Will Isaiah Thomas have enough to lead the Boston Celtics past the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James?
X-Toronto Raptors 54-28 (3)
The past three years have seen the Toronto Raptors become the class of the Atlantic Division. The Raptors have focused on basketball fundamentals which has led to more wins and a growing fan base in Canada. The Raptors will begin the upcoming NBA season as the three-time defending Atlantic Division Championships, and after Toronto reached the Eastern Conference Finals last June for the first time in franchise history, the expectations around this team have increased.
Dwane Casey is set to begin his sixth season with the Raptors and in each of his campaign’s in Toronto, the team’s win total has increased. And after the Raptors won a franchise best 56 games last season, they are poised to once again be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
The backbone of the Raptors has been their All-Star backcourt of point guard Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan averaged a career-high in points last season at 23.5 points per game as he continues to improve as a perimeter shooter. Lowry’s numbers have continued throughout his NBA career as he is emerging as one of the better point guards in the league. Last year Lowry averaged 21.2 points and 6.4 assists per contest and as he intends to test free agency next summer.
Around Lowry and DeRozan, the Raptors have developing players such as center Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas has spent his entire four-year NBA career with the Raptors and his numbers continue to improve as he averaged 12.8 points and 9.1 rebounds last season. Valanciunas is a prime candidate to average a double-double this season which could make the Raptors that more difficult to deal with. The Raptors signed center Jared Sullinger who could be a solid role player in Toronto after he spent the last four years with the Boston Celtics. And the Raptors first-round pick in center/power forward Jakob Poltl could give them another dynamic as a big man that can stretch the floor with his ability to hit he mid-range jump shot.
Size has been the one thing that has held the Raptors back in recent years, but as this team continues to get better in the front court, their chances of being a title contender are that much better.
Y-Boston Celtics 48-34 (4)
The past two years have seen the Boston Celtics become “The Little Engine That Could” of the NBA. The Celtics are not the most talented team in the league, but they scrap and claw on a nightly basis as they are a team that opponents are not excited to face. Brad Stevens is the Celtics head coach, and it is a post that he has maintained for the last three years. And in each year that Stevens has been in Boston, the Celtics win total has increased. The last two seasons have seen the Celtics make the playoffs, but they’ve been unable to advance past the first round. However will things change for the Celtics next spring?
Last year saw point guard Isaiah Thomas turn into a star for the Celtics. Thomas led the Celtics in points per game (22.2) and assists (6.2) as he earned his first All-Star Game nod. Thomas has solid ability as a point guard being that is able to penetrate, but for the Celtics to take that next step they are going to need a consistent low-post presence.
For the last nine years, center Al Horford has been one of the cornerstones of the Atlanta Hawks. With the Hawks, Horford was a four-time NBA All-Star as he averaged 14.3 points and 8.9 rebounds during his time there. But when Horford became a free agent this past summer, the Hawks signed center Dwight Howard which made him expendable. And when the Celtics offered Horford $113 million on a four-year deal, he jumped on it.
Horford gives the Celtics a dependable scorer in the post, and he has already been named as one of the team’s captains which gives you an idea of the respect that he commands.
The combination of guards Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley continue to pester opponents with their frenetic play at both ends of the floor. Both Smart and Bradley are two of the better defenders at the point guard position along with each player providing a change of pace on offense which gives Stevens more options as he preaches versatility with his team.
Veteran small forward Jae Crowder should be able to feed off of Horford’s presence in the front court as he no longer has to be the Celtics primary scoring option in the post. The Celtics have high hopes for their first-round pick in small forward Jaylen Brown. But a sleeper on this roster could be rookie forward Ben Bentil who averaged 21.1 points and 7.7 rebounds last year in the college for the Providence Friars. Aside from leading the Friars in scoring and rebounds, Bentil also led the team with 52 made three-point field goals, and his scoring ability will be huge off of the bench for the Celtics.
Five of the Celtics first six games this season will be at home, and a fast start could be just what they need to push the Toronto Raptors for the top spot in the Atlantic Division.
