Believe it or not the NBA season is nearly upon us. After an offseason chock full of free-agent drama, it’s time for teams to actually take to the court. With that in mind, we preview the league, giving an overview of what each team can expect this season. They break down into four categories: the elite, playoff contenders, on the rise and rebuilding. Let’s dive into the East, where some upstart young squads are looking to challenge the defending world champion Cleveland Cavaliers for conference supremacy.
Cleveland Cavaliers – 57-25 last season (1st in East)
The cream of the crop — LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers head into the 2016-17 expecting to win another championship, and there’s no reason to think they can’t do exactly that.
That being said, there are some key questions surrounding the 2016-17 Cavaliers. Although LeBron looks like an unstoppable force and is a physical specimen, he’s 31 and will be 32 by the time the year comes to a close. On top of that, he’s played A LOT of basketball. Thirteen NBA seasons (going into his 14th) is a lot of wear and tear to put on anybody.
On top of that, this will be Tyronn Lue’s first full season as the head man in Cleveland. He proved more than capable during the second half of the year for the Cavs, but keeping your team ready to play and managing a roster for 82 games is a different story.
Strength – The Big 3 – One member of the Cavaliers’ big three might be viewed slightly less favorably than the other two, but he’ll be just as big of a component for the Cavs if they’re going to make a run at a championship in 2016-17.
Kyrie Irving is just 24 years old and should only be better, and LeBron can be counted on to be the world’s best player every night.
Weakness – Center – While Timofey Mozgov was far from a vital member of the Cavs in their playoff run, he was instrumental to their success throughout the regular season. On top of that, the Cavs lost Anderson Varejao and could potentially run into some issues against opponents with dominant centers.
Toronto Raptors – 56-25 last season (2nd in East)
The Raptors have cleared an impressive number of organizational hurdles over the last few years, vaulting from an afterthought of a franchise to a yearly contender. It’s been no small feat for management to pull this off, and as a result, ownership has extended the contracts of two of the main men behind the team’s success, GM Masai Ujiri and coach Dwane Casey.
Now, after advancing to the Eastern Conference finals and playing the Cavaliers tight in six games, the Raptors have one more great big hill to climb.
Strength – Guard Play – This shouldn’t come as a shock to NBA fans, but the Raptors starting guards, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, are second to none. Per NBA.com, the duo averaged 44.7 ppg, 9.2 rpg and 10.4 apg, and both made the Eastern Conference’s All-Star team. This team goes, as Lowry and DeRozan go.
Weakness – Injuries – Last year the Raptors lost DeMarre Carroll for much of the year with a knee injury that might just be recurring and lost center Jonas Valanciunas in the middle of their playoff run. The Raptors at full strength would be hard pressed to beat the Cavaliers, but without anyone in their starting five it’s essentially impossible. They’ll need key cogs to stay healthy throughout the season and most importantly the postseason to continue last year’s success in 2016-17.
Boston Celtics – 48-34 last season (5th in East)
After a few years of rebuilding once their big three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen moved on to less-Celtic green pastures, Boston is ready to compete with the big dogs in the East once again.
Coach Brad Stevens got the most out of his team both years he’s been in the league and now has his best roster yet. The combination of coaching, talent and timing all seem to be coming together for Boston in 2016-17.
Strength – Coaching, Brad Stevens – In just three years in the league, Stevens has morphed into one of the best coaches league-wide for the job he’s done with a young Celtics squad. His calm demeanor and innate knowledge of the game gives the Celtics a leg up over most teams before the game even begins.
Weakness – Youth – The youthful exuberance that has the basketball world so excited about the Celtics could also be the potentially dangerous team’s undoing. According to RealGM.com, only the 76ers have a younger average roster age than the Celtics, who’s average is 24.9 years old. If there’s any man that can get these young stars to mature quickly, it’s coach Stevens. On top of that, Al Horford’s veteran presence in the starting lineup should also help move this team along maturity wise.
Atlanta Hawks – 48-34 last season (4th in East)
The Hawks will look much different in 2016 without Al Horford, than in years past. Taking Horford’s place is local boy Dwight Howard, who’s looking to regain his place among the NBA’s top centers.
Strength – Defense – Last year the Hawks were one of the stingiest defensive units in the NBA, ranking second in defensive efficiency (98.8) behind on the San Antonio Spurs. Now, with Dwight Howard protecting the rim, the Hawks could be poised to have an even better defense.
