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Previewing the NBA’s Eastern Conference, from the favored Cavs to the woeful Nets

Those on the playoff bubble in the East include dramatically overhauled squads in major markets like New York and Chicago.

LeBron James didn’t have a single complete player as a teammate in Cleveland last season and still thumped the 73-win Warriors for his third ring.
REUTERS/USA Today Sports/Aaron Doster

 Welcome to MinnPost’s coverage of the 2016-17 National Basketball Association season.

Today we’ll begin with a preview of the Eastern Conference, where the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers are the overwhelming favorites but could be challenged by Boston and Toronto from the Atlantic Division. Eight teams from each conference make the playoffs, and some of the ball clubs on the bubble include dramatically overhauled squads in major markets like New York and Chicago. Further down, Philadelphia will almost certainly cede the conference cellar to the woeful Brooklyn Nets.

As you’ll note in the following thumbnail analysis of each of the 15 teams, injuries have already had a major impact on the conference, with Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia especially hard hit.

On Monday we’ll preview the Western Conference, and a day later we’ll tackle the primary focus of our NBA coverage throughout the season, the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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For the first time in a long while, I’m bullish on the Wolves, and look forward to hosting a question-answer and running commentary at Elsie’s the night of the opener. If you can’t make it, I’m hoping you stop in here and contribute commentary — I cherish smart, informative feedback from my readers and will respect you enough to provide honest responses.

In any case, thanks for reading. Let’s buckle up for an exciting ride through April and beyond.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (First in the Central Division)
With Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett retired, it is an especially good time to cherish the teammate-enhancing majesty of LeBron James, who didn’t have a single complete player as a teammate in Cleveland last season and still thumped the 73-win Warriors for his third ring. He’ll caulk the seams in the indifferent defense of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the lack of shooting touch from Tristen Thompson, the three-point specialists who are soft (Channing Frye, Mike Dunleavy) and loco (J.R. Smith), mix in some melodramatic narcissism and more than likely take his team to the Finals for the 7th straight season.

2. Boston Celtics (First in the Atlantic Division)
The ingenuity of coach Brad Stevens and the versatility of free-agent signee Al Horford is a match made in chalkboard heaven. An unselfish star who can defend both centers and power forwards and is comfortable most anywhere on the court offensively, Horford slides perfectly into a lineup whose calling cards are tenacity and quick recognition. Swingmen Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart are rugged junkyard dogs; ditto power forward Amir Johnson. At 5-9, point guard Isaiah Thomas is an undersized catalyst but a fierce competitor. GM Danny Ainge retains a passel of draft picks — springboard forward Jaylen Brown is the latest bounty — enabling an upgrade at the February trading deadline if the Celts gel into serious contenders.  

3. Toronto Raptors (Second in the Atlantic)
In a crazy off-season for free agency, the Raptors wisely stayed pat. If health allows DeMarre Carroll consistent minutes as a wing stopper on defense and gives center Jonas Valanciunas a full year of development in his age-24 season, Toronto will at least gain home-court advantage in the playoffs and could challenge a Cavs team pacing themselves through the regular season for the top seed in the East. Coach Dwane Casey is a steady hand who thrives with continuity, and the backcourt trio of point guard Kyle Lowry, shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and invaluable sixth man Cory Joseph are smart, athletic, and presumably hungry to definitively prove themselves in the postseason.

Britt Robson’s 2016-17 Basketball Season Preview

Discuss the upcoming season and watch the opener on Oct. 26 with Britt Robson at Elsie’s. Get tickets today!

4. Washington Wizards (First in the Southeast Division)
If John Wall’s surgically repaired knees are spry, new coach Scott Brooks should unleash him like a poor man’s Russell Westbrook; they’ve got similar skill sets and a beastin’ Wall is Washington’s best hope to crack the top four in the East. Sharpshooter Bradley Beal can’t be hurt every year and is due for an injury-free season while ageless center Marcin Gortat can still groove on the pick-and-roll. That would give Wall inside and outside playmaking options. The Wiz will miss Jared Dudley and need both forwards, Otto Porter and Markieff Morris, to make good on their flashes of complementary solid play last season. But this could be a dangerous team come playoff time.