New York Knicks 41-41
When Phil Jackson became the president of the New York Knicks in March 2014, he brought excitement and expectations to the franchise. But in two seasons under Jackson’s regime, the Knicks have only managed to win 49 games, while the man that he was grooming to be the next “great head coach” in Derek Fisher was fired last season after the team got off to a 23-31 start. Kurt Rambis would be named as the Knicks interim head coach for the remainder of the season as New York went 9-19 under him. But what was even more surprising than the firing of Fisher was that Jeff Hornacek was hired to be the new head coach of the Knickerbockers.
The Knicks will be Hornacek’s second NBA coaching gig after he compiled a record of 101-112 in nearly three seasons as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. Hornacek was never able to lead the Suns to the postseason, and the highlight of his time in Phoenix was when the team won 48 games during the 2013-2014 NBA season. However it is really going to be very interesting to see how the marriage between Hornacek and Jackson will work since Jackson is notorious for hiring coaches that will solely run his triangle offense which isn’t a specialty of the Knicks new head coach who prefers a more uptempo style of offense.
The hiring of Hornacek smells of Knicks owner James Dolan once again putting his nose into the day-to-day operations of the team which makes you wonder if Jackson’s days at 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue are numbered? And even though that the Knicks can be described as the best circus in town, this group must find a way to co-exist in order to make a roster that has individual talent work as a team.
The centerpiece of any potential Knicks success is small forward Carmelo Anthony. Anthony has been with the Knicks since 2011 and he has given New York a face of the franchise while helping them reach the postseason on three occasions. Anthony also led the NBA in scoring during the 2012-2013 NBA season, but since then his offensive numbers have dipped. Anthony is 32-years of age with a bad knee. And although that Anthony can still fill up the bucket, the clock is ticking on he and the Knicks to win a championship together.
The Knicks are hopeful that power forward Kristaps Porzingis will be able to build off of his solid rookie campaign. Last season Porzingis averaged 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks. Porzingis came into the NBA being compared to Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki, and he could be a player that could average 17 points and 10 rebounds this season under Hornacek.
This off-season has seen the Knicks bring in an array of veteran players. The Knicks signed former Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah to a four-year deal that is worth $72 million, while also signing guards Brandon Jennings and Courtney Lee. The Knicks would also acquire point guard Derrick Rose from the Bulls to complete their roster overhaul. But unfortunately for the Knicks, these are moves that should have been made five years ago.
In 2011, Rose was the NBA’s MVP as he was one of the league’s brightest stars. However since then knee injuries have derailed Rose’s once promising career. Noah was Rose’s teammate in Chicago where they helped the Bulls to be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference when they were healthy. Noah was the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 as his toughness and grit defined that era of Bulls basketball. But like Rose, Noah has been dealing with injuries as foot and shoulder issues have limited his effectiveness over his final two seasons in Chicago. The Knicks will be the fourth different team that Jennings has suited up for and he is seeking to find the explosiveness that he had earlier in his career. Like Jennings, Lee has bounced around the NBA as the Knicks will be his seventh different team. Throughout Lee’s career, he has been an underrated defender that should be able to provide a spark off of the Knicks bench for Hornacek.
The Knicks will look to push the pace of play more this season under Hornacek, but the most important thing for New York is to have everyone on the same page as it will be very interesting to see how this motley crew comes together as the season progresses.
Philadelphia 76ers 29-53
It’s no secret that the Philadelphia 76ers have become the worst franchise in the NBA. The 2011-2012 NBA season was the last time that the Sixers finished with a winning record and it was their only winning campaign over the last seven years. The last three seasons have seen the 76ers combine to win 47 games, and to give you an idea of how bad that it has been in Philadelphia, ten NBA teams won more games than the Sixers last year alone than they were able to accomplish over the last three campaigns. Last season was just about as bad as it could get for the Sixers as they managed to go just 10-72 which led to some wholesale changes.
