Yesterday, we ran through the Western Conference, where the Warriors are primed to run away with the top seed. While the gap between the top team in the East and their closest competitors might be smaller, nobody’s really doubting that LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to find themselves on top of the Eastern Conference pile and go right on to the Finals for a third straight battle with the Warriors. There’s fourteen other Eastern teams, however, and one or two of them might even have a shot to nip at the Cavs heels, so let’s count them down, from who we think is worst, to who we think is first, as we continue to attempt to find reasons to be excited about the teams outside of Oakland and Cleveland.
15. Brooklyn Nets (17-65)
Without any promising young talent (former number one overall draft pick Anthony Bennett doesn’t count) or the promise of a high draft pick (the Celtics can swap picks with them this year, and own the Nets 2018 first rounder), things in Brooklyn are going to be pretty depressing. At least the Lakers and Sixers have young star power, the Nets have Brook Lopez, Jeremy Lin and Luis Scola as their premiere players. The only semblance of hope is a smart new GM in Sean Marks, and a well respected new head coach, Kenny Atkinson. With these guys running the show, in four or five years, they could be like the Sixers and Lakers, still terrible, but with actual excitement for the future. Until then, well, we all saw what’s been going on in Philadelphia these last couple of seasons, and they at least owned their draft picks.
Reasons for excitement: If you’re a Celtics fan, you’re definitely excited about that draft pick swap.
14. Philadelphia 76ers (25-57)
Even at a lousy 25 wins, that’d still be a 15 game improvement over last season. There’s finally what appears to be a good young nucleus in Philly. Of course, the basketball gods are still angry at what they’ve been doing over the past few years, so they struck down first overall pick Ben Simmons with a Jones Fracture. Nevertheless, Joel Embiid is finally ready to make his debut, and he’s looked damn good in (limited) preseason action. Dario Saric’s also in town, coming over from Europe two years after the Sixers drafted him. There’s even some real NBA veterans on this roster, ones that will help these guys win an extra game or two. I’m talking about Gerald Henderson and Jerryd Bayless who bring tales of the Playoffs to the rest of the young roster. They’re getting pretty crowded up front, with Embiid, Jahill Okafor and Nerlens Noel, so expect one of these guys (probably Noel) to get traded.
Reasons for excitement: Not having to worry about this team’s win totals being in the single digits. Things should start to get legitimately interesting once Ben Simmons is available to play, hopefully in January.
13. Miami Heat (32-50)
Holy hell. The Heat will be back in pretty unfamiliar territory after a fairly disastrous offseason in which franchise icon Dwyane Wade left for Chicago. On top of that, Chris Bosh’s lingering issues with blood clots is going to keep him out all season long, and Luol Deng & Joe Johnson also left town. Now, a team that was one win away from the Conference Finals is facing a steep slide down the standings. Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic still make for a solid duo, but the rest of the squad is a pretty motley crew.
Reasons for excitement: The inevitable free agent pursuit of Blake Griffin next summer.
12. Milwaukee Bucks (34-48)
Honestly, there might not be much separation between the 12th seed in the East and the 5th seed. Depending on the breaks, any of these teams could leapfrog one another, or freefall down towards the dregs of the conference. Things were kind of looking up for the Bucks, but then leading scorer Khris Middleton suffered a torn hamstring, and will miss the season. They’re still going to be an interesting ball club, especially with 6’11” Giannis Antetokounmpo acting as the point forward. “The Greek Freak” will provide opponents with some serious matchup problems, and the team seems constructed to be a pain in the ass to have to play against, with only one player on the roster under 6’4″ (three point bomber Jason Terry). They’ll be scrappy, and they’ll always play hard, but I’m not quite sure if I trust them to be a Playoff contender quite yet. The loss of Middleton is a damn shame for one of the most potentially interesting teams in the league.
Reasons for excitement: A 6’11” point forward nicknamed “The Greek Freak”? What’s not to like? Jabari Parker’s another young player on the rise, and guys like Matthew Dellavedova will irritate the hell out of opposing teams. Michael Beasley is also going to be involved, and he always provides some much needed comic relief throughout the long NBA season.
11. Orlando Magic (37-45)
It’s easy to forget that at one point last season, these guys were 19-13. Then they all remembered they hated coach Scott Skiles, and everything went down the toilet. Now, they’ve got a proven new coach in Frank Vogel, and like Milwaukee, they’ve got an interesting and athletic roster. They should especially be able to wreak some havoc defensively, where they’ve added the likes of Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka. They’re one player away from being an intriguing Playoff team, but in the meantime, a solid foundation is forming in Orlando.
