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TGS HOOPS PREVIEW...2017-18 NBA EAST "FUTURES" TO WATCH

           by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor and P.Cal Giordano, Managing Editor

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ATLANTIC DIVISION BEST BETS...The Brooklyn Nets (27) have been spinning their wheels for a while now, and no quick recovery seems in order. Not that GM Sean Marks didn’t try in the offseason; the roster underwent a much-needed overhaul after the Nets bottomed out at 20-62. The credentials of some of those newcomers, however, are a bit dubious; D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov, after all, were two of the key cogs on a Lakers team that limped in with only 26 wins. The once-touted Russell, in particular, should trigger some red flags after his development stalled a year ago when many were expecting much more after he had been freed from the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour. Meanwhile top draft pick C Jarrett Allen from Texas is a developmental project until further notice. We suspect that most of the buzz in Brooklyn will again be caused by Jeremy Lin, whether he’s dealing with more injuries or sporting a new hairdo (his new-look dreadlocks are already causing a stir). Slight improvement for the Nets, but not 7 wins worth; it’s an “under” for us at Barclays Center.

Others...Since the depth in the East is negligible, the top-tier teams will likely meet less resistance as they move past 50 wins. Count the Boston Celtics (55 ½) in that crowd. GM Danny Ainge looks as if he has assembled the most serious threat to LeBron James’ streak of seven straight East titles in Miami and Cleveland. The abundance of pieces now includes new additions Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, plus Marcus Morris and Duke rookie Jayson Tatum, all of which should more than make up for the departure of Isaiah Thomas and some other contributors, whose absences could most negatively impact what was already one of the most-spotty defensive rebounding teams in the league. But there is more than enough firepower in the mix to compensate, so now it’s up to HC Brad Stevens to worry about proper fits and continuity and those things that top-flight coaches (of which Stevens is one) usually figure out sooner rather than later. “Over” at TD Garden.

The Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson Eras ended almost simultaneously for the New York Knicks (29), who were a hot, complicated, but colorful mess the past few seasons. Now they look simply to be mess without all of the color, as HC Jeff Hornacek’s plans of running an up-tempo attack were dealt a dose of reality in preseason when the Knicks allowed foes to shoot 49% and an NBA-worst 109 points per 100 possessions. Defense, anyone? The “Kristaps Porzingis Era” will likely have a bit less drama, but we’ll miss the fun it was to poke the Knicks with ‘Melo and Jackson around. Ah, the good ‘ol days. “Under” at MSG.

Rather than project a win total for the Philadelphia 76ers (40), perhaps we should just forecast the numbers of games in which the supernatural Joel Embiid will play. Last year’s 31 games were a career high after missing the two previous years due to injury. We’ll say if Embiid makes post in half of the Sixers’ 82 games, they have a chance at 40 wins; if Embiid gets to 45-50 games, it’s going to be a dead-bang “over” at Wells Fargo Center; if Embiid gets to 55-60 games, the Sixers are going to be in the playoffs and be a team to watch in the postseason. Ominously, however, Embiid has already been dealing with an ankle problem in preseason and at best he opens the season on a tight minutes restriction. Here we go...again? Though we are not holding our breath that the new Ben Simmons/Markelle Fultz look on the perimeter is going to fuel a turnaround; ask their college coaches, who were both fired not long after watching those hotshots shoot their teams into oblivion. No call in Philly; all determined by Embiid’s availability.

Likely to benefit from the shallowness of the East will be the Toronto Raptors (48 ½), who won 51 last season with star G Kyle Lowry missing almost two months due to injury and versatile Serge Ibaka, a floor-stretching “4" who can play C if needed, only around for the last portion of the season after a trade deadline deal with Orlando. It will help that the Raps have more roster continuity than any team in the East, and the newly-extended Norman Powell should further help the floor-spacing to allow Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to bomb away, as only Houston was shooting more 3s in the preseason than Toronto. Not sure if the Raps have enough to outpace the Celtics in the Atlantic, but we’re looking “over” at Air Canada Centre.


