The NBA’s prohibitive title favorite is in the Western Conference, but the defending champions still reside in the East.
That’d be the Cleveland Cavaliers, who rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the 2016 NBA Finals to shock the Golden State Warriors. Not surprisingly, the Cavs remain the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, as LeBron James has virtually his same supporting cast coming back.
But several teams could challenge Cleveland for the East crown, including the Boston Celtics, who added All-Star forward Al Horford to a team that won 48 games last season.
So, how will the East shake out? Let’s break it down by division, with each team’s projected 2016-17 record and overall seed in the East in parentheses.
1. Toronto Raptors (Projected record: 52-30; Projected overall seed: 2nd)
Key Additions: Jared Sullinger (free agency), Jakob Poeltl (draft)
Key Departures: Luis Scola (free agency), Bismack Biyombo (free agency)
Skinny: With their All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan still intact, the Raptors should be right back near the top of the East after their strong 2015-16 campaign. But Scola and Biyombo won’t be easy to replace, and Sullinger must prove himself after an up-and-down tenure in Boston.
2. Boston Celtics (50-32; 3rd)
Key Additions: Al Horford (free agent), Jaylen Brown (draft)
Key Departures: Evan Turner (free agency)
Skinny: The Celtics lost the Kevin Durant sweepstakes, but Horford still is a very solid addition who should fit well in Brad Stevens’ pace-and-space system. Add in a motivated Isaiah Thomas and a solid core led by Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley, and the C’s should be a 50-win team this season.
3. New York Knicks (36-48, 11th)
Key Additions: Derrick Rose (trade), Joakim Noah (free agency)
Key Departures: Robin Lopez (trade), Jerian Grant (free agency), Jose Calderon (trade)
Skinny: On paper, New York’s starting five of Rose, Courtney Lee, Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Joakim Noah looks potent. But the Knicks still have no depth, and it’s only a matter of time before egos collide and this team self-implodes.
4. Philadelphia 76ers (25-57, 14th)
Key Additions: Ben Simmons (draft)
Key Departures: None
Skinny: “The Process” yielded another highly-touted No. 1 pick in Simmons, who promptly suffered a stress fracture in his foot and will miss at least a few months. On the bright side, at least Joel Embiid finally is playing.
5. Brooklyn Nets (20-62, 15th)
Key Additions: Jeremy Lin (free agency), Randy Foye (free agency), Luis Scola (free agency)
Key Departures: Joe Johnson (buyout), Jarrett Jack (buyout)
Skinny: The Nets are going to be very bad this season, and even their own players know it. That’s good news for Celtics fans, though.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25, 1st)
Key Additions: Chris Andersen (free agency), Mike Dunleavy (free agency)
Key Departures: Matthew Dellavedova (free agency)
Skinny: It’s pretty much the same cast of characters in Cleveland, making the Cavs the clear favorite in the East behind head coach Tyronn Lue and player/coach LeBron James.
2. Indiana Pacers (46-36, 4th)
Key Additions: Jeff Teague (trade), Al Jefferson (free agency), Thaddeus Young (trade)
Key Departures: George Hill (trade)
Skinny: The Pacers quietly had themselves a solid offseason and now have a deep team that could bring Jefferson off the bench behind exciting 20-year-old big man Myles Turner. If Paul George stays healthy, Indiana could be a team to be reckoned with.
3. Detroit Pistons (45-37, 7th)
Key Additions: Ish Smith (free agency), Jon Leuer (free agency)
Key Departures: Jodie Meeks (trade)
Skinny: Stan Van Gundy is building a solid team in Detroit that won 17 of its final 28 games last season after trading for big man Tobias Harris. Reggie Jackson missing the first first six to eight weeks with a knee injury isn’t ideal, but the Pistons should improve on their 44-win campaign.
4. Chicago Bulls (44-38, 6th)
Key Additions: Dwyane Wade (free agent), Rajon Rondo (free agent), Robin Lopez (trade)
Key Departures: Derrick Rose (trade), Joakim Noah (trade), Tony Snell (trade)
Skinny: Like a better version of the Knicks, the new-look Bulls boast an impressive starting five and should be intriguing to watch. But even if Jimmy Butler continues to shine, we don’t trust Rondo and an aging Wade to bring this team anywhere past a first-round playoff exit.
5. Milwaukee Bucks (32-50, 13th)
Key Additions: Tony Snell (trade), Thon Maker (draft), Matthew Dellavedova (free agency)
Key Departures: Michael Carter-Williams (trade)
Skinny: The 6-foot-11 Giannis Antetokonmpo playing point guard is a sight to see, and Jabari Parker could make an impact in his second season back from ACL surgery. But Khris Middleton’s hamstring injury is a huge blow that should end any postseason aspirations.
1. Charlotte Hornets (46-36, 5th)
Key Additions: Roy Hibbert (free agency), Ramon Sessions (free agency)
Key Departures: Jeremy Lin (free agency), Al Jefferson (free agency), Courtney Lee (free agency)
Skinny: Losing Lin and Jefferson hurts, but the Hornets are capable of having another strong season if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can stay on the floor and Hibbert can deliver in the frontcourt. This team has a solid nucleus and should be in the thick of the playoff hunt once again.
2. Atlanta Hawks (45-37, 8th)
Key Additions: Dwight Howard (free agency)
Key Departures: Al Horford (free agency), Jeff Teague (trade)
Skinny: The core of Dennis Schroeder, Paul Millsap, Kent Bazemore and Kyle Korver should help the Hawks return to the playoffs without Horford and Teague, but adding a 30-year-old Howard won’t take them any further than last season.
3. Miami Heat (41-41, 9th)
Key Additions: None
Key Departures: Dwyane Wade (free agency), Joe Johnson (free agency), Luol Deng (free agency)
Skinny: This isn’t your father’s (older sibling’s?) Heat, as Wade and James both are gone and Chris Bosh’s tenure in Miami looks all but over. Re-signing Hassan Whiteside helps, but he and Goran Dragic won’t be enough for the Heat to survive in the competitive East.
4. Washington Wizards (40-42, 10th)
Key Additions: Trey Burke (trade), Ian Mahinmi (free agency)
Key Departures: None
Skinny: As always, Washington’s hopes hinge on the backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Both will need to be healthy and effective for the Wizards to make the playoffs in their first season under new head coach Scott Brooks.
5. Orlando Magic (35-47, 12th)
Key Additions: Serge Ibaka (trade), Jeff Green (free agency), Bismack Biyombo (free agency)
Key Departures: Victor Oladipo (trade)
Skinny: The Magic aren’t necessarily a better team after shipping Oladipo to the Oklahoma City Thunder in return for the 27-year-old Ibaka. Given the current state of the East, a playoff berth will be a tall task.
Thumbnail photo via Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports Images