2017 NBA Preview

By Mike Luciano
Oct. 07, 2017

If I have learned anything from these NBA seasons, the 2017 campaign won't be short on drama. In one offseason, big names like Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Kyrie Irving have switched teams, exiting rookies like Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball look poised to smash rookie records, and the reigning conference champions have reloaded and retooled for another deep playoff run.

With the season opener on the horizon, there are predictions that still need to be made, awards to prematurely hand out, and seasons to preemptively crush before a ball is tipped. In inverse order, I present to you my predictions for the NBA standings and award races.

Note: On team depth charts, projected starters will be highlighted in bold. Additionally, all stats attributed to rookies are from their most recent college seasons.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

15. Phoenix Suns

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports
Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports
Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY SportsCraig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 24-58, 15th in Western Conference

Head Coach: Earl Waston (3rd year, 33-82)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Eric Bledsoe (21.1 PPG, 6.3 APG, 4.8 RPG 1.38 SPG)

Brandon Knight (11 PPG, 2.4 APG, 2.2 RPG)

Tyler Ulis (7.2 PPG, 3.7 APG, 1.6 RPG)

SG: Devin Booker (22.1 PPG, 3.4 APG, 3.2 RPG)

Troy Daniels (8.2 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 0.7 APG)

Derrick Jones (5.3 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 0.4 APG)

Davon Reed (Rookie, 14.9 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 2.4 APG)

SF: Josh Jackson (Rookie, 16.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 3.0 APG)

TJ Warren (14.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.1 APG)

Jared Dudley (6.8 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.9 APG)

PF: Marquese Chriss (9.1 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 0.7 RPG)

Dragan Bender (3.4 PPG, 2.4 PPG, 0.5 APG)

Alan Williams (7.4 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 0.5 APG)

C: Tyson Chandler (8.4 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 0.6 APG)

Alex Len (8.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.27 BPG, 0.6 APG)

Phoenix enters another rebuilding year in which they can't seem to get out of first gear. The one saving grace for them is that the Suns finally have found some pieces that look like long-term building blocks. Devin Booker exploded into the public consciousness with his unbelievable 70 point outburst against the Celtics. Eric Bledsoe is one of the more quietly productive players in the league. Josh Jackson, Phoenix's hot shot rookie out of Kansas, looks like he has the tools to succeed. Look for Jackson to pair with Marquese Chriss to create matchup nightmares in teh frontcourt

While their future looks somewhat rosy, the present is going to be a grind once again. Earl Watson is looking much more like Derek Fisher than Jason Kidd as a head coach. Last year, the Suns ranked dead last in the league in scoring defense, and haven't gone out of their way to address this. Alex Len continues to struggle to crack the starting lineup. Dragan Bender, 2016's 4th overall pick, doesn't look as far along as many people hoped. The Suns won't be unwatchable, but don't have the horses just yet to keep up with the rest of the Joneses in the West.

Best Case: Jackson wins Rookie of the Year, and TJ Warren emerges as a solid contributed off the bench. Devin Booker continues improving and averages close to 25 points again. The Suns don't make the playoffs, but challenge for a 35 win season.

Worst Case: The wheels come of for Earl Watson. Watson gets canned midway through an extremely disappointing season. Bender struggles to get regular minutes and starts looking more and more like Jan Vesely. The Suns contend for the #1 pick.

14. Dallas Mavericks

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY SportsJerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 33-49, 11th in West

Head Coach: Rick Carlisle (10th year, 413-309)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Dennis Smith Jr. (Rookie, 18.1 PPG, 6.2 APG, 4.6 RPG, 1.9 SPG)

Yogi Ferrell (11.3 PPG, 4.3 APG, 2.8 RPG, 1.1 SPG)

JJ Barea (10.9 PPG, 5.5 APG, 2.4 RPG)

Devin Harris (6.7 PPG, 2.1 APG, 2.0 RPG)

SG: Wesley Matthews (13.5 PPG, 2.9 APG, 3.5 RPG, 1.05 SPG)

Seth Curry (12.8 PPG, 2.7 APG, 2.6 RPG, 1.1 SPG)

SF: Harrison Barnes (19.2 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.5 APG)

Dorian Finney-Smith (4.3 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 0.8 APG)

PF: Dirk Nowitzki (14.2 PPG, 6.5 APG, 1.5 APG)

Dwight Powell (6.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 0.6 APG)

Josh McRoberts (4.9 PPG, 23.4 RPG, 2.3 APG)

Maxi Kleber (Rookie, 9.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.4 APG)

C: Nerlens Noel (8.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.0 APG, 1.0 BPG)

Salah Mejri (2.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 0.2 APG)

Jeff Withey (2.9 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 0.1 APG)

Dallas had to be jumping for joy when the electric Dennis Smith Jr fell to them at the 9th pick in the draft. Smith's insane vertical and well-rounded playing style will have #1 Dallas jerseys flying off the shelves. Harrison Barnes now enters year 2 of being the man in Big D. He averaged nearly 20 a game without much talent around him in Year 1. Nerlens Noel may be extremely pricy, but can certainly rebound and play defense at an NBA level. The ageless wonder, Dirk Nowitzki, won't lead the Mavericks in scoring, but will certainly be a vital offensive contributor.

Unfortunately, a prodigy like Smith and a great coach like Rick Carlisle can only mask so many flaws. Dallas had the worst offense in the league last year. In fact, they were the only team that did not average 100 points per game. While they ranked 6th in the league in 3 pointers made, a dominating inside presence keeps them from executing Carlisle's offensive style. If Harrison Barnes can't maintain his performance from last year, that could be a death knell for the season by itself. The lack of depth continues to plague the Mavericks, as their bench ranked 23rd in scoring.

Best Case: Smith wins Rookie of the Year, and Barnes crosses the 20 PPG threshold. Seth Curry and Dorian Finney-Smith become contributors and fix the Mavericks' bench woes. The team wins 35 games and Dirk gets a solid sendoff in what will likely be the final season of an amazing career.

Worst Case: Dirk's last season ends' up a race to get the #1 pick. Barnes takes a step back in year 2 of being the star. Smith, a 19 year old point guard in the West, doesn't explode onto the scene. Nerlens Noel remains an overpaid offensive liability. Dallas again ends up as a slow, thin, barely watchable team.

13. Los Angeles Lakers

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY SportsRichard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 26-56, 14th in West

Head Coach: Luke Walton (2nd year, 26-56)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Lonzo Ball (Rookie, 14.6 PPG, 7.6 APG, 6.0 RPG, 1.8 SPG)

Jordan Clarkson (14.7 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.1 SPG)

Tyler Ennis (4.3 PPG, 1.6 APG, 0.8 RPG)

SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (13.8 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.2 SPG)

Josh Hart (Rookie, 18.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.6 APG)

SF: Brandon Ingram (9.4 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.1 APG)

Luol Deng (7.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.3 APG)

Corey Brewer (4.5 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.2 APG)

PF: Julius Randle (13.2 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 3.6 APG)

Larry Nance Jr (7.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.3 SPG)

Kyle Kuzma (16.4 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.4 APG)

C: Brook Lopez (20.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.7 BPG

Ivica Zubac (7.5 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 0.8 APG)

Andrew Bogut (2.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.8 APG)

Thomas Bryant (Rookie, 12.6 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.5 BPG)

The hype surrounding Lonzo Ball is bordering on the insane. Why by no means a perfect prospect, as his defensive flaws are well known, the eldest Ball is a dynamic offensive talent and premier distributor. Brandon Ingram, while still nightmarishly skinny, looks a more improved player in the preseason. Brook Lopez is not only a great veteran presence in the locker room, but a proven scorer and shot blocker. Other young guns like starting power forward Julius Randle, rookies Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, and Jordan Clarkson figure to have strong seasons.

Even after drafting extremely well and adding a veteran big man of Lopez's caliber, question marks still surround this team. The jury is still out on Luke Walton as an NBA head coach. Ingram looks promising, but with the future riding on his pencil thin shoulders, there is minimal room for error. Lopez's slower style of play may not mesh with teh up-tempo game of Walton's Lakers. Perhaps most troublingly, history has shown us that a rookie point guard in the West is accustomed to taking more than his fair share of lumps his rookie year.

Best Case: Lonzo coasts to Rookie of the Year. Scoring is up with all of the Lakers young players, most notably with Brandon Ingram. Luke Walton cements himself as a viable head coach and one with a reputation of working well with young players. The Lakers challenge for 40 wins, and make LA an enticing spot for someone like Paul George.

Worst Case: Lonzo's defensive liabilities become exposed. Lopez struggles to stay and/or be effective on the court. Randle, Clarkson, and Ingram don't show any notable signs of improvement. The Lakers finish near the bottom of the West, a position that isn't as likely to entice Paul George.

12. Sacramento Kings

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY SportsEd Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 32-50, 12th in West

Head Coach: Dave Joerger (2nd year, 32-50)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: De'Aaron Fox (Rookie, 16.7 PPG, 4.6 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.5 SPG)

George Hill (16.9 PPG, 4.2 APG, 3.4 RPG, 1.0 SPG)

Frank Mason (Rookie, 20.9 PPG, 5.2 APG, 4.2 RPG, 1.3 SPG)

SG: Buddy Hield (10.6 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.5 APG)

Vince Carter (8.0 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.8 APG)

Malachi Richardson (3.6 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 0.5 APG)

Garrett Temple (7.8 PPG, 2.8 ROG, 2.6 APG, 1.3 SPG)

SF: Bogdan Bogdanovic (14.6 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.1 SPG)

Justin Jackson (Rookie, 18.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.8 APG)

PF: Zach Randolph (14.1 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.7 APG)

Skal Labissiere (8.8 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 0.8 APG)

Harry Giles (Rookie, 3.9 PPG, 3,8 RPG, 0.3 APG)

C: Willie Cauley-Stein (8.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.1 APG)

Kosta Koufos (6.6 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 0.7 APG)

Georgios Papagiannis (5.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 0.9 APG)

The Kings were lauded for their draft day moves, establishing the backbone on which a solid future can be built. Lightning-quick rookie point guard De'Aaron Fox is a SportsCenter Top 10 play waiting to happen. Justin Jackson is an experienced and effective wing scorer. Harry Giles is boom or bust, but his boom is very enticing. Since coming via trade from New Orleans, Buddy Hield has shown that he can score at this level. Pair that youth with a good head coach in Dave Joerger and a veteran presence in the locker room like Vince Carter, and the Kings may surprise some people this year.

