After fifteen years and eight straight trips to the eastern conference finals, the large shadow that LeBron James has cast over the Eastern Conference has been lifted. In his wake he leaves the remnants of teams that he has singlehandedly dismantled such as the 2010 Bulls, 2011 Celtics and the 2013 Pacers.  Disenfranchised All-Stars such as Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Millsap and Paul George even fled to the Western Conference after growing weary of waiting out his dominance.

Previous number one seeds such as the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics are licking their lips in anticipation for finally reaching the NBA finals.  When Michael Jordan first retired in 1996, the Houston Rockets then unexpectedly won two championships, the second year as an eight seed so the rest of the Eastern Conference are undeniably feeling gung-ho about their chances, if not this year then next year.

The NBA preseason has begun which means we’re less than a month away from meaningful basketball. The preseason gives us a brief glimpse on seeing the new look teams in actions, changes to offensive/ defensive schemes and most importantly what new skills players are showcasing as they seek to make the leap from good to great.  I’ve divided the Eastern Conference into 4 Tiers based on their internal expectations and the reality of their situation.


LOTTERY BOUND


  • Atlanta Hawks
  • New York Knicks
  • Brooklyn Nets
  • Chicago Bulls
  • Orlando Magic

The Atlanta Hawks

Projected record: 15-67

Head Coach(new): Lloyd Pierce

PGSGSFPF C
Trae YoungKent BazemoreTaurean PrinceJohn CollinsDewayne Dedmon
Jeremy LinKevin HuerterTyler DorseyOmari SpellmanAlex Len
Jaylen AdamsDeAndre’ BembryVince CarterCole AldrichMiles Plumlee

The first step of a true rebuild is to hire no nonsense, defense oriented coach from a previous tanking team and the Hawks have done just that with the hiring of Lloyd Pierce who was last seen trusting “The Process” in Philadelphia. While he never played in the NBA, he learned playing alongside Steve Nash at Santa Clara and is from the Lionel Hollins coaching tree. He will be tasked with teaching the youngest team in the NBA structure and discipline while also allowing Trae Young and John Collins to go through their respective growing pains. Veterans such as Jeremy Lin and Kent Bazemore are there solely to provide guidance before their inevitable mid-season trade as the Hawks are wisely content to collect assets while losing games with an eye towards Zion Williamson in next year’s draft. Trae Young will need to learn restraint lest he follow the same career arc as Brandon Jennings who followed up his career 50 point night as a rookie with a middling career. The Hawks possess and intriguing combinaton of youthful exuberance with  enough veteran grittiness for them to play hard and somewhat exciting basketball through an unsuccessful season.

The New York Knicks

Projected record: 20-62

Head coach: Jeff Hornaceck

PGSGSFPFC
Trey BurkeCourtney LeeTim Hardaway Jr.Noah VonlehEnes Kanter
Emmanuel MudiayFrank NtilikinaKevin KnoxLance ThomasMitchell Robinson
Ron BakerDamyean DotsonMario HezonjaKristaps PorzingisLuke Kornet

The Knicks are in a bridge year while they wait for the Unicorn to recover from his torn ACL. Kristaps Porzingis established himself as a true franchise cornerstone last season before his injury and Coach Hornaceck will be using this season to fully evaluate his roster to see who remains after they pursue two max free agents in next year’s free agency.  The Knicks have seemingly had a good run of draft picks and it is interesting to see how much scoring rookies Kevin Knox an Mitchell Robinson can provide. The rest of the roster are a hodgepodge of castoffs who are essentially fighting for their NBA futures. Trey Burke established himself as a NBA started last season and they are optimistic the new signing Mario Hezonja can show the offensive consistency that was lacking during his tenure with the heat. Expect Enes Kanter to have a tremendous usage rate as he will most likely be trade bait with his expiring contract.

