The Contender: Chicago Bulls
Ever since the 2012 playoffs, when Derrick Rose suffered the first of several knee injuries, Chicago’s potential has hinged largely upon its health. The orbital bone injury suffered by Rose in the preseason doesn’t exactly bolster confidence in that regard. But with the former MVP expected back soon and the assumption that Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol also can avoid injuries, the Bulls, who will aim to show more spacing and movement under new Coach Fred Hoiberg, will a present a tough obstacle for Cleveland.
The Dark Horse: Milwaukee Bucks
What began as a surprisingly strong start under Coach Jason Kidd slowly fell apart in the second half of last season. Jabari Parker suffered a season-ending injury, and Milwaukee’s offense essentially disappeared. A full season with last year’s acquisition Michael Carter-Williams and this summer’s acquisition Greg Monroe should remedy some of those issues. Monroe’s court vision will open up opportunities for the likes of John Henson, Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo (“The Greek Freak”). Can that make for an offense that matches its stout defense remains to be seen.
The Also-Rans: Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons
Paul George is back with a new number (13) and a new position (power forward), adding the Pacers to the league’s small-ball movement. With Roy Hibbert, David West and Lance Stephenson gone, Indiana is no longer the defensive stalwart that can compete for an Eastern Conference title. These Pacers may actually score more behind Monta Ellis and Rodney Stuckey, but that doesn’t mean they will win more. Detroit, meantime, has a point guard in place in Reggie Jackson to feed gifted forward Andre Drummond off the pick-and-roll. But that’s about all Stan Van Gundy has to work with by way of proven talent in the Pistons’ strive back to respectability.
The Favorite: Atlanta Hawks
Even with four All-Stars, the Hawks lack a superstar, a concept that worked just fine during their best season ever and run to the Eastern Conference finals. But once there, their reliance on streaky shooting and lack of star power were exposed by Cleveland. To help better their chances as title contenders, the Hawks brought in Tiago Splitter, easing the departure of DeMarre Carroll for Toronto while providing more defensive and rebounding help for the undersized yet crafty Al Horford. That interior duo should mesh with the sound perimeter play of Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver to make for another impactful campaign.
The Contenders: Miami Heat and Washington Wizards
When LeBron James left Miami for Cleveland again, the Heat lost not only their best player but their most durable— a fact made more evident last season, when Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng all missed time because of injuries and ailments. With all three, along with Josh McRoberts, the Heat are again considered a strong contender. How long they can remain healthy will determine how far into contention this group can go.
The Wizards are out to show that their ceiling is higher than the past two seasons, when they fell in the Eastern Conference semifinals. John Wall has established himself as an all-star, and Bradley Beal appears to be on his way to doing the same. And with the Wizards intent on playing smaller and faster, Washington hopes it has the tools to catch up with the East’s top tier.
The Dark Horse: Charlotte Hornets
Charlotte’s chances at shaking up the division order took a hit when top defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was lost for six months becasue of a preseason shoulder injury. Centerpiece Al Jefferson also has struggled with injuries, making the Hornets’ prospects even more fragile. The addition of 6-foot-8 Nicolas Batum provides a shooter to spread the floor for explosive guard Kemba Walker, but the Hornets need a bit more to compete in this division.
The Also-Ran: Orlando Magic
The Magic are still a few growing pains away from making a serious playoff push, but its collection of talent means it won’t be in this lowly spot for long. With high-flying Victor Oladipo, an efficient Tobias Harris, an explosive Aaron Gordon and underrated Elfrid Payton, Orlando has the personnel as well as the type of defensive-minded coach in Scott Skiles to continue moving in the right direction.
The Favorite: Toronto Raptors
Someone has to win this division, and the Raptors have the fewest flaws, which is why they are vying for their third straight Atlantic title. After sputtering down the stretch, All-Star guard Kyle Lowry has slimmed down to improved his endurance. Meantime, a contract year should motivate DeMar DeRozan, who gained a formidable wing threat in DeMarre Carroll. There’s also front-court prowess in Bismack Biyombo and Luis Scola, who provide the size necessary to better match up in the playoffs.
The Contender: Boston Celtics
Boston continues to grow under Coach Brad Stevens, both figuratively and literally, making it the best bet to challenge the Raptors. By adding forwards David Lee and Amir Johnson, the Celtics have the size to go with their skilled backcourt in Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Isaiah Thomas. Another season of improvement should position the Celtics to make more impactful moves in next summer’s free agent bonanza.
The Dark Horse: New York Knicks
There is no real reason to believe in the Knicks, other than the Nets and Sixers are so bad that New York could scrape together enough wins to scare up a playoff spot. Well, maybe there’s one other reason: Carmelo Anthony. The perennial All-Star is back in the lineup after missing most of last season following knee surgery, rejoining a team that was laughable at times but, under the watching eye of Phil Jackson, has a smidge of promise with draft picks Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant.
The Also-Rans: Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia Sixers
Still paying for the bloated contracts and free-agent whiffs made by big-spending owner Mikhail Prokhorov, the Nets don’t have much to build upon or around in the near future. Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez are capable of flashes but can no longer carry a team.
The tanking talk might cease for the Sixers, who have respectable forwards in rookie Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, but that doesn’t mean they’ll lift themselves up from the bottom. The trade of Michael Carter-Williams leaves Tony Wroten as their main perimeter option, and the Sixers without players to stretch the floor or feed their frontcourt potential.
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