The Bulls were in full-on tank mode for the duration of last season, but based on the talent on this roster, they should have been WAY better than a 6-win team. Tanking issues have been corrected and now Chicago has no choice but to be a decent team. In fact, looking at this roster, you have to project them as being way better than decent. I was highly speculative of the big Derrick Rose trade that brought in Stephenson and Parsons at first, but the more I look at it, the more it makes sense for both teams. Chicago now has a supremely deep and cheap squad with an extra $52 million to play with, and they probably didn’t need that pick anyway. With Rose, I really thought this team would be title contenders this year. I don’t know if I can say the same about them anymore, but the trade does set them up better for the future and enables them to be more flexible in future deal-making activities. In an early draft of this breakdown, I was just about ready to call Chicago the favorites in the East this year. I don’t think it’s true anymore as the team stands now, but they’ve established a nice foundation and are still definitely good enough for the playoffs.
Last season was the ultimate “what could have been” story. What if Carmelo didn’t get hurt? What if Burke had progressed more? What if Jodie Meeks had actually been given some playing time? After a disappointing finish, Cleveland is coming into the offseason with a lot of dead weight on the roster. Two of their players are not even in the NBA anymore, and many others are NBA bottom-feeders. The Cavs have no first-round picks until 2017, so it might be difficult to quickly add some talent to revitalize the team. There are some really great players on this squad – Zaza Pachulia was a playoff hero, for example – but depth will be a huge issue, and there are a lot of question marks. Can Green possibly live up to the expectations set on his shoulders after last season’s brilliant play? And what the hell is Markieff Morris’ problem? Even with LeBron and Melo, expect the team to regress.
The big question for the Pistons is: what now? Most of the difference-makers from last year’s squad are kapoof, gone, free agents, leaving the team with Drummond, Thompson and little else to speak of. The good news is that Detroit has a budget of nearly $53 million to work with, so they could make a big splash in free agency or in the trade market. Detroit was majorly lucky in several departments last year – they had the fourth-easiest schedule in the league, two of their division rivals blatantly tanked, and they struck gold on some in-season free agent claims. Will the Motor City be able to reassemble the assembly line, or do they need a bailout? My inclination is the latter. Detroit has got to put this roster back together again in a hurry, and competition is much stiffer in the Central now.
Since the inception of this league, basically, it’s been all about assets for Indiana, and boy, do they have some good ones. The Pacers possess inarguably the finest crop of young talent in the league – Parker, Gobert, LaVine, Harris and Exum (RIP this season tho) are all very promising, and don’t forget that Paul George is still only 25. The Pacers also have four first-rounders and and over $58 million in space to work with. This team could become very good, very quick. The sad days are likely over in Indiana for a long time.
The Bucks had quite a nice team last year, good enough to grab a playoff spot in the East, and things are looking pretty ok again this time around. Giannis and Payton are certainly an excellent young duo, but Ibaka is going to need more help than that for an anticipated playoff contender. The supporting cast of McCallum, Young, Dudley and Henson are good enough to support a playoff team, but I think the Bucks need another truly great player in order to really thrive. Still, though, this division is going to look a lot weaker at the top than last year, so I like Milwaukee’s chances at winning the pennant. A big acquisition would put this team over the top.
Last year’s good teams are worse and last year’s bad teams are better. Don’t be fooled by last year’s standings – Chicago and Indy tanked so hard from the outset of the season that Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee all enjoyed hyper-inflated records because of it. Indiana is still a year or two away, but I expect Parker, Gobert and LaVine to all make big strides this year. The other three teams will feel a decline this time around, but in this division, I can still see the top four making the playoffs.
Last year’s Cinderella team – with the league’s hardest schedule – seemed firmly out of the playoff race for almost the whole year, only to unexpectedly surpass the Clippers and Suns for the final spot in the West at the last possible second. It was a great story last year, but I don’t know if I see a repeat in an even more difficult West this time around. It’s not impossible, especially with Smart and McCollum expected to progress, but the Nuggets may just not be quite stacked enough to cut it this year. I’m projecting a career year for Ty Lawson in Houston, but there’s just not enough here to really strike fear into opponents’ hearts. It will be very interesting – and definitely very weird – to watch what Faried does as the main man in Denver.