How the young players perform is going to be critical to the immediate and long-term success of Sacramento. WIllie Cauley-Stein is running out of chances to justify his 6th overall selection. Skal Labissiere shows flashes of greatness, but minimal consistency. Bogdan Bogdanovic is saddled with questions about his his game will transfer from the Turkish league to the NBA. The biggest problem around Sacramento right now is their lack of any lockdown defenders, something that Joerger needs to execute the same suffocating defensive style he did in Memphis

Best Case: De'Aaron Fox introduces himself to the league by making one highlight reel play after another. Young players like Labissiere, Jackson, and Malachi Richardson become solid NBA contributors. Zach Randolph and George Hill turn back the clock for a pair very good seasons. The Kings win close to 40 games.

Worst Case; Fox, Jackson, and Giles don't come sprinting out of the proverbial gate. The wheels finally come off for Carter and Randolph, who struggle with consistency and durability. An incompetent front office "led" by Vlade Divac gets rid of Joerger out of impatience. The Kings finsih near or at the bottom of the West.

11. Memphis Grizzlies

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 43-39, 7th in West

Head Coach: David Fizdale (2nd year, 43-39)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Mike Conley (20.5 PPG, 6.3 APG, 3.5 APG)

Wade Baldwin IV (3.2 PPG, 1.8 APG, 1.4 RPG)

Mario Chalmers (2015-16, 10.3 PPG, 3.8 APG, 2.6 RPG, 1.4 SPG)

SG: Tyreke Evans (10.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3.1 APG)

Ben McLemore (8.1 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 0.8 APG)

Wayne Selden (5.1 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 0.9 APG)

SF: Chandler Parsons (6.2 PPG, 2.5 PPG, 1.6 APG)

James Ennis (6.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.0 APG)

Dillon Brooks (Rookie, 16.1 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.1 SPG)

PF: JaMychal Green (8.9 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.1 APG)

Ivan Rabb (Rookie, 14.0 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.1 BPG)

Jarrell Martin (3.9 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 0.2 APG)

C: Marc Gasol (19.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.3 BPG)

Brandon Wright (6.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.5 APG)

Deyonta Davis (1.6 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 0.1 APG)

The narrative on the Grizzlies for many years was that they were a boring team, but one that always seemed to win around 50 games a year. Many of the pieces from the team that finished 7th remain. Mike Conley is a bona fide star, while Marc Gasol's play hasn't declined with age one bit. Memphis added some nice pieces in the offseason, most notably wing scorers Tyreke Evans and Ben McLemore. Head Coach David Fizadle is one of the hottest young commodities in coaching. With their playoff nucleus intact, don't be surprised if the Grizzlies end up in the playoffs once again.

Though the Grizzlies have had a knack for playing scrappy and pulling out tough wins, their roster may not have the talent to consistently compete with the West's elite. Chandler Parsons struggled mightily in his first year, while Brandon Wright wasn't much better. The biggest issue with Memphis is their lack of depth and athleticism. Mike Conley is a very good point guard, but not the sort who takes over games. They have largely rejected the idea of building through the draft. Last years 1st rounder, Wade Baldwin, didn't see the court much. Him, Ivan Rabb, and Dillon Brooks will need to contribute instantly if Memphis wants to stand a chance.

Best Case: David Fizdale and the Grizzlies stick to teh formula that got them to the playoffs. Mike Conley builds off of a career best season. Marc Gasol's revitalization continues as he leads the Grizzlies to 45 wins and a low playoff seed.

Worst Case: Conley's career year looks more like a flash in the pan than sustained excellence. The younger Gasol eventually goes the way of his brother, and loses a step or two. The lack of depth comes back to bite them when push comes to shove. Memphis disappoints with 30 wins.

10. Utah Jazz

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 51-31, 5th in West

Head Coach: Quin Snyder (4th year, 129-117)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Ricky Rubio (11.1 PPG, 9.1 APG, 4.1 RPG, 1.7 SPG)

Raul Neto (2.5 PPG, 0.9 APG, 0.8 RPG)

Nate Wolters (Europe, 7.1 PPG, 2.2 APG, 2.1 RPG)

SG: Joe Johnson (9.2 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.8 APG)

Donovan Mitchell (Rookie, 15.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.7 APG, 2.1 SPG)

Alec Burks (6.7 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 0.7 APG)

SF: Rodney Hood (12.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.6 APG)

Joe Ingles (7.1 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.7 APG)

Thabo Sefolosha (7.2 PPG, 4.4RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.5 SPG)

Royce O'Neale (Rookie, 10.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.2 SPG)

PF: Derrick Favors (9.5 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.1 APG)

Jonas Jerebko (3.8 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.9 APG)

Joel Bolomboy (1.8 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 0.2 APG)

C: Rudy Gobert (14.0 PPG, 12.8 RPG, 2.64 BPG, 1.2 APG)

Tony Bradley (Rookie, 7.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 0.6 APG)

The Jazz have a Gordon Hayward sized hole in their team, and looking for an instant fix is a fool's errand. Utah needs several players to replace his production. With Rodney Hood forced into a more prominent role and new addition Ricky Rubio orchestrating the attack, the Jazz offense will look to prove many wrong about their talent. Returning is All-NBA center Rudy Gobert, who I believe will win the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Quin Snyder's Jazz had the best statistical defense in the league last year (96.8 PPG), and look to continue this trend in 2017-18.

The defense remains stout, but if Hood doesn't break out, this may be the worst offense in the league. With Dante Exum likely gone for the season, an offense with no legitimate scoring threat just lost one of it's most important facilitators. Having to lean on Joe Johnson to provide consistent offense isn't the best situation to be in. Rookie Donovan Mitchell, not known as a dominant scorer in college, may be pressed into an extended role sooner than expected or wanted.

Best Case: Utah once again has the best scoring defense in the league. Rodney Hood averages near 20 a game, helping the Jazz move on from Gordon Hayward. The Jazz once again return to the playoffs with a 45 wins, and Gobert walks away with the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Worst Case: The Jazz have the unfortunate distinction of scoring the least amount of points in the league. Starters like Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles, Hood, fail to match Hayward's offensive production. Ricky Rubio doesn't pan out. Quin Snyder and his defense can only do so much, as Utah slip out of the playoffs with a 35 win season.

9. Denver Nuggets

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 40-42, 9th in West

Head Coach: Mike Malone (3rd year, 73-91)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Emmanuel Mudiay (11.0 PPG, 3.9 APG, 3.2 RPG)

Jameer Nelson (9.2 PPG, 5.1 APG, 2.6 RPG)

SG: Jamal Murray (9.9 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 2.1 APG)

Gary Harris (14.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.2 SPG)

Malik Beasley (3.8 PPG, 0.8 RPG, 0.5 APG)

SF: Wilson Chandler (15.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 2.0 APG)

Will Barton (14.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.4 APG)

Tyler Lydon (Rookie, 13.2 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.4 BPG, 1.0 SPG)

PF: Paul Millsap (18.1 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 3.7 APG)

Kenneth Faried (9.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 0.9 APG)

Juan Hernangomez (4.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 0.5 APG)

Darrell Arthur (6.4 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.0 APG)

C: Nikola Jokic (16.7 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 4.9 APG)

Mason Plumlee (10.4 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.1 BPG)

Trey Lyles (6.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.0 APG)

Denver has been searching for an identity and a marquee star since Carmelo Anthony was shipped off to New York. While the headline-grabbing name may be missing, Mike Malone has built a roster full of above average players at all 5 positions. Nikola Jokic is the best passing big man in the league, while Paul Millsap adds some All-Star pedigree to the Nuggets' front court. Their young backcourt of Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray are one of the more underrated units in the league. Their bench features quality players like Kenneth faired, Gary Harris, and Will Barton.

Denver's high-flying (no pun intended) offense will be worth watching, but their defense is a hot mess in comparison. They graded as the 4th worst defense in the NBA last season. Adding Millsap, not known for his defensive skills, won't help alleviate that at all. Mudiay, the player who's success will run in tandem with the Nuggets' this season, needs to develop a solid jumper. Leading scorer Danilo Gallinari left, so they need a player like Murray to break out and replace his scoring.

Best Case: The Paul Millsap signing turns out to be the signing of the summer. Jamal Murray wins NBA Most Improved Player. Millsap, Murray, and the high-octane Denver offense lead them to a postseason birth and around 50 wins. Mike Malone becomes one of the hottest commodities on the coaching market.

Worst Case: Denver's defensive woes continue to weigh down a talented offense. Another year passes waiting for their young cornerstones like Mudiay and Murray to break out. Denver doesn't reach .500 as they get overwhelmed by the competition in the West.

8. Los Angeles Clippers

Hugh Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Hugh Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 51-31, 4th in West

Head Coach: Doc Rivers (5th year, 217-111)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Patrick Beverley (9.5 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 4.2 APG, 1.5 SPG)

Milos Teodosic (Europe, 16.1 PPG, 6.8 APG, 2.1 RPG)

Jawun Evans (Rookie, 19.2 PPG, 6.4 APG, 3.4 RPG, 1.8 SPG)

SG: Austin Rivers (12.0 PPG, 2.8 APG, 2.2 RPG)

Lou Williams (17.5 PPG, 3.0 APG, 2.5 RPG, 1.0 SPG)

Sindarius Thornwell (Rookie, 21.4 PPG, 7.1 RG, 2.8 APG, 2.1 SPG)

SF: Danilo Gallinari (18.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.1 APG)

Sam Dekker (6.5 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.0 APG)

Wesley Johnson (2.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 0.3 APG)

PF: Blake Griffin (21.6 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 4.9 APG)

Montrezl Harrell (9.1 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.1 APG)

Brice Johnson (1.3 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 0.3 APG)

C: DeAndre Jordan (12.7 PPG, 13.8 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 1.2 APG)

Willie Reed (5.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 0.4 APG)

Marshall Plumlee (1.9 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 0.5 APG)

Chris Paul, the straw that stirred the Clippers' drink, is now plying his trade in Houston. There's no getting around the fact that Paul's impact on the organization is irreplaceable. The one saving grace in the Clippers' trade was the pieces they brought to Los Angeles. Patrick Beverley will finally get to feature himself in a larger role, while Lou Williams and Sam Dekker could be two huge assets off the bench. DeAndre Jordan remains as dominant a rebounder and shot blocker as ever. This is a make or break year for Blake Griffin. Can he lead a decent roster to the playoffs without Paul's help.

