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TGS HOOPS PREVIEW...2016-17 NBA EAST "FUTURES" TO WATCH

          by Bruce Marshall, Goldshhet.com Editor and P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ATLANTIC DIVISION...BEST BET: The Philadelphia 76ers (25½) are still trying to recover from their GM Sam Hinkie-inspired hoops metrics disaster that contributed to a 47-199 mark over the past three seasons, when acquiring future draft picks seemed to be an end unto itself, rather than a means to an end. Whatever, Hinkie is no longer around. But the Sixer injury curse remains, as top draft pick Ben Simmons is not expected to see the court until after New Year’s as he recovers from a foot injury, while Nerlens Noel starts this season with another injury (this time it’s a knee) after missing all of his rookie campaign and 22 more games a year ago with other ailments. Some insiders also believe new team prexy Bryan Colangelo should have made a stronger attempt at retaining G Ish Smith, one of the few bright spots last year who bolted for Detroit in free agency. The rest of the roster that Colangelo inherited remains in transition. And, at the outset, personnel on hand do not seem to translate to the NBA’s “small-ball” revolution, as Philly debuts another of the recently injured, ex-Kansas first-round pick Joel Embiid, in a big lineup that also features second-year man Jahlil Okafor, who found the transition from Duke to the pros a bit awkward a year ago and was dealing with his own knee issues at the end of preseason Thus, beleaguered HC Brett Brown attempts another re-boot with the roster as he looks for the right combinations with key cogs already injured and the knowledge that some of his charges are likely to be dumped at the trade deadline. At least the local crazies on 610 WIP have mostly stopped bothering to trash the Sixers, focusing their attention and wrath on the Iggles instead. Another long season and an “under” at Wells Fargo Center.

OTHERS: The Brooklyn Nets (21) are no longer pretending they’re not in rebuild mode. Hiring new GM Sean Marks from the Spurs organization and tabbing former Hawks assistant Kenny Atkinson as the new HC has officially begun the process. Atkinson thus becomes the sixth coach since the team moved to Brooklyn in 2012, but he didn’t take the job with a mandate to succeed immediately. Which is good, because the Nets will be hard-pressed to exceed last year’s 21 wins, especially after striking out on their top two FA targets (Miami G Tyler Johnson & Portland G Allen Crabbe) and settling for G Jeremy Lin and F Luis Scola instead. While we will pay attention to Croatian SG Bojan Bogdanovic (who led all scorers at the Rio Olympics) and Michigan rookie G Caris LeVert, we still look “under” at Barclays Center.

Many believe the Boston Celtics (52½) could have made more noise in the playoffs had defensive stopper Avery Bradley not gone down with injury in the first-round loss to Atlanta. Some also suspect the Celts might have made a deeper run had they been able to add Hawks F Al Horford at the trade deadline. Better late than never on the latter, as Horford enlisted over the summer in free agency. Horford’s versatility and ability to protect the rim on defense will be very helpful, and HC Brad Stevens has proven he knows which buttons to push. While optimism is justified, the rather-aggressive win total causes us to pause, especially since we are still not sure Stevens has enough knockdown shooters on his roster (even though Horford has improved his range in recent years). Thus, it’s going to be a pass for us in Beantown.

No one can accuse the New York Knicks (40½) of sitting on their hands in the offseason. After various fiddles with his beloved triangle offense, including an ill-advised hire of former pupil Derek Fisher as coach, Phil Jackson finally got serious in the offseason, hiring an experienced coach (Jeff Hornacek) who has had success in the league. It will be up to Hornacek to make sense of the various pieces on the roster which was augmented by Jackson’s bold pursuits of ex-Bulls Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Unfortunately, it’s not 2011, and both arrive as somewhat-damaged goods. But at least Rose will not be distracted by recent domestic abuse allegations that have been dropped, and Carmelo Anthony has been most accommodating (at least so far) to his new teammates, which also include SG Courtney Lee, who could be a perfect role player on a team of big names. If Hornacek can establish an offensive rhythm before Christmas, as Rose and Noah stay healthy (knock on wood), the Knicks can climb above .500 and make a playoff push. Spike Lee will be pleased with our “over” call at MSG.

The Toronto Raptors (50½) finally experienced some overdue postseason success last year and made it all of the way to the East finals, where they pushed the Cavs. Most importantly, the core of the roster has stayed mostly intact in the offseason, with All-Star G DeMar DeRozan re-upping rather than test the FA waters, and remaining united with Kyle Lowry as one of the league’s premier backcourt duos. Meanwhile, the only significant defection over the summer was role player deluxe Bismack Biyombo to Orlando (Jared Sullinger added in free agency as an effective replacement). There is hope that the versatile DeMarre Carroll is beyond the knee woes that limited his contributions to 26 games last season, and, along with continued improvement from C Jonas Valanciunas and sixth man sniper Terrence Ross, should give the Raps a legit chance to reach last year’s 56 wins. “Over” at Air Canada Centre.