Sam Hinkie was relieved of his duties as the 76ers general manager after he oversaw the worst stretch in franchise history. Former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo was brought in by the Sixers as an advisor and his first order of business was to name his son Bryan as the team’s new president and general manager. The younger Colangelo has a proven track record of putting a team together from his time as the general manager of both the Suns and Toronto Raptors as he was named as the NBA’s Executive of the Year in 2007. Now Colangelo is tasked with making the Sixers respectable once again and they could be a team on the rise.
Brett Brown is set to begin his third season as the Sixers head coach and although that the man who hired him in Hinkie is no longer running the show in Philly, he will still be calling the shots on the sideline.
The Sixers will begin the upcoming NBA season on the wrong foot as they will be without the services of small forward Ben Simmons. Simmons was the first overall pick of the NBA Draft this past summer after he averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in one year for the LSU Tigers. But a foot injury will keep Simmons out of action for at least three months which will postpone his NBA debut.
The inability for the 76ers to win games in recent years has led to selecting early in the NBA Draft, but Hinkie rolled the dice on players that weren’t healthy. In 2013, the Sixers obtained the draft rights to center Nerlens Noel from the New Orleans Pelicans, but he missed the entire 2013-2014 NBA season after he recovered from a torn ACL that he suffered in college. In 2014, the Sixers used the third overall pick of the draft on center Joel Embiid, but injuries have prevented him from participating in an NBA game. Last year the Sixers first-round pick was center Jahlil Okafor. Unlike Noel and Embiid, Okafor was able to suit up as a rookie for the Sixers as he averaged 17.5 points and 7 rebounds in 53 games before a knee injury cut his rookie campaign short. However all three players are healthy and it should give the 76ers a huge advantage in the front court.
The good things for the folks in Philadelphia is that it can’t get any worse than it has already been. Colangelo is working to bring a competitive team to the City of Brotherly Love and the 76ers should be an improved team this season.
Brooklyn Nets 22-60
Last year was a sign of things to come for the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets lost 61 games last season which was the third worst record in the NBA and the icing on the cake was that they didn’t have a first-round pick to show for their futility. The Nets are still suffering from the moves that were made by former general manager Billy King as most of their recent and future picks are now property of the Boston Celtics after the team’s failed attempt to become an instant title contender in 2013 when they acquired aging players such as power forward Kevin Garnett and small forward Paul Pierce. The Nets run at a title was short lived as they are coming off of their worst campaign since 2010 when they were still the New Jersey Nets.
Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has finally realized that winning an NBA Championship is not an easy process and instead of the quick process, he has finally decided on the slow, methodical process. Prokhorov has hired Sean Marks as the Nets new general manager and he’ll be tasked with making Brooklyn respectable.
Marks played for 11 seasons in the NBA and he won a championship as a member of the San Antonio Spurs in 2003. Marks has spent the last four years working in the Spurs front office and he is looking to bring some of that winning formula with him to Brooklyn.
Marks’ first order of business was to hire a new coach in Kenny Atkinson. The Nets will mark Atkinson’s first head coaching gig in the NBA, but he has had stints as an assistant coach in the league with the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks. And now that Atkinson is running the show in Brooklyn, you can expect him to preach ball movement for the Nets.
One of the few bright spots that the Nets have on their roster is center Brook Lopez. Lopez is coming off of one of his best NBA seasons as he averaged 20.6 points and 7.8 rebounds in 73 games for the Nets. Lopez gives the Nets a solid presence in the post, but trading him to a contending team could return draft picks to Brooklyn that will be needed in order for them to turn things around.
Aside from Lopez, the Nets are a team that is mainly comprised of youngsters that are thankful to be on an NBA roster and veterans that are attempting to hold on. This past summer the Nets signed point guard Jeremy Lin to a three-year, $36 million deal as they are hopeful than he can give them a dose of “Linsanity” as he did when he suited up for the Knicks in 2012. Rookie shooting guard Isaiah Whitehead is a native of Coney Island and he won’t be fazed by playing in front of the hometown fans as he could have a positive impact on this team.
The Nets will be fighting an uphill battle all season long as they have finally come to grips of the reality that is their rebuilding process.
