30 Teams - 30 Reasons - 30 Stories. Part I. The Eastern Conference
Here’s a quick look at every team in the NBA, their big storylines & where they will finish!
The Atlantic Division: Surprisingly Competitive!
Boston Celtics: The C’s finished the 2016-17 season by winning the Eastern Conference. They then went through a massive roster shift to acquire Kyrie Irving from the Cleveland Cavaliers & were able to pick up Gordon Hayward in Free Agency. Well, Hayward suffered a season-ending injury just about 5 minutes into the season, but all is not lost! The young tandem of Jaylen Brown & Jason Tatum is uber talented & should be a lot of fun to watch. Add in a couple of key role guys with 2 former Pistons Marcus Morris & Aron Baynes, they should still finish with a playoff birth. This will be the challenge for the key character of the story, Kyrie Irving. Kyrie left LeBron & almost guaranteed playoff success, the easiest path to the NBA Finals, for what? That “what” is what we will find out throughout the year. Pre-Hayward injury, I had them between 4th-5th in the East, that may be closer to 6th with Gordon gone. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 wins.
Brooklyn Nets: The Brooklyn Nets are a very interesting team for me. Ohio State alum D’Angelo Russell was traded away from the LA Lakers after a tumultuous couple of years, both on & off the court. He & Timofey Mozgov were shipped to BK & in the NBA world, with just 15 roster spots available & a plethora of talent entering the league every year, you have to find you niche. Russell’s wasn’t in LA, but now in Brooklyn (with minimal expectations), he’ll have his chance to shine & solidify himself as a starting Point in the League. Jeremy Lin went down with injury so keep your eyes open for Michigan Alum Caris LeVert to see some more time along with Allen Crabbe & 2nd year Small Forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Brooklyn should finish right around 33 wins, 9th-10th in the East & most importantly, ahead of their cross-town rivals…
New York Knicks: Those BK cross-town rivals, the Knicks, well they’re in… ummm… A new place. The Knicks finally found a way to rid themselves of Phil Jackson & Carmelo Anthony, a toxic relationship that wasn't good for anyone in the Big Apple, especially not their prized possesion, 7’3 240lbs Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis. The “Unicorn” is the future of the Knicks franchise. He could be the Dirk of the East, as long as they don’t ruin him first. Along with Dirk this roster needs some help, but they did add Michigan alum Tim Hardaway Jr. to the roster, so keep your eyes open for him. This team is a mess, but Kristaps is worth the watch, as long as he accepts the physical aspect of the NBA game. NYK will be a sub-30 win team, 13th or 14th in the East.
Toronto Raptors: Toronto, man will this team ever get over the hump? Canada’s favorite team seems like each year they “might” be able to make the Finals, but then we remember LeBron James exists & so the North get froze out of a chance to play for Larry O’Brien. Toronto has won at least 48 games in each of the last 4 seasons & hasn’t finished lower than 2nd place in the Eastern Conference over that span. The problem is that pesky King James & all of his buddies. With DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, Jonas Valanciunas, & Serge Ibaka, you would think this team as the back-court talent combined with the front court depth to overcome. Kyle Lowry has consistently been a playoff bust, averaging 15.7 points on 39% shooting in the postseason. DeRozan has to be “the guy” in the postseason & they have to find a way to be able to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, if not I would say this window is starting to close. My prediction? Around 50 wins (again) & a 3rd-4th place finish in the East.
Philadelphia 76ers: TRUST THE PROCESS! Finally the process has arrived… I think. Joel Embiid will have to stay healthy, if he does (that’s a BIG if) Philly is going to the playoffs. There, I said it. The 76ers are incredibly young at the corps but were able to add 2 vets in sharpshooter JJ Redick & Center Amir Johnson. Ben Simmons will see his first NBA action this year after a knee injury at LSU kept him out of his first season, a 6’10 guard is terrifying. Add in rookie Markelle Fultz, Croatian Big Dario Saric & Robert Covington, these kids are going to be FUN! A couple of local ties as well with Michigan alum Nik Stauskas & BGSU’s Richaun Holmes. I think they finally climb back into the playoffs this season finishing around 36-38 wins & a 6th-8th seed in the East.