5. Atlanta Hawks (Second in the Southeast)
It’s hard to talk about the Hawks without noting that the skill set and emotional comfort of their top free-agent signee, Dwight Howard, seems misfit with the spread-oriented, ball-movement offense deployed by coach Mike Budenholzer. But since Budenholzer, a very smart tactician, is also the President of Basketball Operations who shelled out $75 million for Howard over the next three years, he gets the benefit of the doubt. More concerning is whether point guard Dennis Schroeder can be less selfish is his ascension to playing with the starters; and how much shooting specialist Kyle Korver — who needs to move constantly to get open — has left in the tank. No worries about power forward Paul Millsap, the NBA’s most underrated All-Star. For all the changes this season, the Hawks will remain stuck in a not-terrible rut: Close to 50 regular season wins and a short stint in the playoffs. 

6. Detroit Pistons (Second in the Central)
They will miss point guard Reggie Jackson — their leading scorer and playmaker, lost 6-8 weeks with knee and thumb injuries — as backup Ish Smith is a significant downgrade. But otherwise, the successful template that coach and general manager Stan Van Gundy put together in Orlando is being shrewdly re-created in Motown. Center Andre Drummond, like Dwight Howard before him, is the gigantic anchor on defense and magnet on offense in the low post, and Van Gundy paid dearly for 7-3 free agent Boban Marjanovic to fill the role at times when Drummond’s ridiculous free throw woes (he made just 35.5 percent last season) is a lodestone in crunch time. Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris fill in the Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu boxes as stretch forwards who can shoot three-pointers and move the ball. Swingmen Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson took a meaningful step forward last season. And everybody is still young and on the rise.

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7. New York Knicks (Third in the Atlantic)
Overshadowed by Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis is the second-best player in the last four NBA drafts, a soon-to-be elite rim protector with size (7-foot, 3 inches), speed and range. He highlights a high-profile, complementary front court between Carmelo Anthony and Joakim Noah. In the backcourt, signing Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings to run a triangle offense is a bad joke and they’ll abandon it for 21st Century hoops sooner rather than later. Add in capable glue guy Courtney Lee at shooting guard and their starters are well above average — Rose at the point is the weak link — but injury-prone with terrible depth behind them. Going to guess the front line remains healthy and synergistic.

8. Chicago Bulls (Third in the Central)
On the plus side, their top three of swingman Jimmy Butler and incoming backcourt mates Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have a ton of talent, guts and pride. But Wade and Rondo are well past their primes, to where pride may be a hindrance, and none of them are very good three-point shooters, which is sort of important for perimeter players in the modern NBA. Center Robin Lopez is a welcome addition, and there is enough roster depth around the stars — including forwards Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic, mature rookie swingman Denzell Valentine, and Michael Carter-Williams and Jerian Grant in the backcourt — to make the playoffs if coach Fred Hoiberg adroitly rebounds from his rocky rookie campaign on the sidelines.

9. Charlotte Hornets (Third in the Southeast)
Steve Clifford is a quality coach who guided Charlotte to the highest defensive rebounding percentage and lowest turnover percentage in the NBA last season. Forwards Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams earned fat contract extensions and point guard Kemba Walker had a career year. Now the worry is that the Hornets have peaked and have minimal cap space in a minor market. The key to ongoing improvement is the return of staunch defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, kicking Batum to the backcourt. Clifford also needs to dredge decent minutes at the center position from five uninspiring seven-footers — Roy Hibbert, Spencer Hawes, Frank Kaminsky, Cody Zeller and rookie Mike Tobey. They’ll be in the hunt, and make the postseason if injuries and chemistry issues derail the more talented teams ahead of them.   

10. Indiana Pacers (Fourth in the Central)
The return to magnificence by Paul George counts for a lot and how much center Myles Turner scales toward his high ceiling will be fun to watch. But swapping out coach Frank Vogel and point guard George Hill for Nate McMillan and Jeff Teague seems like a double loss, and Monta Ellis as the two-guard between George and Teague is a horrible fit. Guys like Al Jefferson and Thaddeus Young provide specious rim protection and matador defense. Toss in swingman CJ Miles off the bench and when the Pacers are making their shots, they’ll be tough to beat. But that won’t happen often enough to get them on the inside of the playoff bubble.

