X-Cleveland Cavaliers 55-27 (1)
The last three NBA seasons have seen the Cleveland Cavaliers re-emerge as one of the better teams in the NBA. The Cavaliers have made three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, but they have only been able to claim one championship. The Cavs have met the Golden State Warriors in three consecutive NBA Finals series with the Warriors getting the best of them twice. And as the Cavaliers are looking to get back to the NBA Championship after the Warriors got the best of them in five games this past June, will they be able to win it all in what is more than likely a make or break season?
The off-season got off on the wrong foot for the Cavaliers when general manager David Griffin was let go by the organization. Griffin was tasked with making the necessary moves to make the Cavs a title contender. But when it came time for Griffin to receive a contract extension and be paid like the other top general managers in the NBA, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert opted not to pay him. Griffin’s departure has paved the way for Koby Altman to be promoted to post of general manager for the Cavs as he will now be tasked with keeping the machine going.
Small forward LeBron James is still the epicenter of what the Cavaliers are doing, but the team around him will look different heading into the new NBA season. On the surface it appears that things were fine between James and point guard Kyrie Irving. When James returned to Cleveland in 2014, Irving was able to elevate his game and become key to the success of the Cavs. However with growing tension between James and Irving behind the scenes, Irving requested a trade over the summer. The Cavaliers obliged Irving’s request and sent him to the Boston Celtics in exchange for point guard Isaiah Thomas, small forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic, and a pair of draft picks. The move shocked the basketball world as most people expected cooler heads to prevail at some point. However Irving was an unhappy camper and it was a smart move by the Cavs not to disrupt their team chemistry.
Even without Irving, the Cavaliers are still a loaded team around James. Since power forward Kevin Love joined the Cavs in 2014, he has been a forgotten man. Love has still been one of the top rebounders in the NBA, while his scoring numbers have dipped playing alongside James and Irving. But with Irving now with the Celtics, Love should see his offensive touches increase in order to shoulder more of the scoring load with James.
After agreeing to a buyout with the Chicago Bulls, shooting guard Dwyane Wade has joined the Cavs. The friendship that James has with Wade goes back to 2003 when they came into the NBA together. This friendship would see James and Wade team up together as members of the Miami Heat which led to a pair of NBA Championships. At the age of 35, Wade is not the all-around player that he was six or seven years ago, but he is still a quality scorer.
The Cavs will have depth behind James at the small forward position with Jeff Green and Jae Crowder. Green has been an underrated small forward throughout his NBA career, while Cleveland is receiving an angry Crowder. Crowder spent the last three NBA seasons with the Celtics where he was a key contributor for their turnaround. However Crowder spent last season listening to rumors about the Celtics potentially pursuing small forward Gordon Hayward in free agency. Those rumors would become a reality as the Celtics did go after Hayward and ultimately sign him which made Crowder expendable.
Crowder has always played with a chip on his shoulder, and I expect him to be a solid bench players for the Cavaliers due to his ability to do all of the dirty work.
Along with Crowder, the Cavs also received Thomas from the Celtics. In three seasons with the Celtics, Thomas became a star. Last season Thomas was able to average 28.9 points per contest which included him becoming one of the better players in the fourth quarter. However when the Cavs put Irving on the trade market, this made Thomas expendable which left a sour taste in his mouth. Thomas was becoming the face of the franchise for the Celtics until he was traded. And after working to become a star, Thomas will have to start over once again. Thomas was the last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings. And typically when you’re the last player selected in the draft, a team does not put that much stock in you. Thomas has worked extremely hard to get to where he is at, and now he’ll have another hill to climb as he looks to prove the Celtics wrong.
However Thomas’ debut with Cleveland will be put on hold as the result of a hip injury which could potentially keep him out of action until the All-Star Game. But if Thomas is healthy, he gives the Cavs another scorer, and more importantly a finisher.
