2019-20 NBA Eastern Conference preview capsules
Team-by-team preview capsules for the NBA’s Eastern Conference:
LAST SEASON: 29-53, missed playoffs.
COACH: Lloyd Pierce (second season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Trae Young (19.1 ppg, 8.1 apg), G Kevin Huerter (9.7 ppg), F De’Andre Hunter (No. 5 overall pick), F John Collins (19.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg), C Damian Jones (5.4 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: C Dewayne Dedmon, G Kent Bazemore, F Omari Spellman
KEY ADDITIONS: Hunter, Jones, F Cam Reddish, F Jabari Parker, G Evan Turner, G Allen Crabbe, F Chandler Parsons, C Bruno Fernando.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Young and Collins are two of the NBA’s top young players, while Huerter shows plenty of promise, so the key to this season will be how well they mesh with two more first-round picks, Hunter and No. 10 choice Reddish. Hunter figures to start right away, while Reddish will get plenty of playing time off the bench. Also keep an eye on Parker, the No. 2 overall pick in 2014 by the Milwaukee Bucks. While he has yet to develop into the star everyone expected, Parker is still just 24 years old and has averaged 15.1 points per game over his five-year career. The Hawks, who are focused on player development, hope they can flush out Parker’s game. Finally, the Hawks will send out 42-year-old Vince Carter for his record 22nd — and final — season in the NBA. Carter showed last season he’s still got game, but he won’t get as many minutes in his last hurrah as he serves more of a coach-mentor role to all the young players.
OUTLOOK: The Hawks showed promise in Pierce’s first season but this franchise is still in the midst of a major rebuilding job. Atlanta might have an outside shot at slipping into the playoffs, but would probably be better off getting another crack at the draft lottery. General manager Travis Schlenk has been acquiring over-priced players that other teams wanted to get off the books. Parsons ($25.1 million), Turner ($18.6 million) and Crabbe ($18.5 million) are in the final year of their contracts, which means 2020 is the year to really start paying attention to the Hawks.
LAST SEASON: 49-33
COACH: Brad Stevens (seventh season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Kemba Walker (25.6 ppg), G Gordon Hayward (11.5), F Jaylen Brown. (13.0), F Jayson Tatum (15.7), C Enes Kanter (13.7)
KEY LOSSES: G Kyrie Irving, F/C Al Horford, F Marcus Morris, G Terry Rozier.
KEY ADDITIONS: Walker, Kanter, G Romeo Langford, F Grant Williams, G Carsen Edwards.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: It starts with Walker, who jumped at the chance in free agency to join a perennial playoff team. Following Kyrie Irving’s departure to Brooklyn, it will also give Walker the opportunity to do what Irving couldn’t: lead the Celtics to an NBA Finals. He’ll need help, though. And that will again put the spotlight on youngsters Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Both took small steps backward last season as infighting and chemistry issues plagued the team. Now, both will have key roles, much like they did two seasons ago when Irving missed the playoffs and they helped get the team to the Eastern Conference finals. It’s an especially big year for Brown. The Celtics have until Oct. 21 to decide whether to extend his contract for another season or let him become a restricted free agent next summer.
OUTLOOK: The Celtics are going to have to tweak their style of play a little without Irving or Horford. Irving was their chief scorer and Horford played a huge role facilitating offense in the half court as well as on defense. Kanter is a big man that can run, which should fit in nicely with the up-tempo style this athletic roster is built for. Whether this team is ultimately able to be a threat to win the East will depend on how well Walker leads and if the starting unit gets enough support from its youthful group of reserves.
LAST SEASON: 42-40, lost in the first round of the playoffs.
COACH: Kenny Atkinson (fourth season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Kyrie Irving (23.8 ppg), G Caris LeVert (13.7 ppg), F Joe Harris (13.7 ppg), F Taurean Prince (13.5 ppg), C Jarrett Allen (10.9 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: G D’Angelo Russell, F DeMarre Carroll, F Jared Dudley, F/C Ed Davis, G Allen Crabbe, G Shabazz Napier, F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
KEY ADDITIONS: F Kevin Durant, G Irving, C DeAndre Jordan, F Prince, F Wilson Chandler, G/F David Nwaba, G/F Garrett Temple
PLAYER TO WATCH: Irving. An undeniable All-Star talent who now has to show he has the temperament to handle New York. He asked to be traded from Cleveland, then changed his mind after originally saying he planned to remain in Boston, where the Celtics were a disappointment last season and he acknowledged doing a poor job leading the team. He grew up in New Jersey and wanted to come back home, and now he has to perform.