Last year, the Wolves and Thunder battled it out to sit atop the Northwest, trading leads all season long. This time, Minnesota may run away with the division. This team is not particularly outstanding, but none of its division rivals are good enough to compete over the course of the whole season. Love will be good, and probably better than last year as he continues to figure out his role in the offense (or, rather, let Coach LeBron tell him what that role is). At age 34 and weighing in at 900 pounds, Zach Randolph is a ticking time bomb, but he should be good for another year or so. Jeff Teague will take yet another step up. Aside from that, there are a lot of shaky players here. Jack and Brewer are about as inconsistent as you can get in the NBA if your name isn’t JR Smith or Dion Waiters. And with Towns and KG expecting to play big minutes for the Wolves, Pekovic might be on the outside looking in unless he improves his putrid defense. The Wolves should repeat as division champs, but if some unexpected team breaks out, they could be in trouble.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
This team is in big trouble and could really use an extra two or three amnesty provisions. The team has big depth issues, which are compounded by even bigger cap issues; they can’t even afford to bring Jose Calderon off of the IR. Pierce, Gordon and Lee are all on terrible contracts, so one of them is bound to get amnestied. As the oldest and most expensive, I bet it’ll be Pierce, but the catch 22 here is that there’s more than a decent chance that he can out-perform both Lee and Gordon this year despite being eligible for Medicare. There are a lot of directions this team can go in, but I’m guessing that direction is nowhere fast. The players they have are good enough for the team to at least be mediocre, but what happens when the injuries start piling on? Aside from Duncan, himself a geezer, you’re not exactly looking at a squad of iron men. It may sound harsh that I’m predicting doom and gloom for the Thunder, especially because every player on this roster is pretty much well above replacement level, but things are set up to go very badly this season in OKC. Last year was “win-now!” mode. This year is “what-now?” mode.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
The Blazers have been at an impasse for quite some time. On the one hand, you have Aldridge, Lillard and Butler, who all played like superstars last season. On the other hand, you have a bunch of disappointments. Ross (but the athleticism!), Snell (but he looked so good in Summer League!), Splitter (but Duncan has to go down SOME time!), Harkless and Andre Miller were all really nice sleeper picks last summer, but unfortunately not a single one of them panned out. The good news is, Portland has some flexibility, including a top-10 pick and $42 million in cash. And maybe the disappointing guys will be better this year. Harkless has a new opportunity in Portland, where he should be playing a lot because that team looks awful. And as for Ross, after three disappointing seasons in the NBA, a lot of people around the league are saying this year will be his last chance in Toronto. So, you know, “contract year.” For now, the Blazers are a team firmly on the fence. It will be interesting to see what course they chart.
This is my under the radar team for the 2015-16 season. I think they’ll be pretty good in any circumstance, but they could be potential dark horse candidates for the title. There, I said it. I really think every single guy on this roster will improve noticeably from last year. They also have a top-10 pick and $26 million in cash to make some moves. This team was let down in 2014-15 by disappointing work from Batum, Gallinari, Anderson and Shawn Marion (who they traded in the winter) and ended up being probably the most bang-average team in the league. But I think this could be their year. And even if it’s not, they will still be at least above average and potentially make the playoffs. Favors was a beast when Utah got hot late last year and Hayward is emerging as an Actually Very Good White American NBA Player, if not a bona fide star. I like the Jazz this season.
5. Oklahoma City
This is still Minnesota’s division to lose, but as I said, I wouldn’t be super surprised if Utah really took off this year. Portland and OKC could also easily move up if they decide to shake around their rosters, which seems likely for at least one of them. Denver will have another quiet season, but probably not sneak into the playoffs again. This could be a fun division to watch. No promises, though.