Weakness – Guards – It’s probably unfair to label the Hawks’ guards as a weakness — perhaps potential weakness would be more apt — but there is some cause for concern. After lighting the league up from three in the 2014-15 season, Kyle Korver was nowhere near the force he was from outside last season and actually shot under 40 percent from downtown for the first time since his 2008-09 season with the Utah Jazz. Additionally, Dennis Schroder, who is still raw and will need time to develop into an NBA-caliber starting point guard, could hamper the Hawks in the early going.
Miami Heat – 48-34 last season (3rd in East)
Dwyane Wade is out, and it’s a whole new Miami Heat team from the days of the big three. They’re young, looking to play some up-tempo basketball and could be one of the more exciting teams in the Eastern Conference to watch from night to night.
Strength – Coaching – Miami’s continuity these days comes from head coach Erik Spoelstra, who has proven that he’s one of the best in the business, whether LeBron James is in his corner or not. He might just have his toughest coaching job yet ahead of him, with lots of young and new faces on his roster.
Weakness – Chemistry – There’s a lot of talent on this Miami Heat team but how, and whether it can all come together will be the biggest questions for them throughout the year. Those were questions asked about the Heat back when the big three first came to town, and they managed just fine. So hopefully for the Heat coach Spoelstra can push all the right buttons this time around as well.
Charlotte Hornets – 48-34 last season (6th in East)
After a 48-win season that surprised many around the NBA, the Hornets won’t be sneaking up on anybody this year. Can they turn last year’s success into a lengthy playoff run in 2016-17?
Strength – Well-Rounded – The Hornets are pretty good at everything. They were a top-10 defensive team in 2015-16, top 10 in three point percentage, top 15 in rebounding and fell just outside the top 10 in overall scoring. They’re roster is rock solid, and they’re not ripe for the picking on either end of the floor.
Weakness – Center – While Cody Zeller has been solid, the Hornets need more from him this season if they’re going to get past the first round of the playoffs. Roy Hibbert’s grasp on the starting center position is tenuous, and most in Charlotte are hoping Zeller does enough to win the job from him.
Detroit Pistons – 44-38 last season (8th in East)
Detroit is one of many upstart teams in the Eastern Conference looking to take the next step this season after a playoff berth. Led by Andre Drummond and head coach and president Stan Van Gundy, the fledgling Pistons are a team to watch in 2016-17.
Strength – Coaching – Stan Van Gundy has had the opportunity to craft this team has given himself quite an arsenal of young talent to work with. Obviously Drummond is the superstar of the bunch, but Van Gundy has proven that he can get the most out of his young team and should be able to maximize their output in year three of his tenure.
Weakness – Shooting – Detroit’s offense left something to be desired last year. They finished shooting just 43.9 percent from the field, good for 25th in the NBA. That number will have to improve if Detroit’s going to make and escape the first round of the playoffs this season.
Chicago Bulls – 42-40 last season (9th in East)
The Derrick Rose era is over, but Bulls fans have a lot to look forward to going into the season. Key free-agent acquisitions Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo and first-round draft pick Denzel Valentine, a standout at Michigan State, should keep the Bulls competitive.
Strength – Experienced Stars – Wade and Rondo bring this Bulls team a wealth of championship experience, which they’ll need with Pau Gasol fleeing to San Antonio. These two can help further the development of Jimmy Butler and Valentine and help instill a winning attitude sooner than later.
Weakness – Shooting Range – Outside of Wade and Butler, the Bulls severely lack quality outside shooters. Rondo’s limitations from a shooting perspective are well documented by this point, leaving the 34-year-old Wade and Butler as the Bulls’ primary perimeter threats.
On The Rise
Indiana Pacers – 45-37 last season (7th in East)
Even though the firing of coach Frank Vogel still doesn’t sit well, it’s hard not to believe that this Pacers team will be better than the one that won 45 games last season. With Paul George’s game back in form, Jeff Teague joining the fray and a supposedly “rededicated” Monta Ellis, this Indiana team has the makings of a fourth or fifth seed in the East again, capable of doing some damage come playoff time.
Strength – Paul George – George is one of the best two-way players in the game, and last year was a triumph for him on the court. Now is George’s time to really shine in Indiana and lead this team to a deep playoff run.
Weakness – Secondary Scoring – In a league built around big threes and fours, the Pacers really only seem to have a big one in George. Teague, a rejuvenated Ellis and Thaddeus Young are all good players in their own right, but there’s no Robin to George’s Batman in Indiana this year.
Washington Wizards – 41-41 last season (10th in East)
By any measure the Wizards underachieved last season and will be looking to turn things around under new coach Scott Brooks. They have the talent, and Brooks can get his teams to perform. So this could be a much better year than 2015-16 for the Wizards.