OUTLOOK: The Nets don’t expect Durant to play this season, so they remain a bit weak at the forward spot compared to the top teams in the Eastern Conference. That means it’s possible they won’t even improve off last season’s surprising sixth-place finish. But even if they don’t, they appear well set for the future.
LAST SEASON: 39-43, missed playoffs.
COACH: James Borrego (second season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Terry Rozier (9.0 ppg), G Dwyane Bacon (7.3 ppg), F PJ Washington (rookie), F Miles Bridges (7.5 ppg), C Cody Zeller (10.1 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: PG Kemba Walker, SG Jeremy Lamb.
KEY ADDITIONS: Rozier, Washington.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: All eyes will be on Rozier. He replaces Walker, a three-time All-Star and the franchise’s career scoring leader. Walker averaged 25.6 points last season, so the Hornets will need to find production from players like Bridges and Bacon. Rozier is expected to put up better assist numbers than Walker but doesn’t figure to come close to matching his scoring output. One big question for the Hornets will be who they turn to in late-game situations to make big shots. Walker and Lamb have handled that role in recent years, but both are gone. Borrego says it will be something the team must figure out moving forward.
OUTLOOK: Make no doubt about it, the Hornets are in complete rebuilding mode and most view them as a sure lottery team next season. This season isn’t about wins and losses, but rather getting young players as many quality minutes as possible. That means Bridges, Bacon, Washington and Malik Monk will see plenty of playing time while aging veterans Nic Batum and Marvin Williams are likely relegated to reserve roles. Charlotte lacks NBA experience, but its youthful roster will provide plenty of energy and enthusiasm and could give some opponents problems. This team may not be very talented, but it will compete.
LAST SEASON: 22-60, missed playoffs.
COACH: Jim Boylen (first full season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Kris Dunn (11.3 ppg), G Zach LaVine (23.7 ppg), F Otto Porter Jr. (13.9 ppg with Washington, Chicago), F Lauri Markkanen (18.7 ppg), C Wendell Carter Jr. (10.3 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: C Robin Lopez
KEY ADDITIONS: F Thaddeus Young, G Coby White, G Tomás Satoranský
PLAYERS TO WATCH: With the All-Star Game in Chicago for the first time since 1988, Markkanen and LaVine would love a chance to perform for the home crowd. More important, getting picked would probably mean the Bulls are starting to win. Boylen would like both players to improve on defense, an area where Chicago ranked near the bottom of the NBA last season. He also wants Markkanen to become a more consistent rebounder in his third season. Dunn took a step back last season and now has competition after the Bulls drafted White with the No. 7 pick and acquired Satoranský from Washington.
OUTLOOK: The Bulls see themselves contending for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference after posting one of the worst records in franchise history. If they stay healthy after an injury-riddled season and get the improvement they anticipate from their core players, it might not be a stretch.
LAST SEASON: 19-63.
COACH: John Beilein (first season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Collin Sexton (16.7 ppg), G Darius Garland (Rookie), F Cedi Osman (13.0 ppg), F Kevin Love (17.0 ppg, 22 games), Tristan Thompson (10.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg).
KEY LOSSES: F Channing Frye, G J.R. Smith.
KEY ADDITIONS: Beilein, Garland, C/F John Henson, G Kevin Porter Jr., G Dylan Windler.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Garland could accelerate the Cavs’ rebuilding project. Before a left knee injury cut short his freshman season at Vanderbilt, the 6-foot-2 playmaker was ranked as the top player in his class, ahead of even Zion Williamson. His pairing with Sexton gives Cleveland a young, dynamic backcourt drawing comparisons to Portland’s duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Sexton’s growth as a rookie was extraordinary, and it will be interesting to see how he blends with Garland, who is more of a traditional point guard. Love’s future, which is always in question, could hinge on how quickly the team’s youngsters bloom. If the Cavs get the right offer, Love could be traded despite his hopes to stay with Cleveland.
OUTLOOK: Beilein’s forte in college was player development and the former Michigan coach appears to be an ideal fit for Cleveland’s youth movement. He’ll push the Cavs and make sure they play hard, and Love and Thompson will give the squad invaluable leadership. Injuries have sidetracked Love the past few seasons, but the 31-year-old feels physically refreshed and is committed to showing his young teammates what it takes. It’s going to be another long season in Cleveland, but there appears to be a promising future.
