The 2015-2016 NBA regular season tips off Tuesday, October 27. The Cleveland Cavaliers, winners of the Eastern Conference, face the Bulls in Chicago. And the Atlanta Hawks, who finished the regular season with the East’s best record, welcome the Detroit Pistons. The league champion Golden State Warriors host the New Orleans Pelicans in the only Western Conference matchup.
The East is still the weaker of the two conferences, with seven teams expected to contend and three more likely to figure into the playoff race. Who are the players and teams to watch? How will it all shake out next spring, when records (and not division standing) will determine the conference playoff seeding?
CBS Local previews the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
Let’s be real for a second: if the Cavaliers can get/stay healthy this season, nobody in the East can touch them. Of course, that’s a fairly big ‘if.’ Kyrie Irving might not be back until January according to some reports. LeBron James is already dealing with a back injury, and we know how those can linger. Iman Shumpert looks to be on a similar timeline to Irving, meaning he may not see the floor until 2016. Either way, once Irving and Shumpert return, they should have plenty of time to get their games into playoff shape. In the meantime, Kevin Love, James, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov have to carry the load for Cleveland. Oh, and maybe Tristan Thompson, but who knows at this point?
Projected Starting 5: Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov, Kevin Love, LeBron James
The Hawks are poised to be a very good team once again. Sixty-win good for the second year in a row? That might be a stretch, especially considering the loss of DeMarre Carroll, but they have the talent and the depth to approach that number. Still, in a deeper Eastern Conference than we’ve seen in recent years, that many wins is a tall order. Either way, the Hawks are a sure-fire playoff team and will probably snag one of the top three seeds. The only question that remains is whether they have the depth to compete with Cleveland when playoff time rolls around.
Projected Starting 5: Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Al Horford, Thabo Sefolosha, Paul Millsap
I can’t believe I’m saying it, but the Bucks have the potential to be really, really good this year. What’s not to like about the roster they’ve put together? They have a talented starting five and a deep bench, a coach that appears to know what he’s doing in Jason Kidd and ownership that’s thrown their money and support behind the team. The only thing that could derail a Buck run is a Jabari Parker setback as he returns from an ACL injury. Otherwise, look out for the Bucks… again, I can’t believe I just said that.
Projected Starting 5: Michael Carter-Williams, Khris Middleton, Greg Monroe, Giannis Antetokoummpo, Jabari Parker
As the Fred Hoiberg era is getting underway in Chicago, all we know for sure is that this year’s Bulls team will be completely different from Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls teams of yesteryear. Hoiberg is known for his offensive acumen and has been the toast of the town this preseason for the free-flowing offense he’s putting into place. However, the downfall of Thibodeau’s Bulls teams wasn’t scheme as much injury, and the Bulls are off to a less than stellar start in that department. Derrick Rose is still recovering from a facial injury, suffered after an elbow to the head in training camp. Even if his capacity to carry a team diminishes due to injuries, he’s still a huge part of the Bulls’ offense. If Rose can stay healthy and mesh with Jimmy Butler, this team could be a force down the road.
Projected Starting 5: Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott
The Heat are definitely the most interesting team in the Eastern Conference this year. The have a Frankenstein-esque quality to them that is intriguing, but may also spell disaster. First, the congelation (or lack thereof) of Goran Dragic, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh will be fascinating to see unfold. Throw in veterans like Amar’e Stoudemire and young studs like Justice Winslow, and you’ve got one interesting team. On paper, they could be the cream that rises to the top of the East and dethrones the king and the Cavaliers. Will they have it on the court though? It’ll be fun finding out.
Projected Starting 5: Goran Dragic, Dwayne Wade, Hassan Whiteside, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh
Give the Raptors credit — they got noticeably better by adding Demarre Carroll, Anthony Bennett and Luis Scola to a talented back court of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Carroll and Scola both have a playoff pedigree of sorts as well, which is what the Raptors need to help get them over the first-round hump this year.
Projected Starting 5: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson
Can the Wizards extend and expand upon two consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances? With a back court of Bradley Beal and John Wall, both of whom have improved each year and still may not have peaked yet, it’s definitely possible. The Wizards lost Paul Pierce, which is a huge blow, especially when you think about his contributions in the playoffs last year. Still, the Wizards will try and compensate for the loss with the rising Otto Porter and veterans like Jared Dudley, Alan Anderson and Gary Neal. I’m not sure they can replace Pierce, but they’ll be able to contribute throughout the year for sure.
