2015-2016 NBA Season Preview: The Eastern Conference

Lebron James and the Cavaliers during the 2015 NBA Finals

Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
It’s time for part 2 of my 2015-2016 NBA season preview.  You can read my preview of the Western Conference here.

Let’s tackle the burning questions for the Eastern Conference:

BURNING QUESTIONS
Q: The Cavs are clearly the favorites in the East. Right?
A: 
Presumably, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the favorites in the East and rightfully so, but there’s still some room for doubt.  First, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and Iman Shumphert are all currently injured and Tristan Thompson is still on sabbatical.

Second, Lebron James turns 31 in December and has an unreal amount of miles on his body.  How long can he realistically hold up without breaking down?  I wrote about why he would never surpass Michael Jordan in 2013, I talked about various high school phenoms that came into the NBA and when they started to decline.  All of them started declining around this age and most of them had significant knee injuries.  I’m not saying this is definite, but it’s cause for concern.

Third, the only upgrades they made to their flawed roster were Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson.  Granted, the Cavs had no flexibility and I like Mo Williams, but those aren’t exactly exciting prospects.  The criticisms and the questions surrounding Cleveland remain the same: 1) Can they stay healthy? You can just go ahead and assume Kyrie and Kevin Love will get injured again and frankly, let’s just not expect Varejao to be healthy in May. That’d be almost unprecedented.  2) Can they defend well enough?  I wrote them off last year in my NBA preview with this stat: Only 2 teams in the past 42 years have won an NBA title with a defensive rating outside of the top 10.  The Cavaliers were 18th last season.  They have to prove they can defend before I start believing they’ll win a championship.  But the East? I have to say, yes, they are the favorites and likely will win the East barring something crazy happening (like Lebron going through a funky decline or getting injured).

Q: Are there any other viable contenders in the East?
A: 
Sure.  Any one of the Bulls, Heat, Hawks, Raptors, Bucks, or Wizards could surprise us.  By the way, if you’re counting we’ve now mentioned 7 teams as a possible contender in the East.  The East may be a real battle this season and a lot of fun to watch.  Out of all the teams in the East, Miami has the biggest range.  If healthy, they could be anywhere between 2 and 13 and I wouldn’t be surprised.  After watching them live last week, I’m still baffled by what they could be.  However, Chris Bosh looked awesome, Wade will be Wade, and Dragic is a really good player.  Their bench is shaky (they were LITERALLY running every single play through Amare Stoudemire for some reason), but Gerald Green is an electric scorer who could carry them for stretches or start if Wade is injured. I like their roster, but I’m not sold on them.  

Another team that could make some noise is Boston.  I’m one of Isaiah Thomas’ biggest fans (and think he’s the most underrated player in the entire league).  I like Avery Bradley, I like coach Brad Stevens, and David Lee was a nice pickup.  They have a young and interesting roster. It’ll be interesting to see where they end up at the end of the season.

But let’s put it this way: I’m only sold on one of those teams contending with the Cavaliers: The Toronto Raptors.  Am I crazy? Probably.  But they had a quietly good offseason.  Lowry seems to be focused and ready for this season.  They still have Demar DeRozan and with Lowry makes a very nice backcourt and possibly one of the best in the league. Demarre Carroll was a sneaky nice pickup and adds to their depth at the wing AND gives them someone who can defend Lebron.  They brought in Anthony Bennett, who is from Canada, and I feel like this is the perfect system for him. In the FIBA Americas tournament, I watched him with Canada and thought he looked comfortable as a stretch four.  Toronto likes to use stretch fours like Patrick Patterson.  He might fit right in!  I loved the Cory Joseph signing as a backup point guard and Bismack Biyombo may give them defense off the bench and a decent rim protector.  I’m sold on Toronto.

Q: Who’s your “nerd NBA” team to watch in the East?
A: 
I have to pick two actually: 1) Charlotte Hornets and 2) Orlando Magic.

Charlotte is interesting.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they were a top 3 or 4 team in the East or they crumbled somehow and made the lottery. I loved the moves they made adding Nic Batum (one of my favorite non-Bulls to watch).  I loved the drafting  of Frank Kaminsky – who as Baseline Buzz suggests could be what Josh McRoberts was for them, but better – and is a legitimate offensive weapon for a team that badly needed offense.  The trade for Jeremy Lamb and Spencer Hawes gives them additional shooting and Jeremy Lin was a quiet, but nice signing.  I think the Hornets have an interesting team that could be a playoff team.

Orlando is truly a nerdy pick.  I actually saw them live in Louisville last week against Miami for preseason action and I was excited.  I love the backcourt of Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo.  Tobias Harris is a quality player and can play both SF and PF given the right matchup.  Aaron Gordon will probably play a lot, but he needs to play well.  I wonder how he’s improved? He’s had a couple of injuries that may have hampered his development, but they don’t have a lot of depth and need him.  Nikola Vucevic is as talented a big man as there is in the league and should provide some much needed offense and rebounding. I also like their bench with Channing Frye, CJ Watson, and Evan Fournier propping it up.