Doc Rivers might be coaching for his job. Reports of an internal riff in the organization, coupled with a relative lack of playoff success has Doc on a very short leash. His potential final year with the Clippers is reliant on players that should normally not be focal points of a playoff team, like Danilo Gallinari or his Doc's son Austin. DeAndre Jordan's offensive acumen will be tested now that Paul isn't lobbing easy alley-oops to him.

Best Case: Blake Griffin has an All-NBA caliber season, and he proves he can lead the Clippers to wins without Chris Paul. DeAndre Jordan wins the rebounding title and challenges for DPOY. Beverley, newcomer Milos Teodosic, and Austin Rivers serve as the nucleus for an exciting backcourt, The Clippers win 50 games.

Worst Case: The Paul-less Clippers implode. Beverley shows he isn't a great option as a #1 point guard. Griffin and Jordan's offensive production falls off a cliff. Doc gets canned after a disappointing season in which they fail to make the playoffs. The Clippers start looking to trade more assets as a slow rebuild begins.

7. Portland Trail Blazers

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 41-41, 8th in West

Head Coach: Terry Stotts (6th year, 223-187)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Damian Lillard (27.0 PPG, 5.9 APG, 4.9 RPG)

Shabazz Napier (4.1 PPG, 1.3 APG, 1.2 RPG)

SG: CJ McCollum (23.0 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.6 APG)

Anthony Morrow (5.5 PPG, 0.6 RPG, 0.5 APG)

Archie Goodwin (7.3 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.6 APG)

SF: Mo Harkless (10.0 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.1 SPG)

Evan Turner (9.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.2 APG)

Jake Layman (2.2 PPG, 0.7 RPG, 0.3 APG)

PF: Al-Farouq Aminu (8.7 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.0 SPG)

Ed Davis (4.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 0.6)

Caleb Swanigan (Rookie, 18.5 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 3,1 APG)

Noah Vonleh (4.4 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 0.4 APG)

C: Jusuf Nurkic (10.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.1 BPG)

Zach Collins (Rookie, 10.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 0.4 APG)

Meyers Leonard (5.4 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.0 APG)

Portland seems to sneak up on people every year. They always end up scrapping their way into or most of the way to a playoff spot. With Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as lethal a 1-2 backcourt punch as there is in the league, opponents are well aware of Portland's firepower. Rookies Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins figure to get solid minutes and produce at a high level in Terry Stotts’ system. Jusuf Nurkic looks poised to break out. The Trail Blazers are retaining most of the offensive pieces that gave them the 8th highest scoring offense in the league.

Portland’s defense, which ranked 6th in terms of points allowed, needs to be fixed if they want any hope of winning a playoff series. In addition to their shoddy defense, Golden State also exposed the lack of depth on the Blazers’ roster. Players like Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu will have to play big time minutes in big time games, and those guys aren’t going to move the needle much for Portland. They have hedged their bets on Jusuf Nurkic developing into an elite center. If he doesn’t pan out like they think, Portland may need to hit the panic button.

Best Case: Lillard and McCollum ball out and each average over 22 a game. Nurkic becomes a dominant center. Rookies Swanigan and Collins thrive from the get-go. The defense bends, but doesn’t break., and remains just good enough for the Trail Blazers to ride their backcourt to a 50 win season.

Worst Case: The lack of depth gets exploited early and often by the powers of the west. No legitimate #3 scoring option emerges opposite McCollum and Lillard. Nurkic remains an average center. The Blazers finally jettison Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard, ending their reclamation project. Portland wins just 40 games.

6. New Orleans Pelicans

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 34-48, 10th in West

Head Coach: Alvin Gentry (3rd Year, 64-100)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Jrue Holiday (15.4 PPG, 7.3 APG, 3.9 RPG, 1.5 SPG)

Rajon Rondo (7.4 PPG, 6.7 APG, 5.1 RPG, 1.4 SPG)

Frank Jackson (Rookie, 10.9 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.7 APG)

SG: Jordan Crawford (14.1 PPG, 3.0 APG, 1.8 RPG)

E’Twaun Moore (9.6 PPG, 2.2 APG, 2.1 RPG)

Tony Allen (9.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 1.4 APG)

Ian Clark (6.8 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 1.2 APG)

SF: Solomon Hill (7.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.8 APG)

Dante Cunningham (6.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 0.6 APG)

PF: Anthony Davis (28.0 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 2.1 APG, 1.3 SPG)

Cheick Diallo (5.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 0.2 APG)

Cliff Alexander (1.3 PPG, 0.8 RPG, 0.0 APG)

C: DeMarcus Cousins (27.0 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.4 SPG, 1.3 BPG)

Omer Asik (2.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 0.5 APG)

Alexis Ajinca (5.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 0.3 APG)

The Pelicans are now heading into their 4th consecutive season of being a “potential breakout team.” This year looks different however. The most glaringly obvious reason is they will get a full season of superstar DeMarcus Cousins opposite a superstar like Anthony Davis. Those two alone might be enough for New Orleans to squeeze into the playoffs. By bringing back Jrue Holiday to run the point, and pilfering defensive stalwart Tony Allen from Memphis, Alvin Gentry and the Pelicans have started to build a reputable team around their two star big men. After finishing 14th in both scoring and scoring defense, having an entire campaign with arguably the two best big men in the game should rectify that in a big way.

I could sit here and wax poetically all day about how dominant Cousins and Davis look, but two forwards does not a team make. The lack of proven depth is shocking. Jordan Crawford and Solomon Hill will likely be required to start and play meaningful minutes. Omer Asik and Cheick Diallo form about as precipitous a drop off from Cousins and Davis as one could possibly see. Jrue Holiday has been effective when healthy, but he has become saddled with the dreaded “questionable durability” tag.

Best Case: The Pelicans win a playoff series and win 50 games. Davis and Cousins prove unstoppable on the interior, while Jrue Holiday shakes off the doubters to have a career year. Hill, Crawford, and E’Twaun Moore show just enough to keep the Pelicans viable. Alvin gentry gets rewarded with a big contract at the end of the year.

Worst Case: New Orleans disappoints by missing the playoffs yet again. Davis and Cousins are surrounded by what turns out to be a mediocre supporting cast. Holiday once again gets injured, forcing Rajon Rondo to take the helm. Rondo can’t recapture his Boston or Sacramento production. Another year in Anthony Davis’ prime is wasted on a non-playoff season that leaves the Pelicans with more questions than answers.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 31-51, 13th in West

Head Coach: Tom Thibodeau (2nd year, 31-51)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Jeff Teague (15.3 PPG, 7.8 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.2 SPG)

Aaron Brooks (5.0 PPG, 1.9 APG, 1.1 RPG)

Tyus Jones (3.5 PPG, 2.6 APG, 1.1 RPG)

SG: Andrew Wiggins (23.6 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.0 SPG)

Jamal Crawford (12.3 PPG, 2.6 APG, 1.6 RPG)

Marcus Georges-Hunt (2.8 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 0.6 APG)

SF: Jimmy Butler (23.9 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.5 APG, 1.9 SPG)

Shabazz Muhammad (9.9 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.4 APG)

PF: Taj Gibson (10.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 0.9 APG)

Nemanja Bjelica (6.2 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.2 APG)

Amile Jefferson (Rookie, 10.9 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 1.5 APG)

C: Karl-Anthony Towns (25.1 PPG, 12.3 PPG, 2.7 APG, 1.2 BPG)

Gorgui Dieng (10.0 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.0 SPG)

Justin Patton (Rookie, 12.9 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 1.2 APG)

Cole Aldrich (1.7 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 0.4 APG)

One would be hard pressed to find a team that improved more than Minnesota in the offseason. In addition to sporing 2 players averaging greater than 23 points per game in Andrew Wiggins and the All-NBA center Karl-Anthony Towns, but they added a top-15 player in Jimmy Butler without mortgaging their future. Butler, Towns, and Wiggins make the T-Wolves a legitimate threat to do damage in the West. Minnesota was active in free agency, enticing Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford to all head north. The T-Wolves have star power, depth, and an elite head coach, all of which are major ingredients in the recipe for sustained playoff success.

Like many super teams before them, the Timberwolves may struggle to accommodate all 3 stars in the beginning. Wiggins, who took more shots than Towns last year, will likely be the 3rd scoring option this season. Will he take to that role? While Butler vastly improves the defense, the team isn’t great on that end. Being ranked 19th in total defense isn’t good enough for both a Tom Thibodeau coached team and a contender in the West.

Best Case: The new Big 3 in Minnesota instantly clicks. Butler, Towns and Wiggins all average near 20 points a game. The supporting cast, led by Teague, Gibson, and Gorgui Dieng, find the perfect balance between sacrificing production while remaining viable contributors. The defense finally plays the way Thibodeau wants and they end up in the top 10 in scoring defense. Minnesota wins 55 games.

Worst Case: The Big 3 never get comfortable. Strife becomes commonplace when neither of the 3 stars are willing to sacrifice points or shots. The bench, which needed major improvement from 2016 to now, remains one of the least potent in the league. Veterans like Gibson and Crawford begin to show their age. The Timberwolves miss the playoffs, prolonging the longest active streak without a playoff appearance.