Strength – Backcourt – Personal strife can turn a dominant backcourt tandem into a dreadful one, as we’ve seen with the talented yet often at odds Bradley Beal and John Wall. But these are two of the best in the business. Players who have played for Brooks all seemed to love having him as their coach so there’s no reason to think Brooks can’t calm these two and get them on the same page.
Weakness – Defense – Injuries crushed the Wizards last season, but so did defensive inefficiency. The Wizards were 21st in the league in points allowed, allowing an average of 104.6 points per game. Opponents shot over 46 percent from the field against them. They’ll have to improve on the defensive side of the ball if they want to return to the playoffs.
Orlando Magic – 35-47 last season (11th in East)
The Magic have been irrelevant in the East for the better part of the decade. But they now have the players and coach to actually be competitive this season. In fact, one could argue that the Magic could get a No. 7 or 8 seed if they stay healthy and buy into what Frank Vogel is selling.
Strength – Frontcourt – The Magic boast an embarrassment of riches in Bismack Biyombo, Serge Ibaka, Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green. Vogel will be able to use them to help buoy the team’s backcourt, which lacks any real star power.
Weakness – Backcourt – As mentioned, the backcourt really leaves something to be desired and could be an issue for the Magic throughout the year.
New York Knicks – 32-50 last season (13th in East)
It was a busy offseason for Phil Jackson and the Knicks. And the end result is a completely overhauled roster surrounding star forward Carmelo Anthony. As there have been for quite a few years now, there are many more questions surrounding the Knicks than there are answers.
Strength – Scoring – With Carmelo Anthony leading the charge, Kristaps Porzingis’s range and ability to score both in and out of the paint along with Derrick Rose at point, the Knicks should be able to shoot the lights out against even the stingiest defensive squads.
Weakness – Injuries – The Knicks’ starting five could be among the best in the league… if they can stay healthy. Every single player in their starting rotation has had a history of injuries or has injury concerns surrounding them. If the Knicks can stay healthy, they’ll likely find their way into the playoffs, but that’s about the biggest ‘if’ of any.
Philadelphia 76ers – 10-72 last season (15th in East)
Trust the process. Those words rang hollow for years, but now-departed GM Sam Hinkie’s vision is beginning to come into focus. The 76ers have a wealth of talent heading into 2016, and there should be some visible improvement this year for the first time in a long time.
Strength – Young Talent – This one’s pretty obvious. Even though Ben Simmons is hurt, Joel Embiid is finally ready to play. Dario Saric has arrived in the U.S. and Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor round out the fruits of the labor of tanking for the last handful of seasons.
Weakness – Unproven/Inexperienced – The disclaimer that follows right behind “young talent” is that they always have a lot to prove. This bunch in Philadelphia is no different and has their work cut out for them. They basically have to start validating years and years of tanking by winning/showing potential on the hardwood. No pressure, guys.
Milwaukee Bucks – 33-49 last season (12th in East)
The Bucks seem like a team in transition in 2016-17. While there are bright spots on their roster in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Miles Plumlee, almost everybody else in their starting five has a serious question mark next to them heading into the year.
Strength – “The Greek Freak” – If you’re looking for a reason to tune into Bucks games throughout this year’s campaign, it’s Antetokounmpo. The 21-year-old budding superstar put up monster numbers last year and is a triple-double threat on any given night.
Weakness – Three-Point Shooting – The Bucks are built to dominate in the frontcourt, and as a result, they finished last in the NBA in 2015-16 in three-pointers per game. They don’t have many shooters capable of connecting on the long ball, and in today’s NBA, that’s a problem. They really didn’t do anything to address the issue either, and their leading three-point shooter, Khris Middleton, will likely miss most, if not all of the season due to a torn hamstring suffered in preseason workouts.
Brooklyn Nets – 21-61 last season (14th in East)
An abysmal 2015-16 campaign for the Nets might just be the beginning of things. The Nets have an abundance of issues at key positions, and rookie head coach Kenny Atkinson will likely have his hands full in year one trying to get the Nets to remain competitive on a nightly basis.
Strength – Center – Brook Lopez is about the only real strength you can point to on this Nets roster. They have some nice options outside of Lopez but nobody worth writing home about. Lopez is the core of this team and off of arguably the best year of his career in 2015-16. He’ll have to go above and beyond that if the Nets are going to be competitive this season.
Weakness – Talent – It seems harsh, but the Nets truly just lack the talent to compete. Hopefully for the Nets and their fans their first-round draft selection Caris LeVert can get healthy and perform at a high enough level to present some optimism in Brooklyn heading into 2017-18.