Happy NBA Day! At long last the season begins tonight. We already talked about tonight’s games earlier today, and yesterday, we previewed the Western Conference. Now, it’s time to go through the depressing wasteland that is the Eastern Conference. Is it really that bad? Will we be able to find any reasons to watch some of these teams? Yes.
THE EASTERN CONFERENCE DREGS
15. Chicago Bulls (17-65)
In the grand scheme of the NBA, most of the Eastern Conference could be considered the dregs. We’re starting our journey down here at the bottom with the Chicago Bulls, a team that has hit the reset button hard. Winning will not be a high priority for them this season, and their roster is a reflection of that. Their best player, Zach Levine, acquired in the trade that sent Jimmy Butler out of town, is still recovering from an ACL injury that ended his season prematurely. That’s tanking 101: try and get a best player who can’t play. The rest of the squad is frankly populated by fringe players and youngsters still trying to prove they belong in the NBA. Rookie Lauri Markkanen will have his moments, but the Bulls are going to suffer through a depressing season, hoping from salvation from the Basketball Gods when it comes time for the Draft Lottery.
Reasons to Watch: If they happen to be playing your favorite team.
14. Atlanta Hawks (19-63)
The Hawks enter the season in the unenviable position of having their best player facing battery charges, and awaiting punishment from the team (not to mention the law). Another team that has hit the reset button, it doesn’t seem like that long ago when the team oriented Hawks were winning 60 games and capturing the imagination of NBA fans everywhere, and battling LeBron and the Cavs in the Conference Finals. Now, their streak of ten straight trips to the postseason is definitely coming to a crashing end. Rookie John Collins has generated excitement with his strong play during the summer and preseason, and Taurean Prince might become a solid player, but the most fun that comes from Atlanta during this basketball season will be provided by The Starters.
Reasons to Watch: Watch The Starters instead. Weeknights on NBA TV!
13. New York Knicks (26-56)
The Knicks finally stopped kidding themselves and traded Carmelo Anthony, hired a new front office, fired Phil Jackson and now face the daunting task of regaining a modicum of respectability. The good news is, they have Kristaps Porzingas to build around. The young Latvian is now the main man on the team, and his ongoing improvement is the first step to the Knicks getting taken seriously again. The new crew in charge will have a chance to do what their predecessors haven’t been able to do for most of the 21st century: craft a consistent playoff contender. Of course, one of the first things they did was wildly overpay Tim Hardaway Jr, signing him to a contract much larger than anyone else was offering, so on the other hand, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Hardaway at least is a fun player, the kind of guy who might catch fire and drop 40 points for no reason. Cut from a similar cloth is Michael Beasley, the former 2nd overall pick. Between him and Hardaway, shots for anyone else might be hard to come by, but at least they’re entertaining chuckers. There’s other decent players around, but I’m not sure how well they fit together. Check out this motely crew: Doug McDermott, Enes Kanter, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee, Willy Hernangomez, rookie Frank Ntilikina, Ramon Sessions. It’s a hodge-podge of veterans who probably should be helping out playoff contenders, and young guys trying to prove themselves. It’s a roster that just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Reasons to Watch: Amidst it all, Kristaps Porzingas continues on like a unicorn. Despite the incoherent roster, they’ve got some entertaining characters. They certainly won’t be boring.
12. Brooklyn Nets (28-54)
They won’t be good, but at least the Nets know who they are, and what they’re doing. They’re well coached, and without the opportunity to win a lot of games, they’re spending their time trying to build a successful culture from the ground up, and they’re off to a good start. The Nets are often overmatched, but they always put in a good effort, and in the offseason, they traded for their potential star of the future, D’Angelo Russell. Aside from that, they actually have a decent amount of roster continuity amongst a group of guys who seem to have bought in on the culture they’re trying to establish in Brooklyn. As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough to give them a couple extra wins and place them above the other New York team.
Reasons to Watch: I bought League Pass midway through last season, and the Nets quickly became one of my favorite non-Celtics teams to watch. There’s something about a team that always goes out there and gives an honest effort, even though they know their outgunned and outmatched almost every night. They also have a fun broadcast crew, and cool uniforms.
