NBA Eastern Conference preview: Welcome to LeBron’s world

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James posing for photographs during media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts.

Welcome to MinnPost’s coverage of the 2015-16 National Basketball Association season.

First we’ll look at the Eastern Conference, where Akron native LeBron James renews his Sisyphean quest to bring a professional sports championship to northeastern Ohio via the Cleveland Cavs, and where the Philadelphia 76ers will continue their existential exercise of losing games and stockpiling draft choices.

In other words, the top and bottom rungs of the East seem the most predictable. We’ll deliver a thumbnail analysis of all 15 conference teams from the East, and then the West in the very near future. The top eight teams in each conference make the playoffs.

On Wednesday, we’ll provide an extensive preview of the Minnesota Timberwolves on the occasion of their regular season opener out in Los Angeles. As most of you know by now, the Wolves will be the focus of attention and commentary in this space through to the playoffs next spring. It is a season permanently marred by the death of Flip Saunders, but this space will honor Flip’s memory by being passionate and engaged about the team he constructed. As always, I treasure informative feedback and discussion in the comments section and generally answer when warranted or merited. Thanks for reading.

Cleveland Cavs (1)
By taking his team to the NBA Finals for five straight years, LeBron James has tacked an average of 21.4 additional games on his workload every season since he was 25 years old. Now that he’s going to be 31 in December, it might behoove The King to pace himself and cede some responsibility. Give some touches to gifted scorer and playmaker Kevin Love beyond catch-and-shoot three-pointers. Allow his old sidekick Mo Williams and (when he returns from injury) Kyrie Irving to initiate more of the offense. Give big men Timofey Mozgov and newly paid Tristan Thompson a chance to refine their low-post moves. Maybe even permit coach David Blatt to make some of the decisions. To emerge as the best in the weak East, Cleveland really only needs LeBron to elevate a defense that ranked 18th a year ago. But if he otherwise can’t rest in the regular season, Cleveland can’t win in 2016 Finals.

Atlanta Hawks (2)
If the Hawks are indeed becoming the San Antonio Spurs of the East, their disciplined preparation and execution of a well-integrated system will enable them to overachieve pundit expectations. They lost their wing stopper, DeMarre Carroll, to Toronto in free agency, but will platoon Thabo Sefolosha (back from a leg injury) and Kent Bazemore as adequate replacements. Better yet, they signed former Spur Tiago Splitter, enabling them to go big with Al Horford (who shot more three-pointers in preseason) and Paul Millsap, or simply provide the latter pair with much needed rest. Their backcourt of penetrating jet Jeff Teague and ace distance sniper Kyle Korver epitomizes the “pace and space” style now in vogue — except Atlanta seems to have incorporated the trend into its DNA. Another 60 wins is unlikely, but a plunge back to mediocrity is even more dubious.

Miami Heat (3)
The Heat have reloaded post-LeBron, assembling a remarkably deep and talented roster. Their frontcourt is stocked, with the complementary-skilled pairing of power forward Chris Bosh and center Hassan Whiteside as the starters and the underrated Josh McRoberts and the aged duo of Amar’e Stoudemire and Chris “Birdman” Andersen coming off the bench. The backcourt boasts none other than Dwyane Wade alongside probable all-star Goran Dragic at the point, with Luol Deng and hotshot rookie Justise Winslow manning the wing. Yes, there is a lot of age and injury-history in that crew, and some squirrelly personalities such as Whiteside and incoming Wade backup Gerald Green. But coach Erik Spoelstra is no stranger to melodrama and with a few breaks could develop Miami into Cleveland’s most formidable challenge come playoff time.

Chicago Bulls (4)
In recent years, the Bulls have been carried by point guard Derrick Rose, center Joachim Noah, or swingman Jimmy Butler, but never simultaneously often enough to fulfill the championship potential of the early Thibodeau period. Now Fred Hoiberg has replaced Thibs as coach, and along with the questionable return to full health for Rose and Noah, the franchise will have to cope with a massive culture shift into a more “pace and space” style. It’s time — even under Thibs, Chicago fell out of the top ten in defensive rating and finished 28th in field goal accuracy at the rim last season. Bobby Portis is a gritty rookie who adds to the front court riches of Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, and Nikola Mirotic. But there is simply too much sifting and healing that needs to take place this time around for the Bulls to be serious contenders for a ring.