11. Miami Heat (Fourth in the Southeast)
Love coach Erik Spoelstra. Respect team president Pat Riley. But losing Dwyane Wade in free agency to Chicago and Chris Bosh to health issues makes for a dysfunctional pecking order. Point guard Goran Dragic and center Hassan Whiteside are the resident stars but lack well-rounded leadership skills. Justice Winslow and Josh McRoberts are great glue guys as forwards, but have holes in their games. Derrick Williams? Dion Waiters? Matching Orlando’s $50-million, four-year offer for role player Tyler Johnson? Muddled mediocrity this season in Miami.

12. Orlando Magic (Fifth in the Southeast)
What a mess. Last season, the Magic traded Tobias Harris, a gifted 24-year old stretch power forward with three years and $48 million left on his contract, for two guys no longer with the team. Then they flipped lockdown defensive guard Victor Oladipo and a first-round pick, to OKC for a one-year rental of power forward Serge Ibaka. They overpaid enigmatic forward Jeff Green $15 million for one season, stunting the development of young forwards Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja. They signed center-forward Bismack Biyombo for 4-years at $72 million even though he can’t share the floor with center Nicola Vucevic, who’s being paid $36 million over the next three years. Point guard Elfrid Payton is shaky and with Oladipo gone there is no depth behind shooting guard Evan Fournier, who gets $85 million over the next five years. Orlando, which hasn’t had a winning record in six years, now has an unbalanced roster and a top ten payroll without a single bona fide star.

13. Milwaukee Bucks (Fifth in the Central)
Watching Giannis Antetokounmpo play point guard for an entire season is going to be a barrel of fun, but the dirty secret is that the 6-10 “Greek Freak” still can’t transform his extraordinary athleticism into credible defense. That’s a problem because Milwaukee’s best two-way player (and it isn’t even close), Khris Middleton, is out nearly the entire season with a torn hamstring. The front line of Greg Monroe and Jabari Parker rack up points at both ends of the court—natural scorers, inept defenders. The addition of stretch-power forward Mirza Teletovic and combo guard Matthew Dellavedova, would have helped a team that was dead last in three point attempts last season, but now they’ll just compensate for the absence of Middleton. Delly has a rep as a good defender, but we’ll see what happens without Lebron James beside him on the court. Speaking of questionable reputations, coach Jason Kidd and his assistant Sean Sweeney are widely regarded as ace teachers of NBA defense. In case you haven’t got my incessant drift yet, their work is cut out for them this season. 

14. Philadelphia 76ers (Fourth in the Atlantic)
The Ben Simmons injury was especially cruel blow because the Sixers are finally wanting to develop instead of tank and the 6-10 rookie projects as their de facto point guard. Now they’re left with shoot-first (and shoot-streaky) Jerryd Bayless and veteran Euro Sergio Rodriguez running the offense. And now that all those lottery-pick big men from ex-GM Sam Hinkie’s “process” are ready to play, there’s danger that Jahlil Okafor, a legit go-to scorer in the post besmirched by off-court behavior issues as a rook last season, will be discounted. Hopefully, smart, uber-patient coach Brett Brown gets to cash in his karma points in the near future. How the Sixers sort out their frontcourt and balance the roster — plus the health of Simmons — will determine how much momentum they can generate for the future over the course of this campaign.

15. Brooklyn Nets (Fifth in the Atlantic)
It’s tempting to be snarky about the Nets, who almost certainly will be the NBA’s worst team. But Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov has already been discredited for the hubris of trying to buy instead of build a championship roster, dooming the future for years to come. Personnel guru Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson are the smart choices to try and assemble a competitive ballclub from the wreckage. For now, Nets fans must be content with point guard Jeremy Lin trying to reprise the “Linsanity” of the 2011-12 Knicks in Brooklyn, and with stolid center Brook Lopez, their best player and trade chip, who, like the rest of the roster, won’t be on the team by the time Marks and Atkinson turn things around.