January 16, 2019

Kyrie Irving, Celtics

By Shane Young

The most enjoyable part of the NBA offseason is forecasting the standings and awards for the following year.

At BBallBreakdown, we’re taking it a step further.

With just a few days away from the brand new season, we’re projecting the team records, point differentials, and rankings in both offensive and defensive rating.

Since there are 1,230 total games played in the regular season, the win totals for all 30 teams must equal 1,230. Point differentials work the same way. All 15 point differentials added together in the West must cancel out the sum of all 15 point differentials in the East.

I’ve also ranked each team in terms of “League Pass glamour,” which is basically just the watchability of each team this year.

Eastern Conference: 563 Wins

When determining the wins and average point differentials for each team, I reached a total of 563 wins for the East, with a -20.7 differential.

Here’s a look at how the East has performed in the last 15 seasons, with our new projection included:

It’s time to begin our team standings. Each team will have a graphic with their metrics from last season. Under them will be their 2017-18 projected numbers. Enjoy!

1. Boston Celtics:  56-26

Key departures: Isaiah Thomas (PG), Jae Crowder (SF), Avery Bradley (SG), Amir Johnson (PF), Jonas Jerebko (PF), Gerald Green (SF), Kelly Olynyk (PF-C), Tyler Zeller (C)

Key additions: Gordon Hayward (SF), Kyrie Irving (PG), Jayson Tatum (SF), Marcus Morris (PF), Aron Baynes (C), Shane Larkin (PG)

League Pass Ranking: 6th

The most unbelievable part of Boston’s chaotic offseason was that Danny Ainge returned only 7,196 of the team’s 19,755 player minutes from last year. Do you know how rare it is for a team to have just 36.4 percent roster continuity and still be a huge favorite to make the conference finals?

In 2010, the Miami Heat had 45 percent roster continuity with LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and a slew of veterans joining Pat Riley’s big three. Because they were led by two top five players at that time, their expectations were to not only reach the NBA Finals, but cruise to a title. It didn’t work out. The Heat’s chemistry needed a full year to mesh and for everyone to get on the same page.

While Boston doesn’t have the luxury of saying they have James and Dwyane Wade to guide them through this new era, they do have two absurdly talented stars. But, again, they’re both new to the team and Brad Stevens.

Gordon Hayward is the Celtics’ best player. I know Kyrie Irving wants to believe he now has his own team and can soak up all the spotlight he wants. To some degree, maybe that’s true. Hayward is far from LeBron — he doesn’t draw as much public attention, isn’t the same type of celebrity, and doesn’t need the ball in his hands as much as LeBron does. Irving also has more capabilities than Isaiah Thomas, who was able to become a beloved superstar in Boston. With those points in mind, Irving could be the unequivocal face of the Celtics for years to come.

But at the same time, Brad Stevens isn’t going to allow a player to isolate as often as Irving likes. Isaiah Thomas, even with his 28.9 points per game, didn’t isolate very much. Irving was sixth in total isolation possessions last year, 189 more than Thomas. Stevens is going to love Hayward as a player, considering only 7.4 percent of his offensive possessions were isolations. For Kyrie? 21.4 percent.

Stevens will want a lot more player movement than Irving was used to in Cleveland, with more complex offensive sets and not always having Irving on the ball. An adjustment for Irving will be the amount of ball movement Boston usually has in its offense compared to Cleveland. The Celtics ranked second in passes per game last season, while the Cavaliers were 26th. Boston includes Al Horford as a passing big man significantly more than Cleveland did with Kevin Love.

It’s hard to see how Irving gets more than his 19.7 shot attempts per game last year, with Hayward entering his age-27 season and being in the prime of his career, or with the young guys needing shots to facilitate their development.

It will take a couple months for the team to get used to the new acquisitions. When everyone is comfortable and the lineups get enough time together, this team will overwhelm so many others in the depleted East.

With more offensive weapons than just Thomas, the Celtics have the ceiling of third overall in offensive rating. Since I do see Denver having a better offense due to Jokic and more shooters, I slipped Boston down to fourth. The floor here is likely seventh, which would still be higher than last year.

Now, here’s the problem. Defensively, it’s almost impossible to string together a competent group full of new faces, at least right away. They lost their two best perimeter defenders in Bradley and Crowder, and will hope Hayward fills in to mitigate some of the damage. Hayward was impressive in Quin Snyder’s defense, despite the narrative that he can’t defend most players at his position.

As far as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are concerned, young players are typically bad defenders at the NBA level. Like, 90 percent of the time. Brown has a year under his belt and plays with the proper defensive energy, but Stevens has an issue. If he decides to start Brown — which he should — it gives the Celtics a backcourt of Brown and Irving, two guys prone to make a lot of defensive mistakes. That will put a ton of pressure on Hayward and Horford to keep them from getting drenched in the first half of games.

Marcus Smart does look slimmer and improved, so perhaps he makes another step and becomes the best point guard defender in the league. If he’s truly a better shooter, that gives them a major bench contributor, too.

Tatum is the most fascinating player on the roster, because he seems ready to be a huge bench piece right away. And who knows, if Marcus Morris doesn’t pan out or gets injured, Tatum could have his starting role as the four.

Depth is the team’s second biggest problem, but I think it’s a bit overblown. Stevens is smart enough to know how to stagger his stars, so they won’t have many stretches where it’s hard to find scoring from the bench units. Defensively, the bench is clearly in trouble. Horford can’t play the entire game, so Aron Baynes has to remain healthy.

Because of Isaiah Thomas’s heroics and their homecourt advantage, Boston was able to outperform its point differential by five wins last year. They should’ve won around 48 games, but climbed all the way to 53.

A similar accomplishment could be in the Celtics’ future.

Irving will be the team’s closer down the stretch of close games, helping them claw out a few wins in clutch time. They’ll also be vulnerable on West road trips, taking on offenses that can do just as much damage as theirs.

With a point differential of +4.2, they’ll resemble a 51-win team, but find their way to 56 by the brilliant coaching of Stevens and having two shot-creators that most opponents can’t contain.

2. Toronto Raptors:  53-29

Key departures: Patrick Patterson (PF), Cory Joseph (PG), P.J. Tucker (SF)

Key additions: C.J. Miles (SF)

League Pass Ranking: 17th

Toronto has won an average of 51 games in the last four years under Dwane Casey. Running it back with nearly an identical roster — the subtractions of Patterson and Tucker will slightly hurt both sides of the court — isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the East, the Raptors are able to use their familiarity and prolific backcourt scoring to coast into the high forties and low fifties.

