Replacing Al Horford with Dwight Howard is a downgrade both on and off the court. Howard is no longer a top-tier centre and has been nothing but a headache for his coaches and teammates in recent seasons. With the transition to the flashy and mercurial Dennis Schroder as point guard, growing pains will be inevitable. The Hawks will struggle at times, endure a handful of Dwight-mares, but ultimately still have the pieces in place to sneak into the playoffs in a top-heavy Eastern Conference.
Despite last season’s optimism—when the team almost won fifty games and point-guard Kemba Walker evolved into a stud—the Hornets now lack depth following the departures of quality backup Jeremy Lin and the gritty Courtney Lee. Adding Roy Hibbert and Ramon Sessions would have helped the team in 2012, but it is not 2012, and the Hornets will regress. Michael Jordan will again be disappointed as Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will trample his team if they manage to make the playoffs.
Aiming for backcourt stability, the Wizards gave Bradley Beal an undeservedly monster-sized contract–underappreciated point-guard John Wall says he’s not jealous. The two guards make up the Wizards’ backcourt, but with Beal’s streaky shooting, this duo might have a strenuous relationship. Without adding any legitimate starters, Washington is stalling and shouldn’t improve from last year’s .500 record, falling short of the playoffs and wasting another year with Wall’s affordable contract on the books.
The Magic are trying to rebuild like it’s 2009 with two starting centres. Trading for forward Serge Ibaka in exchange for Victor Oladipo was a smart move. Adding Bismack Biyombo, however, was redundant and ignored the fact that no one on the Magic can shoot. Besides these two seven-footers, the Magic hope that Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier will improve and that Aaron Gordon will learn the basketball skills to match his athleticism. The paint defense will be impenetrable, but useless if the team can’t make a three pointer.
Dwyane Wade fled, Joe Johnson left, and Chris Bosh appears to be done. Yet, things aren’t so bad in Miami. Hassan Whiteside is locked in as the new franchise superstar, Justise Winslow resembles a young Ron Artest, and Dion Waiters is out of Russell Westbrook’s shadow. Erik Spoelstra is still a solid coach and his team will most likely rebuild effectively. Still, the Heat are probably a few years away from contention and will be in the lottery this season.
With a bevy of young talent, the Celtics have finally left obscurity and returned to form as NBA Finals contenders. Under the tutelage of Head Coach Brad Stevens, Boston has become an attractive place for marquee free agents. In a top-heavy Eastern Conference, the addition of Al Horford will probably help them eclipse Toronto for the top spot in the Atlantic and the second seed in the Eastern Conference come playoff time.
The Raptors have the tough task of trying to top the Celtics for their fourth straight Atlantic Division championship. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have shown that they can carry a team to the playoffs, but they still lack that last piece to bring them to the NBA finals. If they can trade for another superstar, they might be able to break the Cleveland Cavaliers’ two-year streak as Eastern Conference champions.
New York Knicks
If we could turn back the clock by six years, the Knicks’ current roster would challenge this season’s Golden State Warriors on superstar-power alone. Unfortunately, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Carmelo Anthony are all well past their NBA primes. Although Rose and Noah could see their roles reduced this year, they should help the development of sophmore big Kristaps Porzingis as he transitions into a bonafide star. However, expect the Knicks to once again be a middling team this year.
The eternal rebuild continues in Philadelphia. There was a time when the City of Brotherly Love believed in “The Process,” but that time has long passed. The multi-year tanking project that acquired Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, and Jahlil Okafor has yielded nothing. 2016 pick Ben Simmons will not fix this trend. Another lost season and high lottery pick is on the cards for the 76ers.
Brooklyn might be the only team worse than Philadelphia this year. Expectations are so low, a 15-win season would be seen as a success. Frankly, if the NBA had relegation the Nets might not even win the D-League. This team is totally unwatchable; it won’t even get to use their inevitably high draft pick because they traded it to Boston three years ago. Nets fans, we pray for you.
Winning back-to-back championships is one of the greatest achievements in sports. However, the Cavaliers shouldn’t have any issues with the pressure. They didn’t make any flashy moves like Golden State, but they remain the class of the Eastern Conference by a considerable margin. Barring injuries, look for Cleveland to be right back in the NBA Finals this year–LeBron James’ seventh in a row.
The Pacers had a busy off-season acquiring veteran players and found a potential franchise pillar in sophomore centre Myles Turner. Forward Paul George is one of the league’s five best players, and will push the high calibre attack offence. Head Coach Nate McMillan has the depth to rotate nine or ten players on a nightly basis. A second or third playoff seed would keep the Pacers out of Cleveland’s way till the Conference Finals.
The Bulls made big splashes in the off-season, shipping away former-MVP Derrick Rose, then signing point-guard Rajon Rondo and hometown superstar Dwyane Wade. The days of trying to get past LeBron James in the playoffs seem long gone, as Chicago shifts their focus to just trying to make the postseason. Their inability to shoot will relegate the Bulls to a fringe playoff team.
Last year, Detroit laid the foundation to become a perennial playoff team. They still have a way to go before becoming big-time contenders—they need to improve their physical skills and gain more playing experience. The Pistons will continue to mimic the style Head Coach Stan Van Gundy used during his tenure with the Orlando Magic–one in, four out–to climb up the ladder in the East.
The Bucks will struggle in the 2016-17 season—they didn’t do enough in free agency to improve their team, said goodbye to Michael Carter-Williams in a trade, and lost Kris Middleton to injury. Milwaukee continued their unorthodox, size-oriented style of play and surprisingly drafted 7’1” forward Thon Maker with the 10th pick. The East is too deep for the Bucks to succeed and they will fail to gain much ground on last season’s 33-win finish.
