Will the Oklahoma City Thunder be able to persuade Paul George to remain with them long term?
Following the Indiana Pacers elimination in the first round the NBA Playoffs last spring, team president Larry Bird raised some eyebrows when he decided to fire longtime head coach Frank Vogel. Vogel’s 250 wins as Pacers head coach are second in franchise history to the 529 victories of Slick Leonard. And in Vogel’s tenure with the Pacers, only the Miami Heat and small forward LeBron James prevented him from getting to the NBA Finals. The Pacers missed the playoffs in 2015 as they only had the services of small forward Paul George for six games after he suffered a broken leg while playing for the United States Men’s Basketball Team in the summer of 2014. And after the Golden State Warriors would win the NBA Championship in 2015 via the “small ball” philosophy, the 2015-2016 season would the see the Pacers get on board with that notion which included George playing power forward. George did respond by averaging 23.1 points and 7 rebounds as the Pacers appeared to be building off of something. But when Bird decided to fire Vogel, the Pacers lost their soul.
Vogel would be replaced by assistant coach Nate McMillan whose head coaching record coming into this season was 478-452. McMillan was able to lead both the Seattle Supersonics and Portland Trail Blazers to the playoffs, but there appears to be a huge disconnect with him and the current Pacers team.
Last summer Bird went out to improve the talent around George by acquiring the likes of point guard Jeff Teague and power forward Thaddeus Young. However the Pacers have been unable to get in sync all season. The Pacers record of 37-40 has them tied with the Heat for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But if the season were to end today, it would be Miami that would be heading to the postseason. The Pacers were expected to be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, but instead there is a possibility that they’ll be watching the playoffs from home which all falls into the lap of Bird.
Over the past few years Bird has made some questionable moves for the Pacers which included him trading the draft rights of Kawhi Leonard to the San Antonio Spurs in 2011, along with shipping longtime small forward Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers in 2014. The firing of Vogel was the cherry on top and George more than likely has not turned a blind eye to all of this.
In 2013, George signed a five-year, $90 million extension with the Pacers. At the time life was good for Indiana as they were in the midst of consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Finals. But since then the overall production of the Pacers has declined and George is noncommittal to signing another extension to remain in Indiana. For George’s seven-year NBA career he has averaged 17.9 points per contest, while he is chiming in with a career-high 23.2 points per game this season. George is a four-time NBA All-Star and as he’ll be 27-years of age next month, he wants to win. George is under contract with the Pacers through 2019, but if Bird doesn’t want an unhappy camper on his hands, the time fix things in Indiana is now.
Bird has tried to change with the times, but the Pacers have gotten away from their identity which is playing solid defense and grinding out games. Going back to Indiana’s last trip to the Eastern Conference Finals which came in 2014, they were second in the NBA in points allowed that season at 92.3 per contest. However this season the Pacers are surrendering 105.8 points per game which is 16th in the league. Indiana is 1-6 over their last seven games as they surrendered at least 109 points in each of those. And even if the Pacers were to make the playoffs this year, they would be a one and done in the postseason as they would have to either face the Cleveland Cavaliers or Boston Celtics in the first round.
But as good as George is, he is not a player that can carry a team as he needs to play alongside another very talented player. Teague is Indiana’s second leading scorer at 15.3 points per game, while he is averaging 7.8 assists per contest, however he is not a player who can consistently get 20 points per contest. And the same can be said about center Myles Turner who is averaging 14.4 points and 7.2 rebounds this season.
Bird is a very competitive person as we’re talking about a man who led the Celtics to three NBA Titles, while he was also a three-time league MVP. Bird is going to give it everything that he has in order to turn things around for the Pacers and even if that means parting with McMillan in order to appease George, then so be it. The Pacers already have more than $80 million committed to player salaries for next season, while the trade route is also an option for Larry Legend in order to make his team better. Bird did some pretty amazing things on the parquet floor of the Boston Garden during his playing career, and he’ll need to once again be crafty if he wants to keep George in a Pacers uniform.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
2. Indiana Pacers
3. Toronto Raptors
4. Boston Celtics
5. Detroit Pistons
6. Atlanta Hawks
7. Chicago Bulls
8. Washington Wizards
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
(8) Washington Wizards vs. (1) Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavaliers win series 4-0)
The Washington Wizards won’t be able to derail the express that is the defending NBA Champions.
(7) Chicago Bulls vs. (2) Indiana Pacers (Pacers win series 4-2)
The Chicago Bulls will spend most of this NBA season not being on the same page which will finally catch up to them against the Indiana Pacers.
