Way-too-Early NBA Predictions: The Top 5 Teams In The Eastern Conference

Can’t wait for the 2015-’16 season to start? Us neither. Now that most of the off-season’s major moves are complete, we’ll dive into some ludicrously premature predictions for next season. In the coming days and weeks we’ll attempt to project the standings in each conference, five teams at a time, before trying to lock down who will bring home the major awards at the end of next year. It’s the summer – we’re starving for content. Let’s get things rolling with the best the Eastern Conference has to offer. 

It’s been the reality in the NBA for what feels like eons: the Eastern Conference is dreadful compared to the West.

The often-debated, long-standing conference disparity has been staggeringly consistent. In the last 10 seasons, no sub-500 team has made the playoffs out west. It’s taken an average of 45.5 wins just to grab a measly eighth-seed in the superior conference since the 2005-’06 season. The reward? Typically an unceremonious blowout at the hands of one of the titans of the West (sorry, Dallas fans). Meanwhile, the average eighth-seed in the East has been, on average, a losing team – 38.3 wins has been the benchmark for a playoff berth in that span. Ten sub-500 seasons have yielded playoff basketball in the East in the last decade. And if it weren’t for LeBron James, the West’s 6-4 edge in championships in that span would probably be even wider.

It seems unfathomable, but with juggernauts like the re-loaded Spurs, the suddenly deep Clippers, the (hopefully) healthy Thunder and defending champion Warriors priming for a season-long bloodbath, the West could be better than ever next season. When you factor in playoff incumbents Memphis and Houston, up-and-coming squads like New Orleans, Utah and Minnesota and a collection of teams with too much talent to be terrible like Sacramento, Phoenix, Dallas and the Lakers, its abundantly clear that there will be no easy nights in the West this season. Denver is so screwed.

That said, the East no longer looks to be the absolute pushover it’s been recently. We’re still years away from the talent scales evening, but this upcoming season should facilitate the improvement of a number of teams in the East. Some of the best teams in the conference last year made moves to improve, while returning stars Chris Bosh and Paul George should help bring their respective teams back to relevance. Additionally, another year of experience should do wonders for rebuilding organizations like Boston, Detroit and Orlando. Even the very worst teams in the East should progress somewhat this season as a result of smart drafting and sensible free agent moves.

Hell, we might even see a team over .500 land the final playoff spot this year.

Let’s get to our way-to-early predictions, starting with the Eastern Conference’s top-five teams.

1st – Cleveland Cavaliers

Key Additions: G Mo Williams

Key Losses: G J.R. Smith (TBD)

Cleveland won 53 games despite a roster in constant flux and a 19-20 start – then made it to the Finals missing two of its three best players. With Dan Gilbert biting the bullet on an exorbitant luxury tax bill in the interest of bringing the whole band back, it would be foolish to choose any other team to top the conference. Considering how the Cavaliers played down the stretch as the team’s stars began to coalesce, this roster can certainly make a bid to match the 67-wins tallied by the defending champion Warriors last season.

The most interesting element of this coming year at the Q will be the role of Kevin Love fresh off of signing a new 5-year/$110 million contract. He was clearly relegated to third-banana status in Cleveland’s offense last year; although his presence on the floor was vital to Cleveland’s dominant regular season offense:

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With LeBron James likely still recovering from carrying the Cavs to the Finals and getting set to turn 31 in December, it might behoove David Blatt to more regularly rely on Love. By the time the season starts,  the back issues that hampered Love’s season and the shoulder injury that ended it will hopefully be long resolved. Look for a massive bounce-back campaign from Love.

2nd – Washington Wizards

Key Additions: F Jared Dudley, G Gary Neal, G/F Alan Anderson, G/F Kelly Oubre Jr.

Key Losses: F Paul Pierce, F/C Kevin Seraphin

This is where the East gets impossibly hard to project. As many as six teams boast enough talent to claim the second-overall seed and the right to avoid Cleveland until the Conference Finals. Injuries will likely play a role in sorting out the pack. As will chemistry; every contender for this spot underwent at least some modicum of change this off-season.

Washington’s off-season additions should gel faster than the pick-ups made by other teams. General manager Ernie Grunfeld did a masterful job of filling the vacancy left by the outgoing Paul Pierce in an already thin wing corps. Gary Neal and Alan Anderson should provide stable production as the regular two-three combo on the second unit and won’t push young Otto Porter out of a starting spot.

Jared Dudley, acquired in a trade with Milwaukee, might be able to take on a more prominent role though. Washington seems to be somewhat disenchanted with starting power forward Nene – trade rumors floated around him for much of July. Given coach Randy Wittman’s transition to a smaller, more three-pointer-reliant look in the playoffs, Nene’s job security looks to be tenuous. If it is, count me in for a Wizards crunch time line-up that features Dudley at the power forward spot. He’s a fantastic three-point shooter (39.6 percent, career) and illustrated an ability to defend at the four in Milwaukee’s top-five defense last year. Losing Pierce’s clutch gene is tough, but Dudley is simply a better player at this point in their careers. Dudley opening up extra space for John Wall to exploit in the lane is a terrifying proposition.

3rd – Chicago Bulls

Key Additions: F Bobby Portis

Key Losses: N/A

If any team has the talent on hand to challenge the Cavaliers for the top spot in the East, it’s Chicago. A foundation of Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah is about as sturdy as they come. Of course, the health concerns surrounding the latter two guys on that list – not to mention Taj Gibson and the aging Pau Gasol – are enough to temper the Bulls’ expectations. Injuries always seem to disrupt this franchise’s mojo.

