2016-2017 NBA Preseason Rankings: Eastern Conference
The Eastern Conference will include the NBA's two worst teams in 2016-2017, but there is a very real possibility that, even with the clear favorite to win the title on the West coast, the balance of power has shifted to the East. There were 10 Eastern Conference teams .500 or better last year versus 8 in the West, and most of the East appears to have improved over the summer, while several of the Western Conference elite had rough offseasons. The Cavaliers will again be the clear favorites to win the East, but their path to the Finals stands to be more difficult than it was a year ago.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
2015-2016: 57-25, 1st in the East; NBA Championship
Offseason additions: Mike Dunleavy, Kay Felder
Departures: Matthew Dellavedova, Timofey Mozgov
Despite having limited roster turnover, the Cavs may have gotten better over the summer. The number of players that Tyron Lue could trust to put on the floor against the Warriors during the Finals got very thin; with his ability to shoot the 3 and defend the perimeter for even short periods of time, the addition of Mike Dunleavy should help. Matthew Dellavadova was eventually dropped from the postseason rotation because he just wasn't athletic enough to make anything happen off the dribble; however, after a strong summer league performance, there is reason to believe rookie Kay Felder will be more helpful in that regard, and he also played extremely well at the defensive end. Jordan McRae was dominating in the summer league, and he could challenge an unproductive and no longer improving Iman Shumpert for playing time. Finally, there were indications in the Finals that Kevin Love's concentration defensively is improving in the same way that J.R. Smith's has, and that would be a huge development for Cleveland. The Cavs can't possibly be considered the favorite to win a championship, but it will be extremely difficult to knock them off in the East, and the Finals could at least be entertaining again.
2. Boston Celtics
2015-2016: 48-34, tie for 3rd in the East; lost to Atlanta in the 1st round of the playoffs
Offseason additions: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Gerald Green
Departures: Evan Turner
The Celtics certainly improved during the offseason, but not nearly as much as they probably should have considering they have Brooklyn's virtually guaranteed top 3 picks the next two drafts sitting in their back pocket along with more respectable young rotation players than they can possibly provide minutes for. They have more than enough assets to be in win now mode, but it almost looks as though they're waiting for the Cavs to get old (granted, not a long wait) before they really try to put everything together. Jahlil Okafor wouldn't have helped, but it seems crazy they didn't try harder for Russell Westbrook. Al Horford does help them at both ends of the floor, although rebounding could now become an issue considering Jared Sullinger's departure and Horford's 7.2 rebounds per game over the last two seasons. Otherwise, Brad Stevens is still around and the roster is still young enough that the players are continuing to get better, so the Celtics should again be substantially improved.
3. Toronto Raptors
2015-2016: 56-26, 2nd in the East; lost to Cleveland in the conference finals
Offseason additions: Jared Sullinger, Jakob Poeltl
Departures: Bismack Biyombo, Luis Scola, James Johnson
What Dwane Casey accomplished last season by leading the Raptors to a second place finish was nothing short of remarkable. Kyle Lowry has developed into a great player and plays with as much heart as any player in the league, and the Raptors held their own at center on most nights as the Jonas Valanciunas/Bismack Biyombo combo totaled 18.3 points, 17.1 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game; still, they have a shooting guard that's a below average shooter, a still unanswered question at power forward, and the team's big free agent signing missed most of the season with a knee injury. The Raptors should be better this season. The loss of Biyombo will hurt, but Valanciunas was putting up 15 points and 13.1 rebounds per game in the playoffs prior to his injury, and he's certainly capable of playing more than the 26 minutes per game he played last season. Jacob Poetl wasn't impressive in summer league but should at least be able to help at the defensive end, and Jared Sullinger can replace Biyombo's rebounding. More importantly, Demarre Carroll, who will play extended minutes as a small ball 4, will theoretically be available all year, and, between averaging 14.8 points on lights out shooting including 52% from behind the arc over the teams last 12 regular season games and an impressive summer league performance, Nolan Powell appears ready to become a major contributor. There will certainly be teams with more overall talent, but under Casey's direction the Raptors should have another strong regular season.
