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ATLANTIC DIVISION BEST BETS
It has not been an easy few years for the New York Knicks (29½), whose latest incarnation is making no bones about the fact it is in the midst of clearing salary space to make a run at any number of high-profile free agents due to hit the market next summer. The recent release of Joakim Noah (using the stretch provision of the final year of his contract) sure fits that narrative, reducing his cap hit about $13 million next summer, giving the Knicks enough space to go after one “max” player (Kevin Durant? Kawhi Leonard?). If it sounds strange to be talking about all of these what-ifs-for-2019 in New York, well, get used to it, because the Daily News and the Post will be doing the same things all winter. We feel a bit sorry for new HC David Fizdale, though he’s not going to be blamed for any of the expected failures of this term. As for 2018-19, getting to 30 wins would be a neat trick, especially with Kristaps Porzingis still on the mend from last year’s ACL tear, with a return near Christmas as a best-case scenario. Eventually, Porzingis and Kentucky rookie F Kevin Knox might be an entertaining frontline combo, while another promising rookie, 7-1 Mitchell Robinson (2nd-round pick), cuts his teeth. Make no mistake, however, the Knicks are just biding their time until next summer...check back then for more interesting reading, and if Spike Lee and other fans can finally get excited again. In the meantime, look “under” at MSG...
Maybe this season we’ll finally get a chance to see the Boston Celtics (58½) at full strength. We didn’t a year ago, when key FA addition Gordon Hayward went down early in the opener with a gruesome season-ending broken fibula and dislocated ankle. Hayward and Boston’s other high-profile addition, Kyrie Irving, played together for a total of 5 minutes and 15 seconds last season. And by the time the playoffs rolled around, Irving was sidelined as well. The thought persists in some NBA circles that a fully-healthy Celtics lineup would have been more than a match for the LeBron Cavs, but now that King James has moved to the Western Conference, the Cleveland roadblock in the playoffs should no longer exist. The absences of Hayward, and eventually Irving a season ago, allowed others to step to the fore like rookie SF Jayson Tatum, SG Jaylon Brown, and PG Terry Rozier. Toss those three together with a healthy Hayward (who might play limited minutes at the outset) and Irving, with a large dose of master tactician Brad Stevens on the bench, plus no LeBron in the East, and the route is laid out for a Beantown return to the Finals for the first time in nine years. “Over” at TD Garden.
Might any team benefit more from the move of LeBron James to the Western Conference than the Toronto Raptors (55½)? The Raps found LeBron’s Cavs a permanent blockade in the playoffs, and last spring’s meek 4-game exit caused Toronto to finally cut ties with HC Dwane Casey, even after he was named NBA Coach of the Year. Promoted successor Nick Nurse not only won’t have LeBron to worry about in the East, he has an exciting new addition in Kawhi Leonard, plus another ex-Spur in Danny Green to compensate for the first Toronto lineup minus DeMar DeRozan in nine years. A healthy Leonard, plus Green, also provide upgrades on the stop end, and the chance Kawhi becomes the sort of two-way dominator he was when last healthy in 2016-17, while developing positive chemistry with holdover G Kyle Lowry, gives Toronto fans hope that both the Raps and Maple Leafs will have home dates into June. If all works as planned, the Raps don’t drop four wins from last season’s 59; look “over” at Scotiabank Centre (that’s what they’re now calling the Air Canada Centre)...
Are the Brooklyn Nets (32) going to forge a bit of a breakthrough before their expected entry into the free-agent derby next summer? They’ve made incremental progress the past two years for HC Kenny Atkinson, but to take the next step will require upgrades on the boards and on the stop end, where the Nets ranked low last season. And we’re not sure how much upside there might be with their key players D’Angelo Russell (into his own contract year) and Spencer Dinwiddie both manning the same position at the point. Are the Nets really any better than last year, when they came in at 28 wins? “Under” at Barclays Center...
“The Process” for the Philadelphia 76ers (54) enters its next phase, as for the first time in a long while the Sixers could be burdened by expectations. The possibility to succeed the Cavs as Eastern kingpins is very real with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as the focal points. And the non-Eagles chatter on WIP 94.1 is that 2nd-year G Markelle Fultz might be ready to make real contributions after injuries scuttled his rookie campaign. We have some questions, however, about Fultz, whose over-indulgence helped cause his college coach (Lorenzo Romar) to lose his job at Washington, and whether moving JJ Redick to the bench is really the best thing for HC Brett Brown (though Redick could just as easily emerge as a valued 6th-man). Mostly, however, there are durability issues with the big two (Simmons and Embiid), who have both missed extended time in the past, to the point where Embiid’s minutes and availability in back-to-backs must continue to be monitored. Big Joel’s injury history suggests he goes down at some point this term; if it’s a lengthy absence, the Sixers don’t get to the high 50s in wins. All enough to make us pause and take a pass at Wells Fargo Center.
