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.