CENTRAL DIVISION BEST BETS: There is plenty going on with the Cleveland Cavaliers (53 ½), with another “decision” to likely come from LeBron after the season (most expect King James to opt out and move to one of the L.A. teams for the final chapter of his playing career...stay tuned for further developments). But with several key cogs (Brook Lopez, Paul Millsap, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, etc.) having moved to the Western Conference, there figures to be less resistance in the East to the top teams piling up wins. And the real possibility exists that there was more than a bit of friction between LeBron and the departed Kyrie Irving; we’ll see how newly-added Isaiah Thomas (once past his hip problems) meshes in Cleveland, but if familiarity is a virtue, then Dwyane Wade’s reunion with LeBron for one more run at the ring has to be considered a positive (as long as D-Wade can stay healthy for enough of the season, that is). The useful Jae Crowder, also over from Boston in the Kyrie-Thomas deal, can fill a variety of roles. We’ll see about Kevin Love’s move to the “5" and how that fits into the Cleveland equation, but this still looks like the team to beat in the East, even with Ty Lue pretending that he (and not LeBron) runs the show. “Over” at The Q.

Flying way under the radar are the Indiana Pacers (31 ½), now considered an afterthought after FA-to-be Paul George’s trade to Oklahoma City. Perhaps GM Kevin Pritchard could have netted more for his perennial All-Star; he probably can’t fill George’s shoes, but Victor Oladipo looked to be a star on the rise until he ended up with the Thunder while Russell Westbrook took all the shots and got all of the headlines last season. Now, back to near where he first came to prominence as an Indiana Hoosier, Oladipo might pick up where he left off two years ago in Orlando when scoring nearly 18 ppg. Meanwhile, vet PG Darren Collison returns to Indy after a five-year absence and can provide direction and stability from the top, while 6-11 Myles Turner is on the verge of becoming a dominant force. Asking a bit much of HC Nate McMillan to push George-less Indy into the playoffs, but reaching the mid 30s in wins seems doable. “Over” at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Others...Ready, Set...Tank! That might as well be the new motto for the Chicago Bulls (22 ½), who blew up their roster in the offseason and plan to sink to the bottom and start over. Except that some believe VP of Operations John Paxson and HC Fred Hoiberg might be on short leashes, adding more uncertainty to the rebuild. After dumping Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson in the offseason, and Dwyane Wade bolting to the Cavs, Hoiberg will try to stay competitive with a lineup that will shoot 3s by the droves and give Arizona rookie F Lauri Markkannen and ex-Timberwolves wing Zach LaVine the green lights to shoot. The Bulls might be more fun to watch than the past few years, but they won’t be any good. Check back in two years to see how the rebuild is progressing. “Under” at United Center.

.“Team Funhouse Mirror” might be an appropriate label for the Detroit Pistons (38 ½), who play offense the way HC Stan Van Gundy forces opponents to play, with tons of midrange jumpers and nothing happening at the rim. The Pistons have a low-40s win ceiling if they can’t manufacture better looks on the attack end; newly-added G Avery Bradley from Boston can be useful, but he’s not the drive-and-kick penetrator this offense needs if Reggie Jackson can’t shake out of his funk from last season. On the plus side was Andre Drummond hitting 16 of his first 20 FTs in preseason (which is an important development!), and, well, this is the East, where a decent team should stumble to 40 wins. If the Pistons don’t, the whole operation has a different look next season. Moving into the new Little Caesars Arena downtown could also prove a morale boost, so we’re going to say “over” in Motown

