Here's a way too early look at the 2016-17 Eastern Conference.
1. The Returning NBA Champions.
The Cavaliers liked their squad, so they went ahead and put a ring on it.
The Raptors may have the most continuity of any team from last season, basically keeping together their squad that finished second in the East and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. They lost starting power forward Luis Scola, replacing him with Jared Sullinger on a one-year deal, and lost backup center Bismack Biyombo, essentially replacing him with rookie Jakob Poeltl. They may need more contributions from their youngsters like Poeltl, Bebe Nogueira and Norman Powell this upcoming season, but I don't see enough of a loss from them or a gain by any other team in the East to justify knocking the Raptors out of the No. 2 seed.
If there is any one move that did swing the Eastern Conference power balance, it's Al Horford leaving Atlanta for Boston. This may be hard to convince Cavs fans because of Horford's two subpar playoff series against the Cavs (hey, it's not his fault he can't matchup well with NBA Champion Tristan Thompson), but the nine-year veteran is one of the best all-around big men in the league. The Celtics also added promising youngster Jaylen Brown from Cal with the third pick in the draft. A closing five of Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Al Horford and either Kelly Olynyk or Marcus Smart is really solid, and they still have depth on top of that. This Boston team still has a ceiling of being a good team that will perpetually be in every trade discussion until they make a move with their collection of assets.
The problem is that general manager Danny Ainge seems to overvalue his own assets and once a first round pick turns into an actual player, the asset becomes depleted. The Celtics will be an excellent regular season threat with Horford now on board, some improvement from their young players, and Brad Stevens' above-average coaching chops, but they still lack the star power to truly register as an Eastern Conference threat.
The Pistons, much like the Raptors, will be returning much of their same squad from last season. Key players like Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should be entering the primes of their careers. Jackson is already 26, but KCP and Drummond are only 23 and 22 respectively. Last year's lottery pick Stanley Johnson made a name for himself by inexplicably talking smack about LeBron James in the postseason, but he's as tough as they come and will surely play a bigger role for the team going forward. The Pistons made a couple of moves on the margins, stealing Boban Marjanovic from San Antonio, signing stretch big Jon Leuer and shoring up the backup point guard spot with the well-traveled Ish Smith. Another year under Stan Van Gundy, along with continuity, improving youngsters and building from the taste of the postseason they got should all combine to help these young Pistons make a leap from the bottom of the East playoff picture to the middle of the pack. In fact, it wouldn't shock me if they challenged for the 2 seed. The X-factor: Can Reggie Jackson be the full-time floor general they really need him to be?
Losing Frank Vogel could hurt, but Larry Bird thought they needed a change, naming the previously successful Nate McMillan as their new Head Coach. The Pacers seem to be embracing the small-ball revolution by grabbing Thaddeus Young from Brooklyn to start at the four. Young isn't a stretch-four necessarily, but he'll most likely be starting next to second year stud Myles Turner, whose ability to shoot the ball from deep will offset Young's weakness in that facet of the game. Turner is one of the rare NBA unicorns that can shoot it from deep and protect the rim. Downgrading from George Hill to Jeff Teague was a move I still don't totally understand; Hill was underutilized last year after really breaking out in the 2014-15 season when Pacers' star Paul George was on the shelf. But Hill is still a superior defender and three-point shooter to Teague, although Teague may be better at pushing the pace, which is the style Bird and McMillan will emphasize.
Coming off a horrific leg injury, George came out of the gates playing phenomenal ball before seeing his numbers decline towards the end of last year. George still had enough left to take his Pacers to seven games with the Raptors on the first round, and in most games it was clear that George was the best player on the floor. Another year removed from his injury and George should carry this squad to being a solid playoff team again. They also added Al Jefferson, and while the modern NBA has moved away from the type of post-up basketball that Jefferson excels at, he can still score efficiently and could really add some punch to Indiana's bench unit.
These guys had one of the best seasons in franchise history last year. They took the Heat to seven games in the First Round. Kemba Walker had a career year. Coach Steve Clifford solidified himself as one of the better coaches in the league. Losing Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin, and replacing them with Marco Belinelli and Ramon Sessions, is a significant downgrade. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who will be back after an injury-plagued season, is a tenacious, skilled defender, but his inability to shoot could hinder Charlotte's offense significantly. The spacing that allowed Walker to have a career year could disappear unless MKG can start knocking down some jumpers. Marvin Williams had a career year as well, finally finding his niche as a small-ball four, but he's on the other side of 30 now. This is a solid squad, but I just don't see where they can improve much on last season.
