NBA Season Previews Part 1

The National Basketball League tips off tomorrow, October 25, and we are back in NBA Mode to give a quick run down of each team. We start today with the Eastern Conference and included for each team is last year’s record, projected starters, offseason changes, and some projections going forward.

Atlantic Division

Philadelphia 76ers

2015/2016 Record: 10-72, Missed Playoffs

Projected Starters: PG Jerryd Bayless, SG Gerald Henderson, SF Robert Covington, PF Jahlil Okafor, C Nerlens Noel

Offseason Changes: The first Sixers offseason post-Hinkie yielded the ultimate prize in number one overall pick Ben Simmons. The Sixers also received good news when the 12th pick from the 2014 draft Dario Saric announced he was coming over from his pro team in Turkey to join the club. Even better news happened in the City of Brotherly Love when the third overall pick from that same 2014 draft Joel Embiid was cleared to finally return to the court after missing two seasons with a foot injury. But things didn’t stay rosey for long when Simmons was injured in practice and is now out indefinitely after breaking his foot, proving that Philly sports just cannot have nice things. Rumor has it Carson Wentz is kept in a bubble with seven body guards around him at all times when he is not on the field.

Season Outlook: Despite the Simmons injury things are finally looking up for the 76ers franchise with the promise of Saric and Embiid. Make no mistake this team is nowhere near ready to make anything that even resembles a playoff push as they are in desperate need of some playmakers in the backcourt. However they should be able to remove the laughing stock of the league label from the franchise. There is a major trade somewhere in this team’s future, whether it be moving Jahlil Okafor or Nerlens Noel or both. The five young big men the Sixers have acquired during “The Process” all have plenty of upside and should have nice careers when it’s all said and done, but your five best players cannot all play basically the same position. Moving Noel and Okafor for some young backcourt players makes all the sense in the world.

Hot Take Prediction: The Sixers will more than double their win total from last season! Now that won’t be to difficult to accomplish since they only won 10 games in 2015-16, but major improvement is on the horizon for this team. I also think even without Simmons they will be surprisingly fun to watch throughout the season. One more prediction, Jahlil Okafor will be traded by February 1st. – Randy Haines

 

New York Knicks

2015/2016 Record: 32-50, Missed Playoffs

Projected Starters: PG Derrick Rose, SG Courtney Lee, SF Carmelo Anthony, PF Kristaps Porzingis, C Joakim Noah

Offseason Changes: As you can see by the projected starters, the Knicks had a major roster overhaul this offseason. They brought in a ton of proven veteran talent that looks like a 2011 All Star team. The problem is that it is 2016 and most of the new players have significant age and injury issues now. Derrick Rose’s off court issues aside (and I don’t mean to downplay that, he looks like a really bad human if you read up on his civil suit), he remains a shell of what he once was on the court and will need to prove himself in a contract year. Joakim Noah fell out of favor in Chicago as well, and will reunite with Rose in his hometown this time after a down couple seasons. The Knicks added a few other veterans in Brandon Jennings and Courtney Lee to fill out an NBA2k esque lineup. Overshadowed by most of these moves, the Knicks also have a new head coach in Jeff Hornacek.

Season Outlook: The Knicks might have one of the widest range of outcomes this season for any team in the league. There is reason for some cautious optimism in NYC. If everyone stays healthy (a humongous if), this team has the talent to compete for a top 3 or 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. They still have one of the best wing players in the league in Carmelo Anthony and an up and coming superstar in Kristaps Porzingis, Pair them with the talented new veterans on the roster, and the Knicks look decent. However, before Knicks’ fans start planning their trip to the Bay Area for the finals, they need to face some reality. If the oft injured players on the roster are once again injured, this team could easily spiral out of contention midseason and be in the lottery next season. If that happens, don’t expect Rose or even Anthony on the roster by the start of next season.Also this season, a major issue for the Knicks organization will be if they acquiesce to their veteran players at the expense of the maturation of Porzingis. That is my biggest fear right now as players like Anthony, Rose, and Noah are in 100% win now mode. Overall, their team defense should be improved with a leader and anchor like Noah on the floor. If they can rely on the strengths of the team on offense and avoid hero ball with Melo, Rose, and Jenning, this Knicks’ team could be competitive and exciting this year.