LAST SEASON: 41-41, lost in first round of Eastern Conference playoffs.
COACH: Dwane Casey (second season, 11th NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Reggie Jackson (15.4 ppg), G Bruce Brown (4.3 ppg), G Tony Snell (6.0 ppg), F Blake Griffin (24.5 ppg), C Andre Drummond (17.3 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: G Wayne Ellington, G Ish Smith.
KEY ADDITIONS: G Derrick Rose, G Tony Snell.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: There are no illusions about Rose still being an MVP candidate, but he averaged 18 points a game last season and could be a real X-factor for Detroit. The Pistons have relied on the trio of Griffin, Drummond and Jackson for a while now, and Jackson has been the most erratic member of that group. If Rose gives Detroit more production at point guard, that could be a big plus for the Pistons, although his health is always a concern.
OUTLOOK: Griffin was simply terrific last season, re-establishing himself as one of the game’s stars, but his injury woes popped up again right around playoff time. Detroit would love to manage his minutes in a way that keeps him fresh for the end of the season, but that won’t be easy if the Pistons are on the playoff bubble like last season. Another postseason berth is certainly possible, and if things break right, maybe Detroit can get a more favorable seed and win a round, but the gap between the Pistons and the conference’s top teams remains formidable.
LAST SEASON: 48-34, lost in first round.
COACH: Nate McMillan (fourth season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Malcolm Brogdon (15.6 ppg), G Jeremy Lamb (15.3 ppg), F Domantas Sabonis (14.1 ppg), F T.J. Warren (18.0 ppg), C Myles Turner (13.3)
KEY LOSSES: F Thaddeus Young, F Bojan Bogdanovic, G Darren Collison, G Cory Joseph, G Tyreke Evans
KEY ADDITIONS: Brogdon, Lamb, Warren, G T.J. McConnell, F Justin Holiday
PLAYERS TO WATCH: The big question heading into this season is when will two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo return from a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee? He’s not expected back until at least December and when he does start playing, it’s unclear how long it will take him to return to form. Until then, this will be Turner’s team and everyone will be watching how this new starting lineup plays together. Indiana expects Brogdon to play like the $85 million man while Sabonis moves from a valuable backup role into the starting lineup for the first time. Sabonis and Turner being paired together give the Pacers a more traditional two big-man look.
OUTLOOK: The Pacers know it will take time for all the new faces to get acclimated in sync, and they expect some rough patches early. But the offseason moves should give Indiana more scoring punch and better balance offensively. Defensively, it will be interesting to see how Sabonis or Turner defends the perimeter. But if the Pacers have a solid start and Oladipo is back to full strength before the All-Star break, they could become a surprise contender in the Eastern Conference.
LAST SEASON: 39-43, finished in 10th place in Eastern Conference.
COACH: Erik Spoelstra (12th season, 523-363).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Justise Winslow (12.6 ppg), G Dion Waiters (12.0), G Jimmy Butler (18.7 with Minnesota and Philadelphia), F Kelly Olynyk (10.0), C Bam Adebayo (8.9).
KEY LOSSES: G Dwyane Wade, G Josh Richardson, C Hassan Whiteside, G Rodney McGruder.
KEY ADDITIONS: Butler, G Tyler Herro, F-C Meyers Leonard.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Butler gets a team to call his own, and assumes the role of locker-room leader in the place of Wade — who retired after 16 seasons, most of them with Miami. The Heat are hoping for healthier years from Waiters and PG Goran Dragic, after both missed about half of last season. Herro, the No. 13 pick in this year’s draft, had a strong summer league and followed that up with big numbers in the preseason so he’ll clearly be in the mix somewhere. Adebayo enters his first full year as the starting center, a job he won down the stretch last season, and will get help from fellow bigs Olynyk and Leonard. Winslow wants to be a leader for the group, but has missed 94 games in the last three seasons.
OUTLOOK: The Heat haven’t won a playoff series since 2016 and are only 124-122 over the last three seasons, yet believe they can get back into more of a postseason-contender role — even without Wade, who was the team’s best player last season. Getting Butler was a major boost and he’ll unquestionably be the key to everything Miami does, though he won’t be asked to carry the load by himself. Defense wasn’t the problem for Miami last season after the Heat finished No. 2 in the league in points allowed; the biggest issue was inconsistent offense, which figures to get better.
