- Cleveland Cavaliers: This is a no-brainer; unless LeBron has a severe injury they won’t win less than 55 games. I fully expect LeBron to coast through the regular season and let Kyrie & Love do their thing. With JR Smith officially back on the squad after signing a 4 year, $57 million dollar deal, they’ll have just enough guard depth to head back to the NBA Finals.
- Boston Celtics: The Celtics won 48 games last year, and added Al Horford & Jaylen Brown while only losing “somehow still overweight” Jared Sullinger and Evan Turner. The Turner loss will hurt, but the Celtics made the right move not overpaying him and leaving the cap sheet open for a superstar in the near future. The combination of Brad Stevens’ coaching and increased roster talent will push them over 50 wins, no problem.
- Toronto Raptors: The good news here is that they managed to re-sign DeMar Derozan, and the bad news is that Toronto is now tied to a backcourt that took this team as far as they could last season. The Raptors relied far too heavily upon their guards to score in the postseason, and I don’t see that changing this year. Their only significant addition was Jared Sullinger, a guy who plays a similar role to Patrick Patterson, and Jakob Poetl, the rookie drafted to be Bismack Biyombo’s replacement. Yet again, their ceiling is the ECF.
- Indiana Pacers: Paul George is too good for this team not to win 45 games. I’m not sure if Jeff Teague is an upgrade over George Hill, but adding Thaddeus Young and Big Al Jefferson will improve an offense that ranked 23rd in offensive efficiency last season. If new coach Nate McMillian isn’t completely inept they will finish securely in the playoffs. Just in case you were wondering, that is indeed 6’10” Al Jefferson on that bed.
- Charlotte Hornets: Steve Clifford got career years from Kemba Walker, Nic Batum and Marvin Williams last season, so expect to see some regression from that group, but I don’t see their offense slipping out of the top half of the league. They may struggle to score baskets at times without Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin,but getting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back will help the defense immensely. Even with their offseason departures, I expect the Hornets and their ridiculous amount of white big men to finish with both a top 15 offense & defense.
- Atlanta Hawks: Al Horford was key to the Hawks offensive identity, so replacing him with offensively limited Dwight Howard will test Mike Budenholzer’s coaching skills. They traded Jeff Teague and handed Dennis Schroder the keys to the offense, so this team will go as their German goes. Kent Bazemore seems ready to make a jump this season, but if not, much of the scoring burden will rest on Paul Millsap’s shoulders. This team could finish as high as 4th, or miss the playoffs. There are just too many “if’s” on the Hawks to tell at this point.
- Detroit Pistons: If Reggie Jackson didn’t get injured, I could see the Pistons as high as 5th, but with Jackson out until early-December, they will struggle to make up lost ground in the second half of the season. The key move of their offseason was retaining Andre Drummond, but without Drummond’s pick-and-roll partner, Stan Van Gundy will not have the dynamite combo to run his offense through. Van Gundy will get this team to the playoffs, but he better hope Reggie comes back at full strength.
- Washington Wizards: This time last year, we were talking about this team as a potential ECF contender, but injuries derailed their season and their hopes of landing Kevin Durant. Washington finally saw the light and fired Randy Wittman, replacing him with polarizing coach Scott Brooks, and they also kept Bradley Beal, signing him to a 5 year max deal. If Brooks proves to be a capable coach and Beal stays healthy, this team will make the playoffs. But that’s asking a lot of Bradley, considering his track record. But John Wall is the most underrated player in the NBA, and I think he carries this team to the postseason. (Pictured: Marcin Gortat owns a pet pig)
Outside Looking In
Chicago Bulls: As a diehard Bulls fan this pains me to say it, but I can’t see the Bulls reaching the playoffs. I know their shooting woes are well documented, but this is going to be a legitimate issue if Mirotic and McDermott don’t play well enough to warrant big minutes. I like that Butler and Wade are effective at moving off the ball, but with a roster that might feature TWO above average 3-pt shooters, I can’t see much room on the court to hit those backdoor cuts that Jimmy and Dwyane love to make. Rondo, Wade and Butler all have incredibly high basketball IQ’s, so maybe they figure out a way around the limitations, but with two of the three on the wrong side of 30, I don’t know if anything they do can be sustained over an entire season. The depth will be a strength with Valentine, McDermott, Mirotic, Portis, Felicio and Carter-Williams coming off the bench. If a couple guys play above expectation, the Bulls will have one of the strongest second units in the league. So I’m holding out hope here.
Orlando Magic: Orlando made a flurry of moves this summer, and not many of them made a lot of sense. They did pair Ibaka and Biyombo in their frontcourt, creating one of the greatest duo names I’ve ever heard, The Congo Line. They have a glut of talent at the frontcourt positions, which forced Aaron Gordon to move to SF from his natural position at PF. Doesn’t seem like an effective way to develop talent, but what do I know? If Elfrid Payton can prove to be effective running this offense, then maybe they reach the postseason, but with how this roster is composed, I think they need to make a few more moves before the roster can start to make sense. (Let’s see if you can figure out why I chose this picture)
New York Knicks: This team would be absolutely dominant…in 2010. Porzingis could be the future of the NBA but Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah aren’t going to push any team over the top at this point in their careers. IF AND ONLY IF Carmelo, Rose and Noah all stay healthy this season, then I could see them grabbing the 7 or 8 seed, but I’ll take my chances here. Derrick or Jo is going to get injured, and the Knicks don’t have the depth to tread water while any of their starters are out. Michael Rapaport and Spike Lee will have to suffer through another mediocre Knicks’ season.
Milwaukee Bucks: If Khris Middleton is healthy, then I think this squad finally makes the playoffs, but without their 2nd best player for the majority of the season, I don’t think they reach 40 wins. Giannis has moved to PG for good, so I expect him to experience some growing pains as he transitions to Magic Gianson. Jabari seems to be ready to breakout, but he will still struggle defensively. Also, the Bucks may be the longest team in the league, but that won’t completely make up for their defensive shortcomings. They also decided to trade for Tony Snell so GOOD LUCK WITH THAT. Dellavedova’s grit won’t be able to carry this team to a playoff berth.