In my younger days, I used to spend a fair amount of time in State College, Pennsylvania, the location of Penn State University. [S/O, Nittany Lions!] There is a sandwich shop in State College called Are U Hungry, an offshoot of the original RU Hungry shops founded near Rutgers University in New Jersey. RU Hungry is the home of the “Fat Sandwiches,” which are basically subs filled with every sort of greasy, coronary-inducing food you can imagine: fried chicken, steak, French fries, mozzarella sticks, cheese, and so on. They are glorious and terrible all at once, and I miss them.
The reason I bring them up is because the Eastern Conference in ’19-’20 is shaping up to be a very fat sandwich. On one side we have the soft, fresh, delicious bread: the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, the overwhelming co-favorites to represent the conference in the Finals. On the other side, the stale, rotting bread which has been sitting on a curb for a week and has been picked over by ants and crows: the Wizards, Knicks, Cavaliers, and Hornets. There will be more to say about the former group in the coming weeks, while we should all do our best to pretend the latter group doesn’t exist.
Which leaves us with the big, meaty, greasy, overloaded center of the conference. Nine teams appear to be competing for six playoff spots: Boston, Indiana, Toronto, Brooklyn, Miami, Orlando, Detroit, Atlanta, and Chicago. Let’s make the case for and against each one, and then I’ll give my predictions at the end.
Boston Celtics: Of all the teams in this group, it feels like the most would have to go wrong for Boston to miss out on the postseason. Even with the Chemistry-pocalypse that took place last year, the C’s still won 49 games and swept their first-round series with Indiana. After Milwaukee and Philly, they have the East’s highest win total over/under in Vegas (49.5), so they should be a relative lock, but there are also a huge number of factors which could swing their total in either direction.
If the Celtics struggle out of the gate, the pundits will be quick to attribute it to a World Cup hangover. Boston had four prominent members of this summer’s USA Basketball squad which finished an unfathomable seventh in China. There is some evidence being on an underperforming edition of Team USA can have adverse effects during the following NBA season, though there is some chicken-or-the-egg uncertainty about it because the teams are obviously not randomly selected. Kemba Walker was the veteran leader, and he played admirably for most of the tournament, though he put up his worst performance in the loss to France which eliminated Team USA from medal contention. Jayson Tatum showed the sort of aggressiveness and all-around game his doubters had been looking for in the exhibition games and the preliminary round before injuring his ankle in the final moments against Turkey. Jaylen Brown struggled to get minutes early, but then became an essential rotation piece following Tatum’s injury. He held his own against bigger players on a roster lacking quality big men, but his outside shot was inconsistent at best. Marcus Smart displayed his continued development as a shooter and playmaker (along with his usual hard-nosed defense), even as he helped to brick away the France game at the foul line.
The unanswerable question here is whether the bad vibes from the loss and the extra wear and tear on their bodies — literally in Tatum’s case — are offset by the chemistry those four key members of the Celtics were able to build with each other, both on-court and off. Swapping out Kyrie Irving for Kemba seems like an inarguable upgrade in the chemistry department, though perhaps a slight downgrade from a performance standpoint. [Kemba has consistently been more durable than Kyrie — who just absorbed yet another facial fracture in practice this week, a recurring theme in his career — so perhaps the difference in per-minute production is worth the presumed gains in availability.]
Last season, there was much consternation internally about head coach Brad Stevens’ insistence on continuing to play Gordon Hayward as he recovered from the gruesome leg fracture he suffered on Opening Night in 2017, despite Hayward’s erratic play. Early indications out of camp are that Hayward is beginning to look more like the version we saw in his final days in Utah, which would raise the ceiling of this team dramatically while also creating even more of a crunch for wing minutes and/or pushing them strategically toward an extreme version of small ball. If one of the Hayward/Tatum/Brown troika can stay afloat defensively at the 4 for big minutes, this team becomes near-impossible to cover, and it helps mitigate their most glaring weakness: a dearth of reliable big men.
