The Heat and Pacers will not be fighting it out for Eastern Conference supremacy in the NBA this season. Both teams took huge hits to their rosters in the summer and it will be a fight for them just to remain in the playoff hunt.
Other teams see their opportunity with the changing of the guard. There will be a battle to make the playoffs in the East and backing in with abysmal play like Atlanta did last spring may not be an option.
Projected Playoff Teams
1. Cleveland Cavaliers – Projected 56-26, last season 33-49
The Cavs may get off to a slow start as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to get used to sharing the ball. However, barring injury, the Cavaliers should easily reside in first place as the best offensive team the East as seen in a while.
2. Chicago Bulls – Projected 54-28, 48-34 last season
If Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol can stay healthy, then the Bulls are relevant again, but nothing is guaranteed to Chicago. They are the preseason favorites to be the most likely team to challenge the revamped Cavaliers assuming Rose resembles the player he was before all the injuries.
3. Toronto Raptors – Projected 52-30, 48-34 last season
Toronto went on a 54-win pace after acquiring Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson for their bench in early December last season and all five of their starters are back this year. Plus the Raptors reserves got better by adding the instant offense of Lou Williams and defensive forward James Johnson. Merely winning the Atlantic Division will not exceed expectations this time.
4. Washington Wizards – Projected 48-34, 44-38 last season
The Wizards were inconsistent last season and probably should have sported a better record, but with another year under their belt, it is reasonable to expect they will. Paul Pierce is a solid replacement for Trevor Ariza from a leadership standpoint and the team added depth at the big man positions with Kris Humphreys and Juan Blair. It’s on the Wizards to meet rising expectations and another rash of injuries will not make an acceptable excuse.
5. Charlotte Hornets – Projected 46-36, 43-39 last season
The Hornets (as Bobcats) impressed last year with a tough defensive style and some badly needed offensive punch from Al Jefferson. With the additions of Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams, the Hornets are a dark horse team that could be a lot better than anyone expects.
6. Miami HEAT – Projected 44-38, last season 54-28
The HEAT has effectively exchanged LeBron James for Luol Deng and not much more analysis is needed than that. Miami won’t be a bad team, but Wade isn’t suddenly going to become “Flash” again and Bosh proved he couldn’t carry a team when he played for the Raptors.
7. Atlanta Hawks – Projected 43-39, last season 38-44
The Hawks were three games above .500 with Al Horford and nine games under without him. Not a whole lot has changed in Atlanta. Horford has played in preseason and is expected to be ready to go for the regular season, but the big risks in Atlanta have nothing to do with what’s on the court.
8. Detroit Pistons – Projected 40-42, last season 29-53
Can Stan Van Gundy whip a talented dysfunctional collection of mismatched pieces into a team? If he can’t, then it isn’t likely anyone can. The playoff bar in the East is probably still below .500 and Van Gundy should be able to push his players hard enough to get there.
On The Outside Looking In
9. New York Knicks – Projected 37-45, last season 37-45
Carmelo Anthony re-signed and the team has reshuffled the deck chairs on the Titanic, but there is little reason to believe these Knicks will finish any better than last year’s version. The real risk is the team starts to tank to improve their draft lottery odds as they actually own a first round draft pick this time and no one will blame rookie head coach Derek Fisher for a bad record.
10. Brooklyn Nets – Projected 35-47, last season 44-38
The Nets were 10-21 at the end of December last year, but the season was saved in the new year – largely by Shaun Livingston and Pierce who have since moved on to other teams. Multiple foot surgeries later and Brook Lopez is the hope for this season, but he’s expected to miss the opener – with a foot injury. Deron Williams had surgery on both ankles this summer and is back. You’ll have to excuse the lack of optimism, the brittle Nets are currently charter members of the show-me club.
11. Indiana Pacers – Projected 33-49, last season 56-26
The Pacers lost Lance Stephenson to free agency and Paul George to a gruesome leg break and that represents most of last season’s offense and perimeter defense. David West going down to an ankle sprain in preseason only served to emphasize just how paper thin the depth on the Pacers will be this year.
12. Boston Celtics – Projected 30-52, last season 25-57
Boston has looked pretty good for a rebuilding team during preseason, but there isn’t much call to play the veterans many minutes. It’s all about developing the young guys. Rajon Rondo has made the start of the season easier on Coach Stevens by falling in the shower.
13. Milwaukee Bucks – Projected 29-53, last season 15-67
The Bucks are going to be better than last year, if they can stay healthy. Unfortunately, they seem to be in the process of recreating last year’s mash unit. It’s getting hard to stay even this optimistic.
14. Orlando Magic – Projected 25-57, last season 23-59
The Magic took a significant hit to their expected win total by moving out Arron Afflalo and then got some it back by signing Channing Frye. Orlando will be a fun team to follow with lots of potential future stars, if you aren’t overly concerned about winning games.
15. Philadelphia 76ers – Projected 19-63, last season 19-63
The game plan in Philadelphia has been obvious for a while now and they would have taken last place in 2013-14 if only the Bucks could have won a few more times. It is really hard to win fewer than 20 games, but the 76ers should be able to do it again with ease.