2020-2021 Eastern Conference Preview - Part Two
For the top 7 teams in the East, take a look at Part 1 of our series HERE. Let's jump into the bottom half of the Eastern Conference and make some picks.
Atlanta Hawks - 36.5 Wins
I really like what this team did in the short term, even if they probably leveraged their future for a team that has a clear ceiling now moving forward. Facing clear pressure from ownership to win and win now, the Hawks were aggressive in free agency, bringing in the likes of Danillo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn, Tony Snell and Solomon Hill. Not to mention. they drafted Onyeka Okongwu at no. 6 in the 2020 NBA Draft, one of my favorite picks of the first round.
How are they going to distribute all the minutes to go around, with all of the new additions joining Trae Young. Clint Capela, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish? I have no flipping idea. But I know this is a deep and talented team that is ready to make a leap. They're going to score buckets on offense, but their defensive intensity and focus is going to determine if this team sneaks into the Eastern Conference playoffs or just misses. I like the over for this team.
Aaron: Slightly Under
I am very optimistic when it comes to the future of this group, but we must be careful to temper expectations somewhat. They finished with one of the worst records last season and even the most improved teams each year can only bump their win total up by 20 at the most. That would put ATL at about 40 wins in a normal season, which is where their over/under total stands adjusted for 72 games, ironically enough. I'll take the slight under on this one, which still puts them at about 39 wins in a full 82 game schedule.
Still, the reasons for a large leap up the standings are clear. Trae Young is becoming an offensive hub in the ilk of Steph Curry, at least when it comes to his shooting gravity. He may not be as accurate from deep, but he makes up for that with absolutely ingenious passing. Cam Reddish and Deandre Hunter showed immense promise in the later part of their rookie campaigns, which suggests there is more talent to unlock. Cam Reddish is already a stout defender with great measurables, and Hunter has fundamentals that would make any coach at any level jump for joy. Clint Capela didn't play a minute for this team last season, but he can only help with his combination of rim protection and finishing ability. His relationship with Young should be one that makes life much easier for both parties.
Aside from internal development, there are some new faces in ATL that were very carefully decided upon. We all know the Hawks could not stop a chicken with a basketball last year, so management circled a few names on the scouting report to address that weakness, such as Rondo/Dunn in Free Agency and Okongwu in the draft. They finished in the bottom five on defense, so they don't really have anywhere to go but up in that department. It's all about how the new pieces fit together that will determine how much they improve.
They will probably be at a distinct advantage to start the season with so many new faces coming in to fill prominent roles in the rotation. It wouldn't be surprising if they come out of the gates slow while players like Gallinari and Bogdanovic figure out where they fit in on offense. Both of those guys will help immensely, but they are used to a high usage rate. It's never easy to surrender the ball and try to find your way while not being directly involved in the action. A stout offense and much improved defense should allow this team to find their way into the playoffs, even if it means a trip to the first official play-in tournament.
Washington Wizards 32.5 Wins
Another team that was aggressive this offseason, acquiring Russell Westbrook for John Wall and a future protected 1st round pick to pair with Bradley Beal. The Wiz are going to have one of the premier backcourts in the East, if not the NBA in Westbrook and Beal. I love the combination- Westbrook will bring the energy every single night of the regular season and take a ton of pressure off of Beal, who had been operating solo for several years now.
The Wizards also add Robin Lopez, re-signed Davis Bertans, and added Deni Avdija and Cassius Winston in the draft to round out their roster. The Washington Wizards are finally going to be a team worth watching, and I think when you have two All-NBA caliber guards on the roster, your floor is pretty high, even if the ceiling for this team is likely a middle of the pack playoff team in the East. I'll take the over, confidently.
One thing is for sure...this team will have no problems scorching the nets for a second straight season. Adding All-NBA talent Russell Westbrook isn't a bad move when you're attempting to maintain offensive firepower. He will have tons of fun attacking an open paint, since the defense will have to respect the floor spacing ability of Thomas Bryant, Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans, and others. His box score numbers will be stout once again and Beal could see a boost in efficiency since he won't have to create EVERYTHING for this team all game long.