Hot Take Prediction: The Knicks start the season hot and the Garden hype train reaches Linsanity levels of excitement. Sadly, by December at least two starters are wearing suits on the bench and the team quickly falls out of the playoff standings. Phil Jackson resigns and goes back to Los Angeles. Melo is traded before the deadline to Cleveland and he finally wins his ring alongside his BFF LeBron. Knicks’ fans just shake their heads, thinking “we can’t have nice things”.  – Nick Bair



Brooklyn Nets

2015/2016 Record: 21-61, Missed Playoffs

Projected Starters: PG Jeremy Lin, SG Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, SF Bojan Bogdanovic, PF Trevor Booker, C Brook Lopez

Offseason Changes: The Nets are currently in a stretch of not having their own first round pick until 2019 as a result of the trades for Gerald Wallace, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson. Good times in Brooklyn. With no real young assets to build around the Nets decided to sign a bunch of veteran journeymen? Enter Jeremy Lin, Randy Foye, Trevor Booker, Luis Scola and Greivis Vasquez or better known as the “All eighth man team”. With the lack of draft assets it is a really tough spot for new general manager Sean Marks to be in, but I would’ve liked for him to have taken more chances on players with even the slightest bit of upside like he did with former number one overall pick Anthony Bennett. It’s going to be a long hard road ahead for the Nets and their fans, there is not immediate light at the end of this tunnel.

Season Outlook: There will be two themes for Brooklyn this season, a lot of losses and Brook Lopez trade rumors. Trading Lopez is really the only way the Nets can truly start their rebuild with their current lack of high draft picks. Outside of that there is no real path for turning things around in the next five years.

Hot Take Prediction: This will be the worst team in the league and I feel pretty confident in saying that. It is almost a lock that they will also hand Boston a top 3 pick in the 2017 draft, the Pierce/KG trade is the gift that keeps on giving for Celtics fans. I am someone that can watch almost any two teams play, but this Brooklyn team has the potential to really test my love for NBA basketball. – RH


Boston Celtics 

2015/2016 Record: 48-34, Lost to the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

Projected Starters: PG Isaiah Thomas, SG Avery Bradley, SF Jae Crowder, F/C Amir Johnson, C Al Horford

Offseason Changes: Despite the Celtics’ front office, coaching staff, and Tom Brady’s best efforts, the Celtics missed out on bringing Kevin Durant to Eastern Conference this summer. However, they got a pretty nice consolation prize in Al Horford, the second most sought after free agent this summer. Horford has been one of the best big men in the league the past decade and he finally gives head coach Brad Stevens a star to pair with all of this great role players. The Celtics also added Cal forward Jaylen Brown in the draft, who has the raw ability to be a great stretch player in the NBA. I don’t think he will be a factor this season, but another player to watch.

Season Outlook: Brad Stevens finally has an above average roster to work his magic on after a few seasons of success and exceeding expectations. The Celtics were very solid last year in the regular season, but they still haven’t made it out of the first round of the playoffs in the Stevens Era. I think a lot of that is the talent disparity they have had to deal with until now. The addition of Horford vaults the Celtics into the discussion for the second best team in the East behind Cleveland. We know this team will be well coached and we know it will play excellent defense. I still have some reservations on their offensive ceiling with the current roster, and there is still a log jam at the guard position with Thomas, Bradley, and Marcus Smart. I also wouldn’t be surprised if GM Danny Ainge pulls off another major deal this season, as they still sit with their arsenal of Brooklyn draft picks and a super deep roster. The Celtics will definitely be very good this year, and should finally get out of the first round of the playoffs this year.

