1. Cleveland Cavaliers –
Projected Starting 5: PG Kyrie Irving SG J.R. Smith SF LeBron James PF Kevin Love C Tristian Thompson
Projected Record: 67-15
Last Season’s Thoughts – The Cavs faced a lot of adversity last year, playing with a chip on their shoulder after losing in the Finals. LeBron suffered some bumps and bruises, and the Cavs had to deal with life without LeBron for a short while, pushing them to come together.
They also fired their coach in the middle of the season, while they were in first place, and threw T. Lue into the hot seat. What seemed like another bizarre coaching change, up there with the Lakers firing Mike Brown 5 games into the season, turned out to be one of the key pieces in their championship run.
This team was built on defense and LeBron James’ brilliance. While he seemingly lost a step, which everyone was quick to point out, he proved why he is still the King in this league. There’s not much you can criticize when a team wins the Championship, especially when they shut down the team with the greatest regular season record of all time. Never forget who's the King.
This Season’s Prediction – As the reigning champs, this Cavs team will get every team’s best game, night in and out. But if anyone can steer a team through a tough season like this, it’s LeBron James. Plus, this team has plenty of talent to carry them back to the Finals.
Their record might be a little inflated, but it is hard to choose against the reigning champs on paper. And look for Kyrie Irving to take up the mantle of this team. While it’s obviously LeBron’s team, Kyrie will be the show to see every night. Come playoff time, this team will be focused on returning to the Finals, and there is no team in the Eastern Conference that can stop them from getting there (although Indiana should make them work a little this year, but more on that later).
2. Indiana Pacers –
Projected Starting 5: PG Jeff Teague SG Monta Ellis SF Paul George PF Thaddeus Young C Al Jefferson
Projected Record: 60-22
Last Season’s Thoughts – Is it just me, or was this 45-37 Pacers team an under-the-radar team last season?? It wasn’t that long ago that Paul George was leading the Pacers to the conference finals. Granted, that was before Lance blew in LeBron’s ear, and before Roy Hibbert became a shadow of his former self, but this is still a team overseen by Larry Bird and George is still a great player.
Somehow George averaged a quiet 23.1 PPG, 7. 0 RPG, and 4.1 APG. All of this coming after that gruesome leg injury he suffered the summer before the previous season. Honestly the only thing I remember about the Pacers’ season was their Hoosiers themed, red and yellow jerseys, that’s it.
They managed to get the 7th seed and took the Raptors to 7 games, in which I totally assumed that the Raptors would lose, because once again, I just don’t respect that team. Anyways, the success the Pacers found last season was an added bonus, because this team was retooling and getting ready to make a real push with a fully healthy Paul George.
This Season’s Prediction – I love the Pacers’ offseason moves. You wanna talk about good chemistry on a basketball court? Look no further than the 2016-17 Indiana Pacers. Where a team like Chicago may struggle because their pieces don’t readily fit together, this Pacers team looks great on paper.
The additions of Jeff Teague and Al Jefferson are Donald Trump “yuggee”. Teague is a great all-around PG who can contribute on a great team. I think his production and confidence went down last year because of the make-up of that Atlanta Hawks team.
While the Hawks play a great system of team basketball, it was almost too balanced. No one wanted to be “the guy” on that team, and the team’s philosophy was based on sharing the ball and playing as a unit. Teague suffered because people pointed the finger at him to step up, in a system that encouraged him not too.
Now place him as second or third fiddle behind George and Jefferson. That is a recipe for success in my book, because Teague can pick his spots when he needs to contribute, and his intelligence at the PG spot will only help Paul George do what he needs to do.
Then there’s Jefferson. I’ve always liked him as a player because I have a soft spot for bigmen with low post skills. While he doesn’t bring a whole lot on the defensive end, I think he can play a role for this team that is crucial to helping George thrive. Bird has said he wants to have a more up-tempo offense, and Jefferson’s ability to score down low should help with that.
Not only will Jefferson give the Pacers another scoring option, he will add another dimension to their game. Thaddeus Young I think is another great pick up for this team, as his playing style fits perfectly in with George and Jefferson as a stretch 4. Add Monta Ellis’ scoring to that and you wind up, in my opinion, with a 60-win team.
