A capsule look at each team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference
LAST SEASON: 55-27, lost in Eastern Conference finals.
COACH: Brad Stevens (sixth season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Jaylen Brown (14.5 ppg), G Kyrie Irving (24.4 ppg), F Jayson Tatum (13.9 ppg), F Gordon Hayward (2.0 ppg; played one game last season), C Al Horford (12.9 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: G Shane Larkin, C Greg Monroe
KEY ADDITIONS: F Robert Williams, G Brad Wanamaker, G P.J. Dozier
PLAYERS TO WATCH: All eyes are on Hayward coming off his surgery and rehab from the gruesome left ankle injury he suffered in the season opener last season. After nearly a year away from playing 5-on-5 basketball, he says he’s back to 100 percent. The same is true for point guard Kyrie Irving following a pair of surgeries on his left knee that caused him to miss the end of the regular season and playoffs. Irving’s also pledged his allegiance to Boston, saying recently that he intended to re-sign with the Celtics in 2019.
OUTLOOK: With LeBron James now in the Western Conference, the Celtics enter this season as the presumptive favorites in the East. The injuries to Hayward and Irving gave Brown and Tatum a chance to shine and both young emerged as budding stars. After re-signing reserve guard Marcus Smart, Boston enters the season with a roster that’s nearly fully intact from a year ago. The Celtics were one of the league’s top defensive teams a last season and are expected to be there again under the defensive-minded Stevens. The challenge for the sixth-year coach will be getting this talented group to share the ball.
LAST SEASON: 28-54, missed playoffs.
COACH: Kenny Atkinson (third season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G D’Angelo Russell (15.5 ppg), G Allen Crabbe (13.2 ppg), F DeMarre Carroll (13.5 ppg), F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, (13.9 ppg), C Jarrett Allen (8.2 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: G Jeremy Lin
KEY ADDITIONS: F Ed Davis, G Shabazz Napier, F Jared Dudley, F Kenneth Faried
PLAYER TO WATCH: Russell was averaging 20.9 points through 12 games before hurting his knee last season and couldn’t get back to that level once he returned. Nets need the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft to have more than just a good short stretch and become a consistent point guard across an entire season.
OUTLOOK: The Nets made an eight-win improvement last season that was bettered only by Philadelphia among Eastern Conference teams. They believe the players they acquired in free agency will improve their weaknesses in defense and rebounding and help them make even more strides in 2018-19.
NEW YORK KNICKS
LAST SEASON: 29-53, missed playoffs.
COACH: David Fizdale (first season, third NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Trey Burke (12.8 ppg), G Tim Hardaway Jr. (17.5 ppg), F Kevin Knox (rookie), F Lance Thomas (4.1 ppg) or Kristaps Porzingis (22.7 ppg), C Enes Kanter (14.1 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: F Michael Beasley, F/C Kyle O’Quinn
KEY ADDITIONS: F Knox, F Mario Hezonja
PLAYER TO WATCH: Knox. The No. 9 pick in the draft from Kentucky was one of the best performers in the Summer League, started strong in the preseason and seems to have the skills and confidence to continue to play well once the real games arrive.
OUTLOOK: Porzingis remains out while recovering from a torn ACL and it’s unknown when he will return, so the Knicks begin the Fizdale era without their best player. But they are focused on rebuilding patiently and won’t worry too much about their record or rushing the All-Star forward back before he is completely ready.
LAST SEASON: 52-30, lost in Eastern Conference semifinals.
COACH: Brett Brown (sixth season)
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Ben Simmons (15.8 ppg), G JJ Redick (17.1 ppg), F Robert Covington (12.6 ppg), F Dario Saric (14.6 ppg), C Joel Embiid (22.9 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: F Marco Belinelli, F Ersan Ilyasova
KEY ADDITIONS: F Wilson Chandler, G Zhaire Smith, G Landry Shamet
PLAYER TO WATCH: Markelle Fultz was the No. 1 pick of the 2017 draft and was expected to team with Simmons and Embiid to form a Big Three nucleus. Fultz instead was a big bust. Fultz’ pitiful rookie year derailed by a mysterious shoulder injury, a broken shot and confidence issues. He played the first four games, missed 68 games because of injury, then was persona non grata in the postseason. He said he took 150,000 shots with his shot doctor this summer and even made a 3-pointer in the preseason after not making one last season.
OUTLOOK: The Sixers underwent their roster-stripping ‘Process’ because they were tired of being mediocre with no realistic hope of improvement. But if Fultz doesn’t make a leap, they’ll be stuck as a 50-win team that can’t get past the second round of the playoffs. There are worse things, but the end result of the Process was supposed to be a championship and fans are getting restless.