Hot Take Prediction: The Celtics play exceedingly consistent all regular season and shock oft injured Cleveland by taking the top seed in the East. The Celtics roll through the first two rounds of the playoffs and go into the Eastern Conference Finals with home field advantage versus the Cavs. Boston fights Cleveland to a decisive Game 7 in Boston. Sadly, LeBron goes full LeBron and eviserates the C’s on his way to the Finals. The consolation prize is that Brad Stevens wins Coach of the Year and the Celtics get the top pick in the NBA Draft from the sorry Nets. – NB


Toronto Raptors

2015/2016 Record: 56 – 26, Lost to Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals

Projected Starters: PG Kyle Lowry, SG DeMar DeRozan, F DeMarre Carroll, F Jared Sullinger, C: Jonas Valanciunas

Offseason Changes: The two biggest changes in the offseason for the Raptors (the “Drakes”) was the addition of Sullinger from the Celtics and the loss of Bismack Biyombo, who signed with the Orlando Magic in the offseason. Biyombo was a key contributor in the playoffs, playing ferocious defense and gobbling up boards. He enjoyed starting in the Eastern Conference Finals and played himself into a good pay day. On the positive side, Toronto gained Sullinger who proved in Boston that he can be a monster on the glass, especially from a starting role. The Raptors also drafted Jakob Poeltl in the first round, a former Ute, who should also add depth to the bigs.

Season Outlook: Toronto managed to make the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time last year despite losing Carroll for much of the season, his first up north after leaving the Atlanta Hawks. This is a team that wants to play like some of the best teams in the league, but lacked the outside shooting touch with Carroll sidelined. Now healthy, they ought to be as good if not better. Their challenges will come from (a) the weight of expectations after their run last year and (b) finding success from three. The Raptors also benefit from playing in the relatively weak Eastern Conference and their greatest foes remain the Cavaliers, as well as early-season darlings the Celtics. Overall, Toronto should have no problem finishing safely above .500, and cruising against whoever they play first round of the playoffs.

Hot Take Prediction: Vegas has the Raptors as the 3rd best team in the East and 6th best team overall, with an over/under win total of 49.5. That seems about right, although I wouldn’t be shocked if Indiana pushed them for that spot. On a good day, Toronto can hang with the big boys in Cleveland, but putting that together for seven games seems too tall a task for anyone in the East again this year barring a fluke injury. I have Toronto pegged for third in the East and losing in the Conference Semifinals. – Jordan Curet


Central Division

Chiacgo Bulls

2015/2016 Record: 42-40, Missed Playoffs

Projected Starters: PG Rajon Rondo, SG Dwyane Wade, SF Jimmy Butler, PF Nikola Mirotic, C Robin Lopez

Offseason Changes: Welcome home D Wade! Probably the most shocking move of the offseason was future Hall of Famer and mayor of Miami Dwyane Wade leaving South Beach to go back to his hometown Chicago Bulls. Seeing Wade in a Bulls jersey will take awhile to get used to this year. While Wade may not be on the downside of his career, last year’s playoffs showed he has a lot of juice left and we know he will have some revenge on his mind for the Heat. In addition to Wade, Rajon Rondo joins the Bulls in what is sure to be the worst shooting backcourt in NBA history. Also the team just traded for Michael Carter Williams, which somehow will make their team shooting even worse. With these new faces coming in, some old stalwarts had to leave town. Former MVP Derrick Rose was traded to the Knicks and former Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah was also let go (and landed in the Big Apple as well). The Bulls will look very different this year, that is for certain.

Season Outlook: With this new starting lineup, it is definitely hard to predict right now how they will mesh together. On paper, it doesn’t seem like a good fit. None of these guys are good shooters and Rondo, Wade, and Butler need the ball in their hands to play their best offense. Head Coach Fred Hoiberg has his work cut out for him, but there is enough talent on this team to be very competitive if they can find the right balance on offense. Injuries will also be a big factor as we know Wade struggles to stay on the court in the regular season, and Butler has had issues as well after Thibs wore down his body for years. I like the Lopez addition on the front line and I’m hoping to see more from Dougie McBuckets this year. If things go south (and that is a very real possibility), will the Bulls trade their best asset Jimmy Butler for picks and pieces to rebuild? By February, we should have more clarity on that. I think this team’s ceiling is a playoff berth and early round exit in the East, but again, you never know with this random assortment of current and former superstars.