Besides the potentially lingering World Cup stink, the biggest strike going against this roster is the loss of Al Horford. We’ve all been harping on how underrated Big Al is for so long that he’s perhaps become a touch overrated, but it really is difficult to quantify all the things he does for a team. He can capably shift between both big men spots, captain the defense, move his feet well enough to corral guards in the pick-and-roll, set effective screens, space the floor and roll to the rim equally well, facilitate from the elbow, and make life difficult on the Antetokounmpos and Embiids of the world. [Not so much the latter anymore, but you get the point.] He simply does everything on a basketball court at an above-average level, which is not something that can be said about any of the remaining bigs on the roster.
The tendency to dump on Enes Kanter for his defensive shortcomings has gone a little too far, even if much of the criticism is fair. He can still be a very valuable player in the right doses and against the right lineups, as he showed in his stint with Portland last year following Jusuf Nurkic’s horrific injury. The question becomes whether his role for this Boston team will be too big out of necessity, and his deficiencies will become more pronounced as the minutes pile up. The alternatives are Daniel Theis, who has proven to be a useful per-minute contributor but has had injury issues and may not translate to a bigger role, Robert “Timelord” Williams, a tantalizing physical talent who has yet to put the pieces together in his brief career, and Vincent Poirier, a French import set to see his first NBA action.
There are a couple wild cards here. First, the presence of Grant Williams, a 6-7 tank of a forward Boston selected out of Tennessee with the 22nd overall pick in this year’s draft. He has made a career out of exceeding expectations, and could challenge for minutes early on in Boston’s frontcourt if he can quickly adapt to the length and speed of the NBA game. Second, there is no team more ripe for a trade in order to balance out its roster. The Celtics are the rare team with a glut of big wings and a lack of serviceable big men, a condition any number of teams out there would be happy to assist in remedying. There is no potential trade in the league which makes more sense for everyone involved than a Boston/Indiana swap centering around Jaylen Brown and Domantas Sabonis, so of course it will never happen. Danny Ainge has given no indication he’s fallen out of love with his young core guys, but the Celtics still have the assets — including a lightly protected first-rounder from Memphis in the hopper — to round out their roster in a hurry if Tatum makes a leap and the East turns out to be even more wide open than it currently appears.
Indiana Pacers: Speaking of Indiana, they had a net-positive offseason after their quick, punch-less playoff exit at the hands of Boston, but there are still a lot of personnel and role questions to be answered. The big unknown, of course, is the uncertain timetable for the return of All-Star Victor Oladipo and how the team will keep its head above water offensively while he remains sidelined. They backed up the Brinks’ truck for Malcolm Brogdon, a guy who, on paper, should be the perfect sidekick for Oladipo, but will have to shoulder a heavier load as a creator in the interim. They also added Jeremy Lamb on a team-friendly deal. Lamb had his best season as a pro last year in Charlotte and is still only 27, despite having been in the league for what feels like 15 years. Bringing in Lamb helps to ease the sting of losing Bojan Bogdanovic, who secured his bag with Utah after averaging 18.0 PPG on 49/43/81 shooting last season and acting as the de facto no. 1 option for the Pacers in the wake of Oladipo’s quad injury.
Schematically, the Pacers maintain they are committed to a Twin Towers starting lineup featuring both Sabonis and Myles Turner sharing the floor. Turner profiles as just enough of a floor spacer to make it feasible, and both guys are rangy enough defenders on their own, but the fit still feels awkward. If head coach Nate McMillan is forced to stagger their playing time again (as was mostly the case last season), there won’t be enough minutes for at least one of their four best players, which is obviously sub-optimal. Sabonis is extension-eligible, and he is deservedly going to get a big pay day, whether from Indy or in the form of an offer sheet as a restricted free agent next summer. They’ve already committed big money to Turner (his 4-year, $72 million extension kicks in this year), they have multiple years of eight-figure salaries remaining on Brogdon, Lamb, and TJ Warren, and they just drafted Georgian big man Goga Bitadze, so the inflection point on what to do with Sabonis is rapidly approaching.
