Bold Predictions for the Eastern Conference

Remember, these rankings and records are for the regular season not the playoffs. However, if there’s time before the games tip off tonight, I’ll try to launch into my deep dive playoff predictions as well.

The similar Western Conference predictions can be found HERE.

(15) Cleveland Cavaliers

predicted record21-61

The Cleveland Cavaliers will be chasing history this season. Unfortunately, it’s the negative kind. After achieving a toxic 117.6 defensive rating last season (ranked 30th of 30 teams), they may actually be worse this season. Pairing rookie PG Darius Garland (a slight, questionable defender) with PG Collin Sexton (who ranked 103rd of 104 among PGs in ESPN RPM on defense) could be a recipe for disaster and perhaps the worst defense of all-time.

But hey, let’s avoid piling on with the negative here. While the young Garland will have some growing pains as he adjusts to the physicality of the NBA, he’s still an explosive scorer capable of lighting it up. As the Cavs play a lot of 120-115 games, he’s bound to have big scoring nights. In fact, we’ll say that Darius Garland will score 45 points in a game against Atlanta on February 12th, netting 9 for 14 threes in the process. The flashes of brilliance will be enough for Cavs fans to have faith in their rebuild and in Garland as the scoring PG of the future.

(14) Charlotte Hornets

predicted record22-60

As with the Cavs, the Charlotte Hornets’ excitement will center around their chances of winning the NBA lottery. This year’s team should be quite bad. And that’s fine. Let the young kids play, let Terry Rozier put up some empty stats, and make sure you snag a top 4 pick in the draft. The franchise desperately needs a signature star to build around in the wake of Kemba Walker‘s departure.

In the meantime, let’s find a positive angle to the regular season as well. While the Hornets still lack a franchise talent, they have a few solid pieces in place. Among them, my favorite may be their # 12 pick, PF P.J. Washington (Kentucky.) He may never be an All-Star, but P.J. Washington will crack the All-Rookie team this season. As a college sophomore, he oddly qualifies as a “veteran” rookie compared to his peers. He’s productive (15.2 points, 7.5 rebounds in only 29.3 minutes) and only fell outside of the top 10 because of some durability concerns. But if he stays healthy, he may come close to matching those numbers (penciling in 13-7) given all the opportunity he should have with this team.

(13) Washington Wizards

projected record29-53

Newly empowered GM Tommy Sheppard just scored his first major victory in D.C., locking SG Bradley Beal into a massive extension. And certainly, Beal deserves it. He’s one of the best SGs in the NBA, coming off a 25-5-5 season at age 25. Unfortunately, Beal also deserves a better team around him. Right now, the Wizards are a motley crew that features some decent prospects who may be 2 years away (Troy Brown, Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant) and decent-ish veterans who may be 2 years removed from quality play (Isaiah Thomas, Ish Smith, C.J. Miles.) Perhaps the Wizards promised Beal an extended summer vacation as part of the deal.

While Beal is sticking around for the long haul, that doesn’t mean that his coach will be either. After a rocky season (natural, given the roster), Scottie Brooks is going to have a difficult time surviving this season. General managers tend to want to hire “their own guy,” and Sheppard should have every excuse if the Wizards lose 50+ games for the second season in a row. In fact, Brooks getting fired isn’t that bold, so I’m going to call my shot and predict that the Wizards hire Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr. as Scottie Brooks’ replacement. Unseld is a smart, rising star of a coach in his own right, but he also has a natural connection to this franchise. His dad (Wes Sr.) starred for the team on the court and later served as a long-time exec for them.

(12) Atlanta Hawks

predicted record30-52

The Atlanta Hawks are one of the darlings of /NBA given their vast array of young talent. Some are even predicting a darkhorse playoff appearance for the team.

But unfortunately, “young talent” isn’t the typical formula to rack up wins in the NBA. Most young players (even the studs) are net negatives, largely due to their struggles on the defensive side of the ball. Trae Young‘s a great example of that. While he’s a stud offensively, he’s a liability on the other end. As a rookie, Young graded as a -4.8 impact per 100 possessions according to ESPN RPM. Among all 514 NBA players that qualified for that metric? That ranked dead last: # 514. Going forward, Young will improve as all young rookies do, but there’s going to be a “ceiling” to his defensive ability. He’s short (relatively), slight, and limited in terms of his raw athleticism. He’s always going to be a below-average defender.

