One of the very few yearly intentional traditions at BaB, it's the Eastern Conference predictions. These are subjective and incorrect, like a 'how I could see things going' type of thing. Hell you know how predictions work, and why I hate them!
I know it's just preseason, but it was fairly convincing: the Bulls are loaded and will win a ton of games. That's because when they have Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau they win a ton of games, and Derrick Rose's preseason work was simply that encouraging. There just aren't going to be many nights where even at-worst the defense doesn't keep them in it, and then Rose can take them over the finish line. They never take a night off.
I think this team is going to be pretty incredible. Their starting/closing 5 is so impressive, featuring guys who can all shoot when open and create shots when they're not. I think not only do Garnett and Pierce have another season of high-caliber play to give (if in more limited minutes) but their leadership is exactly what the gutless group from last season needed. Though they also simply needed non-terrible players in their rotation, and they now have tremendous depth. There's a difference between overpaid and not-good, and I think the sticker price has led to some reflexive doubt over what on papers looks to be pretty great.
3. Miami Heat
Was kind of shocked that they didn't look to improve in the summer, instead again operating around the margins with minimum signings (which are basically lottery tickets) and amnestying Mike Miller. It doesn't matter that much, and they will likely add someone potentially useful midseason (they still have their taxpayer MLE). But I could see them slipping a bit in the win column as they use some strategic rest (or unforeseen-totallyforeseen old man injuries) to gear up for the three-peat.
The top 3 teams I feel are a step above the Pacers as Indiana mostly shows dominance on only one side of the court. Paul George has superstar buzz but just isn't a guy who can get high-efficiency looks consistently both to keep his team from going into lulls mid-games nor can he take over late in games. They still have an outstanding defense and they'll beat up the bad teams enough to win plenty, but there will be a lot of head-scratching losses too.
They're kind of here by default in their own tier, which is sort of where everyone expects them. I actually don't think the Bargnani acquisition is that bad, assuming the guy will be better simply outside of a toxic situation even if he remains overpaid. But effectively having lost Amare Stoudemire for good is crippling in terms of getting them to be more than playoff fodder. They're kind of deep and filled out their bench nicely but needed more above-average pieces behind Melo and Chandler.
6. Cleveland Cavaliers
Less certain about this area, and I probably had a different answer about it merely days ago, and another different one a week before that. (I looked it up, and indeed in the SBNation predictions I had them 10th, ha). Getting this high would mean a massive jump for them, but I think a lot of that would be simply their coaching switch. Mike Brown has been a punchline but he also usually coaches good defenses, and Cleveland fell apart in that area last year. I'm also figuring a healthy leap-making 3rd season for Kyrie Irving, though that's obviously far from certain. They're also an organization trying to win, and may be a candidate for a midseason acquisition especially if this Bynum thing bombs.
Kind of a wild card because I'm not sure if Toronto's new GM Masai Ujiri is going to be that swift in cleaning house. Not that he doesn't want to eventually, but it's not in a great spot to happen right now. And the roster is good enough to where maybe it's better to have them raise their values by being pretty decent.
They should be better than this, I just am getting a bad coach alert when it comes to Maurice Cheeks. And this team needs a not-bad coach to manage what is a talented but sort of mismatched roster. I think despite the fit they did a good job upgrading their talent in getting both Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, but the lack of shooting and some uncertainty with the rest of the roster (Stuckey and CharlieV on expiring deals, Monroe going to restricted free agency) could make things more difficult than they should.
I dunno, I just don't see it. They have a decent roster and are certainly 'flexible', but it's all undersized big men and point guards. Their wing rotation looks abysmal, being basically just Kyle Korver. Maybe they really wouldn't mind entertaining an Al Horford trade to re-build, hmm...
I really shouldn't fall for the Wizards playoffs-or-bust decree for what seems like the 5th straight year, and the Gortat trade makes it seem a bit more likely...but I'm holding firm this time. This team is paper-thin even after that deal due to their poor drafting history. And lack of depth plus injury-prone starters make Randy Wittman something something. ('get fired', is the answer)
11. Milwaukee Bucks
They may not be tanking but they did spend the offseason trying to get younger and more flexibile. Acquiring mid-level veterans may be 'dumb' if you want to be terrible but it's not like they are totally going for the playoffs with these moves either. They're kind of just biding time and hoping that they strike gold with some of the young talent they do have. And I don't think it's that bad an idea to surround those guys with capable players to at least get a competitive environment, though not competitive enough to where the vets are good enough to steal minutes.