4. San Antonio Spurs

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 61-21, 2nd in West

Head Coach: Gregg Popovich (22nd Year, 1150-506)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Tony Parker (10.1 PPG, 4.5 APG, 1.8 RPG)

Patty Mills (9.5 PPG, 3.5 APG, 1.8 RPG)

Dejounte Murray (3.4 PPG, 1.3 APG, 1.1 RPG)

SG: Danny Green (7.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.0 SPG)

Manu Ginobili (7.5 PPG, 2.7 APG, 2.3 RPG, 1.1 SPG)

Derrick White (Rookie, 18.1 PPG, 4.4 APG, 4.1 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 1.1 SPG)

Bryn Forbes (2.6 PPG, 0.7 APG, 0.6 RPG)

SF: Kawhi Leonard (25.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.8 SPG)

Rudy Gay (18.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.5 SPG)

Kyle Anderson (3.4 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.3 APG)

Davis Bertans (4.5 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 0.7 APG)

PF: LaMarcus Aldridge (17.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.2 BPG)

Matt Costello (Rookie, 10.7 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.2 BPG)

C: Pau Gasol (12.4 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.1 BPG)

Joffrey Lauvergne (5.4 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.0 APG)

With 21 straight playoff appearances, the Spurs are as accomplished a dynasty as there has been in the modern era. While they may not be the dominant juggernaut of yesteryear, they are certainly a team worth keeping an eye on. Kawhi Leonard has gone from a defensive stopper to a full-fledged superstar. LaMarcus Aldridge is an All-Star forward when he is at his best. Rudy Gay was a tremendous acquisition. Most importantly, Gregg Popovich is still patrolling the sidelines. His trademark suffocating defense, which ranked 2nd best in the league, is still a force to be reckoned with.

The 800 pound gorilla in the room surrounding San Antonio is their age. They are insanely old. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are pushing 40 and haven’t exactly aged like a fine wine. Pau Gasol’s play has been steadily dropping off. Aldridge went invisible in the playoffs last year. On a team where both talent and youth in the same package are hard to come by, Aldridge will have to step up and justify his contract. If he can’t, things aren’t looking good for San Antonio’s title chances.

Best Case: Kawhi wins an MVP award in a year where Pop’s Spurs once again make the Western Conference Finals. LaMarcus Aldridge wakes up and returns to the form we’ve seen in Portland. Role players like Rudy Gay and Danny Green explode for massive seasons. Popovich gets lauded for one of his best season as a coach, as he maneuvers a brutal western conference without a ton of proven youth or players in their prime.

Worst Case: The Spurs get bounced in the 1st round of the playoffs. They finally start to show how long in the tooth they are. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Gasol start to look more like expensive liabilities and veteran contributors. Rudy Gay’s offense first style doesn’t mesh with Popovich’s game plan. Kawhi Leonard’s production plateaus, as he can only do so much by himself.

3. Houston Rockets

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 55-27, 3rd in West

Head Coach: Mike D’Antoni (2nd Year, 55-27)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Chris Paul (18.1 PPG, 9.2 APG, 5.0 RPG, 2.0 SPG)

Bobby Brown (2.5 PPG, 0.6 APG, 0.2 RPG)

SG: James Harden (29.1 PPG, 11.2 APG, 8.1 RPG 1.5 SPG)

Eric Gordon (16.2 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 2.5 APG)

Tim Quarterman (1.9 PPG, 0.9 APG, 0.7 RPG)

SF: Trevor Ariza (11.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.8 SPG)

PJ Tucker (6.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 1.2 APG)

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (6.1 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 0.5 APG)

PF: Ryan Anderson (13.6 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 0.9 APG)

Tarik Black (5.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 0.6 APG)

Cameron Oliver (Rookie, 16.0 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.6 BPG, 1.8 APG)

C: Clint Capela (12.6 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 1.0 APG)

Nene (9.1 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.0 APG)

Chinanu Onuaku (2.8 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 0.6 APG)

Zhou Qi (15.9 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 1.1 APG)

No team in the league has better molded their roster to their coaches’ style than Houston. Mike D’Antoni’s high-scoring, 3-point obsessed offense is being orchestrated by James Harden, as potent a shooter and offensive threat as there is in the league. Adding Chris Paul to this mix could bring back memories of the Steve Nash-led Phoenix teams in the mid 2000s. WIth Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson returning to the fold. While delegating the ball-handling duties between Paul and Harden will be a point of contention, the results will be amazing should they pull it off.

The Rockets have one of the most, if not the most, top-heavy roster in the league. In acquiring Paul, Houston parted with several key role players. Players like PJ Tucker, Zhou Qi, and Bobby Brown will earn significant minutes. In acquiring Paul, the Rockets acquired another ball-centric player that needs to have the offense run through him. If they never figure out who gets to run the point, this decision could blow up in their face. Their lack of rebounding and height will be an issue come playoff time.

Best Case: The Rockets shock the world and make it to the NBA Finals. Harden and Paul both get MVP looks as they both fit seamlessly into D’Antoni’s offense. Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson once again prove themselves as fine compliments to the two superstars. Eric Gordon competes for his 2nd consecutive Sixth Man of the Year Award. Their depth questions are answered by an overperforming bench.

Worst Case: Their season becomes overshadowed by Paul and Harden’s inability to coexist. D’Antoni’s offense and Darryl Morey’s roster construction can only get Houston so far. Their paper-thin bench can’t compete with the West’s elite. Paul, a free agent after this season, decides to take his talents elsewhere, leaving the Rockets with James Harden and not much worth writing home about.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 47-35, 6th in West

Head Coach: Billy Donovan (2nd year, 47-35)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Russell Westbrook (31.6 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 10.4 APG, 1.6 SPG)

Raymond Felton (6.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 2.4 APG)

Semaj Christon (2.9 PPG, 2.0 APG, 1.4 RPG)

SG: Andre Roberson (6.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 1.0 APG)

Terrance Ferguson (Rookie, 4.6 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 0.6 APG)

Alex Abrines (6.0 PPG, 1.3 APG, 0.6 RPG)

SF: Paul George (23.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.6 SPG)

Kyle Singler (2.8 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 0.3 APG)

Josh Huestis (7.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.5 BPG)

PF: Carmelo Anthony (22.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.9 APG)

Patrick Patterson (6.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.2 APG)

Jerami Grant (5.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.0 BPG, 0.6 APG)

Nick Collison (1.7 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 0.6 APG)

C: Steven Adams (11.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 1.1 APG)

Dakari Johnson (Rookie, 6.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 0.7 APG)

Russell Westbrook did the unthinkable last year when he took home MVP honors while becoming the 2nd player ever to average a triple double over the course of the season. Part of the reason he was able to do this was the lack of talent around him. So what did Sam Presti do? Trade for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony without giving up a huge amount. With Russ locked in long term, and two extremely accomplished scorers like Anthony and George, the Thunder look poised to make some noise in the West. This might be a make or break year for Billy Donovan. A good year may result in his name being thrust into the elite coach conversation.

Oklahoma City, like Houston, may not have the supporting cast to challenge Golden State. Contributors like Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and Enes Kanter have been shipped away. WIth Steven Adams and Andre Roberson as their best role players, they need to step up or this experiment could go south in a heartbeat. With George, Anthony, and Westbrook all ranking in the bottom 5 in field goal percentage in the final 5 minutes of close games, that adds another wrinkle to the already daunting task of adequately feeding all of these big mouths.

Best Case: The Oklahoma City Thunder are your 2017 NBA Champions. Russell Westbrook silences critics by sacrificing some production to create an equally potent hydra with George and Anthony. Adams, Roberson, and Raymond Felton do just enough to prevent a calamitous collapse from the rest of the Thunder. Billy Donovan’s defense, which ranked 15th last year, improves to a top 10 with the addition of several versatile pieces on that end.

Worst Case: The Thunder finish right where they did last year. What they considered to be an embarrassment of riches turns out to be a textbook case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Westbrook demands the lion’s share of the ball, leaving George, Anthony, and a depleted roster feeling alienated and underperforming. A ball-hogging star, weak roster, and average coach isn’t enough to coax either George or Anthony to stay in OKC.

1. Golden State Warriors

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 67-15, 1st in West, NBA Champions

Head Coach: Steve Kerr (4th Year, 207-39)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Steph Curry (25.3 PPG, 6.6 APG, 4.5 RPG, 1.8 SPG)

Shaun Livingston (5.1 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.8 APG)

SG: Klay Thompson (22.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.1 APG)

Nick Young (13.2 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.0 APG)

Patrick McCaw (4.0 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 1.1 APG)

SF: Kevin Durant (25.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.6 BPG, 1.0 SPG)

Andre Iguodala (7.6 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.0 SPG)

Omri Casspi (5.2 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.0 APG)

PF: Draymond Green (10.2 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 7.0 APG, 2.0 SPG, 1.4 BPG)

David West (4.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.2 APG)

Jordan Bell (Rookie, 10.9 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 1.8 APG, 1.3 SPG)

Kevin Looney (2.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.5 APG)

C: Zaza Pachulia (6.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.9 APG)

JaVale McGee (6.1 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 0.2 APG)

Damian Jones (1.9 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.0 APG)

As if there was really any doubt, the Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship last year, and it really wasn’t even close. Adding the 2nd best player in basketball in Kevin Durant to a team that had won 73 games the year before hand is the kind of dream scenario one could only play out in 2K. Durant was as dominant as ever, and Steph Curry continues to amaze with every new 40 footer he drains without a moment’s hesitation. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are both offensive forces and good enough to win Defensive Player of the Year. The Andre Iguodala/Shaun Livingston led bench has consistently performed when called upon, most notably in Game 2 of the Finals.

The only negative aspects of this roster are very minor. They allowed the most 2nd chance points in the league, partially because of a lack of size and frontcourt depth. Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee are by no means a good pair of centers. If you want to beat Golden State, attacking their lack of frontcourt depth is the way to go. The big 4 may be relatively young, but the rest of the roster isn’t exactly a bunch of spry rookies.

Best Case: They win the title.