Hot Take Prediction: The Bulls will be bad this year. They will be hurt early and often. Even when everyone is on the floor, the pieces won’t mesh and you will see plenty of jawwing between the three big egos of Wade, Rondo, and Butler. Fred Hoiberg won’t survive the season and I think you will see Jimmy Butler out of Chicago before the trade deadline. – NB

Cleveland Cavaliers

2015/2016 Record: 57-25, NBA Champions over the Golden State Warriors

Projected Starters: PG Kyrie Irving, SG J.R. Smith/Iman Shumpert, SF LeBron James, PF Kevin Love, C Tristan Thompson

Offseason Changes: The two biggest changes for Cleveland come from some of their surprising postseason heroes of the last two seasons, with both Timofey Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova signing with the Lakers and Bucks, respectively. Mozgov played a much more limited role this past season but did add depth amongst the bigs. Delly, meanwhile, was a key piece for Cleveland all season and admirably filled in for Irving. Now the team will rely on Kay Felder, a rookie out of Oakland University, to spend significant minutes at point guard. Mozgov’s spot was taken by Chris “Birdman” Andersen, a LeBron favorite who will likely have a limited role. Lastly, Cleveland grabbed Mike Dunleavy from Chicago, a good tweener who should add to Cleveland’s three point threat.

Season Outlook: Unless a devastating injury hits, Cleveland should be right back in the Finals this season. Any team with LeBron James is going to be competitive, but coming back from down 3-1 in the Finals last year proved that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have what it takes to be winners as well. There may be some early season stumbles between the championship hangover, J.R. Smith only re-signing two weeks before the season, and the small roster changes but count on this team to be comfortably in the top spot in the East by December.

Hot Take Prediction: It isn’t much of a hot take to say this team rumbles back to the Finals, so instead I’ll say this: as long as the Cavs are cruising, LeBron James will win his final MVP this season, mostly as a reward for his superior play in the Finals. LeBron is entering the twilight of his career but is #blessed to play with Irving and Love, who can shoulder much of the burden during the regular season. That will free up LeBron to play for the highlight and as the facilitator. I don’t think they can win again this year, because whoever comes out of the West (spoiler alert: the Warriors) will be superior. It will be fun to listen to the Cavs/Warriors rivalry narrative for at least one more season. – JC

Detroit Pistons

2015/2016 Record: 44-38, Lost in first round to Cleveland

Projected Starters: PG Reggie Jackson, SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SF Tobias Harris, PF Marcus Morris, C Andre Drummond

Offseason Changes: The young Pistons attempted to really boost their bench this offseason by adding forwards Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic as well as backup point guard Ish Smith who will being the season as the starter with Reggie Jackson out at least the first month of the season with a knee injury. The Pistons also added forward Henry Ellenson in the draft creating what is potentially one of the deepest frontcourts in the league.  

Season Outlook: Detroit will look to build off of making the playoffs as the eighth seed last season and move up the Eastern Conference standings. The Pistons have the look of a team that will be a contender in the east for many years to come as forward Marcus Morris is the oldest of the starting five at just 26 years of age. Detroit will hope to hold their own for the first month of the season without starting point guard Reggie Jackson who is coming off a career year. The elephant in the room for this club is Andre Drummond’s free throw shooting issues (35.5% last season). It is very hard for a team to not have confidence in putting their best player on the court in the final few minutes of games. If Drummond can find a way to get his free throw shooting to just around 60% it will go a long way in the success of this team.

Hot Take Prediction: The young Pistons will continue to improve this season and make a real push at getting a top four seed in the east. Detroit’s bench will improve over last season in large part because of second year forward Stanley Johnson’s improvement. Expect Johnson to be in the Most Improved Player award conversation this season. – RH

 

Indiana Pacers

2015/2016 Record: 45-37, Lost in first round to Toronto

Projected Starters: PG Jeff Teague, SG Monta Ellis, SF Paul George, PF Thaddeus Young, C Myles Turner

Offseason Changes: The Pacers parted ways with head coach Frank Vogel as they wanted to become better offensively. Larry Bird backed that decision up by adding Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson who all have shown the ability to score throughout their careers as well as being good locker room guys. It will be interesting to see how things work out with Nate McMillan calling the shots now in place of Vogel, but with the talent added to Indiana this offseason the Pacers should be better off even without a top coach like Vogel.

Season Outlook: The Pacers took the Toronto Raptors to a game seven in the first round last season and with the improved roster they should be able to easily make it back to the playoffs once again. If everything break right for Indiana I could see them getting as high the number two seed this season. All-Star forward Paul George put all doubt about his leg injury behind him during the second half of last season and is poised to once again be a top 10 player in the league this season.