13. Boston Celtics
They're still on the way down, which will probably perpetuate as the losses pile up and some players realize that the team doesn't exactly mind. It also makes for a weird situation where they hired Brad Stevens but the team he's inheriting isn't exactly filled with youngsters. At least not yet, as Ainge will probably be doing more cleaning house midseason.
14. Orlando Magic
It's the OKC method you guys, except without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. So, not really that method at all. In fact they're still in bottoming-out mode, what with still paying Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu, and Al Harrington not to play for them. I'd guess anyone making over $5m is next on their way out.
I find it gross what the Sixers are doing. To me, there's a difference between trying to get younger and rebuilding through draft picks you acquire versus trying to make yourself intentionally bad so your own picks are better by trading a 23 year old all-star and drafting someone who's hurt. I understand why this is the way, but it's a shitty way to do things and I hope it fails. Well failure is the idea, but you know what I mean.
(clearly I don't have as many thoughts on this, but a brief explanation below...)
12. Sacramento Kings
14. Phoenix Suns
15. Utah Jazz
I'm going a bit bold here (and oooh it feels so scintillating) and say the Houston Rockets. I think Dwight Howard makes that much of a difference when he's back like he was. I also think they have a very high potential of a midseason trade. And this is also more a vote against the other contenders: I liked the Clippers getting a non-Vinny coach and securing the #1 seed but their bigs and a potential Chris Paul injury are big risks. I just don't think OKC has enough around their stars, and playing guys like Perkins and Fisher will make things only worse. The Spurs and Grizzlies I think will trend downwards. The Warriors could be my pick based on this logic as well, but I am not just not as convinced of their defense being good enough.
The East playoffs are going to be great, and it's just so hard to think of who will be healthiest and the permutations of matchups. I am figuring Miami still finds a way. For one thing, they somehow just find a way even when they're continually pushed against the wall, and may find themselves there again as they face any of the other 3 contenders. But I also see the 27-straight wins juggernaut of last season as the heights of where they can go. It's really all about Wade. His knee was wrecked last postseason which is what made them vulnerable. It could be just something that happens every year because he's beaten up for good, but I think if he's even moderately healthy, their big-3 is not only too talented but have now been together for so long they are hard to topple.
The Rockets getting there makes for an easy series for Miami. I know it's hard to 3-peat, and hard to make the finals 4 years in a row. But that's because a lot of teams in the history of the league aren't nearly good enough to even consider such a run. Miami can because they're that good, the idea that it's tough historically just doesn't seem that significant of a factor to me.
1. Miami Heat
I really, really, really wanted to put the Bulls here. I swear! Even more so after watching Derrick Rose make the preseason his personal playground. But I just couldn't do it. LeBron James is still LeBron James, while Dwyane Wade is allegedly healthy, although we'll see how long that lasts. The Heat may be more likely to coast this regular season, but there's still enough talent in place for another 60-plus win season. And if guys like Michael Beasley and/or Greg Oden give them anything positive at all, the Heat become even scarier (I personally don't see it, but I won't completely rule it out). It certainly wouldn't shock me if the Bulls grabbed the No. 1 seed, but I just can't predict that they will.
Barring injuries, I believe the Bulls are the clear cut second-best team in the East, and potentially even the best. Everything of course starts with Rose, and he looks like the Rose of old. The injuries are already starting to become a thing, and I'm a tad worried about Joakim Noah's groin. But if Noah has to sit out for any length of time, that loss will hopefully be mitigated by the bulked up Taj Gibson. Jimmy Butler will be key as well, as Rose finally has a legitimate two-way player at his side. And as I've said several times before on this site, the Mike Dunleavy signing was a great one. I'm putting the Bulls in the high 50-win range, although again, I could absolutely envision 60-plus wins and the No. 1 seed.
I kind of oscillate between being legitimately terrified of the Nets to being meh on them. There's certainly a lot of talent, depth and veteran experience in place, but it will be really interesting how it all fits together under first-year head coach Jason Kidd. Will all that old talent be able to stay healthy? Who will be the go-to guy down the stretch? Can Deron Williams' ankles stay in one piece? If it all works out, the Nets will be really freaking good. And I still have no idea how they were able to get Andrei Kirilenko at the price they did.
There's a lot of people who still have the Pacers ahead of the Bulls, but I just don't see it, even with their improved bench. I do think Paul George is really awesome, and I believe he'll improve his efficiency from last season. Roy Hibbert and David West are quite the formidable frontcourt, but Hibbert isn't nearly as dominant offensively as his numbers against the Heat show. Danny Granger remains a huge question mark, and while his knee is healthy, now he's dealing with a calf injury that will keep him out at least three weeks. A healthy Granger could be huge for the Pacers, but it's hard to count on him at this point.
