With the West posted up yesterday, lets dive in to the East.
Top Tier - East
- Cleveland Cavaliers (53-55 wins)
Ready for an unpopular opinion? The trade between the Cavaliers and the Celtics is much more likely to make the Cavs a better team this year than the the Celtics. The Cavs are now just a little bit deeper - trading a star level player for an only somewhat lower-level star in Isaiah Thomas, a starting caliber player in Jae Crowder and a potentially valuable reserve in Ante Zizic. Bringing in Cedi Osman, Jose Calderon, Derrick Rose and Jeff Green heightens the likelihood that this team finds at least one more rotation player. And the late addition of Dwyane Wade adds another rotation option. This team is definitely better as a regular season team. And, honestly, I think its more suited to beating the rest of the East than it was last season. The question is, can it beat the Warriors? Smart money says no way. That being said, LeBron James is still LeBron James. If a team can figure it out, he's likely to be the player to facilitate it. Either way, this team shouldn't suffer through some of the regular season woes it had last year.
Playoff Locks Tier - East
- Washington Wizards (49-51 wins)
- Boston Celtics (49-51 wins)
- Milwaukee Bucks (47-49 wins)
The divide between the top team and everyone else in the East isn't as severe as it is in the West. But I think it exists. Lets start with the team most think will compete with, or even supplant, Cleveland.
The Celtics are an interesting team this year. They are going to feature two star-level, top-25 talents in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, with Al Horford providing a solid third fiddle to complement them. They're going to start Marcus Morris at the PF spot and, I guess, Jaylen Brown at the SF. That's not a bad lineup by and stretch. But it gets a bit thin after that. The rotation is going to feature significant minutes from Marcus Smart, Aron Baynes, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum. Those guys all have obvious flaws, even if I think Marcus Smart is undervalued. Maybe Tatum is a better player year 1 than I think he will be, or Danny Ainge's weird infatuation with Terry Rozier turns out to be bizarrely warranted. But I don't see it. Add in the fact that this team is going to go through some serious growing pains with an entirely new starting five that has not played together. I'd be less surprised if they ended up fourth in the East than first.
The Wizards, unlike the Celtics, are a model of roster consistency. The entire starting five returns for the team, though Markieff Morris is out for the first month or so with a hernia. John Wall, Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat, Morris and the recently re-signed Otto Porter is a pretty damn good starting 5. Gortat is the weak link, but the team will hope they can balance the aging Gortat with an ostensibly healthy Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith, who will provide a stretch element and will start the season as the starting PF. The problem for this team comes with the bench. It just isn't that good. Kelly Oubre might yet prove to be a rotation player, but as of last season he was not. I like Tim Frazier and Tomas Satoransky, but they should be playing 5-10 minutes a game, not 10-15. And while Smith had a bit off a revival season last year, I really don't want him as the backup behind the famously mercurial Morris. The starting unit will have to run up big leads for the bench group if this team hopes to win games. It is definitely something they are capable of, but it's a challenging model come playoffs time.
The Bucks are my stretch team here. I'm heading a bit here because they looked bad in the pre-season. They have the best player not named LeBron in the East in Giannis Antetokounmpo. They have interesting rotation players to put around him in Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, Khris Middleton and Thon Maker. When Jabari Parker returns, this team will have solid talent at every position, with strong shooters coming off the bench. Why the hesitation, then? I'm just not sure this team has enough experienced players. And the experienced guys the signed I just cannot imagine having much impact. Jason Terry and Brandon Rush I expect to barely see the floor. Teletovic regressed considerably last season and I don't know that he'll recover. Greg Monroe might be the veteran leader on the team, but I'm not sure he finishes the year with them, and I'm also not sure he's exactly the guy you has that veteran presence this team needs. I don't know. Hopefully the team is the rare one that doesn't require a veteran presence.
The Bucks are the team I could see falling out of this group and into the lower tier of playoff teams. The Wizards and Celtics are just too good to see that happening.
The Likely Playoff Tier - East
- Toronto Raptors (45-47 wins)
- Charlotte Hornets (44-46 wins)
I was originally higher on the Hornets, but the Nicolas Batum injury hurts them enough that I dropped their projections a bit. Both of these teams should be in the playoffs next year. But unlike the teams above, I can envision situations where both the Raptors and the Hornets fall out of contention.
The Raptors are probably a surprise to see here for some of you. But their losses in the off-season are more impactful than people realize. Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker might not seem the most influential bunch, but they were core parts of the team. And for Tucker and Patterson, in particular, it is hard to believe that their replacements (C.J. Miles and Pascal Siakam, respectively) are going to outperform them. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan remain a very solid two-headed monster. But I just have these lingering reservations about everyone else. And if Lowry or DeRozan misses time, there is not a single player on the team, other than Jonas Valanciunas, who is going to pick up the offensive load. I think this team will go through significant struggles this season. The overall success may depend on how well Serge Ibaka plays with the team this year. I can't say that would leave me comfortable as a Raptors fan.
On paper, I think this Hornets team is better than Toronto. Kemba Walker and Batum aren't quite as good of a combo as Lowry and DeRozan, but the surrounding cast is just so much better. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Dwight Howard and Marvin Williams are just a more consistent group, with a better balance of overall skills than what the Raptors have. And there is simply more bench depth with Frank Kaminsky, Michael Carter Williams and Jeremy Lamb all in the rotation. The big struggle for this team is going to be how they handle the 2-3 month absence of Batum. The secondary playmaking that Batum offered this team, along with the defensive versatility. They're going to have to hope that MCW or the recently signed Julyan Stone, both oversized for the position, are able to sidle into the lineup and pick up some of the slack. Another little subtext issue here is going to be the balance of minutes between Zeller and Howard. Howard looks like the starter going in to the year, but Zeller is a better player right now and should be getting more of the minutes. Hopefully Steve Clifford figures it out.
It would surprise me if either of these teams miss the playoffs, or even fall in to the bottom few seeds. They're both at least relatively deep, and are just a grade above the teams in the next group.
Potential Playoffs Tier - East
- Miami Heat (40-42 wins)
- Detroit Pistons (38-40 wins)
- Philadelphia 76ers (38-40 wins)
This is where the East gets a bit interesting. These three teams are all competing for the last two spots in the playoffs and, frankly, I think they each have a pretty equal shot of getting there.
The Heat are the team that the experts seem more confident will make the playoffs, and it is understandable. They barely missed out last season after an injury-plagued campaign. Of these teams, they have the best starting group and, very likely, the most depth (don't kill me, Philly fans). Goran Dragic is coming off of a spectacular EuroBasket performance; James Johnson had a career season last year; Justise Winslow, while his shot hasn't been falling, has looked like a more locked in player in pre-season; Hassan Whiteside is getting into Twitter feuds with Joel Embiid. This team has all the makings for just a fun, fun team. Part of what is so interesting about this team is that they are one of the deepest in the East, at least if we buy into CARMELO projections. While they are lacking in truly elite level talent, they go 7 deep in players with a WARP projection over 1, and the only player in the rotation likely to perform at or below replacement level is rookie Bam Adebayo. Its just a highly versatile team. Combine that with a quite good coach in Erik Spoelstra, and I have a hard time seeing them missing the playoffs again.
