The NBA is back! After a typically captivating offseason that saw plenty of player movement via trades and free agency, legends retiring, a World Cup of basketball where Team USA flopped, and a political scandal involving the NBA’s relationship with China, we’re ready to go with the regular season. Last year Kawhi Leonard dragged the Toronto Raptors to a title that few people would have predicted, unless of course you count Drake. Leonard’s left The North though to head home to California, and with the NBA landscape vastly different from 12, or even 6 months ago, we look set for one of the most open seasons in recent memory.
Kawhi’s absence from the Eastern Conference will be a big challenge for the Raptors to overcome, and I think we’ll see a new representative in the NBA finals. Here’s how I see the East.
The Contenders: Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers
It’s hard to look past these two sides. The Bucks will be better for their playoff experience last year, where they ended up losing to the Raptors in the Conference Finals. Giannis Antetokounmpo won the MVP as he carried the side to 60 wins, and the roster by and large remains intact. Malcolm Brogdon is the only notable absentee, but the acquisitions made have been savvy. Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver aren’t big needle movers in terms of regular season wins, but they give the Bucks veteran depth which will be crucial come playoff time. The 76ers can’t boast the same depth up and down the roster, but the additions of Al Horford and Josh Richardson gives them a stacked starting lineup. A lot of eyes will be on Ben Simmons this season to see whether he has added a jump shot to his repertoire, which would be a valuable weapon in a side now missing JJ Redick. Keep an eye out for Matisse Thybulle too. The rookie has been a preseason darling due to his defensive prowess, and will surely earn plenty of minutes as a result.
The Best of the Rest: Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics
The Raptors will be hard pressed to replicate last year’s success, and there’s no question that this is now Pascal Siakam’s team. They’ll be counting on the likes of Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Norman Powell to help pick up the load left by Kawhi Leonard, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has moved north from Brooklyn and gives them another versatile forward. Nick Nurse will have them competitive at the very least, but their ceiling will largely depend on Siakam. It’s a new look Pacers thanks to a number of key departures and the predictions for this side vary wildly. Victor Oladipo’s timetable to return from a quadricep tendon injury is still up in the air, and they’ll be looking to new recruits Malcolm Brogdon, TJ Warren and Jeremy Lamb to hold the fort while Oladipo’s still in street clothes. The biggest question though is whether Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner can work together in the starting lineup, and rumours of Sabonis being available via trade suggests the Pacers aren’t convinced themselves. For the Celtics, they’re in a similar boat. With Kyrie Irving and Al Horford both departed, their success will hinge largely on offseason signing Kemba Walker, 3rd year wing Jayson Tatum and veteran Gordon Hayward. Hayward couldn’t recapture his best form last year after returning from a devastating leg injury, but the Celtics will be counting on both him and Tatum to improve.
The Wildcards: Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets
There’s plenty to ponder around the Heat, who acquired Jimmy Butler to be the focal point of their team. Butler will do all he can to drag them through the season, but the supporting cast has question marks. Bam Adebayo should thrive with starters minutes now that Hassan Whiteside has left, while rookie Tyler Herro has immediately pressed for a significant role. That hasn’t gone down too well with Dion Waiters though, who has managed to earn a team suspension to start the season, and then criticised Herro and coach Erik Spoelstra on social media. The Nets meanwhile were big offseason players as they nabbed Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, but Durant’s Achilles injury will likely have him out the entire season. Irving will carry the team this season, and there’s intriguing young talent with him in Caris LeVert, Taurean Prince and Jarrett Allen. They’d likely need a miraculous Durant return to contend, but will be a difficult playoff proposition regardless.
The Battlers: Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons
The Magic were the success story of last season in reaching the playoffs, and then stole a game on the road in Toronto. That was to be it though and the challenge is now repeating their success. It’s largely the same roster as last season, with veteran forward Al-Farouq Aminu the only notable addition, and someone who will only add to the team’s defensive prowess. Markelle Fultz is the wildcard on this roster though, with the former #1 pick a potential steal if he can rediscover his health and jumpshot. The Pistons are another side largely running it back, although former MVP Derrick Rose is an intriguing pickup after having something of a resurgence last season. Health will probably dictate this team’s ceiling.
A Year Too Soon: Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks
There’s plenty of preseason buzz around both of these teams, and it wouldn’t shock me if one of them did make a leap to join the playoffs. The Bulls look to have plenty of offensive weapons, with Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter and Zach LaVine leading the way. New recruit Tomas Satoransky looks to have nabbed the starting point guard role and will mostly facilitate, while rookie Coby White will be instant offense off the bench if he can earn enough minutes. The Hawks are in a similar situation. They’re young, they’ll be fun to watch and they’ll score plenty. However, there’s not a lot of experience outside of offseason acquisitions Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe.
The Rest: Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers
Bradley Beal’s contract extension was somewhat surprising given he seemed a trade worthy option, but even with him locked in there’s not much for the Wizards to be excited about outside of rookie Rui Hachimura. The Hornets couldn’t do the same with their fan favourite Kemba Walker, and end up with Terry Rozier in his place. That’s a major downgrade and the rest of the roster inspires little confidence. With the Knicks missing out on the #1 draft pick they settle for RJ Barrett instead of Zion Williamson. The roster looks poorly constructed around him, with free agent gets Julius Randle, Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis and Taj Gibson all fighting for similar minutes. LeBron James’ departure left the Cavaliers roster in tatters, and while Kevin Love remains, most of the focus will be on the development of rookies Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr, as well as second year guard Collin Sexton.
Playoffs – Bucks, Sixers, Pacers, Raptors, Celtics, Nets, Magic
The rest – Bulls, Pistons, Hawks, Wizards, Knicks, Hornets, Cavaliers
Bucks beat Sixers in Eastern Conference Finals
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