After a very interesting offseason, the NBA is finally back and the new campaign is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory.
Talent has distributed itself more evenly across the league with the rise of the super duo era and that has made it harder to predict what the standings will be after all 1,230 contests have been decided.
The top spot in the East is up for grabs after Kawhi Leonard packed his bags and returned to the West, and the champs should have their hands full trying to defend the crown as the East continues to get better. The 76ers and the Bucks are almost locks to take the top two spots but the third spot onwards gets a little dicey.
To start this two-part series, here’s our too-early forecast of how the playoffs picture will look like in the Eastern Conference.
8. Miami Heat
2018-19 record: 39-43
We see the Miami Heat becoming a fringe playoff team on the strength of the Jimmy Butler acquisition alone. They were only two wins behind last year’s eighth seed Detroit and Jimmy Buckets is definitely worth at least additional two wins for the Heat, maybe more. No. 13 pick Tyler Herro has also emerged from preseason festivities as a legitimate contender for Rookie of the Year honors and should be immediately useful for Miami. And if Bam Adebayo makes good use of the additional minutes that will be available to him after Hassan Whiteside’s departure, then we’re confident that the Heat will see postseason action.
7. Toronto Raptors
2018-19 record: 58-24
It’s hard to place how the defending champions will end up in the upcoming season. But from where we’re sitting, the loss of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard will be too much to maintain a 50-win season for the Raptors. Sure, Pascal Siakam was a revelation last season and is expected to have big games this season. But having big games every now and then is not what Toronto needs from him. Will Spicy P’s output remain the same every night now that teams will be building defensive schemes specifically to stop him as Toronto’s de facto No. 1 guy? OG Anunoby is still unproven and it’s questionable how long Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol can keep up their current level of play given their age (Lowry is turning 34 while Gasol will turn 35 before the All-Star break). That’s too many question marks for us to rank them any higher in this list.
6. Orlando Magic
2018-19 record: 42-40
The Magic accomplished what they set out to do during the offseason and that’s not to lose Nikola Vucevic to free agency. In doing so, the Magic remains largely untouched and should at least maintain their win-loss record from last year. Unfortunately for them, their best-case scenario involves Markelle Fultz finally living up to expectations — which we honestly don’t see happening, at least in the upcoming season. Al-Farouq Aminu bolsters an already solid second unit for Orlando which should result in a few more wins, maybe just enough to move them up one spot from last season’s finish.
5. Brooklyn Nets
2018-19 record: 42-40
The Nets’ upcoming season hinges on how well Kyrie Irving runs the team. If he assimilates well, especially with friends Kevin Durant and DeAndre Jordan in the roster, then the Nets could easily be a 50-win team next season. But, honestly, we’re not banking on that. Still, we see them winning closer to 50 wins this season because Kyrie is still an elite level talent that will carry the Nets to multiple wins. But while Durant is unavailable, Brooklyn should be happy to finish in the middle of the pack at around 48 wins.
4. Boston Celtics
2018-19 record: 48-34
Forget about Boston losing Kyrie, they got Kemba Walker anyway. The real loss for the Celtics is the departure of Al Horford and Aron Baynes. They did get Enes Kanter but he’s more of a consolation prize and their overall lack of size will be hard to overcome on some nights. Fortunately for Brad Stevens, his roster is still stacked with amazing talents in Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Jayson Tatum. We predict this is the year Hayward finally returns to form and resembles the player he was in Utah. Brown should be able to focus on his game after getting a contract extension. Tatum will continue to improve and surpass the 15.7 points and six rebounds per game he averaged last season. Kemba will be Kemba. All that should be enough to keep Boston in the upper half of the East.
3. Indiana Pacers
2018-19 record: 50-30
That they were without their best player for half of last season and they still reached the playoffs only means that the Pacers are a legitimate Eastern conference contender. Should Victor Oladipo make his comeback by December or January (and barring any setbacks), Indiana might even shock everyone by making a final push to finish in the Top 3 of the conference. But even without him, the Pacers shouldn’t struggle too much in the East. They’re still going to have the potent frontcourt tandem of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner which should be a problem for a lot of teams. And while they lost Bojan Bogdanovic and his 18 points per game to the Jazz in the offseason, the additions of Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. Warren should more than make up for that.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
2018-19 record: 60-22
Losing Malcolm Brogdon will definitely hurt the Bucks. But it won’t rock the boat too much because this team is still largely the Giannis Antetokounmpo show and he should be in the thick of the MVP race once again this season. Khris Middleton is still a solid No. 2 guy to run with the Greek Freak and Eric Bledsoe is as sound an option as any at the point guard slot. Veteran shooters Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver will only help keep the floor wide open for Giannis to do his thing en route to another playoff appearance. It was a close call between the Bucks and the 76ers for the top spot but after the success of Kawhi’s load management scheme last season, the Bucks might be inclined to do the same with their own star which will probably result in fewer wins overall.
1. Philadelphia 76ers
2018-19 record: 51-31
If you think our prediction is too high, remember that this was a team that was eliminated by the eventual champs via a lucky bounce. Yes, they lost Jimmy Butler but it might not be so bad because they got a solid glue guy in Al Horford, another young asset in Josh Richardson, and retained arguably the best third option in the entire league in Tobias Harris. The Horford signing was probably their best offseason move as they have someone who can play alongside Embiid while being a capable replacement should the Cameroonian succumb to injuries once more. And if Simmons has really found his shot from outside during the offseason (which is highly unlikely but not impossible), then this team will easily become the top dogs in the East.