The Pistons likewise missed the playoffs last season. That was a big surprise for me, as I thought they were a fun team with good depth. Its hard to predict the Reggie Jackson injury, in fairness, but still, Reggie Jackson should not have been that important. Anyways. The Pistons are a bit different of a team this year. Avery Bradley replaces Kentavious Caldwell-Pope; Marcus Morris is gone, and will see his minutes filled by Jon Leuer and Henry Ellenson. Aron Baynes is gone, and we should finally see Boban Marjanovic unleashed, which should be gobs of fun to watch. Consensus holds that this team's fortunes rely on Jackson, Drummond and Avery Bradley returning to their 2016 form. That isn't impossible. But I think it more likely that they get a better performance out of Marjanovic and Leuer than expected, and that they get some modicum of growth from Ellenson and Stanley Johnson. If both happen, this team is a lock for the playoffs. If the former happens, they should also be a lock. If the latter happens, they might get there. If neither happens? They're in trouble. Because Philadelphia is going to be a real threat.
It may finally be time to pay witness to Sam Hinkie's vision. The 76ers might, finally, be playoffs bound this year. The team has legitimate talent on the roster. Every position on the court goes two-deep, with the possible exception of C and SG. Ben Simmons has looked good in pre-season; Robert Covington is locked in to a contract extension; J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson have both been signed to the roster to provide a veteran presence that, importantly, can actually play. Joel Embiid still looks amazing, and may just be healthy. Maybe. The only downside, at the moment, is that Markelle Fultz hasn't looked great in his role next to Ben Simmons. But really, that isn't that big of a problem. Brett Brown seems comfortable bringing him off the bench. And T.J. McConnell should be fine slotted next to Ben Simmons. This team is going to be good if Joel Embiid can play more than half of the games. If he can't, they might still have a chance to make it, but it would require a better performance from Simmons, Fultz and the others than I am expecting.
None of these teams should fall out of playoffs contention. I just cannot see how it happens. Maybe the 76ers run in to too many injury concerns. Ditto for the Pistons. Key injuries could theoretically undue them. But it would take a big surge from the teams below them, and it seems unlikely.
The Outside Shot Tier - East
- Orlando Magic (33-35 wins)
- Indiana Pacers (31-33 wins)
Before the Carmelo trade, I really thought the Knicks were in this group. No longer. Now there just seem to be two teams that have the ability to, if the stars all align, make it into playoff contention.
Elfrid Payton and the Magic are weirdly deep. Their projected starting lineup (Payton, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross) have a projected WARP of 15 even. That's a solid number, but assumes a bit of growth out of Gordon, Payton and Fournier that I am just not sure they reach. The bench for this group isn't bad, but it isn't anything special, with Jonathon Simmons, Jonathan Isaac, Shelvin Mack and Bismack Biyombo all guys that you might not hate playing, but certainly aren't going to love. The benefit this team has, and the reason they could get in to the playoff hunt, is coach Frank Vogel. He will push these guys, and if the teams above them falter and the line for the playoffs comes in at under 40 wins, this team could be in competition.
A lot more would have to go positively for the Pacers to get into the playoff hunt. This team is just...meh. It has an interesting big-3 in Myles Turner, Victor Oladipo and Thad Young (CARMELO WARP projections: 12.3). But that is going to be diminished by a truly bad bench. Bojan Bogdanovic has no place on an NBA roster, but he is likely starting. Lance Stephenson and Al Jefferson are both going to play rotation minutes, too. The team's only above replacement level bench player is Cory Joseph, who will split time at PG with Darren Collison. This team decided it was worth keeping Damien Wilkins on the roster - a 37 year old who last played in the league in 2013 on the last pre-Process 76ers team. Myles Turner and Victor Oladipo would have to turn in to a truly dynamic duo for this team to sniff 40 wins. The East is bad enough that such a record could get you in, but I just don't see the conditions being met.
The No Way in Hell Tier - East
- New York Knicks (28-30 wins)
- Brooklyn Nets (26-28 wins)
- Atlanta Hawks (26-28 wins)
- Chicago Bulls (25-27 wins)
These teams are all bad. But they are not as comically bad as much of the commentary would lead you to believe. Not one of them should end up under 23 or so wins.
Without Carmelo, the Knicks may lack a true star, but they still have Kristaps Porzingis, who is a legitimately fun player to watch. I think he'll struggle more this year, as defenses will be more able to key in on him than before. The Knicks have a problem that is pretty unique in the NBA right now. Four of their best players (Porzingis, Kyle O'Quinn, Willy Hernangomez and Enes Kanter) are all offensively oriented centers. Porzingis allows the team some versatility by being able to play at the PF spot, but its a misuse of his talents to do that for extended periods. I expect the team to try to move off of one of the backup centers to shore up their awful wing rotation, which will feature Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway and Mindaugas Kuzminskas. The PG rotation for this team is also just not good, even if I like Ron Baker and Frank Ntilikina. They're going to be brutal to watch at times.
The Nets could be equally as bad, but I like their depth more. Only Mozgov grades out as a likely negative player in their rotation, and I'm kind of hoping Kenny Atkinson, who shouldn't be under much pressure from GM Sean Marks, just decides to cut bait on Mozgov and give the rotation minutes at C to Jarrett Allen and Tyler Zeller. Jeremy Lin, D'Angelo Russell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Trevor Booker, Caris LeVert and DeMarre Carroll are all rotation quality players on good teams. None of them would likely start on a good team, but they're quality rotation guys. The team also has no incentive to throw games late in the season. They'll play hard all season long.
Playing hard will likely also be a penchant for the Hawks. The team isn't good. Their best player is a toss-up between Ersan Ilyasova, Dewayne Dedmon and Dennis Schroder. But the overall depth of the team is pretty good. What is going to be really interesting for this team is whether or not the young players on the team can develop. DeAndre' Bembry and Taurean Prince are really quite interesting players. They could both be impactful, secondary players, especially Prince. This team is going to play hard, but there really just isn't a bunch to be excited about.
