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Bold Predictions for the Eastern Conference in 2015-16

Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time of year where I make a bold prediction for each team that I’ll probably regret later. For Part 1, we start with the Eastern Conference.

Atlanta Hawks – Al Horford will post multiple triple-doubles 

We start with one of the bolder predictions in the entire batch. Horford had his first triple-double last year, so projecting him to get two in one year is reaching a bit.

But Horford should be healthier coming into the season. And Mike Budenholzer is going to realize something good happens every time Horford touched the ball last season and work plenty of the offense through him. Horford is an excellent passing big, and with another season in the Hawks’ offense under his belt, will fully showcase his ability in 2015-16.

Washington Wizards – Bradley Beal will win Most Improved Player 

Beal has always been a talented player, and he’s poised to break out this year after a great playoff run. He’s been over 40 percent from three in two straight seasons, and maybe this is the season Randy Wittman finally gives Beal permission to let it fly without a conscience. With Paul Pierce gone, Beal is going to need to be even more of a playmaker if the Wizards are going to improve.

Miami Heat – Dwyane Wade will play under 50 games

Our first sad prediction comes in the form of Wade, who, if this prediction rings true, would play under 50 games in an 82-game season for the first time in his storied career. But Wade’s knee isn’t getting any better, and this year, the Heat might have enough talent in the lineup to absorb losing Wade. If Miami is in a good playoff spot early in the year, the Heat could be very careful with Wade and give him plenty of rest.

Charlotte Hornets – Nicolas Batum will set a career high in PPG 

This is another bold prediction, as Batum is coming off his worst season since his rookie year, and even if he bounces back, he’d have to surpass 14.3 PPG on a bad Charlotte offense.

But that’s part of the reason he might score even more this season. Batum will have to score for Charlotte to succeed, especially if Al Jefferson declines a bit. He’s the only real floor spacer in the starting lineup, and the Hornets gave up a young player and a starter for one year of him. Batum is going to have every chance to succeed, and I think he will.

Orlando Magic – Finish in top 15 in defensive efficiency 

This may not seem like a bold prediction, but Orlando finished 25th in defensive efficiency last year. There are pieces in place for an improved defense, especially with Aaron Gordon likely to play more this season. Scott Skiles will help his team figure it out on that end, and the Magic will take a huge step forward this year.

Cleveland Cavaliers – Kevin Love will start the All-Star Game

The oft-maligned Love will have a redemption year, and people will remember how good he is. Kyrie Irving is likely to miss time at the beginning of the year, making Love the undisputed second-best player on a team that’s likely to run away with the East. Love will learn how to play with LeBron James and put up astronomical numbers until Irving comes back.

Chicago Bulls – Will lead the league in free throw attempts

It’ll be hard for the Bulls to unseat the Kings in free throws, but Rajon Rondo doing everything he can to avoid free throws will help.

Chicago was fifth in free throws attempted last season, and Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic are elite at drawing fouls. Mirotic will get more playing time this season, and a (likely) healthier Derrick Rose should be more comfortable going to the rim.

Add in the fact that Fred Hoiberg‘s free-flowing offense should give Rose and Butler plenty of opportunities to attack downhill against a moving defense, and the Bulls will live at the charity stripe this season.

Indiana Pacers – Will be top 15 in offensive efficiency 

Count me as one of the believers that Indiana’s change in style will lead to more success on the offensive end this year.

The success isn’t all Paul George related, either, as Indiana hasn’t been in the top half of the league offensively in three years. But adding Monta Ellis to the team and embracing small ball in the right offense will be perfect for getting this team back on track. Whether it comes at a great sacrifice on the other end remains to be seen, but Indiana’s offense should be more explosive than it’s been in years.

Milwaukee Bucks – Will fall out of top five in defensive efficiency

Milwaukee was second in defensive efficiency last season and has a young team that’s projected to take a huge step forward. So, why would the team take a step back on defense?

It has to do with two key players who are likely to see a lot of minutes this year. Big free-agent signing Greg Monroe and sophomore Jabari Parker will help grease the wheels of an offense that came to a grinding halt all too often last season. But both players project to be defensive liabilities, and although the outstanding perimeter defense will cover some mistakes, the Bucks’ defense will have more cracks.

Detroit Pistons – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will shoot over 40 percent from deep

Caldwell-Pope shot 34.5 percent last season and 31.9 percent his rookie year, so 40 percent is a tall order. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

After plenty of lineup tinkering, Stan Van Gundy finally has the type of team he wants. Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond will pick-and-roll the league to death, and shooters will surround them.

One of those shooters will be Caldwell-Pope, and with a better offensive structure and more weapons (like Ersan Ilyasova), Caldwell-Pope should get more open looks. He has a pure shooting stroke and looks like he could be a knockdown shooter with some development.

Toronto Raptors – Fall out of top 10 in offensive efficiency 

Toronto was third in offensive efficiency last year and added a weapon in DeMarre Carroll. But the team is still likely to take a step back.

The Raptors hit a lot of tough shots last season, and they were very productive for an isolation-based offense without a Kevin Durant-like scorer. Plus, the team lost super-sub Lou Williams, who started last year on an absurd hot streak.

Toronto will likely have a better offensive showing in the playoffs this year, but the regular season will be much uglier.

Boston Celtics – James Young will notch a 20-point game

That’s right! James Young, who was seldom used his rookie season, is going to have the random 20-point game this year. He has a ton of talent and can get hot from deep. Young won’t harness all his ability this year, but it’ll manifest itself for at least one game into something special.

Brooklyn Nets – Finish last in the league in pace

It was very difficult to find something to feel strongly about anything the Nets do, as the team is the league’s emblem of apathy.

But without noted slowpoke Deron Williams, the Nets are actually going to go even slower than the 25th-ranked pace the team managed last season.

Even without Williams, the best strategy on offense will be feeding Lopez down low and isolating Joe Johnson. No one in the starting lineup will run, and the Nets will have to try and grind out wins. Factor in the fact that most of the teams behind Brooklyn in pace last year will likely play faster, and everyone will leave this team in the dust.

Philadelphia 76ers – Jahlil Okafor will average over 20 PPG

Okafor has many flaws and has been picked apart more than any of the other top five picks this year. Factor in the concern about how often his shot gets blocked, and there are concerns over his scoring in the NBA.

Well, I’m not buying it. Okafor will have issues, but scoring won’t be one of them. He has one of the most advanced array of post moves out of a rookie in the last decade, and somebody needs to score on the woeful 76ers offense. Philadelphia took a step toward defensive respectability last year, and Okafor will help them take a step toward offensive respectability this year.

New York Knicks – Kyle O’Quinn will average 20+ minutes a night

Maybe not the boldness Knicks fans hoped to end on, but O’Quinn can play! He’ll probably be the second-best big on the team at the start of the year while Kristaps Porzingis adjusts to the league, and he’ll get more of a chance to showcase his basketball IQ than he did in Orlando. The Knicks season may not be wrought with good stories, but O’Quinn will be one of the bright spots.

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