The Brooklyn Nets

Projected record: 30-52

Head Coach: Kenny Atkinson

PGSGSFPFC
D’Angelo RussellAllen CrabbeDeMarre CarrollRondae Hollis-JeffersonJarrett Allen
Spencer DinwiddieCaris LeVertJoe HarrisJared DudleyEd Davis
Shabazz NapierTreveon GrahamRodions KurucsKenneth FariedAlan Williams

Now that the Brooklyn Nets are finally freed from owing any future picks to the Boston Celtics, they can finally reap the rewards of being in the cellar of the Eastern Conference. Under GM Sean Marks  and head coach Atkinson, they have wisely accumulated depressed assets via their cap space. They’re another team that has an eye towards the NBA draft in conjunction with free agency. The Nets always play hard under Atkinson and we can expect to see continued development from D’Angelo Russell and Jarett Allen. When the roster is healthy they possess an enviable mix of long wings who have to ability to shoot from distance. Interior defense will continue to be an issue.

The Chicago Bulls

Projected record: 32-50

Head Coach: Fred Hoiberg

PGSGSFPF C
Kris DunnZach LaVineJabari ParkerLauri MarkkanenRobin Lopez
Cameron PayneJustin HolidayDenzel ValentineBobby PortisWendell Carter Jr.
Ryan ArcidiaconoAntonio BlakeneyChandler HutchisonCristiano FelicioOmer Asik

The Bulls are trying a radical experiment to see how exactly how many of the worst defenders in the league they can insert into the starting lineup. It certainly doesn’t help that two of them(Jabari Parker and Zach LaVine) have also had torn ACL’s. Nevertheless, bookending them and Lauri Markkanen with Kriss Dunn and Robin Lopez should reasonably stem the flow of easy buckets at the rim. The Bulls has an enviable array of scorers and it’s up to Fred Hoiberg to get them to commit on the defensive end. They are potentially a playoff team in the next few years.

The Orlando Magic

Projected record: 36-46

Head coach(new): Steve Clifford

PGSGSFPF C
D.J. AugustinEvan FournierJonathan IsaacAaron GordonNikola Vucevic
Jerian GrantJonathon SimmonsWesley IwunduJarell MartinMohamed Bamba
Isiah BriscoeTerrence RossMelvin Frazier Jr.Khem BirchTimofey Mozgov

The Orlando Magic have tried to emulate the Milwaukee Bucks model of filling out the roster with players who have extreme wingspans and hoping that the skills develop. Their roster is still stuck with some holdovers from the previous regime and they will be trotting out the shortest PG in the league who is also a poor defender. They will win a decent amount of games due to having 3 players who have previously averaged over 18PPG (Vucevic, Gordon and Fournier) and new coach Steve Clifford will employ a conservative yet effective defense. They are at least a season away from making the playoffs while they wait for Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba to gain NBA size and round out their skillsets.


FIGHTING FOR RESPECTABILITY


  • Detroit Pistons
  • Charlotte Hornets
  • Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Miami Heat

The Detroit Pistons

Projected Record: 37-45

Head Coach(New): Dwayne Casey

PGSGSFPF C
Reggie JacksonReggie BullockStanley JohnsonBlake GriffinAndre Drummond
Ish SmithLuke KennardGlenn Robinson IIIJon LeuerHenry Ellenson
Jose CalderonLangston GallowayKhyri ThomasChris McCulloughZaza Pachulia

Due to the shortsighted machination of previous head coach and GM, Stan Van Gundy, the Detroit Pistons are stuck in the NBA’s lower middle class, not equipped for today’s pace and space league but with an expensive roster that is just talented enough to almost make the playoffs. Their big three of Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson are more well suited for the NBA circa 2002 but they should have enough individual dynamism to win a decent amount of games if they all remain healthy. The may be able to sniff the playoffs if new coach Casey can replicate his bench mob success from Toronto. They will be severely dependent on the 3-point shooting of Luke Kennard, Jon Leuer and Henry Ellenson. Defensive contributions from Stanley Johnson and Khryi Thomas will be the deciding factor on whether this team shows significant progress from last season. Andre Drummond make a significant improvement to his free throw shooting as well as to his team defense. If he can make another leap this year, the Piston will easily make the playoffs.

