Sep 26, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love (0), forward LeBron James (23) and guard Kyrie Irving (2) pose during a photo session during media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
In the NBA’s Eastern Conference, one question has been asked every season for the last six years. That question is simple, can anyone stop LeBron James?
In the NBA, the Western Conference is arguably the better conference than the East. The Eastern Conference has had one shining star throughout the 2010’s and that star is LeBron James. Whether he played for Miami or Cleveland, James has been on the Eastern Conference Championship team every year since the 2010-2011 season.
The last team to win the East other than Cleveland or Miami was the Boston Celtics in 2010. In recent years the Eastern Conference has fallen short of the stardom and tough competition that the Western Conference gives us. Even great teams like the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, and Toronto Raptors just can’t compete with James and the Cavs.
This season, teams have made some adjustments and look formidable against the King and his court. The Knicks have more star power this season with Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose. The addition of Al Horford in Boston is highly noticeable. Dwight Howard has had a decent preseason with his return to Atlanta. Dwyane Wade has also has gone to his hometown to play with Rajon Rondo and Jimmy Butler.
These teams are far from scrubs in the Eastern Conference. There’s no denying that for once the Eastern Conference looks tough. King James and the Cavs may have a more challenging road to the NBA Finals this season.
Still, in order for the Cleveland vs. Golden State showdown to happen, the NBA season must be played. Within that season, predictions must be made. Here is my prediction of the eight teams that will make it to the Eastern Conference playoffs in the 2017 season.
The Detroit Pistons made the eighth and final seed last season due to the combination of Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond. Coach Stan Van Gundy led the team to a 44-38 record with a defense that allowed 101.4 points per game. Recently, it was reported via ESPN.com that Jackson is likely to miss the first six to eight weeks of the season.
With Jackson sidelined, Ish Smith will take the point guard position. Smith is more than capable of maintaining the Pistons attack. Smith averaged a solid 12.6 points and 6.5 assists per game last season with the Philadelphia 76ers. However, without Jackson, the Pistons will have to stay at least .500 until his return.
Last season, the Pistons were arguably the toughest competition the Cavaliers had in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The Pistons held Cleveland to just over 100 points per game in that series. The Pistons kept in striking distance in all but one game during the series.
In Games 3 and 4, the Pistons lost by a combined four points. However, the youth of the Pistons was outmatched by the experience of LeBron James and company. The Pistons had multiple chances to steal a game, they just couldn’t close.
Aside from Reggie Jackson, the current Pistons roster has very little playoff experience. As a result, this season will be a test to see if the Pistons can sneak back into the postseason. As I stated, the Eastern Conference will be tougher this season. The Pistons have to survive while Jackson nurses his injury in order to make the eighth seed.
NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 15: The New York Knicks bench reacts after a basket against the Boston Celtics during the second half of their preseason game at Madison Square Garden on October 15, 2016 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
7. New York Knicks
The Knicks will make the playoffs, barely. On paper, the Knicks should win the Atlantic Division. However, the amount of chatter coming from the Knicks camp this preseason has been extraordinary.
This along with Derrick Rose is a major distraction from the chemistry issues this team already has. Head coach Jeff Hornacek recently told Frank Isola of the New York Daily News that the players don’t like to run the triangle offense.
With Rose handling legal issues, and the team unsure of their offensive identity, there will be struggles early this season. However, the Knicks have enough players that can get wins. The addition of Brandon Jennings will help the Knicks offensively and Joakim Noah will continue to protect the rim.
At this point, you really can’t expect the Knicks to do make it past the seventh seed. There appears to be too much focus on other things aside from basketball. Anthony has to stop worrying about what a magazine says about him and Rose needs to get back.
Until this team discovers it’s true identity and gets everyone in the lineup, we won’t know how good or bad they are. However, Phil Jackson needs to let his coaches coach and stop pulling a Jerry Jones with this franchise.
The Chicago Bulls had an interesting offseason. They brought Dwyane Wade home and added former Celtic Rajon Rondo to their lineup. Also, Robin Lopez is now the centerpiece in the paint. Most recently, the Bulls acquired Michael Carter-Williams from the Milwaukee Bucks for Tony Snell.
This team intrigues me, it has a perfect mixture of youth and experience. If anything the addition of Wade and Rondo will help Jimmy Butler become an even better player. However, Rondo is no stranger to emotion and drama. Rondo has been rather uncoachable at times since Doc Rivers left Boston.
The Bulls will struggle with their three-point shot. Wade, Rondo, and Carter-Williams all shot poorly from three last season. Wade and Carter-Williams were especially bad, with Wade at 30% and Carter-Williams at 27% from three.
However, despite all that, head coach Fred Hoiberg is expected to grow as a coach. At the Chicago Bulls media day, #bullstalk via csnchicago.com reported that Butler suggested that Hoiberg should get on his tail about every little thing during practice. The idea is for Hoiberg to be a tougher coach.
This is something you almost never see in the NBA. A player that wants a tougher coach, Butler wants a coach like Gregg Popovich. The Bulls will rely heavily on Butler’s leadership and youth during the regular season. The biggest key will be controlling the ever emotional rollercoaster that is Rondo.
It’s possible that I under-ranked the Indiana Pacers. This team has a talented roster. The addition of Jeff Teague and Al Jefferson should be felt almost instantly. They added Aaron Brooks and Thaddeus Young as well, making this team a formidable squad.