Don’t forget, they were 28-13 in the first 41 games last season (a 56-win pace), just one game behind Cleveland and two ahead of Boston. During that first half of the year, they weren’t just beating teams. They were winning by a margin of 8.1 points per 100 possessions, nearly to the level of San Antonio in the West.

In a couple ways — excluding play style — the Raptors feel like the new Spurs of the East. We know exactly what they are going to be, their roster turnover is always low, and they solidify themselves as a top 10 unit in both offensive and defensive rating.

After the All-Star break, things fell apart. Lowry went down with a wrist injury that sidelined him for 21 straight games. It was a stretch that Toronto sorely missed his offensive gravity and penetration, as they plummeted to 14th offensively.

With another year together, Toronto should be able to play closer to the level of their first half play from last year than their second half.

DeMar DeRozan was able to keep their record well above .500 in those games Lowry missed. Despite not taking many threes and being predictable, defenses still have no real answer for him.

That’s the perplexing thing about all the DeRozan hate that generated this summer.

DeRozan may have head-scratching shot selection at times, a lack of strong playmaking ability that we love to praise, and inconsistent defensive effort. All of that can be true, but he still holds value for any team and certainly deserved his money.

He is one of the cases where analytics can drive people a little too far. Claiming that he’s not an important player or conducive to winning basketball is just being dismissive of a rare talent. Guards that average at least 27 points, five rebounds, and three assists per game on 48 percent two-point shooting don’t come around every day.

In fact, only 10 guards in league history have been able to finish a season with those numbers. They are Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Clyde Drexler, George Gervin, Oscar Robertson, Dwyane Wade, Jerry West, Stephen Curry, James Harden, and DeMar DeRozan. Regardless of what you think about DeRozan’s style and offensive approach, that’s some amazing company.

Hopefully for the Raptors’ sake, this will be the year DeRozan is comfortable taking threes. His percentage decreased last season, which knocked Toronto back to a league-average shooting team from deep. Lowry is coming off a career year from beyond the arc, and they just added a deadeye shooter in C.J. Miles. Perimeter shooting is the one key that can elevate them to first in the conference. They ranked 22nd in attempts last year. The only two powerhouse teams in the bottom 10 of the league in outside shots were the Raptors and Spurs.

Lowry is just a year younger than Chris Paul, and you can certainly see how much smarter he’s playing on a year-by-year basis. It’s no secret that once point guards enter their thirties, they naturally limit the mistakes that were present in their athletic prime. By RPM, the only point guards better in 2016-17 were Paul, Curry, and Westbrook.

It’s because of Lowry that we shouldn’t be too worried about Toronto’s bench depth. A few of Casey’s bench lineups included Lowry as the director, allowing him to operate without DeRozan on the floor. The lineup of Lowry-Joseph-Ross-Patterson-Nogueira was actually Toronto’s third-most used lineup, and it outscored opponents by 14.3 points per 100 possessions. Joseph, Ross, and Patterson are gone, but Toronto has enough helpful bodies to throw in there (one being either Miles or Powell) to keep the offense ticking.

If injuries arise, though, they could be in trouble. The backup point guard slot is anemic. Delon Wright didn’t even play 500 minutes last year. Fred VanVleet has even less experience. Losing Joseph to the Pacers couldn’t have felt too good for Casey, but it’s a trade-off they were willing to take in order to make room for Miles, a stretchy wing that can bring them more than DeMarre Carroll was.

I’m sticking to my belief that Serge Ibaka will do more than make up for Patterson’s absence. He only had 23 games to get adjusted to the Raptors before the playoffs started. With a full training camp under Casey and actually practicing with a healthy roster, Ibaka is expected to have a much larger impact. He just turned 28 (at least we think), shot 39.8 percent from three after joining the Raptors, and helped them climb to fourth in Defensive Rating after the All-Star break. He needs to have a resurgence for Toronto to be taken seriously this year.

This 53-win projection is working under the assumption that both Lowry and DeRozan play at least 70 games.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers:  50-32

Key departures: Kyrie Irving (PG), Deron Williams (PG), Derrick Williams (PF)

Key additions: Jae Crowder (SF), Isaiah Thomas (PG), Derrick Rose (PG), Dwyane Wade (SG), Jeff Green (SF)

League Pass Ranking: 10th

The Cavs followed up their best season in the new LeBron James era (2015-16) with an unimpressive regular season that resulted in 51 wins and a weak +3.2 point differential. That was with Kyrie Irving having one of the most efficient seasons in NBA history:

Isaiah Thomas, who was swapped for Irving, had one of the best regular seasons in Boston Celtics’ history. But, here’s the problem:

  • Thomas is out until at least January, rehabbing his hip injury. The halfway point of the season is Jan. 11, when the Cavs will play their 41st game. If he misses half the season, that’s a lot of minutes with Derrick Rose at point guard — something that will hinder the team and put more responsibility on LeBron and Kevin Love.
  • Both in a vacuum and as a fit for Cleveland, I believe Irving is a much better player than Thomas. There’s a large enough gap between them that convinces me Cleveland’s ceiling got lower by trading Irving. Even when Thomas is healthy, it’ll be hard for him to replicate the type of NBA Finals performances Irving had in his back pocket. The Cavs would string together quick runs against Golden State with Kyrie’s otherworldly finishes near the basket — along with his spectacular shooting in contested situations — that Thomas can’t quite give them.
  • Defensively, although Irving is nothing to fall in love with, Thomas is still a downgrade. After January, having Thomas and Dwyane Wade on the floor together will be everything an opposing backcourt dreams about. The entire backcourt outside of J.R. Smith is either suspect or terrible defensively, which will probably keep their points-allowed-per-possession rank in the twenties.

The average age of Cleveland’s main rotation players is 31.3 years, the oldest in the league. Wade may look fresh and dangerous in the preseason, but it’s an extremely long season to grind through. J.R. Smith should be starting, but it’s unclear which direction Tyronn Lue is going with the lineups. If Wade begins the year as the starting two, I expect it won’t last too long. The lack of spacing would be ugly, and Rose has reached the point where he won’t shoot many triples — he only attempted 60 last year, making just 21.7 percent of them.

Cleveland’s best move of the offseason was yanking Jae Crowder away from Boston in the point guard trade. In about a year, Crowder is going to be the second-most valuable piece of that deal. Irving was obviously the centerpiece, but Crowder is 27 years old and under contract for three more years at an average salary of $7.3 million. To be paid less than $10 million a year and rank 20th in real plus-minus across the league is mind-blowing.