The Charlotte Hornets

Projected record: 37-45

Head Coach(new): James Borrego

PGSGSFPF C
Kemba WalkerNicolas BatumMichael Kidd-GilchristMarvin WilliamsCody Zeller
Tony ParkerJeremy LambMiles BridgesFrank KaminskyBismack Biyombo
Devonte’ GrahamMalik MonkDwayne BaconZach SmithWilly Hernangomez

Another team stuck in the NBA lower middle class. The Hornets have swapped out one conservative defensive coach for another in James Borrego. While they may lack star power, their starters have played together for a while and have good chemistry which is invaluable for smaller markets. Their bench will be led by the shell of Tony Parker who should be able to provide off the court guidance to their numerous non-shooting players. Young players such as Miles Bridges, Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon will need to convince Kemba Walker that he should eschew free agency and wait for them to develop. This may be the most important year for the Hornets as they will be a perennial lottery team if he leaves.

The Cleveland Cavaliers

Projected record: 40-42

Head Coach: Tyronne Lue

PGSGSFPF C
George HillRodney HoodCedi OsmanKevin LoveTristan Thompson
Collin SextonJR SmithKyle KorverLarry Nance Jr.Ante Zizic
Isaiah TaylorJordan ClarksonDavid NwabaSam DekkerChanning Frye

The Cavaliers are ostensibly more prepared for LeBron James departure this time around and have decided to build the team around Kevin Love. While the average fan may laugh at this concept, he still remains one of the better big men, if not players in the NBA. The Cavaliers will be playing with something to prove and will most likely play at a much faster rate to suit their roster. George Hill, Jr Smith and Kyle Korver each have non-guaranteed contracts next year so they’re at risk of being moved to a championship contender missing a final piece. Collin Sexton has looked at ease so far in the NBA and Cedi Osman has continued to impress every time he steps on the floor. Osman stands to gain the most from LeBron’s departure as is my pick for Most Improved player of the year. I see him easily averaging at least 15PPG. The first 2 months of the season will be essential since the Cavs may be tempted to tank since their 2019 1st round pick is heading to the Hawks (top ten protected). The Golden State Warriors employed the same tactic in 2012 when they traded away Monta Ellis and subsequently lost 17 out of their last 20 games to keep their top 7 protected pick. The drafted Harrison Barnes at #7 the next year and the core of their title winning team was formed. I see this Cavs team alternating winning and losing streaks before securing a low playoff seed.

The Miami Heat

Projected record: 44-38

Head Coach: Eric Spoelstra

PGSGSFPF C
Goran DragicDwyane WadeJosh RichardsonJames JohnsonHassan Whiteside
Tyler JohnsonWayne EllingtonJustise WinslowKelly OlynykBam Adebayo
Briante WeberDion WaitersRodney McGruderJarnell StokesUdonis Haslem

The Miami heat are guaranteed to grind out 40 something wins under Coach Spoelstra but they will be in team that is still searching for an identity post LeBron James. Dwayne Wade has already announced that this will be his final season so there may be some friction between transitioning to the younger wings in lieu of allowing his to have his swan song. The only two players guaranteed heavy minutes next year are Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson. Thus, we will see an internal roster battle for minutes throughout the season which could potentially derail their season. It will be interesting to see how they handle Hassan Whiteside and Dion Waiters(returning from injury) minutes  and egos this season, both of whom are known to publicly put when on the bench. The frontcourt duo of Kell Olynk and and Bam Adebayo has the potential to be a very effective inside outside tandem. As usual, the team’s success will hinge on the development of Justise Winslow’s jump shot.