Other key players around James will include shooting guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert as well as center Tristan Thompson. There is good J.R. Smith and then there is the bad version of him and the latter could be on display for the Cavaliers this season. Smith is already upset that he had to initially concede his position to Wade in the starting lineup. Ultimately Wade decided that he would be better served coming off of the bench, but dealing with Smith is the equivalent to having a human powder keg around.
Shumpert is one of the better perimeter defenders in the Eastern Conference which is a trend that should continue this season. Thompson’s main contributions to Cleveland come on the boards as he has averaged 8.6 rebounds for his six-year career. Like Smith, Thompson has been known to lose focus throughout his NBA career, and you have to wonder what version of him the Cavaliers will be getting this season.
And then there is the case of James who is the glue for this team. Hands down James is the best player in the NBA as there isn’t anything on the basketball court that he cannot do. James will be 33-years of age in December and although that he has the potential to average at least 28 points per game this season, it is all about preservation for him. James led the NBA in minutes last season in spite of the fact that Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue wanted put a cap on his time on the floor. James has also appeared in seven straight NBA Finals and at some point that wear and tear has to catch up to him.
However with James set to become a free agent next summer and with this more than likely being his swan song in Cleveland, you can expect him to have another splendid season. At 6’9″, 250 lbs., James is a freak of nature due to his speed, size, and agility. James still possesses one of the most explosive first steps in the NBA in order to get to the basket, and when he gets going there is absolutely nobody who can stop him. After James struggled at perimeter scoring in the early stages of his NBA career, he has improved. And although that James can hurt opponents from the outside, you can still expect him to specialize in using brute force in order to get to the basket.
Even without Irving, the Cavaliers are still the best team in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland once again has the ability to reach the NBA Finals, but they will be judged by what they can do in June versus the Warriors should they meet each other for a fourth consecutive year.
Y-Detroit Pistons 44-38 (5)
When Stan Van Gundy became the head coach and president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons in 2014, he was seeking to change the culture of the franchise. Prior to Van Gundy’s arrival, the Pistons had not qualified for the NBA Playoffs since 2009, while they hadn’t finished with a winning record since 2008. By Van Gundy’s second season in Detroit, the Pistons were back in the postseason while displaying potential in regards to becoming a force in the Eastern Conference. However after the Pistons were able to make the playoffs in 2016, they missed out on getting back to the postseason after they finished with a record of 37-45. This definitely didn’t sit well with Van Gundy as this mark just the second time during his head coach tenure in the NBA that he failed to get to the postseason which makes you wonder what he will have up his sleeve in order to get this back to the playoffs for the upcoming campaign.
For starters the Pistons will be operating in a new venue this season. After spending the last 30 years playing in Auburn Hills, the Pistons are moving back to Detroit. This marks the first time since 1978 that the Pistons will play their home games within the city limits of Detroit as they played at the Pontiac Silverdome from 1978-1988. But now it is all about the Pistons calling the Little Caesars Arena home which they will share with the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League.
One look at the Pistons roster and you can see that the majority of the team fits the mold of what Van Gundy is looking for in his squad which includes being solid on defense and the boards. But there was one category that the Pistons struggled in mightily last season which was their inability to distribute the basketball.
Last season the Pistons were tied for 23rd in the NBA in assists with just 21.1 per contest. Reggie Jackson is the Pistons starting point guard and he is coming off of a season in which he missed 30 games due to injury. And since Jackson joined the Pistons in 2015, his production has decreased; especially in distributing the basketball as he averaged just 5.2 assists last season. At times Jackson can focus too much on getting his own shot which is not what the Pistons need. Detroit has too much talent on this team, and the last thing that they can afford to have is a point guard who is not making the players around better. And if Jackson cannot be the floor general that Van Gundy needs him to be, don’t be surprised to see him traded this season.
The Pistons need a point guard who can consistently get the basketball to center Andre Drummond and small forward Tobias Harris. Both Harris and Drummond saw a slight dip in their production last season which coincides with the Pistons struggles at the point guard position being the catalyst for that. Since coming into the NBA in 2012, Drummond has been on the league’s top rebounders. Drummond is not a polished scorer, but he can clean up on put backs as well as shots close to the basket. And if Jackson can find a way to feed Drummond on easy shots in the paint, the big fella will see his offensive productivity increase.