Crowder is a versatile defender, selfless contributor, and spot-up shooting option that connected on 40 percent of his 394 three-pointers in Boston. Last year, 76.4 percent of Crowder’s three-point attempts were at least four feet open. Playing with LeBron, an animal that forces defenses to do things they normally wouldn’t do, he could see that number rise to 85 percent. Crowder is the one positive for Cleveland’s title run in (what could be) LeBron’s final year with the team.

The Cavs’ point differential will suffer again this year, with the offense slipping a few spots due to Thomas’s injury and some West teams reloading their offensive arsenal. In projected Defensive Rating, the only seven teams below them are the Knicks, Nets, Bulls, Hawks, Lakers, Kings, and Suns.

We have enough evidence to suggest LeBron and company couldn’t care less about the regular season. Last year, they had the same record as Utah, the West’s fifth seed. They know they can get by with mediocre play in the East because nobody is going to challenge LeBron when it’s time to win a playoff series. That’s ultimately the problem they run into during the Finals, when they’re clearly outmatched.

In the regular season, Boston and Toronto will have better records. The Celtics are a bit more balanced with the addition of Hayward, who nobody is really talking about now that Irving is there. Toronto has the most continuity of any top-tier East team, which is the key to winning games in the dog days of the season.

The Cavs could struggle in the first half of the season, but that should not be a cause for concern since we see it every year. They’re still reaching the Finals unless Thomas is sidelined during the playoffs.

4. Washington Wizards:  50-32

Key departures: Bojan Bogdanovic (SF), Brandon Jennings (PG), Trey Burke (PG)

Key additions: Jodie Meeks (SG), Tim Frazier (PG) Mike Scott (SF-PF), Donald Sloan (PG)

League Pass Ranking: 15th

Washington continued to be so damn bizarre last year. But, it was predictably bizarre.

Scott Brooks took over the coaching duties and was stuck with one of the worst benches in the league. If this were a game of NBA 2K and we could turn off fatigue for all teams, the Wizards would have a top seed. That’s because the unit of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat would never leave the floor.

The Wizards’ starting lineup is a golden treasure, beating teams by a wide enough margin that just a decent bench unit should be able to weather any storm. Seriously, look at how much Washington relied on its starting five:


via NBA.com

It recorded 467 more minutes than the next most-used lineup, which is absurd by itself. Wall and Beal have to play huge minutes in games they shouldn’t have to, because the Wizards would struggle with the weakest of opponents if they kept their bench in the game too long.

Outside of the Warriors and Clippers, it was Washington with the highest Net Rating (+8.1) out of all the top lineups.

That carried over into the playoffs, too, as the Wizards should’ve knocked off Boston in the second round:

The defensive ability of Washington’s starting unit was impressive. They outscored the Hawks and Celtics by 18 points per 100 possessions in those 250 playoff minutes … only for the bench to screw it up.

In the regular season, the Wizards had the eighth-worst bench by Net Rating. In their 13 playoff games, the bench ranked 28th (!) and they still came within one quarter of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.

That tells you a couple things. First, John Wall is still a tad underrated and he’s an absolute beast. Per Paul Ables of NBA Stats Lab, Wall could become one of the only point guards in league history to average double-digit assists for four straight seasons. Jason Kidd never did it. Chris Paul has never done it.

Behind LeBron James, the best player in the East last year was Wall. Projecting ahead, only LeBron and Giannis Antetokounmpo are better East talents. Beal was one of five shooting guards to shoot at least 50 percent from two and 40 percent from three last season.

So, why are they projected to only improve by one win and a marginal boost in point differential?

Well, due to $96 million committed to Wall, Beal, Porter, Gortat, and Ian Mahinmi (ouch), General Manager Ernie Grunfeld didn’t have much flexibility to upgrade the bench.

They did the best job possible, bringing in Tim Frazier and Jodie Meeks.

With the Pelicans last year, Frazier averaged 11 points and 7.9 assists per 36 minutes. He was thrown into the fire as the starting point guard for 35 games, but only shot 31.3 percent from deep. Meeks spent his eighth season in dysfunctional Orlando, but now gets to be a member of a playoff team. He provides another 40 percent three-point marksman that can also create his own offense off-the-dribble. It wasn’t too long ago that we saw Meeks averaging 15.7 points per game for Mike D’Antoni’s Lakers.

Still, collectively, the bench isn’t much better. I expect the Wizards to (once again) be in the bottom 10 of bench production. The positive here is that Wall may be able to enter top four or five in MVP conversations. The negative, however, is that it puts a lot of strain and responsibility on him and the starters.

If there are any injuries to the five best players on the team, the path to 50 wins becomes difficult to see. I have them 12th offensively due to the rise of Oklahoma City and Milwaukee, who should take two top 10 slots. But on defense, Washington should be better with a second year of defensive-minded Brooks leading the way. Plus, continuity leads to better defensive chemistry on rotations and awareness.

5. Milwaukee Bucks:  48-34

Key departures: Michael Beasley (PF)

Key additions: Gerald Green (SG), Brandon Rush (SG), D.J. Wilson (PF)

League Pass Ranking: 8th

You know, 48 wins could even be lowballing Milwaukee for one major reason. The Bucks are returning 18,329 of their player minutes from last season, giving them a 92.6 percent roster continuity.

On top of that, they managed to win 42 games last year with Khris Middleton — their second-best player — playing 889 minutes. That was the 11th-highest total on the roster. Middleton didn’t play his first game until Feb. 8 after nursing a hamstring injury. Once he returned, they went 19-10 with a +5.7 Net Rating when he was on the floor.

The Bucks are another one of those teams that just can’t shake the injury bug. Middleton’s return was a blessing, especially since Jabari Parker, the team’s second-leading scorer, went down with yet another ACL tear. With the team doctors targeting a February 2018 return for Parker, the Bucks will play approximately 65 percent of their season without one of their best penetrators and a quality shooter.

Luckily for Jason Kidd, his rotation depth is one of the best in the East.

Tony Snell had an amazing year as a defensive wing that could burn opponents with his outside shooting. After starting his career in a sour way in Chicago, he’s found a home in Milwaukee. Snell shot 54.8 percent from two and 40.6 percent from three last season, giving him a wicked high 60.3 true shooting percentage.

Thon Maker is going to scare defenders away from the rim now that he’ll be given a lot more minutes. He hit 37.8 percent of his 74 three-point attempts last year, too. He’s one of the many freaks of nature on the roster, being able to defend and switch a lot of pick-and-rolls, while also creating a five-out offense in many of Kidd’s lineups.

Mirza Teletovic is back, firing up shots every time he touches the ball. He brings a lot of the gravity necessary for Milwaukee to get inside and feast in the paint. People forget, on top of having a top 10 three-point shooting team, the Bucks also ranked fifth in two-point field goal percentage (51.8). They are growing to fit the modern NBA style to a tee.

Wait, did I forget an important piece?

Oh god.

It couldn’t be …

Yes, the 2018 MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo is about to terrorize planet Earth. He took gargantuan leaps in PER (26.1), Box Plus-Minus (+7.6), Win Shares (12.4), and pretty much every meaningful metric in the world last year.

The most breathtaking part is that Antetokounmpo ranked 18th in assists out of all players, and dished 6.89 assists per passing turnover. It was second to only Chris Paul. For a 6’11” freak to be doing something like this … it’s precisely why they’re a must-watch team for any fan out there.

In reality, Antetokounmpo and Middleton could fight their way to 48 wins very easily. I just didn’t feel comfortable knocking them into 50-win territory yet. They have enough to crawl up to the second seed in a best-case scenario, or fall to the seventh spot in an injury-riddled worst-case scenario. They probably have the widest window in the East.

This projection puts them at the third-highest point differential in the conference, behind only Boston and Toronto. They barely miss the prestigious ranking of top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating, but the leap defensively will be a huge victory for Milwaukee.

6. Miami Heat:  44-38

Key departures: Luke Babbitt (PF), Willie Reed (C)

Key additions: Bam Adebayo (PF), Jordan Mickey (PF)

League Pass Ranking: 19th

You couldn’t write a movie script better than Miami’s 2016-17 turnaround. After the Heat stumbled to 11-30 to begin the season, Erik Spoelstra took control of the ship and guided it back to shore:

They had the second-highest Net Rating in the second half of the season, behind only the Warriors’ +12.1.

It was unprecedented throughout NBA history, which leaves us with an unprecedented question. Is the 2018 Heat indicative of the 11-30 Heat, or the 30-11 Heat?

General law-of-average principles would state it’s somewhere in the middle, which is pretty much where this 44-win projection stems from. A potentially huge blow to Miami’s rotation struck Spoelstra this week, as Rodney McGruder went down with a stress fracture in his left leg. He is expected to miss three-to-six months, which is a wide range of possibilities. If it’s the latter, he’ll miss the entire season. If it’s only three months, Miami can have him back at January’s halfway point. Leg fractures are nothing to mess around with, though, so it would be shocking to see him back before the All-Star break.

McGruder split time at shooting guard and small forward last season. While they do have enough versatile guards to fill in, he did play the fifth-most minutes for Miami.

On the bright side, Josh Richardson is completely healthy coming into this year. He missed 29 games, including a lot during their mid-season turnaround, last season. He’ll need to rediscover his shooting touch for Miami to break into the top 10 of perimeter shooting teams. They ranked 12th, with Richardson hitting a sophomore slump by reducing his three-point shooting from 46.1 percent as a rookie to 33 percent last year.

There are two reasons to be optimistic about Miami’s return to the playoffs. Surprisingly, neither of them are Dion Waiters. While Waiters had a super impressive second half of the season, we do have a large enough sample size to suggest that explosion was an outlier year. Waiters was just paid $52 million guaranteed, but is only a 41.3 percent shooter from the field throughout his career. We should pump the brakes before believing he’ll replicate last year’s production, and Miami fans should hope he doesn’t feel the need to take 15-plus shots per game.

The first real reason is Goran Dragic, the Heat’s best player. Dragic was one of those few guards that shot at least 50 percent from two (49.9) and 40 percent from three (40.5). He was asked to take a larger offensive role than ever before, increasing his usage rating to 27.1 percent and remaining efficient. Dragic is 31, not too old to lead a team at point guard and help Hassan Whiteside become an even better pick-and-roll player.

The second reason is their defensive intensity and discipline. The average Defensive Rating ranking for Spoelstra-coached teams is ninth. He only dipped into the twenties once, when Miami lost LeBron James and had very little roster continuity. This year, if you include McGruder, they’re returning 85.6 percent of their player minutes from last season. Not including McGruder, their continuity is still at 75.7 percent — one of the highest in the league.

One unknown is Justice Winslow and exactly what type of player he can turn into. He is still not a spot-up shooter like Miami would need him to be, even in the corner. In his 18 games last season, Winslow shot 8-of-30 (20 percent) off catch-and-shoot triples.

If Winslow doesn’t have the touch to become a shooter, they’ll need to put the ball in his hands in order to groom him as a playmaker or shot creator. But the problem is, the Heat just have too many players that Spoelstra feels comfortable with running the offense:

Winslow is still one of the best defenders on the roster, and his healthy presence will help them climb to fourth overall on that end.

It’s too hard for me, someone that respects Spoelstra more than almost any coach, to think he won’t be able to take a three-win jump from the 41-41 season. When you return all of your key players, it comes down to coaching and player development. Very few organization are better at those concepts than Miami.

7. Charlotte Hornets:  43-39

Key departures: Marco Belinelli (SG)

Key additions: Malik Monk (SG), Dwight Howard (C), Michael Carter-Williams (PG)

League Pass Ranking: 21st

Steve Clifford dodged a bullet with Nic Batum’s left elbow not requiring surgery. He tore a ligament in his non-shooting elbow on Oct. 5, and his timetable is reportedly six-to-eight weeks.

Batum wasn’t exactly great for Charlotte last season, but he’s still an integral part of their offense. He’s an invaluable passer that ranked in the top 20 of total assists, pulls defenders from the paint because they respect his shot, and gives Charlotte a second shot-creator to take attention away from Kemba Walker.

There is also a downside to Batum, at least from last season. Out of all 63 players to record at least 250 pick-and-roll possessions as the ball-handler, Batum ranked last (63rd) in points per possession. He scored 0.61 points per possession, the same efficiency level as Rajon Rondo. That’s not a place you want to find yourself in terms of scoring. Batum shot 79-of-232 (34.1 percent) off the pick-and-roll, even worse than Rondo or Brandon Jennings.

What makes that troublesome is how much Charlotte’s offense is predicated on screen-roll action. The Hornets ran 1,992 pick-and-rolls for their ball-handlers last season, the third-most in the league. Only Toronto and Phoenix used it more.

Luckily they have Walker, who is just simply a wizard when coming off a hard screen. No other player ran more pick-and-rolls per game than Walker’s 12.2, and it helped him have a career year. You don’t see many players improve to this degree over a six-year span. Walker entered the league as a point guard that couldn’t even shoot 40 percent from the field. Now, he’s shooting 40 percent from three, carving up defenses with a very low turnover percentage, and making Charlotte a two-way monster when he’s on the floor.

The Hornets had an Offensive Rating of 109 during Walker’s 2,739 minutes, a much higher efficiency than their season average. That’s because in the 1,227 minutes he was on the bench, their offense dwindled to 100.7 points per 100 possessions. It just goes to show how much of a point guard’s game this league has become.

Dwight Howard’s fifth career stop is with the Hornets, after the Hawks couldn’t wait to get rid of him. The move for Charlotte to get the 31-year-old center garnered applause, but there are a few concerns.

  • At some point, you have to wonder what type of offense is going to make Howard happy. He’s now been with Stan Van Gundy, Mike D’Antoni, Kevin McHale, J.B. Bickerstaff, and Mike Budenholzer. There comes a time when you might have to just look in the mirror.
  • Most of Howard’s complaints have been centered around “post touches.” He always wants more of them, no matter where he goes. It’s wild — Howard had eight post touches per game last season, more than any other player. First of all, this is 2017. Inside-out basketball is nice, but I doubt Clifford wants to make the offense slower than it already is. Second of all, you have to be incredibly efficient in the post to warrant more touches. Even then, defenses will likely foul you more often, resulting in empty possessions because Howard isn’t a quality foul shooter.
  • Cody Zeller is just a more helpful player right now.

The Hornets were a playoff team by a significant margin last season when Zeller played. With him on the floor, Charlotte had a +5.4 Net Rating, a higher figure than anyone in the rotation. When he was injured, their defense tumbled from a top five or six level down to 14th.

Zeller getting sidelined in late January derailed the team. In the 62 games he played, the Hornets were 33-29, on their way to finishing ahead of Chicago and Miami. In the 20 games he missed, Charlotte was 3-17. That’s really, really hard to stomach.

They would have been better off not trading for Howard and letting Zeller have another season as the starter. Now with Clifford starting Howard, the tug-of-war for minutes could cause some friction.

Outside of Walker and Batum, the only guards Clifford can turn to are Michael Carter-Williams (double ouch), Jeremy Lamb, and rookie Malik Monk. This was the best possible spot for Monk to land, since he’ll have immediate opportunities and the ability to pick up some playmaking skills in a pick-and-roll offense.

The jump from 14th to fifth offensively seems huge, but it’s just a progression back to the mean. Kidd-Gilchrist is still a hound, Howard alters enough shots in the paint, and Zeller is a top-notch backup for bench defense. There are two things you can always write down with a sharpie when it comes to Clifford’s teams:  They are always a top 10 defense when healthy, and they will always lead the league in lowest turnover percentage.

The Hornets won’t beat themselves. They had the point-differential of a 42-win team last year, but lost in a ton of close games. Walker is only getting better, which indicates a return to the playoffs is near.

8. Philadelphia 76ers:  37-45

Key departures: Gerald Henderson (SG), Sergio Rodriquez (PG)

Key additions: Ben Simmons (PG-SF), Markelle Fultz (PG), J.J. Redick (SG), Amir Johnson (PF), Justin Anderson (SG)

League Pass Ranking: 2nd

Joel Embiid is hilarious.

Not just the stuff he says during interviews or the Draymond-style talking on the court. But just the fact that we haven’t seen him play in almost NINE months, and he returns in the preseason with 22 points, seven rebounds, and three assists … in only 15 minutes.

Defenders literally have no idea what to do with him, so they just foul him to prevent an easy bucket. He got to the line 18 times in those 15 minutes of preseason action, something that’s never been done in NBA regular season history.

At just 23 years old, Embiid will be right there with Giannis Antetokounmpo and John Wall as the best players in the Eastern Conference once LeBron says goodbye.

That is, if he can stay on the floor and out of the doctor’s office. Boy, is that the biggest “if” in sports today, especially after he agreed to a five-year deal that could potentially be worth $148 million.

For this season, though, the 76ers are finally taking the leap out of the “Trust the Process” doldrums of the East and into the playoff hunt. Over the last three years, Philly has the worst combined record (56-190) in the league. Asking them to win 37 in ONE season may be like praying for a miracle. Embiid has already acknowledged that he’s not playing a full season. The 76ers’ training staff will likely hold him out of quite a few, even if he’s fully healthy. They’re cautious and you can’t blame them.

That’s why it was nonsensical for Vegas to put Philly’s over-under line at 40.5 wins. You couldn’t hammer that under hard enough.

Nevertheless, the binary question of “playoffs or not” certainly hinges on how many games Embiid can play. In his 31 games last season, the 76ers were 13-18 (.419). Stretched over an 82-game season, that winning percentage translates to 35 wins.

But the most important part was the 76ers Net Rating with Embiid on the floor. In his 786 minutes, Philly outscored opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions. He was the only player on the roster that received over 500 minutes and generated a positive net rating. That’s a more than respectable number.

The reasoning for giving Philly a two-spot improvement in Defensive Rating is that Embiid is one of the premier rim protectors and mobile big man defenders in the league. When he played, they held opponents to 99.1 points per 100 possessions, which would’ve ranked first in the NBA as a team.

Additionally, Robert Covington is entering the status of most underrated player. He’s a true 3-and-D player that led the league in deflections per game.

Having two rookies — Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz — in the starting lineup definitely hinders the defense, in theory. Rookies take a long time to figure out the proper defensive rotations and responsibilities necessary to contain experienced players. However, it was just a couple years ago that another extremely young 76ers squad finished 13th overall defensively. It’s hard to do, but not impossible.

J.J. Redick was the perfect installment for this team as they enter their learning curve. He’s intelligent, fully aware of how much patience is required with younger guys (he spent his first couple seasons trying to crack the rotation in Orlando) and is a top floor-spacer.

Over the last three years, Redick has shot 44.6 percent from three. His gravity is something Simmons and Fultz are going to be thankful for early on, since it gives them more room to operate than most rookies have. Simmons is my pick for Rookie of the Year, due to the raw numbers he’ll be able to accumulate as the team’s 6’10” point guard.

What could set them back is the inconsistent lineups they’ll have to deal with if/when Embiid misses time. But, Brett Brown is wise enough to figure things out.

Even though they’re young, I just trust this team to create victories with their athleticism, playmaking, and fast-paced offense. I’d put more faith into Philly making the playoffs than Detroit. They’ll be a lot more watchable, too.

