NBA 2017-18 Season Preview: Eastern Conference

Tommy Ciatto, Alex Bay, and Ben Chanenson

 

Eastern Conference:

 

Atlanta Hawks

Since the Hawks’ impressive 60 win season in 2014-15, Atlanta has been on the decline, with their win total decreasing each of the last two years. Due to this decline, the Hawks decided to forgo a rebuild this offseason instead of trying to make it work with the aging players they had. The Hawks traded their best player, Paul Millsap, to the Denver Nuggets as part of a three team trade with the Los Angeles Clippers; in return, the Hawks acquired shooting guard Jamal Crawford (bought out), center Diamond Stone, and a top-3 protected 2018 first round pick from the Clippers via the Rockets. They also dealt Dwight Howard and his massive contract to the Charlotte Hornets and didn’t receive much in return. The Hawks do have talent on their roster, point guard Dennis Schroeder and small forward Taurean Prince, as well as promise for the future, their 2017 first round pick power forward John Collins. Collins is a 6’10” power forward with fantastic athleticism and a strong interior offensive game.  However, the Hawks significantly lack the depth and talent to be competitive in the East. Expect the Hawks in their first season of a rebuild to not experience much success.

 

Boston Celtics

After acquiring All-Star talent in the offseason, the Celtics look to take yet another step forward in their development. In arguably the most significant move of the offseason, the Celtics acquired 4-time All-Star and NBA Champion Kyrie Irving from the Cavaliers in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn’s 2018 first round pick. The Celtics also signed All-Star small forward a Gordon Hayward, reuniting him with his college coach Brad Stevens. This Celtics roster is very different than last year’s, retaining only four players who played in the 2016-17 season. Even with a new look roster, this team is loaded with talent. Jaylen Brown showed glimpses of the great player he can be and Marcus Smart looks to develop more this season after an impressive postseason. As well, the Celtics drafted small forward Jayson Tatum from Duke at #3 in the NBA Draft. Tatum is a gifted offensive player and can provide quick offense of the bench for the Celtics this season. Danny Ainge now has his long-sought superstar in Kyrie Irving and the Celtics have all the pieces and talent to put them in position to compete for a NBA championship.

 

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets finished last season with the worst record in the NBA, but their focus is on the future, not the past. The most substantial move Brooklyn made this offseason was acquiring point guard D’Angelo Russell from the Los Angeles Lakers. Russell was drafted 2nd overall in 2015 by the Lakers with the expectation he was going to be the face of the franchise post-Kobe. However, after a few rocky seasons in L.A., he now has a fresh start in Brooklyn. The Nets have been severely crippled in their development due to their now infamous trade with the Boston Celtics. Brooklyn lost the 17th pick in 2014, the 3rd in 2016, and had to swap down from the 1st to the 22nd pick in 2017. Despite losing these highly coveted picks, the Nets still have some young talent on their roster. The Nets have a solid group of young role players, including Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Isaiah Whitehead, but none have been able to carve out a substantial role on the team. As well, the team is very excited about their top selection from the 2017 NBA Draft, center Jarrett Allen out of Texas. Allen is still an extremely raw product, but Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson likes the athletic ability Allen brings to the court. The Nets are in the midst of one of the most challenging rebuilds in NBA history, so there are very few expectations this season for Brooklyn.

 

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets failed to meet expectations last season, as their win total dropped from 48 in 2015-16 to 36 in 2016-17. Charlotte has the talent on the roster, led by All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, to be competitive yet lacks the depth in order to build a high quality team. The Hornets bolstered their front court defense, an area of concern last season, with the addition of 3-time Defensive Player of the Year center Dwight Howard. Howard, who is on his fourth team in five years, looks to rejuvenate his career alongside Cody Zeller, who made significant growth last season, in Charlotte’s front court. In the draft, the Hornets addressed a serious concern that plagued them during the season: shooting the basketball. The Hornets ranked bottom five in field goal percentage and their offense suffered as a result. To solve this problem, the Hornets drafted at #11 shooting guard Malik Monk from Kentucky. Monk is a sharpshooter with seemingly unlimited range and a pure shooting stroke, but there are questions about how well his game will translate to the NBA. The Hornets dealt with their most pressing issues this offseason with the acquisitions of Howard and Monk and are poised to be in the playoff picture of the weak Eastern Conference.