Hot Take Prediction: The Pacers will be one of the biggest surprises in the league this season finishing with the third best record in the East. The 2016-17 Pacers will be unlike Pacer teams from the past few seasons as they finally join the modern NBA. They took a step in the right direction last season when Paul George started playing small-ball power forward at times. With the added offensive production this offseason Indiana will be a great watch all season. – RH

 

Milwaukee Bucks

2015/2016 Record: 33-49, Missed Playoffs

Projected Starters: PG Matthew Dellavedova, G Rashad Vaughn, F Giannis Antetokounmpo, F Jabari Parker, C Greg Monroe

Offseason Changes: The Bucks went out and added Delly this offseason, which was pretty overlooked as a solid offseason addition. The Australian is a solid point guard who plays tough defense and can command the offense. Milwaukee also lost Khris Middleton in the preseason to a torn hamstring and he likely will be out at least six months. In addition, veteran newcomers Tony Snell (via trade), Jason Terry (free agency), Mirza Teletovic (free agency), and Michael Beasley (trade) all add different looks that may help ease the loss of Middleton. Finally, the Bucks drafted Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, both of whom made the final 15 man roster.

Season Outlook: Many have the Bucks pegged for the playoffs this year, but that was largely before Middleton was sidelined. Now, they face an uphill battle replacing his scoring through the likes of Parker and Vaughn. It may not be enough, but this is still an exciting team to watch with several young pieces. Parker is really only entering his second full year, after suffering a ACL tear his rookie season and missing games last year with various injuries. He has displayed plenty of NBA potential in that time and may well be ready to lead this team alongside Giannis. He flies under the radar because of the Greek Freak as point guard experiment that lasted a lot longer than most thought last year. Even with Delly, that role will continue this season and it should perplex plenty of teams. Overall, there’s plenty to like this year our of Milwaukee.

Hot Take Prediction: The Bucks can make the playoffs, although likely as the 7 or 8 seed. If they do, look for them to put up a good fight in the first round before bowing out in six games. This is the year before the year for the Bucks, while they wait out LeBron’s final peak. There’s plenty of room for optimism though, particularly if Maker becomes even a competent big man. In the future, it may well be a lot of green from the East by way of the Bucks and Celtics in the playoffs. – JC


Southeast Division

Charlotte Hornets

2015/2016 Record: 48-34, Lost in first round of playoffs to the Miami Heat

Projected Starters: PG Kemba Walker, SG Nicolas Batum, SF Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, PF Marvin WIlliams, C Cody Zeller

Offseason Changes: There’s a big missing hole for Charlotte this season that strongly resembles Al Jefferson, who left to sign with the Indiana Pacers. Additionally, the Hornets bid farewell to New York bound Jeremy Lin (Nets) and Courtney Lee (Knicks). To help with the losses, Charlotte got Brian Roberts back, signed Ramon Sessions from Washington, traded for Marco Belinelli, and took a flier on Roy Hibbert.

Season Outlook: This is an interesting time for the Hornets who probably don’t have enough to compete with the upper echelon of the East (Celtics, Raptors, Cavaliers) but certainly could entrench themselves as the fourth best team ahead of the Pacers, Heat, and the rest. The problem is the turnover that occurred this offseason could well upset any hope at a repeat of 2015. Losing Jefferson and Lin directly hits Charlotte’s bottom line in scoring, rebounding, and assists. The hope is that MKG is now fully healthy, Cody Zeller takes a lead forward, and Batum is a safe reclamation project. That seems like a lot to gamble, but Kemba’s timelines is for Charlotte to be competitive now, even if that means losing in the second round of the playoffs.