Finally, and presumably least, come the Bulls. The Bulls are a team absolutely devoid of any actual, rotation-level NBA players. Maybe you could consider Robin Lopez at such a level. But what the Bulls lack in quality players, they make up for in intriguing, relatively unknown guys. Jerian Grant is a legitimate prospect, and I think he wins the starting job and keeps it for the year. Paul Zipser is a balanced player with a three point shot. Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis still have potential. Justin Holiday is a better two-way player than most would credit him, and David Nwaba, who was retained for the roster, is a gritty player who worked his way up through the D-League and has the kind of edge that could drive these guys to compete in practice. This team isn't going to be good by any stretch, but there are going to be nights when they are going to flat out be fun to watch, as these young guys grow into a more coherent unit. Fred Hoiberg, who was renowned at Iowa State for his scrappy teams, might be the perfect coach for the bunch. Finally, one low key bet that might be worth looking in to: Lauri Markannen ROY odds. Last I saw, they were nearing or over one hundred to one. This team doesn't have strong scoring, and I could see them relying on their offensively minded stable of PFs (Portis, Markannen and Nikola Mirotic) to be their offense, particularly until Zach LaVine comes back. If so, and if Markannen is getting the type of minutes he should as a top-10 pick, he could average 11-13 points a game. That might be enough to get him into the conversation, and if this team is flirting with 28-30 wins, the combination of exceeding expectations and raw production might be enough for him to get the award.
The NBA Regular season is once again upon us, and with it comes what has become an annual tradition for me: season predictions!
It was an exciting off-season, with a multitude of stars moving to new teams. Jimmy Butler finds himself a member of the Timberwolves; Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are with the Thunder; Avery Bradley is now the starting 2-guard for the Pistons; and Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving traded spots. Additionally, Paul Millsap has landed with the Nuggets in free agency while Gordon Hayward has moved to Boston. Not least of all, Chris Paul managed to get himself traded to Houston.
The league has not had this many moves among its upper-echelon in a number of years. You might expect so many major moves to be indicative of a sea change and the emergence of new contenders. In this instance, that would be wrong. The two top-dogs in each conference are still firmly cemented at the top. If anything, Cleveland may be even more secure at the top of the East: they add Jae Crowder (still, somehow, underappreciated) and Isaiah Thomas to an already dominant group, and the Celtics, despite adding more firepower, are still integrating a whole slew of new players. And the West? Well...the Warriors are still the Warriors.
I'm going to do each conference by tiers.
Top Tier - West
- Golden State Warriors (63-65 wins)
Unsurprisingly, the Warriors are clearly on a tier of their own. I don't think they are as perfect as many do. They showed some, admittedly small, weaknesses in the Finals last year. What should be terrifying for the rest of the league is that the team probably got better in the offseason, with the addition of Nick Young, Omri Casspi and Jordan Bell. The team has serviceable depth at every position, which is ridiculous for a team that has this many highly paid players. The one position they don't have much depth at is PG; if Steph Curry were to miss any extended time, this team becomes a lot more vulnerable. But I doubt they play Steph enough for that to matter. This team does not have anything to prove, and won't have to go though the early season adjustment period it did last year with Kevin Durant. They won't risk playing their stars too many minutes. That's why I think they stay in the 63-65 win range, as well.
Playoff Locks Tier - West
- Oklahoma City Thunder (51-53 wins)
- Houston Rockets (52-54 wins)
- San Antonio Spurs (49-51 wins)
If it weren't for the ridiculousness of the Warriors, all three of these teams would be considered championship contenders. The Thunder and the Rockets both feature two undeniably top-25 players, while the Spurs feature probably the best two-way player in the league.
The Thunder are the most interesting team in my book, and the one that could, if all the cards fall just into place, challenge the Warriors. This team is defensively deep - Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Jerami Grant and (maybe) Josh Huestis should all be above average defenders. And it features three reliable scoring threats with Paul Georgie, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. Even slowed down as he is, Melo provides value on the offensive end this team simply lacked last season. The question marks for them will be if they can manage to figure out a way to balance out their rotations so that they have a good balance of offense and defense on the court at all times. The temptation will be to platoon Russ, Melo and Paul George, but the depth at PG and SF leaves much to be desired.
The Rockets went all-in on this team by trading for Chris Paul on what is, for all intents and purposes, a 1 year rental. While the situation is not that much different than the one Oklahoma City finds itself in, the difference is that the Rockets gave up much more. The Rockets gave up two starting caliber players (Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams), three prospects (Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Wiltjer and Sam Dekker) AND a first round pick. While it certainly does not leave the cupboard bear, if CP3 leaves this team will find itself in a mini-rebuild. And, frankly, I don't see how this team beats the Warriors. Offensively, they play a similar up-tempo style, but they lack the defensive versatility and overall depth of the Warriors. And while having Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker as your 6th and 7th man is not the worst you could do, the talent really drops off after that. That hurts since Paul, Gordon, Ariza and Anderson all have a history of injuries that force them to miss some time. One player to watch out for: Isaiah Taylor. He likely won't get much playing time unless CP3 or Harden misses some time, but Taylor is one of the fastest on-ball players I have ever seen. He should be fun to watch in the D-League and against 2nd team units.
The Spurs are the team I am least high on among this bunch, but the most confident will finish in the top-4 overall in the West. Popovich and company are just that good at getting regular season wins. I had slightly higher hopes for this group when I thought Tony Parker would be out longer. Having his minutes taken by Patty Mills likely would have been worth an extra couple of wins for this team. The thing I just don't like about this team this year is the starting lineup. Parker-Danny Green-Kawhi Leonard-LaMarcus Aldridge-Pau Gasol just isn't that good of a lineup in 2017. To get anywhere close to last year's 61 wins, the team will need equally strong performances from 37 year old Gasol and 32 year old Aldridge. I think both of them likely diminish this season. This, however, leads me into what I really like about this team: the depth. If Gasol and Aldridge cannot play as many minutes, the Spurs can rely on Rudy Gay, Kyle Anderson and Joffrey Lauvergne to fill in. In combination with Mills and Ginobili, this is a potent offensive second unit, one that could just flat-out trounce the reserves for most of the rest of the league. I still don't like the Spurs against the Warriors in the playoffs, but they should once again be a lock for home-court advantage.
I cannot really imagine a scenario where one of these teams falls out of the playoffs. Perhaps the team most vulnerable would be the Spurs, given how reliant they are going to be on Kawhi. But it just seems so unlikely.
Likely Playoff Tier - West
- Los Angeles Clippers (45-47 wins)
- Minnesota Timberwolves (45-47 wins)
- Denver Nuggets (43-45 wins)
- Utah Jazz (44-46 wins)
You might notice that this could otherwise be labeled the Northwest Division (and the Clippers) I think it is really, really likely that 4 teams from the Northwest make it into the playoffs, and if the Clippers fall off (a distinct possibility), you might end up with five. But I'll come back to that.
The Clippers, barring any injuries, are the best of this group. For the first time in recent memory, this team features real, living depth. With Beverley, rookie Milos Teodosic, Lou Williams and Austin Rivers sharing minutes at the guard spots, this team features a backcourt that actually has a balance of offensive and defensive skillsets that can allow some lineup versatility. With Danilo Gallinari, Blake Griffin and Sam Dekker in the mix at the forward positions, the team has highly effective stretch options. And DeAndre Jordan remains one of the best players at his position in the NBA. With what I believe were back-to-back strong drafts (Brice Johnson in 2016, Juwan Evans and Sindarius Thornwell in 2017), this team even has some depth should players get injured which, given the history of some of these guys, seems pretty likely. Injuries are going to be the deciding factor for this team. If guys stay healthy, this team could push even higher.