I also want to point out that they have a very strong bench. When I look at a bench, I look for balance at every position, and NBA experience. Aaron Brooks, Rodney Stuckey, and C.J. Miles all fit that description, and they have a young player with a bright future in Myles Turner. You could say I am officially on the Pacers’ bandwagon for this season.
3. Chicago Bulls –
Projected Starting 5: PG Rajon Rondo SG Dwyane Wade SF Jimmy Butler PF Taj Gibson C Robin Lopez
Projected Record: 53-29
Last Season’s Thoughts – The Bulls were a very disappointing team last year. 2016 was the year that Chicago was supposed to move on from the grind-em-out days of coach Tom Thibadeau, and adopt the “forward thinking” ways of new coach Fred Hoiberg.
Hoiberg was seen as the antithesis of Thibs, a new college coach whose emphasis was on fast pace offense. If anything, this move was going to be a gamble because Hoiberg didn’t coach defense, which was the bread and butter of Chicago basketball for the past several years.
As it turns out, the roster wasn’t really suited to Hoiberg’s coaching, with many players still left from Thib’s tenure. Hoiberg benched Joachim Noah, and Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose butted heads over who would be the alpha dog on the team. Butler was calling everybody out by the end of the season, wondering where the effort was.
In the end, Butler knew either he or Rose would be traded, and the franchise probably made the best decision in that scenario.
This Season’s Prediction – This team, on paper before the season, is one of the NBA’s brain teasers. If you want to go off of overall ratings (whether they’re from your gut or 2K), this team looks very strong. Defensively, this is an amazing team. Even though Wade has lost a step, he is still a player that can play excellent team defense. The only concern on paper is their bench, which is decent. They are lacking in the back up point guard position, but the rest of the bench can help them win games.
But, with all that being said, when the ball is thrown up, and the whistle blows, I can’t see this team gelling on the court. Offensively, this team looks like a conundrum at best. Wade and Butler are both slashers. They need the ball in their hands, and their primary focus is to get to the basket.
Regardless of spreading out the touches, having a PG like Rondo isn’t ideal for those guys. His man can sag off because he doesn’t need to respect Rondo’s shot, so that means there’s another body to clog up the lane. And when Wade is off the ball, his defender can roam slightly because Wade doesn’t like to take 3s (He only attempted 44, and made 7 last year).
Overall, this is a team that will do pretty well this year, and I think they’ll ride their defense to a pretty good record. Age may play a factor later in the season, and Wade’s health may be an issue if he doesn’t get a lot of rest. But compared to the rest of the Eastern Conference, this team has experience and enough talent to be a good team. They are going to be right in the middle of the pack, either the 3rd, 4th or 5th seed, and they will be a dangerous team in the playoffs. All they need to do is figure out how their offense is going to work and be most productive.
4. Detroit Pistons –
Projected Starting 5: PG Reggie Jackson SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope SF Tobias Harris PF Marcus Morris C Andre Drummond
Projected Record: 34-48
Last Season’s Thoughts – This was a young team with a lot to prove. Reggie Jackson’s first full season in Detroit was very successful, he proved that he is a force to be reckoned with on his own, and this team looked very promising. Andre Drummond was rounding into his own, and quickly becoming a force down low.
This team definitely fit into the “up-and-coming” and “on-the-right-track” categories after last season. Having hired Stan Van Gundy the previous season as president and coach, this organization showed that they were committed to building for the future and winning.
That commitment was on display during the playoffs last year, when the Pistons matched up with Cleveland. The history books may say that the Pistons got swept, but I think anyone who watched those games would agree that the Pistons did not back down, and they didn’t give the Cavs anything easy. This franchise has a bright future, granted that they continue to make smart roster moves and don’t get hit by injuries. Their major hurdle to overcome is experience, which will come with time.
This Season’s Prediction – Because this team is on the rise, they are a tricky team to call on paper. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did break the 40-win mark, but I think they will be an average team at best. I question their defense and their depth, which will both loom large down the stretch.
That being said, if this team stays healthy and gets on a roll, they can surprise some of the better teams in the league. Their youth and inexperience could become their greatest strength if that is the case, with their reckless abandon making them hard to contain.
Getting back into the playoffs is a great goal for this team. If they can draw anyone besides the Cavs and the Pacers, they might be able to advance and gain that much more experience. This team will grow the most while they are grinding in the playoffs, so even finishing as the 8th seed once again will be a good thing for this team.