If John Wall and Bradley Beal are truly a max backcourt, it's time to show it. Not to come off all hot-takey, but these guys in their prime simply should not miss the playoffs for another year. New Head Coach Scott Brooks has his detractors but he's viewed as an upgrade over previous head man Randy Wittman. They made some quiet moves on the margins; signing big man Ian Mahinmi from Indiana to shore up their rebounding and defense. Andrew Nicholson is coming off a career year from the 3-point arc and the Wizards are probably hoping he can replace the departed Jared Dudley as their stretch-4. Euro combo guard Tomas Satoransky should be a solid role player off the bench, and they have high hopes for 2015 First Round pick Kelly Oubre.
I really wanted to knock the Hawks out of the playoffs. It isn't so much the change from Al Horford to Atlanta native Dwight Howard. I just don't trust Dennis Schröder to lead the team on a nightly basis. As a change of pace guy from the departed Jeff Teague? Sure. But Schröder's inconsistent shooting and questionable decision-making leaves a lot to be desired. In the past iteration of the Hawks, when they had shooters playing at every other spot, Schröder would've made more sense. But with Howard replacing Horford, their spacing/quick passing/moving offense will be more bogged down and the point guard will have to play a bigger role. We'll see how that goes. In the end, I just I have too much respect for All-Star forward Paul Millsap and Coach Budenholzer to knock these guys out of a playoff spot. But given the age of some key contributors (Kyle Korver is 35) and the newly thinned-out bench, it wouldn't shock me if these guys missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton is a really nice core to build their foundation around. The question is whether or not the Bucks have the right personnel around these three. They signed Greg Monroe last offseason to be another building block, but he didn't really fit last season, and the fact that Milwaukee would love to trade him is the worst-kept secret in the league. Backup bigs Miles Plumlee and John Henson are better athletes than Monroe, and probably better fits at the five, but they're not without limitations of their own. The newly signed and underrated Mirza Teletovic will help spread the floor from the four position. If the Bucks are serious about playing the 6'11 Greak Freak as a point guard, then newly acquired NBA Champion Matthew Dellavedova should fit nicely too as Delly can reliably guard opposing ones while spotting up off the ball offensively and occasionally being a secondary creator. Another year of improvement from Giannis and Parker could have these guys making a big jump if Jason Kidd figures out how to put the whole puzzle together.
10. Chicago Bulls
In the modern NBA, spacing is a must. So when your best three-point shooter out of your starting guards and small forward shot 31 percent from deep last year, it's a sign of trouble. Robin Lopez is solid at center and he comes in to replace the departed Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol. Nikola Mirotic will most likely take over at the four and will help with the spacing issues. Jimmy Butler is arguably a top-5 player in the Eastern Conference and Dwyane Wade just proved in the playoffs that he can still reach a very high level of basketball. But newly signed point guard Rajon Rondo, despite leading the league in assists last season, is at the point where he's more just putting up empty numbers and not actually contributing to winning basketball.
Taj Gibson, Douggie McBuckets and Bobby Portis will all contribute off the bench. But when you put it altogether it's hard to see what will work for this team. Do they just bench Rondo eventually and have Butler and Wade handle the ball while playing McDermott more at the 3 to add some shooting? Butler is so freaking good and Wade still can be that it wouldn't shock me to see these guys end up a top-6 seed in the East. Right now, though, I want them to prove to me how they're going to make it work despite their lack of spacing before I buy in.
11. New York Knicks
This team would be awesome in 2012 if they could time travel and bring Kristaps Porzingis with them. Unfortunately for them, it's 2016 and acquiring Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah isn't the answer to what ails them. Noah was hurt most of last season and was ineffective when healthy, so of course the Knicks decided to give him a four-year deal. Rose occasionally flashes signs of his old-self but unfortunately he's been unable to maintain the consistent level of play that he was at pre-injuries.