CENTRAL DIVISION BEST BETS
Were the Indiana Pacers (47½) just a one-hit wonder last term, a convergence of factors not likely to replicate? Perhaps, and we doubt the Pacers sneak up on anybody as they might have a year ago when qualifying as the No. 5 seed in the East and scaring the daylights out of LeBron’s Cavs in the first round, pushing Cleveland all the way to the last minute of Game Seven. Like every other Eastern entry, there’s no more worry about LeBron this season, but GM Kevin Pritchard didn’t sit on his hands in the offseason, adding some firepower in free agency with Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, and some size in ex-Knick Kyle O’Quinn, who effectively takes the place of Al Jefferson, who moved to China. The breakout stars of last season, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, both added in the Paul George trade, helped create an unmistakable vibe and chemistry that was channeled expertly by Nate McMillan, who proved an inspired HC hire. Does all of that and a notable (and NBA rarity) esprit de corps all disappear just because we’re six months on from the end of last season? “Over” at Bankers Life Fieldhouse...
Fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers (30½) don’t need to be reminded what happened the last time LeBron James left town. And we don’t expect the Cavs to sink to quite those depths of 2010-11. Still, even with LeBron pushing himself beyond the limits and playing in every game a season ago, the Cavs could only get to 50 wins and the No. 4 seed in the East. What remains on the roster is a patchwork quilt of aging vet leftovers from the recent Finals runs and some precocious youth. Plus a coach (Ty Lue) that might not have even been coaching that much when LeBron was effectively running the team the past few years. This new frontier in Cleveland now will feature F Kevin Love, rewarded with a 4-year contract extension in the summer, but durability has not always been one of Love’s astrong points. Alabama rookie PG Collin Sexton might be fun to watch, but without LeBron, the non-Love portion of this roster resembles so many spare parts. They’ll be doing well to get to 30 wins. Look “under” at The “Q.”
The Tim Duncan example of a superstar staying content in a small market does not always resonate in the NBA. Thus, word that the “Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo is already looking down the road to free agency and a move to a major media market could impact the long-term prospects of the Milwaukee Bucks (48). In the short-term, however, the Freak is still in place in Milwaukee, and the consensus around the NBA is that new HC Mike Budenholzer, a Gregg Popovich disciple who easily qualified the Hawks for the playoffs whenever his roster allowed, will provide an upgrade on the bench. Budenholzer’s experience suggests he will make various capable pieces (Kris Middleton, Ersan Ilyasova, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon) fit around the Freak, while exciting Villanova rookie G Donte DiVincenzo will not have to be rushed into a featured role. The potential downside revolves around Giannis; not as much a free agency down the road, but injuries, which have sidelined the Freak at times in the past. Short of that, however, the Bucks could certainly emerge from the post-LeBron vacuum in the Central, heaping more excitement into what looks a celebratory year with the new arena opening downtown. “Over” at the new Fiserv Forum...
The Chicago Bulls (29½) are continuing their rebuild and suggest they are beyond their tanking phase. We concur with that, but have more concerns about what has thus far been a very fragile core of key components on the current roster. Injuries have to be mentioned because practically everyone HC Fred Hoiberg is counting on to perhaps make a playoff push has been sidelined for extensive periods before. Including offseason addition Jabari Parker, a Windy City product who never seemed to be healthy in Milwaukee. Zach LaVine has dealt with serious knee issues in the past; last year’s promising rookie F Lauri Markkanen is already on the shelf, possibly into December, with elbow problems. And then there’s Hoiberg, who could end up being a scapegoat for the front office, which might have reached its limits on mulligans for “The Mayor” if the losing continues. Even if the roster stays healthy, this core has never proven it can win together. Plenty of trip wires here; look “under” at United Center...
Beneficiaries of the knee-jerk reaction in Toronto to jettison Coach of the Year Dwane Casey are the Detroit Pistons (38), who inked Casey not long after deciding Stan Van Gundy was not the guy to lead the franchise back to prominence. Not sure Casey does that, either, but he could have a few advantages that Van Gundy lacked a year ago, mainly a healthy PG Reggie Jackson from the outset, and Blake Griffin in the fold from the start after his addition before the deadline last winter. The prospects of an old-school feel with a potentially dominant frontline featuring Griffin and Andre Drummond does intrigue, though this might work better in theory than practice, because (a) both have been injury-prone, especially Griffin, and (b) the bigs didn’t seem to develop a lot of cohesion when on the floor together for Van Gundy. True, Detroit was a .500 team after big Blake arrived, but his career-long durability issues give us cause for pause. We’d rather take a pass in year two at Little Caesars Arena, where the crowd counts were more than a bit disappointing last season.
