X-Indiana Pacers 54-28 (3)
Heading into the 2017-2018 NBA season, there were some expectations that the Indiana Pacers could contend for a playoff spot, but they were not expected to be a good as they were. The Pacers were able to win 48 games, and in the process they pushed the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Central Division Title. In the end the Pacers fell just two games short of winning the Central Division, and in the NBA Playoffs, the Cavs needed seven games to get past them in the first round. But as the Pacers exited the playoffs in the first round for the third consecutive year, they were able to hang their heads high as this young team should be able to emerge as a contender being that LeBron James is no longer in the Eastern Conference.
The summer of 2017 saw the Pacers trade a disgruntled superstar, and in return they received a player who hadn’t quite lived up to his potential. After being drafted second overall by the Orlando Magic in 2013, shooting guard Victor Oladipo was immediately compared to Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade. In three years with the Magic, Oladipo averaged 15.9 points, but he never became the franchise player that most people expected him to be in Orlando due to the fact that the expectations were so high, while there was also a lack of talent around him.
After three years in Orlando, Oladipo was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder where he shared a backcourt with point guard Russell Westbrook who was set to average a triple-double for the season. But in being traded to the Pacers, Oladipo would finally find the right fit for him.
Last year Oladipo would be named as an NBA All-Star for the first time in his career as he averaged 23.1 points per game. Oladipo would also lead the NBA in steals at 2.4 per contest, while he was also recognized as the league’s Most Improved Player. Pacers head coach Nate McMillan gave Oladipo the green light to be “the guy” for Indiana which was the result of him putting his new star player in the best possible position to succeed. McMillan focused on Oladipo’s explosive first step off of the dribble in order to get to the basket. Subsequently Oladipo’s shots per game went from 13.9 in 2017 to 17.9 in 2018, while his new found ability to score trickled down to other aspects of his game at both ends of the floor. And after Oladipo’s breakout season, he is expected to do even more this time around as he is now the leader of this club.
But even with Oladipo becoming a household name now, he doesn’t have to do it by himself as this is arguably to most talented team that he has been a part of in the NBA. Small forward Bojan Bogdanovic gives the Pacers a solid perimeter scorer in the frontcourt, while this could be the year where center Myles Turner can put it altogether. Turner was a first-round pick by the Pacers in 2015 and he has been a development project for the team. Turner continues to evolve as a score close to the basket, and if can average at least 35 minutes this season, you’re looking at a player who could flirt with averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Like Turner, Domantis Sabonis is another development player for the Pacers as you cannot blame them for insisting on getting him from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2017 as part of their compensation for small forward Paul George. Sabonis was one of the best big men that was available in the 2016 NBA Draft due to his ability to score close to the basket, pass, rebound, and hit shots from the perimeter. Sabonis has been well schooled in the basketball acronym by his father Arvydas who is a Basketball Hall of Famer, and although that the youngster came off of the bench last season for Indiana, he will be pushing to be a starter by his play alone.
This Pacers team will have a bevy of quality ball handlers as aside from Oladipo and point guard Darren Collison, Indiana signed swingman Tyreke Evans during the off-season. Evans has been an underrated player throughout his nine-year NBA career which included him being the Rookie of the Year in 2010. At 6’6″, Evans can play the post, handle the rock, and create for his teammates which will make him a valuable asset this season in Indiana.
Last season the Pacers were 22nd in the NBA in rebounding which is something that should change as they’ve added more beef in their frontcourt. The off-season saw the Pacers sign center Kyle O’Quinn who has been a solid bench player throughout his career which included him averaging a career-high 6.1 rebounds last season in coming off of the bench for the New York Knicks.
The Pacers perimeter game also received a boost after the team signed small forward Doug McDermott during the off-season. McDermott has bounced around during his brief NBA career, but you cannot underscore the fact that he is a career 45% shooter from downtown. And playing alongside a player such as Oladipo who can create his own shot will only allow McDermott more open looks at the basket.
With LeBron James no longer in the Eastern Conference, the Central Division is there for the taking, and the Pacers look ready to seize that opportunity.
Y-Milwaukee Bucks 49-33 (5)
The past four years have seen the Milwaukee Bucks become one of the NBA’s biggest enigmas. The Bucks have one of the more talented teams in the league, but in three playoff appearances over that stretch, they have been unable to get past the first round. And as the Bucks continue to underachieve in the regular season which carries over into the postseason, will they finally be able to get their act together heading into the new campaign?
Former Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer is now the man calling the shots for the Bucks, and he brings with him a wealth of experience. In six years as the head coach of the Hawks, Budenholzer led them to five playoff appearances which included having the best record in the Eastern Conference in 2015. And in that season Budenholzer was named as the NBA’s Head Coach of the Year. What got Budenholzer the job in Atlanta was his 18 years as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs as he brought the same “ball movement” philosophy that has resulted in five NBA Titles for the Spurs since 1999 with him to the Hawks. And it is that same focus on ball movement which led to him being named as the new head coach as this is a team that is desperately in need of cohesion and togetherness.