Carmelo Anthony can still fill it up and actually posted a career-high assist rate last season. Courtney Lee at the two will be a good fit. Porzingis is a stud and the future of their franchise, but his ability to stretch the floor as a big isn't as valuable from the four position as it would be from the five and the Knicks must not think he's ready to play the five because they gave Noah a four-year deal. Like Chicago, it wouldn't shock me if these guys made the playoffs but I need to see if Noah can get back to his old self and if Rose can show more consistency before I slot them over any of the teams above.
12. Miami Heat
Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside are both above average starters but when they're your two best players, is that enough? If Chris Bosh can make a return to basketball, the Heat can absolutely be a playoff squad, but Bosh's uncertain health leaves this team in limbo. Youngsters Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson and Justise Winslow look like keepers but they'll all have greatly expanded roles this season. Are they good enough for that? Besides losing former Heat lifer Dwyane Wade, they also need to replace the departed Luol Deng and Joe Johnson. They signed a bunch of guys to short-term deals - Wayne Ellington, Derrick Williams, Willie Reed and James Johnson - but none of those guys will be difference makers. It would be awesome if Bosh can come back and move everyone on the team to a more comfortable role but without him it doesn't look pretty.
13. Orlando Magic
Winner of the oddest offseason goes to the Magic. Hiring Frank Vogel was smart; Vogel's a really good coach; He led the Pacers to the playoffs in five of his six years in Indiana, building a reputation as a top-notch defensive coach in the process. The roster moves were strange, though: the Magic moved Victor Oladipo and others to Oklahoma City in exchange for Serge Ibaka. Even though Ibaka has plateaued a bit, he's still a really good starter. Problem is, Aaron Gordon is arguably the Magic best young building block and it's unclear whether Ibaka and Gordon can play together. Starting center Nikola Vucevic has been a 19 point, 10 rebound per game guy over the past two years but Orlando still decided to give former Raptor Bismack Biyombo a $70 million contract to play the same position. Biyombo provides athleticism and a defensive ability that Vucevic doesn't but the Magic will not have enough scoring with Vucevic playing reduced minutes.
And then when it was clear that the Magic have a logjam at the four and the five, they go out and give Jeff Green $15 million for one year when he's best suited as a small-ball four. It's unclear whether young point guard Elfrid Payton is actually any good. They brought back Evan Fournier to be a starter on the wing and he's coming off a career year but if he's your go-to guy offensively that's troublesome. Mario Hezonja, picked fifth in the 2015 draft, is a promising scorer on the wing but he has a ways to go to contributing to winning basketball. There are some pieces to like here and this team will be super athletic and potentially very good defensively but will they be able to put the ball in the basket enough? Vogel has a tough job in front of him.
The 76ers should finally have all of their young players available this year, with forward Dario Saric coming over from Europe and f Joel Embiid supposedly finally healthy. They added Australian point-forward Ben Simmons with the first pick in the draft. It will be exciting to watch this team develop, but they also have some clear problems. There too many bigs, and it's unclear whether any of them can effectively play together or if they're all best-suited to play the five. Philadelphia signed a few veterans like wing Gerald Henderson, combo guard Jerryd Bayless and the long-bearded Spanish point guard Sergio Rodriguez but these are just gap-fillers and won't be difference makers. However, they'll help Philadelphia resemble more of an actual NBA team this season, which should be a nice shift from the misery Sixers fans have endured over the past few years.
15. Brooklyn Nets
The Nets took some risks this offseason by signing promising youngsters Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson to offer sheets, but unfortunately for Brooklyn, both were restricted free agents and their original teams brought them back. Despite the disappointment, the Nets should be better than last year; newly signed Jeremy Lin is a clear upgrade at point guard. Brook Lopez will continue to produce at the five. But the wings and the four-spot are a whole lot of question marks. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is their most promising youngster but he's a wing that can't shoot a lick and it's unclear what his role will be in the NBA.
They have other young guys like Chris McCullogh and Sean Kilpatrick, but the ceiling for them is more role player than starter. New general manager Sean Marks came over from San Antonio and wanted to sign guys to help the team get better this year because they don't own their own draft pick again, but there are still way too many holes on this roster to see anything besides slight improvement - which will still be bad enough for dead last in the East, and maybe even dead last in the league.