The T-Wolves are the darlings again this year. Everyone seems to believe they are destined for a 50 win season. I'd like to pump the brakes on that a bit. This team is undeniably going to be better than last year, but there are still structural flaws. There is very little outside shooting (Jeff Teague is probably their best at a career 35.5%) in a league trending towards more pace and space offense. Other than Jimmy Butler, they don't really have any above average defenders, unless Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns both take a leap. And depth is a real problem. Other than Gorgui Dieng, the team really does not have an above average reserve. Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica could both be fine, but Jamal Crawford and Marcus Georges-Hunt or Shabazz Muhammad? Not a recipe for success.
The Nuggets are another team that some are in love with but about which I have serious questions. The signing of Paul Millsap could be huge. He's a (still) criminally underappreciated player who, at his peak, fits well next to star-in-the-making Nikola Jokic. Alongside Gary Harris, the team has a mini big-3 that should be able to provide a strong offensive burst. There are a number of reasons to be concerned about this team, however. They were atrocious on defense last year, and while I would normally expect Millsap to improve that, I'm expecting Millsap to drop off a bit this season. He will be 33 this season, and in his 11 years in the league he has only missed 20 games once, averaging 76 games a season before you account for his 9 playoff appearances over that time. He's been a truly great player, but I think he'll begin to show his age in this setting. On top of that, this team has massive depth concerns. They're likely starting Jamal Murray at PG, a position he has basically never played. Wilson Chandler is the only SF on the roster, and will be backed up by Juancho Hernangomez, a PF. This team really, really needs to try to move Kenneth Faried this season in order to either get a better backup SF or a suitable starting PG. Both seem unlikely, and without those things I would be really surprised if this team gets past the 45 win mark.
The final team in this group is the only one with real depth. The Jazz, for whatever flaws exist in their team, have the depth to carry out their concept. George Hill and Gordon Hayward are gone, and the potential of that team offensively is gone with it. But replacing those two with Ricky Rubio, Ekpe Udoh and Thabo Sefolosha creates a defensive juggernaut 1-10 on the roster the likes of which has not been seen in recent memory. With the exception of rookie Donovan Mitchell, who I slot as a negative because almost all rookies are defensive liabilities, there is not a single player in the likely 10 man rotation who would be considered worse than an average defender. Maybe, maybe you put Joe Johnson slightly below average at this point. And while this team may not light up the scoreboard, it does have an offensive profile that could be successful: overload on threes and leak back for defense. Johnson, Rodney Hood, Jerebko, Ingles, Sefolosha and Alec Burks (who may not even be in the rotation) are all competent to good three point shooters. If this team can leverage the interior presence of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors and the dribble penetration ability of Rubio and Mitchell, they might not be as bad offensively as is anticipated.
All of these teams have flaws that could see them fall out of the playoff picture. The Nuggets and T-Wolves could both find their depth issues too much to overcome. Injuries could derail the Clippers. The Jazz could find it impossible to generate enough offense to win games. I think the Nuggets and the T-Wolves are the most susceptible to that fall. The Clippers I think are most likely to move up into the next tier.
Potential Playoff Tier - West
- Portland Trail Blazers (40-42 wins)
- New Orleans Pelicans (40-42 wins)
I don't expect either of these teams to make it to the playoffs. If the teams above have problems with depth, both of these teams have gaping holes in their roster. While both of them could sneak in, I think it takes a major collapse from one of the teams above them for that to happen.
The Blazers snuck into the playoffs last year, edging out the Nuggets by a game. They were aided by the addition of Jusuf Nurkic mid-season, and addition they will hope to leverage in to a better than .500 record this year. The starting unit for this team -- Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Nurkic are an above average group, particularly offensively. They're a significant problem defensively, though, with only Aminu and Nurkic being clearly average or above players. And the bench doesn't really provide much relief there: only Pat Connaughton is likely to be a plus defender among the bench group. The team is going to rely on growth from younger players, or a better overall defensive effort from the group, if it wants to move into the playoff picture.
The Pelicans are a nightmare from a team-concept standpoint. I have no idea how Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins fit on the court together. If they figure it out - and I'm sure its possible, given how good both players are individually - I don't know how you put a lineup around them that complements them given what exists on the Pelicans' roster. Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday shouldn't be playing together - Rondo can't shoot, and Holiday is just a slightly above average shooter. Who starts at the SF position is an open question with Solomon Hill out perhaps the entirety of the season. The overall depth on the roster is...well, it doesn't exist. Jordan Crawford is in the guard rotation, Dante Cunningham, Darius Miller and Tony Allen are all in the rotation at forward position. The best hope for this team may be that the reclaimed body of Martell Webster, out of the league since 2015, can come in and play like he did in...2012? 2013? That's not an encouraging prospect.
The Outside Shot Tier - West
- Memphis Grizzlies (36-38 wins)
- Dallas Mavericks (34-36 wins)
God, the West is deep this year. While I certainly am not expecting either of these teams to make the playoffs, I also wouldn't be super surprised if they did. Rick Carlisle is, in my opinion, the best coach in the NBA, and the Grizzlies are the NBA's version of Jason - every time you think you've buried them, they rise again from the grave. That being said, there are grave concerns for each of these teams that would require a transcendent season from multiple players to overcome.
The Grizzlies are the better of these two teams. With the familiar duo of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley back to helm the team, it might seem like not much has changed. In reality, this team has lost a bit of its identity, with Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and the ageless Vince Carter all on different teams. Those guys were 4th, 6th and 5th in minutes played, respectively. The players slotted to take those minutes are not exactly proven commodities. James Ennis played respectably last season, and its possible he grows into a poor man's Tony Allen, but he's simply not going to be able to fill Allen's role on the team. Randolph will see his minutes taken by Chandler Parsons who, judging by what we saw in the preseason and last season, is a shell of his pre-injury self. And some combination of Wayne Selden, Tyreke Evans and Ben McLemore will have to replace Carter. If all the cards line up - if Tyreke Evans is healthy and playing like he did when he was last healthy in New Orleans; if James Ennis remains a stalwart shooter from beyond the arc and grows into a better overall defender; if Chandler Parsons can become an at least serviceable stretch-4; if all these things happen, this team could flirt with .500, ready to pounce should some of the teams ahead of them falter. But they need help.
