The 2016-2017 NBA season is finally here and it’s going to be a good one in the Eastern Conference! The defending champs sit atop the standings with a whole lot of mean competition below them! There’s a strong fight for the 2 though 5 seed and the 6, 7, and 8 are anybody’s for the taking! This year very well could be the return of the classic mean, competitive Eastern Conference!
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
It should be a surprise to no one that the Cleveland Cavaliers will retain their number one seeding in the East, thanks to the ‘LeBron James effect’ if you will. The defending champs brought back J.R. Smith and Richard Jefferson while adding some veteran reinforcement in Mike Dunleavy Jr and Chris Anderson. It’s practically the same old team with another year of chemistry under their belts. LeBron is 31, but I’m pretty much convinced that he’ll never slow down.
2. Boston Celtics
For years after the break-up of the modern era’s original ‘Big Three’, the Boston Celtics consistently flirted with serious playoff contention. Thanks to the promising young talent that have found their footing at the TD Garden, like Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, the Boston Celtics have become serious threats in the Eastern Conference. The veteran addition of Al Horford, who has been named an All-Star the last two years, helps fill in a vacancy that this team had trouble with last season. Things are going to come together for this Celtics squad, which also features the likes of Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, and Tyler Zeller. By way of a former draft pick, the Boston Celtics also added the third overall pick from the 2016 NBA Draft, Jaylen Brown. Expect big things under one of the youngest, and most respect, coaches in the league, Brad Stevens.
3. Chicago Bulls
After the many ups and downs, the Derrick Rose era is over for the Chicago Bulls. In what many considered to be a surprise trade, the 2011 MVP was dealt, along with Justin Holiday, to the New York Knicks in exchange for Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon, and Jerian Grant. Weeks later, Rajon Rondo and Chicago-native Dwyane Wade both put pen to paper, forming a threatening Eastern Conference team in Chi-City. While they have the talent, experience, and defense to go far, they’re going to struggle at scoring. Wade’s greatest days are behind him and Rondo has never been anything other than a sub-par shooter. If they can find a way to constantly put points on the board, the Eastern Conference could be seriously shaken up by this Bulls team.
4. Indiana Pacers
Let me start off by saying that I feel dirty for not putting the Toronto Raptors in the 2, 3, or 4 spot, but I really like what this Indiana Pacers team did this offseason. They weren’t far off from being a serious competitor initially, thanks to Paul George and Monta Ellis, but things have only gotten better. Indiana secured themselves a starting point guard by traded for Jeff Teague, who was severely overlooked last season in thanks to Dennis Schröder breakout season. Thaddeus Young, who has averaged a sneaky 13.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.4 steals over his career, was dealt to the Pacers on draft night. Veteran big man Al Jefferson signed for the gold and blue during the free agency period, a great mentor for Myles Turner, a second-year talent who has shown some real promise at the center position. If everything clicks for the Pacers under new head coach Nate McMillan, who has been an associate head coach in Indiana for three seasons prior, the Pacers could surprise.
5. Toronto Raptors
I know, I know. Raptors at 5? Being this low on my predictions, Drake’s got some decisions to make. Toronto felt like an Atlanta Hawks team of years past last season, where everything was just clicking. Until it didn’t. The Raptors fell victim to a rather underwhelming offseason, though they saved their own playoff lives by resigning DeMar DeRozan to a long-term deal. The Eastern Conference’s best backcourt will be fantastic per usual, but the real extensive success of this team will be determined by their frontcourt. After losing Bismack Biyombo, the Raptors’ best interior defender and rebounder, to free agency, Jonas Valančiūnas has been tasked with being the big man of Toronto. While I consider the 24 Lithuanian to be one of the NBA’s most overlooked centers, he’ll need to show even more to make this team a serious playoff threat. He’s joined by a corp of solid large-framed role players, including the underappreciated and injury prone Jared Sullinger. If the injury bug strikes the bigs of Toronto, they could be in some real trouble.