LAST SEASON: 59-23, lost in Eastern Conference semifinals.
COACH: Nick Nurse (first season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Kyle Lowry (16.2 ppg, career-high, 5.6 rpg), G Danny Green (8.6 ppg, San Antonio), F Kawhi Leonard (16.2 ppg in nine games, San Antonio), F Serge Ibaka (112.6 ppg), C Jonas Valanciunas (12.7 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: G DeMar DeRozan, F Jakob Poeltl
KEY ADDITIONS: Leonard, Green, C Greg Monroe
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Leonard will be under intense scrutiny in his first season with Toronto, and his last before free agency. A former Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Finals MVP, Leonard was limited to nine games last season because of a thigh injury, and his relationship with the Spurs soured during his lengthy rehab. The Raptors will hope Leonard likes his time north of the border enough to sign a long-term deal with Toronto next summer.
OUTLOOK: A lot has changed since Toronto set a franchise record with 59 wins last season. The Raptors fired Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and replaced him with Nurse, a first-time NBA head coach. Toronto also traded franchise icon DeMar DeRozan and C Jakob Poeltl to acquire Leonard and Green from the Spurs. The Raptors need to brush aside the issue of Leonard’s future and use the regular season to get comfortable together so they can focus on postseason success.
LAST SEASON: 27-55, missed playoffs.
COACH: Fred Hoiberg (fourth season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: Kris Dunn (13.4 ppg), G Zach LaVine (16.7 ppg), F Justin Holiday (12.2 ppg), F Jabari Parker (12.6 ppg, Milwaukee), C Robin Lopez (11.8 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: G Jerian Grant, G David Nwaba
KEY ADDITIONS: Parker, F Wendell Carter Jr., F Chandler Hutchison
PLAYERS TO WATCH: F Lauri Markkanen is expected to miss the first few weeks because of a high grade lateral elbow sprain he suffered in practice. From Finland, Markkanen, averaged 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds in 68 games as a rookie last season. The Bulls are counting on LaVine to show he can be the cornerstone piece they envisioned when they acquired him along with Dunn and the rights to Markkanen from Minnesota for Jimmy Butler in the 2017 draft night trade. He was limited to 24 games last season, missing the first 42 while recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee and then sitting out the final 14 because of tendinitis in the same knee. That didn’t stop Chicago from matching Sacramento’s four-year, $80 million offer sheet for LaVine.
OUTLOOK: Though the Bulls hardly look like contenders in the Eastern Conference, the potential to make a jump is there. That hinges on improvement from Markkanen, LaVine and Dunn, Parker staying healthy and contributing, and maybe Carter chipping in after being drafted with the No. 7 overall pick.
LAST SEASON: 50-32, lost in NBA Finals.
COACH: Tyronn Lue (fourth season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G George Hill (10.0 ppg), G Rodney Hood (14.7 ppg), F Kevin Love (17.6 ppg), F Cedi Osman (3.9 ppg), C Tristan Thompson (5.8 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: F LeBron James, F Jeff Green, G Jose Calderon
KEY ADDITIONS: Rookie G Collin Sexton, F David Nwaba, F Sam Dekker
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Sexton and Osman. The No. 8 overall pick in the NBA draft, Sexton could fill the massive void left when the Cavs granted Kyrie Irving’s trade demand and dealt him to Boston last year. Hill can adequately hold down the fort while Sexton, more of a slasher than shooter, develops. Lue will be patient with Sexton, but it may not take long for him to force his way into the starting lineup. Osman has the misfortune of being the player to take the spot owned by James. But the xx-year-old is fearless, very talented and he learned a ton while being teammates with the world’s best player.
OUTLOOK: Forget the Finals. After four straight June matchups with Golden State, the Cavs will have a tough time even making the playoffs. Love has gone from being the third option, to the second to the first and it will be interesting to see if the All-Star can carry the Cavs the way he carried Minnesota for six seasons. The Cavs have no intention of tanking, and head into the season trying to stay competitive while developing young players — and that’s not easy.
LAST SEASON: 39-43, missed playoffs.
COACH: Dwane Casey (first season, 10th NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Reggie Jackson (14.6 ppg), G Reggie Bullock (11.3 ppg), F Stanley Johnson (8.7 ppg), F Blake Griffin (21.4 ppg), C Andre Drummond (15.0 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: F Anthony Tolliver, F James Ennis III
KEY ADDITIONS: G-F Glenn Robinson III, C Zaza Pachulia
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jackson. The Pistons were off to a nice start last season before their point guard went down with an ankle injury in late December. He ended up playing only 45 games.
