well as shooting, Teletovic as well as Dellavadova, and still believe that this team can make the Playoffs, but know it will be a hard road there. I see the Bucks winning 38-44 wins this year. In regards to the trade rumors involving Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Snell, I am not sure why the Bucks would make this trade straight up as Williams has a higher ceiling than Snell in my opinion. Keep an eye out for Thon Maker and Jabari Parker as my under the radar guys for Milwaukee.
Philadelphia 76ers: Being the unluckiest team in the NBA is something the 76ers are all too familiar with, as they have once again lost a promising rookie to injury. With the loss of Ben Simmons, the 76ers are going to have to really scrap out some wins in 2016-’17, but I believe it is possible. Joel Embiid has looked good all pre-season, and I know what Okafor and Noel will bring to the table, if Philly can find a rotation with a good group of guys at the 1-3 positions, I see this team winning 23-27 games this year. Philadelphia has legitimate vets and an endless pool of young talent, all they need are a few seasons to bring it together, and this could be the beginning. My under the radar guys for Philly are Richuan Holmes and Dario Saric, as well as Jerami Grant.
New York Knicks: The Knicks are undoubtedly one of the most starkly different entering the ’16-’17 season. With new star studded additions like former MVP Derrick Rose and defensive guru Joakim Noah, or even just the smaller yet significant signing of two guards like Brandon Jennings and Courtney Lee, the Knicks are a new team. While I wouldn’t call this squad a “super team,” they are better than they were last year and that counts for something. NY went 32-50 last year, a subpar record, but this year I can realistically see the Knicks winning somewhere between 39-42 games. I expect an exciting Derrick Rose, a solid yet declining Carmelo as well as Joakim Noah, and an improving Kristaps Porzingis. Knicks fans should be excited for the new year, as it is possible this squad really makes some noise in the East. My under the radar Knicks are Brandon Jennings and Wichita State alum, Ron Baker.
Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are another team heading into 2016-’17 with a revamped squad; Indy acquired quality Forward Thaddeus Young, veteran low post scoring Center Al Jefferson, and legit starting PG in Jeff Teague this summer, not too shabby. I believe that Paul George is still the Franchise in Indy, and will play as such this season even garnering some MVP consideration, but I also look at this team as one that, if they can create chemistry, could be dangerous. With a hypothetical lineup of Teague, Monta Ellis, Paul George, Thad Young, and Myles Turner with Jefferson providing big minutes off the bench, this team will have no shortage in scoring. This lineup would also be respectable defensively, with that being said, I do have my concerns. How will this lineup be in regards to spacing, as none of them are knock-down shooters, and more importantly, how will this team play under new head coach Nate McMillan? I personally believe the Pacers will be a solid team in the East giving even the top tier Eastern Conference squads trouble, winning 40-44 games, yet will surely have some rough outings as well. Only time will tell… My under the radar Pacers are point guard Joe Young and an aging Monta Ellis.
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