6. Atlanta Hawks
I’ve been surprised to see many of people put the Mike Budenholzer-led Atlanta Hawks out of playoff contention in their 2016-2017 predictions. I certainly wouldn’t consider this a bold move or a ‘hot take’ by any means, but I’d be surprised to see the Hawks miss postseason action this year. They lost a couple of minor pieces during the offseason, including the expected sending off of Jeff Teague in lieu of the 23-year-old Dennis Schröder. In exchange, they signed Dwight Howard to a three-year deal, locked Kent Bazemore down for four years, and brought in some young talent to come off the bench. Speaking of which, maybe this could be the ‘hot take’ you’ve been looking for, but Atlanta’s system is perfect for Dwight Howard. Superman finally has his proper home in Atlanta. Whether his age and injuries has become his true kryptonite, only time will tell.
7. Charlotte Hornets
Speaking of teams that I have been surprised to see out of many people’s playoff predictions, the Charlotte Hornets are primed for another postseason run. Losing Al Jefferson, who has slowed down at the age of 31, isn’t going to be as big as a loss as most people think. I agree that he was one of the league’s most underappreciated players for years, possibly due to his ‘boring’ fundamental style of basketball, but his best days are definitely behind him. Hornets GM Rich Cho brought in a wildcard center to help replace some of the void left by Big Al; Roy Hibbert. Kemba Walker puts in another year as the team’s undisputed leader, joined by the likes of Nicolas Batum, Frank Kaminsky III, Marvin Williams, Marco Belinelli, and Cody Zeller. A lot of this year’s success, or lack-thereof, could be in the hands of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the gritty athletic forward who has shown a lot of promise, but has been limited by injury.
8. Detroit Pistons
The Eastern Conference is as wide open as I’ve ever seen it and the Pistons are the team to slide into the 8th seed. Andre Drummond, the 6’11”, 279 pound tank of a center who averaged 16.2 points, 14.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 1.4 blocks last season, is the clear rock of this team. However, Drummond is comfortably surrounding by talent that fits well in the Stan Van Gundy system. Reggie Jackson has proven his worth in the Motor City, playing his first full season as a starter last year. Tobias Harris looks to capitalize on his ticket out of Orlando, and he displayed some serious talent in the last 27 games he played with Detroit last season. Factor in the development of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson, plus a slew of proven role players like Ish Smith, Marcus Morris, Boban Marjanovic, Beno Udrih, and Jon Leuer; this team is ready for the competition that they’ll need to withstand to secure a playoff spot.
9. New York Knicks
The NBA’s newest ‘Big Three’ falls up short this season, and there’s some cause for panic in the Empire City. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah were shipped out of Chicago to New York to join Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis under Phil Jackson. While this seems like a dream situation for the Knicks, there won’t be a story book ending to this so-called super team’s season. After years and years of knee injuries, Rose, albeit a strong talent in the NBA, isn’t even close to the same athlete he was in 2011. For this team to have any kind of playoff hopes, Rose and Noah are going to have to play at least 64 games a piece, which is pretty unlikely if the last five years count for anything. This assemblance of former all-stars would be the best team in the league if it was 2011, but in 2015 they’re good, but nothing much more than that. While their overall roster has improved since last season, they’ll find themselves fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot in the vastly improved Eastern Conference.
10. Milwaukee Bucks
Thanks to the development of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, and Kris Middleton, this Bucks team was considered to be one of those ‘next year is the year’ teams during the 2014-2015 season. Moves were made to improve this team, including the free agent addition of Matthew Dellavedova, but a major wrench was thrown in the gears of #FearTheDeer. Kris Middleton will miss most, if not all, of the regular season. If they can find a way to stay in playoff contention long enough for Middleton, which I wouldn’t bet on considered the improved state of the Eastern Conference, this Milwaukee could reek some havoc in the postseason. However, if the absence of their star shooter weighs too much on this young squad, it’ll be another year of ‘next year is the year’ for the Milwaukee Bucks.