9. Detroit Pistons:  35-47

Key departures: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (SG), Marcus Morris (PF), Aron Baynes (C)

Key additions: Avery Bradley (SG), Langston Galloway (G), Anthony Tolliver (PF), Luke Kennard (SG)

League Pass Ranking: 27th

I couldn’t be less interested about a team. Detroit sorely disappointed last year, after winning 44 games and competing in a fun four-game series versus Cleveland in 2016. Their offense was borderline unwatchable, ranking dead last in true shooting percentage (52.1 percent), 26th in three-pointers attempted, and 25th in offensive rating.

Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond were both debacles defensively, with the team just appearing to give up on Stan Van Gundy. Jackson caused a bit of drama last year after his return from injury, and Stanley Johnson just never took off like most anticipated. Johnson was horrific shooting the ball, hitting just 39.8 percent of his two-pointers and 29.2 percent of his threes.

It really was a miracle for Detroit to finish right outside the top 10 in defensive rating, since Drummond never really figured out the timing it takes to be a positive defender at the center spot. When you become enamored by blocking shots and grabbing every rebound in sight, your awareness as a rim-protector actually diminishes. Drummond would routinely be out of position due to the timing of his jumps, or leaving his feet in attempt of a block instead of just embracing verticality and altering shots.

Drummond was atrocious in the one area he should’ve excelled in. Last year, 69 players defended at least 300 field goals at the rim. Out of all 69, Drummond ranked 60th in defensive field goal percentage — opponents shot 55.5 percent against him at the rim. For comparison, Hassan Whiteside allowed 47.5 percent (10th), LaMarcus Aldridge allowed 44 percent (3rd), and Rudy Gobert allowed 43.8 percent (1st). There is no way Drummond should be one of the worst rim-protectors of all big men, but that was definitely the case.

Should we even discuss Drummond’s free throw shooting? Van Gundy is going to raise hell if Drummond doesn’t at least improve to 45 percent from the line this year. He’s a career 38.1 percent free throw shooter. It completely wrecks them in clutch time when the game is close. It’s hard to keep Drummond out there, but also hard to take him out because of his valuable rebounding. Detroit had the seventh-worst clutch time Net Rating last year (-12.1), despite being pretty good in the fourth quarter overall. The Hack-a-Drummond haunts them, as well as Jackson’s out-of-control play.

The addition of Avery Bradley should help them in close situations since he thrived as a weapon in Boston, but I’m not sold on him improving the team much more than Caldwell-Pope was able to contribute. He’ll quickly become Van Gundy’s favorite player, though, if he’s able to stay away from injuries. He’s dealt with a few nagging issues in the last couple years. Bradley certainly gives Detroit more shooting, being a 37.3 percent perimeter shooter on 5.2 attempts per game in his last two seasons with Boston.

All you really need to know is that Detroit’s leader in win shares last year was Tobias Harris, at 6.8. Harris is decent, but that was an ugly season for the Pistons. Even with positive scoring threats (Bradley, Galloway, Kennard) added to the mix, I don’t believe much will change.

Due to Philadelphia’s faster and more versatile offense — if Embiid plays 50-plus games — they should win more than Detroit this season.

10. Orlando Magic:  29-53

Key departures:  Jeff Green (SF), Jodie Meeks (SG), C.J. Watson (PG)

Key additions:  Jonathon Simmons (SF), Jonathan Isaac (F), Arron Afflalo (SG), Shelvin Mack (PG), Marreese Speights (PF)

League Pass Ranking: 25th

This is Frank Vogel’s second season with Orlando, after a predictably disastrous 2016-17 campaign. When management signed Bismack Biyombo last offseason to pair with Serge Ibaka and Nikola Vucevic, it was evident they were going to be one of the most poorly-spaced offenses we’ve seen in a while. They took a league-average dosage of three-point shots (26.1 per game), but was nearly tied for dead last in percentage (32.8 percent). It was a lot of misses.

Orlando wins the award for least-discussed team heading into this year, perhaps because everyone knows what to expect. The only team with a worse Net Rating last season was the Los Angeles Lakers, a unit full of young guns that played atrocious defense. Somehow, the Magic had a worse Net Rating that Brooklyn, despite having nine more wins. Vogel actually had a 24-win team by pythagorean wins, if you consider their -6.6 point differential. They outperformed their expected total by five games, which can be attributed to Vogel’s coaching.

After covering three of Vogel’s seasons in Indiana, I realize how much he can help a defense. They should improve in that area with more time to practice his schemes. We still have no idea what Aaron Gordon is as a player, or where Vogel will have him on the court. Last year, Gordon spent 63 percent of his minutes at small forward.

That’s not ideal in the modern NBA, as most would agree Gordon is a four. The spacing is still compact, even with Gordon increasing his three-point attempt rate from .245 to .309 — he took over 100 more last year than he did in 2015-16. Still, opponents don’t fully respect his range. Over 86 percent of his three-point tries were either “open” or “wide open,” indicating defenders aren’t chasing him out there and instead following the ball-handler on pick-and-pops. Even worse, Gordon shot 29 percent on those 231 “open” attempts.

Orlando’s new general manager, John Hammond, inked former Spurs’ small forward Jonathon Simmons to a three-year, $20 million deal this summer. He also snagged 31-year-old Arron Afflalo to a cheap one-year deal, giving them decent backcourt and wing depth. Evan Fournier will likely still lead the team in scoring, but they still have to factor in the rookie, Jonathan Issac, and his need for touches. He just turned 20, but his length (6’10”) and athleticism can’t go to waste on this mismatched roster.

This upcoming season for the Magic should be about three things:  Figuring out an identity (similar to how Vogel did in Indiana), determining if Elfrid Payton is part of future plans before he hits restricted free agency in 2018, and letting Isaac display his skills. Orlando has swung and missed on a few young guys to this point — including Mario Hezonja — so it has to be time for their luck to change.

They’re going to lose a bunch of ugly games, but have a solid mix of youth and veteran talent that could take advantage of other poor East teams. An identical record — with an improving defense — will get them three spots closer to the playoffs.

11. Indiana Pacers:  27-55

Key departures: Paul George (SF), Jeff Teague (PG), C.J. Miles (SF), Monta Ellis (SG), Aaron Brooks (PG), Lavoy Allen (PF)

Key additions: Victor Oladipo (SG), Darren Collison (PG), Cory Joseph (PG), Bojan Bogdanovic (SF), Domantas Sabonis (PF), T.J. Leaf (PF)

League Pass Ranking: 28th

The awful return package for someone of Paul George’s stature doesn’t need to be rehashed. Victor Oladipo was mediocre last year in Oklahoma City, but now gets a chance to increase his usage in the barren Eastern Conference.

Oladipo’s PER (13.6) dipped to the same level as his rookie season, but it’s difficult to gauge how a player will perform after they just spent an entire year watching the Russell Westbrook show. During his final season in Orlando, only 25.3 percent of Oladipo’s field goals came off catch-and-shoot opportunities. In OKC, that increased to over 35 percent, which also helped improve his three-point shooting. However, that’s not Oladipo’s preferred style. He’s best at attacking with the ball in his hands, and making plays for teammates. He’ll be reverted back to that role in Indiana, since nobody fully trusts Darren Collison to run the offense.

At Pacers’ Media Day, Head Coach Nate McMillan said the starting lineup would likely be Collison, Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, and Myles Turner. This actually isn’t a bad starting unit, but taking Paul George, Jeff Teague, and C.J. Miles out of a lineup that finished league-average offensively isn’t going to be pretty.

Turner has a long way to go before he can be a superb defensive center. It’s not all about blocking shots, which is something he can do exceptionally well. He still has to improve as a pick-and-roll defender, knowing when to rotate, and not getting into foul trouble.

The great thing about Turner, though, is that he is embracing a strong leadership role more than I’ve seen any other 21-year-old since covering the league. If you don’t included Lance Stephenson’s journey around the West, it’s Turner who is the longest tenured Pacer. Everything has changed in the matter of a year span. Larry Bird has stepped down, the roster has been rejuvenated, and management is looking at their first rebuilding season since 2009-10, in many ways.

Indiana hasn’t won fewer than 30 games since 1988-89, which is absolutely crazy to think about. The only reason they dipped below 40 wins in 2014-15 was Paul George’s unfortunate leg injury. This city and culture aren’t used to being a doormat of the Eastern Conference. They’re used to top-tier products or being the center of NBA mediocrity. Nothing lower.

Losing three starters rarely leads to a marginal drop-off. A lot of people are talking themselves into hitting the over on the Pacers’ 30.5 win estimate, and I’m wondering if they forgot who coaches the team. We have enough evidence to suggest that McMillan is only competent when he has franchise players leading the way. With a roster trying to rediscover its identity, he’s not the guy I would be betting on.

Also at Media Day, General Manager Kevin Pritchard mentioned he didn’t like the word “tanking.” He repeatedly stated how badly they want to be competitive and make a run at the playoffs right away. I can’t help but think that’s a mistake.

Turner and sixth man Stephenson will be thrilling to watch, but 11th in the East is a safe projected landing spot.

12. New York Knicks:  24-58

Key departures: Carmelo Anthony (SF), Derrick Rose (PG), Justin Holiday (SG-SF)

Key additions: Frank Ntilikina (PG), Tim Hardaway Jr. (SG), Michael Beasley (PF), Enes Kanter (PF-C), Doug McDermott (SF-PF)

League Pass Ranking: 26th

Boy oh boy, what a mess. At least Steve Mills was finally able to find a trade Carmelo Anthony would agree to, but the last calendar year has been nothing but a circus for the Knickerbockers.

Phil Jackson is out of town after trying to sabotage the city’s young star, but as long as Mills and James Dolan are at the top of the hierarchy, we shouldn’t expect much to change. Tim Hardaway Jr. was signed to a four-year, $71 million contract this summer, and they just committed to two years of Enes Kanter at $18.2 million per year. Kanter has an opt-out after this season, but there’s no way he’s turning down guaranteed money with his deficiencies being known around the league.

New York finds itself in a similar spot as Orlando — they would like to win and generate an appealing on-court product, but also have a few young guys that need to be developed. Kristaps Porzingis is still learning, and this is about to be his first season with a usage rating over 24 percent. With that, will come mistakes. It’s about long-term success with Porzingis, and you just hope he plays full-time minutes at center.

The problem is, the ghost of Joakim Noah is still lurking in the Knicks’ darkness (congrats, Phil) and Kanter will probably have to play a bulk of minutes. Jeff Hornacek has his hands full with that rotation.

This could be an outstanding defensive season by Porzingis to illustrate his growth as a rim protector, but he won’t be given any favors with the lack of defensive guards and wings around him. He’ll be playing a lot of his superstar minutes with rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina (rookies struggle mightily defending this position), Hardaway Jr., and Courtney Lee, who is average at best.

Last season, the Knicks were 23rd in three-point attempts and 20th in percentage. That’s sure to go up a bit this year, but they won’t be able to stop anyone.

This squad is going to be more fun to watch than it will be capable of winning basketball games, and that’s okay for now. The major part is changing the team’s culture before Porzingis grows sick of it.

Don’t worry, I didn’t forget …

All hail Michael Beasley, the most confident player to ever bounce around from six NBA teams and two stints in China.

13. Chicago Bulls:  23-59

Key departures: Jimmy Butler (SF), Dwyane Wade (SG), Rajon Rondo (PG), Michael Carter-Williams (PG)

Key additions: Lauri Markkanen (PF), Kris Dunn (PG), Zach LaVine (SG), Justin Holiday (SG-SF), Quincy Pondexter (SF).

League Pass Ranking: 30th

We go from a bottom-feeding East group that may be exciting to watch, to the very bottom of any league pass rankings. The Bulls were one of the most predictable teams last year. As in, predictably mediocre and borderline horrendous offensively.

This is going to be a slow rebuild. But on the bright side, the offense can finally have room to breathe.

According to Nick Sciria’s “Spacing Rating,” a nifty tool to evaluate a lineup’s floor spacing relative to the league, the Bulls couldn’t get much worse. The lineup of Rondo-Wade-Butler-Gibson-Lopez had a Spacing Rating of 1.6 percent, meaning it provided more space due to three-point gravity than only 1.6 percent of major lineups. The only one it surpassed? OKC’s starting lineup after the Taj Gibson trade.

It didn’t get much better with Nikola Mirotic replacing Gibson, either. Rondo-Wade-Butler-Mirotic-Lopez had a Spacing Rating of 11.6 percent, still deep in the red zone of Sciria’s tested lineups.

The “three alphas” are out of town. However, there seems to be a point guard problem, which isn’t a surprise after Fred Hoiberg juggled multiple starting point guards with last year’s roster. Hoiberg still doesn’t feel comfortable with either Kris Dunn or Jerian Grant, therefore he tested both out in starting roles during the preseason.