I'm interested to see what we see from much forgotten wing Troy Brown Jr. and big man Hachimura. As formidable as the starting lineup is, a reliable bench is still very important, especially this year. Ish Smith is getting older, Robin Lopez is REALLY getting older, Avdija will probably be a typical up and down rookie...you get the picture.
The defense will most likely be a train wreck once again, which gives me pause about this team. They will have to count on outscoring the opponent each matchup, and sometimes, that strategy backfires pretty bad. This team should be better than last year, but how much remains to be seen. The conference is no push over and even though the backcourt is quite impressive on paper, that doesn't mean they will be a seamless pairing.
Orlando Magic 31.5 Wins
I'm fading the Magic in 2020-2021. I think they had a tough end of the season to lose promising young star Johnathon Isaac to injury that will keep him out all of this season. They have a stagnant roster, with MCW, James Ennis, and Gary Clark returning, and added Dwayne Bacon and Jordan Bone to the squad. Nobody moving the needle..
They also lost DJ Augustin and Wes Iwundu to free agency, and their only draft pick was Cole Anthony at no. 15 in the First Round of the NBA Draft. This team feels boring, predictable, and without a lot of upside. I'm taking their under of 31.5 wins.
The Magic have been the epitome of mediocrity for some time, and this season probably won't be any different. Management refuses to tear down and start again, even though they continue to field calls for Aaron Gordon. Fournier, Gordon, and Vucevic are who they are at this point and unfortunately, that's barely enough for a playoff berth, let alone a legitimate chance at a title. They will bring veteran leadership and discipline, but the team has been starved for offensive punch, and that's not what they do best.
Someone who is known for that skill however, is recent draft pick Cole Anthony. He has already shown flashes of go-to scoring ability in the preseason and furthermore, he seems to be an ideal backcourt partner for Markelle Fultz. Those two young players hold all hope for even a decent Magic season. Fultz in particular is on the way back after almost being left for career dead, and that's exciting.
It's a shame the injury bug has hit the team's wing compliment so hard. Al Faruq-Aminu still hasn't fully recovered, Ukeke is only now returning after missing all of last season, and Issac is out for this season. That leaves them woefully short of playmaking at those positions. They just haven't made enough changes to give any hope of better than a 10th or 11th place finish.
Chicago Bulls 30.5 Wins
I think the young Bulls are on the rise, and have reason to be excited in their squad for the first time in a long time. For starters, they added a new Exec. VP of Basketball Operations in Arturas Karnisovas from the Denver Nuggets, who has a strong reputation within the league. They also hired Billy Donovan to replace Jim Boylen, who had a really rough tenure in Chicago. Donovan is coming off an impressive year, guiding the ragtag OKC Thunder to 44 wins, and will be a great presence and teacher of the game to this young Bulls team.
To the player personnel- there are a number of young Bulls that should continue to ascend and improve, including Zach Lavine, Coby White, Wendell Carter, and Lauri Markkanen. The Bulls also drafted Patrick Williams at no. 4, an energetic, athletic, huge wing with incredible defensive potential that will contribute off the bench immediately. This team is on the uptick, and I'll take their over of 30.5 wins.
The Bulls have a ton of talent, that much is certain. This might be the year we actually see some progress from the young core due to the departure of infamous coach, Jim Boylen. Players like Lauri Markannen and Wendell Carter should be deployed in a much more logical manner, allowing them to operate in positions that better suit their strengths. The team offense was stuck in the mud for the past few years, but that should take a turn for the better this season. Coby White in particular looks ready to explode. He finished last season on a tear and already looks hot during the preseason. He could make a run at Most Improved Player, even though 2nd year players aren't exactly favored for that award.
Patrick Williams might have been a surprise at the 4th pick, but he has all the tools to be a franchise cornerstone and give this team even more options at both ends. A playoff spot will still be challenging, because for everything that should be unlocked offensively, they could be more vulnerable on defense. They will miss Kris Dunn's ability to force turnovers and that action helped Chicago finish in the top ten in defensive efficiency. No one in the backcourt will be able to get stops on anywhere near a consistent basis. The big men will go back to guarding P&Rs in a drop coverage, but they will still be vulnerable in space and don't do all that great when switched onto perimeter players.