The Pacers were a .500 team without Oladipo in the lineup last season. If they can do something similar and grind out enough wins to stay afloat until their star returns — tentatively sometime in December or January — they should be able to cruise to 45+ wins and a comfortable spot in the playoffs. But with a lot of new faces and questions about the rotation, the margins are going to be thin.
Toronto Raptors: Perhaps the biggest question mark on the board. Besides the high-profile departure of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, the defending champs could look to the future and offload a number of the other key pieces from their title run. Team president Masai Ujiri, now a made man in Toronto, has always sought to rebuild the roster in his image ever since he took over, but the Raps have always been too competitive to tear down. Now, with house money in his pocket and several attractive veterans on expiring deals (Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka), their title defense could turn out to be more 2011 Mavs than 2004 Pistons.
Reigning Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam is now the centerpiece of the roster, and even without Kawhi, if the other vets finish out their deals, the infrastructure of a mid-tier playoff team is still in place. I suspect this will be Ibaka’s last year north of the border, but some folks around the league believe Toronto could offer extensions to both Lowry and Gasol, giving them each one last big contract as their respective careers wind down. Not to dismiss the contributions of those two great players, but this almost feels like Ujiri would be “selling low” on his political capital, locking himself and the team into an above-average future rather than sacrificing a season or two in order to get back to big game hunting as soon as possible. The market is likely to be tepid for half-year rentals with big salaries and a lot of miles on them, but if the goal is to rebuild, then getting some sort of assets (without taking on additional long-term money) probably makes sense, questionable optics notwithstanding.
The Raptors got their championship just before the window slammed shut on them. Now it’s time for Ujiri to figure out how to pry it back open, which may require taking a big step back this year to set up future steps forward. If that happens, it could create an opening for one of the young up-and-comers we’ll discuss shortly.
Brooklyn Nets: With Kevin Durant taking a redshirt year, the fate of this edition of the Nets is obviously tied to the, ahem, leadership of Kyrie Irving. We watched the worst-case scenario of that play out in Boston last season, so there may be both some recency bias in play here, as well as a sense that he is walking out of one situation (a team of young bucks looking to establish themselves who felt left out to dry by Kyrie) and into another one just like it. I see it, of course, but there’s a key point to remember: Kyrie didn’t want to go to Boston. He chose Brooklyn. If he can’t play nice here, then it isn’t going to happen for him. There should be a honeymoon phase at the very least, and happy, best-behavior Kyrie mixed with a potent, improving roster has big potential, even without KD. [Kyrie, for his part, has expressed penitence for his failures as a teammate in Boston, but that doesn’t mean Nets fans should let their guard down.]
Irving is a maestro in isolation and the pick-and-roll, and his style never entirely meshed with Brad Stevens’ motion-based, egalitarian offense. Kenny Atkinson’s go-go spread pick-and-roll system (which helped elevate D’Angelo Russell from underachieving troublemaker to max contract All-Star, it must be noted) should be more Kyrie’s cup of tea. If Atkinson can get the dosage of Kyrie ball dominance correct, there is also a ton of potential for internal improvement from the young supporting cast. Caris LeVert’s grisly leg injury opened the door for Russell’s ascendance last year, and the Michigan product’s laundry list of maladies is growing more troubling by the year. But lest we forget, Levert was averaging 18.4/4.3/3.7 at the time of the injury, was garnering some early All-Star buzz, and he just turned 25 in August. His upside remains significant, and his herky-jerky, off-the-dribble game could prove to be an excellent complement to Kyrie as a second-side attacker. Joe Harris is the same sharpshooter as ever, and he displayed a little more playmaking verve than expected with Team USA. Spencer Dinwiddie got paid (though perhaps not in the exact form he wanted) and is yet another floor spacer and shot creator to keep things humming during non-Irving minutes. Jarrett Allen is still only 21 and has improved by leaps and bounds each year of his career. It’s possible DeAndre Jordan (and his unfathomable 4-year contract) ends up the starting center due to his experience, but Allen’s frightening deterrence at the rim will still earn him a healthy minutes load. He ain’t no Kia:
It feels like Taurean Prince has been in the league for a decade, but this will actually be just his fourth season. After coming over in a trade from Atlanta, he could soak up a lot of minutes as a small-ball 4, where the Nets have a potential hole. Apropos of that, we don’t yet know how Rodions Kurucs’ legal issues will sort out — Lativian Gangbanger alert! — but if he comes out in the clear, he will also be a big part of the answer at the power forward spot. The jury is still out on last year’s first-round pick, Dzanan Musa, who spent most of the year in the G League. The no. 31 overall pick in this year’s draft, Nicolas Claxton out of Georgia, has the chance to be a steal as a theoretical stretch big with the length and agility to defend multiple positions. If Brooklyn needs some veteran stability in the rotation, Wilson Chandler and Garrett Temple are around to do Wilson Chandler and Garrett Temple things, respectively.