THE EASTERN CONFERENCE WILDERNESS
11. Detroit Pistons (32-50)
I’ve literally switched these teams throughout the following five spots as I agonize entirely too much about this Eastern Conference preview. Honestly, all of them might be garbage, or any of them might sneak into the playoffs if they can fully get it together. Ultimately, I remembered last season, where the Pistons felt like they were playing under a cloud of discontent. After a cameo in the 2016 Playoffs, where they seemed like a team on the rise, they took a big step back, and everyone seemed kind of grouchy. This year, they’re generally expected to contend for the 8th playoff seed. Why? They’re bringing back roughly the same team they had last year, with the addition of Avery Bradley, who is replacing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. I love Avery Bradley, but he alone is not the answer to the Pistons questions. If Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson can’t regain the form that got these guys into the Playoffs two seasons ago, it’s going to be another unpleasant experience in Detroit.
Reasons to Watch: Their grouchy coach, Stan Van Gundy, storming up and down the sidelines and getting increasingly forlorn as things go awry. If things don’t go awry, this was a feisty squad that put up a valiant effort against the Cavs in those 2016 playoffs, which seems like it was eight years ago.
10. Orlando Magic (35-47)
I don’t think the Orlando Magic know what they’re doing. Last season, they spent most of their time tinkering with their lineup, yanking their most talented players in and out of the starting five, or playing them out of position. At first glance, this is a roster that was that was built with the intention of at least trying to get to the playoffs, and they have a coach, Frank Vogel, who had a successful run with the Pacers. This year, they return with a lot of the same guys they had for last year’s lackluster experience. Hopefully this year, they leave Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton alone, and keep them in the starting lineup, and at their proper positions. I’d like to actually see how good they can be in a consistent role. Who knows, they might actually be not half bad, and with the likes of Bismack Biyombo, Terrence Ross, Evan Fournier, Jonathan Simmons, Marrese Speights and DJ Augustin around, they might actually be able to make a small amount of noise in the atrocious East.
Reasons to Watch: I’m actually curious about these guys. There’s a semblance of a solid rotation there, or, the whole thing might go to hell. Recent history suggests that the whole thing going to hell is more likely.
9. Charlotte Hornets (36-46)
They traded for Dwight Howard, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that Dwight Howard ruins everything. On top of that, they enter the season without one of their most important players, Nicolas Batum, who is going to miss the first chunk of games with an elbow injury. It’s not totally hopeless. They do have Kemba Walker leading the way, and he gets better each and every year. The problem is after him and Batum, things start to get a little hairy. Howard, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Jeremy Lamb, Frank Kaminsky, Marvin Williams, rookie Malik Monk and Michael Carter-Williams don’t inspire a lot of confidence in me, frankly. However, Kemba Walker is a bonafide star, they have a great coach, and if they can tread water until Batum returns, they could be able to steady themselves in time to salvage a spot in the playoffs. The only problem is, Dwight Howard ruins everything.
Reasons to Watch: If you’re the kind of person that likes watching Dwight Howard ruin everything. Also, Kemba Walker is awesome.
8. Indiana Pacers (38-44)
Yet another team that has thrown in the towel on trying to make the playoffs for now, only the East is so bad, they might actually make it anyway. Indiana has closed the book on the Paul George era, and join the Hawks and the Bulls as recent playoff stalwarts who have started over. They’re a little further along than those two, if only because they already have a bright young potential star in Myles Turner, as well as Victor Oladipo, who struggled at times as the second scorer behind Russell Westbrook in OKC last season, but has shown flashes of potential himself. There’s some steady veterans running around here too, remnants of when this team had real playoff hopes. In the woeful East, that might actually be enough to slip into the playoffs.
Reasons to Watch: Don’t forget about Lance Stephenson! His ridiculous presence makes the Pacers worth checking in on every once in awhile.
