2017-18 NBA Eastern Conference capsule previews
ABS-CBN Sports on Oct 11, 2017 07:21 PM
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, center, Kevin Love, left, and Iman Shumpert stand during a time out against the Chicago Bulls during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game in Cleveland, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. The Bulls won 108-94. (AP Photo/Phil Long)
The Associated Press - From Kyrie Irving’s move to Boston and Dwyane Wade’s arrival in Cleveland, a team-by-team look at the Eastern Conference by division with the tipoff of the season a week away:
LAST SEASON: 53-29, lost in Eastern Conference finals.
COACH: Brad Stevens (fifth season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Kyrie Irving (25.2 ppg, Cleveland), G Gordon Hayward (21.9 ppg, Utah), F Jaylen Brown (6.6 ppg), F Marcus Morris, (14.0 ppg, Detroit), C Al Horford (14.0 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: G Isaiah Thomas, G Avery Bradley, F Jae Crowder
KEY ADDITIONS: Irving, Hayward, Morris, F Jayson Tatum,
PLAYERS TO WATCH: All eyes will be on Irving and Hayward after Ainge wooed Hayward away from Utah in free agency and made the blockbuster trade with Cleveland, dealing Thomas for Irving. On paper it is an upgrade at point guard, adding a dynamic scorer who can create his own shot. They also got another All-Star in Hayward, who can play more than one position.
OUTLOOK: This group has plenty of talent, but there are also has some questions to solve. Rebounding is a big one, and another is how exactly how this new “position-less” starting five will fare on the defensive end. They are set up for the future with Brown and Tatum, but it’s unclear if this group as constituted has enough firepower to dethrone the Cleveland as East champions.
LAST SEASON: 20-62, missed the playoffs.
COACH: Kenny Atkinson (second season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Jeremy Lin (14.5 ppg), G D’Angelo Russell (15.6 ppg), F DeMarre Carroll (8.9 ppg), F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, (8.7 ppg), C Timofey Mozgov (7.4 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: C Brook Lopez.
KEY ADDITIONS: Russell, Carroll, Mozgov, G/F Allen Crabbe
PLAYER TO WATCH: Russell. It’s not often a player who was the No. 2 pick in the draft becomes available after just two seasons, but the Nets found one when the Lakers were looking to move on from the point guard. A change of scenery could be what Russell needs after some turbulent times in Los Angeles.
OUTLOOK: The Nets still don’t have any superstars, and teams need those to win big in the NBA. But they bolstered their roster enough that they shouldn’t lose as much as last season, especially if Lin stays healthy after he was limited to just 36 games and meshes well with Russell.
LAST SEASON: 31-51, missed the playoffs.
COACH: Jeff Hornacek (second season, fifth NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Ramon Sessions (6.2 ppg), G Tim Hardaway Jr. (14.5 ppg), F Courtney Lee (10.8 ppg) F Kristaps Porzingis (18.1 ppg), C Enes Kanter (14.3 ppg)
KEY LOSSES: F Carmelo Anthony, G Derrick Rose, G Justin Holiday.
KEY ADDITIONS: Hardaway, Sessions, Kanter, G Frank Ntilikina, F Doug McDermott, F Michael Beasley.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Hardaway. The Knicks gave their former first-round pick a $71 million deal to come back to New York after trading him to Atlanta two years ago, and if he’s not worth it there aren’t many other places they can find offense from after trading Anthony and letting Rose leave.
OUTLOOK: The Knicks moved on from Anthony and Phil Jackson, so there should be less drama this season. But there may not be any more wins, as new president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry have made it clear they’re building around youth.
LAST SEASON: 28-54, missed the playoffs.
COACH: Brett Brown (fifth season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Markelle Fultz (rookie), G J.J. Redick (15.0 ppg), F Ben Simmons (rookie), F Robert Covington (12.9 ppg), C Joel Embiid (20.2 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: G Gerald Henderson
KEY ADDITIONS: Redick
PLAYER TO WATCH: Embiid will play under the expectation of the $148 million contract extension signed shortly before the season. He is clearly a difference maker and his health could determine if the Sixers contend for a playoff spot or spend another year in the draft lottery. Embiid has played only 31 games in three years and has yet to show he’s durable enough to last a full season.
