The Atlantic Division might be the weakest in the league as it features many teams in a rebuilding phase. The Boston Celtics, who boast a war chest of future draft picks, are likely to top a weak division behind the backcourt duo of Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley, as well as the sixth-man scoring prowess of Isaiah Thomas. They went 24-12 in their final 36 games last year and will hope to keep the ball rolling this season.
The Toronto Raptors, who topped the division last year but crashed out of the first round of the playoffs, should see improvement on defence—they re-signed centre Jonas Valanciunas and acquired DeMarre Carroll in the off-season. The Raptors, however, will continue to lack bench depth and will rely heavily on All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
Many questions remain about the New York Knicks even with Carmelo Anthony back and healthy. How well can the newly-acquired starting players such as Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, and Derrick Williams mesh on offence and defence? Will Derek Fisher’s coaching evolve from last year? Can fourth-overall draft pick Kristaps Porzingis adjust to the NBA? The Knicks need all these pieces to come together to even consider a playoff seed—but that is a colossal ask.
The Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers—two teams in polar opposite situations—round out the Atlantic Division. The Sixers are packed with inexperienced youngsters loaded with potential, and General Manager Sam Hinkie will look to add depth through the draft. The Nets, meanwhile, should be worried about their aging core: Joe Johnson is old, and Brooklyn doesn’t have a first round draft pick until 2019.
In an otherwise mediocre Eastern Conference, the Central Division stands out as an outlier. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls are arguably the two best teams in the East, but all five teams have a chance to make the playoffs. The most interesting thing to watch with the Cavs this year will be how second-year Head Coach David Blatt manages minutes and keeps his players healthy. New Bulls Head Coach Fred Hoiberg will bring far more creativity and pace to the team’s offence, but the defence will miss ex-head coach and defensive guru Tom Thibodeau. Chicago has a deep bench and is a dark horse championship contender.
The Milwaukee Bucks, on the other hand, are a sleeper pick to get to the conference finals. Head Coach Jason Kidd has a phalanx of young, athletic, and rangy guards and forwards that can smother opposing offences, and the addition of Greg Monroe will add a sorely needed interior threat. In his second year at the helm, Head Coach Stan Van Gundy has fully molded the Detroit Pistons in his ideal image. Centre Andre Drummond will be tasked with anchoring the defence and terrorizing opponents on the boards. If Detroit’s shooters can space the floor effectively and the defence is stout the team will be in the playoffs.
The Indiana Pacers are a team in flux. Lumbering centre Roy Hibbert and veteran big man David West are gone, while superstar wing Paul George is now the team’s new power forward. The Pacers’ wholesale shift to small ball will be an interesting experiment to watch throughout the season.
In recent years, the Southeast Division boasted some of the league’s best team such as the LeBron James-era Miami Heat and last year’s superb Atlanta Hawks.
That won’t be the case this year; the Hawks, who had the best record in the East last year, will regress back to the middle of the pack in the conference.
Miami’s starting five is excellent on paper, but many of the big names are injury-prone and past their prime. Additionally, the Heat lack depth, and the starters hadn’t played a single regular season game as a group prior to this year. It’ll take time, but Head Coach Erik Spoelstra will be able to lead this team deep into the playoffs if the players are healthy.
The Washington Wizards’ playoff potential depends on the development of young wings Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. Beal has solidified himself as a borderline All Star, but will need to take the next step to push this team further, while Porter showed flashes in the playoffs last year of being a solid two-way small forward.
The writing is on the wall for the Charlotte Hornets who lost injured defensive ace Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for the season. The Hornets are stuck in NBA purgatory: They have some promising pieces that make them too good to get a high lottery pick but not good enough to make the playoffs.
The Orlando Magic, meanwhile, are embracing their rebuilding phase. It will be extremely intriguing to watch as their young core, led by the explosive Victor Oladipo, continues to develop under new Head Coach Scott Skiles.
Steph Curry is hands down the most exciting player in the NBA, and when you add Nick Young, Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo, and DeMarcus Cousins, it’s clear that the Pacific is going to be the most fun division to watch in the league. After an epic emoji Twitter battle waged by the players on the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks respectively this off-season, DeAndre Jordan is back for the L.A. Clippers. The additions of Paul Pierce and Lance Stephenson make the Clippers serious championship contenders.
If Chris Paul and the Clippers are finally going to get their first championship, however, they’re going to have to slow Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. With practically everyone returning this year, the defending champions are still the team to beat in the NBA.
For the Sacramento Kings, the Rondo-Gay-Cousins trio has the potential to be as dysfunctional and entertaining as Khloé, Kim, and Kourtney this year; and with George Karl behind the bench, who has been fueding with Cousins since being hired, this team has the makings of a time-bomb ready to explode.
The return of Julius Randle will pay dividends for the Lakers in what could be Kobe’s last season, though they will continue to struggle. Expect the Phoenix Suns to underwhelm this season—the addition of Tyson Chandler will certainly help, but in an ultra-competitive Western Conference, Phoenix could be stuck in NBA purgatory.
With superstar small forward Kevin Durant back dynamic point guard Russell Westbrook won’t be melting fans’ faces off with triple-doubles anymore, but the Oklahoma City Thunder should easily top the division and terrorize in the playoffs. The development of forward Mitch McGary will be interesting to watch, and the re-signing of Enes Kanter gives Oklahoma important depth if Serge Ibaka goes down again.
While the Thunder’s stock is on the rise, no other team in the league has fallen further than the Portland Trail Blazers. After looking vulnerable and exposed in the playoffs, the Blazers lost LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, and Wesley Matthews in the off-season. Trading for young big man Noah Vonleh was an investment that could pay dividends soon, but it’s going to be a lonely few years for point guard Damian Lillard in Rip City.
The Utah Jazz are full of intriguing pieces that don’t quite fit together. Dante Exum and Gordon Hayward are a lethal backcourt combo, and centre Rudy Gobert’s is a menace in the paint, but there’s hardly a veteran presence on the roster. The Jazz will be haunted by the departure of Jeremy Evans to the Dallas Mavericks—Grantland’s (RIP) Zach Lowe picked him as his breakout candidate this season.
Minnesota Timberwolves’ and Denver Nuggets fans will be excited to see their draft picks in action. In Minnesota, Karl-Anthony Towns will join Andrew Wiggins to form one of the most exciting young cores in the league (albeit surrounded by the wiliest of veterans in Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller, and Tayshaun Prince). In Denver, Emmanuel Mudiay will take over for Ty Lawson at point guard and try to keep the team afloat.
With a frontcourt of Kawhi Leoard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs are a serious contender for the best record in the league. Head Coach Gregg Popovich will maximize the skill of every one of his players; expect plenty of ingeniously drawn-up and masterfully executed plays to make the highlight reels every week.
The Houston Rockets will need Dwight Howard healthy for 82 games, and another MVP-calibre performance from James Harden this year. If the supporting cast holds up, last year’s Western Conference runners-up should be exciting to watch in the post-season once more.
The Memphis Grizzlies were effective this off-season, retaining key core players like All-Star center Marc Gasol. They will, however, continue to be a step behind the top tier of the West.
The New Orleans Pelicans’ main strength is superhuman basketball machine Anthony Davis. He’ll compete for MVP this season, but it’s unclear whether he has the teammates to carry the Pelicans far into the playoffs should they sneak in with the last seed again.
The Dallas Mavericks had a tough summer, losing talent to free-agency and failing to steal DeAndre Jordan from L.A. Acquiring JaVale McGee, Wesley Matthews, and Deron Williams won’t be enough to compete in a stacked conference. Dallas will likely miss the playoffs this year for only the second time since 2000.