(6) Atlanta Hawks vs. (3) Toronto Raptors (Raptors win series 4-2)
The Atlanta Hawks will be tough, but the Toronto Raptors are looking to build off of their momentum from making the Eastern Conference Finals last season.
(5) Detroit Pistons vs. (4) Boston Celtics (Pistons win series (4-2)
The size advantage of the Detroit Pistons will be on display in this one as the Boston Celtics are still unable to win a playoff series under head coach Brad Stevens.
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Detroit Pistons vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavaliers win series 4-2)
The Pistons are an improving team under head coach Stan Van Gundy, but they are still not on the level of the Cavaliers.
Toronto Raptors vs Indiana Pacers (Pacers win series 4-2)
This is a rematch of a gritty first-round series from last spring, but this time around, Pacers small forward Paul George has more help around him which should be the difference.
Eastern Conference Finals
Indiana Pacers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavaliers win series 4-2)
Pacers small forward Paul George still will be unable to solve the riddle that is Cavaliers small forward LeBron James.
1. Golden State Warriors
2. San Antonio Spurs
3. Los Angeles Clippers
4. Portland Trailblazers
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
6. Dallas Mavericks
7. Memphis Grizzlies
8. Utah Jazz
Western Conference Quarterfinals
(8) Utah Jazz vs. (1) Golden State Warriors (Warriors win series 4-0)
The Utah Jazz won’t be a match for the Golden State Warriors as they will merely be happy to have their first postseason appearance since 2012.
(7) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (2) San Antonio Spurs (Spurs win series 4-1)
It’s that time of the year when you have to be weary of the San Antonio Spurs as they are simply laying in the weeds for another title run.
(6) Dallas Mavericks vs. (3) Los Angeles Clippers (Clippers wins 4-3)
The Dallas Mavericks have the heart and determination, but it won’t be enough to overtake the Los Angeles Clippers.
(5) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (4) Portland Trailblazers (Trail Blazers win series 4-3)
Hands down this will be the toughest first round series in the playoffs as it can go either way.
Western Conference Semifinals
Portland Trail Blazers vs. Golden State Warriors (Warriors win series 4-2)
The Blazers are an improving club, but they still aren’t on the level of the Warriors.
Los Angeles Clippers vs. San Antonio Spurs Spurs (Spurs win series 4-1)
The Clippers are a good team, but right now they have to take a backseat to the Warriors and Spurs who are clearly the two best teams in the Western Conference.
Western Conference Finals
San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors (Warriors win series 4-3)
The Spurs defense will slow down the Warriors, but it won’t be enough to stop them.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors (Warriors win 4-3)
The hunger of losing the NBA Finals last summer to the Cavaliers will be enough for the Warriors to get back to the top of the mountain.
Y-Cleveland Cavaliers 59-23 (1)
The Cleveland Cavaliers will enter the 2016-2017 NBA season in an unfamiliar spot as they will be the hunted instead of the hunter. The Cavaliers are coming off of their first NBA Championship in franchise history after an epic comeback against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals that saw them overcome a 3-1 deficit in the series. Last season saw the Cavaliers push all the right buttons, and with Tyronn Lue entrenched as the team’s head coach, he must find a way to make sure that his squad doesn’t get complacent.
Luckily for Lue, he has strong leadership on the court for the Cavs that begins with small forward LeBron James. James returned to Cleveland in 2014 after four seasons with the Miami Heat, and he immediately made the Cavaliers a title contender. In 2015, the Cavs won the Eastern Conference Championship for the second time in franchise history, but injuries hindered their chances against the Warriors in the NBA Finals. However this time around the Cavaliers were healthy and thus they were able to win the NBA Title.
And even though that James is only 31-years of age, you have to wonder when the wear and tear is going to catch up to him. James is a 13-year NBA veteran that has appeared in the last six NBA Finals, along with playing in three different Summer Olympics for the United States. For his career James has averaged 39 minutes per game which is something that Lue will definitely keep an eye on as it is more important for the Cavaliers to have the best all-around player in the NBA fresh and ready to go when the postseason rolls around.
Around James, the Cavs do have a strong supporting cast that includes point guard Kyrie Irving and power forward Kevin Love. Both Love and Irving were up for the challenge of playing alongside James last year en route to winning a championship, and their presence along with an overall hunger will be vital if Cleveland intends on repeating.