OUTLOOK: The Sixers haven’t made the playoffs since 2012 but could sneak in as an eighth seed if Embiid, Simmons and Fultz stay healthy and productive. The Sixers have two No. 3 overall picks in Embiid and Jahlil Okafor and two No. 1s in Simmons and Fultz to show for five losing seasons. The Sixers showed signs of improvement last season and there’s reason to believe the future might finally be bright in Philadelphia.
LAST SEASON: 51-31, lost in Eastern Conference semifinals.
COACH: Dwane Casey (seventh season, ninth NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Kyle Lowry (career-high 22.4 ppg),G DeMar DeRozan (career-high 27.3 ppg), F C.J. Miles (10.7 ppg with Indiana), F Serge Ibaka (14.2 ppg in 23 games), C Jonas Valanciunas ).
KEY LOSSES: F DeMarre Carroll, G Cory Joseph, F Patrick Patterson, F P.J. Tucker.
KEY ADDITIONS: F C.J. Miles, F OG Anunoby.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Miles posted a career-high .413 shooting percentage from 3-point range with the Pacers last season. The Raptors hope Miles will be a reliable outside threat that opens up the floor for his teammates.
OUTLOOK: Toronto spent big to re-sign Lowry and Ibaka and keep them alongside three-time All-Star DeRozan. The Raptors have plenty of talented youngsters behind the big three, but no experienced veterans. Without consistent production from their top trio, Toronto could be in trouble. Either way, they face the perennial challenge of beating LeBron James and Cavaliers come playoff time.
LAST SEASON: 41-41, lost in first round of playoffs.
COACH: Fred Hoiberg (third season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Kris Dunn (3.8 ppg, 2.4 apg), G Justin Holiday (7.7 ppg), F Denzel Valentine (5.1 ppg), F Bobby Portis, (6.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg), C Robin Lopez (10.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg).
KEY LOSSES: G Jimmy Butler, G Dwyane Wade, G Rajon Rondo.
KEY ADDITIONS: Dunn, G Zach LaVine, F Lauri Markkanen.
PLAYER TO WATCH: The Bulls need to get production from a trio of players — Dunn, Markkanen and guard Zach LaVine — they acquired from Minnesota for Butler on draft night. A two-time slam dunk champion, LaVine, who averaged 18.9 points last season, is working his way back from a torn ACL and won’t be ready for the start of the season. Dunn, coming off a disappointing rookie year, needs to show he can at least be a serviceable shooter after struggling from the outside. Markkanen, one of the top shooting big men in the nation at Arizona, needs to bring that stroke to the NBA.
OUTLOOK: The Bulls went all-in on rebuilding and are banking on a high lottery pick next spring. That means no more plugging holes to try to stay competitive and plenty of losses this season.
LAST SEASON: 51-31, lost in NBA Finals.
COACH: Tyronn Lue (third season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Derrick Rose (18.0), G Dwyane Wade (18.3), F LeBron James (26.4), F Jae Crowder (13.9), C Kevin Love (19.0).
KEY LOSSES: Kyrie Irving, James Jones.
KEY ADDITIONS: Rose, Wade, Crowder, G Isaiah Thomas, G Jose Calderon, F Jeff Green.
PLAYER TO WATCH: There are enthralling story lines throughout Cleveland’s roster, but James is at the heart of everything. He barely took a deep breath after losing in his seventh straight Finals before getting back in the gym. He’s as motivated as ever, fueled by Irving’s trade demand and finishing fourth in the MVP voting. The 32-year-old can opt out of his contract next summer and become a free agent and James’ future plans will hover over the Cavs all season. But back with Wade, he’s rarely been happier.
OUTLOOK: Despite losing Irving, the Cavs remain the class of the Eastern Conference and it’s hard to imagine any team denying them a fourth straight Finals appearance. Thomas is expected back from his back injury by year’s end, and his return will only complicate things for Lue, who must keep everyone happy with their playing time. Love’s move to center should open floor space for James, Wade and Rose.
LAST SEASON: 37-45, missed the playoffs
COACH: Stan Van Gundy (fourth season, 12th NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Reggie Jackson (14.5 ppg), G Avery Bradley (16.3 ppg), F Tobias Harris (16.1 ppg), F Stanley Johnson (4.4 ppg), C Andre Drummond (13.6 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, F Marcus Morris, C Aron Baynes.
KEY ADDITIONS: Bradley, G Luke Kennard, G Langston Galloway, F Anthony Tolliver.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Drummond has been Detroit’s franchise player but hasn’t always lived up to those expectations. He may never become a proficient shooter from the foul line, but he can still have a big impact if his scoring and rebounding numbers look more like they did two seasons ago.