Reasons for excitement: The emotional roller coaster of rooting for Jeff Green. He’ll spring for 37 points one night, then be barely heard from for the next two weeks, before exploding for another 35 points or so, reminding you why you talked yourself into being excited about him in the first place before following that up with a 4 point, 2-7 shooting performance in the next game. I’m a Celtics fan. I know what this is like.
10. Charlotte Hornets (39-43)
You know, I’m sitting here trying to decide where to put some of these teams, and I’m looking at the Hornets roster, and I feel like they might have gotten worse. Gone are Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee, all important contributors to last season’s 48 win squad. Replacing them are the obsolete Roy Hibbert, Marco Bellinelli and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, back from an injury that limited him to just seven games last season. The Knicks got better, the Wizards should be better, the Pacers are definitely better, the Bulls might even be better, and the Bucks and Magic aren’t far behind them. The one saving grace is that they have a great coach in Steve Clifford, and they’ll always play hard on defense. They could finish anywhere between 5th and 11th and it wouldn’t surprise me. The East is hard.
Reasons for excitement: Kemba Walker took a big step forward last season, and should continue to improve into one of the best guards in the East.
9. New York Knicks (40-42)
I just don’t trust these guys. They look so good on paper: Joakim Noah, Kristaps Porzingas, Carmelo Anthony, Courtney Lee and Derrick Rose is a starting five that you’d think would be able to go up against anyone else in the league. However, Noah’s declined sharply since he was 4th in MVP voting in 2014, and we all know Derrick Rose hasn’t been close to the same since his catastrophic injury in the 2012 Playoffs, and now, Knicks doctors are concerned about his stress after a tumultuous offseason that included a civil trial in which he was acquitted of rape. Behind them and the rest of the starting five, there isn’t a whole heck of a lot of depth, which is dangerous for a team as potentially injury prone as this. This being New York and all, expectations are exceptionally high, and this being the Knicks, I have a feeling they’re going to barely miss the Playoffs, angering everybody. At least they won’t be boring.
Reasons for excitement: Derrick Rose isn’t the only point guard on this team looking to come all the way back from some bad injuries. Brandon Jennings will be backing him up. He’s always played with a lot of fire and swagger, and he’s already been embraced by the New York fans. He’ll be a fan favorite at Madison Square Garden, and should be good for a handful of technical fouls and minor scuffles with opponents throughout the season.
8. Atlanta Hawks (41-41)
If the Knicks aren’t making it to the Playoffs, it should be enough to keep the Hawks in, which will prolong their streak up to nine straight Playoff appearances, the longest such streak in the East. After reaching 60 wins two seasons ago, and earning the admiration of basketball geeks everywhere, I think they’ll find themselves back down here, fighting for their Playoff lives because Dwight Howard ruins everything. This offseason also saw the departures of Al Horford and Jeff Teague, arguably their two most important players as far as running the show is concerned. Howard replaces Horford, coming over after his disappointing stay in Houston. Say what you will about Dwight Howard, and I certainly will from time to time, he’s still a guaranteed double-double every night, and perhaps his escape from Houston to his hometown of Atlanta will revitalize his career a little bit. Replacing Jeff Teague will be former backup point guard Dennis Schroder, who was handed the keys after an impressive postseason. He can be a little erratic, but that’s what makes him such an enticing choice to run the team. Holdovers Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore and the eternally underrated Paul Millsap will maintain a semblance of the Hawks we’ve gotten to know over the last couple of years, and maybe that’ll be enough to keep them out of such a precarious spot in the conference. Then again, Dwight Howard ruins everything.
Reasons for excitement: It could be a pretty exciting race the final few spots in the Playoffs here in the Eastern Conference. If they do end up finishing eighth, they can look forward to being swept by the Cavs for the third season in a row. An unleashed Schroder will also be interesting to see. He’s one of the feistier point guards in the league.
7. Washington Wizards (44-38)
A team with a backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal should be at least this good, right? Then again, so should a team with a starting five like the Knicks, so who really knows? That being said, if John Wall is as good as we think he is (and he’s at least that good), and if Bradley Beal can just fucking stay healthy, there’s no reason to think the Wizards won’t be back in the Playoffs. They’ve got a solid group supporting them, with Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris and the improving Otto Porter rounding out the starting five. You could do a heck of a lot worse!
Reasons for excitement: The thought of fully healthy seasons from Beal and Wall. As we pray to the Basketball Gods for Anthony Davis’ health, let’s say a prayer or two for Beal’s as well. Be merciful, Basketball Gods.
6. Detroit Pistons (46-36)
They could have made it even higher, but starting point guard Reggie Jackson is out for 6-8 weeks to begin the year. That being said, Ish Smith will be filling in, and he’s a decent replacement to hold them over (he averaged 14.7 points and 7.0 assists in 50 games with the Sixers last year). In a league where dominating big men are becoming fewer and further between, they’ve got one of the best in Andre Drummond. Coach/President Stan Van Gundy has done a great job building a roster that suits his style and approach to the game, and he’s the kind of coach that will keep these guys on an upward trend.