Projected Starting 5: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat, Otto Porter, Nene
It’s was an impressive offseason for the Hornets, and they’re poised to improve greatly over last year’s 33-49 record. The Hornets went out and got Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lamb to complement Al Jefferson, who seems to be in the best shape of his playing life after dropping some pounds this offseason. Then there’s Frank Kaminsky, the rookie 7-footer who can knock down threes with the best of his shooting guard counterparts. It’ll likely be a development year for him off the bench, but he should be able to put up some big numbers in a sixth man-type roll. Also worth mentioning is that the Hornets snagged Jeremy Lin this offseason, looking to reboot the “Linsanity” craze of 2012.
Projected Starting 5: Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb, Al Jefferson, Nicolas Batum, Cody Zeller
Nobody could have predicted that the Celtics would find themselves in the playoffs last season, but anything is possible in the perennially weak Eastern Conference. The fact that the biggest impact they made in the playoffs was on Kevin Love’s shoulder is besides the point, they made it to the dance, and that was a big accomplishment. The Celtics are in great shape for the future, but could be set up for some success this season too. With some solid minutes from David Lee and continued off-the-bench excellence from Isaiah Thomas, they could make a run at a higher seed in the East than most expect.
Projected Starting 5: Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Tyler Zeller, David Lee, Evan Turner
Year two under Stan Van Gundy definitely has Pistons fans optimistic. So does Stanley Johnson’s strong showing thus far in preseason play. Johnson, the team’s first-round pick (No. 8 overall), will start the season coming off the bench, but he’ll be making his presence known league wide before too long. Andre Drummond remains one of the game’s best rebounders, and he’ll have a better supporting cast this year to work with.
Projected Starting 5: Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Andre Drummond, Ersan Ilyasova, Marcus Morris
Jockeying For Draft Position
Defensive-minded coach Scott Skiles has his work cut out for him. He’s looking to reshape an Orlando Magic team that had one of the worst point differentials in the league last year and regularly got roasted due to their poor defense. The Magic have some young skilled players like Elfrid Payton who are set to improve on last year’s season. Although they’re trending in the right direction, the Magic are still a year or two away from really competing in the East.
Projected Starting 5: Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Aaron Gordon
The Pacers are trading in bigger and stronger for smaller and quicker, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Clearly the Pacers needed a change in their philosophy after losing Roy Hibbert and David West, but it’ll be interesting to see how the style works for coach Frank Vogel. We’ve already heard rumblings of Paul George being unhappy with his new power forward roll, so forgive the skepticism that this transition will be seamless for the Pacers.
Projected Starting 5: George Hill, Monta Ellis, Ian Mahinmi, C.J. Miles, Paul George
New York Knicks
New York, New York. It’s been a, let’s just say, interesting first year or so for Phil Jackson and company. Through Carmelo Anthony’s knee injury, to the tank job that didn’t really work, to the selecting (and subsequent chiding of said selection) of Kristaps Porzingis, things haven’t exactly been smooth at the Garden since the Zen Master arrived. However, a healthy Anthony combined with Robin Lopez helping out on defense and Arron Afflalo chipping in offensively, the Knicks should be much improved. Of course, that’s not saying much considering they won just 17 games last season.
Projected Starting 5: Jose Calderon, Arron Afflalo, Robin Lopez, Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis
Is the tanking over? Has GM Sam Hinkie finally lost so much that he’s actually won? It doesn’t look like this is going to be the year for the 76ers, but it could at least be the start of something for the much-maligned franchise and its tanking ways. Jahlil Okafor and a healthy Nerlens Noel could thrive together, and Tony Wroten is poised to improve on last year’s solid campaign. So, optimism in Philly? This year, there might just be some.
Projected Starting 5: Tony Wroten, Nik Stauskas, Nerlens Noel, Robert Covington, Jahlil Okafor
It wasn’t a great start to Lionel Hollins era last year to say the very least, and it’s not going to get too much easier this year either. The Nets jettisoned mercurial point guard Deron Williams and are letting Jarrett Jack run the show, a downgrade no matter your feelings on Williams. The Nets re-signed Thaddeus Young, a good move for the club, but they’re still not talented enough to compete in the East. It’ll certainly be interesting to see what the Nets can do with Andrea Bargnani, if anything.
Projected Starting 5: Jarrett Jack, Bojan Bogdanovic, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for either of his other three teams.