Without KD, the general consensus seems to be this is a low-end playoff outfit, but with the amount of depth and untapped potential present, that may be selling the Nets short. [Unlike Mikhail Prokorov, who recently sold the Nets and the Barclays Center for a total of $3.35 billion after investing approximately $2 billion since 2010. Promise a championship you can’t remotely deliver, employ Billy King, preside over the franchise as it becomes the laughingstock of the league for a solid three years, and then walk away with $1.3 billion to show for your troubles. Talk about Russian meddling.]
Miami Heat: Another high-variance team. Since the ignominious end of the Heatles era, Miami’s roster has been littered with solid veterans and high-upside young bucks desperately in need of a star to be the organizing principle. Enter Jimmy Butler. There are higher-wattage stars in the league (and certainly ones who come with less baggage), but his physical style and take-no-prisoners ethos both feel like hand-in-glove fits for Miami’s culture. Butler’s defensive reputation may exceed his actual performance at this stage of his career, but for a team which finished 26th in Offensive Rating and 6th in Defensive Rating last season, the infusion of on-ball talent and toughness he brings should be a boon at both ends.
There is also the question of whether trading away Hassan Whiteside will amount to addition by subtraction. Whiteside is a baffling player. If you just looked at his defensive stats, you’d think he was a prime Olajuwon-level destroyer at the rim, yet he completely wore out his welcome in Miami with his poor attitude, loafing, and clashes with coaches and players. Young stud Bam Adebayo is set to assume Whiteside’s minutes, so there’s a chance the chemistry upgrade will more than mitigate the overall loss of size and talent, but we really have no idea until we see this new group together on the court. [Whiteside also becomes a sneaky bounce-back candidate in his new digs in Portland. He is good friends with both Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum, and Lillard is legendary for his ability to get his troops to fall in line. An intriguing “change of scenery” guy to keep an eye on this year.]
As mentioned, Adebayo should see a major upgrade to his role, along with fifth-year point forward Justise Winslow, who made big strides last year once coach Erik Spoelstra entrusted him as the lead ball handler. Winslow averaged career highs nearly across the board and began to resemble a competent outside shooter (37.5% on almost four attempts per game). It remains to be seen how he meshes with Butler, but Winslow is trending in the right direction and is re-signed long-term to a potentially team-friendly deal (3 years/$39 million, starting this season). They have steady veterans in Goran Dragic (on a hefty expiring contract — more on that in a moment), James Johnson, and Kelly Olynyk. Dion Waiters is also back and purportedly in the best shape of his life after missing 126 games over the previous three seasons with various injuries. It feels as though the book has already been written on Waiters, and the Butler/Waiters combo could prove volatile. But he’s still only 27, so if he’s spent his time away from the game maturing and honing his famously questionable shot selection, there’s a world where he’s a useful contributor on a winning team. I talked about first-round pick Tyler Herro in my Summer League roundup, and whether he can earn a spot in the rotation for a team which will desperately need floor spacing should be an interesting subplot.