With the likes of center Tristan Thompson, shooting guard Iman Shumpert, and small forward Richard Jefferson, the Cavaliers should once again be one of the better defensive units in the NBA. Last year the Cavs were fourth in the NBA in points allowed at 98.3 per game, and it is vital to have a solid defensive unit on the floor in the final minutes of a contest. James can lock down the oppositions best perimeter player, while Shumpert and Jefferson aren’t slouches in that category either. Thompson is the Cavs best rebounder which is going to be more important this year after Cleveland lost center Timofey Mozgov in free agency to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The NBA Playoffs won’t begin until April, but every night will be like a playoff game for the Cavaliers after what they were able to accomplish last year. And Cleveland must find a way to be up for the challenge.
Y-Indiana Pacers 55-27 (2)
For the first time in nearly six years, the Indiana Pacers will begin an NBA season without Frank Vogel as their head coach. Vogel led the Pacers to the playoffs in five of the six years that he coached the team and only Slick Leonard won more games than him in franchise history. But Pacers team president Larry Bird decided that it was time for the team to go in a new direction with an eye on becoming more offensive oriented which comes as a surprise since he was the one responsible for giving Vogel the lack of offensive fire power to work with.
Nate McMillian served as an assistant coach for Vogel during the last four years and now he will assume the role of head coach for the Pacers. But this won’t be McMillan’s first trip around the block as a head coach in the NBA as he was the head coach of the Seattle Supersonics from 2000-2005, and then leading the Portland Trailblazers from 2005-2012.
McMillan’s transition to being the man that is calling that shots should be a seamless one as he has the services of small forward Paul George. George is back to the form that he had prior to him suffering a broken leg in 2014 and he is coming off of a career-high in points as he averaged 23.1 points per contest last season. The Pacers have been using George more as a power forward due to their “small ball” approach which means that he will continue to crash the boards as well.
The Pacers were tied with the Sacramento Kings in rebounding last season as they averaged 44.2 per contest which was 11th in the league. But the Pacers should be able to improve in that category now that they’ve acquired power forward Thaddeus Young and center Al Jefferson. Young averaged a career-high in rebounds last season with 9 as a member of the Brooklyn Nets while also scoring 15.1 points. The Pacers had to give up the draft rights to swingman Caris LeVert to order to obtain Young who could be in line to have his best NBA season as he plays alongside George. Jefferson is twelve-year NBA veteran that has averaged 16.7 points and 8.9 rebounds for his career. Jefferson and the Pacers agreed on a three-year contract that is worth $30 million after he spent the last three NBA seasons with the Charlotte Hornets. And what Jefferson provides the Pacers with is a proven low-post scoring option in the post. Along with Young and Jefferson, power forward Myles Turner is looking to build off of a solid rookie season where he averaged 10.3 points and 5.5 rebounds as Indiana is definitely more bigger and physical than they were at the end of the 2016 NBA Playoffs.
Shooting guard Monta Ellis averaged 13.8 points last season in his first year with the Pacers, and he’ll have some more help in the back court this time around as Indiana acquired point guard Jeff Teague from the Atlanta Hawks, and signing veteran guard Aaron Brooks. Teague gives the Pacers a proven ball handler that will take some pressure off of George, while Brooks will give Indiana instant energy off of the bench.
The Pacers are definitely one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference and they should be able to give the Cleveland Cavaliers a definite scare.
Y-Detroit Pistons 48-34 (5)
It hasn’t taken Stan Van Gundy that long to once again make the Detroit Pistons respectable. In 2014, Van Gundy became the Pistons head coach and president of basketball operations as he has his hands all over the outlook of the franchise. And by Van Gundy’s second year in Detroit, the Pistons were playoff bound for the first time since 2009. Although that the Pistons were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the eventual NBA Champions in the Cleveland Cavaliers, this team has what it takes to make some noise in the Eastern Conference.
After the Pistons acquired point guard Reggie Jackson from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015, he is developing into one of their franchise players. In Jackson’s first full season with the Pistons, Jackson averaged 18.8 points and 6.2 assists, but the time is now for him to take the next step in order for Detroit to become a title contender. Jackson must become more of a facilitator as he had his moments last year when he would tend to become an iso-player. And with the likes of center Andre Drummond and power forward Marcus Morris on the Pistons roster, Jackson could see an increase in his assists if he is able to consistently get the football to them.