The Pacers may be the only team in the Central Division who can challenge the mighty Cavaliers. They should be able to finish the season with at least 50 wins this season. After the release of Head Coach Frank Vogel, Indiana promoted assistant coach Nate McMillan to the helm of the Pacers coaching staff.
McMillan stated at media day via Nate Taylor of indystar.com that he wants to push the tempo. He also will be a demanding coach with high expectations. He fully expects this team to win the division and the conference.
This accomplishment is unlikely; however, it can be done. Indiana has a nice balance of scoring and defensive presence. Al Jefferson will be a key player for the Pacers this season, He’ll come off the bench while Myles Turner will get the starting role for the Pacers.
Jefferson isn’t a stranger to a bench role. Last season, he posted 12 points and 6.4 rebounds for the Hornets. During that time, he came off the bench for a majority of the season. The Pacers bench will thrive off of Al Jefferson being in the paint. Aaron Brooks averaged 7.1 points and 2.6 assists per game last season with Chicago. His numbers and minutes will help boost the second unit with Indiana.
ATLANTA, GA – OCTOBER 13: Mike Budenholzer of the Atlanta Hawks converses with Dennis Schroder
4. Atlanta Hawks
The new era in Atlanta begins this season. The departure of Jeff Teague and Al Horford has promoted Dennis Schroder and the newly acquired Dwight Howard to running the show in Atlanta.
While the Dwight Howard move seems like a match made in heaven, it’s unclear if Howard will remain happy with this team. It’s no secret that Howard wasn’t happy in Orlando, Los Angeles, and Houston. Now, he is back home in Atlanta, playing alongside Paul Milsap who has been the anchor for ATL since he arrived in 2013.
Now head coach Mike Budenholzer seemingly has a roster that can compete in the East. The former San Antonio Spurs assistant has tried mightily to implement the Spurs offensive and defensive scheme in Atlanta.
The pick-and-roll offense will help revive Howard’s career. As a result, fans will be much happier with D-12. What’s going to be a key factor for Atlanta is Howard’s rebounding. Last season, the Hawks were dead last in offensive rebounding. Their offensive rating was 105.1 which ranked 22nd in the NBA.
This season, the Hawks have a clean slate and a chance to change their perception as the Eastern Conference Spurs in the NBA. If they can increase their offensive rebounding and add more points on the board, they can easily win the Southeast Division and it won’t be close.
The Toronto Raptors impressed the rest of the NBA last season being the only team to beat the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The Raptors won a franchise high 56 games last season; however, can they do it again this season?
One favorable trait for the Raptors is they didn’t lose DeMar DeRozan to free agency. In fact, they paid DeRozan a cool $139 million over five years. However, they did lose Bismack Biyombo, Luis Scola, and James Johnson. The Raptors added Jared Sullinger to fill the void left by Biyombo. However, Jonas Valanciunas must improve this season.
Last season, Valanciunas averaged just 12.8 points and 9.1 rebounds a game for the Raptors. There’s no reason Valanciunas can’t average15 points, 12 rebounds season with Biyombo gone. One major worry is if Kyle Lowry will regress this season. This season being a contract year for Lowry, he’ll have to maintain his current level of play to cash in like his teammate DeRozan.
The Raptors will undoubtedly be the favorites to win the Atlantic Division. However, Boston will be the ultimate victor leaving Toronto in the number three spot for the postseason.
The Boston Celtics are finally ready to take that next step in the NBA. No longer will they flirt with making the playoffs. The Boston Celtics will take the league by storm this season. Adding Al Horford was a huge plus, and a healthy Celtic team can have multiple scorers on the floor to play with Isaiah Thomas.
Boston will also have a huge advantage shooting the three-ball this season. Collectively, the team shot 33% from three last season. Expect that number to grow with multiple shooters and floor spacing for the Celtics this season.
Boston will play small-ball this season, Al Horford will defend the paint as well as shoot the outside jumper. There are guys like Marcus Smart who can guard multiple positions while handling the ball in the offensive set.
Boston will utilize it’s talented roster and create open shots for players through excellent floor spacing. Teams will have to defend the three-point shot in order to stop the Celtics this season.
Basketball: NBA Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers J.R. Smith (5) victorious with Kyrie Irving (2) during game vs Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. Game 7. Oakland, CA 6/19/2016 CREDIT: John W. McDonough (Photo by John W. McDonough /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: SI146 TK1 )
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
Now that J.R. Smith has his shirt and contract situation under wraps, the Cavs can begin their quest to repeat as NBA Champions. The road for Cleveland this season may not be as easy during the Eastern Conference Playoffs with so many teams in the East much improved from last season.
The Cavs added in savvy veterans, built for the postseason. They acquired Chris Andersen, Mike Dunleavy Jr, and retained Richard Jefferson for one more season. This in combination with Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Kevin Love automatically makes Cleveland the favorite.
James will be the tone-setter for Cleveland again this season. The team will live and die by how James plays and leads in the locker room. With the reward of a championship already won, it will be a struggle to maintain focus and compete for a second title.
There’s no doubt that Cleveland can repeat this season, James and company know that there’s a big target on their back. Teams throughout the East stacked up in hopes of keeping James from reaching his seventh straight NBA Finals.