Who will beat Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers? Before we home in on the heavyweights from the Western Conference, let's turn our attention first to the big-time teams from the Eastern Conference likely to make the Cavs' quest for back-to-back titles a whole lot thornier in the 2016-17 season of the NBA. (Also, watch for our predictions for the rest of the promising contenders in the East in the coming days.)
For now, we're zeroing in on the top eight Eastern Conference squads of the 2015-16 season. We highly recommend that you join us on this endeavor as it’s been keeping us sane amid the grueling wait for the official tip-off on October 26. Just like in the other conference, we’re dying to find out about how the squads will do, given the respective plots and subplots surrounding the teams.
Our humble assessment follows...
How hellbent are the Cavs on repeating?
As long as the Cavs have LeBron James—AKA best player on the planet—in their roster, they have a shot at winning the crown. The King has been in the league’s last six NBA Finals and it’s quite easy to think he's more than capable of extending that incredible streak. Now that the pressure of winning one for Cleveland is off his shoulders, the always scary 6’8”, 250-pound freight train can now concentrate on surpassing the GOAT Michael Jordan’s six championship rings (he's got a long way to go). Again, expect him take days off the grind and to be paced by the coaching staff all season long to keep him fresh for the playoffs. But that shouldn’t be that much of a concern because he has the equally lethal Kyrie Irving—himself an MVP-worthy baller—by his side to maintain order and keep pretenders at bay.
Will Raptors still bite big this season?
It’s up to Toronto’s best two players DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. How motivated they’ll come out this season will dictate how successful the Raps will be. The core of the team that helped those two guys to carry the Raptors to their best finish in franchise history last year is still pretty much intact. They did lose defensive stalwart Bismack Biyombo to the Magic during the off-season, but they gained a more offensively polished big guy in ex-Celtics Jared Sullinger. All in all, DeRozan and Lowry still has ample back up, in case they decide to make a serious run at conquering the East once again.
Are the Miami Heat even worthy of a playoff spot this year?
There’s not much to look forward to if you’re a Heat fan in the post-Big Three era. Heat boss Pat Riley and Chris Bosh’s spat has been the biggest news out of South Beach recently. Well, looking into the upcoming season, there’s always the possibility of a Hassan Whiteside triple-double at one point in the season, which unconventionally covers points, rebounds, and blocks. So, there's that. However, we just can’t see a team bannered by Goran Dragic and a bunch of athletic, but green players barging into the playoffs this year. Don’t be surprised if we see the Heat go on tanking mode.
Howard wants people to know that he can lead a team to the NBA Finals, just like he did seven years ago when he was still the King Orlando Magic. Thing is, his production has been dipping every year since he left Orlando and went West, with ill-fated and injury-marred stints with the L.A. Lakers and Houston Rockets. He'll be wrong to think he has every right to demand the majority of the touches on the offensive end playing for his hometown Atlanta, where Coach Mike Budenholzer's team-first offense reigns. Besides, Atlanta already has an alpha-hawk in all-around PF Paul Millsap—and a budding one in peppery PG Dennis Schröder. Howard must co-exist with the duo and accept he's now a supporting player for their ball club to fly high.
Will the Boston Celtics be the most fun-to-watch team in the league?
They were already entertaining last year, now with the additions of high-flying rookie Jaylen Brown and no-nonsense center Al Horford to the squad, we may be in for a bigger treat. Coach Brad Stevens has done a marvelous job building confidence and constructing the scrappy, run-and-gun identity of the Celtics last year. Now we can count on his team to be better at the other facets of the game such as interior defense and offensive half court sets. Pundits have concluded that the Cs’ high entertainment value will translate into Ws. Many of them even project Boston to finish as high as second place in the East. That's high praise for a team that plays with the exuberance of a college team when hustling up and down the floor.
Do the young and athletic Charlotte Hornets have enough to contend with the big boys?
Despite losing Jeremy Lin, the Hornets still has a good group of guys playing for them. Led by Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum, the team has enough firepower to make a noise in the postseason. It may be tougher for them to go as high as the sixth seed this time though. Other conference rivals like the Bucks, Bulls, Pacers, and Pistons have also retooled their rosters to seriously challenge the top dogs of the conference.
Indiana Pacers—certified Cavs-stopper?
The Pacers have five all-star caliber players and one superstar cager in their lineup. The top dog is, of course, Paul George and his talented support group is led by Class A point guard Jeff Teague, whom the Pacers acquired by trading away George Hill in the offseason. Accompanying the former Hawk in the backcourt is aero-dynamic speedster Monta Ellis. Manning the paint is rising sophomore Myles Turner, who will be ably supported by versatile and athletic forward Thaddeus Young. Adding interior depth and savvy play down low is new recruit Al Jefferson, the former elite big hoping for a career renaissance in Indiana. On paper, the Pacers are legit title-contenders, but their star-studded cast need time to gel for them to actually live up to the hype. New Pacers coach Nate McMillan will have to put in considerable work to get the job done.
Will the Detroit Pistons win a playoff game this time?
Riding the broad shoulders of Andre Drummond, the Pistons fought their way to secure the eighth spot in the 2016 Eastern Conference Playoffs. Eventual champs Cleveland Cavaliers, however, immediately dispatched the overmatched Pistons in four games. With valuable playoff experience under their belt, the Detroit ballers should be tougher this time around. Drummond, probably the NBA’s second best pure center today behind DeMarcus Cousins, is clearly the game-changer out there in the D. If he continues his ascent to superstar status, we might just see the Pistons playing in the second round of the playoff next year.