Drummond is only 22-years of age, but he is already a four-year NBA veteran. Drummond was the Pistons first-round pick in 2012, and in each season with the club his production has increased. Last season Drummond led the NBA in rebounds at 14.8 per game, while he also averaging 16.2 points per game. Drummond entered the NBA as a very raw talent and his overall game has continued to improve which is evident by the Pistons giving him a five-year, $130 million extension over the summer. Drummond is now a legit threat in the post for the Pistons, but he must find a way to improve his free throw shooting as he was just 35% from the charity stripe last season.
The Pistons are Morris’s third NBA team, but he appears to have finally found a home as he averaged 14.1 points per game last season in Detroit. Morris can be just what the doctor ordered for the Pistons offense due to the fact that he can hit the mid-range shot which takes pressure off of Drummond in the post, while also being a passing option for Jackson when he penetrates.
The Pistons have sized and depth that includes the likes of small forwards Tobias Harris and Stanley Johnson. Both Harris and and Johnson are Van Gundy’s kind of player as they simply do whatever it takes to win, and opponents must always account for them. Rookie power forward Henry Ellenson could have an impact for the Pistons as in one year of college ball for the Marquette Golden Eagles, he showed the low-post scoring ability that can take some more of the front court scoring pressure off of Drummond.
Defensive basketball has always been a hallmark of Van Gundy’s teams and the Pistons must find a way to improve at that end of the floor where they gave up 101.4 points per game which was 12th in the NBA. But as Van Gundy continues to get his kind of players in Detroit, the defensive intensity should increase this season.
Van Gundy’s team have been known to make their opponents work for everything that they get which should once again be the case this season as the Pistons should be a force in the Eastern Conference.
The first year for the Chicago Bulls under head coach Fred Hoiberg saw them finish with a winning record, but the season was an overall disappointment. The Bulls went 42-40 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008 as there was a high level of inconsistency with this club. Hoiberg tried to implement his uptempo offensive system with a team that was full of defensive minded players who were left over from Tom Thibodeau’s time as the Bulls head coach. But now as Hoiberg is set to begin his second year in Chicago, and there has been a roster overhaul, he and the Bulls are hoping for better results.
The Bulls roster overhaul began with them parting with two players that defined the most recent era of basketball in the Windy City. The past nine years saw center Joakim Noah become the heart and soul of the Bulls due to his determination and toughness. Noah was one of the better rebounders in team history, and with him roaming the paint, there was never an easy basket for a Bulls opponent. But as injuries began to take their toll on Noah, the Bulls decided to allow him to leave in free agency as he is now a member of the New York Knicks.
The Knicks and Bulls would also become trade partners over the summer as Chicago sent longtime point guard Derrick Rose to the Big Apple. During Rose’s first four years with the Bulls, he was one of the most explosive players in the NBA until knee injuries sapped him of that. And as Rose is still attempting to find the form that made him the NBA’s MVP in 2011, the Bulls decided that it was time to move on.
The Bulls are welcoming an icon home as after 13 seasons and three NBA Titles with the Miami Heat, shooting guard Dwyane Wade is returning to his native Chicago. Wade will be 35-years of age in January, and although that he might not have the explosiveness that he once possessed, he can provide this team with tons of leadership as he has seen it all during his NBA career. On top of that the Bulls could be dealing with a very motivated Wade since he felt that the Heat disrespected him in their contract negotiations which opened the door for him to go to Chicago.
Along with Wade, the Bulls signed point guard Rajon Rondo. Rondo is one of the most talented point guards in the NBA as he led the league in assists last season at 11.7 per contest. But the Bulls will be Rondo’s fourth different NBA team since 2014 as he has been known to wear out a welcome and it will be interesting to see if he is ready to conform to how Hoiberg wants his offense run in Chicago.
When the Bulls traded Rose to the Knicks, part of the deal was that they acquired center Robin Lopez. Lopez averaged 7.3 rebounds last year for the Knicks, and although that he won’t makes the folks in Chicago completely forget about Noah, he is definitely a member of the “all-energy team” as his hustle on the defensive end of the floor will earn the praise of the folks in the Windy City.
The Bulls have a very solid bench that is full of young players in forwards Bobby Portis, Nikola Mirotic, and Doug McDermott who should all contribute positively this season for Hoiberg.
But the engine that makes the Bulls go is shooting guard Jimmy Butler. In five seasons with the Bulls, Butler’s points per game averaged has increased, and if he averages 25 points or more this season, he will definitely find himself in the MVP discussion. And with Wade now as a member of the Bulls, we could see more of Butler at small forward this season, while along with Rondo, Chicago could have three proven ball handlers on the court at the same time.