LAST SEASON: 60-22, best record in the NBA during the regular season, lost to Toronto in six games in the Eastern Conference finals.
COACH: Mike Budenholzer (second season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Eric Bledsoe (15.9 ppg), G Wesley Matthews (12.2 ppg), F Khris Middleton (18.3 ppg), F Giannis Antetokounmpo (27.7 ppg), C Brook Lopez (12.5 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: G Malcolm Brogdon, F Nikola Mirotic, G Tony Snell.
KEY ADDITIONS: Matthews, C Robin Lopez, G Kyle Korver, F Dragan Bender, F Thanasis Antetokounmpo.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo had the best season of his career a season ago en route to earning NBA MVP. He was outplayed by Kawhi Leonard in the Eastern Conference finals. Now, in his seventh season, how will Antetokounmpo improve his game offensively as he looks to take the Bucks to the finals and capture the first NBA title for the franchise since 1971?
OUTLOOK: Expectations have never been higher for the Bucks. A season after winning MVP, Coach of the Year (Budenholzer) and Executive of the Year (GM Jon Horst), Milwaukee enters this season without former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, one of only eight players in NBA history in the 50-40-90 club. The Bucks lost Brogdon to free agency, but managed to keep their core of Bledsoe, Lopez, Middleton and Antetokounmpo together. With both Leonard and LeBron James now out west, anything less than a conference finals appearance will be deemed a failure in Milwaukee.
NEW YORK KNICKS
LAST SEASON: 17-65, missed playoffs.
COACH: David Fizdale (second season, fourth NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Dennis Smith Jr. (13.6 ppg), G RJ Barrett (rookie), F Marcus Morris (13.9 ppg), F Julius Randle (21.1 ppg). C Mitchell Robinson (7.3 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: F Noah Vonleh, F Mario Hezonja, G Emmanuel Mudiay, C DeAndre Jordan
KEY ADDITIONS: G Barrett, F Randle, F Morris, F Bobby Portis, F Taj Gibson, G Elfrid Payton, G Wayne Ellington, G/F Reggie Bullock.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Barrett. The Knicks shared the best odds of getting the No. 1 pick and Zion Williamson after having the worst record in the league. They ended up third and took his Duke teammate and fellow All-American, who tied for the ACC scoring lead, with their highest selection since grabbing Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing first overall in 1985. There aren’t a lot of scorers on the roster, so the Knicks will need Barrett to play well quickly.
OUTLOOK: The Knicks couldn’t land any of the top talent in free agency after missing the playoffs for a sixth straight year, but believe they signed enough veteran toughness to exceed their relatively low expectations.
LAST SEASON: 42-40, lost 4-1 in first round to Toronto
COACH: Steve Clifford (second season with Magic; seventh season overall, 238-254).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Evan Fournier (15.1 ppg), G D.J. Augustin (11.7), F Aaron Gordon (16.0), F Jonathan Isaac (9.6), C Nikola Vucevic (20.8).
KEY LOSSES: None.
KEY ADDITIONS: F Al-Farouq Aminu, G Markelle Fultz (acquired in February from Philadelphia but didn’t play).
PLAYERS TO WATCH: There isn’t a lot of mystery to the Magic entering this season, since they bring back basically the same team and will be adding a former No. 1 overall pick in Fultz who has worked for months to fix his shoulder and shooting issues. Vucevic is coming off a season where he set career-bests in points, rebounds and assists per game. When Gordon scored big, the Magic were really good; they went 16-8 in the 24 games where Gordon reached the 20-point mark. Terrence Ross is basically a sixth starter for Orlando, needing only 26.5 minutes per game to average 15.1 points last season in an instant-offense role coming off the bench.
OUTLOOK: The Magic improved by 17 wins last season and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2012, doing all that without the burden of expectation. They won’t have that same luxury this year, not after bringing back virtually every part of a team that didn’t just get into the playoffs but did so by going 22-9 down the stretch of the regular season. Getting to the foul line more would be a major help, after the Magic ranked last in free throws made and free throws attempted last season. The biggest challenge for Clifford may be finding ways for his team to replicate the same get-into-the-playoffs hunger it had a year ago.
