Expectations can doom a team, and it's not exactly news to point out that rebuilding teams can't be judged by the same metrics as title contenders. Wins and losses are important, but they are not the only way to look at how a team is progressing. The New York Knicks, for example, weren't a disaster last season simply because they won 31 games and missed the playoffs. They were a disaster because they pissed off their future franchise player, their president got in a cold war with their lone All-Star and their owner's beef with a beloved ex-player became an enormous, embarrassing distraction. Oh, and the team had zero on-court chemistry.
It would be crazy to expect a team like that to suddenly vault into title contention, but it is reasonable to hope they can stop getting in their own way all the time. With that in mind, here's how Eastern Conference teams should measure success in the 2017-18 season:
A perfect season would include career years from Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, progression from Jaylen Brown and encouraging signs from Jayson Tatum. There are only four returning players, which is unprecedented for a team as good as the Celtics were last season not entering rebuild mode. As such, they should be expected to be much better at the end of the season than at the beginning, and there should be an understanding that things could be rocky at first. Expectations are high, but this group cannot lose sight of the fact that Boston's front office is building toward 2020 and beyond. Will this be the top seed in the East again? Will it easily establish roles, find cohesion and play with the edge that made the most recent iterations of this team so compelling? Nobody knows just yet. This is about starting something that can be sustainable, so success should be measured not only by what they look like in the postseason, but by how bright the future looks when it is over.
For a franchise as far away from contention as this one, it is all about player and culture development. In that respect, last season was actually a success for the Nets regardless of their record, and they have to take another step in that department even though Brook Lopez is gone and there isn't a clear hierarchy on the roster. The most important on-court subplot is how guards D'Angelo Russell and Jeremy Lin play together, but that dynamic is illustrative of a team-wide issue: There are a bunch of players here who expect to get minutes and touches, and there aren't elite players here to simplify those decisions. Brooklyn needs to remain the fun, unselfish, hard-playing team it was last year while giving its young players the opportunity to grow and refine their games. It would be a bonus if the Nets could reach the 30-win mark, but what's more important is a) increasing players' value to the team or potential trade partners, and b) being seen as a player-friendly, respectable organization that is rebuilding in an intelligent way.
New York Knicks
Wouldn't it be amazing if the Knicks stopped being a joke? The bar is so low now that being a normal, bad team would look awesome. It would be real progress if they made Kristaps Porzingis happy about the future of the franchise, moved on from the Carmelo Anthony era in a way that makes sense for both sides and put rookie Frank Ntilikina in a position to succeed. Part of this is up to coach Jeff Hornacek, who is expected to kill the triangle offense and install something more simple, immediately making New York seem like a more attractive destination to players. Hornacek needs to give Porzingis regular minutes at center, challenge Tim Hardaway Jr. to become a more well-rounded player and empower his players so that they can start having fun again. If that happens, it won't be a big deal if they do horribly in the standings -- another high draft pick is probably what's best for this team in the next few years, anyway.
The playoffs are a realistic goal, and that would be a huge step for the franchise because of what it would mean: Despite the Sixers' reliance on young players, despite the injury risks, despite the fact that they won 28 games last season, they were able to come together and be more than the sum of their parts on a consistent basis. If that happens and they don't make the playoffs, the season should still be seen as a success. This is a franchise that is focused on building a title contender, not a fringe playoff team, so it ultimately doesn't make much of a difference whether or not they win 35 or 47 games. Philadelphia fans want to see Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons coexist in an offense that is anchored by Joel Embiid and is predicated on passing. They're praying that Embiid is able to stay on the court for the majority of the season. The presence of veterans J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson should help everybody else around them, and true Process trusters might tell you they're just as excited about watching Dario Saric, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Richaun Holmes continue to develop as they are about the possibility of a winning season. Postseason team or not, Philadelphia is out to prove that it will be a force for the next decade.
No more bleeding points when the starting lineup is on the floor. No more ugly, disjointed offensive performances in the playoffs. More players shooting 3s, more passing, more development from young players. That's basically it. No one thinks Toronto is suddenly going to win 60 games or make it to the NBA Finals, but there are still real expectations and challenges -- this team must avoid taking a step back and start to distance itself from its familiar issues over the past few seasons. Much of this will be determined by players who, until now, have done most of their work in practice or with Raptors 905. With the departure of Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker, DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph, Toronto is going to have to effectively call up some guys from its farm system. Delon Wright will be the backup point guard, with Fred VanVleet behind him. Pascal Siakam could once again be thrust into the starting lineup. There will be opportunities for Jakob Poeltl, Bruno Caboclo, Lucas Nogueira and newcomers OG Anunoby and K.J. McDaniels. By the end of the season, the Raptors will have a better idea of how many of these guys fit into their plans.
This one is simple: They must get the most they possibly can out of their young players. That doesn't mean just giving Kris Dunn the ball and letting him do whatever he wants; it means approaching each young player -- particularly Dunn, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne -- with a structured developmental program designed to help them work on their weaknesses and thrive in their roles. The Bulls should be extremely patient with LaVine and Payne as they return from a torn ACL and a broken foot, respectively, and they shouldn't worry much about their record. Lastly, they should part ways with Dwyane Wade amicably and let Fred Hoiberg implement the offensive system he wanted to run when he was hired a couple of years ago. Regardless of how badly Chicago might have bungled its teardown, the good news is it has a direction now. The organization should embrace that, and we should evaluate them the same way we would evaluate a team like the Nets.
This is the only proven title contender in the conference and the only team that will be seen as a total failure if it doesn't reach the NBA Finals. The Cavs have to get there, and it would be pleasant if there was less drama along the way this time. Isaiah Thomas' hip injury adds a layer of uncertainty, though, and LeBron James' impending free agency will hang over every discussion about the team from now until next July. On paper, Cleveland is in a better position to challenge the Golden State Warriors with Jae Crowder and a healthy Thomas, but the front office should still consider making changes before the trade deadline if there are opportunities to become more versatile and deep. The stakes are extremely high, to the point where some have argued that the Cavs should trade the unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick they got from the Boston Celtics in order to get immediate help. I wouldn't do that unless I knew James was re-signing, but I understand the logic: Regardless of how great Cleveland is between now and June, having James on the roster means only being judged on what happens on the game's biggest stage.
The Pistons need re-establish themselves as playoff-worthy or chart a new course. Last year's slide was inexcusable even when you consider the wide-ranging impact of Reggie Jackson's preseason knee injury, and now there is a great deal of pressure to get back on the right track with a healthy Jackson and Andre Drummond leading the way. If those two running the pick-and-roll can't be the backbone of an elite offense, and if Drummond doesn't show improvement on defense, then the front office must ship one or both elsewhere. The mediocre record and bad vibes of last season were either aberrational or indicative of something being fundamentally broken -- ideally, it's the former, but the organization also needs to be ready to accept the latter and act accordingly. This team should be judged by whether or not it plays with spirit and conviction; if it doesn't do that in the first month or two, management has to find other players who will.
Myles Turner is supposed to be the franchise centerpiece now, so he needs to take another step toward stardom. Victor Oladipo has to run with the enormous opportunity he has been given. Is Domantas Sabonis a viable, long-term frontcourt partner for Turner? Is Cory Joseph good enough to be a full-time starter at point guard? These questions are important as the Pacers try to figure out exactly what kind of team they're going to be in a post-Paul George world. The front office wouldn't have bothered signing Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison if it wanted to truly bottom out, but don't mistake those moves for declarations that this group must challenge for a playoff spot. Being terrible could be OK as long as the key players here are better in April than they were in October. If they're the kind of team that is unpleasant to face later on in the season, that's a win.
This would be a whole lot simpler if Jabari Parker wasn't recovering from a second ACL tear. If he was healthy, I'd say the single most important thing is giving Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton minutes together in order to see if that triumvirate will work. The Bucks can't control Parker's health, though, so the focus must be on becoming a more consistent defensive team. Perhaps the new schedule means that they'll be better at executing the aggressive scheme that Jason Kidd loves so much. Perhaps it's time to be more conservative in terms of their approach. Either way, it's a little nuts that Milwaukee was 19th in defensive rating last season. Improving that and winning 45-plus games is realistic, and a bigger jump might be possible if Antetokounmpo makes another leap. The Bucks will surely want to have more success against the better teams in the conference and see Thon Maker take on a bigger role. Winning more than two playoff games would be a bonus, but that's more about the matchup than anything else.
The personnel is much worse, but on a team level the Hawks have to try to get back to the style of play that made them so successful in their first three years under coach Mike Budenholzer. Those teams spaced the floor, shared the ball and communicated better than just about anybody. There are no stars here, but Budenholzer's Spursy system doesn't necessarily require stars to tire defenses out. On an individual level, the most significant thing is Dennis Schroder growing into his role, but the evolution of Taurean Prince, DeAndre Bembry and rookie John Collins are important to Atlanta's future, too. If they make strides, then a win total in the 20s or 30s should be seen as perfectly acceptable.
Bounceback seasons for Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams would help and a strong rookie year from Malik Monk would be exciting, but everyone's eyes will be on Dwight Howard for good reason. Charlotte took a calculated risk by acquiring him, and coach Steve Clifford might be the perfect guy to work with him. In the big picture, all that really matters this season is how the Howard experiment works and whether or not the Hornets can make it back into the playoffs after just missing out last year. There are too many veterans on this roster for another lottery appearance to be anything but a bummer. If things go sideways, they'll be seen as irrelevant.
Things feel different now that the Heat can no longer be described as a collection of castoffs trying to prove themselves. Dion Waiters and James Johnson are back on long-term contracts, and the Heat also compensated Kelly Olynyk well this summer. It would be wildly unfair to judge Miami based on its 30-11 record in the second half of last season, but it is fair to expect the team to qualify for the postseason. In order to do so, it will need to play with the same sort of urgency and aggressiveness that it had during that remarkable run, and it will need to figure out how to incorporate Justise Winslow back into the rotation. One good method of evaluating the 2017-18 Heat will be simply whether or not their offseason moves look good when you look back on them.
The roster is still a mishmash, and the new front office has barely even begun to reshape it. I'll consider this season a success if they merely find an eight-or-nine-man rotation that can be relied upon to compete on both ends. Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon have to play a ton of minutes together in order to build chemistry. Elfrid Payton can't be constantly in trade rumors -- either empower him or let him go. Mario Hezonja also needs to be dealt if he isn't going to be given a chance to play. Preseason projections are pessimistic for a reason, but that should give both management and the coaching staff the freedom to experiment (as long as their experiments do not involve playing Gordon at small forward again). Ideally, in a few months there will be more clarity as to where the organization is going and who will be a part of it.
John Wall would probably tell you that anything less than a conference finals berth would represent a failure. There's nothing wrong with him thinking that way, but I have two more reasonable goals for the Wizards: improving their inconsistent defense and becoming less reliant on Wall and the starting lineup. The bench was dreadful last season, and it killed them in the playoffs. Guys like Ian Mahinmi, Kelly Oubre, Tim Frazier, Tomas Satoransky and Jodie Meeks will need to provide solid minutes, and the same is obviously true of Mr. Max Contract, Otto Porter. The versatile forward broke out last season, and he must to build on that rather than stagnating. If Washington becomes a more complete team, then being eliminated in the second round wouldn't necessarily be so bad -- the key is that it must feel like the team is on the cusp of something special instead of just banging its head against a wall.