4. Detroit Pistons
2015-2016: 44-38, 8th in the East; lost to Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs
Offseason additions: Jon Leuer, Ish Smith, Boban Marjanovic
Departures: Anthony Tolliver
Reggie Jackson's large contract was much maligned a year ago, but he ultimately acquitted himself well. Combined with Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris, the Pistons may actually have enough shooting around Andre Drummond to become formidable offensively, particularly if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope picks up where he left off in the playoffs when he hit 44.4% of his 3's against the Cavs. Jon Leuer is a nice addition; he's a better shooter than Morris, and he rebounds at more than twice Morris's rate. It wouldn't be a huge surprise for him to start eventually, although Detroit's second unit will have a serious shooting deficiency. That wouldn't be as much of an issue if Stanley Johnson can more closely resemble the shooter he appeared to be during his lone season at Arizona. Under Stan Van Gundy, this will be one of the better defensive teams in the league, and if the offense comes around as well as it could the Pistons will be a contender in the East.
5. Washington Wizards
2015-2016: 41-41, 10th in the East
Offseason additions: Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson, Trey Burke, Jason Smith
Departures: Ramon Sessions, Gary Neal, Nene Hilario, Jared Dudley
There's nothing wrong with standing pat when your roster is young, talented, and still developing (a lesson the Suns could have used two years ago). John Wall is still only 25, while Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. are just 23; all 3 are clearly still getting better, and this should be the year they enter the playoff picture. The bench could improve as well, as Ian Mahinmi and Andrew Nicholson should prove to be upgrades and, if he can build on his summer league performance, 20 year old Kelly Oubre may be able to help in his second season.
6. Chicago Bulls
2015-2016: 42-40, 9th in the East
Offseason additions: Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, Robin Lopez, Michael Carter-Williams, Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine
Departures: Pao Gasol, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Mike Dunleavy, E'Twaun Moore, Tony Snell, Aaron Brooks
Potential personality issues aside, the signing of Rajon Rondo made sense for the Bulls from a basketball standpoint when he was going to be surrounded by shooters on a team that lacked defensive intensity. Now, with Mike Dunleavy and Jose Calderon gone and Dwyane Wade sliding in beside him at shooting guard, Rondo isn't such a good fit. Nikolai Mirotic will almost have to start at power forward, or at least play major minutes, for the Bulls to have any sort of floor spacing at all, and that could serve to marginalize what may already be the team's best frontcourt player in Bobby Portis. The Bulls will still have plenty of talent and should defend reasonably well despite Fred Hoiberg's inability to foster intensity at that end, so this should be a playoff team, but the parts assembled are an awkward fit offensively and aren't likely to be a major threat to the best teams in the league.
7. Atlanta Hawks
2015-2016: 48-34, tied for 3rd in the East; lost to Cleveland in the second round of the playoffs
Offseason additions: Dwight Howard, Taurean Prince
Departures: Al Horford, Jeff Teague
The Hawks had an interesting offseason in which they essentially traded Al Horford for Dwight Howard and dropped a solid veteran (but still below 30) point guard in favor of an inconsistent 22 year old. Atlanta knew as well as anyone that Jeff Teague was playing through a knee injury last season (not that his numbers suffered that much); they just wanted to switch to the flashier Dennis Schroder. While Schroder's assist numbers are similar to Teague's, the Hawks also had Horford paired with him and Paul Millsap to help facilitate offense, and they have now switched to an offensive black hole that has never averaged 2 assists a game despite facing double teams often when he was younger. Teague also shot 40% from 3 last year, and Schroder likely won't. In addition, Kyle Korver is now 35 years old, and may need to see his minutes decrease to keep his shooting percentages up, while Kent Bazemore provides great energy but isn't a particularly dynamic offensive player. This is likely still an excellent defensive team and should actually rebound better with Howard, but offense is about to become more difficult for the Hawks.
8. Miami Heat (with Chris Bosh)
2015-2016: 48-34, tied for 3rd in the East; lost to Toronto in the second round of the playoffs
Offseason additions: Dion Waiters, Derrick Williams, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson
Departures: Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Luol Deng, Gerald Green, Amar'e Stoudemire
Whether the Heat are a playoff contender or in the lottery will be entirely dependent on the health of Chris Bosh. If Bosh is available, he can help Goran Dragic keep the ball moving to set up Hassan Whiteside and the long list of spot up shooters the team now has on the wings. Without him, the offense will likely stagnate, and the Heat will not have a second quality big man to rebound and help protect the rim. Miami has a promising group of young players that could take big steps forward this season in Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, and Tyler Johnson, and Dragic seemed to be starting to adjust to Miami's style of play down the stretch and into the Playoffs, but without Bosh to help the pieces fit together this team would likely fall out of playoff contention.