Besides the odd fits of some of the existing roster pieces, another big variable could be whether or not this team is fully formed. Pat Riley has always looked to make splashy personnel moves, and he may be gathering his chips for another all-in push. They have the expiring contracts (Dragic at $19M and Meyers Leonard, acquired basically for free from Portland at $11M) and a useful player in Olynyk (2 years remaining at about $12M per year, with ’20-’21 being a player option) to put together a package for a second star. Chris Paul is the guy most frequently discussed, and even on the downside of his career, he represents a worthwhile target for the star-hungry Heat. By rule, Miami can’t include a first-round pick which comes before 2025 (and the ones they are already out are owed to none other than Oklahoma City, meaning the Zombie Sonics may be hesitant to assist Miami in bolstering its roster), so the logistics of any deal are tricky, but if Oklahoma City struggles out of the gate even with a healthy CP3, the rumors of a Butler/Paul dynamic duo in South Beach are sure to intensify.
Orlando Magic: The Magic finally managed to extract themselves from the ranks of the East’s basement-dwellers last season after more than a half-decade of post-Dwight misery. So they’ve got that going for them. They jumped from 25 wins in ’17-’18 to 42 last season, mostly on the strength of an All-Star season from the newly well-heeled Nikola Vucevic (4 years, $100 million) and a disciplined Steve Clifford defense which ranked 8th overall for the season and near the very top of the league after the All-Star Break. Orlando even managed to take Game 1 off of the eventual champion Raptors in the first round of the playoffs before equilibrium was established and Toronto slapped them down over the next four games.
Given their recent history and the degree of improvement, it was perfectly defensible for Orlando’s front office to double down on the existing core this summer, re-signing Vooch and swingman Terrence Ross (4 years, $50 million) and banking on internal improvement from their stable of young, long-armed athletes. [Signing Al-Farouq Aminu for 3 years, $29 million amid their glut of questionable-shooting big men is somewhat less defensible.] What they are left with, however, is a roster which is simultaneously expensive (currently about $3.5 million under the luxury tax line going into the season), heavily imbalanced, and only good enough to elevate the team to mediocrity last season despite most everything going right. Orlando’s top six players in terms of minutes per game all played at least 75 games, and the development of an outside shot by Vucevic (36.4% from deep on 2.9 attempts per game) gave the offense juuuust enough breathing room to be functional (22nd in Offensive Rating).
Aaron Gordon continued his gradual improvement as a shooter and playmaker despite playing far too many of his minutes out of position at small forward. Journeyman point guard D.J. Augustin had his best overall season at age 31, and while his strong outside shooting probably isn’t going anywhere (38.1% career from three), undersized point guards don’t tend to age well. There’s a good chance last year was his high water mark, and in any case, the Magic are invested in diminishing Augustin’s role due to their trade for (and subsequent decision to pick up the $12 million team option for ’20-’21 of) ultimate mystery man Markelle Fultz. The former no. 1 overall pick is reportedly healthy at last, in both mind and body, and ready to contribute, but right now we have no way of knowing if it’s all smoke and mirrors or if he will finally begin to live up to his considerable pedigree. If he can approximate the player Philadelphia thought they were getting in 2017, it would go an incredibly long way towards fortifying a weak group of guards and introducing an element of unpredictability to Orlando’s staid offense.
