1/Boston Celtics (58-24)
I see a big improvement for the Celtics following a huge offseason that saw them land All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. The Celtics get bigger down low with the addition of Detroit center Aron Baynes, while Al Horford’s versatility will continue to be a problem for taller, wider defenders. The Celtics lose defense in the backcourt with the loss of Avery Bradley, but the obvious scoring boost with Kyrie should be enough to counter Bradley’s absence. No matter how you slice it, this Celtics team is finally ready to seriously challenge the mighty Cavaliers in the East.
2/Cleveland Cavaliers (56-26)
The Cavs will be right up there with Boston. Why? They’ve still got LeBron, and surrounding LeBron is a lineup stacked with depth. Cleveland added Isaiah Thomas in their Kyrie Irving trade, but I.T. won’t be ready until January as he rehabs a hip injury. That means the Cavs will have to rely on their bench depth, and they’ve got plenty of it. Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Dwayne Wade, J.R. Smith –this team is packed with experienced rotational players. Cleveland gets older this year, but wiser as well.
3/Milwaukee Bucks (49-33)
Sorry if I’m a little out of line here. But I just can’t help myself. Giannis Antetekuompo could be the next Kevin Durant with his scoring ability and length on the floor. His presence alone will propel Milwaukee to a higher playoff seed than it had last season. The Bucks have spent the last few seasons acquiring able-bodied scorers, both in the draft and free agency, who can compliment Giannis in an offensive scheme (see Matthew Dellavedova, Khris Middleton, Gerald Green, and even Jason Terry). The Bucks aren’t ready to challenge Cleveland or Boston in the East, but I look to this season as a nice stepping stone for them as they continue their ascension to postseason glory.
4/Washington Wizards (49-33)
The Wizards came so close to beating the Celtics in the Eastern Conferense Semis a year ago, and it’s largely because of those two scary guards. John Wall and Bradley Beal are threats to score every time they touch the basketball, and Marcin Gortat continues to be a paint nightmare at 33 years old. The Wizards might not be the deepest team in the NBA, but they have enough talent in the starting five to get them out to legitimate leads on a nightly basis. They were dangerous in the playoffs last year, and they’ll turn heads again in 2018.
5/Toronto Raptors (47-35)
I was waiting for the Raptors to find some help down low, either at forward or center, but nothing truly panned out this offseason. Toronto carries some unbelievable guard play in Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan, but the Raptors have to think about the unpredictable nature of an NBA season. One of those guys could easily go down with an injury, and if they do, Toronto’s scoring output will be surely depleted. If the Raptors get out to a slower start than anticipated, I fully expect them to use the trade deadline to score a paint-dweller who can rebound this team to a playoff run.
6/Detroit Pistons (44-38)
Detroit undoubtedly improved this offseason with the addition of Avery Bradley, who provides a huge lift with his tenacious backcourt defense. Andre Drummond has never been better, while both Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris are capable of putting up double figures on any given night.
7/Atlanta Hawks (40-42)
The Hawks didn’t lose too much this offseason, but they haven’t made enough significant gains to convince me they can win any more than 40 games. At guard, Dennis Schroeder and Kent Bazemore return –they’re fairly experienced in this system at this point. In the frontcourt, it gets kind of dicey for Atlanta. Ersan Ilyasova is probably the only big man on the Hawks who will average double figures this season.
8/Orlando Magic (38-44)
Orlando will return to the postseason for the first time in six years in a laughable Eastern Conference. Center Nikola Vucevic quietly averaged a double-double last season, and the rest of the starting lineup consists of four guys capable of setting an offensive tempo and out-running opposing defenses (Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, and Terrence Ross). The Magic have some durable veterans on the bench, as Bismack Biyombo figures to see serious playing time when Vucevic hits the bench.
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN:
9/Miami Heat (36-46)
The Heat are in limbo, but they’re not necessarily down and out. Miami has managed to hoard just enough role-players to have a fighting chance at that eighth seed. Kelly Olynyk figures to start at power forward, while Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic will look to repeat their offensive successes from a year ago. Remember: this eighth seed is anyone’s game. The bottom of this conference is terrible.
10/Charlotte Hornets (34-48)
The addition of Dwight Howard helps a Charlotte team that is just trying to stay relevant. Kemba Walker figures to be an absolute menace once again, while Nicolas Batum will hope to return as soon as possible following a UCL injury in his elbow. Other than that, I’m not too high on the Hornets.
11/Philadelphia 76ers (33-49)
Philadelphia continues to trend upward as their young stars begin to settle into the system. We’re finally going to see Embiid and Simmons, along side 2017 first-overall pick Markelle Fultz. J.J. Redick adds a veteran scoring piece to a team that is only going to get better. Once we hit the 2020s, look out.
12/New York Knicks (32-50)
I couldn’t put the Knicks too far down in the basement, just because of Kristaps Porzingis, who becomes the face of the franchise following Melo’s move to Oklahoma City. Taking everything else into consideration, however, this team figures to be putrid. There’s very little experience on this squad, from top to bottom. If the Knicks make the playoffs, it’ll be because Porzingis had the greatest season we’ve ever seen.
13/Indiana Pacers (29-53)
Indiana takes a huge slide this season with the loss of Paul George. Time for the Pacers to rebuild, look to the Lottery, and come back stronger than ever.
14/Chicago Bulls (28-54)
This team has no identity. Joakim Noah has been a fine NBA player, but he’s probably the best player on this team now. Chicago is back to square one.
15/Brooklyn Nets (18-64)
And once again, Brooklyn will head into the NBA Draft without the first-overall pick they EARNED with a futile performance. Trades have a way of sometimes making life miserable.
Orlando (+9 wins from last season)
Chicago (-13 wins from last season)