Worst Case: They don’t.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

15. Atlanta Hawks

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 43-39, 5th in East

Head Coach: Mike Budenholzer (5th Year, 189-139)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Dennis Schröder (17.9 PPG, 6.3 APG, 3.1 RPG)

Malcolm Delaney (5.4 PPG, 2.6 APG, 1.7 RPG)

Quinn Cook (5.6 PPG, 1.9 APG, 0.5 RPG)

SG: Kent Bazemore (11.0 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.2 SPG)

Marco Belinelli (10.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.0 APG)

Tyler Dorsey (Rookie, 14.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.7 APG)

SF: Taurean Prince (5.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 0.9 PG)

De’Andre Bembry (2.7 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 0.8 APG)

Luke Babbitt (4.8 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 0.5 APG)

Nicolas Brussino (2.8 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 0.9 APG)

PF: Ersan Ilyasova (13.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.7 APG)

John Collins (Rookie, 19.2 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 0.5 APG)

C: Dewayne Dedmon (5.1 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 0.6 APG)

Mike Muscala (6.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.4 APG)

Miles Plumlee (2.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 0.5 APG)

Let’s not sugar coat it. Atlanta went through a full-scale fire sale in the offseason. Dwight Howard is now in Charlotte, Tim Hardaway in New York, and Paul Millsap in Denver. While things look grim, all is not totally bleak for the Hawks. Dennis Schröder looks like he could reach star level if he makes a leap this year. Kent Bazemore is a very nice player. John Collins is an unfairly talented rookie. Look for De’Andre Bembry and Taurean Prince to get more time.

Those young pieces are intriguing, but they’re simply not enough to compete. The bench is made up of D-League (sorry, G-League) players. Losing 3 of your top 4 scorers, leading rebounder (Howard), defensive stopper (Thabo Sefolosha), and best player (Millsap) isn’t exactly a formula for success. Mike Budenholzer is a good coach, as he led the Hawks to 62 wins just 3 years ago, but he can’t produce a winner with this talent.

Best Case: The Hawks win close to 30 games. Schröder takes it upon himself to lead this team and averages around 20 a game with 7+ assists. Role players like Dewayne Dedmon and Prince emerge as quality starters. Collins wins Rookie of the Year honors as a product of Budenholzer hitching his wagon on the prized young forward. Budenholzer gets a contract extension, as he’s proven he’s the right guy to lead this rebuild.

Worst Case: The Hawks end up as the worst team in the league. Schröder and Bazemore show that they can’t conduct an NBA-caliber offense. Bembry and Prince, two players Atlanta invested high draft picks in, can’t coexist. Offseason acquisitions like Dedmon and Marco Belinelli either underachieve or don’t perform enough to win the Hawks games. Atlanta considers getting rid of Budenholzer.

14. Chicago Bulls

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 41-41, 8th in East

Head Coach: Fred Hoiberg (3rd year, 83-81)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Kris Dunn (3.8 PPG, 2.4 APG, 2.1 RPG, 1.0 SPG)

Jerian Grant (5.9 PPG, 1.9 APG, 1.8 RPG)

Cameron Payne (5.2 PPG, 1.8 APG, 1.5 RPG)

David Nwaba (6.0 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 0.7 APG)

SG: Zach LaVine (18.9 PPG, 3.4 APG, 3.0 RPG)

Justin Holiday (7.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.2 APG)

SF: Denzel Valentine (5.1 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.1 APG)

Paul Zipser (5.5 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.8 APG)

Jarrell Eddie (4.8 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 0.0 APG)

PF: Lauri Markkanen (Rookie, 15.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 0.9 APG)

Nikola Mirotic (10.6 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.1 APG)

Bobby Portis (6.8 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 0.5 APG)

Cristiano Felicio (4.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 0.6 APG)

C: Robin Lopez (10.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 1.0 APG)

Diamond Stone (1.4 PPG, 0.9 RPG, 0.0 APG)

Chicago’s expectations for this season are tempered, at best. However, there are several individual pieces the Bulls should be excited about. Zach LaVine averaged 19 points per game as a 3rd option in Minnesota. Newly acquired Kris Dunn oozes potential. Lauri Markkanen looks to be a legit, modern NBA power forward. Denzel Valentine is a prime breakout candidate. Fred Hoiberg isn’t drawing rave reviews, but has shown to be a competent NBA head coach.

Bulls hans have been calling for executive duo Gar Forman and John Paxson to resign for years now. Trading Butler probably didn’t make the boo birds go away. In doing so, “Gar-Pax” has stripped this team down to the bone. Gone from last year are Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, and Rajon Rondo. The rookies are going to be fed to the wolves (no pun intended) on a team without much veteran leadership. LaVine’s ability to lead a team will be tested in Year 1 of the rebuild.

Best Case: The Bulls scrape together 35 wins in a very weak east. Kris Dunn fulfills all the potential he showed at Providence. LaVine averages 20 a game and proves he can be a star in this league. Markkanen is solid out of the gate, scoring around 12-15 points per game. Hoiberg silences those calling for his head for at least a year.

Worst Case: The Bulls end up with the #1 pick in the draft. The raw Dunn remains more measurables than production after year 2. Markkanen has difficulty adjusting to the physicality of the NBA. A team without a ton of depth is forced to make Robin Lopez and Nikola Mirotic major focal points of the offense. Hoiberg gets canned midway through the season, as do Forman and Paxson.

13. Orlando Magic

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 29-53, 13th in East

Head Coach: Frank Vogel (2nd Year, 29-53)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Elfrid Payton (12.8 PPG, 6.5 APG, 4.7 RPG, 1.1 SPG)

DJ Augustin (7.9 PPG, 2.7 APG, 1.5 RPG)

Shelvin Mack (7.8 PPG, 2.8 APG, 2.3 RPG)

SG: Evan Fournier (17.2 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 3.0 APG)

Jonathan Simmons (6.2 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.6 APG)

Arron Afflalo (8.4 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.3 APG)

Wesley Iwundu (Rookie, 13.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.0 SPG)

SF: Jonathan Isaac (Rookie, 12.0 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 1.2 SPG, 1.2 APG)

Terrence Ross (11.0 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.1 SPG)

Mario Hezonja (4.9 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 1.0 APG)

PF: Aaron Gordon (12.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.9 APG)

Damjan Rudez (1.8 PPG, 0.6 RPG, 0.4 APG)

C: Nikola Vucevic (14.6 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.0 BPG)

Marreese Speights (8.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 0.8 APG)

Bismack Biyombo (6.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 0.8 APG)

The Magic enter another season on the outside of the playoffs looking in. This year is all about building for the future, make no bones about it. With young pieces like Elfrid Payton and the recently drafted Jonathan Isaac in place, the Magic look to have a solid foundation. Nikola Vucevic is one of the most underrated big men in the league, while Evan Fournier has averaged greater than 15 points per game over the last 2 years right under everyone’s noses. Frank Vogel is a good head coach for a team constructed of young relative unknowns like Orlando.

Orlando’s season hinges on several players other establishing themselves as above-average NBA starters or flaming out all together. Aaron Gordon is back at his natural power forward position, and now enters year 4. Payton needs to show improvement as a shooter. Many believe they overpaid for Spurs castoff Jonathan Simmons. Now is the time for Simmons to prove the doubters wrong. If he can’t he and many of the Magic’s other veterans could relegate Orlando to the bottom of the league.

Best Case: The Magic win 35 games. Isaac, someone who was thought of as boom or bust during the draft process, booms in a big way. Vucevic and Fournier finally get some national props for their performance. Elfrid Payton finally learns how to shoot. After being unceremoniously dumped in Indiana, Vogel reestablishes himself as a quality coach.

Worst Case: Orlando can’t get out of its’ own way. A team that ranked 21st in total defense and 27th in points scored doesn’t do much to fix those crooked numbers. The Magic will still wait on Aaron Gordon’s breakout year after year 4. Isaac, who weighs just 210 pounds at 6’10”, gets knocked around in his 1st year at the pro level. Vogel gets let go when the Magic secure the #1 pick.

12. Indiana Pacers

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 42-20, 7th in East

Head Coach: Nate McMillan (2nd Year, 42-40)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Darren Collison (13.2 PPG, 4.6 APG, 2.2 RPG, 1.0 SPG)

Cory Joseph (9.3 PPG, 3.3 APG, 2.9 RPG)

Edmond Sumner (Rookie, 14.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.2 SPG)

SG: Victor Oladipo (15.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.2 SPG)

Bojan Bogdanovic (13.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.4 APG)

Lance Stephenson (6.8 PPG, 3.3 APG, 2.9 RPG)

SF: Thad Young (11.0 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.5 SPG)

Glenn Robinson III (6.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 0.7 APG)

Alex Poythress (10.7 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 0.8 APG)

Jared Uthoff (4.4 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.0 APG)

PF: Domantas Sabonis (5.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.0 APG)

TJ Leaf (Rookie, 16.3 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.1 BPG)

C: Myles Turner (14.5 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 1.3 APG)

Al Jefferson (8.1 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 0.9 APG)

Ike Anigbogu (Rookie, 4.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 0.2 APG)

The Pacers may end up being the least exciting team this year, but will by no means be the worst. They have a budding star in Myles Turner who serves as the de facto captain of a promising frontcourt. Domantas Sabonis and TJ Leaf are a lethal young power forward combination, with Al Jefferson and Thad Young offering veteran experience. Victor Oladipo is a versatile defender who is figuring it out on the offensive end. Lance Stephenson is a wild card, but a risk worth taking.

As much as Indiana tries to move on, Paul George’s departure hangs heavily over this franchise. Replacing him is damn near impossible. What could derail the Pacers’ season is expecting players like Oladipo, Sabonis, and Leaf to immediately replace George’s production, when in reality they need time to figure out their post-George identity. Pair that with a generally unathletic team that isn’t great at shooting, particularly from 3, and this season could blow up in their face as soon as it starts.

Best Case: The Pacers rattle off 40 wins. Myles Turner’s development gets kicked into overdrive, as he coasts to his first All-Star game appearance. The tag-team combination of Leaf and Sabonis looks like it will be a potent one for years to come. Oladipo finally becomes a complete, well-rounded offensive talent. The post-Paul George era begins with a solid season, even if they don’t make the playoffs.