9. New York Knicks
2015-2016: 32-50, 13th in the East
Offseason additions: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee, Brandon Jennings
Departures: Arron Afflalo, Robin Lopez, Derrick Williams, Langston Galloway, Jose Calderon, Jerian Grant
The Knicks invested a great deal of salary cap space to bring Derek Rose, Joakim Noah, and Courtney Lee to town- so much so that their hands were tied when it came time to build a bench behind their new starting five. That's a real problem with Rose (down to 16.4 ppg., 4.7 apg., and 31.8 mpg. in the 66 games he did play, with poor shooting numbers as well) and Noah both being injury prone, Noah clearly on the downside of his career, and Carmello Anthony already 32. Even Kristaps Porzingis missed 10 games as a rookie, and he only averaged 28 minutes per game in the 72 games he did play. The idea that Brandon Jennings is suddenly a great prospect is – interesting. Lance Thomas and Kyle O'Quinn can likely do more, but not that much more. While Rose is only 27 and could conceivably have a bounce back year, and Porzingis is likely getting stronger, depth is going to be an issue at some point. The Knicks also hired a coach that has proven himself capable of being creative offensively and developing young players, neither of which he will get to do with New York. While they may (emphasis on may) have turned themselves into a playoff team, the Knicks have definitely not managed to emulate what the Celtics were able to do when they acquired Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett for a title run a few years ago.
10. Indiana Pacers
2015-2016: 45-37, 7th in the East; lost to Toronto in the first round of the playoffs
Offseason additions: Thaddeus Young, Jeff Teague, Al Jefferson, Aaron Brooks
Departures: George Hill, Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill, Solomon Hill
The Pacers' starting lineup likely improved in the offseason, with Jeff Teague serving as an overall upgrade to George Hill and Thaddeus Young making the frontcourt more mobile and athletic. More importantly, all indications are that Myles Turner, who missed the first part of his rookie season with a hand injury, is well on his way to developing into a star player. Unfortunately, Larry Bird made a confusing decision to drop Frank Vogel in favor of Nate McMillan, who has gotten beyond the first round of the playoffs only once in his 12 seasons as an NBA head coach. The Pacers also suffered two significant losses to their bench that they didn't really replace when Solomon Hill, who was a major contributor over the last month of the season, and Ian Mahinmi, who had a career year as a spot starter, signed elsewhere (Al Jefferson likely only replaces Jordan Hill's production). The Pacers made some major changes in the offseason, but not all of them were good and a significant overall improvement seems unlikely.
11. Charlotte Hornets
2015-2016: 48-34, tie for 3rd in the East; lost to Miami in the first round of the playoffs
Offseason additions: Marco Belinelli, Ramon Sessions, Roy Hibbert
Departures: Jeremy Lin, Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee
Like the Raptors, the Hornets really seemed to overachieve a season ago under head coach Steve Clifford. The closest thing the team has to a star is Kemba Walker, and he may not ever make an All Star team. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the roster hit free agency during a year where the salary cap shot up, so keeping all of those players became impossible. Losing Jeremy Lin hurts, and Courtney Lee is a high end 3 and D player whose replacements are going to be light on the D. It was probably time to move on from Jefferson, but without him rebounding could become a real problem, as Williams, Zeller, and Kaminsky don't excel in that area. There's also the issue of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's shoulder, which is going to be hard to trust for a while. For the most part the Hornets were able to stand pat with the roster they were so successful with a year ago, but there's a very real chance that several teams have passed them by with successful offseason moves.