The “potential breakthrough” label in the East belongs to the Milwaukee Bucks (47 ½), who check a lot of boxes...shooters, athletes, and playmakers, and star power, with the “Greek Freak” Antetokuonmpo generating some quiet MVP buzz. But they’re young. And, beyond Greg Monroe, oh, is the bench thin, especially until Jabari Parker returns well down the road (projections have him ready around the All-Star break). Though the core lineup intrigues, teams did figure out how to pass over and around Milwaukee’s frenzied defense toward the end of last season. Playoffs? Almost assuredly. But put the Bucks at 48 wins or above at your own risk in this last season at the BMO Harris Bradley Center before the new arena opens in 2018. We’re looking “under” in Brewtown.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION BEST BET: A year ago, the Orlando Magic (33 ½) well undershot what seemed a reachable 36-win total. The expectations have been reduced slightly this season, but it would still take a 5-win upgrade for the Magic to get over the hump, and not sure from where the improvement comes. The hope is that the promise showed by young Elfrid Payton running a more up-tempo offense in the final two months of last season will carry over into the new term. And Orlando has an athleticism quotient that can match many of the best teams, and furthered by adding Florida State’s 6-10 Jonathan Isaac (another “Greek Freak”-like in the making?) in the draft to join Aaron Gordon and various other runners and jumpers. It would help if a few Orlando players could hit a pull-up jump shot; only the Suns shot worse in the catch-and-shoot jumper category last season. “Under” at Amway Center.

Others...The Atlanta Hawks (25 ½) have some good coaching with Mike Budenholzer, some capable veterans and promising newcomers (watch 6-10 Wake Forest rookie John Collins), and they play in the East. So much for the good news. But the departure of PF deluxe Paul Millsap to Denver was part of an offseason exodus of key personnel, leaving streak-haired PG Dennis Schroder as the team’s best player by a wide margin. Not good. Even in the East, Budenholzer will have trouble getting this bunch to the high 20s in wins. The 10-year playoff run ends with an ”under” at Philips Arena.

The Charlotte Hornets (42 ½) could ill afford an injury to Nicolas Batum, their best wing defender, but that’s exactly what happened in the preseason. How quickly Batum’s elbow heals will be crucial; his injury could also further expose a thin bench, not to mention that Batum was the effective backup PG to Kemba Walker, in whose absences the offense cratered a season ago. If Batum misses only 8 weeks, the Hornets might survive and make a playoff push; if the absence extends to 12 weeks, Charlotte will be in trouble. What might be the last stop for Dwight Howard’s career also intrigues, with Steve Clifford wondering how the rotations will work if he has to play Howard and Cody Zeller at the same time. Charlotte was also 0-9 in games decided by three points or fewer last season, so an upgrade from 36 wins shouldn’t be too hard, but it will be much tougher if Batum’s absence extends. We’re looking “under” at The Hive.

Mixed signals on the Miami Heat (43 ½), who made a breathtaking run after an 11-30 start had them in the thick of the lottery discussion, only to completely reverse that record the exact opposite mark second half of the season. Which is the real Miami? Probably closer to the perpetual motion machine the team became in the second half of the season, and adding mobile big Kelly Olynyk from the Celtics gives Erik Spoelstra another offensive option. But to get into the mid 40s in wins, Spoelstra is probably going to need another big year from Gs Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters, as well as keeping C Hassan Whiteside healthy. Might happen, might not; no call for us at AA Arena.

The Washington Wizards (48 ½) are probably among only four East teams (with Cleveland, Boston, and Toronto; add Milwaukee to the list if you wish) capable of getting to 50 wins, which the Wizards just missed a season ago. Hindered by slow starts in recent years, the schedule-maker has come to aid this term, with no back-to-backs in the first 15 games. At  times it has been difficult to get Gs Bradley Beal and the supernova that is John Wall on the floor at the same time, and injuries to either could keep the Wiz in the mid-40s range.  The bench, an issue in recent years, looks potentially upgraded if the preseason contributions of Jodie Meeks are not a mirage, though HC Scott Brooks is hoping that the Markieff Morris groin injury does not keep him sidelined for too long.   Still, as long as the Wizards stay relatively healthy and focused, they can get to 50 wins; “over” at what they’re now calling Capital One Arena.







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