Fall is by far my favorite time of the year. We get football, the October Classic in baseball, and now NBA Basketball. What’s more is that we’re only about 2 weeks from Opening Tip Off! Last season was great in terms of team play and the evolving spread-the-floor/”3 and D” tactics. Although there was no major shifting of power between the two conferences, the Eastern conference hierarchy changed with the relocation of LeBron James from South Beach to Cleveland. The conference was also hit hard with injuries to their stars in comparison to the West. Assuming everyone is coming back at full health, here are my preseason Power Ranking for the Eastern Conference.
*Note: This is not an indication of playoff seeding
15. Philadelphia 76ers
“Trust The Process” is the slogan in the City of Brotherly Love. The team began that process roughly three seasons ago, trading away All-Star PG Jrue Holiday. Since then the team has drafted big men in three consecutive drafts, while acquiring draft picks to build their team cheap, while staying away from free agency. With Joel Embiid on the mend, the team drafted Jahlil Okafor 3rd overall in the 2015 Draft. Paired with Center Nerlens Noel, Okafor stands to see significant time at the power forward position. With a “replacements” cast around him and Noel, they will be a sub-20 win team for yet another season. Coach Brett Brown has a long leash that many coaches don’t get due to the rebuilding process. Hopefully, the process ends sooner than later for all parties involved.
14. Orlando Magic
A lot of young talent on this team with no coaching to spearhead their development. Shooting guard Victor Oladipo came out of college with Dwayne Wade comparisons. He is a good player but has to take his game to the next level for the team to crack the top 8. Elfrid Peyton meanwhile has the make up of a young Rajon Rondo, sans the attitude. This team will be competitive in many games and may even win 30. However, coach Scott Skiles must take advantage on his 3rd opportunity to lead a team. With no veteran presence I think this is a bad fit.
13. Brooklyn Nets
The fire sale is just getting started. With PG Deron Williams gone, the team must decide what to do with SG Joe Johnson. He has thrived in great offensive systems in Atlanta and Phoenix but has struggled in Brooklyn. He is not a clutch player and is too mild mannered to lead a team. Center Brook Lopez has struggled to stay healthy and most of his work comes underneath the basket. Coach Lionel Hollins of Isley Brothers fame (ok, I couldn’t resist! He does look like he will do a spin and sing ‘For the loveee of you!’) is a good coach but he needs his own players. When in doubt pass the ball to Andrea Bargnani, said no one ever.
12. Charlotte Hornets
When an injury to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist during the preseason is breaking news it says a lot about the lack of talent on your roster. Think about this; the Hornets acquired Jeremy Lin this summer. I could end my analysis there but I digress. Center Al Jefferson has been a solid player in the league since coming out of high school. He is an offensive force and I would argue that if he had not gotten hurt last season, the Hornets would have made the playoffs. I do like the addition of Nicholas Batum and the draft pick of Frank Kaminsky. It does not help to have Kemba Walker as your starting point guard and I think that will keep them out the postseason.
11. New York Knicks
I’ll make this one brief. Unless Phil Jackson can turn water into wine, make that roster into the 12 Disciples, and make Carmelo Anthony into a person slightly interested in defense, this team will be taking trade inquiries for Anthony by Christmas. There’s no way this team, as currently constructed, will make the playoffs with Anthony as the primary player.
10. Detroit Pistons
Coach Stan Van Gundy is making this Pistons team in the image of the Orlando Magic team that he led to the NBA Finals with a young Dwight Howard at center. Andre Drummond has unlimited potential as a defensive force in this league. Whereas Howard had limitations offensively that were masked by putback dunks, Drummond will have time to develop as Van Gundy places offensive weapons around him. Van Gundy still has to acquire more 3-point players to create the spacing needed to have the team where he would like it. PF Marcus Morris is capable of shooting mid range shots but Van Gundy must get a true stretch 4 in the mold of a Ryan Anderson. This team is on the cusp of being in the playoffs this season with some more roster movement.
9. Indiana Pacers
There’s a lot to like about this team. Small forward Paul George will come back a more efficient player after that devastating leg injury. Although there’s speculation that he will play more 4 this year, he is best suited to defend the 3 position, as well as facilitate the offense from the perimeter. The team drafted Myles Turner but it will take time for him to develop into a solid center. I have never liked George Hill as the primary ball handler and point guard. He is not remotely close to a competent point guard and the team has failed to address that position. The addition of SG Monta Ellis will give the team another scoring option but how will that mesh with George’s touches? This team can be supplanted by The Pistons or Hornets if it fails to address the point guard and power forward positions.
8. Toronto Raptors
Despite having one of the best fan bases in the league this team will take a fall in the hierarchy of the East, but I still feel it’s a good team. The problem is that all their star players have reached their ceiling. PG Kyle Lowry is what he is now, a pitbull defender and an emotional leader. There is no improvement on the offensive end of the floor and I think the ball is glued to his hands at times. SG Demar Derozan is another player that has reached his peak far too early in his career. He is a solid 20 point per game player but does not offer much more than that. Outside of a 51 point game last season, SF Terrence Ross is merely a slasher. Collectively, this team has had chances the past two seasons with injuries on opposing teams to make a charge for the Finals and failed to do so. Coach Dwane Casey has to be exasperated with the lack of talent he has to work with. Anytime you trade one number 1 bust pick (Bargnani) with another (PF Anthony Bennett) you are in a world of hurt.