The Bulls have plenty of new players that must find a way to work with one another. And although that Chicago could start the season slow, they should be able to pick it up en route to finding their cohesion.
Milwaukee Bucks 41-41
The Milwaukee Bucks began the 2015-2016 NBA season as a trendy pick to do some damage in the Eastern Conference. But as the Bucks had one of the youngest teams in NBA, they were never able to get on track. And as Jason Kidd is set to begin his third season with the Bucks, the talent is there, it is just a matter of Milwaukee living up to their potential.
The Bucks will begin the upcoming NBA season at a huge disadvantage as they will be without the services of shooting guard Khris Middleton. A hamstring injury will sideline Middleton for six months which leaves a void for the Bucks as was their leading scorer last season at 18.2 points per game.
The injury to Middleton would see the Bucks acquire forward Michael Beasley from the Houston Rockets. Beasley has had a very interesting basketball journey which has included three stints with the Miami Heat and two years in China. Beasley was the second overall pick of the 2008 NBA Draft by the Heat, and outside of averaging 19.2 points per game during the 2010-2011 season as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, he has been consistently inconsistent during his time in the league. But luckily for Beasley, he joins a Bucks team where can be one of the guys as it will give him time to figure out his role with the team.
The Bucks will have to compete for the majority of the season without Middleton, but they have an emerging star in small forward Giannis Antetonkounmpo. In each of Antentonkounmpo’s first three seasons with the Bucks, his numbers have improved as he averaged 16.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 4.3 assists last season. And if there is one player that should become the focal point of Milwaukee’s offense, it is Antetonkounmpo who at 6’11” is a matchup problem for opponents due to his length and ball handling ability.
The Bucks are also loaded with talent and size in their front with the likes of power forward Jabari Parker and center Greg Monroe as Milwaukee would greatly benefit if the NBA allowed them to operate the 2-3 defensively due to their length. But surprisingly with all of the size that Milwaukee possesses, they were still 27th in the NBA last season in rebounding at 41.7 points per game.
A few years ago the Bucks were very high on point guard Michael Carter-Williams when they acquired him from the Philadelphia 76ers. But Carter-Williams would struggle last season in Milwaukee which saw benched. And with the injury to Middleton, it was the perfect opening for the Bucks to trade Carter-Williams as they sent him to the Chicago Bulls in favor of swingman Tony Snell who gives them more depth on the perimeter.
The Bucks are still a young team, but the addition of veteran players such as guards Jason Terry and Matthew Dellavedova who each have NBA Championships on their resume should help this squad figure it out.
The Bucks should be an up and down team during the upcoming NBA season, but they will be exciting.
After failing to make the NBA Playoffs last year, the Indiana Pacers rebounded this season for their fifth postseason appearance in the last six years. The Pacers had a healthy Paul George in their front court this year which greatly changed the dynamic of this team. For the third time in the last four years, George led the Pacers in scoring, but he did it in a new role. We all know that George is the leader of the Pacers, but he was able to make a flawless adjustment as team president Larry Bird has decided to play more “small ball”. At 6’9″, George has the height to play power forward in the NBA, but his weight of just 220 lbs., makes him rather slender for the position. However in Bird’s system, George primarily played power forward this season instead of his typical small forward position for Indiana, and he held his own by averaging 23.1 points and 7 rebounds as he made his third NBA All-Star Game appearance. Led by George, the Pacers would finish seventh in the Eastern Conference, and they gave the Toronto Raptors all that they could handle in their first-round playoff series before bowing out in seven games. George is a bona fide star that has already helped the Pacers make the Eastern Conference Finals twice. George is only 26-years of age, and as Bird doesn’t want to waste the prime years of his NBA career by just making the playoffs, this summer will be critical as far as putting a championship caliber team around him.
Since the Pacers season ended this past Sunday night, Bird has not been fully committed to retaining head coach Frank Vogel. Vogel replaced Jim O’Brien as Pacers head coach midway through the 2010-2011 NBA season, and he has guided Indiana to the postseason in all but one year. However, Bird views the Pacers offense as stagnant being that they have never finished higher than 13th in the NBA in points per game under Vogel. Under Vogel, the Pacers have been one of the better defensive teams in the NBA which includes them being eighth in the fewest points allowed per game this season. But if Bird does ultimately decide on not retaining Vogel, you will definitely hear the name of Mark Jackson mentioned as far as succeeding him.