The Mavericks are in an even more complex situation. The team's 'big-3' remains unchanged - Dirk is back for another run through, tailed by Wes Mathews and Harrison Barnes. They are clearly the best players on the roster and...that is not a good thing. Assuming the re-signed Nerlens Noel (who is playing on the qualifying offer) comes off the bench, as reports suggest, the Mavs have one of the worst CARMELO projections of any starting 5 (assuming Dennis Smith Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith round out the starting group). While it seems overall pretty bleak, I think there is some room for hope with this group. Outside of the core three, its a pretty young team - Smith, Finney-Smith, Seth Curry (currently injured), Yogi Ferrell and Dwight Powell (in the running for starting PF) are all in their early 20s. Continued growth from those guys could be enough to bounce this team from the 35 or so wins I am expecting to a closer to .500 record where, like the Grizzlies, they could stand poised to surpass a flailing team above them. I don't see how they get there - this isn't going to be a team particularly strong on either the offensive or defensive ends - but Rick Carlisle is a good enough coach that I think he could figure it out.
The No Way in Hell Tier - West
Los Angeles Lakers (29-31 wins)
Phoenix Suns (27-29 wins)
Sacramento Kings (26-28 wins)
These teams are not good. They won't be good. They never had any chance of being good. Do not let any media narratives convince you otherwise.
The Lakers have pieces that could be good. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez are both average starters in this league. Other than Larry Nance, they're almost certainly the only players on the team who would see rotation minutes on a good team. Luol Deng is a venerable veteran presence at this point, but he was frankly bad last season. His value to this team is almost non-existent, and if he wasn't owed so much money I would expect them to try to buy him out. I think they'll probably explore trade options, but they're likely nonexistent. As is, very likely, the market for Jordan Clarkson, who, barring significant growth this year in a diminished role, is on the path to an overseas career. Brandon Ingram has been a massive disappointment so far and, while I still have faith he is going to be an NBA player, my belief in his ability to develop into a star is fast fading. The team's fate relies on the performance of rookie PG Lonzo Ball, who was not impressive in his pre-season debut. I'm in a weird position with Ball - I think he has a really high floor because of his natural court-vision and ability to at least be a presence on the defensive end with his size. But I'm not sure what his ceiling is without a more developed offensive game. All told, while this team should be better than both Sacramento and Phoenix, they are probably still going to be awful.
Speaking of awful, my beloved Suns are almost assuredly going to fall into that category themselves. The Suns return just one above average starter this season: Eric Bledoe. Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley are solid veterans, if not spectacular at this point in their careers. The team is chock full of young talent - Devin Booker is an offensive phenom, Marquese Chriss is an athletic force, T.J. Warren is a throwback talent and Josh Jackson could be an immediately impactful defensive player - but its hard to know how any of the pieces fit together. My biggest problem with the whole rebuilding endeavor in Phoenix is that there seems to be no rhyme or reason to how the team picks their players, simply pursuing year-on-year a best player available approach. The result is the jigsaw puzzle the Suns now face: how do you slot three negatives on defense (Warren, Chriss and Booker) next to a player with a limited offensive game (Jackson), while managing the minutes of three players that ostensibly share the same position (Warren, Chriss and Dragan Bender), one of whom you just re-signed to a large contract extension? The roster does not make much sense, and the coaching staff isn't helping much. Earl Watson is absolutely loved by his players. That cannot be in doubt. But it was really hard to see growth out of them last year. And part of that is because the team lacked any semblance of discipline: the team ran an offensive and defensive system that seemed to intentionally lack order, and the players themselves were, once again, rowdy and chippy to a fault. The team shouldn't be as bad as they were last year. But they could just as easily be massively worse particularly if management decides to move on from Chandler, Dudley and Bledsoe, who may just be the only ones imparting any sense of discipline upon the young core.
The Kings, having finally moved on from the moving maelstrom that is Boogie Cousins, find themselves in a familiar place: the dregs of the conference. Comically mismanaged, it is unsurprising the Kings find themselves here, but for once there is quite a bit of room for hope. They have a young, relatively exciting core: Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere return off of promising seasons, particularly post-Boogie, and the team has added De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Justin Jackson, all of whom I believe are likely to be NBA-caliber rotation players. The team also signed veterans Zach Randolph and Vince Carter, along with George Hill, to serve as mentors for the young core, which represents one of the first thoughtful moves the Kings have made in ages. The team isn't going to be good, but they should be fun. The young pieces they have show some semblance of a team concept, something the Suns' core lacks: Fox as a dribble-drive, defensively oriented PG (a la Eric Bledsoe), Hield/Bogdanovic as deadly spot up shooters at the two (a la J.J. Redick), Justin Jackson as a multi-faceted offensive swingman (a la Kevin Martin), Skal as a versatile defender at the four with the ability to switch onto almost anything and cover up the weaknesses of the wings defensively (honestly, a Skal comp is hard to think of), and WCS as a balanced center who can provide a mixture of offense and defense (a la Marcin Gortat). I'm not saying all of those players get there. I think, in particular, it is unlikely Hield and WCS advance to their full potential. But the team concept makes sense. The pieces fit together. This season, it seems, will be about maximizing the opportunity of those pieces to play together, to see if that concept can work.
The 2016-17 NBA season starts tomorrow, and all rosters have now been finalized. Something long-time followers will know about me is I'm a maven of the marginal. I'm a fairly firm believer in the idea that the bottom part of the roster is oftentimes more important to the success of a season than the starters. That's why I like to wait for rosters to be finalized before I look at how I think teams are going to do.
Now that this is wrapped up, I feel comfortable writing a few words about the upcoming season. I'm going to use as my basis of analysis Kevin Pelton's win/loss predictions, which were finalized a few weeks ago. I'll start with the West, then go to the East.
Golden State Warriors - 67 wins (Conservative)
- This seems a relatively fair prediction. I would probably sit closer to 70 myself, but 67 is a good conservative call. One thing to keep in mind: the bench of this team is arguably worse than last season. They can weather a single injury to one of their core guys, but an injury to one of them and, say, Zaza Pachulia could put this team in serious trouble.
San Antonio Spurs - 54 wins (Slightly over-hyped)
- The Spurs aren't as good as they were last season. Tim Duncan and David West are gone, as is the criminally underappreciated Boban Marjanovic. In fact, the Spurs now have a deficit of quality big men. Their key addition, Pau Gasol (36), does little to stem the age problem the Spurs face, with a good chunk of minutes due to be played by Tony Parker (34), Manu Ginobili (39), and David Lee (33). This team lost part of its identity, and I think the impact of that is being underestimated. They did, however, have some of the best off-season undrafted gems. Bryn Forbes and Nicolas Laprovittola could honestly have an impact this season if injuries impact the guard rotation as they have in years past.
Utah Jazz - 47 wins (Spot on)
- The Jazz are one of my favorite teams. Joe Johnson and George Hill were two of the best low-key signings of the off-season. The Jazz are going to be able to run a five man unit of Hill-Hayward-Johnson-Lyles-Gobert that will absolutely swallow teams defensively. This teams biggest flaw from last season was guard play, and they improved that somewhat, but I still think they're going to struggle initiating the offense. 47-48 wins seems totally appropriate.