 

Chicago Bulls

The Bulls shocked the NBA world after dominating the #1 seeded Boston Celtics in Games 1 and 2 of the first round of the playoffs. After the impressive wins, the Bulls quickly lost four straight games to the Celtics and their elimination from the playoffs initiated the downward spiral of the franchise. During the NBA Draft, the Bulls made a blockbuster trade with the Timberwolves, sending 3-time All-Star Jimmy Butler and the rights to the #16 pick (Justin Patton) to Minnesota and receiving Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the rights to the #7 pick (Lauri Markkanen). LaVine was having an impressive offensive year in 2016-17 before a torn ACL in February sidelined him for the rest of the year. While the injury will cause him to miss some time early in the season, a more pressing concern is how the injury may hinder his athleticism, which is a key part of his game. Kris Dunn, the #5 overall pick in the 2016 draft, struggled mightily his rookie year and his underwhelming play led him to lose minutes to Ricky Rubio and Tyus Jones. The most interesting piece the Bulls received from the trade is Lauri Markkanen. Markkanen, a 7-footer, was one of the best shooters in the country last year at Arizona and his impressive offensive game led him to be drafted #7. Markkanen has an offensive game similar to that of Kristaps Porzingis, but there are serious questions about his defensive ability and his strength.

Due to the lack of proven talent and quality depth on the roster, the Bulls should have a profoundly poor season and will be in line to land a top prospect like Michael Porter Jr. or Luka Doncic in the 2018 NBA Draft.

 

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers, after a dismantling by the Warriors in the Finals, had one of the most tumultuous offseasons in recent years. The firing of general manager David Griffin seemed to be the initiator of all of Cleveland’s woes this offseason. Rumors of LeBron James leaving in the summer of 2018 and Kyrie Irving demanding a trade appeared to be signaling the demise of Cleveland. Kyrie Irving’s request was met, as the Cavaliers dealt him to the Boston Celtics in return for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn’s 2018 first round pick. The most interesting piece in this trade is the Brooklyn pick. With the pick most likely going to end up in the top 5, acquiring this pick shows that the Cavaliers are uncertain about LeBron’s future plans and are preparing for his potential departure. Isaiah Thomas, who injured his hip in the Eastern Conference Finals, is expected to be out until late December, and there are questions marks about how his game may be affected by the injury. The Cavaliers also added some quality role players in free agency, most notably point guard Derrick Rose and shooting guard Dwyane Wade. Even though their offseason was full of drama and doubt, the Cavaliers are still built to compete for a championship. Any team led by LeBron James will be in contention for a championship, no matter who is around him. With LeBron still playing at a legendary level, expect the Cavs to finish first or second in the East and be a legitimate contender for the NBA Finals.

 

Detroit Pistons

The Pistons last season, hampered by the injury of Reggie Jackson, fell short of expectations as they failed to reach the playoffs. The Pistons under head coach/general manager Stan Van Gundy have been a relatively consistent team; however, they have finished in the 8-12 seed range in each of Van Gundy’s three seasons. In the offseason, the Pistons added shooters to their roster in an attempt to improve their shooting, as they finished in bottom 10 of both field goal and three point percentage. In a trade with the Boston Celtics, Detroit acquired talented defender Avery Bradley in exchange for Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes. Bradley has improved offensively each season he has played in the league, and is expected to grow even more with an inevitable increase in offensive touches. The Pistons also drafted shooting guard Luke Kennard, a sharp shooter out of Duke, who is expected to provide quick offense off the bench. Andre Drummond is still the centerpiece in Detroit, but his offensive game is still lagging.. The Pistons have some valuable role players in Tobias Harris and Ish Smith, but don’t have much talent coming off the bench. The Pistons are not very talented, but they have a chance to sneak into the playoffs because they play in the weak Eastern Conference.

 

Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers through all of last season and into the offseason faced a burning question: what should they do about Paul George? George, a 4-time All-Star, had expressed interest of going to play for his hometown Los Angeles Lakers when his current contract ended after the 2017-18 season. The Pacers decided to trade George in the offseason to prevent themselves from being left with nothing if he were to move west next offseason. Indiana traded Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for shooting guard Victor Oladipo and power forward Domantas Sabonis. This trade dumbfounded people in the NBA and fans alike, especially due to the rumors that said the Pacers were offered far more lucrative packages for George. This trade is a full indication that the Pacers are in full rebuild mode. Oladipo has not met the expectations that come being the second overall pick, but in his four seasons he has been a consistently solid offensive player. Domantas Sabonis, a rookie last season, was not extremely efficient but still has potential. Oladipo and Sabonis are now key pieces in the Pacers’ rebuild, but center Myles Turner remains the focal point of the team. Turner had a very strong season, averaging 14 points and 7 rebounds along with 2 blocks a game. With a large number of talented Eastern Conference players having moved west, Turner is very likely to be in contention to make his first All-Star team. While Turner is very talented, he cannot make up for the lack of talent on the roster. The lack of talent on the roster will restrain the Pacers from achieving and success, and will be hoping for good fortune in the Draft Lottery.