There is no discounting the basketball ability of small forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. His last name is a tongue twister which has led to many people simply referring to him as “The Greek Freak” due to his athleticism. At 6’11”, Antetokounmpo is a matchup nightmare as he can play all five positions on the court. Antetokounmpo has the ball handling skills of a point, while he also has the explosion of someone that is three or four inches smaller than him. And when Antetokounmpo gets into the post, there are not too many forwards in the NBA who can stop him.
In five NBA seasons, Antetokounmpo’s productivity has continued to increase as he is coming off of averaging 26.9 points, 10 rebounds, and 4.8 assists last season. For the first time Antetokounmpo found himself in the mix to be the NBA’s MVP, and if he is able to improve his perimeter shooting, that could come to fruition.
But the biggest thing that Budenholzer needs from Antetokounmpo is leadership. As talented as The Greek Freak is, he needs to be a leader which includes consistently taking over games, while also willing his teammates to take their respective games to another level.
The Bucks have the personnel in place to feed of Antetokounmpo as this is a team which is loaded with talent.
Point guard Eric Bledsoe is coming off of his first season with the Bucks and he was able quickly develop a rapport with Antetokounmpo. Bledsoe might be in the second-tier of point guards in the NBA, but he is explosive off of the dribble as he can easily get to the basket. And with Budenholzer’s offense not focusing on having a primary ball handler, Bledsoe will be able to play off of the ball at times which should lead to an increase in his productivity.
Small forward Khris Middleton continues to be an underrated scorer as he averaged 20.1 points per contest last season which was a career-high. In regards to scoring, Middleton can do a little bit of everything which includes playing the post and hitting the mid-range shot. And like Bledsoe, Middleton will benefit from all of the attention that Antetokounmpo will receive on offense as it will give him more scoring opportunities.
The Bucks are one of the tallest teams in the NBA, but they do not utilize their height. Last season Milwaukee was dead last in the NBA in rebounds per game with 39.8 as they are not aggressive enough. And this mentality has to change with Antenokounmpo and center John Henson both standing in a t 6’11”, while Middleton is 6’8″.
The Bucks have all of the tools in place to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, but the only question is whether or not that they will live up to the hype.
Y-Detroit Pistons 38-44 (8)
After four years of the Stan Van Gundy experiment, the Detroit Pistons are once again starting over. In 2014, Van Gundy was named as the Pistons vice president of basketball operations as well as the team’s head coach. Under Van Gundy, the Pistons were able to make one playoff appearance, but they were never able to become a contender in the Eastern Conference. And what did Van Gundy in was a trade last season that saw the Pistons send multiple draft picks to the Los Angeles Clippers to acquire power forward Blake Griffin as the move was unable to propel Detroit to new heights. After the Pistons failed to make the playoffs last season, Van Gundy was asked to relinquish some of his power within the organization, and when he refused, he was shown the door.
Van Gundy has been replaced as head coach of the Pistons by Dwane Casey who himself was fired last season. In seven seasons as the head coach of the Toronto Raptors, Casey led the franchise to five consecutive postseason appearances which included finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season. For his efforts Casey was selected as the NBA’s Coach of the Year, but it wasn’t enough for him to save his job as he bit the dust due to Toronto’s inability to get past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs. But whereas that the Raptors felt that Casey was no longer the head coach to lead their team, the Pistons are more than happy to have him in Motown as this is a franchise that is seeking to get back on the winning track after failing to reach the playoffs in eight of the last nine years.
With the Pistons, Casey inherits a team that has some talent, but they need a leader. One move that stung Van Gundy was giving point guard Reggie Jackson a five-year contract for $90 million in 2015. Jackson has never managed to play a full season with the Pistons, and more importantly he has never been the point guard that Detroit needs being that he doesn’t make the people around him better. And what Casey has to figure out rather quickly is whether or not that Jackson will be able to be a floor general for him.
It will be important for Casey to find a point guard who will bring out the best in Griffin. In 25 games with the Pistons last season, Griffin was able to average 19.8 points and 6.6 rebounds, but he failed to deliver the impact that Detroit was expecting due to the fact that he is not a player who can consistently create his own shot. And with the Pistons on the hook for roughly $100 million that is owed to Griffin over the next three seasons, they have to find a way to get the best out of him.
Along with Griffin in the frontcourt, the Pistons have themselves one of the NBA’s top rebounders in center Andre Drummond. The Pistons franchise has been home to some of the NBA’s best rebounders of all-time which includes Bob Lanier and Dennis Rodman, and Drummond is right in that mix. In two of the last three years, Griffin has led the NBA in rebounding which included him averaging 16 boards per contest last season. At 6’11”, 279, Drummond is a big body that is hard to get around to get around in the paint. Drummond’s ability to clean up on the glass leads to many put back baskets for himself which makes up for his inability to create his own shot. And if Casey doesn’t give in to the latest trend around the NBA which is to have big men camping out at the three-point line, he should once again be one of the top rebounders in the game.