Houston Rockets - 47 wins (Conservative)
- The Rockets are a boom or bust team. Under Mike D'Antoni, this team is going to run. James Harden is going to be a triple-double threat every night. With Gordon, Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela running with him, this team could honestly win 50 games or more. The real problem, and the hard to predict thing with this team, is whether Anderson and Gordon can stay healthy. If they go down, the team really lacks impactful depth. Keeping Tyler Ennis and cutting Gary Payton II might come back to bite the team if Patrick Beverley, their key defensive guard, is unable to perform due to injury.
Los Angeles Clippers - 47 wins (Super Conservative)
- I get it. Everyone thinks the Clippers are going to decline this year. They still don't have much of a bench. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are all a year older. They still have a hole at the small forward position. But... I just can't see this team winning less than 50 games. That core, with J.J. Redick, is still really good. Throw in one of the most NBA-ready guys drafted last season in Brice Johnson, who I think is likely to play a small-ball center with this team, and there is room for modest excitement. Barring a major injury to, well, anyone, this team contends for the 2nd seed in the West.
Oklahoma City Thunder - 46 wins (Overhyped)
- Look, I get that everyone is on board for the Russell Westbrook revenge train. Its going to be compelling, fun basketball. But this team lost two of its best three players. Its now starting Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova. Westbrook is a generational talent, but he's going to be pushed to his absolute limits this season. I just can't imagine this team winning games at better than a .500 pace. One low-key story to watch: Joffrey Lauvergne is coming for Ilyasova's job. Lauvergne quietly improved last season. He's more offensively versatile than Ilyasova, and a much better rebounder. I could see Billy Donovan relying on Lauvergne more and more as the season goes on. Lauvergne and Domantas Sabonis could be the core of an...interesting second unit.
Portland Trail Blazers - 45 wins (Conservative)
- The Trail Blazers were a surprise to many last season, but they shouldn't be this year. Pelton, and many others, are primed to be surprised again. The Blazers don't have the best players. What they have going for them is a deep team with players that are very strong complements to each other, and a coach in Terry Stotts able to get the most out of them. This team is weak at Point Guard this season, though, so health is a really important factor for Damian Lillard. I would expect about 48 wins barring injuries.
Denver Nuggets - 42 wins (Over-hyped)
- The Nuggets have a really interesting young core with Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic and rookies Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez. They have interesting vets in Wilson Chandler, Danilo Galinari, Kenneth Faried and Will Barton. I'm just not sure what their identity is, or which guys in the latter list will still be on the team by the end of the season. If they put it all together, I guess this team could win 42 games. But what does together even look like? The fact that I'm really struggling to answer that question leads me to believe this team is not going to get anywhere near 42 wins. I'm expecting closer to 35.
Memphis Grizzlies - 40 wins (Conservative)
- Grit and Grind might be slowing down, but it isn't over yet. This team made the playoffs after losing Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. Those two healthy, with a (hopefully) healthy Chandler Parsons, and this team looks interesting. PF and SG are major questions, though. If the team is lucky, Deyonta Davis is able to come in and contribute, at least modestly, right away; but this is a major question mark, because Davis is currently hurt. Brandan Wright could be a major role player, a la his days in Dallas, but there are questions about his health as well. This team could have the largest variance between their perfectly health record and their unhealthy record. I'm going to assume health, and predict about 45 wins and another playoff appearance.
Minnesota Timberwolves - 38 wins (Spot-on)
- The Timberwolves are a year away from being competitors. Karl-Anthony Towns is a monster, and he looks spectacular with Ricky Rubio running the offense. Wiggins and LaVine both showed signs of improvement last season. Gorgui Dieng continued to be a quiet yet effective big. I'm still not sure how all these pieces fit together, though. I'm not sure Rubio, Wiggins and LaVine can coexist, or if Towns is best suited to playing next to Dieng. The bench is...questionable this season. I like some of the guys, but I just don't see a team that is really going to be able to hang with deep, playoff-caliber teams. These guys will flirt with the playoffs, but I think they ultimately fall about 5 games short.
Sacramento Kings - 38 wins (Over-hyped)
- This team won 33 games last season with a fairly similar roster. Darren Collison is a plus addition at the starting point guard position, if only because he meshes better with Boogie Cousins. Arron Afflalo hasn't been a positive player in a number of years, and I just don't see him helping this team. Rudy Gay is still, well, Rudy Gay, if but another year older. Cousins is still one of the best players in the league. This is a team screaming for a makeover, and it now has some of the roster pieces to accomplish it. Rudy Gay has already expressed his desire to opt-out after this season, so I have to imagine he'll be shopped to a contender or wannabe contender. Boogie will always be tied with trade rumors. I just think this is finally the season this team hits the reset button. I expect 33-35 wins, just like last season.
New Orleans Pelicans - 37 wins (Conservative)
-Please stay healthy. Please stay healthy. Please stay healthy. I firmly believe a healthy Pelicans team is one that competes for the last two playoff seeds in the West. Anthony Davis is still developing, but is already a potentially transcendent talent. Surrounded by the wing talent the Pelicans have accumulated (Jrue Holiday, Solomon Hill, Quincy Pondexter, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, Lance Stephenson), he could really flourish. Who among those guys will actually play a whole season? That's a totally different question. Another, perhaps more important question: who the hell plays next to Davis? Omer Asik was not a good basketball player last season, and risks becoming this generation's Kendrick Perkins. Alexis Ajinca has his merits, but probably not next to Davis. The Pelicans got one of the steals of the waiver wire last season when they picked up Tim Frazier. He doesn't have a sexy game, but after dealing Ish Smith, and with Jrue Holiday's continuing family concerns, Frazier represents a solid if unspectacular option at emergency starting point guard. If this team can manage to win 40% of its games while Jrue Holiday is out to start the season, expect them to compete for the 8th seed.
Dallas Mavericks - 35 wins (Conservative)
- This prediction is based entirely off of the fact that Rick Carlisle is a basketball genius. On paper, this team is... not good. If this was 2 years ago, a starting 5 of Deron Williams, Wes Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut would have looked modestly better. Now? Not so much. Toss in what might be the worst bench in the West, and things don't look rosy. That being said, the Mavericks do have a really interesting youth movement going on with Dorian Finney-Smith, Nicolas Brussino, Dwight Powell, Justin Anderson and A.J. Hammons. They're a young point guard away from having a future rotation. Justin Anderson is the real deal. I expect this team to compete for the 8th seed, but to fade down the stretch and (very maybe, very potentially) try to move Matthews and/or Williams.
Phoenix Suns - 29 wins (Spot on)
- The Suns are not a good team right now. They're weak at PF, SF and C, and are getting just average production out of the PG and SG positions. Eric Bledsoe, if he can stay healthy, is a top-half of the league player. Devin Booker, if he doesn't have to carry the offense, is a top-half of the league off-guard. Brandon Knight, if he accepts his role, is a top-half of the league 6th man. After that? Its a bit of a toss-up. The youth movement (T.J. Warren, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis, Alex Len) has some interesting potential, but the forwards have very overlapping potential skillsets. The vets on the team (P.J. Tucker, Jared Dudley, Tyson Chandler, Leandro Barbosa) don't really seem to fit on this team, as they're all good enough to take minutes away from the youth movement and win the team games they don't want to win. I have to imagine the front office is looking to trade players, particularly Tucker and Chandler. Even if they don't, it seems unlikely this team manages to win more than 29 games.