Jackson played 17 seasons in the NBA, with six of those years coming in a Pacers uniform which was highlighted by him helping the team reach the NBA Finals in 2000. Most recently Jackson compiled a record of 121-109 in three seasons as the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, and he has been credited with laying the ground work as to what the team has become. And if Bird wants to continue revamping the Pacers philosophy which could result in bringing in a new head coach, he is going to have to look long and hard at his roster as well.
After George averaged 23.1 points per game this past season, the next closest Pacers player in points per game average was shooting guard Monta Ellis at 13.8 points per contest. Ellis and the Pacers came to an agreement on a four-year, $44 million deal last summer, but after 11 years in the NBA, he is no longer a player that can consistently put up big numbers. Point guard George Hill has been with the Pacers for the past five seasons. With Indiana, Hill has averaged 12.3 points and 3.9 assists, and although that he is serviceable, he is not a quality floor general which is something that the Pacers need. Last summer, the Pacers did draft power forward Myles Turner who as a rookie averaged 10.3 points and 5.5 rebounds as he showed signs of being the athletic big man that Bird wants to play in his system. But for the Pacers to get back to that level of being among the elite teams in the NBA, they are going to need another quality perimeter player to compliment George.
Next month’s NBA Draft will be loaded with wing players that will fit into this system which means that Bird should be able to come away with at least one player that could make an immediate impact. A potential free agent, who isn’t a superstar, but does fit what the Pacers are attempting to do is current Boston Celtics swignman Evan Turner as he is a perimeter player that can defend as well as handle the basketball. However the Pacers had Turner in 2014 and they underutilized him which led him to signing with Celtics. But would Bird now have a change of heart and attempt to lure Turner away from the Celtics and his former teammate in general manager Danny Ainge?
It will be very interesting to see the moves that Bird will make over the summer as we are basically assured that this will be a different Pacers team that takes the court in October for to start the 2016-2017 NBA season as he knows how to put a quality team together.
Y-Cleveland Cavaliers 56-26 (1)
In the blink of an eye the Cleveland Cavaliers once again became contenders in the NBA when small forward LeBron James decided to return to the team in the summer of 2014. And in James’ first season back with the Cavaliers, he was able to get them to the NBA Finals for just the second time in franchise history as they were only two games short of winning it all. As the 2015-2016 NBA season is set to begin, the message is clear for the Cavaliers which is to finish.
Last season started slow for the Cavs and that was too be expected with so many new players along with a new head coach in David Blatt. The Cavaliers began slow with a record of 19-20 before they were able to turn it on as they finished with a record 53-29 which was the second best in the Eastern Conference and they are once again a team that has something to prove.
Make no mistake about it that James is arguably to best NBA player of this era as he is one of the greatest all-around players that the game has ever seen. This will mark James’ 13th season in the NBA and even though he is a freak of nature, you have to wonder when the wear and tear will begin to catch up to him. James has averaged 39.3 minutes per game for his NBA career and once you factor in five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals along with playing in the Summer Olympics three times, the Cavs and Blatt must not attempt to put everything on him this season as he’ll be 30-years of age in December. But luckily for James, he does appear to have a strong supporting cast around him in Cleveland.
Just like James was a part of a “Big Three” with the Heat which consisted of him, shooting guard Dwyane Wade and power forward Chris Bosh, the Cavs created their version with point guard Kyrie Irving and power forward Kevin Love to team with James. Irving and James were able to develop exceptional chemistry last season, but the same couldn’t be said about James and Love. Love and James were not on the same page last year as Love had his worst year statistically since the 2009-2010 NBA season. Love had the opportunity to opt-out of his contract with the Cavaliers last summer which he did, but in a surprise move he decided to return. As Love and James were never able to develop chemistry together, it was partially due to the fact that Love was never able to alter his game to compliment James. Love is not a consistent post player, but those players that are in the post must adjust their game when they are a teammate of James due to the fact of his attacking style along with his tendency to play in the post as well.
While James and Love weren’t on the same page, the same couldn’t be said about James and Irving as they became Batman and Robin. Irving remains one of the fastest and best scoring point guards in the NBA, it is just a matter of him remaining healthy. In Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals, Irving suffered a fractured kneecap that will keep him sidelined as he’ll miss the start of the upcoming season while he is recovering. Irving has always had concerns about his durability, but at this point the Cavaliers need him for the stretch run of the regular season and the playoffs.
