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.