Harris has been the Pistons best perimeter threat, while he also knows how to get to the basket. Harris can consistently knock down the mid-range jump shot, and like Drummond, he will need Jackson to be on top of his game as a point guard.
In acquiring guard Avery Bradley from the Boston Celtics, the Pistons will pick up a versatile guard who is defensive minded which fits into what Van Gundy wants to do. Bradley has built a reputation in regards to his perimeter defense and his toughness will be a welcome addition in Detroit.
The Pistons should be a very interesting team and a fast start to the season could propel Detroit to the playoffs for the second time in the last three years.
Y-Milwaukee Bucks 43-39 (6)
If there was ever a team in the NBA that could be described as an enigma, then it would be the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks are loaded with size, depth, and youth as they are truly one of the few teams in the NBA that can defeat any squad in the league. The Bucks have flip-flopped as they have alternated making the playoffs and not making the playoffs in each of the last five years. Jason Kidd has been the Bucks head coach in each of the last three years, but he has never been able to get Milwaukee to that next level bring that they have never won more than 42 games in a season under him. However as the expectations have increased for Milwaukee this season, will Kidd be able to lead them to consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since 2004, while also winning their first postseason series since 2001?
The success of the Bucks begins and ends with small forward Giannis Antetonkounmpo. Antetonkounmpo was an afterthought when the Bucks made him the 15th overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft. And Antetonkounmpo has rapidly become one of the better players in the NBA as there are some people who see him as an MVP candidate. Antetonkounmpo has been labeled as the “Greek Freak” due to his height and athleticism. At 6’11”, Antetonkounmpo possesses the ball handling skills of a point guard, and the speed of a shooting guard. Antentonkounmpo is also no slouch on the boards as he averaged 8.8 rebounds per contest. There aren’t too many flaws in the game of Antetonkounmpo, but will be be able to Milwaukee get to the next level?
Two of the last three seasons have seen forward Jabari Parker succumb to ACL injuries. And surprisingly without Parker, the Bucks were able to make the playoffs. Parker entered the NBA in 2014 amid plenty of hype due to his scoring ability. In parts of three seasons with the Bucks, Parker has averaged 15.8 points per game, but will he ever be able to reach his potential?
Parker is still out for the Bucks and he is not scheduled to return to the court until the All-Star break. But the biggest thing for Parker in rehabbing is once again be able to trust his body after suffering multiple severe knee injuries.
Small forward Khris Middleton is another one of those athletic contributors for the Bucks. And after Middleton missed the majority of the 2016-2017 NBA season with a hamstring injury, he is ready to bounce back. At 6’8″, Middleton is another one of those players with tremendous length for Milwaukee. Middleton possesses the ability to play off of Antetonkounmpo due to his mid-range game as well as his ability to get to the basket which makes him another viable option in the Bucks offense.
The Bucks currently have 14 players under contract who are least 6’5″, but that didn’t help this team on the boards last season as Milwaukee was 29th in rebounding. Center Greg Monroe has the potential to clean up on the boards, but will he have the mentality to be a force on the boards on a nightly basis? Last season saw center Thon Maker get adjusted to life in the NBA as a rookie. Maker checks in a 7’1″, and he still has tremendous potential to be a defensive force which could be recognized some more this season.
With the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers in rebuilding mode, the Bucks could be the team that is most equipped in the Central Division to give the Cleveland Cavaliers a run for the top spot.
Indiana Pacers 34-48
The 2017-2018 NBA season marks the beginning of a new era in regards to basketball for the Indiana Pacers. This past May saw Larry Bird step down as the Pacers team president. Bird would be replaced as the Pacers team president by Kevin Pritchard who along with general manager Chad Buchanan had to deal with a difficult situation right out of the chute.
