10. Portland Trailblazers
2017-18 record: 49-33
2017-18 Season outcome: L 4-0 to Pelicans in 1st round of playoffs
Key Losses: Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton
Key Acquisitions: Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas, Gary Trent Jr, Anfernee Simons
Things broke exactly right for the Portland Trailblazers to ascend to the 3rd spot in the Western Conference last season. Teams like the Jazz, Nuggets and Timberwolves left a path for Portland to step into a higher position than was expected. It also helped that the Blazers remained relatively healthy, as only the Oklahoma City Thunder lost fewer games to injury last season. There could be some potential health concerns on the horizons as C.J. McCollum had a PRP injection in his right knee this offseason. The Blazers will have to make up for the loss of Ed Davis, who provided energy, toughness and rebounding , Shabazz Napier who could allow Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum (or both in three guard line ups) to play off the ball while also giving them some scoring punch off the bench. Forward Pat Connaughton, who looked to be coming into his own left for the Milwaukee Bucks. While another 3-seed in the playoffs seems unlikely, if their health holds out, Jusuf Nurkic came recapture some of the form he had when he first arrived in town and Zach Collins takes another step forward, the Blazers can still be a serious playoff contender.
9. Indiana Pacers
2017-18 record: 48-34
2017-18 season outcome: L 4-3 to Cleveland in the first round
Key Acquisitions: Aaron Holiday, Alize Johnson, Tyreke Evans, Kyle O’Quinn, and Doug McDermott
Key Losses; Lance Stephenson and Glenn Robinson III
Though it was not apparent when they acquired him in the Paul George trade, the Pacers have a bonifide star in Victor Oladipo. The Pacers came up short in their playoff series against Cleveland, ultimately losing in 7 games. Domantus Sabonis showed that he was more than a mere throw-in to the George deal, posting a career-best 11.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game In his 74 appearances, including 19 starts. Free agent acquisition Tyreke Evans averaged 19.4 points per game last season with the Grizzlies. This was his highest scoring margin since his rookie season back in 2009-10 when he put up 20.1 ppg with the Sacramento Kings. If Evans can stay healthy and continue the high level of play he has shown as of late, he can provide much needed scoring off the Pacer bench. Other free new additions like Kyle O’Quinn can provide rebounding and toughness and Doug McDermott can bring floor spacing and shooting. If Oladipo can continue the trajectory he is on, then the Pacers can be a real player in the Eastern Conference.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 record: 48-34
2017-18 season outcome: lost 4-1 to Utah in first round of Western Conference Playoffs
Key acquisitions: Dennis Schröder, Devin Hall, Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Hervey, Nerlens Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot
Key Loss: Carmelo Anthony
Last year was a prime example of why you cannot just put big name players together without any forethought of how they will actually fit together. Carmelo Anthony seemed unable or unwilling to fit into his new role of tertiary scorer. Of course playing in the Russell Westbrook system is enough to marginalize almost any player not named Kevin Durant. In short for the Thunder to maximize their potential it doesn’t have as much to do with what their new additions can bring to the table, but more on their dire need to run a real offensive system. This is where Billy Donovan must coach the team and not let his best player to just do as he pleases offensively. Until they do this, they will win a fair amount of games in the regular season but in the playoffs, teams that execute well defensively and play with a high basketball IQ will dispatch them in short order.
7. Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 record: 44-38
2017-18 season outcome: lost 4-2 to Toronto Raptors in 1st round of Eastern Conference Playoffs
Key Acquisitions: Donte DiVincenzo, Ersan Ilyasova, Brook Lopez ,Mike Budenholzer
Key Loss: Jabari Parker:
Since Giannis Antetokounmpo has begun his rise to prominence, the Bucks have been seen as a team on the rise. Coming off a 42-40 season, the expectations were high as the Bucks seen as a team that would take that next step forward. They underwhelmed, only going 23-22 before Jason Kidd was fired. The Bucks finished 44-38 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Bucks brought him former Hawks coach to update the the Bucks antiquated playing style and to help maximize their talent. Giannis and Khris Middleton play very well together but Eric Bledsoe has to prove that trading for him wasn’t a mistake. Brook Lopez can space the floor and score in the post,but don’t look for him to rebound or play defense. If the Bucks’ young players can take a step forward and they play a style that originated in the HD-era, then they can be a player in the East. If not, it will be another underachieving season in Milwaukee.
6. Utah Jazz
2017-18 record: 48-34
2017-18 season outcome: lost 4-1 to Houston Rockets ‘in Western Conference Semifinals
Key Acquisition: Grayson Allen
Key Loss: Jonas Jerebko
Last season the Jazz became the personification of the team you didn’t want to play in a playoff series( except if you are the Houston Rockets). Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert needs to play more than the 56 games he logged last season. The Jazz’s defensive rating has risen each of the past five season and the Stifle Tower (I hear he’s not a fan of the nickname, but it’s too cool it to use) has been prime driver behind that. Donovan Mitchell will have to take a step forward and that will include being more efficient. Will Dante Exum stay healthy enough to spell either Mitchell or Rubio and provide defense off the pine? Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder(as he continues to celebrate no longer being in Cleveland) can provide shooting and decent perimeter defense. Utah has the mix of players, the style and coaching to present plenty of issues for Western Conference teams.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 record: 52-30
2017-18 season outcome: lost 4-1 to Boston Celtics in Eastern Conference semifinals
Key Acquisitions: Zhaire Smith, Landry Shamet, Shake Milton, Wilson Chandler, Mik Muscala and Jonah Bolden
Whatever issues that plagued Markelle Fultz led to an unusual rookie season, which is par for the course for high Sixers draft picks as of late. Videos released and his preseason play show signs of improvement but it doesn’t appear he is out of the basketball woods by any means. Speaking of problematic jump shots, Ben Simmons has to develop one. Footage of his work on this, showed that it still looked somewhat mechanical. Despite this severe limitations, Brett Brown was still able to find ways to put Simmons in positions to be successful but his shortcomings were exploited in the playoffs. TheSixers taking the next step in their evolution will boil down to the health of Joel Embiid (he needs to play at least 70 games) and how far Ben Simmons’ ability to shoot a jump shot has come.
4. Toronto Raptors
2017-18 record: 59-23
2017-18 season outcome: Swept 4-0 by Cleveland Cavaliers in Eastern Conference semifinals
Key Acquisitions:Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Greg Monroe
Despite going 59-23 and being the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors were dispatched in four games by their perennial conqueror, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This latest postseason flameout cost Dwane Casey his job and lead to DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poetl being traded to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.This preseason Kawhi has looked closer to the player that was a top tier player than the guy we saw in limited action last season. Danny Green can provide shooting and defense, two things that teams in the modern NBA are always on the hunt for. Will regular season Kyle Lowry ever make an appearance in the playoffs and how will he play without his running mate now a Spur? With the trade, the team is , at least for one season, swinging for the fences. If things break right, they can find themselves in the finals and possibly with a very good chance of holding on to Leonard. If Leonard does end up walking, then it looks like the Raptors may have started the rebuild a year early and with some cap room to boot.
3. Houston Rockets
2017-18 record: 65-17
2017-18 season outcome: Lost 4-3 to Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
Key Losses: Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute
For Houston, the acquisition of Carmelo Anthony is what got the headlines but it was the losses of forward Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute that should have been the real story. Those two, in Ariza and Mbah a Moute, provided shooting (much improved in the case of Mbah a Moute) and defense that helped the Rockets become a top ten defense in the league and present the defending-champion Warriors many problems in their matchups. Another departure that will adversely affect the Rockets’ defense is the retirement of defensive expert and associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik. James Ennis may be able to fill some of the void left by those two but Carmelo Anthony hasn’t played any defense since 2009 (though I saw him do something in the preseason that looked like a defensive stance). I suspect the Houston will not win 65 games this season but they do still have James Harden and Chris Paul, provided he can stay healthy. PJ Tucker, Eric Gordon and the improving Clint Capela are real difference makers for this ballclub and that still should be enough to be the no.2 team in the West.
2. Boston Celtics
2017-18 record: 55-27
2017-18 season outcome: Lost 4-3 to Cleveland Cavaliers in Eastern Conference Finals
Boston has a problem many teams would love to have -a nearly over abundance of talent. The injuries to Gordon Hayward five minutes into the season and then Kyrie Irving playing only sixty games and being sidelined for the last 22 games and all the playoffs , forced rookie Jayson Tatum, second year forward Jaylen Brown and third year guard Terry Rozier were all thrust into prominent roles on the team and along with Al Horford,had them one game (and really one quarter)away from the NBA Finals. With Irving and Hayward now healthy headed into the season , someone is going to have to fall back a bit. This will be the challenge for Brad Stevens and his staff. If he can get everyone to not only buy into an egalitarian offense but also be willing to sell out for the team, then a NBA Finals fun can be in this team’s immediate future, if egos get in the way, the Celtics will be the latest talent-laden NBA team to fall short of where they could be.
1. Golden State Warriors
2017-18 record: 58-24
2017-18 season outcome: swept Cleveland Cavaliers 4-o in the NBA Finals
Key Losses: Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee
Fan bases and even some players around the league threw a hissy fit when DeMarcus Cousins signed with the defending champs. Though he is still recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon suffered last season, once he gets healthy he will join a starting lineup that could be even more scary than they already are. Cousins won’t be asked to shoulder a heavy burden and if he can buy in, then they present challenges that any team in the league will be very hard pressed to overcome. With the talent and the system Golden State has in place, the only things that can derail this team are injury and boredom.