There are reasons to be excited about this team's future, but there present might not be all that different from their recent past.
Charlotte Hornets 25.5 Wins
This is going to be a really fun, but bad, Charlotte Hornets team. They added Gordon Hayward on a max deal to pry him away from the Boston Celtics, they drafted Lamelo Ball no. 3 overall in the draft, and re-signed Bismack Biyombo as their major additions.
I like the future potential of Ball and Devonte Graham in Charlotte's backcourt, but I think there are going to be some growing pains for Ball at this level. He's going to wow the crowd with his no look passes, but will have some really rough nights on offense and defense playing against this caliber of talent. I think they'll be entertaining but just miss their 25.5 win line.
Aaron: Slight Under
Ball is already developing some offensive chemistry, which is nice to see, but the team is still lacking high end talent. They signed Hayward to begin to address that need, but how healthy will he be? I'd be surprised if he makes it to 60 games played out of 72. As of this writing, he is injured and didn't even make it out of the preseason. The backcourt has the ability to break down defenses at will, but the same will probably happen to them each night out.
The frontcourt is fine, with franchise veterans Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo holding down the fort. Add in the youthful injection of P.J. Washington, and it's a interesting blend of youth and experience there. Charlotte is just stuck in some ways since their draft track record is not all that inspiring and they will never be a free agent destination.
Bottom line is, they should be better than last season, but how much more, remains to be seen. Graham/Rozier/Ball will get sliced on defense and all three will probably go through major ups and downs throughout the campaign. Caleb and Cody Martin should be ready for more opportunities, but if they are the kind of players you're rallying behind to make a run up the eastern standings, you could be in for a rough ride.
Detroit Pistons 23.5 Wins
Without question, this was one of the strangest offseasons, if not the strangest, of any team in the NBA. Detroit's new GM Troy Weaver acquired Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee, Jahlil Okafor, Josh Jackson, Delon Wright, Rodney McGruder, Wayne Ellington, and Dzanan Musa, as well as drafted Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey, and Saben Lee. So basically, a brand new roster.
Out the door? Christian Wood, Langston Galloway, Bruce Brown, Luke Kennard, Tony Snell, Johnson Henson, Brandon Knight, and Thon Maker. This Pistons team is completely different than last year's team, but at the end of the day, are they any better? I have no idea, but in a shortened offseason, I am valuing teams with more continuity. This is the opposite of continuity. We'll see how all the pieces fit, but in the meantime, I'm fading the Pistons until I see how this pans out.
Who knows what Detroit was trying to accomplish this offseason. They went on a frontcourt shopping spree and gave up on some promising players like Christian Wood and Bruce Brown. Clearly, they are in a rebuilding phase, but their recent spending won't allow them to be players in the free agent market next year. Hopefully, they are bad enough to have a decent chance at a pick in the promising '21 draft, because there isn't a whole lot to get excited about besides new starting PG Killian Hayes and Saddiq Bey. Derrick Rose holds far too much value in a trade to be on this roster, so hopefully he's on his way out soon.
Blake Griffin is the X-Factor of all X-Factors that many forget about, since he hasn't been on a basketball court during a regular season game in what seems like forever. In a vacuum, Griffin is good enough to pull this team to the over, but it's unlikely. There just isn't much reason to get excited about his availability right now. He'll probably be on the shelf again before the conclusion of the regular season. That will allow youngsters such as Jeremi Grant and Bey to get solid run, but that probably won't do much to move their win total forward.
In today's league, the wing positions are probably the most important, it looks like Detroit missed that memo. Josh Jackson, Doumbouya, and Snell are some of the names who will headline the Pistons rotation, and that's a big concern. They will probably use a revolving door to try and find a consistent contributor there, and even that strategy may prove fruitless. They overstocked on centers, which should tell you all you need to know about where this team is headed in the short-term.