 

Miami Heat

The Miami Heat last season were the feel-good underdog of the NBA season. After starting out a measly 11-30, the Heat completely flipped the script and went 30-11 in the second half of the season. Despite their best efforts, Miami fell just short of making the playoffs and finished as the 9th seed in the East. Pat Riley sees the potential in the roster, and he made the effort to spend money to keep this team a playoff team instead of deciding to rebuild. The Heat resigned Dion Waiters to a big contract after he really blossomed in the Heat’s offense. The Heat also added depth to their frontcourt, re-signing James Johnson and signing Kelly Olynyk from the Celtics. In addition, Miami drafted power forward Edrice “Bam” Adebayo from Kentucky with the 17th pick in the Draft. Adebayo was efficient at Kentucky, averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds a game. Adebayo possess a perfect blend of size, strength, and athleticism, but does not yet have an advanced offensive game. The Heat are led by center Hassan Whiteside, who is a strong defensive presence and double-double machine. Outside of Whiteside and Waiters, the Heat also have talented wing players in Justise Winslow and Tyler Johnson. The Heat have invested hundreds of millions to keep their core intact, and in a weak Eastern Conference, the Heat have a chance to finish as a top five team in the East.

 

Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks fought in a very competitive first round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors; despite their best efforts, the Bucks lost to the Raptors in six games. The Bucks are a very promising young team and have a roster filled with high quality talent, led by small forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo, known as the Greek Freak, is truly a one-of-a-kind player: at 6’11”, he has unprecedented speed, athleticism, and ball handling for someone his size. After winning the 2017 Most Improved Player award, Antetokounmpo now has his sights set on the NBA MVP award. Along with the Greek Freak, have very talented players in Malcolm Brogdon and Jabari Parker. Brogdon was exceptional in his rookie season and it led him to win the 2017 Rookie of the Year award. Brogdon’s ability to play both guard positions and shoot from three are valuable on the Bucks roster. Jabari Parker as well has been very valuable for the Bucks, but his inability to stay on the court has hindered his development. Parker, the #2 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, has been very efficient when he plays, but a twice torn ACL has caused him to miss significant time. A major factor in the Bucks successes this season will be from their depth off the bench. With a loaded front court, the Bucks are able to rotate in John Henson and Thon Maker for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Greg Monroe, allowing for Antetokounmpo and Monroe to not be overplayed and help them stay healthy. With Antetokounmpo at the helm and a solid supporting cast, the Bucks are primed to compete for a top five seed in the Eastern Conference.

 

New York Knicks

The Knicks 2016-17 season and then ensuing offseason could be summed up in one word: horrendous. Last offseason, the Knicks signed Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Courtney Lee to huge contracts, all of which became major disappointments. Noah only played 46 games, Lee was decent but not great, and Rose is not even on the team anymore. To make matters worse, in the weeks leading up to the Draft, now former GM Phil Jackson was shredded by the media for his blatant incompetence as a general manager. In the NBA Draft, the Knicks selected point guard Frank Ntilikina from France. Ntilikina is only 19-years-old and has lots of promise, but he will have very high expectations this season after New York passed on the likes of Malik Monk and Donovan Mitchell by taking him. The big move of the offseason for the Knicks was trading All-Star Carmelo Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a 2018 second round pick. Melo for weeks during the summer had expressed serious desire to be traded to the Houston Rockets, but a few days before training camp waived his no-trade clause and allowed the Knicks to trade him to the Thunder. The Knicks this season will be lead by power forward Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis has been exceptional in his two years in the league, and with him now being the primary option on offense, he looks to grow even more offensively this season. But besides from Porzingis, this Knicks team lack the talent to even be moderately successful this season. With their eyes on the future, this season will be the first of many in a major rebuild for the New York Knicks.

 

Orlando Magic

After receiving a king’s ransom in the trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers, the Magic have been unable to form a winning team and have suffered through painfully bad seasons, eclipsing 30 wins only once since the trade. A coaching carousel and an inability to find elite talent in the draft have plagued the Magic, but the Magic believe they are ready to turn the corner with head coach Frank Vogel. In the past, Orlando has hindered the development of their young talent (Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, etc) by thrusting them into the starting lineup even though they are not exactly ready to be a starter in the NBA. Frank Vogel is determined to end this cycle, and that starts with small forward Jonathan Isaac. Isaac the #6 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, is almost the definition of a raw talent that needs time to develop. Isaac is a lanky 6’11” power forward with a great post moved and an excellent shooting stroke for a player his size. But in order to be successful, Isaac has even stated himself he needs to get stronger. While Isaac is developing, the Magic will not be completely talentless. Nikola Vucevic, who was acquired in the Dwight Howard trade, has been extremely underrated and has is very solid on both ends of the court. Aaron Gordon has freakish athleticism, but he has been plagued by inconsistency since coming into the league. Evan Fournier will continue to be the focal point of Orlando’s offense as he is the best shooter on the roster. The Magic currently do not possess the talent to consistently win games, so expect Orlando to be in the draft lottery yet again at season’s end.