Reasons for excitement: They played the Cavs tough in the First Round of last year’s Playoffs, and the thought of a potential Cleveland/Detroit Central Division rivalry makes me excited for some reason.
5. Chicago Bulls (48-34)
I talked myself into the Chicago Bulls. I know it’s like they’ve gone out of their way to assemble the worst group of perimeter shooters they could find (Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and Michael Carter-Williams). Wade showed in last year’s Playoffs that he can still ball, and come up with clutch shots. Butler’s a boss, Michael Carter-Williams could be a versatile sixth man, and maybe Rajon Rondo will start caring again. Their front court will play hard and crash the boards, and contrary to popular belief, they do have one or two capable long range shooters, and it’s going to be a pain in the ass to play against them. I’d feel a lot better about this prediction if they had a better coach than Fred Hoiberg, but I do feel like they’re going to be better than expected.
Reasons for excitement: Rajon Rondo’s stat-padding triple-doubles.
4. Indiana Pacers (50-32)
Outside of Cleveland, the Pacers might have the East’s best individual superstar (including ‘Melo) in Paul George, and in this conference, that alone could be enough to get you 50 wins. That’s not all, though. They had a productive offseason that netted them Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young in an effort to build a faster roster. They also added Al Jefferson to come off the bench and punish second units with his throwback moves around the hoop. Youngster Myles Turner has already been anointed as one of the league’s best young big men, so don’t let us down, Myles.
Reasons for excitement: I have to say, the Pacers are one of the more interesting teams in my opinion. If they succeed, Paul George could emerge as a serious MVP candidate.
3. Toronto Raptors (53-29)
The Raptors, led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, one of the league’s best backcourts, are coming off their most successful season, and there’s no reason to think that they’ll be fighting for one of the top spots in the East once again this year. The loss of Bismack Biyombo could hurt a bit, but starter Jonas Valanciunas has proven that he can put up some big performances, and should get more minutes this year (he’s never averaged more than 28.2 in a season). They’re still a little thin up front, not helped by newcomer Jared Sullinger’s recent injury that will keep him out for awhile. However, they should get a healthy season from DeMarre Carroll after he appeared in just 26 games last year. They’ve proved that they’re one of the best teams in the conference, and if it wasn’t from some increased competition from our next team, they’d be a lock for the second seed.
Reasons for excitement: Drake sightings.
2. Boston Celtics (54-28)
The addition of Al Horford should be enough to push the C’s to the upper echelon of the conference. This is a team that already played well together, and Horford is the perfect big man to fit in with their style of play. There’s going to be a lot of ball movement with these guys. They’ve got a versatile roster, and they play harder than just about any other team in the league. They’ve also got one of the best coaches, and he’s kept getting them better and better ever since taking over in the unenviable position of having to lead them into the post-Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett era. Now he’s got them on the cusp of the start of a new, successful era in Celtics history.
Reasons for excitement: Being a Celtics fan myself, I should probably be disqualified from writing this section, but, this is my blog, and I make the rules. This is going to be one of the most fun to watch, hard playing teams in the league this year, and out of all of these guys, they’ve got the best chance to make things hard in the Playoffs on the…
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (56-26)
Sure, they most coast through the regular season, but they’ll do enough to ensure that they get home court advantage throughout the Eastern Playoffs. It’s pretty clear that LeBron James is still the best and baddest mother fucker in the league. How many different ways does he have to prove it? Kyrie Irving’s not too shabby either, and he’s shown that he has the clutch gene, hitting a lot of big shots in the Playoffs, including the final dagger in Game 7 of the Finals. If there’s one concern with these guys, it’s depth. They’re one injury to Kyrie Irving or LeBron James away from being catchable in the standings, especially if LeBron gets hurt. Their supporting cast isn’t exactly a murderer’s row, and they aren’t exactly a young squad. I’m not saying something bad will happen, and I’m not saying I want something bad to happen, but what I am saying is, out of all of the contenders, their status at the top is the most precarious.
Reasons for excitement: They have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on the team, and as much as we’ve all resigned ourselves to Cavs/Warriors III, would it really be that bad? It’d be the first time two teams had faced each other in the Finals three years in a row, and with them splitting the first two, it would be pretty awesome to see which one of them could gain the upper hand in their head to head battle.
It’d also be awesome if one of these other teams we’ve previewed snuck into the Finals. Either way, as fans, we’re the winners (unless you’re a Nets fan, of course), because our beloved NBA returns tonight, and it’s going to be a goddamn awesome season. That’s one prediction I think we can be completely confident in. Now let’s get started…