OUTLOOK: After a playoff appearance in 2016, the Pistons took a step back last season. There was plenty of blame to go around. Drummond took a lot of the criticism, but Detroit also needed better play from Jackson, who was bothered by knee issues. The Pistons need improved production from those two this season, and hope swapping Morris for Bradley and letting Caldwell-Pope go turns into a net positive.
LAST SEASON: 42-40, lost in Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
COACH: Nate McMillan (second season, 14th NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Darren Collison (13.2 ppg), G Victor Oladipo (15.9 ppg), F Bojan Bogdanovic (13.7 ppg), F Thaddeus Young, (18.3 ppg), C Myles Turner (11.0 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: F Paul George, G Jeff Teague, F C.J. Miles.
KEY ADDITIONS: Oladipo, Collison, Bogdanovic, G Cory Joseph, F Domantas Sabonis.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Oladipo. While Turner replaces George as the face of the franchise, Oladipo is a defensive stopper who can provide the consistent energy Indiana was missing last season. Oladipo’s ability to play fast and to share the leadership duties with Turner could finally push the 6-foot-4 guard to have that breakthrough season expected from the No. 2 draft pick four years ago.
OUTLOOK: George’s departure completely changed Indiana’s game plan. Rather than making moves like a potential championship contender, new president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard decided to rebuild on the fly. Conventional wisdom suggests this team will struggle, and it could. But the Pacers seem to be playing like a better unit and may have just enough to sneak into the Eastern Conference playoffs.
LAST SEASON: 42-40, lost in Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
COACH: Jason Kidd (fourth season, fifth NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: F Giannis Antetokounmpo (22.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 5.4 apg, 1.9 bpg), F Khris Middleton (14.7 ppg), C Thon Maker (4.0 ppg), G Malcolm Brogdon (10.2 ppg, 4.2 apg), G Tony Snell (8.5 ppg)
KEY LOSSES: F Michael Beasley
KEY ADDITIONS: Rookie F D.J. Wilson
PLAYER TO WATCH: Antetokounmpo. The 6-foot-11 forward with the freakishly athletic skills became an All-Star last season, thriving as the team’s primary ball-handler. He’ll get to play a full season now with Middleton, who missed the first three months of the 2016-17 campaign with a hamstring injury. Ideally, Middleton’s ability to shoot and play off the dribble creates more spacing on the floor for Antetokounmpo.
OUTLOOK: The Bucks essentially stuck with the same roster after making the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. They’re still young, but expectations are on the rise, especially with Antetokounmpo becoming an All-Star. He’ll get more help at midseason with the expected return of forward Jabari Parker from a knee injury.
LAST SEASON: 43-39, lost in Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
COACH: Mike Budenholzer (fifth season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Dennis Schroder (17.9 ppg, 6.3 apg), G Kent Bazemore (11.0 ppg), F Taurean Prince (11.2 ppg in playoffs), F Ersan Ilyasova (13.1 ppg), C Dewayne Dedmon (6.5 rpg).
KEY LOSSES: F Paul Millsap, C Dwight Howard, G Tim Hardaway Jr., F Thabo Sefolosha, F Mike Scott, G Jose Calderon.
KEY ADDITIONS: Dedmon, F John Collins, G Marco Belinelli, F Luke Babbitt, C Miles Plumlee, G-F Nicolas Brussino.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Schroder will have to carry an even bigger load than he did a year ago, when he led the Hawks in assists and ranked second behind Millsap in scoring. The Hawks are also looking to get more leadership from their mercurial point guard, who had some off-the-court issues during his first season as a starter. That trend continued when Schroder was arrested on misdemeanor charges after a brawl at a late-night club before the start of the preseason.
OUTLOOK: The Hawks will be hard-pressed to continue their streak of 10 straight playoff appearances. New general manager Travis Schlenk decided to dismantle the roster, setting up a long-range and, in all likelihood, painful rebuilding process. Budenholzer gets the most out of his players, so the Hawks will likely be a bit stronger than they look on paper, but this team seems headed toward a big fall just three seasons after leading the Eastern Conference with 60 wins.
LAST SEASON: 36-46, missed the playoffs
COACH: Steve Clifford (fifth season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Kemba Walker (15.1 ppg), G Nic Batum (12.5 ppg, injured), F Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (9.2 ppg), F Marvin Williams (11.2 ppg), C Dwight Howard (8 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: G Marco Belinelli. C Miles Plumlee, PG Ramon Sessions.