Los Angeles Lakers - 24 wins (Conservative)
- Addition by subtraction can be a powerful tool. Kobe Bryant, according to the stats at Box Score Geeks, was worth -5.6 points per 48 minutes last season. The Lakers were a bad team last year, but no one who got anywhere near the same number of minutes was anywhere near that bad. They were also comically mismanaged by Byron Scott. Under new coach Luke Walton, the team already looks light-years better. They key for this team will be continued growth out of the guard pairing of the future in D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, and continued average production out of new additions Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng. Don't look now, but the Lakers could run out a lineup of Clarkson, Lou Williams, Nick Young, Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov that could quite honestly compete against the starting five of most of the teams competing for the last seed in the West. That's not to say they will run out that lineup. But the team has that potential. For the sake of brand image, I expect this team to make the decisions that will allow them to finish outside of the bottom of the Conference this season. I expect between 28-30 wins.
Cleveland Cavaliers - 54 wins (Conservative)
- I, uh...I don't get this one. This team struggled with some nagging injury concerns last season and still won 57 games. They didn't really suffer any major defections other than Mozgov, who wasn't that effective due to injury. Losing Matthew Dellavedova hurts a bit, given Kyrie Irving's injury history, but the nice thing about having LeBron James on the roster is you don't need to worry as much about PG depth. The Cavs are still super thin on the bench, and I wouldn't be surprised if they make an attempt to shore that up with late cuts, with guys like Pablo Prigioni, Ronnie Price, Yi Jianlian, Jeremy Evans and Nate Wolters available. They have an open roster spot at the moment. I expect this team to, once again, win 57 games.
Boston Celtics - 49 wins (Slightly Conservative)
- The Celtics have a conglomeration of players that are all pretty good, but not great. Their starters are all starting quality, their bench is deep and productive. They should be better than they are likely to be. But they just aren't. The loss of Evan Turner is going to hurt this team worse than I think others realize. They desperately need a go to scorer other than Isaiah Thomas, but no one on the roster seems likely to fulfill that need, unless Al Horford counts as a go to scorer. Horford was a good addition, but he's just not the face of an offense this team needs. I fully expect Danny Ainge to be looking at moving some of his veteran guys and decent young talent to get a disaffected, high volume scorer. All this being said, the Celtics are still probably the second best team in the East, and getting to 50 wins is entirely reasonable.
Toronto Raptors - 48 wins (Over-hyped)
- I have the benefit of knowing that Jared Sullinger likely won't play this season, so the Pelton prediction can be forgiven a bit here. The loss of Bismack Biyombo and James Johnson is going to hurt this team much more than people realize, as they were the defensive pillars of an otherwise average team defensively. Lowry will be his usually productive self, and I can even imagine a little bit of growth from Jonas Valanciunas. But this unit just isn't going to be as good as last season, especially if DeMar DeRozan regresses to his usual level of efficiency. That being said, I really like what the Raptors have done from a youth acquisition standpoint. Delon Wright, Bruno Caboclo, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira are all interesting guys. The problem is that young, totally unproven guys are now the vast majority of this teams bench, with only Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson coming off the bench as established contributors. This season could get modestly ugly, and I wouldn't be surprised if the team ends up with as few as 44 wins.
Detroit Pistons - 47 wins (Conservative)
- On paper, this Pistons team doesn't look that appealing. The projected starting lineup of Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and Andre Drummond seems like a mish-mash of only mildly complementary pieces. The Pistons' strength this season comes from the fact that they have another five guys (Stanley Johnson, Ish Smith, Jon Leuer, Boban Marjanovic and Reggie Bullock) who could all be switched in to construct various lineups that can compete in the less talented Eastern Conference. I really, really like the depth on this team, and I don't think it unlikely that this team challenges for the 2nd seed in the East. I don't expect them to get there, but the Celtics will get a run for their money.
Charlotte Hornets - 42 wins (Spot on)
- The Hornets are a weird team. I could imagine this team being the scariest defensive unit in the NBA. A lineup with Kemba Walker, Treveon Graham, Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Roy Hibbert could be a nightmare for perimeter penetration oriented teams. Health and offensive development will be the keys for this team. Kidd-Gilchrist NEEDS a healthy season, as when healthy he's arguably one of the most impactful wing defenders in the league. One of Cody Zeller, Christian Wood and Frank Kaminsky needs to develop consistency so as to be able to relieve some pressure on Kidd-Gilchrist. This whole thing could fall apart, again, if the team cannot manage to stay healthy. If that happens, I wouldn't be surprised to see the team try to move vets Marvin Williams and Ramon Sessions, both of whom would likely have value to other playoff contenders. I don't expect them to struggle that badly, though. 42-44 wins seems pretty uncontroversial.
Washington Wizards - 42 wins (Spot on)
- The Wizards have a new coach in Scott Brooks. Not necessarily an exciting hire, but probably an improvement. I'm not sure what Brooks is going to be able to do with this team, though. John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat aren't a bad starting five. They're not great either. They're a league average starting unit, more or less. The bench for this team is more or less the same. Kelly Oubre, Ian Mahinmi and Andrew Nicholson all do some things nicely, but they aren't game changers, really. Trey Burke, who the team picked up to play backup PG, probably shouldn't be handed the reins to any NBA offense. Tomas Satoransky, who the Wizards brought over from Europe, might be their most intriguing bench player, in that he's a relative unknown who had some really fine moments in the pre-season. There just isn't a lot to be excited about with this team. If Bradley Beal perhaps finally makes the leap that people have been projecting, or Markieff Morris reverts to 2013-14, this team could challenge for the 2nd or 3rd seed. I just can't imagine that happening. .500 or thereabouts seems about right.
Atlanta Hawks - 40 wins (Conservative)
- The Hawks made the questionable decision to trade Jeff Teague in favor of Dennis Schroder. I thought that was a dumb move - by most advanced metrics Schroder was not good, while Teague was average. They lost Al Horford, and replaced him with Dwight Howard which, again, I'm not sure was a great move. Paul Millsap will remain a criminally underappreciated talent, and Thabo Sefolosha will continue to make the Thunder look like fools for letting him walk. The team will hope Kyle Korver reverts somewhat to form after a downtick last season. I just don't know that this team is really very good. If the Schroder experiment doesn't work, they're counting heavily on European import Malcolm Delaney to pick up the slack, as their are no other PGs on the roster. I should say, I think the Hawks have the young core with the greatest defensive potential, with DeAndre Bembry, Taurean Prince and Walter Tavares all projected as positive defensive players. All told, I expect this team to win 42-44 games.