Zach LaVine, now the best guard or wing on the team, won’t be cleared for contact until mid-November. Hoiberg rolled out Grant, Paul Zipser, Justin Holiday, Bobby Portis, and Robin Lopez to start the preseason, and it looks like that could be the starting unit before LaVine returns from his ACL rehab. They’ll struggle to score due to the lack of talent, but that doesn’t mean they can’t begin playing the right (or modern) way.

Chicago ranked sixth in percentage of total points coming from midrange (18.3 percent), and 28th in production from the perimeter. Hoiberg was known for his offensive focus and creativity at Iowa State, but was never dealt the proper hand once he entered the NBA. His rosters haven’t allowed him to do much other than stand back and look helpless. Now, as he starts to build a better culture — as difficult as that will be with GM Gar Forman possibly getting an extension —  he can begin to mold the offensive systems he’s known for.

The biggest plus of the offseason was waiving Rondo, who was a calamity for 95 percent of his stay in Chicago. They let him go to save money, so now New Orleans can be the fourth team since 2014 to find out he’s only useful for padding assists and allowing the other team to score.

The Bulls could have a terrific future if they stick to the plan and win 23 or fewer games this season. Marvin Bagley III and Michael Porter Jr. will be waiting on draft night, and this is Chicago’s chance to do something right. It stings to lose prime Derrick Rose to injury and then superstar Butler for a bag of Wrigley Field popcorn. These fans deserve better.

Although their average projected ranking in offense and defense is lower than Atlanta and Brooklyn’s, I believe we’ll see enough LaVine magic once he returns to give them an extra couple wins. But yes, their point differential should be the worst in the league.

14. Atlanta Hawks:  22-60

Key departures: Paul Millsap (PF), Dwight Howard (C), Tim Hardaway Jr. (SG), Thabo Sefolosha (SF),

Key additions: Dewayne Dedmon (C), John Collins (PF), Marco Belinelli (SG), Luke Babbitt (PF), Ersan Ilyasova (PF)

League Pass Ranking: 29th

This is an organization everyone likes, but isn’t one bit thrilled to pay attention to if Dennis Schroder is the best player. That’s a shame, considering Mike Budenholzer is a top five coach and has some of the most enjoyable offensive schemes.

Another full rebuild in the East is underway, as the Hawks are hoping to get lucky in the 2018 Draft Lottery. You have to feel bad for them, though, because it’s not every day you lose valuable talents such as Paul Millsap and Al Horford for absolutely nothing. Both walked in consecutive free agency periods, with the team having multiple chances to trade Millsap if they wanted.

Budenholzer, realizing he didn’t want the responsibility of handling front office decisions, stepped down as President of Basketball Operations. Focusing only on coaching, Budenholzer is determined to develop and groom this incredibly young roster.

The front office changed regimes by parting ways with General Manager Wes Wilcox and hiring Travis Schlenk, the former assistant general manager of the Golden State Warriors. You have to give them credit for finally bottoming out completely, since they’ve been a middle-of-the-road East team for such a long time.

In the last decade, the Hawks have a combined record of 454-350 (.565). It was time to pick a direction.

One thing about this coming season: Their defensive potential may be underrated by this projection. It doesn’t matter how young guys are, Budenholzer teaches them how to move on the defensive side. Effort is rarely an issue when playing for him. It wouldn’t be shocking to see them creep up to 20th or higher in Defensive Rating.

15. Brooklyn Nets:  22-60

Key departures: Brook Lopez (C), Randy Foye (SG)

Key additions: D’Angelo Russell (PG), DeMarre Carroll (SF), Allen Crabbe (SG-SF), Tyler Zeller (C), Timofey Mozgov (C)

League Pass Ranking: 22nd

First of all, the “Brooklyn may creep into the playoff picture” crowd is taking it way too far. While I do see a scenario in which Kenny Atkinson can squeeze the highest potential out of D’Angelo Russell and the surrounding youth, the absolute ceiling for the Nets is 11th or 12th in the East. There are at least three teams far superior in talent, when healthy, that will crawl their way to more wins than the Nets’ reclamation project.

The offseason trade featuring Russell and Brook Lopez was one of those win-lose situations. It was an excellent deal for Sean Marks to pull off and take a chance on a 21-year-old combo guard that got unfairly criticized in Los Angeles, but it also hurt them in the short-term. They lost Brook Lopez, a wildly underrated center that performed at top 50 standards last year. Out of all centers, he had the 9th-highest average ranking in Box Plus-Minus, Real Plus-Minus, and RPM wins.

Plus, Lopez was extending his range to nearly the same degree as Marc Gasol. He went from 14 three-point attempts in 2015-16 to 387 last year on league average efficiency (34.6%).

The Nets traded Lopez’s expiring contract, which is something you do every single time when you can receive a young stud in Russell. But the point is, Lopez really helped this team reach 20 wins last season. It isn’t going to get much better immediately, like some are thinking.

Marks also traded for Allen Crabbe, who they signed to a $75 million offer sheet with Brooklyn last summer — before ultimately having it matched by Portland. It wasn’t a great move, considering Crabbe may not get any better and he’s locked up for another three seasons. However, he did shoot a sky-high true shooting percentage of 60.2 in Portland’s offense last year and doesn’t require high usage.

Brooklyn rolled out a lineup of Russell, Jeremy Lin, DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Timofey Mozgov to begin the preseason, and it did pretty well. Carroll completely fell off the map since his days with the 60-win Hawks, but surprisingly stayed healthy for most of his final year in Toronto. If he’s able to be a better spot-up shooter and be the defensive pest he’s known for, they may have enough skilled players to reach their over-under (28.5). I’m just expecting injuries, a terrible interior defense, and typical errors from a young star (Russell) naturally increasing his usage.

The player I’m most excited to see break out is Caris LeVert, the 6’7″ wing that Atkinson can play with Russell and Lin. He shot a blistering 57.1 percent from two as a rookie, and makes great decisions with the ball.

Don’t worry Nets fans, the draft pick nightmare is almost over. At least this team will be entertaining and worth our time, unlike the Bulls.

Finally, here’s the 2018 NBA playoff field with picks in each round:


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Shane Young

Shane is a credentialed NBA writer in the Indianapolis area, primarily covering the Indiana Pacers & Los Angeles Lakers for HoopsHabit.com. After being introduced into the NBA stratosphere at age 11, he's been engrossed in the game at an unhealthy level. Enjoys deep breakdowns and all 82 games. You can contact Shane via email at: syoung@HoopsHabit.com

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