By Chris Molicki
I know it. You know it. Your mom knows it. The Cleveland Cavaliers are winning the Eastern conference this year. The only thing that can stop that from happening is a LeBron James injury or Kristaps Porzingis taking his rightful throne atop the NBA. While I can completely see the second thing happening, I’m going to pick the Cavs to finish first in the East.
But after that, it’s anyone’s guess. The casual NBA fan may be hibernating until June for Warriors-Cavs III, but if you love the NBA like I do, there’s a ton of interesting teams below the two main contenders. Who claims the second spot in the East? Do the Wizards blow it up? Are the Knicks a super team? How does Al Horford fit in Boston? What are the Hawks? These are all questions I’ll answer as we preview the standings from bottom to top.
- Brooklyn Nets: It should come as no surprise that the sad, sad Nets will be taking their rightful place at the bottom of the East. But here’s a spinzone: Their future is in better shape than it’s been for quite a while. Instead of seeing Joe Johnson and Deron Williams stink it up to the tune of 30 wins, fans get to watch what Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCollough, Caris LeVert, and Isaiah Whitehead begin a new era for this team. Plus, Linsanity!
- Philadelphia 76ers: The injury to Ben Simmons has killed the buzz in Philly, but to be honest, they were a long ways away regardless. Plenty of intrigue will surround Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, but the longjam in the frontcourt is ultimately going to doom the Sixers. That should be fine with Philadelphia; another tank job would enable them to add a top point guard in next year’s draft class. Then the real fun begins.
- Chicago Bulls: There’s only one ball. Everyone’s saying that in the Bay Area, but it’s important to keep that in mind when discussing basketball in the Windy City. In Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, and Jimmy Butler, the Bulls have a backcourt trio of ball-dominant guards and no plus three-point shooters. One of Robin Lopez or Taj Gibson (or both!) will start, meaning the only hope for having a deep threat in the starting lineup is either Doug McDermott or Nikola Mirotic. I think this season goes South quickly, and we see a lot more of Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis.
- Miami Heat: It’s been a while since the Heat have been truly bad, but it’s been even longer since they played without Wade. Despite his age, Wade was a huge reason this team was a #3 seed last year. Missing him, as well as Chris Bosh, officially signals the end of the Big 3 era. A Goran Dragic-Hassan Whiteside pick-and-roll will be the bread and butter of this offense, and Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson will continue to grow, but there’s really not much else here.
- Orlando Magic: I guess some NBA general managers haven’t realized this yet, but just because you get flashy names in free agency doesn’t automatically mean they’ll fit your current infrastructure. This is true for the Magic (and for other teams later on this list). Orlando acquired Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo, and Jeff Green to go with Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon. That’s a pretty crowded frontcourt, and I’m not sure what the best lineup combinations will be. Gordon needs to play, and limited minutes might stunt his growth. Resigning Evan Fournier was key, but Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja remain big question marks as of now. The Magic are just a collection of names until they prove otherwise.
- Atlanta Hawks: I hope we get to see the Dwight Howard of old, I really do. But regardless, going from Howard to Horford is a downgrade and really takes away what made the Hawks great: two big men who could shoot, pass, and defend. Paul Millsap is still a stud, but he could be out of Atlanta before the trade deadline. After that, you’re asking for a lot out of Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore, and suddenly Old Man Kyle Korver. This could get ugly quickly, but I trust a good coaching staff and well-run offense will keep the Hawks relevant.
- New York Knicks: I’d love nothing more than for my Knicks to prove me wrong, but this just does not project to be a good basketball team. The defense is bad, and that’s probably not going to change. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah are injury-prone and just simply not that good anymore, and these are the guys you’ve entrusted in giving your offense a spark. And to top it off, there are several unproven bench players. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to see what guys like Brandon Jennings, Willy Hernangomez, and Courtney Lee can bring to this team. But the offense, which is supposed to be the Knick’s superior unit, is a huge question mark. Will they run the triangle? How often? What else will they do? Will they ever run a pick-and-roll? Is Jennings a better fit starting than Rose? Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony will keep this team in the playoff race, and I’d love nothing more than a KP monster breakout, but I think more of the same is coming for New York. Just getting big names hasn’t gotten the job done here before, and I don’t see it starting now.