After small forward Paul George spent the first seven years of his NBA career, which included him being a four-time NBA All-Star, he let the organization know that he did not intend to sign an extension to remain with the team. George was entering the final year of his contract and with the Pacers not wanting him to leave and not get something in return, he was traded during this off-season to the Oklahoma City Thunder. In exchange for George, the Pacers received guard Victor Oladipo and power forward/center Domantas Sabonis as this organization is in all on rebuilding and getting younger. And for Pacers head coach Nate McMillan, it will be all about being a teacher more than ever this season.
With George leading the way, the Pacers will be without three of their top five scorers from last season. But what the Pacers do have is a youngster in center Myles Turner who is rapidly turning into an impact player. Turner was the Pacers first-round pick in 2015 and he led the club in rebounds (7.3), as well as blocks last season with 2.1 per contest. And aside from Turner’s ability on the boards, he gives the club a legitimate presence in the post who can score. Turner made 81 starts last season, and as he should see his shots per game increase this season, he has the potential to average 18 points per game, while also averaging a double-double.
Sabonis was a first-round pick of the Thunder in 2016 and he was beginning to figure it out in the NBA, but now with the Pacers, he will have an opportunity to really develop. Sabonis should be able to penetrate Indiana’s starting lineup. Sabonis is also more polished on the offensive end of the floor than Turner which includes his ability to be a mid-ranger shooter. And as Sabonis and Turner continue to grow, they could have a similar impact for the Pacers as that of the one in which center Marc Gasol and power forward Zach Randolph had for the Memphis Grizzlies during their time together.
Throughout the NBA career of point guard Darren Collison, he has always been a player who appeared to be on the brink of taking the next step in his career, but he has never been able to break through. Collison signed with the Pacers over the summer as this marks his second stint with the team. Collison has always shown the ability to facilitate and penetrate the lane throughout his career. And as the Pacers will be a younger team this season, Collison’s veteran presence will be important at the point guard position.
The Pacers should start out slow due to their youth, but they will gel as the season progresses.
Chicago Bulls 29-53
11 of the last 13 NBA seasons have seen the Chicago Bulls qualify for the playoffs. But in that stretch the Bulls were only able to advance past the first round of the playoffs four times. Last season the Bulls would sneak into the playoffs with the last slot in the Eastern Conference. And after Chicago won the first two games of their series with the Boston Celtics, they would lose the next four. The 2016-2017 NBA season which began with so much promise for Chicago was marred by dysfunction which saw them end on a sour note, and in the process it marked the end of an era.
The Bulls will enter the 2017-2018 NBA season in rebuilding mode. During the 2017 NBA Draft, Chicago decided to trade swingman Jimmy Butler as well as the draft rights to center Justin Patton to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for guards Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine as well as the draft rights to center Lauri Markkanen. What the Bulls are giving up in Butler is a player who has led their team in scoring in each of the last three seasons, while also being one of the better players in the NBA. But the biggest issue was that Butler’s style of play did not fit into the philosophy of Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg.
Hoiberg’s offense relies on his team getting up and down the floor in a more uptempo offense, whereas Butler’s style was more a fit for former Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau which led to them being reunited in Minnesota.
Aside from Butler, the Bulls lost five of their top seven scorers from last season’s team which included shooting guard Dwyane Wade who came to an agreement with Chicago on a buyout as he is now a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It is going to be a work in progress this season for the Bulls as they will attempt to now find a go-to-guy. Power forward Nikola Mirotic is the Bulls leading returning scorer after he averaged 10.6 points per game last season. Dunn should be able to become more of a focal point in Chicago after he was in the shadow of center Karl-Anthony Towns and small forward Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota, while shooting guard Denzel Valentine who was a first-round pick by the Bulls in 2016 could be ready to take his game to the next level.
The schedule for the Bulls to begin the season won’t be easy for Chicago as each of their first five opponents made the playoffs last season. The Bulls are beginning this season in search of an identity, and I am not sure if they’ll ever find it over 82 games.