The Southeast Division: Washington’s time to shine!
Atlanta Hawks: Oh, Atlanta. This team is a mess. Jeff Teague is gone (to Minnesota) & that leaves the wildcard German PG, Dennis Scroder, as the primary ball handler. Ok, Schroder, along with Kent Bazemore, and…. This team is a disaster. This team peaked during the 2014-15 season when they won 60 games. They’ve declined every year since & this season will be no different. Atlanta this year is the team that your favorite team is supposed to beat by 15, but will sneak away with a win. Atlanta wins roughly 25 games this year & finishes 14th, or 2nd worst in the East Conference.
Charlotte Hornets: I want to believe that the Hornets will be a good team. Looking at the roster, rookie Malik Monk from Kentucky, Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Frank Kaminsky, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, & Dwight Howard. Only 3 players on the roster have more than 5 years of experience, the youth should be something of intrigue for their fans, but I just don’t think they have enough shooting to be a top-5 team. The Hornets were 18th in 3-pointers made last season, but gave up 37% shooting from behind the long line. Charlotte will have to improve on those numbers & Dwight Howard will have to give people something to believe in, like 15 & 10 per game. I have the Hornets at 9th in the East, right around 36-38 wins, on the outside looking in.
Miami Heat: Miami has moved on from the LeBron, Wade, Bosh BIG 3 era & Pat Riley has his guys competitive again! Croatian Point, Goran Dragic, is fantastic to watch (like most Slavs are), he glides up & down the floor making the correct reads & running the point in a fashion you want your PG to operate. Hassan Whiteside is a throwback Center who will bang inside & rebound like an animal, plus he’s the best paint-protector in the East. A solid PG & Center, what else? Justise Winslow enters his 3rd season after injury almost all of last season & will have the expectations to be able to add scoring & defense form the wing. Dion Waiters is back (my jury will always be out on him) & they added Kelly Olynyk from Boston in Free Agency. Local player: Derrick Walton Jr is signed to the Heat on a two-way deal with their G-League affiliate. I like Miami around the 5h-7th seed, a team that could manufacture 42-45 wins this year.
Orlando Magic: Orlando, much like Charlotte, it’s a team that I want to believe in. Nikola Vucevic at Center, Croatian Small Forward Mario Hezonja, High-Flyer Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Terrance Ross, a grinding big in Bismack Biyombo, I want to believe this team will be good, or at least fun, but they’re a ways away from competing with the best. Orlando is a lower-third team in just about every statistical category & that’s exactly where they’ll find themselves this season. A team around 30-35 wins at the lower third of the East. I have them at 10th-11th in the East.
Washington Wizards: Here we go! It’s showtime for Washington. Their core group of lightening fast Point, John Wall, along with Bradley Beal, Kelly Oubre, Otto Porter, & the “Polish hammer” Marcin Gortat are all back & ready for that action boss. They can score with the best of them averaging 109.2 points per game, good for 5th in the Association, but they struggled defensively surrendering 107.4/game to their opponents, which is strange considering they forced the 2nd most turnovers by their opposition in the league last year, at a rate of 13.8%/game. My other BIG issue with the Wiz is that they rebound on the defensive side of the floor with some of the worst in the league, ranking 24th in defensive rebounding. I have Washington as the 2nd-3rd best team in the Eastern Conference, winning around 50-53 games.
The Central Division: Save the best for last!
Chicago Bulls: Much like their fanbase feels, let’s just get this over with. The Bulls have had one of the strangest falls from grace we’ve seen in the NBA. After middling around with Scott Skiles & Vinny Del Negro, the Bulls hired Tom Thibodeau & finished 1st in the East twice, 2nd 3x, then fired Thibs & all hell broke loose. Bye-bye to the BIG 3 dream of Jimmy Butler (Minnesota) Dwyane Wade (Cleveland), & Rajon Rondo (New Orleans), this team is not good. Bobby Portis punched teammate Nikola Mirotic & broke his jaw (insert Austin Powers’ “WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE” here), their best player may be a rookie in Lauri Markkanen from Arizona. This team will be lucky to reach 25 wins, & will not just be the worst team in the East but maybe the worst in the entire league. 15th in East.
