Halftime Sports

NBA Eastern Conference Preview

October 23, 2017

Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE
  1. Cleveland Cavaliers

Notable additions: Isaiah Thomas (Trade from BOS), Dwyane Wade (Free-agent), Derrick Rose (Free-agent), Jae Crowder (Trade from Boston), Jeff Green (Free-agent)

Notable departures: Kyrie Irving (trade to BOS)

X-Factor: Tristan Thompson

No team in the East improved more over the offseason than Cleveland. This team steamrolled through the East and reached its third consecutive NBA Finals last year, and added the likes of Lebron James’s favorite teammate, Dwyane Wade, and former-MVP Derrick Rose. Rose looked fresh in the preseason, and everyone in the league knows what Wade can do in the playoffs. While the Cavs might have lost their best closer in Kyrie Irving, they added someone who knows a thing or two about scoring in the fourth-quarter: Isaiah Thomas. Given the multiple additions and just one departure, it might take some time for Cleveland to pin-down its rotation. But once they do, the Cavs, with all of their added depth, will again be the team to beat in the East. And, yes, the greatest player in the world still wears the red and yellow. It’s the Cavaliers’ conference; everyone else is just living in it.

  1. Boston Celtics

Notable additions: Kyrie Irving (trade from CLE), Marcus Morris (trade from DET), Gordon Hayward (Free-agent), Jason Taytum (Draft),

Notable departures: Isaiah Thomas (trade to CLE), Avery Bradley (trade to DET)

X-Factor: Jaylen Brown

Having already landed this summer’s most coveted free agent in Gordon Hayward, Danny Ainge shocked the entire NBA when he capitalized on Kyrie Irving’s dissatisfaction with his role on the Cavaliers. Trading away Isaiah Thomas, who many viewed as the heart of the team, Ainge set up his franchise for future success in the form of a young superstar that is ready to move out of the shadow of one of the greatest players of all time. The absence of Avery Bradley poses a significant challenge for the Celtics on the defensive end. Without one of the best in the league at defending guards playing alongside him, Kyrie Irving will have to assume the responsibility of trying to slow down the likes of John Wall, Kyle Lowry, and Kemba Walker on a nightly basis in the eastern conference. Beyond the new additions, one constant from last season stands out. If Jaylen Brown can continue to improve his play, the Celtics could potentially have the best starting lineup in the east. Coming out of a preseason showing that flashed brilliant ball movement and great shot selection, the Celtics seem poised to go toe to toe with LeBron James and his Cavaliers.  

  1. Washington Wizards

Notable additions: Tim Frazier (trade from NO)

Notable departures: Bojan Bogdanovic (Free-agent), Brandon Jennings (Free-agent)

X-Factor: Kelly Oubre Jr.

With other top teams in the conference making multiple moves to add key pieces to their rotations, the Wizards took a much different approach. The team locked down the services of franchise-point guard John Wall and deadeye-shooter Otto Porter, offering both maximum contract extensions. After signing Bradley Beal to a max contract last summer, Washington has locked down its core for years to come. However, the Wizards made no effort to beef up their bench, which ranked 29th in scoring in the NBA last season, averaging just 26.6 points per game. The loss of Bogdanovic certainly won’t help, and the franchise is now placing the fate of its bench in the hands of Kelly Oubre Jr., a lanky-wing with a serviceable three-point jumper. If Oubre reaches the ceiling that many project for him, the Wizards could surprise some teams in the playoffs and reach the conference finals for the first time since 1978-79.  

  1. Toronto Raptors

Notable additions: C.J Miles (Sign and Trade from IND)

Notable departures: DeMarre Carroll (Trade to BKN)

X-Factor: Serge Ibaka

The Raptors seem to be able to compete with any team in the eastern conference, except the Cavaliers. After getting swept last season, Toronto added C.J Miles in the offseason, a player that can provide length and spacing, something the Raptors desperately need. Getting rid of DeMarre Carroll was a move applauded by many fans that had become frustrated with his bloated contract and underwhelming performance. Serge Ibaka, once the consensus pick for the best rim protector in the league, needs to step up if Toronto wishes to become a top ten team in defensive rating. If Ibaka can return to form on the defensive end and continue to space the floor with his improved outside shooting, the Raptors will maximize their potential this season. Without a reemergence from Ibaka, Toronto is in the same position it was last year: destined for a second round exit at the hands of either Boston or Cleveland.