Oh, the Knicks. So delightfully fun and weird. The Knicks finished with the second-best record in the East last year, but they'll take a step back thanks to the improvements made by the other contenders. The Knicks attempted to keep up with the Jones' this offseason, but Andrea Bargnani and Metta World Peace really don't cut it. The Beno Udrih signing was pretty nice, though. The Bargnani thing will be extremely interesting to watch, as I'm sure many Knicks fans are convinced he'll somehow become the great player he was expected to be when he was the No. 1 pick in the draft back in the day. Doubtful. The Knicks should be pretty good, but I don't view them as a threat.
The Hawks whiffed on their grand free-agent plans, but they did wind up with one of the steals of free agency with the cheap signing of Paul Millsap. Along with Al Horford, that's a pretty solid starting frontcourt. Jeff Teague is back on a reasonable deal, while the Hawks shelled out four years to Kyle Korver. The Korver deal was probably an overpay, but his contract gets cheaper and cheaper as it goes on, so it's not quite as bad as it seems on the surface. Plus, he was really great for them last year. The Hawks are still kind of stuck where they always are, but I guess it could be worse.
The Pistons threw a ton of cash at Josh Smith, and then capped off an eventful offseason by acquiring Brandon Jennings. I laughed when the Pistons pulled that deal off, because the amount of bad shots that will be taken by that team will be through the roof. But even though the Pistons are a mish-mash of talent, there's still a lot of talent. Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond are an excellent young frontcourt, and even if Smith is miscast at the 3, he's still an excellent defender and has his moments offensively when he's not wandering on the perimeter. There should be enough talent here to make the playoffs, although it could also be hilariously mediocre/bad.
The final playoff spot in the East for me came down to the Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers. And while I really do love Kyrie Irving, I'm giving the Wizards the slight edge. John Wall struggled in the preseason after signing his huge extension, but he was really good at the end of last season. And Bradley Beal was phenomenal this preseason. Like, really damn good. The Wizards also just upgraded their frontcourt by getting Marcin Gortat from the Suns, who are competing in the "Riggin' for Wiggins" sweepstakes. A healthy Andrew Bynum would probably vault the Cavs over the Wizards for me, but that simply can't be counted on.
9. Cleveland Cavaliers
Irving is great, Anderson Varejao is back and there are some really intriguing young pieces in place. But I don't see them being in the playoffs unless Bynum is healthy and productive and/or Irving makes a ridiculous leap a la Rose in 2010-11.
10. Toronto Raptors
Rudy Gay supposedly fixed his eyesight this summer, so perhaps his offensive efficiency will return to respectable levels. If so, the Raptors could have a nice little team that challenges for the final playoff spot in the East.
11. Milwaukee Bucks
The anti-tankers. Out are Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, J.J Redick and Mike Dunleavy. In are O.J Mayo, Brandon Knight, Caron Butler and others. At least LARRY SANDERS is fun and hopefully Giannis Antetokounmpo cracks the rotation.
12. Boston Celtics
Rajon Rondo is stealing Derrick Rose's lines as he recovers from his ACL injury (#FuckRondo). So that's funny. The Celtics may not be THAT bad, but I think they kind of want to be bad, so I'm sure Rondo will be involved in trade rumors all year and may wind up getting moved.
The Bobcats signed Al Jefferson in an attempt to be relevant. Perhaps they win a few more games, but Jefferson is so bad defensively that his impact might not be all that positive.
14. Orlando Magic
The Magic have some really nice young pieces in Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic, but they're going to be pretty awful. Oladipo playing point guard will be...something...but he should have a really nice year regardless.
Tank so hard.
The Clippers are going to be a regular season juggernaut. They have two stars, phenomenal depth and now a top notch head coach in Doc Rivers. The Clippers made it a point to upgrade their shooting this offseason, adding J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. Those two will get plenty of open looks playing alongside Chris Paul, which makes the Clippers' offense even more dangerous. There are still some issues defensively, especially in the frontcourt, but DeAndre Jordan could help alleviate some of those problems if he can become the defender he's capable of being. I'm still not all that sold on the Clippers in the playoffs, but I expect them to come close to 60 wins in the regular season.
Not having Russell Westbrook the first month or so of the season will hurt, and I think the injury will keep the Thunder from earning the No. 1 seed. But Kevin Durant is still Kevin Durant, and he's awesome enough to keep the Thunder well above water until Westbrook returns. Reggie Jackson has also shown the ability to at least play point capably enough, so it's not like it's a complete disaster there. I did like what I saw out of Jeremy Lamb when the Bulls played the Thunder the other night, and if he can continue to improve, the Thunder may have that bench scorer to replace Kevin Martin. Now if Scott Brooks would just stop playing Kendrick Perkins.