Cleveland Cavaliers: CAVS BALL! And, Cavs Conference! As long as LeBron James wears the wine & gold, the Cavaliers will represent the East in the NBA Finals. He’s just too good & has proved to be the most valuable player in the league every year since his sophomore season. LeBron is the only player in NBA history to take a team from the lottery to the Finals, leave & send that team right back to the lottery while joining a new team & taking them to the Finals, & then leaving that team to take the previous team back to the Finals (did you follow that?). I already wrote about the D-Wade signing & about the trade for Isaiah Thomas (here). This team will fall short of Golden State in the 2018 NBA Finals, but they will be the Eastern Conference representative. Cavs finish 1st in the East & win more than 55 games this year.
Detroit Pistons: This is it. The Detroit Pistons have made plethora of roster changes to improve this team this season. Last year was a MAJOR step backwards after a post-season appearance during the 2015-16 season. Reggie Jackson is back from injury, but I just don’t believe he is a top-tier PG in this league. I’ve never been a fan of the score-first PG, I prefer the floor general like a Chauncey Billups to run my team. I want a PG to make the smart plays & distribute the ball to the shooters/scorers… Does Detroit have those? Tobias Harris has to be “that guy”. At 6’9, with 6 years under his belt, Tobias has to be a 20+ppg scorer. The addition of Avery Bradely is crucial as this team hasn't had a solid, scoring, defensive minded 2 in a decade. Bradley is a career 44% shooter from the field but he has to be able to produce more than 12ppg (his career average). Cane Luke Kennard be the sharpshooter SVG felt worthy of the 12th overall pick? Will Stanley Johnson be a professional basketball player? Stanley has continued to under-perform in his 2 years in the league & it ain’t looking great so far this season either. Will Andre Drummond be a franchise center? He must show the effort defensively, improve on the free-throw woes, & stay mentally checked in for 48 minutes/game. A lot of questions that my heart tells me this team will answer. 39-41 Wins, 7th seed.
Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are an intriguing team this year. They’ve moved on from the Paul George era & in return received a couple of youngsters in Victor Oladipo & Domantas Sabonis from Oklahoma City. A couple of veteran bigs in Al Jefferson & Thaddeus Young to compliment Myles Turner, 4th year swing man Glenn Robinson III, and maybe the opportunity to exceed without expectation. Sometimes when nobody thinks anything of you, you actually raise some eyebrows, that’s how I feel about the Pacers; a team no one expects anything from that might actually be decent. Can Oladipo & Sabonis replace the production of Paul George? Combined, yes. individually, maybe they won’t have to. Move the ball & move without it, less iso-ball more team game, more team-shots vs. “me” shots. Pacers win more than 30 games but fall short of Playoff Contention.
Milwaukee Bucks: In late September of 2014 I told our listeners that the Golden State were must-watch TV if they’re on late, stay up to watch! I will tell you the same thing about the Bucks & the Greek Freak Giannis Antetokounmpo. Watch Giannis every chance you get! This team is one that I am very excited about. Besides Giannis, they return last year’s Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, Jabari Parker,Khris Middleton, & the local contact in Michigan’s DJ Wilson (probably wont see much time this year). Milwaukee is must-see TV, Giannis is just 22 years old & will dominate the league for many years to come. The Bucks can shoot it too, 10th best last year in 3pt% & 4th best in Field Goal %. Two areas I’d like to see them improve would be: 1) Pace. Get out in transition & allow Giannis to run on the fly with shooters ready to gun on the perimeter. I’m not saying they have to be Houston, but 26th in pace doesn’t make them world-beaters without a legitimate top-20 complimentary player alongside Giannis. 2) They must improve on their rebounding. Last season the Bucks ranked 28th in defensive rebounding, while their opposition ranked 8th. They’ll need more from their Bigs on the glass. My love for the Bucks has them in the 2nd-3rd range with right around 50 wins.
If I had to Pick?
-Anthony Bellino hosts “The Fox Sports Morning Blitz” weekday mornings from 7am-9am on Toledo’s Fox Sports Radio 1230.