CENTRAL DIVISION...BEST BET: They’re not quite ready to take on the Cavaliers for Central supremacy. But expect the Indiana Pacers (45) to become relevant again this season, even though team prexy Larry Bird caught a bit of heat by promoting within to replace HC Frank Vogel (now in Orlando) with former assistant and one-time HC with the Sonics (remember them?) and Blazers Nate McMillan. McMillan’s first order of business was putting Paul George back to a wing position where he is most comfy, and where he might really flourish as he finally appears surrounded by players who can go up-tempo and cater to his athleticism. That would include ex-Hawks star Jeff Teague, the sort of PG that George has never had as a teammate. “Stretch-4" Thaddeus Young was also added in the offseason to fit the new style. And the FA signing of ex-Hornet Al Jefferson could be a useful one; Jefferson will be asked to carry a lighter work load but could be very effective in shorter spurts that should also improve his durability. Meanwhile, 2nd-year C Myles Turner could be a monster in the making. If all goes as planned and the Pacers run and run some more, they could mount a challenge to the Raptors for the No. 2 playoff seed in the conference. It’s an “over” for us at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

OTHERS: The addition of hometown product Dwyane Wade at least should keep the Chicago Bulls (39½) relevant this season. Whether they are good enough to make a playoff push remains to be seen. At some point last term, then first-year HC Fred Hoiberg lost the locker room. And, while moving out Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah might have removed some of the stench, adding moody vet PG Rajon Rondo threatens to disrupt another season in the Windy City. The departure of Rose and Noah also mean the Bulls are officially Jimmy Butler’s team now, but we’re curious to see if Wade is going to acquiesce so easily to Butler in crunch time. There is also the matter of Wade’s durability, even more of a question as he moves into the last phase of his career. Mostly, however, we wonder if Hoiberg can fit the pieces together, especially since the shooters he needs on the floor (Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic) are liabilities on the stop end. Looks like another bumpy ride in Rahm Emanuel’s town, so it’s an “under” for us at United Center.

A prime factor to consider when forecasting the champion Cleveland Cavaliers (56½) is that when they want and need to win, they usually accomplish their goal. That’s important, as LeBron James paced himself a bit more than usual last season, and HC Tyronn Lue knows how to keep his most valuable asset fresh for another playoff run. But the Cavs also want to make sure they have home edge in the playoffs and don’t have to win a seventh game in Oakland or somewhere else in the West to claim a title; they’d rather do the honors at The “Q” instead. Kyrie Irving, meanwhile, has blossomed into a full-fledged star, and the addition of Mike Dunleavy gives LeBron a coveted complement who can space the floor and knock down spot-up threes, much as Mike Miller did for King James in Miami, and Lue could also make use of Oakland rookie bombardier Kay Felder in a similar role. We suspect the Cavs want to win enough to give themselves a chance at home edge all thru the playoffs, so we look “over” in the new Title Town, USA (a long time since we’ve said that about Cleveland!).

Those who were paying attention know that the Detroit Pistons (45) played the Cavs as tough as any East team last season, and were in position to win three of the four games into the last minutes of Cleveland’s harder-than-it-appeared first-round playoff sweep. No reason to expect the Pistons to regress, especially with HC Stan Van Gundy’s system resonating into his third year, and key cog C Andre Drummond re-signed in the summer before he could look elsewhere in free agency. (If only Drummond could improve upon his 35.5% FT shooting!) More significant inflow than outflow in free agency, too, with ex-Sixer PG Ish Smith coming in very handy at least for the first month while Reggie Jackson recovers from a knee injury, and other additions like Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic providing more frontline alternatives. Adding Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris last season also gave Van Gundy more length on the wings and extra options to throw at LeBron and to cause problems for the Cavs in any potential matchup. The Pistons look ready to emerge as legit contenders to us so we look “over” at The Palace.