The Hawks tried to complement him with some good defenders in the draft — DeAndre Hunter (UVA) and Cam Reddish (Duke) — but those guys are obviously young themselves; it’s unlikely they’ll be good defenders out of the gates either. New backup PF Jabari Parker isn’t exactly known as a stopper himself either. All in all, this is a recipe for a severely limited team that causes the Hawks to finish in the bottom 3 in defensive rating and consequently underachieve given their expectations.

(11) New York Knicks

projected record32-50

The New York Knicks didn’t land their dream man in free agency, but they didn’t want to go home empty handed either. Instead, they stuck around the bar until last call like Sheila Sovage. Some of their moves were questionable, some made sense. All told, I’d grumble about the potential duplication more than anything else. Scoring big man x 2 (Julius Randle, Bobby Portis), veteran PF x 2 (Marcus Morris, Taj Gibson), etc.

Still, while you can debate the overall grand plan here, you can’t deny the talents of some of the individual players. # 3 pick R.J. Barrett (Duke) is a genuine threat to crack 20 PPG and win Rookie of the Year. And I’m going to say PF Julius Randle will make the All-Star team out East. Given his defensive limitations, Randle may not be a “winning” player, but he’s one who can put up stats. Last year, he averaged 21.4 PPG, 8.7 REB, and 3.1 AST for the Pelicans; he should be able to replicate that as a centerpiece for this Knicks team. And given the shakier depth in the Eastern Conference, I’m projecting Randle to put up 20-10 and make the roster (possibly as an injury replacement.)

(10) Chicago Bulls

predicted record40-42

In case you missed that, we’re saying Chicago will win 38 games, well above their over/under of 32.5. Why? How? Well, there’s not much projection here needed. In fact, the Bulls nearly went .500 last year with new addition SF Otto Porter in the lineup last year. After adding a few more veterans like Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young, the Bulls should have plugged enough holes to have a quality rotation in place.

One of the reasons the team hasn’t gotten much hype (compared to a conference rival in Atlanta) is because of the perceived toxic atmosphere and the questions surrounding coach Jim Boylen. While Boylen won’t win Mr. Congeniality at the Coach Awards, he’s the type of drill sergeant coach who tends to lead to an immediate boost in defensive performance (a la a Scott Skiles.) If Boylen can get this team to mid-pack on defense, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen should have enough firepower to get this team near .500 and on the verge of the playoffs. If I was a little bolder, I may even predict them to make it and Boylen to win Coach of the Year based on the narrative.

(9) Detroit Pistons

predicted record40-42

One of the most difficult aspects of predicting the NBA is predicting injuries. They’re especially important with a team like the Detroit Pistons. When healthy, Blake Griffin played like a top 10 player last year (seriously.) People who dismiss him as a simple “dunker” haven’t watched him play, where his ball-handling and playmaking (5.4 assists) is one of the best for anyone his size. If Griffin can play 75 games again, this team can win 44-45 games. If not…? It may be a long and bumpy road. I’m trying to split the difference here with the 40-42 record, but it’s hard to say with any degree of certainty.

Because there’s so much mystery and unknown to that, let’s stick to something more foreseeable. That is: third-year SG Luke Kennard will finally break out, to the tune of 14 PPG. Coach Dwane Casey hasn’t totally embraced Kennard yet, but he’s going to have to if he wants to keep the faith of his franchise. This team finished 21st on offense last year, and needs to surround Griffin and Andre Drummond with quality 3+D wings; Kennard at least qualifies for 1 of those 2. If Kennard and Tony Snell can provide reliable 3-point shooting (and Griffin stays healthy), this team should make the playoffs.

(8) Orlando Magic

projected record41-41

Last many of the playoff hopefuls out East, the Orlando Magic have a strong defense but a questionable offense. Last season, they finished 22nd in offensive rating. They’re in danger of repeating that number unless one of their young talents (like Jon Isaac) can take a giant leap forward.