Washington Wizards (5)
The Wizards would rank higher if I had faith coach Randy Wittman would embrace the strength of his personnel and shoot more three-pointers. Washington was 27th in attempts and ninth in accuracy from beyond the arc last season. One of the sweetest long-range shooters ever to grace the NBA, Bradley Beal, hoisted just 259 treys (4.1 per game), making 40.9 per cent, versus 33.1 percent on 236 “long twos” from 16-feet out to the arc. John Wall is on the cusp of becoming an elite point guard, and Marcin Gortat is one of the game’s most underrated centers. With holdover Otto Porter and free agent acquisition Jared Dudley (still recovering from back surgery) combined with Beal, Washington has the outside shooting to space the floor and maximize Wall’s quickness and Gortat’s finishes on pick-and-rolls. Last year’s fifth-rated defense — a Wittman priority — will be fine.

Milwaukee Bucks (6)
Nobody had a better image rehab last season than Jason Kidd, who went from being castigated for an unsuccessful power grab in Brooklyn that he parlayed into an unpleasant coup of the coaching position in Milwaukee, into a 26-game improvement by the Bucks that he wrought by wielding a stifling defense co-designed by assistant Sean Sweeney. Consequently, the 15-win franchise of 2013-14 was able to successfully recruit free agent center Greg Monroe for 2015-16 onward, and will align him with 20-year old athletic marvel Giannis Antetokounmpo, second-year scoring machine Jabari Parker (sidelined most of last season with an injury) and unassuming team leader Khris Middleton, whose $70 million contract was a deceptively savvy move. The Bucks are a young, long and athletic force to be reckoned with, sooner or later.

Toronto Raptors (7)
For an established team, the Raps have an abundance of question marks and roster turmoil. Can point guard Kyle Lowry regain his consistency after a dreadful playoffs capped a disappointing second half of the season? Can leading scorer DeMar DeRozan improve his shooting range and accuracy enough to be a viable go-to guy? Is the maturity of fourth-year center Jonas Valanciunas ever going to be a leap instead of more baby steps? I know coach Dwane Casey wants to improve his 25th ranked defense, but losing Amir Johnson, Lou Williams, Greivis Vasquez, and Tyler Hansbrough and bringing in DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo, and Luis Scola feels like negligible net benefit for so much churn.

Boston Celtics (8)
The Celts will once again squeak into the playoffs by default, by dint of the pathetic lower half of the Eastern Conference more than a rise out of mediocrity. Acquiring glue-guy grinder Amir Johnson and finesse scorer David Lee upgrades the power forward slot, and a full year with mighty-mite sparkplug Isaiah Thomas mixed in with sinewy backcourt defenders Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart provides better versatility. But the dirty little secret in Boston is that, with the possible exception of Bradley, there isn’t a solid two-way player on the roster. At some point the fat bulge of drafts picks in GM Danny Ainge’s arsenal need to generate enough pure talent to test the ballyhooed brilliance of coach Brad Stevens.

Indiana Pacers (9)
The Pacers are a team in transition. The brute defense of Roy Hibbert and David West balanced by the arrogant ballet of Paul George and Lance Stephenson is long gone — only George remains of that quartet and he is being transformed into a small-ball power forward. He and high-profile free agent signee Monta Ellis are both playmakers but the jury is still out on whether that will create revelry or rivalry in the pecking order. (And what about point guard George Hill, who wants the ball at crunch time?) Of even bigger concern is the absence of a rim protector now that Hibbert is in L.A. — Ian Mahinmi is a career backup and promising rookie Myles Turner isn’t ready.

