The NBA’s Eastern Conference has delivered at least one annual regular-season surprise in recent years. Two years ago, the Atlanta Hawks rose to the No. 1 seed in the conference, a stunning development during LeBron James’ first year back in Cleveland. Last season, the seemingly on-the-rise Milwaukee Bucks unraveled, and seemingly on-the-rise Washington Wizards surprisingly also missed the playoffs.
In NBA.com’s annual general manager poll released last week, GMs pick Cleveland, Toronto, Boston and Indiana to finish first through fourth in the conference. Though the poll asked only for a top four, Detroit, Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington essentially finished fifth through eighth.
Realistically, though, it’s difficult to predict anything in the East beyond the expected excellence of Cleveland, and the likelihood that Toronto and the Al Horford-augmented Celtics will be formidable.
That leaves five playoff spots, and a case could be made for nine teams in that discussion — the Pacers, Pistons, Hawks, Hornets, Wizards, Bulls, Heat, Knicks and Magic.
Only Brooklyn and Philadelphia appear, on paper, to have no realistic chance of a postseason berth, and Milwaukee — without its leading scorer for three months — stands as a long shot, too.
Rounding up the changes in the East’s 14 other teams, besides the Heat. Going alphabetically, by division:
▪ Boston: Should be a top four seed after adding Horford, despite the loss of Jared Sullinger and Evan Turner. Solid starting lineup with Horford, Amir Johnson and underrated Jae Crowder up front and Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley in the backcourt. Ex-California small forward Jaylen Brown, the third pick in June’s draft, has great off-the-dribble skills.
▪ Brooklyn: Added point guard Jeremy Lin and a bunch of journeymen or players with blemishes (Randy Foye, Luis Scola, Trevor Booker, Anthony Bennett, Justin Hamilton, Greivis Vasquez). With Thaddeus Young, Jarrett Jack and Wayne Ellington gone, this doesn’t appear appreciably better than last year’s 21-win team. New coach Kenny Atkinson has only one above-average starter — center Brook Lopez.
▪ New York: On paper, would seem somewhat improved with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings, despite the loss of Robin Lopez, Aaron Afflalo, Derrick Williams, Langston Galloway and Jose Calderon off a 32-win team. A Carmelo Anthony/Kristaps Porzingis/Noah frontcourt has great potential. But can declining Noah and Rose recapture their past form?
▪ Philadelphia: Probably not as dismal as last year’s 10-win team, with the addition of Gerald Henderson, Jerryd Bayless and No. 1 pick Ben Simmons (expected to miss three months with a broken foot) and center Joel Embiid’s return after missing two seasons with foot problems. Jahlil Okafor (17.5 points, 7.0 rebounds) should become one of the NBA’s best power forwards.
▪ Toronto: Sullinger was the only significant addition to a 56-win team that took Cleveland to six games in the Eastern finals, and he’s out indefinitely with a foot injury. The Raptors also get a healthy DeMarre Carroll, who was limited to 26 regular-season games because of injuries. But they will miss Bismack Biyombo’s defensive disruptiveness off the bench.
▪ Chicago: Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, Robin Lopez, Michael Carter-Williams and Jerian Grant are in. Rose, Noah, Pau Gasol, Mike Dunleavy, Tony Snell and Aaron Brooks are gone. Can start an interesting lineup of Wade, Rondo, Jimmy Butler, Lopez and a combination of Taj Gibson or Nikola Mirotic or Bobby Portis. But Wade and Rondo comprise the league’s worst three-point shooting backcourt.
▪ Cleveland: The defending champs added Dunleavy and Chris Anderson to a roster without any holes, beyond possibly backup point guard (Matthew Delladova left for Milwaukee; Mo Williams retired). “My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing,” LeBron James said this summer, via SI.com. “The ghost played in Chicago.” The odds are against James (three titles) matching Michael Jordan’s six.
▪ Detroit: Bolstered a 44-win eighth seed with under-the-radar pickups Ish Smith, Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic. Lineup of Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tobias Harris (strong trade-deadline pickup), Marcus Morris and Andre Drummond should be good enough for another playoff berth.
▪ Indiana: Beyond Paul George’s excellence, why did GMs pick the Pacers as the fourth-best team in the East? They added three accomplished starters to a 45-win team: Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson, plus slam dunk champ Jeremy Evans and Aaron Brooks; Ian Mahinmi and three Hills (George, Solomon and Jordan) moved on. Second-year center Myles Turner shows considerable promise.
▪ Milwaukee: Last year’s 33-win team, the NBA’s biggest disappointment, added three notable veterans (Delladova, Snell and sharp-shooting Mirza Teletovic), traded Carter-Williams and lost leading scorer Khris Middleton until at least the All-Star break with a hamstring injury. Fortunes could change if Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker take the step from good to great.
SOUTHEAST DIVISION (excluding the Heat)
▪ Atlanta: Should take a step back from 48 wins after losing Horford and Teague. Hawks must hope for close to the vintage version of Dwight Howard, who joins a starting lineup of Dennis Schroder (his development made Teague expendable), Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore and Paul Millsap.
▪ Charlotte: The 48-win Hornets lost rotation players in Lin, Lee and Jefferson and added spare parts in Roy Hibbert (a shadow of his former self) and two backup guards in Ramon Sessions and Marco Bellinelli, who’s coming off his worst season. Kemba Walker and Nic Batum will keep Charlotte competitive, and Michael Kidd Gilchrist returns from last year’s torn labrum, but development is needed from Frank Kaminsky, Cody Zeller and Jeremy Lamb.
▪ Orlando: Intriguing, because of the addition of a playoff-tested coach (Frank Vogel), two strong defensive presences (Serge Ibaka and Biyombo), backup shooters in Jodie Meeks and DJ Augustin and veteran Jeff Green. But adding Ibaka meant losing Victor Oladipo, and point guard Elfrid Payton must improve his perimeter shooting. The Magic believes it will be fine at the wing positions with Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja.
▪ Washington: Despite tumbling from the second round of the playoffs to 10th in the conference (41-41), the Wizards attributed that partly to injuries and retained their key pieces (John Wall, Bradley Beal, Marcin Gorcat, Markieff Morris), while tinkering with their bench, adding Trey Burke, Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith, and moving on from Jared Dudley, Gary Neal, Nene, Sessions and Garrett Temple.