The Atlanta Hawks have made the NBA Playoffs in each of the last seven seasons, but they have continued to fly under the radar. Last season the injury bug hit the Hawks real hard, but under first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer they surprised many observers with a trip to the postseason. The Hawks would give the Eastern Conference’s top team in the Indiana Pacers all that they could handle in the first round of the playoffs before bowing out in seven games. The Hawks didn’t hang their heads after exiting the postseason as they gained tremendous confidence that has carried over to this season.
The Hawks currently have a record of 29-8 which is the best record in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks have done this by playing team basketball and simply believing in one another. All five starters for the Hawks are currently averaging in double figures for points as it has been a different guy every night that has emerged to carry the team in Atlanta.
Last season Hawks center Al Horford was averaging 18.6 points and 8.4 rebounds before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season after just 29 games. Horford has returned this season and his offensive production is down which is to be expected if all five starters are averaging double figures in points, but he gives the Hawks a presence in the post. In seven seasons with the Utah Jazz, power forward Paul Millsap flew under the radar as the Western Conference is loaded with quality big men. Millsap signed with the Hawks as free agent in the summer of 2013 and last season he made his first NBA All-Star team. Millsap is averaging 17 points and 8.1 rebounds this season as he has teamed with Horford to give the Hawks a tough combination on the interior. Like Millsap, the Jazz were the last NBA team that small forward DeMarre Carroll was employed by before joining the Hawks. Carroll is also in his second season with the Hawks and he is enjoying a career year as he is averaging 11.4 points and 5.8 boards per contest. And just as Millsap and Carroll once played for the Jazz, the same can be said about Hawks shooting guard Kyle Korver. Korver is in his 12th NBA season and he has become one of the better three-point shooters that the game has ever seen. This season is flirting with that rare air as he is looking to hit on 90 percent of his free throws while hitting at 50 percent on his field goals and from downtown. But the player that has emerged as the glue for the Hawks is point guard Jeff Teague.
The Hawks drafted Teague with the 19th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft out of Wake Forest University without that much fan fare, but he has worked at his craft and he has continued to improve in each season. When the Hawks lost Horford last season, Teague was one of the players that stepped his game up. And in the postseason versus the Pacers, Teague emerged as he averaged 19.3 points per game. Teague’s postseason performance from last spring has carried over to this season as he is currently leading the Hawks in points per game (17.5) while he is 10th in the NBA in assists with 7.2.
When Budenholzer became the Hawks head coach in 2013, he brought with him a winning pedigree. Budenholzer had been an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs since 1996 and during his time there he was a part of four NBA Championship teams. In San Antonio, Budenholzer worked under Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich who preaches team first basketball. With Popovich leading the way the Spurs have won five NBA Championships and they have done it with the team first philosophy as they don’t rely on one player to carry the load which is what the Hawks are doing this season and so far it has been a success.
After a 7-6 start to the season, the Hawks have won 22 out of their last 24 ballgames and their surge cannot just be attributed to playing in the Eastern Conference or the Southeast Division. During this run the Hawks have knocked off the Cleveland Cavaliers twice and defeated the Chicago Bulls on December 15. The past three weeks have also seen the Hawks run the gauntlet versus the Western Conference. In consecutive road games in late December, the Hawks knocked off both the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets which was immediately followed by a home victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. The Hawks have kicked off 2015 on the right note with road victories over the Portland Trailblazers and Clippers which was followed up with a home win against the Memphis Grizzlies. This past Friday night the Hawks went on the road and defeated the Detroit Pistons who were the hottest team in the NBA. And just yesterday the Hawks throttled the Washington Wizards who are one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference by the score of 120-89.
The Hawks are destined to make the playoffs and they have the people in Atlanta once again gravitating to them. Last summer controversy surrounded the Hawks as their majority owner Bruce Levinson self-reported himself to the NBA in wake of an inflammatory email that he sent in 2012. The Hawks are searching for a new owner as they have been a ship without a captain, but with a chief officer like Bundenholzer, the remaining deck mates have been able to not listen to the white noise outside and focus on playing basketball. Like the Clippers last season in wake of the Donald Sterling scandal, the Hawks are rolling along in spite of their owner. The Hawks main competition in the Southeast Division are the Wizards with whom they have proven that they can beat and it will be a race with the Bulls and the Toronto Raptors for the top spot in the conference. The Hawks have not been out of the first round since 2011 while they have not been to the NBA Finals since 1961 when they still called St. Louis home. The one thing that could hold the Hawks back is that they have a weak bench as they really rely on their starters. There’s still a good chunk of the regular season to go, but the Hawks have shown that they won’t be a pushover this time around.