HAPPY TO MAKE THE PLAYOFFS(where anything can happen)


  • Indiana Pacers
  • Philadelphia 76ers
  • Milwaukee Bucks

The Indiana Pacers

Projected record: 52-30

Head Coach: Nate McMillan

PGSGSFPF C
Darren CollisonVictor OladipoBojan BogdanovicThaddeus YoungMyles Turner
Cory JosephTyreke EvansDoug McDermottDomantas SabonisKyle O’Quinn
Aaron HolidayElijah StewartAlize JohnsonT.J. LeafIke Anigbogu

The Indiana Pacers surprised everyone last year en route to 48 wins and a game 7 loss in the playoffs against the Cavs. Most prognosticators pegged them as lottery bound. Victor Oladipo established himself as one of the best Shooting Guards in the league upon his return to Indiana where he played college basketball. Nate McMillan has seamlessly transitioned his style of play to suit the modern game and we can expect to see improvements from this young team as they continue to mature. There is a tangible issue with so many of their players being free agents at the end of the season. This FA group includes the entire starting lineup save for Oladipo. Myles Turner has been one of the best defensive centers in the game but has had issues with his conditioning limiting his minutes. He has undergone a radical change in physique this offseason and could potentially push for an All-Star spot. Tyreke Evans brings his 20PPG to the bench. While they can potentially upset team on the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, their focus this season will be on securing contract extensions and limited stat padding by players looking to secure large contracts

The Milwaukee Bucks

Projected record: 55-27

Head Coach(new):Mike Budenholzer

PGSGSFPF C
Eric BledsoeMalcolm BrogdonKhris MiddletonGiannis AntetokounmpoBrook Lopez
Matthew DellavedovaSterling BrownTony SnellErsan IlyasovaJohn Henson
Tim FrazierDonte DiVincenzoPat ConnaughtonD.J. WilsonThon Maker

The Milwaukee Bucks are going to go as far as Giannis Antetokounmpo takes them. With LeBron vacating his title as best player in the conference, the Greek Freak is primed to sieze the throne. He has improved by leaps and bounds each offseason and this should be the year he displays a league average 3-point shot. The Bucks ran into trouble in last year’s playoffs due to an over reliance on Giannis and inefficient play from Eric Bledsoe. The signing of Brook Lopez will prove to be particularly shrewd as he provides to the back to basket scoring they sorely lacked. He will also provide spacing from the 3-point line which will open up driving lanes for everyone else.

New head coach Mike Budenholzer should be able to implement his quick passing to space offense where the role players are ideally suited to complement their stars. The Greek Freak is in pole position to win the MVP this year and the Bucks are content to organically improve as they have him under long term contract. They are a dark horse team to make the Finals.

The Philadelphia 76ers

Projected record: 56-26

Head Coach: Brett Brown

PGSGSFPFC
Ben SimmonsJJ RedickRobert CovingtonDario SaricJoel Embiid
Markelle FultzT.J. McConnellWilson ChandlerMike MuscalaAmir Johnson
Jerryd BaylessZhaire SmithFurkan KorkmazJonah BoldenEmeka Okafor

The 76ers have officially ended “The Process” yet they were unable to attract a marquee free agent during free agency. They will be content to ease into the playoffs while ensuring that their key members remain injury free. Markelle Fultz seems to have gotten over the yips that plagued him last season and have shown decent chemistry with Ben Simmons during the preseason. It’s scary to believe that Joel Embiid picked up a basketball for the first time less than a decade ago as he has established himself as one of the premier big men in the NBA. If he can play 75+ games for the first time in his career, we might be able to remove the injury prone designation from him.  A few lucky breaks here and there could see them land in the Eastern Conference Finals but there focus is still on player development rather than aiming for a title this year.