 

Philadelphia 76ers

76ers fans experienced a feeling last year they have not felt since the days of Allen Iverson: hope. Although the Sixers finished with only 28 wins, it was the play of Joel Embiid and their moves this offseason that have fans excited for this season. Joel Embiid, who missed two full seasons with a foot injury, was absolutely phenomenal last season; however, he only played 31 games. After being shut down with a knee injury in March, Embiid is expected to play opening night, but it is unclear if he will have a minutes restriction. Besides Embiid, there is an immense amount of excitement surrounding the return of Ben Simmons. Simmons, the #1 overall pick in 2016, injured his foot during the 2016 Summer League and did not play at all during the regular season (He was healthy enough to return in March, but the Sixers were cautious and held him out). Simmons at 6’10” has elite ball handling for his size and a passing ability that is already considered among the best in the league. As well, Philadelphia made a splash right before the draft when they traded with Boston for the #1 overall pick in the draft With the pick, the Sixers selected point guard Markelle Fultz, a Washington product with a superb offensive game. Fultz’s running mate in the backcourt this season will be sharpshooter J.J. Redick, who signed with Philly this offseason after spending the last four seasons with the Clippers. Dario Saric, a second-year power forward out of Croatia, was excellent last season and he will fill out the starting lineup along with Fultz, Redick, Simmons, and Embiid. The Sixers also contain some quality role players off the bench, such as Robert Covington and Richaun Holmes. Sam Hinkie’s infamous “process” has finally come to fruition, and this Sixers team is ready to take the Eastern Conference and the NBA by storm.

 

Toronto Raptors

For the past couple of seasons, the Toronto Raptors have followed a similar pattern: solid regular season and then a somewhat disappointing postseason. Since the 2013-14 season, have made it to the Eastern Conference finals only once and have had two first round exits in that span. During the offseason, the Raptors did not make any moves that could break this cycle. The most significant move that Toronto made was resigning All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry to a three-year/$100 million deal. Kyle Lowry has increased his scoring each season in his five years in Toronto; however, at age 31 and after dealing with injuries last year, many question how much longer he can stay effective. Lowry’s running mate, DeMar DeRozan, is still the unquestioned best player on the team. DeRozan took major strides in his development last season, averaging career highs in points and rebounds per game. The Raptors do not have elite level talent surrounding Lowry and DeRozan, but the pieces they do have are very high quality players. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas are a dynamic defensive front court and Normal Powell and C.J. Miles can be efficient swingman off the bench or as the starting small forward. In the NBA Draft, Toronto selected small forward O.G. Anunoby out of Indiana. Anunoby was an impressive prospect, especially on the defensive end, in his two years at Indiana, but an ACL tear last season caused him to slip in the draft. Anunoby has freakish athleticism, but there are questions if he will ever regain that athleticism. The Raptors have a top tier roster, but in a conference with the Celtics and Cavaliers, they will have to elevate their play when it counts in order to make it to the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance.

 

Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards are an elite team in the making, and the continuing improvement of John Wall solidifies that claim. Wall was stellar in the playoffs, averaging 27.2 points and 10.3 assists per game; however, he was not able to carry his team deep into the playoffs, as the Wizards fell to the Boston Celtics in a thrilling second round matchup. With the Eastern Conference being considerably weaker this season, the Wizards are primed to compete for a top three seed in the East. Alongside Wall in the backcourt is sharpshooter Bradley Beal, who is an excellent second offensive option behind Wall and averaged 23.1 points per game and 40% three-point field goal percentage last year. Otto Porter is a solid defender who is improving on offense and serves as a quality compliment to Wall and Beal. The frontcourt is held down by Markieff Morris and Martin Gortat, both of whom are physical in the paint on both ends of the court. A severe flaw that is quite possibly why Washington was eliminated from the playoffs was their lack of a quality bench. During the Celtics series, the Wizards would quickly jump out to a big lead with their starters on the floor, but that lead would quickly diminish when the bench players came into the game. The Wizards did sign Jodie Meeks and Mike Scott in the offseason, but neither has the talent to significantly improve the bench play. With Wall at the helm, this team at times can be unstoppable. If their bench play can dramatically improve, the Wizards could be in contention to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals