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2015-16 NBA preview: Eastern Conference Part 3, the contenders

Andre Iguodala's time at the Golden State Warriors has allowed him to flourish as a player (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Expert
25th October, 2015
5

Today we conclude our NBA season preview by examining the top of the East and making a prediction for the Finals.

The cream of the East this season is slightly more compelling than previous dour incarnations. There’s the perpetually pesky Wizards, the eternally enigmatic Bulls, the tragically competent Hawks and the big splashes in Miami.

And then there’s LeBron James. We start with his old friends on South Beach.

5. Miami Heat
Last season: 37-45, 10th in the East
Key arrivals: Justise Winslow, Gerald Green, Amar’e Stoudemire
Key departures: Shabazz Napier

The Heat are the ultimate ‘good on paper’ team. Miami is loaded with names – Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside makes for a formidable starting unit on a spreadsheet. But look a little closer and the superficiality and glitz of South Beach might be the perfect, unfortunately apt backdrop for this team.

Miami will struggle all season to generate spacing. Wade and Deng are below average shooters, Dragic tops out as average and Whiteside offers nothing in terms of shooting. Bosh is the only above average shooter for his position and he’s still someone who has only averaged one made three per game once in his career.

Deng and Whiteside are perfectly fine without the ball in their hands, content to be glue guys cleaning up the garbage, cutting to the rim and offensive rebounding. The skills of Dragic and Wade largely overlap though, and when they shared the court last season Miami was a disaster.

More concerning is that in the 329 minutes Dragic, Wade, Deng and Whiteside played together, Miami was terrible, getting outscored at a rate worse than the Kings, with their shooting percentages falling off a cliff.

Bosh is the key that can make this all work. His dynamism and gravity can help to compensate for what will be a troublingly cramped floor. But the power of his gravity is greatest when he plays the five, which he can’t do with Whiteside on the floor. Don’t be surprised if you see a lot of Whiteside on the bench and Bosh and Josh McRoberts manning the frontcourt for better spacing and passing.

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The defence will suffer with that switch though, as will the psyche of Whiteside which is a Molotov cocktail ready to explode anyway.

The talent on this team is real and their upside in the East is only eclipsed by Cleveland and (probably) Chicago. But the fit is awkward and they’re putting an uncomfortably heavy reliance on Wade (bound to miss 20 games), Bosh (coming off a life-threatening condition) and Whiteside (potentially a crazy person). Nobody will want to play them in the playoffs but there will be plenty of growing pains on the way there.

Predicted record: 46-36

4. Chicago Bulls
Last season: 50-32, third in the East
Key arrivals: Fred Hoiberg, Bobby Portis
Key departures: Tom Thibodeau

When was the last time the Bulls weren’t the trendy pick to win the East? I think it might have been 2010, back when Corey Maggette was putting up 20 points a game on Golden State (how far the Warriors have come) and Danny Granger was eighth in the league in scoring.

Since then the Bulls have had three seasons derailed by Derrick Rose knee injuries. But perhaps the more pressing point is that in the two seasons Rose was healthy, the Bulls were crushed in the playoffs by LeBron.

Rose is 3-8 in the postseason against James. For all the talk about how the Bulls need to get healthy, what they really need is to just get better. Tom Thibodeau’s antiquated, caveman offence killed Chicago last season and in the 2011 playoffs. The arrival of Fred Hoiberg and a greater commitment to offensive creativity hopefully spells the end of end-of-the-shot-clock Rose and Jimmy Butler fade-aways.

Chicago was actually a better offensive team than defensive team last season. With Rose, Butler and Gasol all well above average offensive contributors at their position when healthy, and the spacing that Mike Dunleavy Jr and Nikola Mirotic offer, the Bulls have the tools to be a top five offence.

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The concerns are mainly on the defensive end, a bizarre thing to say about Chicago considering the past half-decade. It looks like Hoiberg is going to start Mirotic and Gasol which could be a defensive disaster. But Mirotic needs to play to space what is often a cramped floor because of Rose’s awful shooting (28% from three last season). Ideally, this team’s best big man combination is probably Mirotic and Joakim Noah but Noah was a catastrophe last season (although he is supposedly in great shape).

For the fifth consecutive year, the Bulls’ talent is second only to Cleveland’s in the East. There are just too many questions though. Will their offensive improvements under Hoiberg offset the loss of Thibodeau, one of the NBA’s historically great defensive coaches? Can Noah stay healthy? Are we sure Mirotic is actually good? And of course, can Rose stay on the court?

If it all clicks not only can the Bulls beat Cleveland, they can win the title. But we’ve been saying that for five years, and in that time they’ve got one trip to the Conference Finals for their troubles, where they lost in five games.

Predicted record: 49-33

3. Atlanta Hawks
Last season: 60-22, first in the East
Key arrivals: Tiago Splitter
Key departures: DeMarre Carroll

The Hawks were largely covered here.

In a nutshell, this team is so professional, so well coached, and have such pristine systems and spacing that they’re a virtual lock for a top five seed in the East assuming good health. Splitter gives them an added dimension, a semblance of rim protection and rolling to the hoop ability that the lumbering Pero Antic didn’t provide.