Brooklyn Nets (10)
The current Nets are what happens when a billionaire’s boom-or-bust stab at buying instant gratification goes bust. The leftover talent is at best playoff fodder despite most of the core being at or past the prime of their expensive careers. And the future is mortgaged, used to acquire bygone stars who flamed out and were sent packing for mere rubles on the dollar. Having already tested the pride and patience of Russian oligarch owner Mikhail Prokhorov (who may be more coordinated in his ball skills than his players) it is left to center Brook Lopez, shooting guard Joe Johnson and swingman Thad Young to prevent the still relatively new Barclays Center from becoming a tomb.

Orlando Magic (11)
Guards Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton and forward Aaron Gordon were taken 2nd, 10th, and 4th, respectively, in the drafts of 2013 and 2014. At least two of them have to justify that exalted status with major improvements if cartoonish incompetence is to end in Disneyland. Center Nikola Vucevic and forward Tobias Harris have solid skills and the team’s latest lottery pick, Mario Hezonja, is a deadly outside shooter. But aside from Payton, none of the starters were effective defenders—a scathing indictment of Oladipo, who was deemed a future stud in that area coming out of college. Scott Skiles, whose many previous coaching stints (including one in Orlando) featured a military commitment to defense, is back in town to fix that glaring flaw. If he can’t, the post-Dwight Howard rebuilding era will be razed and deemed a spectacular bust.

Charlotte Hornets (12)
Coach Steve Clifford’s reputation as defensive tactician was bolstered by the Hornets finishing in the top ten in fewest points allowed per possession last season despite heavy minutes for noted sieves Al Jefferson in the paint and Kemba Walker on the perimeter. But now that pair won’t have defensive stopper Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to lean on—he’s out for the season with a shoulder injury — and while newcomer Nicolas Batum will help, he came from Portland at the expense of last year’s minutes leader Gerald Henderson, who was at least steady on the defensive end. Unless rookie Frank Kaminsky can extend his collegiate heroics into the NBA, or the likes of power forward Cody Zeller or shooting guard Jeremy Lamb can dramatically enhance the player rotation, Charlotte will flail beyond Clifford’s power to make them respectable.

Detroit Pistons (13)
Coach and President of Basketball Operations Stan Van Gundy is obviously trying to recreate the formula that got his Orlando teams deep into the playoffs in the mid-aughts. But Andre Drummond has a long way to go to approximate vintage Dwight Howard as the magnet in the paint creating three-pointers for a bevy of shooters, most of the Piston perimeter marksmen are likewise pale imitations, and what was a  cutting-edge strategy in Orlando is now thoroughly mainstream, scouted and game-planned by opposing defenses. Watching Reggie Jackson and Brandon Jennings vie for alpha dog status in the backcourt once the latter returns from injury won’t be pretty—or productive.

New York Knicks (14)
Here’s a new koan for Zen master Phil Jackson: Karma is a bitch. When you’ve been granted the chance to coach Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant en route to eleven NBA championships, then cash in on that legacy to run the Knicks by installing an outmoded triangle offense, embarrassment awaits — followed by rotten luck in the draft lottery. Point guard José Calderón is always near the top in assist-to-turnover ratio, and forward Carmelo Anthony remains perhaps the NBA’s premiere ruggedly individualistic scorer, so why spread out the duties with the paint-by-numbers triangle scheme? The acquisition of blue-collar center Robin Lopez, two-way swingman Arron Afflalo and young but skilled rookie Kristaps Porzingis means the Knicks will be better than last year’s 17-win team. But only the suicide kings running the franchise in Philly will keep them out of the cellar in the East.

Philadelphia 76ers (15)
When Robert Covington went down with a knee injury in the Sixers’ final preseason game a couple days ago, were fans supposed to mourn or celebrate? Given that Covington is one of their better young players, and the goal for the fourth straight season is to lose as many games as possible, “celebrate” is probably the proper choice. Alas, he is expected to be sidelined for only two weeks. “Trust the process” that tanks entire seasons in order to stockpile draft picks, management still declares. But after trading homegrown rookie-of-the-year Michael Carter-Williams and drafting three straight centers — one of them missing a second straight season due to injury without ever having played an NBA game — “the process” has become a sadomasochistic charade.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 10/28/2015 - 08:59 am.