As soon as James returned to Cleveland last year, he immediately connected with power forward Tristan Thompson. Thompson was primarily a bench player for the Cavs last season, but once Love was lost in the first round of the NBA Playoffs due to injury, he became extremely valuable as he was able to play off of James.
The Cavaliers also have a solid supporting cast that consists of center Timofey Mozgov, shooting guard Matthew Dellavedova, and guard Mo Williams who is returning for his second stint in the Cleveland. But the wild cards on the season for the Cavaliers could be shooting guard J.R. Smith and swignman Iman Shumpert. The Cavaliers acquired Smith and Shumpert last season from the New York Knicks. At first Smith and Shumpert were on their best behavior as they were playing within the realm of the team, but as the season went along they began to freestyle and resemble the “me” type players that they were in New York. And if Smith and Shumpert continue refusing to be team players, I can see them traded out of Cleveland real soon.
The Cavs will face a tough schedule when the season begins as they’ll meet the Chicago Bulls, Memphis Grizzlies, and Miami Heat. But it will be very interesting to see how this team will be able to mesh as the season goes along.
X-Chicago Bulls 51-31 (2)
The last five NBA seasons have seen the Chicago Bears become one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, but that wasn’t enough for head coach Tom Thibodeau to remain employed by the team. In every year under Thibodeau, the Bulls made the playoffs including a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011. But being that Thibodeau wasn’t always on the same page with Bulls general manager Gar Forman, it was time for a change. The Bulls would hire Fred Hoiberg to be their next head coach and he brings a stellar resume with him to the Windy City. Hoiberg played 11 NBA seasons with four of those seasons being spent with the Bulls. Hoiberg spent the last five years as the head basketball coach at Iowa State University where he became the only head coach in school history to reach the NCAA Tournament in four consecutive years.
And with the Bulls, Hoiberg’s job will be to get the most out of a veteran team that has aspirations of winning an NBA Championship.
Since winning the NBA MVP Award in 2011, Bulls point guard Derrick Rose has struggled to remain healthy. Last season Rose appeared in 51 games which is the most amount of games that he has played in since winning the NBA MVP Award in 2011. However Rose suffered an orbital bone fracture at the start of training camp and in spite of that, the Bulls are hopeful that this is the year that he will finally remain healthy throughout the season.
In Rose’s absence last season, small forward Jimmy Butler has emerged as the Bulls go-to-guy. Butler was the Bulls first-round pick in 2011, and in each year in Chicago, he has improved. Butler is coming off of his best season in the NBA as he averaged 20.0 points per game and in the process he earned his first All-Star Game appearance. And just where Butler left off in Thibodeau’s offense, you can expect more of the same as far as him being the focal point in Chicago under Hoiberg.
For numerous years center Joakim Noah has been the heart and soul of the Bulls as he embodies the toughness that the City of Chicago is known for. Noah was the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2014, but a foot injury limited his effectiveness last season. And like Rose, the Bulls will need a healthy Noah this season if they are going to contend for an NBA Championship as he is a solid rebounder and defender. If Noah is able to remain healthy this season, he could become the Bulls all-time leader in rebounds. Alongside Noah in the Bulls frontcourt, Chicago has a solid scoring option in power forward Pau Gasol. Gasol was expected to be more of a complimentary player last season, but he ended up being the Bulls second leading scorer at 18.5 points per contest. And as long as Hoiberg is able manage Gasol’s minutes this year, he can still be an effective contributor in Chicago even at the age of 35.
The Bulls also have a solid group of role players that includes veterans in power forward Taj Gibson, point guard Kirk Hinrich, and small forward Mike Dunleavy while youngsters in the form of forwards Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis, and Nikola Mirotic can also have a solid impact.
Aside from opening the season against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Bulls have an easy schedule to begin the year which could be just what the doctor ordered for Hoiberg and his crew.
X-Milwaukee Bucks 47-35 (6)
In their first year under head coach Jason Kidd, the Milwaukee Bucks enjoyed an impressinve turnaround. The Bucks went from going 15-67 in the previous NBA season to being a playoff team last season with a record of 41-41. The Bucks enjoyed this huge turnaround without the services on small forward Jabari Parker. Parker was the second overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, but after he suffered a torn ACL, he only appeared in 25 games. For the year Parker averaged 12.3 points per games, and without his services the Bucks were able to make the NBA Playoffs. But now with Parker back healthy and in the saddle, the Bucks are trending upwards as their young talent is making believers out of many people.
