The East is paradoxically predictable and volatile this season. On the one hand, the Eastern finals representative seems almost pre-determined, but at the same time, almost every other place in the conference’s hierarchy seems to be up for grabs. In fact, the only team I can’t imagine having any chance at making the playoffs is the one organization not trying to get there this season: The 76ers. A big part of this is because of the lack of great teams in the conference; when everyone’s bad, anyone can be good by comparison. These are my guesses, not picks, of where the Teams in the East will fall.
- Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs are the favorites to win the conference, plain and simple. Even if they don’t finish atop the East because of Kyrie’s injury and/or taking a marathoner’s approach to the regular season, they will be the wire-to-wire front-runners in the East unless something happens to LeBron James.
- Chicago Bulls: This is the only team in the East that I could see beating Cleveland in a seven game series. Who knows what the team will look like with Fred Hoiberg taking Tom Thibodeau’s place at the helm, but the Bulls are returning the better part of their roster and should stand a cut or two above the rest of the Eastern Conference.
- Atlanta Hawks: They may have been exposed last year in the playoffs, but this team won 60 games last season by perfecting pace and space under Mike Budenholzer, and I expect them to rack up plenty of wins with the same style of play–in the regular season anyway.
- Miami Heat: Is Dwyane Wayde going to miss games at some point in the season? Yes. Is there a risk Hassan Whiteside looks more like pre-2014 Whiteside next year than what we saw last season? Absolutely. However, I feel like this team is pretty interesting and has one of the strongest starting lineups in the East. I expect them to win a good amount of games this season and possibly win a playoff series.
- Toronto Raptors: They added DeMarre Carroll, lost Amir Johnson, and made some other moves that will affect their bench more than their starting lineup. Why do I have them ahead of the team that swept them in the playoffs? (We’ll get to the Wizards in a moment) Because these rankings are for the regular season, and this group has won 48 and 49 games in the past two seasons. The regular season is a different brand of basketball from the playoffs, and the Raptors have shown a lot of consistency playing the former.
- Milwaukee Bucks: Greg Monroe feels like the perfect addition to a team that badly needed interior presence, and a lot of people are expecting them to improve because of it. As long as the rest of the team doesn’t regress, Milwaukee could take another step up in the Eastern Conference. They may not improve their position in the standings, but I think it will take more wins to place sixth in the East this year than last.
- Washington Wizards: This one’s pretty bold, but I think the Wizards could falter a lot this season. They could also finish as high as third if everything goes well, but I feel like losing Paul Pierce might hurt this team more than it might make sense. Putting them at seven is really a gut feeling more than anything. Any of the teams I have third through seventh could finish in any order, but this is the order I like, for now.
- Boston Celtics: (Full disclosure, I’m a Celtics fan) This team SHOULD be better than it was last year; Marcus Smart will be entering his second year, Isaiah Thomas will have a full season with the team, and the team added David Lee and Amir Johnson. Unfortunately, “should” does not necessarily mean “will” and this team will be fighting off the others looking to grab the final playoff spot until the end of the year. I think they can win that fight, but just barely.
Here’s another bold prediction: for the first time in three seasons, a .500 record won’t be good enough for a playoff spot in the East. The Pistons will be left with a .500 or better record and missing out, and the Pacers will be just under that mark. In case you were wondering how the rest of the conference shakes out:
Please keep in mind I’m guessing, and am fully aware that all of this is conjecture.