We are intrigued by the Milwaukee Bucks (39½), who took a while to regroup after an ill-advised deadline trade of G Brandon Knight to Phoenix the previous season. Now there is extra concern because sharpshooter and top scorer Khris Middleton is out until at least the All-Star break, and perhaps longer, with a severe hamstring injury. But HC Jason Kidd does have many movable pieces on his roster, and the addition of pugnacious G Matthew Dellavedova from the Cavs provides more options that also include a new dagger thrower in marksman Mirza Teletovic, who set an NBA record for three-pointers off the bench last year with the Suns. With Jabari Parker now appearing beyond the devastating knee injury in his rookie campaign two years ago, and the hybrid 6-11 “Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo looming as an ultimate matchup headache for foes, the Bucks have a fighting chance. Until we see how they perform minus Middleton, however, it’s a tough call, so it’s a pass for us in Brewtown.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION...BEST BET: In the end, the Washington Wizards (43) struck out like batters facing Max Scherzer in free agency, as attempts to lure hometown hero Kevin Durant, as well as options 1B (Al Horford) and 1C (Nicolas Batum), all failed, but not for lack of trying by team prexy Ernie Grunfeld. On the plus side, however, D.C. would end up as the landing place for HC Scott Brooks, who steered Ok City to relevance and won at a .620 clip for the Thunder before getting kicked to the curb before last season. After the Wiz tuned out Randy Wittman a season ago, Brooks would appear a nice upgrade on the bench. His style would seem to fit the talent on hand that ranked second (behind only Golden State) in fast-break points. So, even though the desired FA upgrades didn’t materialize in the offseason, the roster still has plenty of athleticism and versatility, with a nice core featuring Gs John Wall & Bradley Beal, C Marcin Gortat, wing Otto Porter, and ex-KU Jayhawk Kelly Oubre as a spark off of the bench. Getting to the playoffs might be easier if Beal can avoid his annual injuries. And if he can, the Wiz should be able to improve more than two wins from the last season of the Wittman regime. “Over” at Verizon Center, where President Obama (who plans to stay in Washington) should have a lot more time to watch his local team after Jan. 20.

OTHERS: On the surface, the effective swap of FA frontliners (Dwight Howard in, Al Horford out) appears a wash for the Atlanta Hawks (44). We’re no so sure, however, as Horford’s contributions had been increasing in recent seasons, while Howard’s have been on the decline (though optimists suggest that Dwight was simply out of place in recent stops with the Lakers and Rockets). Even if Howard rediscovers his best form, however, we’re not sure that trading All-Star caliber PG Jeff Teague to the Pacers and turning over point duties full-time to Dennis Schroder is in the Hawks’ best interest. Versatile rookies Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry could emerge immediately as capable role players for HC Mike Budenholzer, but we suspect Atlanta regresses a bit this season and has to scramble to secure one of the East’s final playoff slots. “Under” for us at Philips Arena.

Even though the Charlotte Hornets (40½) were able to hang on to key cogs Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams in free agency, when the dust cleared after the summer it looked like a net minus for Michael Jordan’s team, with the departures of Courtney Lee, Jeremy Lin, and Al Jefferson subtracting three of last season’s top six scorers. Moreover, expecting anything much from the rapidly-declining Roy Hibbert (signed on the cheap after flopping with the Lakers) appears a bit risky, though he probably provides more durability than the oft-injured Jefferson. Truue, getting back a healthy swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was almost like adding another piece in free agency, and there is still G Kemba Walker to excite the masses. But it looks to us as if the Hornets are going to have to scramble to make the playoffs. “Under” at the Cable Box.

Maybe Pat Riley has lost his magic touch with the Miami Heat (34½), who have not only whiffed on most of their FA courtships the past two seasons but also could not prevent D-Wade from leaving town in the offseason. Though Wade had missed many games in recent years, his loss is incalculable due to his commanding presence and leadership skills that will be hard to replace. Especially since onetime running mate Chris Bosh might never return to the court due to blood-clotting issues. Moreover, Riley also lost veteran pieces Luol Deng and Joe Johnson in free agency, and while retaining emerging C Hassan Whiteside was a top priority, too much outflow suggests the Heat are going to have to wait for the next crop of free agents to make their next run at the playoffs. “Under” at AA Arena.

Lost in some of the higher-profile hubbub of the offseason were moves of consequence made by the Orlando Magic (36½), who quietly upgraded on the bench by enlisting ex-Pacers HC Frank Vogel, and made a worthwhile stab at Ok City F Serge Ibaka, who might finally flourish away from the shadows of Michael Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Ibaka did cost Orlando the exciting Victor Oladipo in trade, and Ibaka is a pending free agent. But if this move works as some believe, Ibaka could become the next cornerstone of the franchise. It will be up to Vogel to define Ibaka’s best role with C Nikola Vucevic doing many of the same things, and newly-signed Bismack Biyombo might not automatically reprise his valued role off the bench in Toronto. But Ibaka and F Jeff Green bring a needed vet presence to the roster, and there is plenty of upside for the likes of SF Aaron Gordon and SG Evan Fournier. We suspect Disney World’s team gets involved in what should be a scrum for the final East playoff berths and goes “over” at Amway Center.

Next up: Western Conference

 


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