Of course, giant leaps are relative. One small step for man may be a giant leap for mankind. And one solid step for Markelle may be a giant leap for potential bust-kind. The chances of Markelle Fultz becoming a good shooter are probably out the window, but he can still be a productive player for the Magic (health permitting.) His shooting issues were amplified by the fact that he had to play in a lineup with another non-shooter in Ben Simmons. On “his own” team, Fultz can get more comfortable, get in a rhythm, and get more aggressive as a playmaker. In fact, I’m projecting that Markelle Fultz will average 17-6-6 during the last two months of the season. Is that bold or ambitious? Not necessarily. In fact, Fultz averaged 13.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per 36 minutes back in Philadelphia despite all his struggles. There’s still some “D’Angelo Russell” post-bust resurgence potential here.

(7) Toronto Raptors

predicted record43-39

Last season, GM Masai Ujiri was so aggressive that he’s now a fetish in the BDSM community. He traded for Kawhi Leonard, and followed that up with a mid-season trade for Marc Gasol as well.

Still, I suspect that Ujiri isn’t a wild and irresponsible gambler; he should know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. And this year? It may be time to fold. I don’t mean the Raptors will blow up the team and tank, but they may pull their foot off the gas. They’re PG depth is still great and they have a good three-headed monster at PF/C, but their wing depth is seriously questionable right now. They may get to 45-50 wins based on great coaching, great culture, and shitty Eastern Conference teams alone, but it’s hard to see any true “upside” past R1 here.

Given that, I’m expecting Ujiri to shift into “seller” mode at the deadline, and trade one of their older players (Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry, or Serge Ibaka.) Gasol and Ibaka are both free agents at the end of the year, and may not be in the team’s long-term plans any more. Gasol’s $25.5M salary is difficult to “match” in a deal, but there should be a few teams (like BOS or LAC) that feel like he’d help push them over the top in the playoffs. If there’s a deal to be made, I’d expect Ujiri to be able to get it done.

(6) Brooklyn Nets

predicted record44-38

For a player who’s only 27 years old, Kyrie Irving has experienced a roller coaster career. He’s been on a doormat team; he’s been on a championship team.

He’s been embraced by the Boston Celtics fanbase; he’s been hated by the Boston Celtics’ fanbase.

He’s put up some great stats, made some great shots, and been named to 6 All-Star teams in his career.

Given that, I was surprised to find out that: Kyrie Irving has never received an MVP vote. We’re not talking about first-place votes; we’re talking about all votes. First, second, third, anything. He’s never been on a ballot. Irving parlayed a great offensive season last year (23.8 PPG, 6.9 assists) into a 2nd team All-NBA selection, but again, couldn’t get a voter to throw him a bone in MVP.

So this year, I’m predicting that streak ends and Kyrie Irving finishes in the top 8 for MVP voting. 25-7 is in play on a new team. And even if he simply repeats his numbers from last year, the narrative should feel quite different and help propel him into positive press.

(5) Miami Heat

predicted record45-37

For much of the summer, we heard rumors about the Miami Heat’s possible interest in PG Chris Paul. And depending how Oklahoma City starts, that talk may heat up again. Still… I’m going the other way here. After a solid start for themselves, the Miami Heat say “thanks but no thanks” to Chris Paul and role with the roster as is.

After all, this team looks pretty darn good on paper. Goran Dragic is still a solid starter at PG, and he happens to be on a much cheaper and shorter-term deal than CP3. Moreover, the Heat also have two wings in Justise Winslow and Jimmy Butler who perform better with the ball in their hands. Adding another ball-dominant guard doesn’t seem like the answer they need, if they need one at all.

If anything, I’d expect Miami to look for extra spacing. Their offense only finished 26th last season, and only has a few pure shooters on the squad. And if Dion Waiters goes AWOL, then they may not have many at all. Rookie Tyler Herro is getting a lot of hype, but it’s hard to count on a young rookie to be a positive player in the playoffs. If the spacing looks clogged, I imagine Miami will start looking at OKC’s other available asset (Danilo Gallinari) instead.

(4) Indiana Pacers

predicted record47-35

After a surprising 48-win season, the Indiana Pacers have become a trendy sleeper pick to possibly grab a top 2 seed and possibly make the Conference Finals. Personally, I’m a little more skeptical right now. While they did make some solid additions, they also lost two starters (Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic) who were red-hot from 3 last year, hitting 42.5% and 40.7% from three respectively. And despite that, the team still only finished 18th in the league in offensive rating. With Victor Oladipo‘s return date iffy, the offense may continue to look mediocre.