Another major wild card is the development of soon-to-be 22-year-old big man Jonathan Isaac. The incomparable Zach Lowe did his usual thorough job in breaking down the areas in which Isaac needs to improve this season and how his ascendance could impact Orlando’s ceiling. Isaac’s defensive upside is nearly incalculable, and his versatility to defend across all three front court positions (and perhaps beyond) should give Steve Clifford an endless array of personnel configurations he can deploy. The problem is one of arithmetic. How does Clifford find enough minutes for six players (Vucevic, Isaac, Gordon, Aminu, Mo Bamba, and Khem Birch), all of whom are best served at either the four or the five? Injuries could end up thinning the herd of bigs to a more manageable size, but that isn’t exactly a preferable “solution” to the problem. Maybe their size and length will make them an overwhelming defensive force and it will be enough to overcome the awkward fit, but I’ll believe it when I see it work consistently over more than a 25-game sample.
GM John Hammond will likely stand pat with the roster and count on improvement from Isaac, Fultz, and Gordon to fuel their continued rise, but some sort of big-for-small trade would sure make a lot of sense to balance out the lineups. The Celtics are once again a natural target given their need up front, and while someone like Jaylen Brown might be too pricey, a guy like Marcus Smart would be a natural fit, and matching salaries wouldn’t be an issue. Without a bold move to remake the roster or star turns from one or all of the aforementioned youngsters, the Magic may have trapped themselves into mid-tier purgatory for the foreseeable future. That comes off as damning, but given where they’ve been for most of the decade, it might sound pretty appealing to their fans.
Detroit Pistons: Speaking of franchises who largely eschewed a bold makeover in favor of continuity — it’s DEEE-TROIT BAAAAS-KET-BALL!!! The Pistons have made their salary cap bed with the massive Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond contracts — the two bigs will combine to make in excess of $126 million over the next two years, assuming Drummond picks up his player option in ’20-’21 — and now they have to lie in it, for better or worse. Realizing the corner they’ve backed themselves into, the front office has begun to take high-upside swings on unproven commodities (trading for former YouTube sensation-turned-disappointment Thon Maker and drafting raw-but-explosive Guinean forward Sekou Doumbouya) and desperate reclamation projects (Derrick Rose and 38-year-old Joe Johnson). Even under the best of circumstances — Blake magically stays healthy, Luke Kennard takes a big step forward, either Maker or Doumbouya shows promise, Rose has something left in the tank, the bench isn’t as ordinary as it looks, and Reggie Jackson stops doing Reggie Jackson things — what does that mean? Forty-four wins? Forty-six? Congrats, you’re still first-round cannon fodder, and probably two years from meaningful cap space or a chance to contend, by which time you’ll have a 33-year-old, possibly still ambulatory Blake Griffin on an expiring contract. Sorry, I’m out on principle.
Atlanta Hawks: OK, that last one was a little depressing; let’s put on our rose-colored glasses! Despite some early optimism from the sharps (the Hawks’ win total over/under has increased from 33.5 to 36 over the last several weeks), Vegas remains bearish on Atlanta’s chances to crack the playoff field because of their youth and inexperience. No doubt a ton of their minutes will be soaked up by 25-and-unders (and Vince Carter!), but in Trae Young and John Collins, all things are possible. After an inauspicious start to his rookie season (to put it charitably), Young found his depth and was an absolute monster offensively in the second half of the season, averaging a starry 24.7/4.7/9.2 on 44/35/88 shooting splits and a 30.8% Usage Rate after the All-Star Break. Collins averaged just a tick below 20-and-10 in his sophomore campaign on impressive 56/35/76 shooting, and is primed for a breakout third season as his game continues to expand. Put bluntly, both players could easily end up as All-Stars this season, and in the East, that’s a recipe for success almost no matter what the rest of the rotation looks like.
Which isn’t to say there’s not talent up and down this roster. GM Travis Schlenk is clearly trying to build a sort of proto-Warriors, and despite the impossibility of accumulating that much Hall of Fame-caliber talent in one place, he has the outline down pretty well. Young is a reasonable facsimile of early Steph Curry — yes, I had to dodge a lightning bolt after typing that — and Collins and Kevin Huerter fit the “playmaking forward” and “sharpshooter with size” molds of Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, respectively. There is obviously no way to remotely replicate Kevin Durant, but Schlenk was smart to throw significant assets at big wings who project as elite 3-and-D options, moving up to select De’Andre Hunter from Virginia with the no. 4 pick and then taking Duke’s Cam Reddish at no. 10 with the pick obtained in the Young-for-Doncic swap at last year’s draft. Scouts may quibble with the upside of both selections, but the mold they fit is exactly what the Hawks need to complement Young and Collins as they ascend the NBA ranks.
