Writer: Caleb Akpan
The NBA season is fast approaching. In less than two weeks, the Warriors will raise their championship banner and all 30 teams will start even at 0-0. Over the course of the following six months, 1,230 regular season games will be played to determine conference seeding and, later on in the summer, draft order. Where a team lands in the standings will depend on whether they make the playoffs or not. Here at The Drive, we’ve calculated a winner and loser for all 1,230 games that will determine that order for an accurate win-loss prediction. Over the next two weekends, we will dive into those previews and take a look at how each team’s season is likely to turn out, starting this week with the East. Following a summer where most of its stars left, who will take the top of the conference, and which teams will be able to take advantage of the likely open playoff spots? Starting from the bottom, let’s find out:
15. Chicago Bulls
2016-2017 Record: 41-41
2017-2018 Projected Record: 20-62
Without Googling, name more than five players on this year’s Bulls roster. Or even better, Google the roster and see how many names you actually recognize. That’s about all you need to know about the 2018 Bulls. After not re-signing Rajon Rondo, trading Jimmy Butler and buying out Dwyane Wade, there’s just not much talent left on this roster outside of an injured Zach Lavine and players like Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez- guys you’d love to have come off your bench and be rotation pieces, but will probably play heavy minutes for Chicago. The lone bright spot for a Baby Bulls squad will be seeing which young talent steps up to the occasion, with Kris Dunn potentially rebounding off an awful rookie year in Minnesota or rookie Lauri Markkanen creating a Porzingis-esque hype in the Windy City following a strong performance in the Eurobasket summer tournament for his native Finland. Other than that, the Bulls are gonna be bad….really bad.
14. Atlanta Hawks
2016-2017 Record: 43-39
2017-2018 Projected Record: 22-60
Another 2017 playoff team likely to have a significant drop off in 2018? The Atlanta Hawks. Paul Millsap is gone, Tim Hardaway Jr. is gone, Dwight Howard is gone, and the Hawks seem to be in full rebuild mode. They’ve put a lot of young guys around an already young point guard in Dennis Schroeder, who is likely to take most of Atlanta’s scoring and playmaking load with a roster of mostly unproven players on both ends of the court. The thing that will be interesting to see is what coach Mike Budenholzer does with what’s available. The fourth year leader has never missed the playoffs, only finished below .500 once, and comes from the San Antonio Spurs’ long line of success. Maybe he’ll be able to make more of what’s on paper in the ATL, but it likely won’t be able to do much past adding a couple more wins on.
13. Brooklyn Nets
2016-2017 Record: 20-62
2017-2018 Projected Record: 25-57
Brooklyn is D’Angelo Russell’s team to take. Probably not that far, but he can take them nonetheless. This is a franchise in desperate need of a centerpiece, and Russell can offer that if he is able to live up the potential he has always seemed to have, but never achieved, after being picked second in the 2015 draft. The Lakers shipped him out citing lack of leadership and execution and brought in a guy who has zero experience in those areas at the pro level to replace him. If he’s as mad at that as he should be, Russell could steal some games as the season goes on with big performances, but outside of looking forward to those, there’s not much to watch for on that side of New York.
12. Indiana Pacers
2016-2017 Record: 42-40
2017-2018 Projected Record: 30-52
Paul George, almost all of what the Pacers were last season, has been replaced with Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Unless Indiana actually expects those two to carry the team, it’s time for a change of pace in Indy. Former Texas Longhorn Myles Turner is now slated to be the main option for a Pacers team clearly searching for their identity. He has shown flashes in his young career of being able to produce twenty and 10 a night, a la Pacers legend Jermaine O’ Neal who, as like Turner will likely do, progressively took on more of the offensive load as the team’s personnel changed. When O’ Neal was at his best, the Pacers were contenders in the league, and while Turner won’t come close to doing that here, coach Nate McMillan and the entire organization must hope he can produce the same kind of offense.
11. Orlando Magic
2016-2017 Record: 29-53
2017-2018 Projected Record: 30-52
Since trading Dwight Howard, the Orlando Magic have been stuck in NBA no-man’s land. Not bad enough to have a chance at a once in a lifetime talent, but not nearly good enough to even come close to a playoff spot is the East. Even with all the changes over the offseason, it feels like nothing will change in Disney World. Jonathan Isaac could be the draft pick that immediately makes an impact, but Orlando’s track record in the draft says otherwise. A better bet would be seeing Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic increase their scoring, but even then, it feels like there’s just too many teams that are flat-out better than the Magic in the East for them to make the playoffs.
10. New York Knicks
2016-2017 Record: 31-51
2017-2018 Projected Record: 32-50
Two words: Kristaps Porzingis. That’s all New York cares about, the team, the city, the state. When it comes to basketball, New York is now his town. Phil Jackson and his triangle offense are out of the picture and Carmelo Anthony and his touches are no longer an issue, so there’s nothing stopping Porzingis from taking over the league. The question is, will that be enough to get the Knicks a playoff spot? Their point guard situation is sketchy, with French mystery man Frank Ntilikina unlikely to start right away, and usually bench veterans Roman Sessions and Jarrett Jack behind him. In general, the Knicks are lacking depth and a clear rotation plan, and that could lead to losses, especially early on in the season as coach Jeff Hornacek tries to figure things out. If he can do that quickly enough and Porzingis expands on his potential, one of those opened spots in the East may actually get to the Big Apple.
9. Detroit Pistons
2016-2017 Record: 37-45
2017-2018 Projected Record: 37-45
Detroit is the only team on this list projected to have the exact same record as the previous season. Is that fair with an addition like Avery Bradley to the team? Maybe not, but as much as crap as the East has gotten for losing so many players, the teams listed above them have also added a piece or two to their rosters. If Bradley can top the contributions of those guys, then Detroit will slide back into the seventh or eighth seed, much like they did in 2015-16. If not, then nothing will change in the Motor City other than their new arena in downtown Detroit.