KEY ADDITIONS: Howard, PG Michael Carter-Williams, G Malik Monk, G-F Dwayne Bacon.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jeremy Lamb will start the season at shooting guard with Batum out at least two months with a torn ligament in his left elbow. Clifford has raved about how much Lamb has improved this offseason and rededicated himself to basketball.
OUTLOOK: The loss of Batum to start the season is a big one for the Hornets as he was expected to trigger the pick and roll game with Howard. The feeling is the Hornets can return to being a playoff contender for the third time in five years if Howard returns to an All-Star level after two disappointing season in Houston and Atlanta. Howard has played under Clifford in the past. The addition of Howard allows two-year starter Cody Zeller to play with the second team where he has a chance to really excel.
LAST SEASON: 41-41, missed the playoffs.
COACH: Erik Spoelstra (10th season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Goran Dragic (20.3 ppg), G Dion Waiters (15.8 ppg), F Rodney McGruder (6.4 ppg), F James Johnson (12.8 ppg), C Hassan Whiteside (17.0 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: C Willie Reed, F Luke Babbitt, F Josh McRoberts.
KEY ADDITIONS: F Kelly Olynyk, F Bam Adebayo.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Dragic found a new gear this summer when he led his native Slovenia to its first European championship, and the Heat hope he carries that same momentum into this season. He’s a clear locker-room leader alongside 15-year veteran Udonis Haslem, and the Heat — who don’t have a true backup point guard — need Dragic to be great if they’re going to contend in the East.
OUTLOOK: Miami went 30-11 in the second half of last season, and kept the core of that team together after giving long-term deals to Waiters and James Johnson, plus finding the space needed to pick up Wayne Ellington’s option. Olynyk does some things in pick-and-roll situations that draw comparisons to what Chris Bosh used to do in Miami. Justise Winslow’s return to the rotation after an injury-plagued year may also help.
LAST SEASON: 29-53, missed the playoffs.
COACH: Frank Vogel (second season, eighth NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Elfrid Payton (12.8 ppg), Evan Fournier (17.2 ppg), G Terrence Ross (12.5 ppg), Aaron Gordon (12.7 ppg), C Nikola Vucevic (14.6 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: F Jeff Green, G Jodie Meeks, G C.J. Watson.
KEY ADDITIONS: F Jonathan Isaac, F Jonathon Simmons, G Arron Afflalo, C Marreese Speights.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Simmons. He comes over from the San Antonio Spurs. He gives the Magic a defensive toughness and explosiveness from the guard position that has been missing. Isaac, the Magic’s No. 6 overall pick in June’s NBA draft, is still not physically strong enough to be a starter, but his length, athleticism and willingness to play defense gives him a chance to make an impact off the bench.
OUTLOOK: After another disappointing non-playoff season, even though the Magic didn’t overhaul the roster as had become the norm the last several years. New president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman and general manager John Hammond preferred to tweak the roster instead, which hasn’t generated much optimism that things will be much different this season. The only realistic hope that the Magic have of making the postseason for the first time in six seasons is that the bottom half of the Eastern Conference is equally flawed.
LAST SEASON: 49-33, lost in Eastern Conference semifinals.
COACH: Scott Brooks (second season, ninth NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G John Wall (23.1 ppg, 10.7 apg), G Bradley Beal (23.1 ppg), F Otto Porter Jr. (13.4 ppg), F Markieff Morris, (14 ppg), C Marcin Gortat (10.8 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: F Bojan Bogdanovic.
KEY ADDITIONS: G Tim Frazier, G Jodie Meeks, F Mike Scott.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Porter will be expected to keep improving after signing a $106.5 million, four-year contract. He emerged as a top 3-point shooter last season, making 43.4 percent, and should get more touches as the team’s third option behind perennial All-Star Wall and Beal, who could finally get his first All-Star nod.
OUTLOOK: After tinkering with its bench, Washington is relying on the same starting lineup in a bid to reach the conference finals for the first time in nearly 40 years. Wall has emerged as an elite player; Beal isn’t far behind. But if the Wizards are going to rise higher than a No. 4 seed in the playoffs, the key is whether the rest of their cast is capable of a step up. The offense is just fine; the defense — long an issue for this club — must improve.