SOUTHEAST DIVISION BEST BETS
In recent seasons we have often thought the Orlando Magic (31) were on the verge of a breakthrough. But once again they’re re-making themselves, with another new coach (Steve Clifford, recently at Charlotte, and now Orlando’s fifth HC since 2012) just a year after major front-office turnover. But a jump of seven wins seems to be asking a bit much for a team that quite strangely might not benefit as much as some with no LeBron in Cleveland, having given the Cavs all they could handle while splitting 4 a year ago. Much of the hope for upside centers around 7-1 Texas rookie C Mo Bamba, already a likely deluxe rim-protector but raw with the rest of his game. Key PF Aaron Gordon has also ended speculation about a move after signing a 4-year extension in the summer. But a move up the standings likely will rely more upon a collection of vet additions (Timofey Mozgov, Jerian Grant, Jarell Martin) and perhaps an eventual upgrade at the point, where D.J. Augustin appears a place-holder until further notice. We don’t see this team improving 7 wins; “under” at Amway Center...
We’re always looking for teams flying under the radar. Thus, intriguing us a bit are the Charlotte Hornets (35½), on nobody’s watch list after the latest playoff miss last spring that triggered another coaching change (Steve Clifford out, James Borrego in). But Borrego’s preference for a free-flowing style might be a perfect fit for go-go PG Kemba Walker, who often seemed handcuffed in the Clifford offense, while ex-Spur Tony Parker will make it easier to give Walker a blow every once in awhile. A deep collection of bigs gives Borrego added flexibility, and there’s hope that Michigan State rookie Miles Bridges emerges as a Draymond Green clone; after all, they were both tutored by Tom Izzo in East Lansing. We’re looking over at the “Hornet’s Nest” (Spectrum Center).
The rebuild (or was it a tear-down?) began a year ago for the Atlanta Hawks (23½), a playoff regular the preceding decade. That seems a long time ago now, and there is not going to be any immediate pressure on new HC Lloyd Pierce, a long-ago Santa Clara man most recently on the 76ers staff. That Philly experience fits with the new Atlanta “process” narrative, but this season is still the experimental phase. First, to see if Oklahoma rookie G Trae Young’s NBA game translates to the sort of high-volume shooter and on-court manager he was for the Sooners, and if he and 2nd-year F John Collins can develop a dangerous pick-and-roll dynamic. Collins, however, has been dealing with nagging hurts in preseason, and C Dewayne Dedmon is already out indefinitely (ankle). In the meantime, career complementary pieces such as Kent Bazemore, Jeremy Lin, and Alex Len will be asked to do a bit (maybe a lot) more than they are probably capable. Too early to expect this Peachtree Street version of “The Process” to deliver, so it’s an “under” for us at Philips Arena...
The Washington Wizards (44½) have been a real tease the past few seasons, occasionally making some noise in the playoffs but hitting ceiling in the second round. Not sure the Wizards do much better this time around, or if the addition of Dwight Howard in the latest stop on his circuitous career path changes the metrics very much, but getting to the high 40s in wins looks within reach. With all hands on deck, especially the rare instances when both John Wall and Bradley Beal are healthy at the same time in the backcourt, the Wiz can be formidable. And Scott Brooks expects his bench to be of a bit more help this season, especially with the addition of Austin Rivers providing some cushion to the inevitable absences of Wall and Beal, and Jeff Green another reliable recruit. It all could go pear-shaped if Brooks is forced to put out locker room fires, and Howard has caused friction before (with prior internal feuds at Orlando, the Lakers, and Houston). But the Wiz has been trading in the same win range for a few years, and the new additions do seem to improve the depth that has been a recurring problem. We’ll close our eyes and push the “over” button at Capital One Arena...
The Miami Heat (41½) look an interesting case study, especially since the Jimmy Butler trade rumors continue, and a serious move for Butler could yet materialize. Adding Butler could change the dynamics and maybe even squeeze one more productive year out of Dwyane Wade, who has already announced this will be it in 2018-19, though he could serve as a valuable (and needed) mentor to Butler as he was in Chicago a couple of years ago. The possibility Butler shows up at some point keeps us from recommending an “under” as the Heat has already dealt with various injuries in preseason (Goran Dragic and his balky knee iffy to start the season; Dion Waiters out until further notice with an ankle), and opponents could jam the middle on Hassan Whiteside unless an elite playmaker (Butler?) appears. With the Butler variable to consider, we’d rather pass for the moment at AA Arena.
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