7. Philadelphia 76ers (40-42)
The Sixers enter the season as one of the most intriguing teams, but much of their success hinges on the health of Joel Embiid, which is harrowing to think about. If he plays 60-70 games, you can just about pencil them in for a playoff spot. If not, well, one of the teams we’ve already talked about wouldn’t have much trouble leap-frogging them into the playoffs. This is a young team in Philly, led by Embiid, Ben Simmons (himself coming off a rookie year that he missed entirely with injuries) and this year’s rookie, Markelle Fultz. Rookies make mistakes, and rookies need time to learn, but the sheer talent between the three of these guys is something to behold. Helpful veteran additions like Jerryd Bayless, Amir Johnson and JJ Redick indicate that this team is serious about making the playoffs, and veterans of the process like Robert Covington and Richaun Holmes have developed into handy role players. That’s not to mention Dario Saric, another youngster coming off a promising rookie season. It won’t always be pretty, but the Sixers are finally in a position to see their years of losing finally start to pay off.
Reasons to Watch: Joel Embiid has already gotten into a preseason Twitter ruckus with Miami’s Hassan Whiteside, so sign me up for anything involving him. If you don’t like off the court Twitter antics, Embiid’s skills on the court should more than keep your attention. This could be the first steps of a future Eastern Conference power, and if there’s one thing the East needs, it’s more good teams.
LUCKY TO BE IN THE EASTERN CONFERENCE
6. Miami Heat (44-38)
The Heat started last season 11-30, and everyone left them for dead. Then, they finished off the year by going 30-11, and barely missed out on the playoffs. With an interesting cast of characters who play really well together, coupled with the utter weakness of the goddamn Eastern Conference, they shouldn’t have as much trouble this time around. Hassan Whiteside is one of the most interesting and polarizing players in the league, with some thinking he’s a great talent, and others believing he spends too much time trying to pad his own stats. Either way, there are a lot of teams that would love to have him padding his stats for them. Goran Dragic, who finally regained the form that saw him make the 2014 All NBA 3rd team, is a fine floor general for this squad filled with players that know their roles and fill them well. Then, there’s Dion Waiters, who has finally found an NBA home. One of the premiere irrational confidence guys in the league today, he selects his shots with the audacity of someone who believes they’re the best player in the NBA, and he carries himself that way, too. He’s someone who can bail you out when the chips are down, and is also equally likely to stomp all over the chips, crushing them into little, tiny crumbs.
Reasons to Watch: Lots of hard playing characters on this team: Tyler Johnson and James Johnson among them. Udonis Haslem is still around, having outlasted Dwyane Wade. Kelly Olynyk and his man bun. The aforementioned trio of Whiteside, Dragic and Waiters.
5. Milwaukee Bucks (47-35)
The Bucks are rapidly becoming the most frustratingly injury plagued team in the league. Last year, Khris Middleton, thought to be out for the entire season, returned midway through the year just in time for Jabari Parker to go down for the rest of the season. He’ll remain out until some time in February. It’s too bad, because when he plays, he’s a second 20 point scorer that takes some of the load off of Giannis Antetokounmpo. By now, you know that Giannis is a 6’11” jack of all trades that is fully expected to become an MVP candidate. He deserves a full season with a healthy supporting cast someday. As for that supporting cast, it includes a hopefully healthy Middleton, reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, Greg Monroe, who seems to have embraced his role as sixth man, the young Thon Maker, irritant Matthew Dellavedova, as well as Jason Terry, one of the last remaining players who played in the 1990s, who is still around to launch threes. After last year’s playoff appearance, the Bucks should continue to improve, and get stronger as the season rolls along, especially if Parker can return and be helpful for the stretch run.
Reasons to Watch: Giannis is like something we’ve never seen before, and he’s still getting better.