7. Milwaukee Bucks
Coach Jason Kidd has to be the luckiest son of a gun ever. He walked in to an abundance of riches in talent and potential. His starting lineup last season had an average height of 6’6″, best in the league. The average age of his team is 25. This is without having arguably his best player in SF Jabari Parker. With his team intact, I think they can land from 3 to 8 in playoff seeding. They’re scary good. In a league where offense is the focus, his team was near the top in several defensive rankings. The length of his team starting with PG Michael Carter-Williams, SG Giannis Antetokounmpo (6’11”), and the addition of C Greg Monroe will make this team a tough matchup. Monroe is an underrated low post passer who will create more opportunities for the offense. Overall, if not for inexperience I’d have them in my top 4. They’ll be that good this year.
6. Boston Celtics
This team’s ranking is because of one man, Brad Stevens. Making the playoffs last year, albeit with a losing record, says a lot about the coaching of this young team. Whereas the Bucks have a talented roster and sufficient coaching, the Celtics have great coaching and decent talent. Acquiring PG Isaiah Thomas was a good pick up and the ongoing development of PG Marcus Smart will make for an interesting pairing in the back court. I am curious how Stevens will foster a good front court between PF Jared Sullinger and C Kelly Olynyk. SG R.J. Hunter is an intriguing draft choice and he fits Stevens profile for a scorer. If this team makes the playoffs it will be a credit to the coaching staff as there is no Alpha Dog on the team speak of. Maybe Evan Turner can truly blossom this year and live up to his 2010 2nd overall draft pick status.
5. Chicago Bulls
I prefaced this article by stating my rankings depended on players remaining healthy. At time of publishing, former league MVP PG Derrick Rose will be on the mend from an orbital fracture injury. SG Jimmy Butler benefited most from former head coach Tom Thibodeau’s tutelage and he’s a hard nosed two way player. There’s reports that Butler is not enthralled with Rose’s work ethic. Butler is primed to become the unquestioned leader of new head coach Fred Hoiberg’s team. Center Joakim Noah is the same kind of grit and grind player and will eventually become his counterpart over Rose. Hoiberg will allow young players to do what they do best. SF Doug McDermott and PF Bobby Portis will get enhanced roles on the team and will likely lead to the departure of fan favorite PF Taj Gibson. This team will go as far as Butler will take it. Hopefully, Rose will follow.
4. Atlanta Hawks
Owners of the conference’s best record last year, the Hawks will take a step back to familiar territory this season. The Hawks have been a perennial playoff team but not contenders. Coach Mike Budenholzer impact has San Antonio Spurs written all over it. The team spreads the floor and plays unselfish ball. They were the first team to lead the conference in wins without a 20 PPG scorer. Absolutely amazing results last year. This year they’ve added some role players to a team of role players. PG Jeff Teague and C Al Horford will lead this team to playoffs again but there’s no player that can match wits with the top three teams of the conference. Coach Bud caught a lot of teams by surprise last year sadly by just playing team ball. This year with several roster changes and players coming back from injury the Hawks will go back to what they know best, a team that’s good but not good enough to win it all.
3. Washington Wizards
The back court of this team can rival any in the league. PG John Wall and SG Bradley Beal are growing together and I think will come to fruition this season. Beal was hurt for an extended time last year which led to some losses that otherwise would have propelled them to a better seeding in the playoffs. SF Otto Porter is turning the corner from being a potential bust to a solid contributor on this team. Having former teammate Paul Pierce for a year seems to have stoked his competitive fire and may lead him to a better role on this year’s team. Coach Randy Wittman has to demand more front court depth. The East isn’t deep with prominent front court players but having the depth may put the Wizards over the hump. Definitely keep an eye out for SF Kelly Oubre Jr as he gets minutes behind Beal and Porter.
2. Miami Heat
The Heat are by far the deepest team in the Eastern Conference. They’ve kept most of their team intact from their championship run. This year PF Chris Bosh will be healthy after a life-threatening blood clot ailment. PF Josh McRoberts is coming off a season ending injury. C Hassan Whiteside has gained nearly 15 pounds of muscle over the summer. PG Goran Dragic signed a new contract over the summer and the team still has SF Luol Deng, C Chris Anderson, and PG Mario Chalmers. Add the addition of draft pick SF Justice Winslow and you have a very deep roster. The success hinges on the health of SG Dwayne Wade. He showed flashes of “Flash” last year while playing a good number of games. If he can remain healthy and if there is any slippage of the #1 team in my ranking, the Heat will advance to the NBA Finals. They have one of the most underrated coaches in the league in Erik Spoelstra. He has done a phenomenal job of working with the talent he has regardless of the circumstances. If he has a healthy team come June then he has the tools to shock the world.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers returning to the Finals has everything to do with one thing, chemistry. The same core players are set to return. The competition shouldn’t differ much from last year. The underlying issue at hand is the chemistry and cohesiveness of it’s Big Three. LeBron James, PG Kyrie Irving, and PF Kevin Love have been great when on the floor together. Although Love has griped about his role in the offense, he can contribute in other ways than he’s accustomed to. Love is an excellent spot up shooter. When LeBron played with Bosh, Bosh was better when he expanded his game outside the paint. It provided LeBron more opportunities near the basket and allowed Bosh to pick and pop for easy 18 footers. It would behoove Love to follow that model. Irving simply has to remain healthy. Many people are quick to write him off as injury prone. Those detractors said the same about PG Stephen Curry when he battled ankle ailments early in his career. Irving must also facilitate the offense and not hog the ball. LeBron is better as a primary decision maker but Irving is a better ball handler. Add in PF Tristan Thompson, SG J.R. Smith, and PG Mo Williams and you have a championship quality team. They have a championship caliber coach in David Blatt (albeit with only international experience) and would be wise to trust in his in-game strategy. If James and Blatt can marry their philosophies they will win the championship this season.
The Eastern Conference will go through Cleveland, Ohio again. Maybe some Heat and Wizard-ry can derail a James 7th Finals appearance.