Worst Case: Paul George’s 6’9” shadow looms large over the city of Indianapolis. Oladipo remains a solid player, but doesn’t contribute offensively like many expected. One or more of the Sabonis-Leaf-Turner frontcourt trio gets off to a very poor start to the season. The lack of athleticism comes back to bit them against the best in the East. The Pacers win around 25 games.

11. New York Knicks

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 31-51, 12th in East

Head Coach: Jeff Hornacek (2nd Year, 31-51)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Frank Ntilikina (Rookie, 5.1 PPG, 2.1 APG, 1.4 APG)

Ramon Sessions (6.2 PPG, 2.6 APG, 1.5 RPG)

Jarrett Jack (3.0 PPG, 2.5 APG, 0.0 RPG)

SG: Tim Hardaway Jr (14.5 PPG, 2.8 APG, 2.3 RPG)

Courtney Lee (10.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.1 SPG)

Ron Baker (4.1 PPG, 2.1 APG, 1.7 RPG)

SF: Doug McDermott (9.0 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 0.9 APG)

Mindaugus Kuzminskas (6.3 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.0 APG)

Lance Thomas (6.0 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 0.8 APG)

PF: Kristaps Porzingis (18.1 PPG, 7,2 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 1.5 APG)

Michael Beasley (9.4 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 0.9 APG)

Kyle O’Quinn (6.3 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.3 BPG)

C: Enes Kanter (14.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 0.9 APG)

Willy Hernangomez (8.2 PPG, 7.0 APG, 1.3 APG)

Joakim Noah (5.0 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.2 APG)

Seeing a Knicks team without Carmelo Anthony looks very alien. Finally, New York ripped off the band aid and has committed to a rebuild. These pieces could finally set the Knicks up for success in the future. Kristaps Porzingis is on his way to becoming a superstar. Enes Kanter is one of the most efficient players in the league. Frank Ntilikina might be the next big thing in European imports. With the stink of Phil Jackson gone and with him his accursed triangle, Jeff Hornacek will likely lead this offense to a ranking better than 18th.

While Phil Jackson is no longer in power, his fingerprints are all over the Knicks, even without the triangle offense. Tim Hardaway, who the Knicks let go in a trade, was resigned for 90 million. The albatross Joakim Noah contract still looms over the team. If Ntilikina doesn’t pan out, the fallout could be catastrophic. They have their star in Porzingis, but haven’t surrounded him with enough.

Best Case: The Knicks win 40 games. Porzingis’s ascension to superstardom culminates in a 25 point per game season. Kanter establishes himself as one of the best offensive centers in the game. Ntilikina isn’t a star right away, but answers many of the questions surrounding him relating to his size and jumper. Hornacek avoids the axe for at least one more season.

Worst Case: The wounds created by Phil Jackson get a dash of salt poured in them. Porzingis struggles as a solid second scorer fails to emerge. Too much is placed on the skinny shoulders of Ntilikina, and he struggles out of the gate. The Tim Hardaway contract becomes as big of an anchor on the team’s financial future as Joakim Noah’s is. New management decides to start fresh without a good coach in Jeff Hornacek. The Knicks win 30 games.

10. Brooklyn Nets

Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports
Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 20-62, 15th in East

Head Coach: Kenny Atkinson (2nd Year, 20-62)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Jeremy Lin (14.5 PPG, 5.1 APG, 3.8 RPG, 1.1 SPG)

Isaiah Whitehead (7.4 PPG, 2.6 APG, 2.5 RPG)

Spencer Dinwiddie (7.2 PPG, 3.1 APG, 2.8 RPG)

SG: D’Angelo Russell (15.6 PPG, 4.8 APG, 3.5 RPG, 1.4 APG)

Caris LeVert (8.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.9 APG)

Sean Kilpatrick (13.1 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.2 APG)

Joe Harris (8.2 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.0 APG)

SF: Allen Crabbe (10.7 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.2 APG)

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (8.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG. 2.0 APG, 1.0 SPG)

Quincy Acy (5.8 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 0.5 APG)

PF: DeMarre Carroll (8.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 1.0 APG)

Trevor Booker (10.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.0 SPG)

C: Timofey Mozgov (7.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 0.8 APG)

Jarrett Allen (Rookie, 13.4 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 0.8 APG)

Tyler Zeller (3.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 0.8 RPG)

The Nets were a joke in years past. Billy King orchestrated the worst trade in NBA history the knee-capped the franchise for years. With Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson in the driver's’ seat now, things look much more promising. Brooklyn nabbed a special talent in D’Angelo Russell from the Lakers, took on Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll in salary dumps, and drafted a promising young center in Jarrett Allen. Pair that with a point guard like Jeremy Lin, an improved Caris LeVert, and Atkinson, and the Nets may surprise some people.

Brooklyn isn’t on easy street just yet, however. Even with the addition of Carroll, the team was still the worst defensive team in the East. One stopper doesn’t change that. With Russell moving back to the 2 guard, it remains to be seen how he and Lin will coexist. If young players like LeVert, Isaiah Whitehead, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson don’t continue to improve, the Nets will be saddled with one of the worst rosters from top to bottom in the league.

Best Case: Everything begins to click with the Nets. Russell excels in his natural 2 guard spot. Offseason acquisitions like Crabbe and Carroll provide veteran presences and around 12 per game in scoring. LeVert explodes for a year that garners him some Sixth Man of the Year votes. The Nets are near the top of the league in 3’s made, fulfilling Kenny Atkinson’s offensive vision. Atkinson get a huge extension after this season. The Nets win 40 games.

Worst Case: The Nets plan needs to wait another year. Lin and Russell never get totally in agreement over who should run the offense. Carroll continues his poor play from his last year in Toronto. No one on the bench separates from the rest of the pack. A small, young team gets routinely destroyed on the glass. The Nets can only scrape 30 wins together.

9. Philadelphia 76ers

Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 28-54, 14th in East

Head Coach: Brett Brown (5th year, 75-253)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Markelle Fultz (Rookie, 23.2 PPG, 5.9 APG, 5.2 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 1.2 BPG)

TJ McConnell (6.9 PPG, 6.6 APG, 3.1 RPG, 1.7 SPG)

Jerryd Bayless (11.0 PPG, 4.3 APG, 4.0 RPG)

SG: JJ Redick (15.0 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 1.4 APG)

Nik Stauskus (9.5 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.4 APG)

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (6.4 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 1.1 APG)

Furkan Korkmaz (Rookie, 2.7 PPG, 0.9 RPG, 0.5 APG)

SF: Ben Simmons (Rookie, 19.2 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 4.8 APG, 2.0 SPG)

Robert Covington (12.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 1.5 APG)

Justin Anderson (7.1 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 0.9 APG)

PF: Dario Saric (12.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.2 APG)

Amir Johnson (6.5 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.8 APG)

Richaun Holmes (9.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.0 APG)

C: Joel Embiid (20.2 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.5 BPG, 2.1 APG

Jahlil Okafor (11.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.2 APG)

“The Process” seems to be nearing completion, as Philadelphia has amassed a collection of young talent greater than that of any other team in the NBA. Ben Simmons is a freak who was getting looked at as a point guard for a period of time. Markelle Fultz was easily the best player in this draft. Joel Embiid, when healthy, was breaking records for per 36 minute averages. They’ve discovered quality NBA players in packages no one thought would yield much in Robert Covington and Dario Saric. Brett Brown staved off firing rumors to emerge as a very good coach with young talent.

The young players have the potential to mesh all at once and produce something beautiful. They have an equal chance of not producing anything successful. Embiid’s injury history is well documented. Simmons’ jumper is still a question, and Fultz’s fit as a true point guard isn’t ideal. If any of the rookies don’t get off to a hot start, the Sixers don’t have the veteran horses to keep up with the best teams in the east. A lot is riding on a bunch of 19-22 year olds.

Best Case: The Sixers finally make the playoffs with around 45 wins. Simmons or Fultz ends up as the rookie of the year. Embiid makes All-NBA and avoids any significant injuries. Veterans like JJ Redick and Covington provide stability and a deadly touch from 3. The Sixers’ defensive woes are fixed through Embiid being healthy and having a better understanding of Brown’s system.

Worst Case: Brett Brown gets canned after the Sixers once again end up at the bottom of the East. Embiid once again gets injured, leaving Fultz and Simmons to carry the load. The two rookies’ talent can’t overcome the lack of experience. Veterans brought in to provide stability underachieve. Jahlil Okafor remains on the outside looking in.

8. Miami Heat

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 41-41, 9th in East

Head Coach: Erik Spoelstra (10th year, 440-282)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Goran Dragic (20.3 PPG, 5.8 APG, 3.8 RPG, 1.2 SPG)

Tyler Johnson (13.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.1 SPG)

SG: Dion Waiters (15.8 PPG, 4.3 APG, 3.3 RPG)

Josh Richardson (10.2 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.1 SPG)

Wayne Ellington (10.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.1 APG)

Rodney McGruder (6.4 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.6 APG)

SF: Justice Winslow (10.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.4 SPG)

Okaro White (2.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.6 APG)

PF: James Johnson (12.8 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.0 SPG)

Kelly Olynyk (9.0 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 2.0 APG)

Udonis Haslem (1.9 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.4 APG)

Jordan Mickey (1.5 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 0.2 APG)

C: Hassan Whiteside (17.0 PPG, 14.1 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 0.7 APG)

Bam Adebayo (13.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 0.8 APG)

AJ Hammons (2.2 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 0.2 APG)

With the Big 3 all elsewhere and Dwyane Wade ruling out a return, the Heat have finally found an identity. Hassan Whiteside has evolved from D-League castoff to elite center who led the league in rebounding. Justise Winslow overcame a rough rookie year to finally justify Erik Spoelstra’s trust in him. Miami has assembled a nice supporting cast of guards like Wayne Ellington and Tyler Johnson. This isn’t a jaw-droppingly star-powered lineup, but it’s an effective one.

