While the Eastern Conference may not possess the collective talent or the storylines of the Western Conference, many teams will be entering critical years for their futures. Teams like Cleveland and Toronto will be figuring out how to approach the last years of their dominance. On the other hand, teams such as Atlanta and Indiana will begin building for the future, after years of mediocrity. Although the East will not be as closely monitored as the West this year, there will certainly be a plethora of intriguing storylines to follow.
Toronto Raptors: How much longer before a full-scale rebuild?
The Raptors are in basketball purgatory. They’re set up to be anywhere between a 3-6 seed for the next few years, and they are always a threat to win a playoff series. It’s not exactly mediocrity, but it is not the most enviable situation. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Serge Ibaka are a formidable trio, but they’re nowhere near enough to beat Cleveland or Boston. They are without a first round pick this year as well. When will management decide it is time to swap their stars for young players and draft picks?
Boston Celtics: Will Jayson Tatum and/or Jaylen Brown step up this year?
Only four players remain from last year’s team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. To be fair, though, Boston has added Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Al Horford is good, but they will need one or both of 7/11 to step up in order to take down Cleveland.
Brooklyn Nets: Do they have anybody that they can move for more assets?
They’re almost to the finish line. After years of surrendering their first round picks to Boston, the Nets only have to sit out the draft lottery for one more year. GM Sean Marks has done an excellent job of acquiring young players and assets. Brooklyn has absorbed albatross contracts from teams looking to add cap space. In return, they have pieces they can now build around. The Nets will hope they can pawn off any overachieving veterans for more pieces to build around.
Philadelphia 76ers: Can the young stars stay healthy?
This is a huge question. If they can stay healthy, this Sixers could be primed to be the next NBA dynasty. If not, “The Process” will be added to the long list of failures in Philadelphia sports history. Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, and Joel Embiid have all dealt with their fair share of injuries, and their health will be paramount to the Sixers’ short and long-term futures.
New York Knicks: How much can they get back for Carmelo Anthony?
While NBA teams all over the map have dealt stars and reshaped their franchises, the New York Knicks have dragged out the Carmelo Anthony saga. Phil Jackson is long gone, and Melo was excluded from the 2017-2018 season ticket preview, yet he still remains on the team. A trade to the Rockets seemed imminent, but here we are a month later, and nothing has happened. The Knicks will hope to get a complementary piece to put around Kristaps Porzingis in return for the disgruntled star.
Atlanta Hawks: How low can they go?
After years of painful mediocrity, the Hawks are finally starting over. After allowing Al Horford and Paul Millsap to walk and jettisoning Dwight Howard, the Hawks are entering a long-term rebuild. The Hawks will be atrocious this year, but are they bad enough to land a top-3 pick? Landing one of Marvin Bagley, Michael Porter, or Luca Doncic would be a phenomenal start to the Hawks’ rebuild.
Washington Wizards: Will a weak bench drag them down?
The Wizards have an excellent backcourt, a solid frontcourt, and newly extended small forward, Otto Porter. The issue in D.C. is the bench. If Kelly Oubre Jr. is your best bench player, you’re in trouble. Other than that, the Wizards will be forced to depend on contributions from Tim Frazier, Jodie Meeks, and Ian Mahinmi. The Wizards quite possibly have the weakest bench in the league.
Charlotte Hornets: How much longer will mediocrity suffice?
Other than Kemba Walker, Malik Monk, and (this one could be considered a stretch) Frank Kaminsky, do the Hornets have anyone to build around? For the last few years, the Hornets have hung around the middle of the conference. With role players like Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist tasked with big roles, the Hornets are all but guaranteed to be in the .500 range. After only adding Michael Carter-Williams in Free Agency, fans can expect much of the same. With Walker’s contract ending in a few years, the Hornets will have some big decisions to make in the coming years.
Orlando Magic: Is it time to blow it up (again)?
The Magic have been in the 25-35 win range since the departure of Dwight Howard. They possess some young, complementary pieces, but their rebuild has been marred by short-sighted decisions and a frontcourt logjam. Aaron Gordon was finally beginning to blossom into his own, then, in true Magic fashion, they traded for Serge Ibaka’s expiring contract. After a disappointing first half, Ibaka was traded to the Raptors for Terrence Ross and a late first round pick. They signed Jonathan Simmons away from San Antonio, but he doesn’t fix their severe lack of floor spacing.
Miami Heat: Is this a core worth building around?
The Heat turned heads after their 30-11 second half record, but they still only finished 41-41. After handing out multiple extensions and inking Kelly Olynyk to a four-year deal, the Heat are suddenly hard-strapped for cap space. Dion Waiters, Hassan Whiteside, and Goran Dragic are all good players, but none of the three could even be the second best player on championship team. While Erik Spoelstra, and Pat Riley will no doubt work their magic, the Heat will certainly have to make some tough choices regarding personnel.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Can they add another star at the trade deadline?
As long as they have LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers will be competing for a title. After dealing Kyrie Irving to Boston in return for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the Nets’ 2018 1st round pick, and a Celtics’ 2020 2nd round pick, the Cavs have already rebuilt themselves and added depth. With Dwyane Wade reportedly interested in joining Cleveland (pending a buyout), the Cavs could be in a position to deal for another star. Perhaps a package centered around the Brooklyn pick could be enticing enough for New Orleans to ship DeMarcus Cousins to Cleveland if he informs the Pelicans he will not re-sign.
Detroit Pistons: Can Andre Drummond be the star of a team?
After a surprising playoff berth in the 2015-2016 season, the Pistons found themselves sitting at home come late April this past year. Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson both flailed under higher expectations, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope bolting for Los Angeles. Although they added Avery Bradley, Drummond will once again be the centerpiece of the team. Unless he displays an improved shooting stroke, it may be time for the Pistons to start over.
Milwaukee Bucks: Can they find a way to create cap space?
The Bucks have a talent laden roster. That much is obvious. What they don’t have, however, is the market or the cap space to lure free agents. With players such as Tony Snell and John Henson on big contracts, the Bucks don’t have much cap space to work with. With Jabari Parker‘s restricted free agency looming (and a potential “super-max” for Giannis Antetokounmpo) the Bucks already be dipping into the luxury tax. If they fail to create space, the Bucks could fail to surround their core with enough talent to succeed.
Indiana Pacers: Is there anyone to build around besides Myles Turner?
After two years of Paul George running the show, Myles Turner is ready to lead the Pacers. While they are expected to one of league’s worst teams this year, the Pacers have added some veteran talent for Turner to work with. The more important matter, though, will be trying to find complementary pieces to play around Turner on their roster. Perhaps Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis can become those pieces, but both were underwhelming on the Oklahoma City Thunder last season. It is fair to say that the Pacers seem to be largely devoid to young talent. Any player that seizes the opportunity to be Turner’s sidekick this year will be viewed as a building block for the future.
Chicago Bulls: Is it “Process Time” yet?
Once Dwyane Wade is bought out, the Bulls are going to have the chance to be historically bad. After undergoing a veteran purge, the Bulls will be depending on unproven players for the bulk of their scoring. Zach Lavine should provide a boost when he returns, but he will most likely be limited coming off a torn ACL. Lauri Markkanen did not perform well at all during Summer League, which is even more cause for concern. It is shaping up to be a long year in the Windy City.
“Photo: USA Today Sports”