But the real reason I’m stoked for the Orlando Magic? SUPER MARIO HEZONJA! I’m in. I love the kid. Watch the video below for his Summer League highlights:

He has an awesome and versatile skillset.  Seeing him live in Louisville, I noticed two things: 1) He has a ton of confidence.  He actually committed an offensive foul against Amare Stoudemire and had some words with him in that game. I loved it.  2)  He has a high basketball IQ.  You can see in the video above there were times the he made some clever passes.  That wasn’t an anomaly.  He is very aware of what’s happening on the court and makes good decisions.  His skillset and demeanor reminds me of the great Detlef Schrempf. He’s not as tall as Schrempf, but he has that shooting stroke and is versatile like Detlef Schrempf was.  I’m super excited for Super Mario.

Q: You’ve made it a billion words without writing ANYTHING about the Bulls?! You were a Bulls blogger! 99.9% of your audience is Bulls fans! What do you think about the Bulls?!
A: 
Okay fine.  Let’s talk about the Bulls.  What is there to say? A new year, a new coach, the same roster, and the same questions and expectations: The Bulls can win the East, but can they stay healthy?  New questions have presented themselves as well such as: Can Hoiberg find success as an NBA coach (I think yes)?  Can Joakim Noah resemble the guy that was fourth in MVP voting two years ago?  How exactly does Hoiberg distribute the minutes for five deserving big men (Noah/Gasol/Mirotic/Gibson/Portis)?  Do the Bulls even need Taj Gibson anymore and if so, would Gar/Pax pull the trigger on a trade?  If the Bulls make a trade, will the universe collapse?  All legitimate questions.

The key, as always, to a Bulls championship run is Derrick Rose and let’s just say I’m not optimistic after he broke his face on the very first play of practice.  However, the narrative has changed on D-Rose and he’s not the most important factor in a Bulls championship run.  The team is more talented and prepared than ever before.  D-Rose is most needed because the Bulls failed to land a quality backup point guard.  Hinrich was washed up last season and has looked okay I guess this preseason, but he’s also battling injuries (as always).  I love E’Twaun Moore and think he’s a great fit for this team, but if Rose were to get hurt, could he step in and be that starting point guard? I don’t know.  Aaron Brooks looks like an awkward fit in “Hoiball” and his size really restricts how useful he is.  If the Bulls were to trade Taj Gibson, could they land an adequate backup point guard?  Probably, but are the Bulls willing and is there anyone out there? Probably not on both counts.

Fortunately, as I wrote on ChiBullsZone.com, Jimmy Butler has taken on the role of “leader” and made the Bulls his team.  Butler is in the driver’s seat and he will ultimately push the Bulls this season.  I’m very skeptical the Bulls can make noise in the East and win it. How many years have we projected this team to win the East “if healthy?”  At some point, we just have to admit they’ll never be healthy and no matter how much promise the season holds, it’s not going to happen.  This has also been said before, but this is definitely the final year for this core (Noah is a free agent and Pau Gasol can be too).  I’m not sure they have enough to win it, but who knows?  They’re actually playing a real NBA offense now so that helps. If anything, they’ll be fun to watch.

Players to Watch

  1. Stanley Johnson (Detroit Pistons): He had a fantastic Summer League and looks like the real deal. The Pistons are particularly weak at small forward, so I think he could find starters minutes there. I think he was a steal and will be a nice player in this league. Looking forward to watching him.
  2. Paul George (Indiana Pacers): He’s been doing a lot of griping about playing power forward, but more importantly, I want to see how he looks coming off that horrific injury.  From what I’ve seen of him, he looks about the same.  If he can be the guy he was before, the Pacers have a shot at making some noise in the East.
  3. Kristaps Porzingis (New York Knicks): He’s a 7’1″ small forward that got booed when he was announced on draft night and is eating 3 steaks a day to avoid becoming the next Shawn Bradley.  From what I’ve seen of him, he looks pretty good. I think he’ll have a nice year for the Knicks and could have a nice career ahead of him. I like his skillset, his size, and what he brings to the table. A lot of upside there.

Playoff Teams

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers
  2. Toronto Raptors
  3. Chicago Bulls
  4. Miami Heat
  5. Milwaukee Bucks
  6. Boston Celtics
  7. Atlanta Hawks
  8. Washington Wizards

That’s it for my 2015-2016 NBA Preview. Enjoy this season basketball fans!

Brandon Pence is the founder and former editor of the Chicago Bulls blog “The Bulls Charge.”  Follow him on Twitter

Proverbs 2:1-9

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