    They’re all playing for 2nd to the Cavs

    I could see one of these other teams ending up with a better record than Cleveland since Irving won’t return for a while and they know homecourt advantage isn’t necessary to win the conference. It seems like the Bulls are better than the Heat, though; Miami has serious question marks about how good their aging stars will be and how quickly Winslow can contribute something meaningful. The Bulls are deep and have guys who don’t miss a lot of games.

    A 5/4 vs. 2 conference finals with the Wizards and Cavs is what I’d pick at this moment. Wall is probably already a top-10 player in the league and could ascend to the 3rd-best PG ahead of Chris Paul. Even if they Wittman up the regular season, they proved last year to be a scary playoff team and though Humphries shooting 3s seems like a sketchy plan, they might’ve made the conference finals if Wall hadn’t missed time in the Hawks series.

    • Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 10/28/2015 - 03:16 pm.

      Wizards

      I sometimes feel like I’m the only one who can’t figure out why the Wizards are good, though I will certainly admit that they are. I agree with you that Wall is good, but top-10? I’m not quite sold there, and I think this team will miss Paul Pierce when it gets to be playoff time. And I like Beal and Gortat too, just can’t see how this team maintains an edge against deeper teams (like the Hawks) or could handle a significant injury.

      • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 10/30/2015 - 09:42 am.

        Defense

        They were 5th in Defensive Rating last season and 8th the season before. One of the non-country club members of Wittman’s staff was brought in to fill the open assistant spot after he took over as head coach and has been in charge of that area (Don Newman, who had 8 years with the Spurs before that). I guess my optimism centers on how they’ve taken two top seeds to 6 games in consecutive seasons and, obviously, Wall continuing to improve. They obviously couldn’t withstand a Wall injury, but they have a lot of interchangeable wing parts that could step in there (Dudley, Neal, Alan Anderson, Webster) if Otto Porter builds off his promising postseason.

        With Wall, he’s probably the second-best PG athlete besides Westbrook. He can’t match Westbrook’s aggression (though that’s true of 95% of the league) and is notably less powerful, but he’s just as fast and probably has a higher vertical along with like an inch of height. He’s also become one of the best passers in the league. Besides Westbrook, there isn’t a tougher PG to stay in front of on the pick and roll.

  2. Submitted by Joe Swift on 10/28/2015 - 09:58 am.

    Not sure which got the bigger chuckle from me

    Phil Jackson’s new koan or cartoonish incompetency in Disneyland. Best of all both were used to make cogent basketball points, rather than humor for humor’s sake.

    I’d love to see Love have a “comeback” season in Cleveland, I don’t dislike the guy and always loved his game. Should be an exciting season in both conferences, as the East isn’t as bad as it’s been in the recent past… I hope.

  3. Submitted by Adam Gerber on 10/28/2015 - 12:36 pm.

    I’m excited for another season!

    “sadomasochistic charade” indeed… in Philly it seems the time to prove the process is always next season. I feel for their fans.

    Wolves have to expect that the wolves will lose a lot. When 25 wins seems acceptable to this squad, I need to restrain my optimism. Looking forward to some detailed analysis this year because the rays of light might not be easy to find.

  4. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 10/28/2015 - 12:56 pm.

    Hawks

    Nice to see that you don’t think the Hawks are going to have a dramatic drop-off. Plenty of other experts are expecting 10 fewer wins based on…Carroll’s departure? I get that wing stoppers are important, but people still overlook the talent of Millsap and Horford, not to mention the high-quality coaching. Of course, they got blown out last night at home by a better-than-advertised Pistons team, but I still think the Hawks will be facing the Cavs in the ECF.

    Thought the Bulls played well last night too.I love the different looks they can throw out with their bigs, especially with Mirotic’s floor-spacing. But I’m not sure I’m ready to trust them with Aaron Brooks as Rose’s primary backup, not to mention the overall lack of depth at the guard position.

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