Basketball season is back and our favorite teams have returned to the hardwood with dreams of the Larry O’Brien trophy dancing in their heads. The offseason was a wild one with stars trading places and, now that the dust has cleared, we’ll finally get to see these teams in regular season action. The Eastern Conference schedule opens up with a bang as the Cavaliers and Celtics meet in a rematch of the Eastern Conference Finals, and a completely remade Celtics team featuring Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
Celtics GM Danny Ainge went for it this offseason, signing Gordon Hayward in free agency and adding Kyrie Irving via trade. Those moves make the starting five more talented than last year with Hayward and Irving joining Al Horford to form a Big 3. But they lost some depth as a result of those deals, with Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and Isaiah Thomas all elsewhere. Still, Brad Stevens’ group is improved on paper.
The Nets made some nice moves this summer to continue their rebuild, despite not having much draft capital. They added D’Angelo Russell, took a flyer on Allen Crabbe, and added DeMarre Carroll all via trade, while acquiring multiple future picks. The Nets should be more fun to watch this year and, though they don’t own their pick in next year’s draft, they’ve got a much brighter outlook for the future.
New York Knicks
The Knicks’ summer was weird. They signed Tim Hardaway to a contract well above what anybody, including the Hawks, were willing to pay for him, which was, um… questionable. They mercifully got rid of Phil Jackson and traded Carmelo which is good because now they can rebuild around Kristaps Porzingis. However, this season will likely be rough at the Garden. At least the Knicks own their own pick next summer.
This year is what Sixers fans have been waiting for since Sam Hinkie came on board. The team has several top young draft picks in Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid combined with solid role guys like Dario Saric, Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell. They added veteran guard J.J. Redick on a massive one-year deal to provide a calming presence. This group has folks in Philly hyped for the season. The team is young and will make mistakes. But in this Eastern Conference, anything is possible.
The Raptors are running it back once more with the same core group. They brought back Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka this summer, keeping this feisty group capable of snagging the third seed in the conference. There has been a lot of talk out of the Great White North about the Raps playing a more modern, three-happy style this year, but that remains to be seen.
The Bulls are in Year 1 of a rebuild. They got rid of Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade (trade and buyout respectively) and are going to be playing a lot of young guys. Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, Zach Lavine (once he returns from ACL tear), Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine should all see significant time, so the front office can figure out what they have. It’ll be a long winter in the Windy City, but at least there’s a clear direction for the franchise after several years of failing to reload.
So things look a little different in Cleveland this year with no Kyrie Irving. But, honestly, the biggest story surrounding this team will be where LeBron will play next season. LeBron’s not going to give us an answer anytime soon, so the speculation will run rampant. But on the court, the Cavs introduce Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas and Dwyane Wade into their rotation in the hopes that they can help LeBron get over the massive mountain that is the Golden State Warriors.
The Pistons had a rough year in 2016-17, but they made a savvy move in plucking Avery Bradley from the Celtics when Boston needed to dump salary to sign Hayward. Bradley should help this team on both ends of the floor, but things for Stan Van Gundy’s team still largely rely on Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond living up to their massive deals. If they can, Detroit could make a playoff appearance.
Congratulations to the Pacers on making one of the more astounding moves of the summer… in a bad way. They traded superstar Paul George to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo’s albatross contract and young forward Domantas Sabonis. Sabonis is potentially a nice piece moving forward, but Oladipo hasn’t lived up to expectations so far in his career. Indiana reportedly had better offers on the table, but they chose the Thunder’s offer. Myles Turner is the guy to watch here, as he seems poised for a big leap in production now that he’ll be the offense’s focal point.
The Bucks are a lot of fun to watch, largely because of the extraterrestrial Giannis Antetokounmpo. Not much has changed in terms of roster turnover heading into this year, so expect the same hyperactive trapping defense from Jason Kidd’s group. They’ll get Jabari Parker back (hopefully fully healthy), sometime mid-year, and that should add some depth to what is currently a thin roster. The Bucks have top-four seed potential if things click.
Another team in the East that is hitting the reset button is Atlanta. The Hawks did a sign-and-trade this summer that sent Paul Millsap to Denver and traded Dwight Howard for peanuts. There are even already rumors of potential Kent Bazemore/Dennis Schroder trades. Still, a few guys remain who are fun to watch. Rookie forward John Collins is a monster on both sides of the floor, and Taurean Prince showed some flashes in spurts last year. Settle in and root for the young guys, Atlanta fans, they are your future.
The Hornets are the latest team to attempt to help Dwight Howard find his previous form. It’s Howard’s fourth team in the past five years so, that seems unlikely. But the team found Kemba Walker some help in the backcourt, adding Kentucky sharpshooter Malik Monk, who should light up the boxscore a couple times this year. Nicolas Batum will begin the season injured once again, which hurts because he was the team’s default secondary playmaker last year. In a wide-open East, the Hornets could surprise and make the playoffs, but they’ll need help from Dwight Howard.
The Heat were one of last year’s wilder stories, starting the year 11-30, before going 30-11 down the stretch and barely missing the playoffs. Pat Riley brought back the guys who helped key that run, paying Dion Waiters and James Johnson this summer. They, like the Pistons, took advantage of Boston’s need to clear cap space by picking up solid role player Kelly Olynyk to unlock some potentially intriguing small-ball lineups. In this conference, the Heat are a playoff team as constructed, with Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, Waiters, Johnson, and Justise Winslow, who will return from injury.
The Magic are still searching for a direction that they haven’t really had since that Finals run in 2009 with Dwight Howard. Their young guys haven’t really blossomed, and they’ve signed veterans to some bad contracts (Bismack Biyombo). The team also just brought in a new GM. Their pick in this year’s draft, Jonathan Isaac, has a ton of potential, and he alone is enough to make you want to watch this team for a few minutes. Add in Aaron Gordon, finally playing at his natural power forward position, and Frank Vogel’s coaching mastery, and there are some reasons for hope, just not this season necessarily.
The Wizards have dipped into the luxury tax for the first time ever after signing Otto Porter to a big deal and extending John Wall. Wall, Beal and Porter formed a nice trio last season in leading the Wiz to the brink of the conference finals. The same problems that existed with this team last year are still there this year. The biggest one is depth. After the starting five, you’ve got Kelly Oubre and Jodie Meeks off the bench. Then, you’re hoping for contributions from Mike Scott, Jason Smith, Devin Robinson, etc. The Wiz should once again be among the East’s elite, but they’ll need some luck to beat the Celtics or the Cavs.