11. Orlando Magic
If there’s something that the Orlando Magic have been able to constantly display for the last six years, it’s mediocrity. The Orlando organization also hack a knack for putting a shallow cap on their players’ potentials, like Maurice Harkless. Others have shown promise in Orlando, only to be capped by a mixture of poor coaching and poor management. There’s some hope to be had in Orlando, however, thanks to some players who are beginning to show some real promise. They sent Victor Oladipo on his way out to Oklahoma City in exchange for Serge Ibaka, who has seemingly struggled in the post-Scott Brooks era of the Thunder. He’s joined in the frontcourt by fellow Congo-native and new signing Bismack Biyombo, who is an absolute force as a rebounder and shot blocker. The two newcomers will battle Nikola Vucevic, who has been a constant double-double guy for the Magic, and Aaron Gordon, the 2015 Dunk Contest Champion who has shown that his game is far more than flashy slams. The hiring of head coach Frank Vogel is a huge step forward for the Orlando Magic, and the shooting of Evan Fournier could bring them close to playoffs, but they’ll ultimately miss the cut.
12. Washington Wizards
Oh Washington, where do we start with you. First, my condolences for not landing Kevin Durant in free agency. If it’s any kind of consolation, Otto Porter Jr. is beginning to develop nicely? The problem with the Washington Wizards going into this competitive season in the Eastern Conference is, well, a mixture of a few things. There have been ongoing reports that their star backcourt, consisting of John Wall and Bradely Beal, very rarely see eye-to-eye. When your two star players have beef, you’re going to struggle. With that said, you can expect Beal to miss some time due to injury, as he has every year since he was drafted in 2012. Wall and Beal will continue to put up numbers, but a bad backcourt relationship is always a major worry, especially when your team’s success relies on that backcourt. Even if things work out, there just isn’t enough depth on this Wizards team to make a playoff appearance.
13. Miami Heat
After years of running the league, the Miami Heat are down to only one active member of their infamous ‘Big Three’ team; Udonis Haslem. Pat Riley refused to pay Dwyane Wade the big bucks, so he saw himself out to his hometown team in Chicago. LeBron James just won Cleveland’s first-ever NBA Championship. Chris Bosh has had his career suddenly derailed by a serious medical issue. Tyler Johnson, a name that not many casual hoop fans will know, just signed a 4-year/$50-million contract for Miami. Hassan Whiteside, who had a breakout year last season after previously falling out of the league, signed a 4-year/$98.4-million contract. Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson bring some more potential for this team, but there isn’t enough for instant success at the moment. Whether this team will shoot for a big name free agent or some draft picks/young talents, it has yet to be seen, but something needs to happen in South Beach for this team to reach the playoffs in the near future.
14. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets were a offseason/preseason favorite to break Philadelphia’s 10-72 record-breaking losing season. They’ll struggle to find wins, but this team has some hidden talents that will comfortably lift them above the 10-win mark. Jeremy Lin returns to the Big Apple, this time in black and white. They’ll be hoping for a resurgence of Linsanity alongside former New York Knicks assistant coach Kenny Atkinson, whom Lin had a great relationship with. Brook Lopez will still be holding down the center position. The remainder of this Nets team features some intriguing young talent; Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Sean Kilpatrick, and Isaiah Whitehead to name a few. For those five, this Nets team is the perfect fit for the very fact that they’ll have no pressure to make the playoffs, providing the young guns with some valuable playing time.
15. Philadelphia 76ers
It’s a cause for celebration in Philadelphia as #TheProcess beings to pay off. After years and years spent dead-last in the league, Sam Hinkie’s draft-reliant strategy, which featured an absurd amount of drafts picks, is finally beginning to show some promise. Ben Simmons, who came into the 2016 NBA Draft as one of the most hyped incoming rookie in years, is expected to miss the entire season with an injury similar to the one Kevin Durant suffered in 2014, so we won’t be seeing him take the floor. However, Joel Embiid is in the greatest shape of his life, Jahlil Okafor is coming off of a strong rookie campaign of 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, and the 12th overall draft pick from the 2014 draft, Dario Saric, is finally lacing up his sneakers for 76ers. The Sixers will have a vastly improved season compared to the last four years, but you might not see a drastic change on the standings table. Even though the Sixers are on the right path, this is one of the most competitive years that the Eastern Conference has seen in quite some time. Stay patient, Philadelphia; the 76ers are still a project team, but it certainly looks like #TheProcess is working.