New York Knicks 22.5 Wins
The Knicks finished last season 21-45 in 66 games, and have made a number of small adjustments to the roster without making the big splash in the free agency market by adding a Fred Van Vleet or a Gordon Hayward, or trading for Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook. Instead, Leon Rose and the Knicks new front office opted for Austin Rivers, Nerlens Noel, Alec Burks, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Omari Spellman, in addition to adding Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley in the first round of the draft.
The Knicks will be bad but will they be 22 wins bad? They will have 6 more games in 2021 to win 2 more games than last year's team did, and I think they'll do that. Give me the Knicks over.
The Knicks certainly aren't light on talent, but the current configuration of the roster doesn't inspire confidence that the pieces will be optimized properly. RJ Barrett will once again be frustrated with the lack of spacing that various lineups will offer him. Obi Toppin is an excellent prospect with loads of long-term potential, but he's stuck behind one of the worst rebuilding assets around in Julius Randle. The two can't play together, so the Knicks will be stuck between benching one of their best future prospects, and benching one of their best players making $20 million this season. Not a great position to be in. They could always trade Randle, but there may not be a long list of teams looking for a player who can't stretch the floor or play defense. Yikes.
I remain very high on Mitchell Robinson. He has all the tools to become the next Rudy Gobert, annually lifting his team to a top ten defense. He just can't stop fouling and I wonder how much of that has to do with the environment he is developing in. The same could be said for Kevin Knox's situation. He showed flashes in his rookie year, but took a solid step backwards once he was overshadowed in the rotation by Bobby Portis, Randle, and Taj Gibson. His confidence is shot and it will be hard to rediscover.
Look up and down the roster, and I can't see how they are any better than last season. They are still in bad shape at the PG position after bringing back Elfrid Payton. It's so bad they may end up starting him, even though he is an absolutely terrible fit with the other presumed starters. Quickly should get some decent run, but that would burry Dennis Smith Jr., who is on his last leagues in the league. Austin Rivers, Alec Burks, and Nerlens Noel are fine value signings, but they would be more impressive for a team that already has momentum and headed to relevance. How many wins can they really add to a team that is searching for an identity? Not sure if even Thibs can work his magic on such a badly constructed roster.
Cleveland Cavaliers 22.5 Wins
Once again, the Cavs will suck. It's going to be a really young roster, with Colin Sexton and Darius Garland in the backcourt, newly drafted Isaac Okoro will start on the wing, and for some veteran presence, replaced Tristan Thompson with Javale McGee on the cheap as their rim protector along with Andrew Drummond.
I think this team is going to be really bad and I am not sold on either of their young guards in the backcourt. I really like Okoro's game and he's already impressing in the pre-season. However, this looks like the worst team in the East to me, and I'm comfortable taking their under.
Unlike New York, Cleveland is making real progress with its young projects. Collin Sexton is already looking like a consistent 20ppg scorer with solid efficiency, Kevin Porter might be one of the steals of the 2019 draft, and Garland may not be the best backcourt mate for Sexton, but he has significant promise as a movement shooter and halfcourt manipulator. Even Dylan Windler, who hasn't logged a second of court time in a real NBA season may become a decent secondary creator and shooter.
Throw in Kevin Love, who is an ideal fit next to newly acquired Andre Drummond and the synergy is much farther along here. Granted, Kevin Love will have a hard time reaching 60+ games played, but his presence alone will amplify the strengths of everyone he plays with. He can still operate at a near All-Star level when at full health. Take a quick trip down memory lane, and you will rediscover a big man who can make pinpoint half court and full court passes, hit threes at a consistent rate, and dominate unsuspecting frontcourt players on the boards.
Oh yeah, props on Cleveland for finding literally just what they needed in the draft. They simultaneously filled their biggest need and grabbed the best player available at number 5 overall. He has question marks when it comes to creating good shots, but there's no denying his ability as a defensive pest. He should at least start Cleveland down the path to becoming an 'ok' defense. There's no denying this is still a deeply flawed team, but slight improvement is on the bubble as recent draftees continue to improve and that's all this franchise can ask for right now.
Projected East Standings
New York Knicks
Eastern Conference Champion: Brooklyn Nets
New York Knicks
Eastern Conference Champion: Milwaukee Bucks