Hot Take Prediction: The best case scenario sees the Hornets losing in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Cavaliers, but I think that’s too much to ask of this team. I see them taking a step back in the regular season, finishing closer to .500 and perhaps missing out on the playoffs all together. A tough break for Charlotte, but relying on Zeller, Hibbert, and Frank Kaminsky is never going to end well for a team. – JC


Washington Wizards

2015/2016 Record: 41-41, Missed playoffs

Projected Starters: PG John Wall, SG Bradley Beal, SF Otto Porter Jr. PF Markieff Morris, C Marcin Gortat

Offseason Changes: After an extremely disappointing season for the official team of H&H the Washington Wizards fired head coach Randy Wittman and revamped almost their entire bench. Replacing Wittman will be former Oklahoma City head coach Scott Brooks which is an upgrade although I’m not sure if it’s as much of an upgrade as some people think. Maybe the best thing that happened this offseason for Wizards fans is knowing that Nene will no longer be playing in the D.C., this was the best case scenario for this team outside of signing Kevin Durant (I’m only kind of kidding with that one). The core of this team led by John Wall and the new highest paid Wizard Bradley Beal remains the same as it was last year. The Wizards have a starting five that can compete with the rest of the Eastern Conference, Brooks and the revamped bench will be the key to this team getting back to the playoffs.

Season Outlook: Unlike the last few seasons there’s seemingly less optimism around this club after the disaster that was last season and the fact that John Wall and Bradley Beal may or may not hate playing with each other. Unless you’re Shaq and Kobe your two best players hating each other is not a formula for success. Outside of the Wizards dynamic duo the other big question around this team is about new head coach Scott Brooks. Is he actually a good coach? His record of 338-207 would say he definitely is and the Wizards picked up one of the top coaches in the league. However the lack of postseason success the Thunder had outside of one trip to the finals is concerning considering the amount of high end talent on those OKC teams. The Thunder also never really seemed to have any kind of structure to their offense while Brooks was there seeming to always rely on Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka to just do what they felt like. Now that isn’t the worst strategy in the world, but there are times where you need a solid offensive system even when you have superstars such as the ones Brooks had in Oklahoma City. John Wall has become on of the top point guards in the league as well as a perennial All-Star. When healthy Bradley Beal has shown he has as much potential as any guard in the league, but make no mistake those two are not Durant and Westbrook. Brooks must put in a system that fits his personnel to have any chance at success in D.C.

Hot Take Prediction: Bradley Beal will set a new career high in games played! Beal finally puts everything together this season and will play in at least 75 games this season. John Wall will play with a chip on his shoulder this season now that almost everyone in the league makes more money than he does and set new career highs in all major categories. By midseason second year swingman Kelly Oubre Jr. will have replaced Otto Porter Jr. as the team’s starting small forward and new reserve point guard Trey Burke will finally find a role that he can succeed in. The Washington Wizards will also return to the postseason in 2016-17! In typical Wizards fashion they will go up 2-1 in their first round series as an underdog only to end up losing in soul crushing fashion. Welcome to the life of a Wizards fan. – RH

 

Miami Heat

2015/2016 Record: 48-34, Lost to the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Semifinals

Projected Starters: PG Goran Dragic, SG Josh Richardson, SF Justise Winslow, PF Josh McRoberts, C Hassan Whiteside

Offseason Changes: No big changes here besides, you know, the greatest player in franchise history and former Finals MVP winner Dwyane Wade taking his talents out of South Beach. Pat Riley didn’t mess around and chose salary cap flexibility and team rebuilding over loyalty to Wade. In other Riley news, he has basically written Chris Bosh’s Heat career off as well as Bosh attempts to recover from his blood clot issues. Instead, the Heat have left the keys to the car to the enigmatic Hassan Whiteside and young building blocks Winslow and Richardson. The Heat did make one huge signing, Head & Heart favorite Dion Waiters.

Season Outlook: This is shaping up to be an intriguing season in Miami. With the roster turnover and loss of veteran leadership, I am curious to see who picks up the slack on this team. Goran Dragic has never struck me as real leader and Winslow, Whiteside, and company are still very young. I can’t wait for the inevitable Whiteside vs Waiters blowup midseason that leads to Coach Spo pulling out his hair. I think this team still could make a run at the 8 seed, but it will really hinge on Winslow taking a big leap and Whiteside staying under control. Also, with Riley, you can’t rule out a big midseason trade or a big offseason signing next summer. Would not surprise me at all if he made a run at Russell Westbrook or Blake Griffin.

