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