5. Milwaukee Bucks –
Starting 5: PG Michael Carter-Williams SG Jason Terry/Michael Beasley SF Giannis Antetokounmpo PF Jabari Parker C Greg Monroe
Last Season’s Thoughts – Last season’s Milwaukee Bucks were the classic example of a struggling young team. It was Jabari Parker and Michael Carter-Williams’ first full season with the Bucks, and offseason addition Greg Monroe also played his first season in Milwaukee.
They struggled to defend, and their offense never really got going. Antetokounmpo and Parker were trying to figure out their chemistry on the court, and Antetokounmpo was continuing to add to his raw physical ability. Carter-Williams, even when healthy, is a so-so PG, but while he was sidelined with injuries, the Bucks didn’t have anyone who could really step up at make a difference.
But again, the Bucks never had any allusions about last season. While making the playoffs was certainly their goal, Bucks fans should be happy that this team got a year more of experience, and that these players got a full season to play together and build chemistry. The Bucks’ future is still bright, but last season showed that they are going to have to work hard for it.
This Season’s Prediction – I really wish I could have given this team more wins on paper. My prediction has them one game worse than they were last year, and I think they’ll be hanging around 30 something wins.
My gut tells me that along with the Detroit Pistons, this team is going to be very good in the future. I want to call them the Minnesota Timberwolves of the East because of the talent on their roster. However, I think this team has to gel a little bit more to get to where I think the T’Wolves will be this year, but again I see them on the rise.
The only thing standing between the Bucks and more success is the fact that somebody has to loose in the NBA, and I think this team will come up short more often than not. There defense is still a concern, and their bench isn’t strong enough to carry them.
I really like the pick up of Mathew Dellavedova, he will be able to fill in for MCW if he gets hurt, and Teletovic, Henson and Plumlee are decent players. I’m also not quite sure how much Thon Maker will contribute in his first year. He strikes me as another Antetokounmpo, someone who will have to figure out his game and hone his skills to be effective.
Antetokounmpo and Parker have got to make big strides this year if this team is going to work out. I wasn’t a fan of Parker’s athleticism last year, especially as a stretch 4, so I’m hoping they can either train him to get quicker, or use him in a deferent way to improve his matchups.
Personally, I would slide Parker up to SG, move Henson into the starting lineup (for now) and either trade both MCW and Kris Middleton for a better starting PG or PF. If they trade for a better PF, I think they can get by with Delly at the point. And yes, I realize the team I just constructed is a literal forest (Parker is 6’8”, Antetokounmpo is 6’11” and Henson is 6’11”) but that height and length, at the right positions, is a plus in today’s NBA where you need height at the basket and length on the perimeter.
Either way, the Bucks aren’t winning a championship this year and the best thing for this team is more experience. If they can make a push and make the playoffs, that would be even better for their up-and-coming stars.
UPDATE: As of Thursday, September 22, Khris Middleton will be out with a torn hamstring for around 6 months. What does this do to the Bucks? Well, I think their losing season just became a little more likely. Middleton was amongst the first role players to be "overpaid" in this new CBA era, now that teams have more money to spend. And while that may have been good business, seeing as Middleton's contract is going to become the new norm, I don't think he was that good of a player. As Mack and I always like to say, someone has to score on bad teams, and I think Middleton's recent stats have been inflated for that reason.
What's more concerning is the move the Bucks have made in response to this news. They traded Tyler Ennis, who looks to be on his way to becoming a journeyman in the NBA, for, wait for it, Michael Beasley! That's scary for a few reasons. One, to think that Michael Beasley is some how a good replacement/band-aid for Kris Middleton is crazy. Beasley has become a one-dimensional version of his former self, which wasn't very complex to begin with. Two, as I said, this team is young and needs experience. I don't know if Michael Beasley has matured off the court, but if I was a GM, I wouldn't want a player with his kind of attitude in my locker room at a time when my burgeoning young stars really need to grow.
If I am Milwaukee, I would start Jason Terry over Beasley. Terry brings that much needed experience to their starting line-up, and I think Beasley is far better at coming off the bench at this point in his career.
That's it for the Central Division preview! Check back next Friday (Sept. 30) for the Southeast Division preview!