12. Milwaukee Bucks
2015-2016: 33-49, 12th in the East
Offseason additions: Matthew Dellavadova, Mirza Teletovic, Thon Maker, Tony Snell, Michael Beasley
Departures: Khris Middleton will miss most, if not all, of the season after a hamstring surgery; Michael Carter-Williams, Jerryd Bayless, Tyler Ennis
The loss of Khris Middleton to a hamstring injury serves as a major blow to what looked to be a potential breakthrough season for the Bucks. Middleton developed into the team's leading scorer with impressive shooting stats (18.2 ppg. on 44.4% shooting overall and 39.6% 3pt.) last season, and he nearly doubled his assists. The team will still be watchable and competitive with Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way. He just got better and better as last season moved on, averaging a LeBron like 20.7 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.1 assists, and 2.0 blocks while shooting 45.5% behind the arc during the last month. Unfortunately, without Middleton he just won't have enough help. Jabari Parker will at least help with scoring; while he doesn't have quite as high of a ceiling as Middleton and Antetokounmpo, he came alive as the season went on as well, putting up 17.5 points and 5.9 rebounds while shooting 49.7% overall over the final 3 months of the season. Otherwise, while the ball may be in Antetokounmpo's hands most of the time, the Michael Carter-Williams trade leaves Matthew Delevadova as the team's only option at point guard. Delevadova lost his spot in the Cavs playoff rotation because he wasn't quick enough off the dribble to beat people, but he was set to serve as a 3 and D point guard with Middleton and Antetokounmpo serving as playmakers. Those plans have been dashed considerably with Middleton's injury, and Delevadova's inability to create could become an issue with his new team as well. The team clearly overpaid for Miles Plumlee, but the signing does at least make it clear that the Bucks are aware the additional mobility and rim protection he provides makes him a better fit for the rest of the team's personnel than the lumbering Greg Monroe. However, Monroe's passing and scoring ability could become necessary again in Middleton's absence, so the Bucks will be hurt indirectly at the defensive end by the loss as well. Finally, Thon Maker gave every indication that he will be able to help sooner rather than later in the summer league, but his inexperience will hurt more at the offensive end without Middleton helping to score and spread the floor. It's still really more a question of when and not if for the Bucks considering the rate of development of the 24 year old Middleton and 21 year old Antetokounmpo, but Middleton's injury likely turns this season into yet another year of player development in Milwaukee.
13. Orlando Magic
2015-2016: 35-47, 11th in the East
Offseason additions: Serge Ibaka, D.J. Augustin, Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green, Domantas Sabonis
Departures: Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, Andrew Nicholson, Jason Smith
Over his final 22 games last season, Evan Fournier averaged 18.3 points on 49.3% shooting overall and 38.3% behind the arc. He was slated to take over as one of the team's two primary offensive options, which he will obviously do now; however, that doesn't mean that the team didn't still need what Oladipo provided. He could hit an open 3, he's an effective slasher, and he could even set up a teammate on occasion; moving Gordon to small forward accomplishes none of those things, and as a result this team could have even more trouble scoring points. Having D.J. Augustine helps, but if that was why Jeff Green was signed, he doesn't (he just isn't a very good shooter). The gameplan has to be for Mario Hezonjia to play more minutes on the wing, but again Gordon has to be the small forward. Bismack Biyombo's contract is even crazier that it looks at first glance, because the Magic have to have Nokolai Vucevic's scoring on the floor as much as possible and the pair can't possibly play together. A Biyombo/Ibaka/Gordon frontcourt would be amazing defensively, but how are the Magic going to score with that lineup? Are they just going to let Augustine and Fournier force up perimeter jumpers and hope for offensive rebounds? Frank Vogel is an excellent coach, and it's incredibly difficult to predict how good a young team is going to be because of the potential for improvement, but it's hard to project the Magic getting better while becoming less talented on the perimeter in a guard oriented league.
14. Philadelphia 76ers
2015-2016: 10-72, 15th in the East
Offseason additions: Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Gerald Henderson, Jerryd Bayless, Sergio Rodriguez
Departures: Ish Smith, Isaiah Canaan
Behold the wonders that Sam Hinkie's master plan has brought to Philadelphia! Five big men that can't shoot, the least promising of whom they can't give away! 47 wins in 3 years (and that isn't about to get significantly better)! He was clearly a misunderstood rocket scientist. Still, Ben Simmons as a point forward will at least make the team a more palatable viewing option for fans, and the 76ers did acquire two respectable veteran guards (not starting caliber guards, but respectable), so they should definitely improve on the 10 wins they put up last season. The Colangelos will right the ship eventually, but they have their work cut out for them, and this team is still a couple of offseasons away from being competitive again.
15. Brooklyn Nets
2015-2016: 21-61, 14th in the East
Offseason additions: Jeremy Lin, Trevor Booker, Luis Scola, Greivis Vasquez, Anthony Bennett
Departures: Thaddeus Young, Jarrett Jack, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, Donald Sloan, Thomas Robinson, Andrea Bargnani
Free agency was not the Net's friend. It's debatable whether Jeremy Lin is among the top 30 players at his position, but he is a solid NBA basketball player, as is Robin Lopez despite the fact that he doesn't rebound his position particularly well. Beyond those two, the Nets have very few players that could even be part of the rotation for the better teams in the league. The saddest part may be that the Nets don't even own their own draft picks for the next two years, so they will not benefit from their suffering in any way and they have no way to rebuild other than through free agency. Sean Marks may eventually prove to be a respectable NBA general manager, but he will have little opportunity to turn things around for a couple of years, and the game plan of his predecessor may actually work out worse than Sam Hinkie's (I'm just kidding – no it won't).