This season is clearly still about development, but as with the Nets, there are steady, competent vets on hand (Carter, Alex Len, Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, and DeAndre’ Bembry) to right the ship for stretches when needed. [Related: I really hope at some point, De’Andre Hunter and DeAndre’ Bembry play each other one-on-one, with the winner taking ownership of the other’s apostrophe.] Head coach Lloyd Pierce will have learned some new tricks from his time as an assistant for Team USA with Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, and the team will play fast, shoot a ton of threes, and be a hell of a lot of fun. Sure, the defense will probably still be lousy (27th in D-Rating last year), and it may be their undoing, but this is the sort of team for which League Pass was created. Watching them figure it out is going to be a blast.
Chicago Bulls: I know, I know. The Bulls won only 22 games last year, so making the sort of jump necessary for a playoff spot is a big ask. Combined with the Vegas over/under (33.5 wins) and the front office’s history of bumbling and mismanagement, this might feel like a bridge too far. But here’s the thing: I kinda really like what they’ve done over the last year. Young teams need “adults in the room” to establish professional, winning habits, and in Otto Porter, Thaddeus Young, and Tomas Satoransky, the Bulls have acquired those exact types of guys, even if Porter’s contract is a touch onerous. Point guard play has been a debacle for Chicago for years now, and Satoransky promises to be a competent “floor raiser” at that spot. [I haven’t historically been a big fan, but I think Ricky Rubio might actually have a similar effect in Phoenix.] They’ve had no lottery luck during this recent rebuild, but even at the non-premium no. 7 spot in the last three drafts, they’ve landed promising talents in Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter, Jr., and Coby White. Markkanen was limited by injuries last season and still has a ways to go on defense, but at 21, The Finnisher’s arrow is pointing firmly in the right direction. White has the size, athleticism, and shooting prowess to become a star if he can corral his worst instincts and improve as a playmaker. Second-round big man Daniel Gafford out of Arkansas looked the part of a real NBA talent in Summer League and may turn out to be a steal. Young-ish complementary pieces Chandler Hutchison, Denzel Valentine, and Ryan Arcidiacono could all continue to improve into valuable contributors.
And then there’s Zach LaVine. Coming off an ACL tear in 2017, LaVine had easily his most productive individual season in a featured role with the Bulls last year, averaging 23.7/4.7/4.5 on solid 47/37/83 shooting. He was clearly overburdened as the primary option on a young team, but his scoring and assist numbers scream inefficiency for a guy with a a 30.5 Usage Rate, and his defense remains a train wreck. Perhaps another year removed from the injury and better quality teammates around him will propel LaVine to the next level, but much like Devin Booker — crap, all these Phoenix comps can’t be a good thing — until both the defensive effort and results improve, fair or not, he’ll be viewed as an empty stats gunner.
The Bulls will undoubtedly be an improved team, and there is a pathway, however slim, to the postseason in a vulnerable East. It wouldn’t entirely shock me, but like Orlando last year, they’ll need pristine health, and a number of guys will have to outperform their priors.
OK, enough about what might happen. What do I think will happen? Here are my predictions for the East standings, in order of finish:
- Philadelphia 76ers
- Milwaukee Bucks
- Boston Celtics
- Brooklyn Nets
- Miami Heat
- Indiana Pacers
- Toronto Raptors
- Atlanta Hawks
- Orlando Magic
- Chicago Bulls
- Detroit Pistons
- New York Knicks
- Washington Wizards
- Cleveland Cavaliers
- Charlotte Hornets
Let’s get this thing started! But first, I need a sandwich.