Hot Take Prediction: Hassan Whiteside will actually earn his contract! With the current state of the Heat there’s no reason for them to not try and make him the focal point of the team. I also see Pat Riley working more of his evil magic by dumping Goran Dragic to a dumb team like the Kings clearing the way for him to pursue Russell Westbrook or Blake Griffin in the offseason making everyone hate the Heat once again. – NB


Atlanta Hawks

2015/2016 Record: 48-34, Lost Conference Semifinals to Cleveland Cavaliers

Projected Starters: PG Dennis Schröder, G Kent Bazemore, F Kyle Korver, F Paul Millsap, C Dwight Howard

Offseason Changes: Look at those starters again. Two huge changes, with Jeff Teague being traded to Indiana and Al Horford heading to Boston in free agency. That is some major upheaval for a team that wants to mirror success on how the stable San Antonio Spurs run their organization. The new backup point guard is another overseas product, Malcolm Delaney and the Hawks added future contributors Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry. The biggest move, obviously, was bringing Dwight Howard home off a miserable year in Houston. If Howard can regain any of his magic from Orlando (see what I did there?) it will be a great signing.

Season Outlook: The Hawks are tough to peg down this year, with the transition at two major positions probably resulting in a change of play. The Hawks wanted to be the Spurs-lite with their ball movement, penchant for open shots, and team first attitude. Yet, Howard will want the ball a lot and it remains to be seen if the coaching staff can find a way to balance it out. Schröder is ready to be the starting point guard and when engaged, is a top defender at one of the NBA’s key positions. What remains to be seen is whether Millsap can stretch the floor and give Howard room to operate and if Korver can rebound from a down shooting year. There’s a lot of uncertainty.

Hot Take Prediction: The Hawks take a tumble this year, while the Pacers and the Celtics push forward. If Atlanta makes the playoffs, it will be one of the bottom three seeds and they will not make it out of the first round. I think the Howard experiment works out fine, with Dwight playing himself back into the conversation as one of the five best big men in the league, but they lack the scoring punch to stay in games. Next offseason will see big moves to acquire better shooting to put around Schröder and Howard. – JC


Orlando Magic

2015/2016 Record: 35-47, Missed Playoffs

Projected Starters: PG Elfrid Payton, SG Evan Fournier, F Aaron Gordon, F Serge Ibaka, C Nikola Vucevic

Offseason Changes: The big new face in town is ex-Thunder big man Serge Ibaka. The Magic swung for the fence and traded young stud guard Victor Oladipo for the veteran forward on the final year of his contract on draft night. While this move will definitely bolster their defense and team as a whole, there is no guarantee Ibaka will sign an extension, which could be a catastrophic move for a team that is still rebuilding since Dwight Howard’s departure years ago. The other big offseason move was hiring new head coach Frank Vogel after he was fired from the Pacers. Vogel is one of the better coaches in the league and will get the most of this talented, but oddly assembled roster.

Season Outlook: The Magic are one of the oddest teams in the league. They haven’t gotten much out of their slew of lottery picks in the past five years and most of their players turn into solid role players after they leave Orlando. There are a lot of players to like on this roster, but they are filled with more potential than actual NBA substance at this point. Aaron Gordon shows flashes of Blake Griffin, but hasn’t put it all together. Mario Hezonja talks trash with the best of them, but still hasn’t quite found his NBA game yet. I liked Payton a lot coming out of college, but it doesn’t seem like he will ever develop into an above average guard. And of course Nic Vucevic is a classic bad team, good stats guy. Could this be the year the Magic finally put it all together and make a playoff run? In their favor, Frank Vogel is the best coach they have had since Stan Van Gundy was in town and should add a half dozen wins by just doing the right things. If he can get the most of this roster, it is not out of the question that they can be a playoff team this year. On the other hand, if the status quo remains, Ibaka could leave town at the end of the year (or at the trade deadline) and the Magic will be back in the lottery taking a blind shot at another prospect.

Hot Take Prediction: Frank Vogel turns out to be the right man for the job and the roster finally plays to its potential. Serge Ibaka is much happier being the leader of this team than being relegated to the third wheel like he was in OKC. He signs an extension midseason and the Magic make the playoffs as the 8 seed. Aaron Gordon wins the Most Improved Player award as he becomes a borderline All Star and Super Mario becomes a League Pass darling. – NB

 

Photo Credit – Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

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