To that end, the club added Malcolm Brogdon, fresh off a 50-40-90 season for Milwaukee last year. However, Debbie Downer Zan strikes again, because I predict that Malcolm Brogdon’s TS% will be closer to league average (55.5) than his TS% from last year (61.4) For the sake of saving you some math, that’s taking the “under” on 58.5%. Why the negativity? Well, it’s nothing against Brogdon but simply a function of the role. In Milwaukee, he benefited from the presence of Giannis Antetokounmpo and a lot of open shots. He’s going to have to do a lot more of the heavy lifting in Indiana, which should cause that efficiency to take a hit. I still imagine Brogdon will be a solid starter, but he will likely not threaten 50-40-90 again.

(3) Boston Celtics

predicted record48-34

After his rookie year, Jayson Tatum was the toast of the town. The next great NBA star! After last season, the bloom came off the rose in a big way. Tatum’s struggles in isolation were highlighted by the analytical community, and his play style was picked apart. If anything, he appeared to wilt and regress as the season wore on. His scoring dropped from 16.5 PPG to 13.7 PPG after the All-Star break.

That said, criticism has a funny way of motivating you. I suspect that Tatum heard all those grumbles, and made an effort to address them. Rather than try to mimic Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant as a mid-range king, he needs to make more of an effort to get “easy” baskets inside. Specifically, free throw attempts. It’s extremely hard to be an efficient volume scorer if you’re only getting to the line 2.9 times per game (as Tatum did last year.) I’m predicting that Tatum and the savvy Boston coaching staff will make that a point of emphasis and help Jayson Tatum double his FT attempts. As he gets older and stronger, his body should be able to initiate and follow through on more contact as well. If he can get up to 6 FTA a game, then 20+ PPG is well within reach. In fact, there’s a good chance Tatum leads the team in scoring over Kemba Walker this year.

(2) Philadelphia 76ers

predicted record53-29

Philadelphia 76ers fans have plenty of reasons to be optimistic right now. Their starting 5 may be the best in the entire NBA, with a towering lineup that would make the kaiju insecure.

Better yet, the Eastern Conference may be weaker at the top than ever after Kawhi Leonard re-joined the West. By all reasonable estimation, the Conference Finals will likely come down to Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Until then, they can cruise through the regular season, manage minutes, and try to stay out of the headlines. 50 wins, no sweat.

But here’s the dirty little secret of the sports media: sweat sells. Drama sells.

And there’s no better drama than a power struggle between two stars. Kobe-Shaq, KD-Westbrook, LeBron-Kyrie, Harden-CP3, etc. Some of these tensions were muted, some of these were exaggerated. But clearly, it’s not easy to have two alpha dogs in the same room. If the Sixers end up in the 50-54 range again (good but not great), I’d expect to read a few anonymous sources claiming that there’s tension between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid and possibly a decision to be made in order to clear the room in the locker room and clear out room on the court.

Again, I’m not claiming these stories will be accurate, but I expect them to be written regardless.

(1) Milwaukee Bucks

projected record57-25

If you were a space alien who just started watching the NBA last season (with no prior knowledge or expectations), you’d have presumed the Milwaukee Bucks were the best team in the league for the majority of the season.

They had the # 4 offense, the # 1 defense, and the # 1 overall rated team in both advanced stats and wins-losses alike.

When they playoffs came around, they rolled to a 10-1 start. And then… the wheels fell off. Whoops.

Still, it’s hard to come up with reasons to claim the Bucks will have any real trouble this season. Losing Malcolm Brogdon will hurt, but the majority of the core will return and will still be in their prime. The only hesitation I’d have about taking them to make the Finals would be the SG spot (Wes Matthews, Pat Connaughton, and Donte DeVicenzo are all OK, but on the lower-end of playoff starters.) For Giannis Antetonkounmpo to max out his potential, he needs sharpshooters all around him without any weak links. However, finding a solid 3+D shooting guard isn’t impossible. I’m expecting Bucks GM Jon Horst to shore up that spot if necessary with a trade for one more veteran like E’Twaun Moore to plug any potential hole and ensure the team can truly conquer the East this time around.

— u/ZandrickEllison

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