It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The NFL and college football are in full-force while college basketball teams across the nation are exhibiting their newly acquired talent. But the big story now is the return of the NBA. With all 30 teams having made their 2017-2018 debut and given us a small sample of what’s to come, it’s time to make my unofficially official predictions on how each team will fare this season.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
Barring a freak injury or LeBron James deciding to play professional baseball, the Cleveland Cavaliers will be the best team in the Eastern Conference. Period. No questions asked. Even with the loss of Kyrie Irving, the Cavs more than made up for his loss with the acquisition of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and Ante Zizic. The Cavs have depth at every position, the best player in the world, and a very good chance at making the Finals once again. Don’t let their slow start fool you, Cleveland will get it together and tear through the wet tissue paper that is the Eastern Conference.
2. Washington Wizards
The team looking to give the Cavs a run for their money will be the Washington Wizards. John Wall came into his own averaging a career high 23.1 points and 10.7 assists last season. The four-time all-star, combined with the efforts of Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., and a slew of young talent, were two games out of the second seed last season. Gordon Hayward’s injury opens the door for the Wizards to make a big move up the standings, especially if Kelly Oubre Jr. continues to improve in his third year.
3. Boston Celtics
The Cavs biggest competition going into the season was Irving’s new team, the Boston Celtics. Unfortunately for Beantown natives, Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury just six minutes into C’s opener. Don’t get me wrong, the Celtics are still a very good team, touting a combo of experience (Kyrie Irving, Al Horford) and young talent (Jaylen Brown and 2017 No. 3 overall pick Jayson Tatum). However, the loss of Crowder and Avery Bradley took away two of the team’s best defenders, not to mention their leading scorer, Isaiah Thomas.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
Alongside the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Milwaukee Bucks are the hottest young team in basketball. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a bona fide star at only 22-years old and has recently received the praises of LeBron James. Add in a healthy Jabari Parker and Malcolm Brogdon and you’ve got a dangerous eastern conference team. Jason Kidd’s squad made the playoffs as a six-seed last season, tying their highest seed since 2000-2001. Antetokounmpo is already an MVP candidate and will become a household name this season so you might as well start practicing spelling his name.
5. Toronto Raptors
Right along with the Bucks are the Toronto Raptors. Toronto tied Cleveland for the second best record in the East last season before falling to the Cavs in the Conference Semifinals. Toronto has been so close to breaking through in the past four seasons but can’t get past LeBron (see Paul George, circa 2013). The Raptors maintained their core of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozen, and Jonas Valanciunas while losing swing-man DeMarre Carroll. The loss of Carroll will definitely hurt the Raptors this season and that puts them behind Milwaukee at number five.
6. Charlotte Hornets
The next few picks are interchangeable and very hard to predict. The Hornets, Pistons, Heat, and Magic all make a case for sixth in the conference in my book. The teams finished 11th, 10th, 9th and 13th last season but the implosion of Chicago, Indiana, Atlanta, and New York opens the door for a playoff reshuffle. Charlotte holds the edge due to the evolution of Kemba Walker and the acquisition of Dwight Howard. Howard is looking to revamp his career in Charlotte alongside a mix of youth and experience in Buzz City. However, the Hornets biggest concern is health. If Nicolas Batum and Michael-Kidd Gilchrist can stay healthy the Hornets can potentially make it out of the first round for the first time in franchise history.
7. Miami Heat
Miami finished the season at .500 following a 30-11 record in the second half of the season. The Heat are just not deep enough for me to put any higher. Hassan Whiteside is great, don’t get me wrong (Ain’t nobody doing it with blocks!) and the guard combo of Dragic and Waiters proved efficient in the absence of Justice Winslow last season, but who else can you rely on. I want to like the Heat but just can’t get hooked. Being in the East gives Miami a chance to grow, but don’t count on a deep run by the Heat.
8. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons are a tricky team. They’ve got plenty of good, not great, players in Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond, and Tobias Harris. Harris is the closest thing Detroit has to a star. Drummond was third in the league in rebounding and the team was sixth opponent points per game last season. However, the Motor City was 26th in scoring last season and 29th in the three-point percentage. Adding Avery Bradley helps the Piston’s defense, but it won’t matter if no one can score. Not to mention Drummond can’t play in close games because of abysmal free throw shooting. Yes, they beat the Warriors already, but don’t count on it again.
JUST MISSED THE CUT:
Orlando Magic – Orlando is a team I really want to like but can’t trust. Nikola Vucevic is a mobile big man that can shoot from distance on occasion. Paired with Aaron Gordon, the duo are an impressive front court on a team that has been the home to Shaquille O’Neal and prime Dwight Howard. The Magic were 22nd in points scored while allowing the fourth most, also landing a dismal 29th in three-point percentage. Get more scorers before the trade deadline and we’ll talk. But for now, Orlando is on the outside looking in.
Philadelphia 76ers – I don’t trust the process, not yet at least. The problem with having seven first-round picks since 2014 is that it’s going to take time to yield their results. It speaks volumes that the most experienced (and highest paid) players in Philly are J.J. Reddick, Amir Johnson, and Jerryd Bayless. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will develop and the Sixers will be higher on this list next year, for sure
Indiana Pacers – Indiana faces the opposite problem of Philly, with only six Pacers under the age of 25. Victor Oladipo will be the star of the team and is surrounded by the established Thaddeus Young and Darren Collison. Lance Stephenson is looking for a career resurgence with the departure of Paul George, while Myles Turner continues to improve. It hurt to lose George, but it’s not the end of the world for the Pacers. Just don’t expect much this season.
Brooklyn Nets – The Nets are finally escaping the ramifications of a 2013 trade with Boston that sent Brooklyn to the bottom of the standings with no way to climb back up. D’angelo Russell has room to grow alongside DeMarre Carroll and Trevor Booker. Had Jeremy Lin not been injured, Brooklyn had potential to be even higher. It’s not a great place to be, but it’s a whole lot better than where they’ve been.
New York Knicks – Last season’s most dysfunctional organization looks to rebuild around the Unicorn, Kristaps Porzingis. New acquisitions in Tim Hardaway Jr., Doug McDermott, and Enes Kanter give New York a decent foundation. It’s an uphill battle from here, but having a seven-footer that can shoot, defend, and handle the ball gives the organization something to look forward to.
Atlanta Hawks – The 2014-2015 Atlanta Hawks featured four all-stars that led the team to first place in the East. All have since left or been traded, putting the Hawks in full re-build mode. Dennis Schroder will put up good numbers but that’s about it. I hear Atlanta has a good soccer team now, maybe check that out. Otherwise, it’s tank-season in ATL.
Chicago Bulls – Just like the Hawks, it was time for the Bulls to explode and start over. A young core (and Robin Lopez, so I guess that’s cool) will develop in the Windy City. Denzel Valentine, Kris Dunn, and Zach Lavine give fans something to look forward to. Chi-town will likely look to make moves in the off-season unless it’s part of their strategy to have 45 point-guards.
See the second part of this story next week for the Western Conference predictions.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith