Scene's Eastern Conference Preview (AKA: Here Come Your Cavs)

We’re bullish on the Cavaliers and not just because we live here. They return a team built around several superstars to which they added solid depth. Meanwhile the competition in the Eastern Conference has increased. But it’s mostly in the middle class. Any of 12 teams could reasonably make the playoffs and most could even potentially win first round homecourt advantage with a little luck. There doesn’t seem to be anybody with the mix of talent, experience, and coaching to supplant the Cavaliers, but next year that will likely change. Indeed, the playoffs this year may rival the Western Conference matchups from two years ago because the parity is increasing as many teams take steps forward and a couple move on from the tank.

Here’s our take on how they line up.

The Bottom-Feeders

15. Philadelphia 76ers (Three-year win total: 71). Anyone that’s dreamed of being a GM is probably somewhat fascinated by GM Sam Hinkie’s path to respectability, which includes a long walking tour tracing the path of the Washington Generals. (And not a Globetrotter to be found.) We don’t want to say witnessing the 76ers play is to enter an unprecedented world of suck, but we’d recommend gloves, goulashes and not touching anything you don’t have to. In video games it’s nothing at all to empty yourself of assets and ride the tank until you draft a stud. In real life people for whom the home team is supposed to provide some relief have turned to pharmaceuticals and Santeria. (Browns fans understand.) Hinkie added his fourth big man in as many years, and first with bonafide 10-year NBA vet written all over him. Duke’s Jahlil Okafor is a load in the low-block and can light it up inside, which even in an increasing three-pointer-focused-world, will continue to have value. The slender Nerlens Noel looks more like a 4, but his lack of a shot makes him a poor fit. He’s a live body and quick with tremendous defensive ability, but may need to play next to someone who can shoot it. Last year’s first-rounder, Joel Embiid is undergoing a second surgery on his foot, and rumors have come out presumably through the Sixers that his dedication to his recovery was less than sterling. In three years that’s substantially all Hinkie’s gotten, besides a boatload of picks and a collection of players that might actually be Syrian refugees. PG Isaiah Canaan came over from Houston and can score but struggles to distribute. Kendall Marshall can distribute but can’t shoot a lick. Nik Stauskas can shoot but couldn’t defend his shadow. Tony Wroten is explosive but erratic. Let me just say that trying to develop bigs – especially offensively – without an adequate point guard seems like a fool’s errand. Maybe a diamond will emerge from these dirty uncut stones.

Reasons for Hope: Own Lakers top pick (1-3 protected), Coach Brett Brown seems like good coach
Reasons for Despair: Siberia more attractive to free agents, Drafting solid/washout/star, only six more years ‘till 76ers ready to compete

14. New York Knicks (108). You have to walk before you can run and last year the Knicks were paraplegics, so even though they improved, they’ll still be enjoying just about everyone else’s exhaust. The lineup’s markedly improved over last year’s 17-win squad thanks to first round Euro stud Kristaps Porzingas, underrated free agent grinder Robin Lopez, and solid scoring wing Arron Afflalo. Long-suffering disappointment Derrick Williams has played great in the preseason, 34-year old Jose Calderon is a savvy point guard, Kyle O’Quinn’s an underrated throwback big and star Carmelo Anthony says he’s feeling physically great. At 31 he’s on the backside but still one of the league’s top 5 scorers. The problem is that after 3-4 years of LeBron-induced shadow, the Eastern Conference has grown deeper. While on paper this is enough to make a run at a low-run playoff spot, all these pieces must coalesce, and into a Triangle, no less. It will take time for that mesh, and by then their more-or-less equally talented peers will have put too much distance between them. However, look for the Knicks to be a second-half spoiler and to set themselves up for a much improved second year.

Reasons for Hope: Significant talent upgrade, Anthony healthy, Phil Jackson(?)
Reasons for Despair: All new faces, complicated offense

13. Detroit Pistons (90). Despite losing PF/C Greg Monroe to the Bucks in free agency, the Pistons boast a better squad, more in keeping with Stan Van Gundy’s philosophy. Since the Magic, he’s been a big proponent of the 3-ball, and he’s finally begun to assemble a lineup in keeping with that philosophy. As the man in the front office and on the bench, he brought longball-stroking vets like 28-year old Jodie Meeks (career 37% 3pt), 35-year old Steve Blake (39%), 30-year old forward Anthony Tolliver (36%), 6-11 Ersan Ilyasova (37%) and disenchanted Morris brother, Marcus (36%). He offered a big contract to PG Reggie Jackson, though it’s unclear if he’s more than a sixth man. There’s also Brandon Jennings, returning from an achilles injury, but has never evidenced good decision-making to go with his physical skill, which may now be diminished. SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope finally looks on the verge of putting it together going into his third year, while rookie Stanley Johnson looks like an early contender for rookie of the year, depending on what kind of playing time he gets. Of course the team’s centerpiece is Andre Drummond whose ample skill of blocking shots is backed by a slowly blossoming offensive game, which is only limited by DeAndre-esque free throws. Van Gundy’s got a lot of talent that can mesh together, for all his talent Drummond isn’t the second-coming of Dwight Howard. Signing these older guys could be guidance for the other guys, but the team doesn’t appear ready to leapfrog an increasingly talented/young batch of Eastern Conference teams that’s begun to resemble the Western Conference a few years ago. Like the Knicks, the Pistons could conceivably put it all together and challenge for low-seed playoff berth, but there’s a lot of people in that position, and given the challenge integrating a bunch of new personalities and the questions regarding the point, it seems ambitious to expect the Pistons to improve that dramatically, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.

Reasons for Hope: Andre Drummond is only 22, Stanley Johnson could be draft’s steal, lots of great 3-point shooters
Reasons for Despair: Lots of vets taking time from younger players on non-playoff team

12. Indiana Pacers (143). How far the mighty have fallen. The talent drop-off has been dramatic though people don’t apparently see it. Many have the Pacers as a playoff team. While that’s possible, it just doesn’t seem possible when the middle’s held down by Ian Mahinmi and Myles Turner. Don’t get us wrong, we like Turner’s potential, but he’s a rookie and that’s way too much to put on a kid that’s not as physically dominating as a Dwight Howard or Marc Gasol. While Hibbert caught a lot of heat for his offensive struggles, he was still a defensive bulwark, and will be missed. Nor does CJ Miles seem like a particularly special “3” to push Paul George to the “4”. Monta Ellis is still a scoring jitterbug but in a league that’s gone three-crazy he’s a career 31% shooter. While Ellis’ point guard abilities have freed up George Hill somewhat, that’s a super-undersized backcourt. Backup Rodney Stuckey has some size as does Glenn Robinson III who showed something in preseason after washing out in Minnesota and Philadelphia. Vogel’s a good coach, but there just isn’t enough talent on this team to make a playoff run. It looks like a transition year that could be turned into a tank if they deal off Ellis or Hill, who like Stuckey are on short contracts for under $10.5M. (Take note Cavs fans.)
Reasons for Hope: Paul George, Coach Frank Vogel

Reasons for Despair: Lots of 28-31 year old guys, probably should’ve done full-scale rebuild/tank like Knicks last year

11. Brooklyn Nets (131). The Nets mortgaged their future to the Celtics for what they hoped would be the last pieces but instead offered their last rites. They exist in a purgatory of not terrible, but not really good either. Lionel Hollins is a good coach, so you don’t want to write them off, but they don’t have good defensive players up-front – PF Thaddeus Young, former first overall pick Andrea Bargnani, C Brook Lopez, and their backcourt of 34-year old Joe Johnson and 31-year old Jarrett Jack is aging rapidly. They added a couple guys looking to prove something in PG Shane Larkin and PF Thomas Robinson, and maybe SF Rondae Hollis-Jefferson turns into something, but it’s hard to get excited looking at this lineup. They’d probably tank if the Celtics didn’t hold their next three picks. (They can only trade positions in 2017.) As is they don’t have a lot of talent, but can score, and have a certain amount of continuity. Predicting them to be better than the Knicks and Pistons, but could potentially be 2nd-worst team in conference, particularly if they buy-out Johnson in March so he can join a playoff contender, or Lopez’s frequent lower body injury issues flare again. The fact that they have nothing to gain by losing is big reason they weren’t slotted lower.

Reasons for Hope: Mix of proud vets with offensive skills, younger prove-it players, good coach
Reasons for Despair: Perhaps poorest collection of talent next to the Sixers

Playoff Fringe

10. Orlando Magic (68). The Magic have less wins the last three years than the Sixers yet Philadelphia look like ants from where the Magic stand talent-wise. Plus they added one of the most intense, underrated coaches in the league. When Scott Skiles played he was a hard-nosed, leave-it-on-the-floor PG who got the most out of his skills. He’s consistently coached over-performing teams and has made the playoffs with the Bucks, Bulls and Suns, compiling a 51% winning percentage, taking every one of his teams to the playoffs by his second year. We think he has a chance to coax the same kind of performance out of this Magic team that finally seems filled to the brim with talent. Skiles even has center Nikola Vucevic talking about playing defense, which if it occurred would be as miraculous as the long-awaited media exile of Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton. (Look Kim & Chloe, they’re waving!) They’re so stacked with forwards that somebody seemingly has to go. Besides recently extending $16M SF/PF Tobias Harris, there’s last year’s first round Aaron Gordon, exciting first round wing import Mario Hezonja, 2012 first rounder Andrew Nicholson (who can score), and seven-footer Jason Smith, who was regularly the lone bright spot on last year’s Knicks squad. Victor Oladipo looks ready for a breakout season, but would benefit if he didn’t have to play so much point. While the magic have tried 6-7 wing Evan Fournier as his backcourt partner, it was to mixed success. Presumed starter Elfrid Payton’s struggled with a hamstring issue, while LeBron James’ fave Shabazz Napier has looked fantastic: 11 ppg, 1.3 stl, 3.2 assist/1.3 turnovers, 60% 3pt, 2 treys/gm in 18.4 minutes. While Payton held the job all last season, his lack of a shot and good-but-not-great passing vision (6.5 Ast/2.5 TO) may open the door. This team should really be a sure-fire playoff team, but it’s suddenly such a deep conference, the Magic might be left out. Then again, don’t put it past Skiles, he gets his teams to play, especially on defense. (Like Thibodeau, he also tends to burn them out with his intensity.)

Reasons for Hope: Great young core, scoring/rebounding center, gritty coach
Reasons for Despair: Worse 3-yr record than Sixers

9. Miami Heat (157). While this may be regarded as blasphemous, the Heat have a lot of question marks, chief among them being their health. Everyone just pencils 31-year old Chris Bosh in for 18 and 8 despite a major health scare. Luol Deng (30) and Dwyane Wade (33) looked like they had a lot of tread wear last year. At 37 Chris Andersen is ancient and Amar’e Stoudemire’s knees are just one sneeze away from further trouble. Josh McRoberts is a good passer and can shoot the 3, and Gerald Green is a terrific scorer who’s been white hot in the preseason, but he doesn’t play defense. Indeed, if it weren’t for the seven-foot enforcer in the middle, Hassan Whiteside, you’d be worried about all those old guys playing defense. Whiteside lessens that concern. Now let’s talk Goran Dragic, the 29-year old point guard. While he’s a terrific pick and roll player, it’s unclear how well he meshes with Wade who doesn’t shoot 3s. Dragic was a good 3-point shooter early ion his career but shot only 33% last year and continues to be challenged defensively, last year posting his worst defensive plus/minus of his career (-1.7). Besides the D, there’s questions about the lack of outside shooting (24th 3pt%,, 2nd lowest % 20’-24’), and an inside game (6th fewest shots in league from within 5’). Midrange jump shooting teams with mediocre defense don’t go far. There’s a good chance this Heat team won’t either.

Reasons for Hope: Experienced players, solid core, more depth
Reasons for Despair: Getting older, poor outside shooting

8. Charlotte Hornets (97). This is obviously a bit of a dark horse choice, but Steve Clifford showed himself to be a surprisingly good coach two years ago, and last year feels less like a regression than a setback. They had the worst 3-point shooting team in the league, so they took steps to shore up that part of their game. They added 3-pt shooting Spencer Hawes (35% career) for the headache known as Lance Stephenson, Jeremy Lin (35% career, 37% last year), and Nicolas Batum (36% career). All three are coming off down years, but the latter two are still young enough to rebound and looked good in the preseason. Batum will complement Marvin Williams, another veteran “pro” who understands how the game is played and is willing to sacrifice personal stats. They also drafted center Frank Kaminsky III who has three-range and wing Jeremy Lamb, who didn’t make use of his opportunity with Kevin Durant out last year. That ought to help the Hornets core duo Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson, who suffered for the lack of shooting and third bananas. Jefferson in particular – in a contract year – will be looking to make some hay inside with some shooters able to draw coverage. The ability of Cody Zeller, Kaminsky or Hawes to step in opposite Jefferson will be key. Batum has already stepped in for the injured Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and might not relinquish it when he gets back. Lin has played with Walker in the preseason and might turn out to be their best option for SG if Lamb doesn’t work out. (Batum had been scheduled to see much of his time there before MGK’s injury.) Perhaps P.J. Hairston or Troy Daniels will step up. Jefferson is a dominant force in the block. He didn’t look it last year with such poor shooting, but with a better cast, minus Stephenson and with more shooting the Hornets are going to follow up on their strong preseason with a “surprising” regular season, and perhaps a playoff spot.

Reasons for Hope: Solid mix of vets and youth, Four Words: Al Jefferson Contract Year.
Reasons for Despair: Only Walker, Lin can create own shots, not terribly athletic

7. Milwaukee Bucks (94). Milwaukee has a smart coach and a good collection of talent. Everyone acknowledges it, but it still feels like lip service. If I had any guts I’d pick them higher, but there are still so many questions, it’s hard to peg for sure if they’re the contenders they seem destined to be in a very short time. Note – Milwaukee shot 36% from 3, just behind the Cavs and good enough for seventh in the league, and seventh in overall FG pct. They also led the league in steals. Unfortunately they were second in the league in turnovers and 25th in free throw attempts. Those would seem to be things Coach Jason Kidd might see improvement in, just with experience and time together. You have to like the core of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton, who’s proven an above-average wing scorer and defender, sort of a younger DeMarre Carroll. Free agent big Greg Monroe is a proven low-post scorer which should help a team that’s struggled to score when they aren’t creating turnovers. We’re big fans of John Henson who’s shotblocking provides a different look than Monroe. However Henson is a PF or backup center – just doesn’t have the frame it seems to be a full-time 5, and since his shooting range isn’t great, is sort of a new-age tweener, just like Monroe, a good low-post scorer and decent rebounder who can’t block shots. The bench is intriguing with Chris Copeland, a big with 3 range but tremendous variability in performance, mostly on the low-end, O.J. Mayo, who’s found a nice role as second team go-to scorer. He can create his own shot and provide instant offense, but seems to only be efficient in small doses. Greivis Vasquez has good size for a point guard and knows how to run an offense which him a key new addition given the Jekyll/Hyde performances of Michael Carter-Williams. He’s gifted with great length and athleticism, but last year’s assist (6.8) to turnover (3.8) ratio is sadder than a lonely holiday weekend in Gary, Indiana. If Kidd can transform that, this team could leap into a contender. But at 24, MCW looks to be what he is – a poor shooting, erratically brilliant ball handler lacking elite vision/awareness. (He did improve leaving Philadelphia, but that doesn’t say anything.)

Reasons for Hope: Very good young core, solid coach, with some experience together
Reasons for Despair: Bench vets somewhat sketchy, MCW is trick or treat


6. Raptors (131). It’s hard to know what to make of the Raptors. Kyle Lowry played very good early last season then faded badly down the stretch. So did the Raptors – because he’s the maestro that makes things run. He has help, sorta, in DeMar DeRozan, one of the league leaders in dead zone jumpers (long 2s within a few feet of the 3-line), and a volume scorer from midrange. If there’s anything less useful in the world, Adam Sandler would’ve had to have produced it. DeRozan added a 3-pointer if you can call that 28% eyesore a “shot.” (Stick to bingo, DeMar.) Free DeMarre Carroll is a gritty performer with a good stroke from 3. He replaces Terrence Ross as DeRozan’s running made, cosigning Ross to the bench, where he fits better as he’s more 3 than D. The departure of Amir Johnson to the Celtics, creates a void at the 4. Luis Scola has looked revitalized in preseason, though he’s 35, but is too big a defensive liability to start. Patrick Patterson is a fine 3 shooter and has some size but at 26 has yet to seize an opportunity and this preseason was no exception (28% FG). Anthony Bennett joined his native team after performing well for the Canadian National squad and proceeded to shoot 32% in the preseason. Perhaps James Johnson will answer the call. His personality is much like Carroll and similarly athletic. They might be a good match. Jonas Valanciunas seems to have taken a step forward this season both from stats and the comments of his teammates and coaches. They added another defensively-minded big in Bismack Biyombo as a free agent to back him up, providing strong interior defense and rebounding. Cory Joseph replaces Greivis Vasquez with a lot better defense and shooting. He did well in preseason (9.9 ppg, 3.3 ast, 50% FG, 43% 3P). They have the ability if they can play like they did in the first half last season to be a contender, but they’re not a great defensive team (25th in effective FG defense) and it’s hard to see that changing just by adding Carroll.

Reasons for Hope: Young players hitting peaks, Lowry in fine form
Reasons for Despair: Never demonstrated defensive intensity or rim protection, might miss Amir Johnson’s toughness

5. Celtics (106). The Celtics might just as easily not make the playoffs. Their mix of players is such that there are a lot of very good players but nobody here’s great. Coach Brad Stevens seems like the type to manage his depth and mix of skills. In particular they have a variety of 3-pt shooting bigs (Jared Sullinger, Jonas Jerebko, and Kelly Olynyk) more traditional pick and roll/pop players (David Lee, Tyler Zeller) and Amir Johnson, who does a little bit of everything, and may turn out to be one of free agency’s big steals. The real question for the team is if Jae Crowder can be an effective 3. He looks a little like DeMarre Carroll in that he’s beefy with SF skills and strong defense. Carroll developed into a threat offensively and Crowder seems to be doing it the same way – starting with his 3-pointer. Like Carroll he’s not much of a dribbler. Evan Turner played the 3 last year but is on the bench now. He’s a good ballhandler and a good passer who can sorta defend 3s but his shooting is so poor that he’s best on the bench. He’ll soon start feeling heat from Jerebko who’s a 3/4 hybrid with a sweet long stroke and James Young, the Kentucky kid who’s really tightened up his defense going into his second year. In the end Marcus Smart doesn’t look like a point guard and Avery Bradley hasn’t proven a consistent scorer, though he might this year. The balancing of when Isaiah Thomas plays will be key. His size and the Celtics lack of a rim protector makes the defense more suspect whenever he’s in, but he’s phosphorous on offense – starts to ignite as soon as exposed to air. The difference between borderline Conference Finals contender and playoff fringe will rely on whether Ainge can turn his overstuffed depth into a real go-to crunch time player and/or if Stevens can keep these different sized cogs turning smoothly.

Reasons to Hope: Lots of above-average talent with variety of skills, good coaching
Reasons to Despair: No go-to scorer, no rim protection, questionable toughness

4. Washington Wizards (119). Will John Wall and Bradley Beal turn into the dynamic duo they always threaten to be? Wall isn’t a very good shooter but he’s a fine playmaker and has a pretty solid cast of characters, if only with some question marks attached. Marcin Gortat is a good, solid, work pail big who’s only above average but damn consistent. A trio of thirty-year old bigs play beside him ranging from solid rebounder Kris Humphries, who’s added a 3 pt shot, Nene Hilario, who can be a force during those periods he can remain healthy and out of foul trouble, and Drew Gooden who is a solid stretch four but at 34 his career’s flatlined several times already. That patchwork may give way to playing Otto Porter at the 4 in small lineups, which would make them much quicker. Washington’s defense is underappreciated (5th best in league eFG%), and getting even quicker might help them force a few more turnovers (20th). That would include options like playing second year man Kelly Oubre or maybe Martell Webster, who’s a streaky hot 3-shooter. Jared Dudley has shown ability to be a 3-and-D guy and could ultimately win out. Gary Neal and Ramon Sessions are veteran depth but everything for the Wizards turns on whether Wall and Beal are ready/able to take this team to the next level.

Reasons for Hope: Wall and Beall healthy, entering prime
Reasons for Despair: Frontcourt iffy & old, no good backup to Gortat (DeJaun Blair??)

3. Chicago Bulls (143). Could new coach Fred Hoiberg take the Bulls where ex-Coach Tom Thibodeau couldn’t, or has the present cast maxed itself out? We’re loathe to sleep on these guys, but think there will be some regular season regression as Hoiberg learns his personnel and the league. As Blatt has acknowledged, there’s a lot to learn, and Hoiberg hasn’t been watching all the games on TNT like Steve Kerr before joining the Warriors. There’s also the injury to Mike Dunleavy, who is a glue guy and is still their best SF option until they find a decent shooting guard that would allow Jimmy Butler to slide over. Nothing like that on this top-heavy roster. How you could lose your point guard in several years and maintain E’Twaun Moore and Aaron Brooks as his replacement just boggles my mind. It’s like after being robbed three times, rather than take precautions blithely suggest, “Well, the odds are against it happening again.” Denial is a powerful thing. Butler is an all-star and Pau Gasol is in his contract year and while 35, is still a craft scorer. The problem is he’s an increasingly terrible defender, when he even deigns to do the work. Those years in Los Angeles seem to have destroyed his will. When focused he can be okay, but his lateral quickness is AWOL. Of course, there are plenty of other bigs from Taj Gibson to new bench resident Joakim Noah and his replacement, 3-pt shooting Euro Nikola Mirotic. We doubt they can play good enough defense with Mirotic, Gasol playing in the frontline and possibly Doug “McBuckets” Mc_ermott playing SF. (No “D”). Hoiberg likes offense and there will be plenty but whether or not Derrick Rose can stay healthy, it’s not clear whether this is the right mix of players. Who knows what happens with Rose, but expecting too much seems foolhardy. That said, they have a great young big in rookie Bobby Portis, who judging from preseason, could be in the rookie of the year hunt if he got some playing time. This team is ripe for a trade to open up the frontcourt rotation and maybe secure an effective wing player to send Dunleavy to the bench where his bad D is not so glaring.

Reasons to Hope: Lots of frontcourt depth, newly unchained offense
Reasons to Despair: Injury fear, in transition to new offensively-minded coach may not play D

2. Atlanta Hawks (142). The Hawks caught a lot of people off-guard and won games by playing a precision game well. But precision teams, just like fastbreak teams, have trouble replicating the circumstances of the regular season in the post-season. Those plays you ran so effectively against guys struggling through the second day of a back-to-back, suddenly are well-researched and pushed back to their third and fourth options. Suddenly the plays don’t seem so effective. This is where the lack of go-to offensive players hurts. However, Mike Budenholzer is a smart guy and the team is not just a product of their system, they augment it. Having familiarity and continuity, as the Spurs have taught us, is worth something and while we’re still not sure they’ll be any better in the playoffs, they have the same things going for them during the regular season this year. While they will miss DeMarre Carroll’s toughness, Kent Bazemore’s a good wing defender and scorer who shot 36% from 3 last year. Other possible replacements include lithe Justin Holiday, who lit the Cavs up last year while in Golden State, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. who had to suffer through the visual savagery that was the Knicks season last year. Returning their all-star core has to count for something and nobody is injured. The additional of 7’3” mountain Walter Tavares and former Spur Tiago Splitter beefs up the inside, and word is that Milsap will slide down to play the 3, which might work now that Horford has developed a three-point shot, he’ll allegedly be showcasing more. They bring back Thabo Sefolosha, still looking for sponsorship from N.W.A., three-point shooting bigs Mike Scott and Mike Muscala, and squirrely German PG Dennis Schroder.

Reasons to Hope: Great continuity, good coach, effective system
Reasons to Despair: Hawks haven’t shown they can make it work during the playoffs

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (110).There’s a reason why more Coaches and GMs that responded to a recent survey picked the Cavaliers to win the long-awaited championship. Just writing it down makes you want to throw some salt over your shoulder. But we all witnessed LeBron James take a debilitated, single-dimensional team to the Finals minus two of its best three players. The only real enemy of the Cavs is injuries, which like a Midwest winter have inevitably arrived early. This team’s continuity will be coming late even with a year under their belt due to the difficulty integrating injured and new players, changing rotations and all the other things that most teams get to work out in preseason but will happen for the Cavs in the media glare. It will be all the worse, as we all know, because being around LeBron tends to attract the mole people who build things into mountains. Griffin’s additions were constrained but effective. Amusingly the DeAndre Jordan fiasco shook loose Richard Jefferson who looks to have a lot left in the tank. If we can just convince Blatt not to have him guard too many 2s (though he did so effectively in preseason, it’s not the thing for longevity in a 35-year old body. Mo Williams looked disinterested which is the best thing you could say about his preseason performance, but he’s a vet that has always scored wherever he’s gone. Playing defense is, alas, another story. With incoming Russian Sasha Kaun, returning sparkplug Tristan Thompson, glass Brazilian bouncing big Anderson Varejao and a whole season of Timofey Mozgov, the interior defense should be much better than it was early last year. However with Mozgov, Wild Thing and even Kaun nursing and/or rehabbing injuries, this too will take some time to work out the timing and rotations. Shumpert will be counted on to be a lockdown defender and relieve James, but also to score some. Hopefully the wrist injury doesn’t set that back because it would really hurt the defense which would then increasingly need to rely on J.R. Smith’s non-offensive contributions. In the end, there appears more than enough depth to surround the best player in the world. What this team needs more than anything is health, and the rest should take care of itself.

Reasons for Hope: Great core adds significant depth, best player on planet, experience of finals, due
Reasons for Despair: injuries, discontinuity, perhaps lower seed from early losses while looking for self

We’ll be in Chicago tonight at the opening night season kickoff against the Bulls, tweeting live from the action. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne. Look for our recap of the game tomorrow, and of tomorrow’s Memphis game on Thursday.
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