How to measure success for each NBA Eastern Conference team in 2018-19: Bar raised for Celtics, Raptors
The East has a trio of elite teams and many others aiming for a playoff berth. How will things shape up this season?
On Wednesday, we looked at Sacramento Kings. Even if you're a Kings fan, though, there are ways to be invested in the season and signs of progress to monitor. In this conference, there are only a few teams that can realistically compete for a championship in the short term. The rest have to have different aspirations and define them clearly.should measure success in the 2018-19 season. Spoiler alert: The bar is set much higher for the Golden State Warriors than the
Now, the Eastern Conference:
More than any other team in the NBA, Atlanta is playing the long game. Its front office surrendered a chance to draft Luka Doncic in June in order to take two swings in the lottery, and this season will be about letting the young Hawks -- including new coach Lloyd Pierce -- stretch their wings. If Trae Young is in contention for Rookie of the Year and there's some development from John Collins and Taurean Prince, no one will mind another abysmal record. All that management should be looking for is a team that plays a fun, modern style and makes its roster maneuvering look smart.
Title or bust is unfair to any team except one, but anything less than making the Eastern Conference finals would be a failure and not making the Finals would be a disappointment here. Boston boats a truly dizzying array of talent, depth at every position and a coach who is so good at his job that we're all sick of talking about him. Success, then, would mean that that Brad Stevens has managed to imbue this obvious title contender with the spirit of an underdog even though expectations are high and (almost) everyone needs touches. Every team is different, but if this one stays healthy and maintains the character of last year's Celtics, whoa. I mean, you could imagine them at least making the Warriors sweat, right?
The story is still much the same in Brooklyn, but the front office is finally out of draft pick hell -- if the team is terrible, there's actually a reward for it. Where this gets complicated: The Nets might not be so terrible. If Spencer Dinwiddie builds on his breakout season -- he said this week that he saw last year as only a "half step" forward -- and there's some progress from some of their young guys, there is a world in which this team is pretty good offensively. The other end looks like a problem, though, especially if D'Angelo Russell doesn't make significant improvements. Judge Brooklyn on whether or not everybody keeps praising its development program -- keep an eye on Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert and rookie Dzanan Musa -- and whether or not it is seen as an attractive destination for stars next summer.
No longer is there any hope that the Hornets will be a top-tier team in the East. It would be nice, however, if they could be more than the sum of their parts and still look like a functional basketball team when Kemba Walker is on the bench. New coach James Borrego will be tasked with making them compelling to watch, a challenge that is probably easier now that Dwight Howard is elsewhere. Ideally, that addition-by-subtraction trade will allow Nicolas Batum to bounce back, Malik Monk to put an up-and-down rookie season behind him and Miles Bridges to find room to operate right away. If everything comes together, maybe Charlotte will stop looking like a flailing franchise on its way to nowhere. If it doesn't, there will be pressure on Mitch Kupchak's front office to trade Walker and chart a new course.
Will the Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker investments look wise at the end of the season? Can Kris Dunn become a decent shooter? Is there a second-year leap coming from Lauri Markkanen? Can all these guys function cohesively in Fred Hoiberg's system despite the dearth of passers on the roster? Individual player development is important, but there is also a sense that the Bulls need to establish a collective identity. Nobody expects these dudes to be able to guard anybody, and they know it. Let's see if they can surprise people in that regard, or at the very least give League Pass subscribers a product they'd like to consume every once in a while.
I probably don't have to convince you that the best thing for the Cavs is lots and lots of losing for at least the next two years, so they can keep adding high-ceiling talent and avoid surrendering a first-round pick. If that's the plan, then they'll showcase Kevin Love at the beginning of the season, trade him (and their other vets) before it's too late to tank properly and let Collin Sexton, Rodney Hood and Cedi Osman run the show. But, uh, there has been little evidence that this is Cleveland's plan. If it wants to win, then I guess this is all about being competitive enough that fans talk themselves into this group going to the playoffs. For that to happen, coach Tyronn Lue will need to install a system that empowers everybody to stretch his wings in the absence of LeBron James.
The Pistons would like to remind everyone that, a couple of years ago, Blake Griffin was considered one of the league's best players and Reggie Jackson was considered a solid starter. Oh, and of course they'd very much like to play past mid-April. Stan Van Gundy essentially lost his job(s) because of a playoff mandate -- and bad injury luck -- and there's no indication that the goal will be any different for Dwane Casey. If this group can space the floor properly and run a functional offense, there is no reason it can't be decent in this version of the Eastern Conference. Whether there's a realistic path to being better than that is another story.
The Pacers are trying to go from a cool story to an upper-echelon Eastern Conference team. To make that jump, they'll need Victor Oladipo to be a boss again, with more help from his supporting cast. Tyreke Evans should give Indiana an offensive spark, and Myles Turner's offseason seems encouraging. Can Turner and Domantas Sabonis be a viable tandem? Can Doug McDermott shoot the way he did in Dallas? How will the team respond to having actual expectations? We don't know any of this, but the league is definitely taking the Pacers seriously now. Merely qualifying for the playoffs will not satisfy anybody anymore.
The Heat desperately need a burst of excitement, which is part of why the Jimmy Butler rumors won't stop swirling. Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, Bam Adebayo are all young and talented, but can one of these guys "pop" and turn Miami into something more than it has been recently? What it has been has been fine, but there's little reason to look at this group as more than first-round fodder. I love the way the Heat play, and I sincerely hope something happens here to make it seem like the franchise is aiming higher. If that something is indeed a Butler trade, then the question is whether or not their small army of playmakers can quickly learn to share the court with a high-usage star.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is way too good for mediocrity. With Mike Budenholzer in charge, Milwaukee has to get out of this weird middle ground where it never seems as dangerous as it should be. The defense must improve, the chemistry must improve and the style of play must help Antetokounmpo be his best, most overpowering self. I can see Malcolm Brogdon building on his excellent 2016-17 rookie season, Khris Middleton making his first All-Star Game and Brook Lopez absolutely loving Budenholzer's offensive system. I can also see Eric Bledsoe clashing with Budenholzer, depth remaining an issue and the front office making more moves. By the end of the regular season, the Bucks should scare their potential playoff opponents, even the three teams we all think will be in the East's top tier.
New York Knicks
The Knicks aren't close to ready for primetime yet, but they have to show some promise so that they can appeal to free agents. If Kristaps Porzingis returns a more well-rounded player and his body holds up, that's a good start. The big variables here are the other young guys who are supposed to be a part of the core. Everybody's high on Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson after summer league, and new coach David Fizdale has already challenged Frank Ntilikina to be less of a bystander on offense. This is before we even get to the "second draft" guys that this front office keeps signing -- who knows if Mario Hezonja, Noah Vonleh or Emmanuel Mudiay can make an impact the way Trey Burke did last season? I like the idea of trading Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas, but, as long as they're around, maybe they can help provide some structure while Porzingis, Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. get buckets.
Orlando's roster does not exactly command respect around the league, but let's take it seriously for a second. Aaron Gordon is absolutely talented enough to be an All-Star in the East. Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba have UPSIDE written all over their neverending arms. The Magic even employ some competent veterans: Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, D.J. Augustin, Jonathon Simmons and Terrence Ross. There is a universe in which coach Steve Clifford gets these guys to operate like a real team, and they should strive for that. The playoffs seem like a stretch, though, and there's no guarantee this year goes any better than the last six.
The objective: Do not take a step back. Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli are gone, sure, but improvement from Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric -- and the presence of Markelle Fultz -- can counteract that. Philadelphia must shake off a weird offseason, find enough shooting to survive and remain a fast, unselfish, defensive-minded team. When the Sixers are at their best, they will make you think they can get to the Finals, and Brett Brown has already told his players that this is their goal. More conservatively, I'd argue the progression of the core players is still the most important thing, but at least challenging for the conference finals is a reasonable baseline.
They should have the exact same standards as the Celtics: a Finals berth is realistic, and missing the conference finals would feel like a disaster. This is the most talent the Raptors have ever had, and they finally employ a player who could realistically win Most Valuable Player. They could have the best defense in the league, and they will probably be the deepest team in the league (again). Whew, that's a lot of superlatives, which means there will be a ton of pressure on this team. The plan should be to play so well that Kawhi Leonard would look crazy if he leaves.
If things go badly the Wizards will be somewhere between a laughingstock and simply a franchise that lost its way. If they go well, then we'll all be saying, "Oh, right, this team has always been pretty talented." John Wall obviously needs to return to superstar status, but the ceiling of this team depends on Dwight Howard being a force for good and the bench being more productive than it has been in years. These things are possible, but Scott Brooks has a tough job. Should Washington be a mediocre, lower-rung playoff team again, there will likely be calls for his job. (There have already been calls for general manager Ernie Grunfeld's job, but he got a .)
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