The Heat may have one of the best centers in the league, but running an offense through a back to the basket center isn’t going to win games in the modern NBA. Unless Winslow shoulders most of the scoring burden, Miami will have a difficult time scoring a ton of points. Players most casual fans couldn’t pick out of a lineup like James Johnson and Rodney McGruder will be prominent members of Spoelstra’s scheme.

Best Case: The Heat end up with more wins than many predicted. Hassan Whiteside puts up similar numbers to last year, while Winslow finally becomes someone Miami can count on for 15 points a game with plus defense. Rookie Bam Adebayo brings the momentum from his very good preseason into the regular season. Johnson and Kelly Olynyk stabilize the power forward position. With 45 wins, the Heat emerge as both a solid team and a good free agent destination.

Worst Case: The Miami offense fails to find a legit #2 option opposite Whiteside. Winslow can’t establish himself as a scorer in the NBA. The Olynyk signing falls flat. The cast of characters on the bench don’t help Miami’s offense get any better, as they rank right near 22nd place, where they ranked in 2016. The Heat win only 35 games.

7. Detroit Pistons

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 37-45, 10th in East

Head Coach: Stan Van Gundy (4th year, 113-133)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Reggie Jackson (14.5 PPG, 5.2 APG, 2.2 RPG)

Ish Smith (9.4 PPG, 5.2 APG, 2.9 RPG)

Beno Udrih (5.8 PPG, 3.4 APG, 1.5 RPG)

SG: Avery Bradley (16.3 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.2 SPG)

Luke Kennard (19.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2.5 APG)

Langston Galloway (7.9 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.3 APG)

SF: Stanley Johnson (4.4 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.4 APG)

Reggie Bullock (4.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 0.9 APG)

PF: Tobias Harris (16.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.7 APG)

Henry Ellenson (3.2 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 0.4 APG)

Jon Leuer (10.2 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.5 APG)

Anthony Tolliver (7.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.2 APG)

C: Andre Drummond (13.6 PPG, 13.8 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 1.1 BPG, 1.1 APG)

Boban Marjanovic (5.5 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 0.3 APG

Eric Moreland (2015-16, 1.0 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 0.1 APG)

After all these years, Stan Van Gundy still knows how to coach. With this Pistons team, Van Gundy finally has something to work with in Detroit. Andre Drummond will once again be a dominant center. Avery Bradley, acquired from Boston, is a premier stopper and Defensive Player of the Year candidate that can drop 20 on any given night. Rookie Luke Kennard fills the role of instant offense off the bench, something the previous Van Gundy Pistons teams lacked.

Considering the fact that Detroit ranked 26th in offense in 2016, and Van Gundy being a better defensive coach than an offensive one, have they done enough to improve their offense? Their leading scorer was Tobias Harris with 16.1 points. For a team with playoff aspirations, that’s not going to cut it. Stanley Johnson is now entering Year 3 and will likely be a starter. Can he finally emerge as a legit NBA player?

Best Case: Detroit compiles just enough offensive talent to support that defense. Andre Drummond returns to his 2015-16 form and leads the league in rebounding while averaging near 15 points a game. Kennard weasels his way into the regular rotation with superb shooting. Bradley makes Boston rue that trade by making 1st team All-Defense and leading the team in scoring. The Pistons win a playoff series in an upset and win near 50 games.

Worst Case: The Pistons again rank near the bottom of the league in offense. Tobias Harris, an unspectacular scorer, is forced to assume a greater scoring role again, much to the dismay of Pistons fans. Kennard has difficulty finding his shot early on. Stanley Johnson struggles yet again. Detroit finally abandons Stan van Gundy when the Pistons miss the playoffs with 40 wins.

6. Charlotte Hornets

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 36-46, 11th in East

Head Coach: Steve Clifford (5th year, 160-168)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Kemba Walker (23.2 PPG, 5.5 APG, 3.9 RPG, 1.0 SPG)

Michael Carter-Williams (6.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.5 APG)

Marcus Paige (Rookie, 13.4 PPG, 3.7 APG, 2.5 RPG, 1.1 SPG)

SG: Nicolas Batum (15.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.1 SPG)

Jeremy Lamb (9.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.2 APG)

Malik Monk (Rookie, 19.8 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.3 APG)

Treveon Graham (2.1 PPG, 0.8 RPG, 0.2 APG)

SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (9.2 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.0 SPG)

Dwayne Bacon (Rookie, 17.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.0 SPG)

PF: Frank Kaminsky (11.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.2 APG)

Marvin Williams (11.2 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.4 APG)

Mangok Mathiang (Rookie, 7.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 0.7 APG)

C: Dwight Howard (13.5 PPG, 12.7 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.2 BPG)

Cody Zeller (10.3 PPG, 6.5 PPG, 1.6 APG, 1.0 BPG, 1.0 SPG)

Johnny O’Bryant (3.5 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 0.5 APG)

The Hornets have a difficult team to pin down in years past. Kemba Walker is a bona fide star, head coach Steve Clifford has proven he can do a lot with a little, and they play in a weak division. Yet they have alternated between a good playoff team and an underachiever. This year, things look good for Charlotte. Dwight Howard was acquired to help a team that ranked 17th in rebounding last season. Nic Batum provides a solid Robin to Walker’s Batman. Frank Kaminsky is on track for a breakout season. Rookies Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon impressed early on in the preseason.

Charlotte is far from a lock, however. This roster has several glaring holes. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist remains a massive offensive liability. Should the Howard trade not work out and Kaminsky fail to take the next step, the Hornets don’t have another big man who can be counted on for nightly production. Walker is a phenomenal scorer, but his abilities as a distributor and a leader of an offense aren’t going to set the world on fire. There may not be enough dynamism to move this team out from the middle of the pack.

Best Case: The Hornets ride their star point guard to 50 wins. Kemba Walker finally starts to get some national publicity for his scoring exploits. Dwight Howard turns back the clock to his Orlando days and once again becomes a dominant center. Kaminsky explodes for a 15-10-4 season that gives Charlotte two stud big men night in and night out. Malik Monk garners some rookie of the year consideration.

Worst Case: The lack of production from Howard and Kaminsky allow opponents to dominate Charlotte on the glass. The Hornets can’t rely on Kemba and Batum to consistently overshadow players like Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams that hinder the offense. Try as he might, Steve Clifford misses the playoffs for a second consecutive year, and his job becomes less secure by the game.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 42-40, 6th in East

Head Coach: Jason Kidd (4th year, 116-130)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Malcolm Brogdon (10.2 PPG, 4.2 APG, 2.8 RPG, 1.1 SPG)

Matthew Dellavedova (7.6 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.9 APG)

SG: Khris Middleton (14.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.4 SPG)

Rashad Vaughn (3.5 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 0.6 APG)

Jason Terry (4.1 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 1.3 APG)

Sterling Brown (Rookie, 13.4 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.4 SPG)

SF: Giannis Antetokounmpo (22.9 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 5.4 APG, 1.9 BPG, 1.6 SPG)

Tony Snell (8.5 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.2 APG)

Gerald Green (5.6 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 0.7 APG)

PF: Jabari Parker (20.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.0 SPG)

John Henson (6.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 1.0 APG)

Mirza Teletovic (6.4 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.7 APG)

DJ Wilson (Rookie, 11.0 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.3 APG)

C: Thon Maker (4.0 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 0.4 APG)

Greg Monroe (11.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.1 SPG)

You won’t find a longer team in the league than Milwaukee. The Bucks have an embarrassment of riches in the frontcourt. A healthy Jabari Parker is one of league’s quietest 20 per game scorers. Thon Maker had seemingly unlimited potential. Giannis Antetokounmpo, The Greek Freak, is an MVP candidate. Controversial Rookie of the Year recipient Malcolm Brogdon solidified himself in the point guard role in the offseason.

The frontcourt should make Bucks fans salivate. The backcourt is a different story. Milwaukee’s size makes it difficult for them so consistently guard the perimeter and score from the wings. Giannis bails them out frequently on offense. Brodgon and Khris Middleton need to become more involved offensive contributors. With Jabari Parker out for the majority of the season, we’ll finally have some clarity about John Henson’s ability.

Best Case: Milwaukee wins 55 games and takes at least one playoff series. Antetokounmpo challenges for MVP consideration. Parler is able to return to the form we know he can get to when he’s healthy. Thon Maker finally fulfills his potential. A relatively thin bench plays way above their station, with players like Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic producing. Malcolm Brogdon shows last year wasn’t a fluke.

Worst Case: This young Bucks team remains more potential than product. Thon Maker’s game isn’t refined enough to earn minutes over Greg Monroe. Brogdon, a natural 2 guard, can’t make the grade as a starting point guard. Antetokounmpo can’t elevate his game to superstar status. Parker can’t recapture his peak performance coming off a second ACL tear. The Bucks win 40 games and miss the playoffs.

4. Toronto Raptors

Hugh Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Hugh Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 51-31, 3rd in East

Head Coach: Dwane Casey (7th year, 314-284)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Kyle Lowry (22.4 PPG, 7.0 APG, 4.8 RPG, 1.5 SPG)

Delon Wright (5.6 PPG, 2.1 APG, 1.8 RPG, 1.0 SPG)

Fred VanVleet (2.9 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 0.9 APG)

SG: DeMar DeRozan (27.3 PPG. 5.2 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.0 SPG)

Norman Powell (8.4 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 1.1 APG)

KJ McDaniels (4.2 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 0.3 APG)

SF: CJ Miles (10.7 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 0.6 APG)

OG Anunoby (Rookie, 11.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.3 BPG)

Bruno Caboclo (1.6 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 0.4 APG)

PF: Serge Ibaka (14.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 0.9 APG)

Pascal Siakam (4.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 0.3 APG)

Kyle Wiltjer (0.9 PPG, 0.7 RPG, 0.1 APG)

C: Jonas Valanciunas (12.0 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 0.7 APG)

Jakob Pöltl (3.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 0.2 APG)

Lucas Nogueira (4.4 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 0.7 APG)

Had it not had been for the presence of LeBron in Cleveland, Toronto may have gotten to an NBA finals in the last 2 years. The Raptors sport one of the best guard combos in the league with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Having scored 27.3 per game last year, DeRozan is a nightmare for anyone brave enough to guard him 1 on 1. Serge Ibaka was one of the most prudent moves made at the deadline, as it gave them a legitimate inside force opposite Jonas Valanciunas. Having OG Anunoby must have had Masai Ujiri jumping for joy.