EASTERN CONFERENCE ELITE
4. Washington Wizards (49-33)
Last year, the Wizards boasted a great starting five, and suffered from a lack of depth. This year, the Wizards boast the same great starting five, and will once again suffer from a lack of depth, which has already come to the forefront, as starter Markieff Morris will miss the first chunk of games recovering from a sports hernia. Reserve Sheldon Mac is likely out for the season. Luckily, that starting five is spectacular, led by the splendid backcourt duo of Bradley Beal and John Wall. In fact, the Wizards feature one of the more familiar teams, it seems like that starting lineup has been around forever. We pretty much know what to expect out of them, and if they don’t shore up their bench, what’s expected will once again come to fruition: elimination in the Conference Semifinals.
Reasons to Watch: That backcourt of Beal and Wall is one of the best in the league, but can they carry this team to greater heights than they have before?
3. Toronto Raptors (51-31)
Another team that you know what to expect. They return with basically the same team they had last year, with their own special backcourt tandem of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan leading the way. It will be their first full season with Serge Ibaka, and they might finally have to decide what they have to do with Jonas Valanciunas. Is he their anchor at center, or do they need to go small with Serge at center, and do they need to trade Valanciunas? The supporting cast might be too heavily populated with players who have yet to prove themselves. With Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll, PJ Tucker and Cory Joseph moving on in the offseason, and Norman Powell likely joining the starting five, guys like Lucas Nogueira, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam are going to have to step up. CJ Miles is there to help mitigate their growing pains, and KJ McDaniels has always been an intriguing prospect, but he’s also barely gotten a chance to prove himself since joining the league.
Reasons to Watch: If you like teams that are for some reason better in the regular season than they are in the playoffs, look no further. I can’t help but think they’re in for another second round exit, much like the Wizards.
2. Boston Celtics (57-25)
My favorite team. I will do my best to remain objective. They face an unprecedented amount of turnover, with only four players returning from last year’s squad. They made two of the biggest moves of the offseason, signing Gordon Hayward and trading for Kyrie Irving. The talent level is unquestionable, and the supporting cast is filled with players who are good at what they do. I suspect they’ll get better and better as the season continues on, as they settle into a groove with their new players, and their youngsters grow stronger. They are the best hope the East has at dethroning the LeBron and the Cavs. A lot of that will hinge on how well this team gels over the course of the season. This being the Celtics, their biggest weakness will be rebounding, but between the ball-movement, tenacious defense, creativity of their offense, and mixture of established stars and intriguing youngsters, this will be one of the more fun teams to watch.
Reasons to Watch: If you are someone hoping that another team in the East will stop LeBron from making his 8th straight Finals.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (59-23)
For the first time since LeBron has returned to Cleveland, the Cavaliers have given their supporting cast a real shot in the arm. Their depth is vastly improved, allowing them to move both Tristan Thompson and JR Smith to the bench, shoring up the second unit. With Jae Crowder’s arrival, they can go with a small starting lineup and shift Kevin Love to center, which could help them contend more closely with the Warriors, the only team that’s really on their radar. Dwyane Wade reunites LeBron with his former Miami running mate, and they seem thrilled to be back together again. Derrick Rose will have to hold down the fort until Isaiah Thomas comes back from his now infamous hip injury, whenever that is. Rose did have some solid numbers last year, lost in the turmoil of his strange and brief tenure with the Knicks, but he’ll have to accept a role on the bench if Thomas can come back healthy. The biggest issue for now is whether or not they have enough shooting in their starting lineup. That backcourt of Wade and Rose isn’t exactly going to draw defenders away from the lane. Nevertheless, LeBron seems particularly motivated this season, and with the new blood in town, they seem better suited to battle the Warriors, and regain the top seed in the East. The path to the Finals still goes through them before somebody proves otherwise.
Reasons to Watch: The onslaught of trash talking this team is likely to produce is off the charts. The hip injury certainly hasn’t stopped Isaiah Thomas from speaking his mind. Whether you love LeBron, or hate him, the Cavs are going to be compelling all season long, and this might be his best supporting cast since his return to his hometown, and the roster is certainly not lacking in polarizing players.
With that, it’s finally time to see if these predictions will stand the test of time, or if they’ll be a series of humiliating embarrassments. The season is finally here, so settle in for what should be another memorable chapter in the annals of NBA history.