Indiana Pacers - 39 wins (Over-hyped)
- Paul George is a great player. Jeff Teague is a slightly above average player. After that, I'm not sure what this team is. Thad Young and Monta Ellis, at their best, are league average players. They're making $25 million dollars this season. The starting center is Al Jefferson. There isn't a player on this team that I look at and say, 'Damn, that guy is a great defender.' So the expectation should be that this team is strong offensively. Yet, how do the skills of this team synchronize? George, Teague and Ellis all probably need the ball in their hands to be most effective. Al Jefferson is a back-to-the basket center who cannot play uptempo, which is the specialty of much of the rest of the offense. Young is undersized, with limited range and limited foot-speed. He can neither offensively draw defenders away from Jefferson nor defend Jefferson's man on the other end. The Pacers picked up a gem in Georges Niang, who went undrafted and has impressed in the pre-season and the Summer League. Paired with the still developing Joe Young and Myles Turner, this is a modestly interested young grouping. 39 wins seems like a stretch. I'm thinking closer to 35.
Chicago Bulls - 39 wins (Spot-on)
- This team makes no sense. Individually they have some appealing players. Their projected starting five of Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez is a throwback to an era when spacing didn't matter. Unfortunately for Gar Forman and the front office, that isn't the era we exist in now. The bright side for this team is that it legitimately has a young core that fans should be excited about. Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams, Dough McDermott, Cristiano Felicio, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine all have NBA caliber talents. The development of these players will be the key to the Bulls hitting 39 wins, as Fred Hoiberg will need to use them to stagger the minutes of his starting five and get some shooting onto the floor. 39 is doable, and probably likely, but it could go ugly, too.
Orlando Magic - 37 wins (Mildly Conservative)
- I can understand people being concerned about this team. The roster lacks much in the way of established talent. Serge Ibaka, the third best player on last year's playoff OKC team, is now undeniably the best player on the Magic. Not great. But the East isn't the West, and this team has some interesting young players. Their likely starting lineup under new coach Frank Vogel is Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gorgon, Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, with Nikola Vucevic and Mario Hezonja as offensive sparks off of the bench. That's honestly not that bad of a lineup, and it has great defensive potential. This team is going to struggle to score the ball, and guard play is a definite weakness. If they can see some modest development out of Payton on the offensive side, this team could really surprise people. I say they get to 40 wins.
Miami Heat - 35 wins (Mildly Conservative)
- Another year without Chris Bosh really, really sucks. I've been high on the Heat the last few seasons, but their window has definitely passed. That being said, 35 wins for this team seems way too low. This team's starting lineup isn't that bad. Goran Dragic-Tyler Johnson-Justise Winslow-Josh McRoberts-Hassan Whiteside is going to be able to win games against other, non-elite teams in the East. The bench isn't even that bad with Luke Babbitt, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, Josh Richardson and Willie Reed. The only way this team gets 35 wins or less is if the front office decides to move in the other direction. I expect them in the 38-40 range and in the competition for the playoffs.
New York Knicks - 35 wins (Slightly Over-Hyped)
- This team has star power, I'll give it that. I'm just not sure that is going to be enough. Assuming everyone on this roster stays relatively healthy, this might be closer to a 40-42 in team. But I just cannot see that happening. Literally every key member of this team has had serious medical concerns in the last few seasons, with the exception of Kristaps Porzingis. The biggest flaw this team suffers from is that, regardless of whether they're playing Derrick Rose or Brandon Jennings, they have a net negative at PG. The team does have some interesting youth with Maurice Ndour, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Ron Baker, but these are all pretty limited guys. I thought the team missed out on an opportunity by cutting Damien Inglis in favor of Baker; Inglis has the kind of defensive potential that would have made him useful as a complement to Carmelo and Porzingis. I expect this team to disappoint a bunch of Knicks fans and finish at about 33 wins.
Milwaukee Bucks - 33 wins (Spot on)
- When the Bucks made the playoffs two years ago, it was largely as a result of the emergence of Khris Middleton, a nearly perfect complementary player to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Their struggles last year coincided with the struggles of Middleton. With Middleton due to miss probably the entire season and the Bucks having essentially no replacement option, it could be a rough season in Wisconsin. Matthew Dellavedova is potentially a slight upgrade at PG, mostly because he is more suited to operating without the ball. The team intends to start Tony Snell at the 2 spot, and that seems...bad. It seems like the team plans to start Jabari Parker and Miles Plumlee at the 4 and 5 spots, which makes sense from a roster point of view, but seems like a waste of Greg Monroe, who shifts to the bench unit. The bench unit is not good, and what talent does exist is stacked at the 4 and 5 positions. This is going to be a rough season for the Bucks. Only the fact that Giannis is really, really good, and Jabari has looked like a different player in the preseason, gives me hope that this team will scrap to 33 wins. If either of those guys misses time...the tank could be on.
Brooklyn Nets - 29 wins (Slightly Over-Hyped)
- Vegas has the over-under on this team at about 21 wins. That's too low. 29, though, is probably too high. This team has some veteran pieces that are going to allow them to compete on a nightly basis. Jeremy Lin, Trevor Booker and Brook Lopez are veteran guys that can put in 32-34 quality minutes per night. Greivis Vasquez is a quality vet off the bench who might be able to play next to Lin if he can get healthy. The team's youth should contribute to some degree this season. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris McCullough should both player heavily, while Anthony Bennett, Isaiah Whitehead and Caris LeVert have the potential to get some spot time. The biggest hole for this team is at SF. Bojan Bogdanovic is a limited player, and the team doesn't have a second option, unless it is going to play a three guard lineup or a three big lineup. Hollis-Jefferson could potentially play there, but offensively he's going to struggle more than he already does. I'm not as down on this team as most, but I only expect them to get 26-27 wins.
Philadelphia 76ers - 26 wins (spot on)
- The Ben Simmons injury really hurts this team. Simmons alone is probably worth 3-4 wins, especially given how the team seemed to be building its offense around him. Additional bad news came with the announcement that Nerlens Noel will miss 3-6 weeks as a result of a minor knee injury. With Jerryd Bayless out likely a month with a wrist injury, this team is already suffering badly from the injury bug. The good news is that the team is relatively deep, and gets Joel Embiid back this season. While this team isn't going to be good on the court, the crazy thing is that at this point they actually have a full team of NBA quality players. They're just mostly bench players or lower order starters. T.J. McConnell, Richaun Holmes, Jerami Grant, Hollis Thompson, Dario Saric, Jahlil Okafor and Robert Covington are all guys under 25 who would undeniably have a role on other teams. Combined with Embiid and Noel, you have 9 guys under 25 that are legitimate NBA players. Its honestly the other guys on this roster that I question at this point. The team is likely going to start or give significant minutes to Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez. I'm not sure at this point what value they provide. Regardless, this team isn't going to win many games. But they should finally be somewhat fun to watch, and that's a definite improvement.