X-Miami Heat 49-33 (3)
The last four NBA seasons have seen the Miami Heat franchise soar to new heights. In the past four years the Heat claimed a pair of NBA Championships in four trips to the league’s final series. But things will be drastically different this time around as forward LeBron James left the Heat to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers. The departure of James leaves a big hole for the Heat as he led the team last season in points (27.1), rebounds (6.9), and assists (6.4). With the James departure, Heat team president Pat Riley had to get creative in fielding a team for the upcoming season.
Riley signed small forward Luol Deng to somewhat cushion the blow of losing James. For his 10-year NBA career, Deng has averaged 16 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Deng’s numbers are nowhere near to what the Heat lost with James which means that power forward Chris Bosh will be the focal point of the Heat’s offense this season. When the “Big Three” of James, Bosh, and Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade joined up in 2010 it was Bosh that was the forgotten player. Prior to joining the Heat, Bosh has averaged 20.2 points and 9.4 rebounds in the first seven years of his NBA career with the Toronto Raptors and you can expect him to go back to being more of a scoring threat this season. In originally joining the Heat, Bosh sacrificed some of his overall game for the greater good of the team and he was rewarded with a pair of NBA Titles. Now you can expect to see more of Bosh back in the post.
For Wade, he is 32-years of age and there are questions in regards to his knees. There has been a drop off in the overall production of Wade in the past few seasons. For Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, he must monitor Wade’s minutes in order to keep him fresh.
With James’ superior ball handling in Miami for the last four seasons, the Heat were able to skate by without having a dominant point guard. But that will not be the case this season. Heat veteran point guards Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers combined to average 7.9 assists last season, but is either player ready to step up? If not, Riley and Spoelstra are high on rookie point guard Shabazz Napier who showed an uncanny knack of being a floor general in college at UConn and the Heat are hopeful that his transition to the NBA will be a quick one.
The Heat are no longer runaway favorites in the Eastern Conference, but for the players that remained they are out to show the world that it wasn’t just James that propelled them to four straight appearances in the NBA Finals.
Y-Washington Wizards 47-35 (5)
Last season saw the Washington Wizards qualify for the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2008. Under head coach Randy Wittman, the Wizards have a good blend of youth and veterans that should allow them to contend for the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance since 1979.
The Wizards have a very explosive starting back court in point guard John Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal. But the only knock on the duo is that they have been unable to remain healthy. Last season Wall played in all 82 games and is ready to go for this season while Beal is currently out as he is recovering from a wrist injury. What Beal and Wall give Wittman and the Wizards when they’re healthy is over 36 points of production. Beal and Wall also have tremendous ability to attack the basket while they’re good perimeter defenders.
Behind Wall, the Wizards have veteran point guard Andre Miller who has seen it all during his time in the NBA. Miller is entering his 16th NBA season and the Wizards are his sixth team in the league, but he commands a ton or respect from his teammates when he is on the floor.
The Wizards front court situation will be interesting this season. Last season center Marcin Gortat and power forward Nene Hilario combined to averaged 15 rebounds per game while each player can also score in the post. Behind Hilario and Gortat, the Wizards have a pair of veterans in power forwards Kris Humphries and Drew Gooden that have made careers for themselves in the NBA on their ability to crash the boards and you can expect more of the same this season. The Wizards lost starting small forward Trevor Ariza in free agency as he signed with the Houston Rockets, but they were able to lure veteran small forward Paul Pierce to Washington. Pierce is set to embark on his 17th NBA season and he brings a championship pedigree with him to the Wizards that includes winning the NBA Championship in 2008 as a member of the Boston Celtics. Pierce brings a toughness with him along with his ability to deliver in clutch situations. But mainly the Wizards will need to see improvement from small forward Otto Porter Jr. Porter Jr. was the third overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft but he only averaged 2.1 points per game as a rookie while only appearing 37 contests without making a start and it is time for him to step up.