But with DeMarre Carroll’s defection it’s hard to see how this team hasn’t become worse. The wing options to replace Carroll are uninspiring to say the least. Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha, Justin Holiday, Tim Hardaway Jr – one of these guys is going to start for the Hawks. That’s a bad thing.

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Al Horford is 29. Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver will turn 31 and 35 during the season. None of these three rely overly on their athleticism but they were each weighed down by nagging injuries in the playoffs and it’s hard to imagine any of them being better than they were last year.

Atlanta missed its shot last season. They’re never going to get a better chance at making the Finals than having home-court advantage against a Cleveland team with a crippled Kyrie Irving and absent Kevin Love. That chance exploded into oblivion with startling rapidity, thanks to a range of factors including their own inadequacies, poor health, the NYPD and a guy named LeBron James (we’ll get to him).

The Hawks will be functionally solid all season. They won’t beat themselves, but not beating oneself only counts for so much against LeBron in the playoffs.

Predicted record: 50-32

2. Washington Wizards
Last season: 46-36, fifth in the East
Key arrivals: Gary Neal, Alan Anderson
Key departures: Paul Pierce, Kevin Seraphin

Two years in a row the Wizards have been two wins from the Eastern Conference finals. That’s significant progress for a team that until recently had been most famous for once having a 40-year-old Michael Jordan on its roster and Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton almost re-enacting the final scene of Reservoir Dogs in Washington’s locker room.

Losing Pierce is a significant blow to the Wizards but there’s still cause to believe they can take the next step and break through to the third round of the playoffs. The now enlightened coach Randy Wittman finally saw Jesus on the road to Damascus, which is to say he saw the upside of small-ball on the road through the 2014-15 NBA playoffs.

Washington is seemingly committed to playing a more fluid offence, playing wings at the four and taking more threes. The problem is that outside of the perpetually injured Bradley Beal, the Wizards don’t have any particularly appealing wings to put alongside Wall. Otto Porter Jr showed something in the playoffs but we have to see it over the course of an 82 game season to believe it’s sustainable. Jared Dudley was a terrific addition for nothing but he’s injury prone and already set to miss time. Alan Anderson is the quintessential 6/10 basketball player and is hurt too.

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The Wizards had the fifth ranked defence in the NBA and even if they play small they should be able to stay around that mark. The offence was a catastrophe though – a 2second ranked deluge of clanked mid-range jump shots. Beal is the key. With their star shooting guard off the floor only the Knicks and Sixers had worse offences than the Wiz, but with him on the court they rose to a respectable 13th in the league.

If Beal can stay healthy and the Wizards make a smooth transition into a more creative offence, this team can reach 50 wins for the first time since 1979. There will likely be some hiccups in implementing the offence though and the wing options, or lack thereof, are worrying. But once they get to the playoffs they’ve proven that they’re not afraid and that their defence holds up.

John Wall is the second best player in the East and with a healthy Dudley by the playoffs and hopefully a fit Beal, the Wizards have as strong a case as any to meet the Cavs in the Eastern Finals… and lose in five games.

Predicted record: 50-32

1. Cleveland Cavaliers
Last season: 53-29, second in the East
Key arrivals: Mo Williams
Key departures: The holograms of Mike Miller and Shawn Marion

The NBA season is going to be a real slog for Cleveland, a team whose season effectively begins in late May. The reality is that the regular season is completely and utterly meaningless for the Cavs. They could finish with the eighth seed and still be the overwhelming favourite to come out of the East. I’m fairly confident they will be able to win more games than Detroit and Indiana to achieve that baseline goal.

We’re about to see 82 games of what will effectively be a chemistry experiment for the Cavs. The regular season for them is all about ironing out the schematic kinks and finding out what line-ups work best and who can be counted on. In effect, the regular season is about finding out how to maximise Kevin Love.

The Cavs’ long list of injuries is a concern. Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert might be out until January, Timofey Mozgov lacks any semblance of conditioning, Love is coming back from a serious injury and James is already getting injections in his back. This team has depth but it’s about to be seriously tested – we’re going to see a lot more Richard Jefferson and Joe Harris than the doctor would dictate is healthy. With all their wounded bodies there’s a good chance that the Cavs don’t get the one seed. There’s a better chance that it doesn’t matter.

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In the context of title contention, the biggest question for this team might be LeBron. He turns 31 in a couple of months, he’s already dealing with injuries, and last season, for the first time, he started to show that he is of this Earth. He’s still the most influential basketball player on the planet though, and his presence alone makes the Cavs a virtual lock for the Finals assuming health. And even without good health they’ll probably make it. This team went 12-2 last season through the Eastern playoffs with Love and Irving ailing for the majority of it.

The Warriors are my title pick. I have them beating the Cavs in seven, a re-match of last season’s epic, hopefully with all the cast members on the set this time. The blessed run with health and luck that the Warriors had last season has undermined exactly how good they were. They’re the rare champion that still has a chip on their shoulder. I have every confidence that they’re about to remove that chip.

To do so though, they will likely have to go through LeBron James again, and this time Batman should have his Robins. And even at 31 and not quite himself anymore, ‘going through LeBron James’ are still the four most daunting words in the NBA.

Predicted Cavs record: 53-29

Predicted Eastern Finals: Cleveland 4-1 over Washington
Predicted Western Finals: Golden State 4-2 over Oklahoma City
Predicted Finals: Golden State 4-3 over Cleveland