  1. Miami Heat

Notable additions: Kelly Olynyk (Free agent), Bam Adebayo (Draft)

Notable departures: Josh McRoberts (Trade to DAL)

X-Factor: Dion Waiters

The Heat’s historic turnaround during the second half of last season makes them one of the most intriguing teams in the east. Will we see the team that went 11-30 or the team that went 30-11? With the addition of two skilled big men, Olynyk and Adebayo, Miami boasts a formidable frontcourt headlined by Hassan Whiteside. While Whiteside and Goran Dragic are all but guaranteed to produce at All Star levels, the success of the Heat might largely depend on Dion Waiters. Hitting clutch shot after clutch shot and striking a few iconic poses, Waiters assured Heat fans that they had found their new go to player in crunch time. It is up to Waiters to prove that last season, the team’s performance, and his own, was not just a fluke. In a somewhat bloated backcourt rotation consisting of Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington, Waiters must show his true potential.

  1. Milwaukee Bucks

Notable additions: None

Notable departures: Michael Beasley

X-Factor: Jabari Parker

The Bucks enter the 2017-18 season with a squad that is essentially identical to the team that took them to last year’s playoffs. The good news? Giannis Antetokounmpo is a year older and looks even more freakishly good than last year. Jabari Parker has also proven himself to be a strong presence on the wing, posting 20.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game last season before tearing his ACL. The bad news? There’s not much else on the roster to complement the Greek Freak, and Parker is chronically battling injury. Malcolm Brogdon proved he could play consistent NBA minutes last season, and Khris Middleton, who is currently in year three of a 5-year, $70 million deal, can provide a consistent 15 points per game. But the Bucks proved they could make waves in the East last season, and they’ll have to hope Parker, when healthy, can provide them the extra bump they need to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

  1. Charlotte Hornets

Notable additions: Dwight Howard (Trade from ATL), Malik Monk (Draft)

Notable departures: Marco Belinelli (Trade to ATL)

X-Factor: Dwight Howard

The Hornets had an underwhelming season last year, but they can take comfort in the fact that it allowed them to draft Malik Monk. Monk has the potential to become one of the greatest shooters in the league as his career unfolds and could wind up being a franchise player. For now though, Kemba Walker will continue to run the show in Charlotte, most likely turning in another All Star level year of production. The team can either rise or fall in the rankings depending on the play of Dwight Howard. It’s hard to imagine, but just five years ago Howard was considered the best big man in the NBA. Howard must understand his role as a pick-and-roll player and defensive anchor. If he can excel at those two areas without worrying about post touches and causing chemistry issues, the Hornets may jump up in the standings.

  1. Detroit Pistons

Notable additions: Avery Bradley (trade from BOS), Luke Kennard (Draft)

Notable departures: Marcus Morris (trade to BOS)

X-Factor: Stanley Johnson

On paper, the Pistons are about as average as it gets. In the East, however, that means a playoff spot. Detroit boasts the league’s second-best rebounder, Andre Drummond (13.8 rebounds per game in 2016-17), an elite wing defender in Avery Bradley, and a bright young guard in Stanley Johnson. In an era dominated by big names and super teams, Detroit isn’t going anywhere fast, but they are in perfect position to hover anywhere from sixth to tenth in the East for the next three to four years. If Johnson, who averaged just 4.4 points in 17.8 minutes per game last year, can figure out his shooting stroke, the Pistons might be able to ease their way off the bubble. But that’s a huge if, and I wouldn’t count on it just yet.

  1. Philadelphia 76ers

Notable additions: Markelle Fultz (Draft), J.J. Redick (Free Agent)

Notable departures: none

X-Factor: Joel Embiid

Trusting the process has never felt so good (if you’re a delusional Philadelphia sports fan). The team Philadelphia has put together after several years of being the NBA’s laughingstock looks promising for the future. Twitter legend and versatile faceup center Joel Embiid, sensational point-forward Ben Simmons, and crafty guard Markelle Fultz are a three-pronged sword that, given ample time to develop, could become an elite trio. But Embiid has been plagued with injuries in his short career, and Fultz’s free throw form makes me wonder what else is lacking in his game. The addition of three-point shooter J.J. Redick and emergence of Robert Covington should help Philly put more points on the board, something they desperately need considering opponents outscored them by an average of six points per game last season. Check back in three years to see if The Process worked; it’s not time to rejoice just yet.