8. Charlotte Hornets
2016-2017 Record: 36-46
2017-2018 Projected Record: 39-43
Charlotte gets the first playoff spot on the list after failing to make it last year. With the addition of Dwight Howard, who knows his game and has a weapon like Kemba Walker at the point guard, to the coaching staff, this prediction seems to make sense, but it could easily go wrong at Howard’s own hands. It seems all he has to do is catch lobs from Walker and Nicolas Batum, rebound, and play defense at the rim, things he’s done his whole career, but if he tries to do much more, it seems that Howard could actually take a team down at this stage in his career. As long as the once-superstar stays in his lane of a more modernized big man, Charlotte should be fine enough to get at least a few playoff games added onto their schedule.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
2016-2017 Record: 28-54
2017-2018 Projected Record: 40-42
The 76ers are possibly the most hyped-up team going into this season. They drafted Markelle Fultz with the number one overall pick, the number one pick from the previous season Ben Simmons is healthy and ready to go, and Joel Embiid is getting closer to coming back and continuing the Process. Add in free agent pickup JJ Redick, defensive specialist Robert Covington, and a rookie of the year candidate in the previous season in Dario Saric, and the Sixers actually look like a legitimate basketball team for the first time in a while. Getting a playoff spot should be easy for them, but we all know the once tanking franchise loves to make things difficult for themselves. It will probably take some time for the roster to mesh together, and there’s also a high chance the Embiid at least misses some games, and after a roller-coaster ride of rehabilitation last year, the same seems possible for Ben Simmons. It feels like everything could come crashing down for The Process just as it is beginning to look complete.
6. Miami Heat
2016-2017 Record: 41-41
2017-2018 Projected Record: 42-40
Miami had by far the weirdest year of any team last season, starting off 11-30 and finishing 30-11. The question going into this season is which version of the Heat do we see? It seems unlikely that things will go as crazy as they did before. They don’t seem bad enough to repeat 11-30, but they also don’t look like they’ll be on pace for 60 wins anytime soon. Finishing in the 40s and playing with some of that 30-11 fire come playoff time seems more likely for franchise that is used to winning more times than not. Look for Hassan Whiteside to chase after Defensive Player of The Year and don’t be surprised if the stud big man makes his first All-Star team in February.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
2016-2017 Record: 42-40
2017-2018 Projected Record: 47-35
The Milwaukee Bucks rest on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s shoulders and, right now, he’s got a lot on them. Over the weekend, the 22-year-old star lost his father, Charles, to a heart attack at the age of 54. If this tragedy affects Giannis’s play, it would be completely understandable, but the team rallying around their star and helping carry the load seems just as likely. Whatever the outcome, this event shows how basketball isn’t everything, especially for its players, life and family comes first, and as Giannis takes care of that following his loss, the season will be a victory.
4. Toronto Raptors
2016-2017 Record: 51-31
2017-2018 Projected Record: 49-33
Last season, Toronto was carried by its backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to 51 wins and a semifinals appearance in the playoffs. This season will likely not be any different, despite losing DeMarre Carroll and Corey Joseph, the Raptors look to give increased minutes to young players with great potential around their veteran backcourt, which includes players like Serge Ibaka, CJ Miles, and Jonas Valanciunas. They may miss those guys in a game or two, but by and large, the lone Canadian franchise in the league will likely stay consistent, though with so many recent years ending in the same fashion, the organization is obviously hoping for a bit more.
3. Washington Wizards
2016-2017 Record: 49-33
2017-2018 Projected Record: 50-32
It’s always great to hear NBA players setting high expectations for themselves and their teams as a season begins, and that’s exactly what players for the Washington Wizards are doing. Shooting guard Bradley Beal says he sees the Wizards as “the best team in the East” and all-star point guard John Wall told reporters he wants to have a chance at winning the MVP this year. They’re all great things to hear, even if they may be setting the bar too high, but with Wall’s play keeping Washington in the running for top seeding last year in a better Eastern Conference, their claims don’t seem wildly out of the ordinary. Wall may not hoist the coveted MVP trophy at the end of the year, and the Wizards may fall a spot or two short of the top, but Washington will no doubt be one of the best teams led by one of the league’s best point guards next year.
2. Boston Celtics
2016-2017 Record: 53-29
2017-2018 Projected Record: 52-30
Kyrie Irving’s got his own team now in Boston, and his job is to keep them at the top of the Eastern Conference. Along with new Celtic Gordon Hayward, the C’s have a lot of reworking to do in order to find an image and offensive flow, but they seem to have the right players to get the job done. The most glaring issues seem to be their depth, with notable players falling off after Boston’s first nine or so, and rebounding, the Celtics’ biggest issue during last year’s playoffs. Until both get solved and Brad Stevens figures out exactly how he wants to execute things around Irving and Hayward, it doesn’t feel like Boston will be able to be better than the top team on the list…
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
2016-2017 Record: 51-31
2017-2018 Projected Record: 57-25
Cleveland flipped Kyrie Irving into two starting talents over the off-season, and picked up Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade for just about the cheapest you can get a player in this league. In other words, they’re very deep, and that will especially be the case once the all-star Thomas returns from his injury near the start of the new year. Even without him, the Cavaliers have more than enough to take advantage of a weakened Eastern Conference. A team is always in contention for a championship with LeBron James at the helm, but with a roster infused with more talent, and a lineup change more likely to help than hurt, Cleveland seems a bit more legitimate than last year when it comes to challenging a certain team out West that will get to next week, when we predict where the fifteen teams on that side of the league will fall.