San Antonio Spurs
It’s hard to bet against San Antonio’s coaching staff, but the departures of the legendary Tim Duncan and versatile Boris Diaw have weakened the Spurs’ standing in the Western conference. They will still be a high-seeded contender, but their defence will regress with an ancient roster and reportedly unhappy LaMarcus Aldridge. Expect Kawhi Leonard to be in the MVP discussion and the Spurs to lose in the second round of the playoffs.
Memphis is in basketball purgatory. They are good enough to scrape into the playoffs behind the excellent Mike Conley and the dynamic Chandler Parsons; however, their thin squad is only an injury away from catastrophe and they rely too heavily on ground-and-pound, unathletic big men. Until Memphis commits to better three point shooting, they will never go deep into the playoffs.
The Mavericks are one of the most intriguing teams in the NBA. If Harrison Barnes overcomes his stage fright, Wes Matthews returns to his gunslinging best, and Andrew Bogut provides the best rim-protection since the Tyson Chandler days, Dallas could go deep in the playoffs. However, those are big ifs. The Mavericks should be content with a mid-seed finish and a second round playoff performance in the twilight of Dirk Nowitzki’s career.
The Rockets are still reeling from the dysfunction of last season—they have a poor defence and lack a solid rim protector outside of centre Clint Capela. They hired Head Coach Mike D’Antoni this off-season, but his track record was devalued by his disastrous tenure with the Laker. No doubt Houston’s offence will explode under D’Antoni and the excellent James Harden, but they have not improved enough to aim for anything more than the eighth seed.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans are too banged up to make serious headway this year. The prodigious Anthony Davis might be healthy, but key players Qunicy Pontdexter, Jrue Holiday, and Tyreke Evans are out to start the season. All eyes are now on exciting rookie Buddy Hield—perhaps the most NBA ready player in this year’s draft. If the Pelicans can get healthy, Davis might drag them to the playoffs; however, that will be a big stretch.
Golden State Warriors
Last year, the Warriors’ four perimeter all-stars had shooting percentages of 38.7, 38.8, 42.5, and 45.4. Anybody who questions their ability to win based on a lack of size or rim protection should refer to those aforementioned percentages. Furthermore, adding Kevin Durant to a team that’s already a perennial championship contender is a scary thought. Pencil in the Warriors atop the Pacific Division, the Western Conference, and the NBA.
Los Angeles Clippers
Blake Griffin punching a team assistant was symbolic of the frustration of the Clippers’ 2015-2016 season. The same core group returns this year with the addition of Mo Speights and Brandon Bass on the bench, but once again this team will only go as far as their big three can take them. Griffin should have a major bounceback year and guide the Clippers to a top three finish in the Western Conference.
Rudy Gay described the Kings succinctly: “Basketball hell.” Owner Vivek Ranadive and General Manager Vlade Divac are the most puzzling and groan-inducing front office duo in sports. One bright spot is that Sacramento hired a competent–albeit bristly–Head Coach in Dave Joerger and added some solid veteran players. However, the likely result is another disappointing, playoff-less season—something one should expect when Darren Collison is a starting point guard.
Every time Phoenix is down 20 or more heading into the fourth quarter, find hope in the fact that they have Devin Booker. The team will have massive growing pains as they try and develop rookies Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, but the backcourt duo of Eric Bledsoe and Booker will be explosive. The Suns will demonstrate a lot of promise—they have a solid foundation to build from after all—until owner Robert Sarver inevitably finds a way to destroy it.
Los Angeles Lakers
Luke Walton’s surfer boy demeanor and D’Angelo Russell’s brimming confidence has Lakers fans more optimistic than they have been in the last few years. However, do not mistake this positive sentiment as anything more than hot air. This is a team trying to transition from the oppressive and demoralizing coaching tenure of Byron Scott with a slew of young, undeveloped players. The Lakers will finish as bottom feeders in the Western Conference.
Portland Trail Blazers
With one of the league’s best starting backcourts, Portland could make a splash this season. Point guard Damian Lillard doesn’t receive enough appreciation around the league and will be on a tear this year trying to establish himself as one of the game’s best. The Blazers didn’t make many moves in the off-season aside from overpaying for Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe, but they didn’t lose anyone either. Don’t be surprised if they win the division.
The Timberwolves will be one of the most exciting teams to watch this season. Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins are two of the league’s best young players, and Zach Lavine is an athletic freak. Don’t forget that new Head Coach Tom Thibodeau was Derrick Rose’s coach when he won an MVP at just 22 years old. He might be the perfect coach to lead this young, athletic team to a dark horse playoff run.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma will take the biggest step back of any team this season due to the exit of their former MVP Kevin Durant. When they lost Durant to injury two years ago, Russell Westbrook was unstoppable on the court, but he couldn’t will his team into the playoffs–the likely outcome this season. Look for Westbrook to compete for MVP, but don’t bet on much more from the Thunder.
With a premier young core in Derrick Favours, Rudy Gobert, and Gordon Hayward, the Jazz may jump a few of the aging Western Conference teams and make the playoffs this year. They’ve improved their depth with the addition of Joe Johnson and George Hill without losing any key pieces. These signings may be the boost needed to make the playoffs; however, don’t expect them to make it out of the first round.
The Nuggets are a very young team with incredible front court depth and not much else. Along with their youth movement, there are some valuable aging pieces—namely, Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari—that could be moved for draft some picks this year. They have some exciting pieces in Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, and rookie Juancho Hernangomez, but unless they take a spectacular leap forward in their development, the Nuggets will once again be under .500.
Hear Raptors Analyst Paul Jones' take on this upcoming season in the latest McGill Tribune Sports podcast.