The Spurs. So damn close to dethroning the Heat last year. If only they could grab one damn measly defensive rebound. But they didn't, and we know how things turned out. They know it too, although that should have zero effect on how things play out this year. A bigger issue could be Father Time, as Manu Ginobili showed signs of being finished and who knows if Tim Duncan can put forth another excellent season like last. However, if there is some drop-off for the Spurs' Big Three, Kawhi Leonard will be ready to pick up the slack.
Dwight Howard may be a raging rectum, but he's still the best center in the league when healthy. Howard was actually pretty good last year despite what happened in Los Angeles, and now that he's healthy, the Howard/James Harden duo is legitimately terrifying. The Howard/Omer Asik combo up front could be impossible to score on, although it still seems likely that the Rockets move Asik and try and find a better fit. In any case, this team is going to be fun and they're going to be good.
Speaking of fun, the Warriors are going to be must-watch this season. Stephen Curry probably became my second-favorite non-Bull to watch last postseason (behind KD), and fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson can light it up from the outside with the best of them. Throw in the addition of do-it-all wing Andre Iguodala and you have yourself quite an impressive backcourt. Oh, Harrison Barnes is there, too. I certainly plan on staying up late to watch plenty of Warriors basketball this season.
The Grizzlies won 56 games and went to the Western Conference Finals, but a difference in philosophies between management and Lionel Hollins led to a coaching change. But while the coach may be different, most of the key players remain the same. So that means Grit n Grind will be alive and well. However, I do expect Memphis to take a slight step back simply because they didn't make any significant additions and several of the other contenders did.
As a Bulls fan, I'd prefer the Wolves to not be any good so Kevin Love becomes even more disenchanted in Minnesota. But if the Wolves are able to stay healthy, I don't see why they shouldn't be a playoff team. Love looks like he has regained his prior form, while Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic help form a solid core. Kevin Martin adds some scoring on the wing, and Corey Brewer was a nice little signing as well.
I had a really tough time deciding between the Nuggets and the next two teams on this list, but I went with Denver because I don't think their drop-off from 57 wins last season will be THAT drastic. Although I guess it wouldn't be surprising. The head coach, general manager and best player (Iggy) are all gone, while Danilo Gallinari will miss some time as he recovers from an ACL injury. Still, I think there's enough talent there to nab that last spot.
The Blazers went out and improved their bench this offseason after dealing with an absolute pile of crap last year. As we know, this is a big year in terms of LaMarcus Aldridge and his future in Portland.
10. Dallas Mavericks
Get ready for some #MontaBall. The Mavs whiffed in free agency and settled on Monta Ellis, who's hoping for a fresh start in Dallas. With Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs should be in the playoff hunt, but I'm not really sure how good this team is.
The Pelicans are extremely intriguing with the trio of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans. I'm not totally convinced things will work out in New Orleans, but if they do, the Pelicans may be a dark horse playoff team.
The Lakers have the potential to be downright horrible without Kobe Bryant, but the superstar should come back soon enough and make them at least somewhat respectable. Maybe.
13. Sacramento Kings
DeMarcus Cousins just got paidd, and now he must show that he's worth the big bucks. Maybe Shaq will get through to him?
14. Utah Jazz
15. Phoenix Suns
The Suns are challenging the Sixers in "Riggin' for Wiggins." The trade of Marcin Gortat for an injured player and first-round pick shows how committed Phoenix is to the tanking, er, rebuilding effort.
While I love the Clippers as a regular season beast, I'm not convinced they can get it done in the playoffs. As long as Russell Westbrook comes back and plays at his normal level, I feel the Thunder are the best in the West, despite the fact that they don't have a proven third scorer on the wing. Stars matter in the playoffs, and the Thunder have two of the top 10 players in the league.
It's going to be Bulls and Heat in the East Finals. It just has to be. I absolutely think the Bulls can beat the Heat this year...I just don't have the confidence to say that it'll happen. While Rose looks as good as ever and he finally has a running mate in Butler, I do still worry about the Bulls' crunch-time scoring. And there's that whole health thing, although Wade can't really be counted on either. I do think this series goes seven.
Hate away, guys. I'm taking the Heat simply because of the faith I have in LeBron James to get it done. LeBron has consistently improved his game over the past few years, and while he did show cracks in the armor in Game 6 of last year's Finals, he delivered a masterpiece in Game 7. I think he'll go down as the second-best of all-time when it's all said and done, and a three-peat will help cement his legacy.