LAST SEASON: 51-31, lost in Eastern Conference semis
COACH: Brett Brown (seventh season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: C Joel Embiid (27.5 ppg, 13.6 rpg), F Tobias Harris (18.2 ppg), F Al Horford (13.6), G Josh Richardson (16 ppg), G Ben Simmons (16.9 ppg, 7.7 apg).
KEY LOSSES: G JJ Redick, G Jimmy Butler
KEY ADDITIONS: G Josh Richardson, F Al Horford, F Matisse Thybulle
PLAYERS TO WATCH: The 76ers will go as far as Simmons and Embiid will take them. Both All-Stars are locked in for years with long-term deals and enter the season as serious MVP candidates. But if even one goes down with a serious injury, the Sixers will be in trouble. Embiid has never played more than 64 games in a season and the Sixers are serious about trying to limit his workload even more during the regular season to keep him fresh for the playoffs.
OUTLOOK: From tanking to title contention, the Sixers believe they are good enough to win the Eastern Conference, and make a run at an NBA championship. The Sixers were knocked out of the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second straight season but believed signing Horford away from fellow contender Boston can help push them over the top.
LAST SEASON: 58-24, won NBA Finals.
COACH: Nick Nurse (second season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Kyle Lowry (14.2 ppg, 8.7 apg), G Norman Powell (8.6 ppg), F OG Anunoby (7.0 ppg), F Pascal Siakam (16.9 ppg), C Marc Gasol (15.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg).
KEY LOSSES: F Kawhi Leonard, G Danny Green
KEY ADDITIONS: F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, F Stanley Johnson, G Matt Thomas
PLAYERS TO WATCH: A runaway winner of the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award last season, Siakam doesn’t look likely to rest on his laurels. Nurse said he’s seen more maturity and calmness in Siakam this fall, something new for a player whose game was previously all about speed and energy. Thomas has never played in the NBA, but the former Iowa State star shot 48.1% (116 for 241) from 3-point range in helping Spain’s Valencia Basket capture the 2019 EuroCup title.
OUTLOOK: The defending champions lost their best player when Leonard left for the Clippers, and took another hit when Green signed with the Lakers. While those departures may have dimmed Toronto’s hopes of repeating, the Raptors aren’t lottery-bound either. Lowry has made five straight All-Star teams, Gasol is a defensive force in the paint, and there’s talent on the bench in guard Fred VanVleet and big man Serge Ibaka. Expect the Raptors to earn a top-four seed in a balanced Eastern Conference.
COACH: Scott Brooks (fourth season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Ish Smith (8.9 ppg with Detroit), G Bradley Beal (25.6 ppg), F Rui Hachimura (19.7 ppg with Gonzaga), F Davis Bertans (8.0 ppg with San Antonio), C Thomas Bryant (10.5 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: F Jeff Green, F Trevor Ariza, F Markieff Morris, C Dwight Howard, F Sam Dekker, F Jabari Parker, F Bobby Portis, G Tomas Satoransky.
KEY ADDITIONS: F Rui Hachimura, G Ish Smith, G-F C.J. Miles, F Moe Wagner, G-F Isaac Bonga, F Davis Bertans, G-F Admiral Schofield, G Justin Robinson, G Justin Anderson, G Isaiah Thomas.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: As Washington tries to find a way forward with a mostly new roster after losing 50 games, everyone in a Wizards uniform will be judged for his possible role in the future. The most scrutiny will fall on two players: rookie Rui Hachimura, a first-round draft pick from Gonzaga, and All-Star shooting guard Bradley Beal. With Hachimura, it’s about adapting to the pro game and seeing how much potential he has. With Beal, undoubtedly Washington’s best player and closest thing now to a transcendent star, it’s about whether he can up his level even more ... and where he will attempt to do that. Will he commit to the Wizards and will they build around him? Or will they start over even more completely by trading him?
OUTLOOK: With John Wall out for most, and maybe all, of the season after rupturing his Achilles tendon, plus several other offseason injuries, and a wholesale revamping of the roster under way, new GM Tommy Sheppard knows that there is no point in aiming for any particular win total, let alone the playoffs. So instead of the sort of grand pronouncements about quantifiable goals that were so common with this club in the past, Sheppard is emphasizing the importance of development — figuring out who can do what and who should be a part of the long-term plan. The Wizards are not going to be very good in 2019-20, but they are hoping this will be the start of moving in the right direction.
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