In the wake of a dynamic offseason, the forecasted playoff outlook in each conference is murky at best. While powerhouses like the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers are certain mainstays, a host of newly revamped teams will compete against declining superstar teams for the remaining spots. With this in mind, I have assembled what I consider a realistic and early outlook of the upcoming season’s playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (64-18)
The reigning champions are a fairly easy choice to lead the East. A core that includes guard Kyrie Irving, forward LeBron James and forward Kevin Love gives the Cavs a chance to win every game, with sharpshooter guards JR Smith and Iman Shumpert waiting in the wings.
2. Toronto Raptors (60-22)
With perhaps the second best backcourt in the NBA, guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are fresh off their gold medal stint in Rio and are ready to lead the Raptors back to the Eastern Conference Finals. Forward Jared Sullinger will provide some timely and much-needed rebounding in the frontcourt.
3. Boston Celtics (58-24)
Priming for his third season in Boston, guard Isaiah Thomas still flies under the radar, but could garner more national attention with the pairing of free agent signing center Al Horford. Guard Marcus Smart will look to add to his defensive repertoire as Coach Brad Stevens looks to lead his group past the first round.
4. Indiana Pacers (52-30)
On paper, the Pacers have a very intimidating roster. Between guards Monta Ellis and Jeff Teague, forward Paul George and center Al Jefferson, the team has a very talented group of veterans. However, it is yet to be seen whether this amalgamation of talent will synchronize into a cohesive unit.
5. Washington Wizards (50-32)
The hometown team will make the greatest turnaround next season, as the additions of guard Trey Burke and center Ian Mahinmi provide much-needed depth for an otherwise barren bench. Guard John Wall will continue his all-star campaign as one of the premier guards in the league. But much of the Wizards’ success hinges on guard Bradley Beal’s ability to stay healthy and whether he and Wall can work together in the backcourt.
6. New York Knicks (46-36)
New York has assembled this team five years too late. New additions guard Derrick Rose and center Joakim Noah provide serviceable talent, but are now merely pedestrian compared to their respective MVP and defensive player of the year campaigns. Forwards Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis make this an interesting team, but I foresee chemistry issues inhibiting their success.
7. Chicago Bulls (43-39)
Before the season begins, Chicago needs to take a moment of silence for the spacing in the Madhouse. New additions guards Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade are less than stellar shooters. They join guard Jimmy Butler, who is already a mediocre shooter. With the loss of centers Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah, the Bulls will claw their way into the seventh seed on star-power alone.
8. Atlanta Hawks (42-40)
I would like to preface this decision by saying that the Hawks are fully capable of performing much better than the eighth seed. However, the loss of Teague and Horford will provide to be detrimental for an already declining team. The addition of center Dwight Howard is a good story, but I am done believing in Howard, as the locker room issues he brings are far too great to justify what semblance of his Orlando days he has left.
I had a difficult time leaving off teams like the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat, as all three teams recently held a spot in the playoffs. However, an active offseason and an abundance of trades have drastically shifted the power rankings, which is ultimately better for the association.
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