NBA FINALS OR BUST


  • Washington Wizards
  • Boston Celtics
  • Toronto Raptors

The Washington Wizards

Projected record: 50-32

Head Coach: Scott Brooks

PGSGSFPF C
John WallBradley BealOtto Porter Jr.Markieff MorrisDwight Howard
Tomas SatoranskyAustin RiversKelly Oubre Jr.Jeff GreenIan Mahinmi
Chasson RandleJodie MeeksTroy Brown Jr.Lavoy AllenJason Smith

The Wizards are the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde team in the NBA. On paper they have the pedigree, athleticism, youth and defense to make a serious run at a title but they have constructed a roster which might implode due to the divisive personalities. Regardless of how you may feel about their players off the court, this is a deep team with one of the best starting fives. Dwight Howard despite his terrible personality is still an effective player and he will finally get his chance to play with a true All-Star pass first point guard in John Wall. He should be the recipient of easy lobs and generate tons of put backs. This should also help to keep him engaged on defense. The rest of the roster are capable three pointer shooter and individual scorers who will be hindered by the lack of coaching nous in Scott Brooks. They will need to make at least the Eastern Conference Finals for the teams core to return next year since they are simply making too much money for the front office to maneuver within the salary cap.  I expect the Wizards to coast during the season and provide a tough match up in the playoffs as they are equally comfortable playing big or small.

The Boston Celtics

Projected record: 58-24

Head Coach: Brad Stephens

PGSGSFPF C
Kyrie IrvingJaylen BrownGordon HaywardMarcus MorrisAl Horford
Marcus SmartMarcus Georges-HuntJayson TatumGuerschon YabuseleAron Baynes
Terry RozierJabari BirdSemi OjeleyeRobert WilliamsDaniel Theis

The Boston Celtics greatest strength is that Brad Stephens that his players exert maximum effort on both ends of the floor on every single possession. This allows them to remain in any game regardless of how big a deficit may be. He has instilled such a great sense of belief and accountability that the Celtic players routinely overperform as evidenced by the #1 Defensive rating last year. Their greatest trait is simultaneously their biggest weakness. Apart from Tom Thibodeau, the rest of the NBA has followed Greg Popovich’s maxim of resting players so that they will be fresh for the playoffs. The Celtics are an injury prone team that has limped into the playoffs with key members missing due to repetitive stress injuries. These are the type of injuries that can be easily avoided. They surely will improve on the middle of the road offense but their lack of size up front can be an issue if Al Horford misses any meaningful games. The whispers of Kyrie Irving signing with the Knicks in free agency cannot be ignored thus we must be wary of Danny Ainge swinging a trade to ensure that he does not lose him for nothing. This another team that also has key members hitting free agency and the Celtics would have to do significant cap maneuvering simply to retain their players. Nevertheless, if healthy, you can pencil the Celtics into the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Toronto Raptors

Projected record: 60-22

Head Coach(new): Nick Nurse

PGSGSFPFC
Kyle LowryDanny GreenKawhi LeonardSerge IbakaJonas Valanciunas
Delon WrightCJ MilesOG AnunobyPascal SiakamGreg Monroe
Fred VanVleetNorman PowellMalachi RichardsonChris BoucherEric Moreland

Simply put the Toronto Raptors are a veteran team with a lot to prove, even though they have averaged 55 wins the last three seasons. What separates them from any other team in the east is the natural defensive ability of their players. They are blessed with at least 8 elite defensive players who can neutralize their opponents and they will be led by Kawhi Leonard who is the only person in the league who can easily stop LeBron. They will be a well-rounded offense led by Kyle Lowry and Kawhi with the rest of the team operating within the flow of the offense. As long as the new head coach, Nick Nurse is competent, it’s difficult to see any team in the east defeating a full-strength Raptors team. They can matchup with any team and any style of basketball. OG Anunoby could develop into a scary player as he learns from playing alongside Kawhi and Danny Green.

Best CoachBrad Stephens
Best PlayerGiannis Antetokounmpo
Best DefenderDwight Howard
Best RookieKevin Knox

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