Youth is on the side of the Bucks as they have 11 players on their roster that are 25-years of age or younger and they don’t have an idea of how good that they can be.
After winning the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 2014 as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, point guard Michael Carter-Williams was traded to the Bucks last season and he has a chance to be a solid point guard. At 6’6″, Carter-Williams is a bigger point guard just like his head coach in Kidd who is 6’4″. And like Kidd, Carter-Williams came into the NBA with questions about his perimeter shooting. In just two NBA seasons, Carter-Williams is a career 40 percent shooter from the field while he is shooting just 25 percent from beyond the three-point arc. But whereas Carter-Williams is still attempting to find his touch as a shooter, he is a solid facilitator that has averaged 6.5 assists for his brief NBA career and he has a few triple-doubles under his belt. And as far as the triple-doubles go, Carter-Williams can learn from one of the best in Kidd who had 107 career triple-doubles which is third all-time on the NBA’s list for triple-doubles.
Aside from Parker and Carter-Williams, the Bucks have a ton of young, athletic players that includes forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, center Greg Monroe, and small forward Khris Middleton while they will also have depth coming off of their bench in the form of guards O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless, and Greivis Vasquez, along with forward Carl Landry.
The young Bucks have a ton of size and they will be a very fun and exciting team to watch this season.
Detroit Pistons 36-46
From 2002-2009, each NBA season resulted in the Detroit Pistons making the playoffs which was highlighted by an NBA Championship in 2004. But since then the Pistons have fallen by the wayside as they have produced five seasons in which they’ve lost at least 50 games and in the process they’ve gone through five different head coaches over that span.
Stan Van Gundy is coming off of his first season as the Pistons head coach and he is in the process of establishing some order in the Motor City. Aside from being the Pistons head coach, Van Gundy is also the team president as he is in the process of shaping this team in his own image with players that fit his system.
Last season center Greg Monroe led the Pistons in scoring at 15.9 points per game, but he was allowed to leave Detroit as a free agent and he would sign with the Milwaukee Bucks. To offset Monroe’s departure, the Pistons and Van Gundy are hopeful that center Andre Drummond is able to continue improving. Last season Drummond emerged as one of the top rebounders in the NBA as he was second in the league in the category as he grabbed 13.5 boards per contest. But aside from cleaing up the glass, Drummond must become more of an offensive threat for them in the post as they’ll need him to average at least 18 points per game this season if they are going to contend for a postseason spot.
Last season the Pistons acquired point guard Reggie Jackson from the Oklahoma City Thunder. And in 27 games last season with the Pistons, Jackson averaged 17.6 points and 9.2 assists per game. Van Gundy saw enough and signed Jackson to a five-year, $90 million deal this summer, but the Pistons also have another point guard in Brandon Jennings. Jackson and Jennings have the same playing style and it will be interesting to see how Van Gundy uses them.
Van Gundy will spend the upcoming NBA season continuing to reshape this Pistons roster that is not quite ready to be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
Indiana Pacers 36-46
As expected last season was a struggle for the Indiana Pacers. In the summer of 2014, Pacers small forward Paul George suffered a broken leg while participating as a member of the United States Men’s Basketball team. The injury limited George to just six games last season as the Pacers only won 38 games compared to 56 in the previous NBA season which was the best record in the Eastern Conference. And even with a healthy George returning to the Pacers for the 2015-2016 NBA season, Indiana will still be a very different team with a ton of question marks surrounding them.
Pacers general manager Larry Bird and head coach Frank Vogel have decided to have a change of philosophy in team personnel as after watching the Golden State Warriors win the NBA Championship last June, they have decided to go “small ball”. After spending the first seven years of his NBA career with the Pacers, center Roy Hibbert was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers over the summer while power forward David West opted out of his contract to sign with the San Antonio Spurs. And the Pacers are now asking George to play power forward for them. George is 6’9″, but he is only 220 lbs., which will make it very interesting to see how he’ll be able to adjust playing in the post more.
After spending the last two seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, point guard Monta Ellis opted out of his contract as a he signed a four-year, $44 million contract with the Pacers. The Pacers will be Ellis’ fourth NBA team and although he is a point guard by trade, he is more off an “off-guard” being that he is more of a scoring threat than anything as the potential success of this team will come down to him and the health of George.
This will be a year of transition for the Pacers and they will more than likely get lost in the shuffle in the Eastern Conference.
Sources: Sportscity.com, Basketball-reference.com