The Wizards may not dominate in the regular season, but what they are is a team that will be scary in the NBA Playoffs.
Y-Atlanta Hawks 43-39 (7)
After a very interesting off-season the Atlanta Hawks are happy to get back to playing basketball. Racist remarks by the Hawks majority owner Bruce Levinson forced him to sell his shares in the team and it also resulted in general manager Danny Ferry taking an indefinite leave of absence which has shaken the team to its core. Now it will be up to Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer to keep the ship righted in Atlanta.
Two out of the last three seasons have seen Hawks center Al Horford succumb early in the campaign to a season-ending injury. Horford is returning to the Hawks after tearing a pectoral muscle as he looks to regain his form in the post that has seen him average 14 points and 9.5 rebounds in his seven-year NBA career. In Horford’s absence last season, Hawks power forward Paul Milsap picked up the slack. Milsap averaged 17.9 points along with 8.5 boards and it is scary to think what these two can combine to be this year. Hawks point guard Jeff Teague is very underrated as his numbers continue to improve while shooting guard Kyle Korver still has one of the best strokes from beyond the three-point arc.
Sports can be therapeutic and in light of the controversy, the Hawks should come together and gel as the season progresses.
Charlotte Hornets 41-41
The buzz is literally back in Charlotte as the Bobcats have switched their team name to the Hornets. The original Charlotte Hornets left town in 2002 when they moved to New Orleans. In 2013, the New Orleans Hornets would change their team name to the Pelicans which paved the way for the name of the Hornets to be returned to Charlotte. The Hornets also have something to build off of as they made the playoffs last season under first year head coach Steve Clifford. The Hornets also return their top three scorers from last year which gives them optimism for the upcoming season.
Last season Hornets power forward Al Jefferson exceeded career highs in points and rebounds as he scored nearly 22 points per contest along with grabbing nearly 11 boards each game. Jefferson gives the Hornets a legitimate low-post threat and he can also score in a variety of ways. Prior to Jefferson’s arrival in Charlotte, Hornets point guard Kemba Walker had to carry the load offensively, but that is not the case anymore as he can freelance more. In the off-season the Hornets signed shooting guard Lance Stephenson and he will bring a much needed rugged attitude to Charlotte. For Hornets head coach Steve Clifford, he is hopeful that small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be able to take the next step in his game this season. Gilchrist was the second overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft, but his overall game has yet to catch up with his sheer athleticism.
Under Clifford, the Hornets got a taste of the playoffs last year and they will look to capitalize on that this season.
Orlando Magic 29-53
The Orlando Magic are in the process of building a contender and it is going to take some time. Jacque Vaughn is entering his third season as the head coach of the Magic and he has only been able to compile a record of 43-121. This season it will be tough for him and Orlando to improve on that win-loss mark.
The Magic will field one of the youngest teams in the NBA this season and they will be without their leading scorer from a year ago in shooting guard Arron Afflalo who was traded to the Denver Nuggets in the off-season. Last season as a rookie, Magic point guard Victor Oladipo averaged 13.8 points per game along with 4.1 assists and Vaughn is hopeful that the youngster will continue to make progress while also becoming a better floor general. But Oladipo will begin the season on the sidelines as he is recovering from a facial fracture that he recently suffered in practice. The Magic used the fourth overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft on power forward Aaron Gordon who has tremendous athleticism, but is ready to be an impact player in the NBA? Magic center Nikola Vucevic has ascended into being one of the league’s better rebounders while small forward Tobias Harris has become viable off of the bench as they both are building blocks for Vaughn and Magic general manager Rob Hennigan.
The fans in the Magic Kingdom will have to endure another season of dealing with the growing pains of the young Magic, but hopefully there can be some excitement sprinkled in here and there.
Y-Clinched Playoff Berth