The frontcourt is a problem area for the Raptors, particularly as it pertains to depth. 2nd year players Jakob Pöltl and Pascal Siakam earned lukewarm reviews. If they don’t develop according to Dwane Casey’s plan, Toronto will be glaringly deficient up front. They don’t have a knockdown 3 shooter to keep pace with the Celtics and Cavs right now. CJ Miles, acquired from Indiana, is now a vital cog on a roster with championship aspirations.

Best Case: DeRozan and Lowry guide Toronto to 60 wins and an Conference Finals appearance. Ibaka continues the fine form he showed at the end of last season. Pöltl and Siakam justify their 1st round selections with 1st round production. Miles emerges as a consistent shooter and offensive threat. Anunoby finds ways to contribute as a rookie. Dwane Casey wins NBA Coach of the Year.

Worst Case: The Raptors win 45 games. The 1-2 punch of DeRozan and Lowry isn’t enough for Toronto to overcome some of the East’s elite. Their two young big men, along with Valanciunas, can’t support the backcourt well enough to establish a dominant offense. Anunoby’s injury sustained near the end of his Indiana tenure weighs on him throughout his rookie campaign.

3. Washington Wizards

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 49-33, 4th in East

Head Coach: Scott Brooks (2nd Year, 49-33)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: John Wall (23.1 PPG, 10.7 APG, 4.2 RPG, 2.0 SPG)

Tim Frazier (7.1 PPG, 5.2 APG, 2.7 RPG)

SG: Bradley Beal (23.1 PPG, 3.8 APG, 3.1 RPG, 1.1 SPG)

Jodie Meeks (9.1 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.3 APG)

Tomas Satoransky (2.7 PPG, 1.6 APG, 1.5 RPG)

Sheldon Mac (3.0 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 0.5 APG)

SF: Otto Porter (13.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.4 SPG)

Kelly Oubre (6.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 0.6 APG)

Devin Robinson (Rookie, 11.1 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 0.6 APG)

PF: Markieff Morris (14.0 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.0 SPG)

Jason Smith (5.7 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.5 APG)

Chris McCullough (2.3 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 0.1 APG)

Mike Scott (2.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 0.9 APG)

C: Marcin Gortat (10.8 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 1.5 APG)

Ian Mahinmi (5.6 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 0.6 APG)

Washington came tantalizingly close to the second round of the playoffs last season. They got as much mileage out of John Wall and Bradley Beal as they possibly could. Wall in particular rose to the challenge before running out of gas late in the playoffs. With Marcin Gortat and Otto Porter back, as well as another year of potential Coach of the Year Scott Brooks at the helm, Wall and the Wizards are gearing up for another deep playoff run.

Washington, like Eastern Conference compatriots Charlotte and Toronto, aren’t the best 3 point shooting team. Taking down either of the top 2 will require that the Wizards suddenly start making 3s in bunches. Otto Porter, who signed for more than 100 million dollars in the offseason, took a huge step forward last year. If he can’t match or better last year, he stands to kneecap the team financially and on the court.

Best Case: The Wizards lose in the Eastern Conference finals in a close series and win 60 games. The electric Wall-Beal duo continues to cause headaches for opposing guards. Gortat becomes more offensively focused this season. Otto Porter justifies the hefty price tag. Scott Brooks walks away with a Coach of the Year award after excelling with a less talented team than his old OKC teams.

Worst Case: The Wizards’ magic (no pun intended) runs out. Beal takes a step back, and gets labeled as a very good player rather than an All-Star. Washington’s lack of drafting success comes back to bite them in the butt when an older roster gets burned out come playoff time. The Wizards end up with 45 wins, a disappointing total in a weak Eastern Conference for a team this talented.

2. Boston Celtics

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 53-29, 1st in East

Head Coach: Brad Stevens (5th Year, 166-162)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Kyrie Irving (25.2 PPG, 5.8 APG, 3.5 RPG, 1.2 SPG
Marcus Smart (10.6 PPG, 4.6 APG, 3.9 RPG, 1.6 SPG)

Terry Rozier (5.5 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.8 APG)

Shane Larkin (2015-16, 7.3 PPG, 4.4 APG, 2.3 RPG, 1.2 SPG)

SG: Jaylen Brown (6.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.8 APG)

Kadeem Allen (Rookie, 9.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.6 SPG)

SF: Gordon Hayward (21.9 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.0 SPG)

Jayson Tatum (Rookie, 16.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.1 BPG)

Semi Ojeleye (Rookie, 19.0 PPG, 6.9 APG, 1.5 APG)

Abdel Nader (Rookie, 12.9 PPg, 5.0 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.1 SPG)

PF: Marcus Morris (14.0 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.0 APG)

Guerschon Yabusele (Rookie, 11.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.1 SPG)

Daniel Theis (Rookie, 9.6 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 0.6 APG)

C: Al Horford (14.0 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.2 BPG)

Aron Baynes (4.9 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 0.4 APG)

Boston pulled off the unthinkable when they acquired Kyrie Irving from Cleveland. Pairing him with Gordon Hayward makes the Celtics one of only 2 East teams with legitimate championship prospects. Brad Stevens has shown that he is one of the better coaches in the league despite his young age. With the picks the acquired (stole from) the Nets used on players like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the future looks as bright as the present. Look out for some offensive fireworks in Boston.

With Kyrie Irving comes his freewheeling, ad-libbing style of play. Will that mesh with Stevens, who operates with an almost Belichick-ian level of regimentation? Can Gordon Hayward accept his role as a #2 scoring option? WIth such a young roster (6 rookies), it will be interesting to see some of the less heralded youngsters like Guerschon Yabusele and Semi Ojeleye find meaningful ways to contribute.

Best Case: The Celtics win the Eastern Conference and/or win 60 games. WIthout #23 constantly running the show, Kyrie is allowed to unleash his full arsenal. He gets some mVP consideration. Hayward produces roughly as well as he did with Utah. Tatum and Brown relish in the spotlight and set their careers off to promising trajectories. Brad Stevens is hailed as a genius.

Worst Case: Kyrie’s damn the torpedoes style and Stevens’ strict coaching clash. This never allows Irving to play at his best. Hayward’s scoring takes a massive dip. Al Horford, who disappointed last year, disappoints once again. Brown’s shooting, or lack thereof, gets magnified in the crucible of a grinding season from the Celtics. The lack of experience from a revamped Celtics team ultimately dooms them to a 50 win season without making the Conference Finals.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17: 51-31, 2nd in East

Head Coach: Ty Lue (3rd Year, 78-45)

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Isaiah Thomas (28.9 PPG, 5.9 APG, 2.7 RPG)

Derrick Rose (18.0 PPG, 4.4 APG, 3.8 RPG)

Jose Calderon (3.4 PPG, 2.8 APG, 1.4 RPG)

SG: Dwyane Wade (18.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.4 SPG)

JR Smith (8.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.0 SPG)

Iman Shumpert (7.5 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.4 APG)

SF: Jae Crowder (13.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.0 SPG)

Kyle Korver (10.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.6 APG)
Cedi Osman (7.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.7 APG)

PF: LeBron James (26.4 PPG, 8.7 APG, 8.6 RPG, 1.2 SPG)

Channing Frye (9.1 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 0.6 APG)

Jeff Green (9.2 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.2 APG)

C: Kevin Love (19.0 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 1.9 APG)

Tristan Thompson (8.1 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 1.0 APG)
Ante Zizic (Rookie, 9.0 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 0.4 APG)

As tumultuous as the offseason was for Cleveland, they still have the best chance of anyone to dethrone the Warriors. The best player on Planet Earth, LeBron James, still dons the wine and gold. Kevin Love had a resurgence last season and figures to get more work this year. Isaiah Thomas is on the mend, but could continue his superstar production from last season when healthy. The second unit features players like Derrick Rose, Kyle Korver, and Channing Frye, way above par for the course.

Any way you slice it, with or without Isaiah Thomas, the loss of Kyrie Irving will be difficult to adjust too. Can LeBron, at age 32, and Love replace Kyrie’s production until Thomas is healthy. If Isaiah Thomas misses a majority of the season, can the Cavs count on Derrick Rose as a point guard. In addition, the Cavs were bullied inside by a Warriors team with much less frontcourt talent. That needs to change come playoff time, or else.

Best Case: The Cavs hoist another championship banner while LeBron runs away with the MVP. Thomas, in a more complementary role than Kyrie, gives Cleveland the best #3 scoring option in the league. Ty Lue, who has faced questions about his coaching acumen, answers the doubters with another title. LeBron resigns and stays in Cleveland when the offseason rolls around.

Worst Case: Kyrie Irving comes back to haunt the Cavs as the Celtics beat them in the Eastern conference finals. Thomas misses most, if not all of the regular season. Dwyane Wade starts to show his age. Kevin Love, who moved to center, struggles at the new position. LeBron sees that the roster is old and not trending in the right direction. He gets out of Dodge before the stuff really hits the fan.

PLAYOFFS

Warriors over Clippers in 4

Thunder over Trail Blazers in 5

Rockets over Pelicans in 6

Timberwolves over Spurs in 7

Cavaliers over Heat in 5

Celtics over Pistons in 5

Raptors over Bucks in 7

Wizards over Hornets in 6

Warriors over Timberwolves in 5

Rockets over Thunder in 7

Cavaliers over Raptors in 6

Celtics over Wizards in 6

Warriors over Rockets in 5

Cavaliers over Celtics in 6

Warriors over Cavaliers in 6

AWARDS

MVP: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

ROY: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

MIP: Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

DPOY: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

6MOY: Rudy Gay, San Antonio Spurs

COY: Scott Brooks, Washington Wizards