  1. Orlando Magic

Notable additions: Jonathan Isaac (Draft), Arron Afflalo (Free Agent)

Notable departures: Jeff Green (Free Agent)

X-Factor: Aaron Gordon

The Magic seem to be headed nowhere. Their win total last year suffered a dip from the year prior and their rebuild has no direction. Nevertheless, the team has a decent core of young players such as Isaac, Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton, and Gordon. Gordon, in particular, has the most potential to lead the team. He has already shocked the basketball world with his dunk contest showings. Now it’s time for him to show off a complete skill set and help the Magic finish its rebuild.

  1. Indiana Pacers

Notable additions: Victor Oladipo (trade from OKC), Bojan Bogdanovic (free-agent)

Notable departures: Paul George (trade to OKC), Monta Ellis (waived), Jeff Teague (free-agent)

X-Factor: Myles Turner

A team that struggled to remain relevant even with Paul George just lost their franchise player and starting point guard, replacing the two with an average shooting guard and bench forward. That’s not exactly ideal. Indiana doesn’t have much going for it at this point, but Myles Turner could turn heads this season. His combination of size and athleticism can stretch the floor somewhat, yet the Pacers lack a consistent driving presence. It’s going to be a long, offensive struggle for Indy this year.

  1. Atlanta Hawks

Notable additions: None

Notable departures: Paul Millsap (Free Agent), Dwight Howard (Trade to CHA)

X-Factor: Dennis Schröder

The Hawks finished their deconstruction of the roster by trading Dwight and letting Millsap walk in free agency. The team is headed for the lottery and has begun a new rebuild around Dennis Schröder, who seems to be the franchise point guard of the future.

  1. New York Knicks

Notable additions: Enes Kanter (trade from OKC), Doug McDermott (trade from OKC), Michael Beasley (free-agent), Tim Hardaway Jr. (free-agent)

Notable departures: Carmelo Anthony (trade to OKC)

X-Factor: Kristaps Porzingis

On the surface, the Knicks new-look roster is terrible. They are without one of the NBA’s premier scorers in Carmelo Anthony. But Anthony’s departure, coupled with Phil Jackson agreeing to leave the team’s front office, might set the scene for a true rebuild in New York. The Knicks will have $20 million to work with before hitting the salary cap after this year, and, using this year’s salary cap figures, over $50 million at their disposal entering the 2019-2020 season. Given the Knicks don’t splurge on any unnecessary pieces and fans are willing to ride these next two years of mediocrity out, the Knicks and their lone-star, Kristaps Porzingis, are in a great position for the future.  

  1. Brooklyn Nets

Notable additions: D’Angelo Russell (Trade from LAL)

Notable departures: Brook Lopez (Trade to LAL)

X Factor: Starting Backcourt

The Nets have a dynamic backcourt in Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell. Letting go of Brook Lopez’s contract was a smart move for a franchise that is slowly recuperating from the awful Celtics trade that handicapped its future. They may not win many games, but the combo of Lin and Russell should provide some exciting highlights.

  1. Chicago Bulls

Notable additions: Zach Lavine (Trade from MIN), Kris Dunn (Trade from MIN)

Notable departures: Jimmy Butler (Trade to MIN), Dwyane Wade (Bought Out), Rajon Rondo (Free Agent)

X Factor: Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez

The Bulls are in full-on tank mode. The fans have completely turned on the front office after they traded Butler for scraps and essentially gave Jordan Bell to the Warriors so that they could pay Dwyane Wade to play for Cleveland. With Cameron Payne at the helm of the tank job in Chicago, it will be a rough year for Chicago basketball. Until Lavine heals from his ACL injury, Mirotic and Lopez will most likely be the only competent players on the roster.


Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE

Tyler Pearre
Maryland native and D.C. sports fan. Forever romanticizing the days of Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas circa 2007.

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