- Washington Wizards: The Wizards had a season from hell, they missed Bradley Beal, and they still almost made the postseason. There’s clearly some tension between Beal and John Wall, but I expect this team to right the ship. We’ll see Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre Jr. in Year 2 with the team, and Ian Mahinmi was an underrated pickup. A lot depends on the health of Beal and whatever Otto Porter Jr. decides to do, but if enough breaks right, the combo of Wall and Marcin Gortat should be enough to lead Washington back to the playoffs.
- Milwaukee Bucks: “Let’s just get every guy with a massive wingspan” has been the Bucks motto for a few years now. It’s a smart strategy to an extent, but you still need shooting, and the Bucks lack that. However, I think Milwaukee makes a leap here due to Point Giannis. Antetokounmpo will be running the offense and terrorizing opponents, creating horrific mismatches. This guy is ready to break into the NBA’s elite. After Giannis, the continued development of Jabari Parker is key, and with two years removed from his ACL surgery, I think he has a big year. Khris Middleton rounds out the Bucks’ big three, and they’ve got some nice role players in Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova, and John Henson. If they can move Michael Carter-Williams and Greg Monroe for some outside shooting, they could be a lot better than many are expecting.
- Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker and Nic Batum played the best basketball of their career, and I don’t think it was a fluke. Walker’s trying to barrel his way into the upper echelon of NBA floor generals, while Batum is one of the more versatile weapons in the game. Losing Al Jefferson won’t hurt that much, especially with guys like Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky, and Marvin Williams picking up the slack. And don’t sleep on Roy Hibbert having a “I Swear Guys, I Don’t Suck” year. All that and the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has me high on Charlotte like I was last year. With a great defense and a top coach in Steve Clifford, this team could finish even higher.
- Indiana Pacers: I’m sure everyone is going to be high on the Pacers given their offseason additions, but I’m leaning the other way. Having Paul George and Myles Turner as your foundation is certainly a plus, but it’s the pieces after these two that give me pause. For starters, I’m not so sure how much of an improvement Jeff Teague is over George Hill. And does a team really need all three of Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey, and C.J. Miles? Thad Young should be a versatile piece who can do a bit of everything, but I don’t think Indiana breaks into the top half of the East playoffs just yet. Keep in mind, they also downgraded at head coach.
- Detroit Pistons: This ranking will probably be where the most heads turn. How can Detroit finish fourth in the East, especially with the injury to Reggie Jackson, you say? To counter that point, I think Ish Smith is more than capable of holding down the fort until Mr. October/Bobby Shmurda is back. Second, they’ve got Tobias Harris on the cheap, and I expect him to have a big time year. Combine that with crucial contributions from Marcus Morris, Stanley Johnson, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and this team under Stan Van Gundy is a force to be reckoned with. That being said, it all comes down to the big man in the middle. What’s impressed me the most about Andre Drummond is that he’s been able to be so dominant in the NBA while sporting a jump shot that’s probably about as good as mine. What he does on the glass and patrolling the paint is so unique, and he still has plenty of room to grow. Bet on Drummond, and trust SVG.
- Toronto Raptors: The Raptors are pretty much the same team as last year. They swapped Biyombo for Jared Sullinger, but that’s about it. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan still form an All-Star backcourt, Jonas Valanciunas should continue to expand his game, and DeMarre Carroll will hopefully be healthy. Toronto was good last year, so why wouldn’t they be this year? Don’t underestimate the power of continuity. Their role player crew of Terrence Ross, Norman Powell, Patrick Patterson, and Cory Joseph is largely the same. I trust in the Raptors and a continued improvement in their current squad.
- Boston Celtics: If Kevin Durant had just stayed in Oklahoma City, the Celtics would’ve won free agency. Regardless, I think they’re very happy with Horford, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to see what Brad Stevens does with such a skilled and versatile big. After Horford, Isaiah Thomas leads the way, and he’ll surely be happy to give some of the offensive burden to the former Hawk. The swiss army knife of Jae Crowder remains, as do proven role players like Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Amir Johnson. I told you, continuity is key. Stevens always gets the most out of his players, and he’ll continue to do so with an underrated bench mob. Plus, he gets a new toy in the athletically tantalizing Jaylen Brown. Boston basketball is back, and they’re going to be the biggest challenge for the Cavs in the East.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: You know the deal. LeBron James is on a mission to become the GOAT, and beating the team of fire-breathing dragons in Golden State just might get him there. I’ll be enjoying the NBA all season long, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I can’t wait for June.