Overall the Pistons were 22nd in the NBA in scoring last season, and that lack of explosion will not make it easy for them in the Eastern Conference.
The best way to describe the upcoming NBA season for the Pistons is that it will be a throwaway due to the fact that Casey will be using it to build his foundation with this franchise as he’ll look to find the players who will fit his system.
Chicago Bulls 33-49
The 2017-2018 NBA season saw the Chicago Bulls endure their worst campaign in 14 years. The Bulls were only able to win 27 games as this organization is making no secrets about their focus on rebuilding. The Bulls are undergoing a youth movement as it all about acquiring as many athletic players as possible for head coach Fred Hoiberg’s system in the hopes of turning things around in Chicago. And although that the Bulls are a rebuilding team, will they be able to make some noise in the Eastern Conference this season?
A 55-loss season generally means that young players will get extended playing time which is exactly what happened last season for the Bulls. In 2017, power forward Lauri Markkanen was a first-round pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he would be the centerpiece of the deal which would lead to swignman Jimmy Butler leaving the Windy City. And in Markkanen’s first season with the Bulls, he became one of the top rookie’s in the NBA as he averaged 15.2 points per game and 7.5 rebounds. Markkanen would be selected to the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team as he was able to show that he’ll be a building block for Chicago.
Markkanen is in that mode of being the classic “European stretch four” due to his ability to knock down the outside shot. Markkanen is only 21-years of age, but he entered the NBA skill set as there is not much that he cannot do at the offensive end of court; whether it be as a scorer or facilitator. And although that Markkanen is sidelined to begin the season with an elbow injury, he will be recognized as one of the best big men in the Eastern Conference at the culmination of the regular season.
Guard Zach LaVine was another player who was included in the Butler trade, and he has something to prove in Chicago. In Minnesota, LaVine developed a reputation of being a “dunker” due to the fact that he won the NBA’s Slam Dunk Competition twice. But now LaVine is showing that can ball as after averaging 16.7 points per game last season in just 24 games for the Bulls, he wants to put his 2016 ACL injury behind him. LaVine excels in the open court in transition which makes him tailor made for Hoiberg’s wide open offense.
In 2014, power forward Jabari Parker came into the NBA with a ton of hyped attached to him. Parker was the second overall pick of the NBA Draft and he was expected to be a big part in the turnaround of the Milwaukee Bucks. But injuries cut it into that plan as a pair of torn ACL have slowed down Parker. Parker has never appeared in all 82 games in the NBA, which included only appearing in 31 last season for Milwaukee. However the upside for Parker is that he is a proven scorer close to the basket as well as on the perimeter.
Parker has the ability to be a starter, but his presence on this Bulls team will be felt as a bench player which will give them some more depth. And as this is a homecoming for Parker since he is a native of Chicago, he will do whatever it takes to help his hometown team win.
Cleveland Cavaliers 30-52
Sometimes in life you will find yourself getting a reprieve, and when that instance happens, you have to make the most of it. For the Cleveland Cavaliers, their reprieve came in 2014 when small forward LeBron James decided to return to the team after spending the previous four years with the Miami Heat. After James initially left Cavs in 2010, the fortunes of the team changed drastically as they went from a championship contender to a perennial lottery team. But James’ return in 2014 would spark a drastic turnaround as Cleveland would reach the NBA Finals in each of the last four year with the franchise’s only title coming in 2016.
But that reprieve would not last forever as James would once again become disgruntled with the direction of the Cavaliers front office, and this past summer he decided to pack up his bags in order to join the Los Angeles Lakers.
Now for the Cavaliers, they are once again faced with life after LeBron; but this time they are hopeful that they are better equipped for it in order to still compete in the Eastern Conference.
Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue spent a portion of the 2017-2018 NBA season dealing with health issues that ended with him stepping away from the team for a brief period. And although that there were signs pointing to Lue stepping away from the Cavs for good, he is back to prove to his detractors that he can lead this team to the playoffs without James.
James’ departure means that power forward Kevin Love will become to focal point of Cleveland’s offense. Prior to joining the Cavaliers in 2014, Love was known for his scoring prowess; especially close to the basket. But after teaming with James, Love would sacrifice his game in order to compliment LBJ. This meant that Love would become more of a perimeter player, but now you can expect to see more of him in the post which will result in him averaging more than 20 points per game for the first team since donning a Cavaliers uniform.
But after Love, it will be slim pickings for the Cavs in regards to scoring as their next highest returning scorer from last season is point guard Jordan Clarkson who averaged 12.6 points per contest. There is optimism that rookie guard Collin Sexton could have an impact on this team, but with question marks on their roster which includes veteran shooting guard J.R. Smith and power forward Tristan Thompson,the deck will be stacked against the Cavaliers to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
And even with James on the roster last season, Cleveland was still 26th in the NBA in points allowed which means that things will get ugly this year in Northern Ohio.
The expectations will be low this season for the Cavaliers, but so will their win total as they are beginning life without LeBron once more.