That may change though with Fred Hoiberg taking over for the demanding Tom Thibodeau on the sidelines. Maybe the likes of Butler, Rose and Noah will see their energy-sapping minutes totals drop under Hoiberg – a development that could pay off in multiple ways. Not only would a re-allocation of minutes better preserve the oft-injured core for the playoff run – enhanced responsibility placed on players like Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Tony Snell could allow them to blossom.

This Bulls roster, completely healthy, with a confident bunch of youthful contributors could quickly wash away the lingering sour taste left in the mouths of Bulls fans from the Thibodeau era.

4th – Milwaukee Bucks

Key Additions: F/C Greg Monroe, G Greivis Vasquez,

Key Losses: F Jared Dudley, C Zaza Pachulia

League Pass Alert. The Bucks are going to be all kinds of entertaining this season.

It was a bit of a curious off-season for last-season’s best turnaround story. A strange draft night trade sending a second-rounder (Norman Powell) and a 2017 first to Toronto for the defensively inept Greivis Vasquez, reaching to select Rashad Vaughn 17th-overall and shipping Dudley to Washington for next-to-nothing all drew ire from onlookers. It’s a testament to how well this team is built however that the Bucks are still a team to be feared this year.

General manager John Hammond spared no expense in luring Greg Monroe away from the sexier markets that were also in pursuit. The 25-year-old big man is a wonderful fit. Last year’s Bucks were rightfully praised for being a defensive monster; Kidd’s group was one of three teams to hold opponents under a point per possession thanks to the collection of inflatable arm-flailing tube men at his disposal. Overlooked though, was a sputtering offense that ranked 25th in the NBA.

Monroe should help change that. The Moose is the sort of reliable, bucket-producing post presence that the Bucks sorely lacked in 2014-’15. But he’s more than just a scorer. He’s a brilliant passer and reader of the floor. First off, he does a great job of finding open shooters on the perimeter when double teams are sent his way. Milwaukee shot the sixth-best percentage from three-point range in the league last year, yet only hoisted 18.3 attempts per game. That’s Laker territory. Monroe’s ability to pass out of doubles should open up loads of extra threes for the Bucks skilled wings and guards (we just found a use for Vasquez!). What’s more – Monroe is a smart operator from the elbow, and can find cutting teammates with ease:

His strengths on offense should be amplified playing with this Bucks team. And while his defense remains a question, it’s not as if he’s unplayable. Surrounded by lanky, switchable defenders like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and John Henson, Monroe should be hidden enough to be passable. The boost he’ll provide to the offense more than outweigh’s his deficiencies on the other end. This promises to be a far more balanced squad come Halloween.

Oh yeah – Jabari Parker will be back from injury too. Seriously – fear the deer.

5th – Toronto Raptors

Key Additions: F DeMarre Carroll, G Cory Joseph, C Bismack Biyombo

Key Losses: F Amir Johnson, G Lou Williams

An inability to get stops quickly spelled the end for the Raptors in the playoffs as the Wizards feasted on Toronto’s defensive incompetence. The off-season plan of attack for general manager Masai Ujiri was clearly to resolve those issues and built a team more capable of playing Dwane Casey’s aggressive style of defense. It started at the Draft, where Toronto sent Vasquez packing and selected 6’6 point guard Delon Wright to fill the void. You’d be hard pressed to find an NBA guard who has more trouble sealing off penetration than Vasquez. Wright, and free-agent signing Cory Joseph will be a massive upgrade on the defensive end from the point guard spot. Newly signed Bismack Biyombo is a stone-handed and borderline useless offensive player, but can swat shots better than any big man on the roster and will significantly improve the team’s ability to close out possessions with defensive rebounds when he’s on the floor.

And of course, there was the headline-grabbing move of the off-season: signing DeMarre Carroll away from the Hawks. Carroll, as I’ve addressed before, firms up so many of weaknesses that hampered Toronto’s potential last year. He brings spacing to the starting line-up, the size and strength to defend the opponent’s top players and he enhances Toronto’s positional versatility by giving Dwane Casey the option of utilizing Carroll as a small-ball power forward – something the Raptors coach has already said he’s going to do.

The biggest question looming for Toronto is whether or not the new defense-first personnel coupled with the loss of free-throw machine Lou Williams will lead to a significant drop-off for what was the league’s third-most prolific offense per-possession last year. The bench in particular figures to have a hard time scoring. Perhaps this isn’t a team that will be able to coast by on lazy regular season nights with an outstanding offense, and maybe that will lead to a few less wins over an 82-game regular season. However, it seems pretty clear that the new additions make this a much more playoff-suited team. So while 45 or 46 wins might look like a wee step back from two consecutive franchise-best seasons, a better chance at a playoff series win will quickly erase the disappointment.

Stay tuned for the rest of our Way-Too-Early NBA Predictions in the coming weeks. Next up will be the East’s playoff bubble teams. 

About Sean Woodley

Sean graduated from Ottawa's Carleton University with a Journalism Degree in 2014. Since then, he's regularly contributed at SB Nation's Toronto Raptors site, Raptors HQ, while writing and hosting podcasts for Crossover Chronicles. Follow him on Twitter (@WoodleySean), and email him at sean.woodley1@gmail.com if you're interested in exchanging food for written or spoken words.