OUTLOOK: It was an offseason of upheaval for the Pistons, with Casey replacing Stan Van Gundy as coach, but Detroit isn’t exactly starting over. The roster is pretty much the same, and now Griffin has a little more time to mesh with the Pistons after coming over in a midseason trade. At full strength, Detroit could be a team to watch in the Eastern Conference, but good health isn’t exactly a given with Jackson and Griffin.
LAST SEASON: 48-34, lost in Eastern Conference first round.
COACH: Nate McMillan (third season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Darren Collison (12.4 ppg, 5.3 assists), G Victor Oladipo (23.1 ppg, 2.36 steals), F Bojan Bogdanovic (14.3 ppg) , F Thaddeus Young (11.8 ppg, 6.3 rebounds), C Myles Turner (12.7 ppg, 6.4 rebounds, 1.82 blocks)
KEY LOSSES: G Lance Stephenson, C Al Jefferson
KEY ADDITIONS: G Tyreke Evans, F Doug McDermott, F Kyle O’Quinn, G Aaron Holiday
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Oladipo spent most of the offseason fine-tuning his game in hopes of proving his first All-Star appearance was no fluke. He needs to demonstrate he can still excel while being the focal point of opposing defenses. Turner worked on getting stronger and more flexible, hoping it will make him a better rebounder and more consistent defender. Evans and McDermott add scoring punch off the bench.
OUTLOOK: Last year’s surprise ascension in the Eastern Conference could be just the start. The entire starting lineup returns intact along with the top two bench players (Domantas Sabonis and Cory Joseph). Evans, McDermott and O’Quinn should strengthen the bench. And if last year’s first-round pick (T.J. Leaf) and this year’s top pick (Aaron Holiday) produce as McMillan believes they can, they could become a serious threat to conference favorites Boston and Toronto.
LAST SEASON: 44-38, lost in Eastern Conference first round.
COACH: Mike Budenholzer (first season, sixth NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTINGN FIVE: G Eric Bledsoe (17.8 ppg), G Malcolm Brogdon (13.0 ppg), F Giannis Antetokounmpo (26.9 ppg), F Khris Middleton (20.1 ppg), C Brook Lopez (13.0 ppg)
KEY LOSSES: F Jabari Parker, G Jason Terry
KEY ADDITIONS: Lopez, F Ersan Ilyasova, G Pat Connaughton, rookie G Donte DiVincenzo
PLAYER TO WATCH: What’s next for Antetokounmpo playing under a new system with a new coach? Budenholzer is stressing spacing and perimeter shooting, which could open up more 1-on-1 opportunities to the lane for the 6-foot-11 forward with freakish athleticism. With LeBron James leaving Cleveland for the Lakers, Antetokounmpo could emerge as the best player in the East.
OUTLOOK: Expectations are up with the Bucks moving into a new arena and a new coach taking over with a track record of winning in the playoffs. The Bucks have made the postseason three out of the last four years. To take the next step, they must secure a top-four seed and/or at least advance out of the first round. Core players Middleton and Bledsoe are also entering the last years of their respective contracts, though Middleton has an option for 2019.
LAST SEASON: 24-58, missed playoffs.
COACH: Lloyd Pierce (first season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Trae Young (27.4 ppg, University of Oklahoma), G Kent Bazemore (12.9 ppg), C Alex Len (8.5 ppg, Phoenix), F Taurean Prince (14.1 ppg), F John Collins (10.5 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: G Dennis Schroder
KEY ADDITIONS: Young, G Kevin Huerter, F Omari Spellman, G Vince Carter
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Young, the fifth overall draft pick, is an exciting point guard who’s likely to make a lot of rookie mistakes. Collins is primed to boost his scoring after spending the offseason to improve his jump shot. Prince has emerged as a team leader. Rookies Huerter and Spellman are first-round picks.
OUTLOOK: This season marks the second under general manager Travis Schlenk and the first of a complete rebuild. He and Pierce will take a patient approach with a young team that might struggle to win 20 games. The Hawks hope they drafted a franchise cornerstone in Young, but they aren’t pressing him. Young was in high school two years ago and struggled at times in the second half of his only season at Oklahoma. Collins and Prince should be better in their second and third seasons, and Pierce will find opportunities for Huerter and Spellman if they earn the minutes in practice.
LAST SEASON: 36-46, missed playoffs.
COACH: James Borrego (first season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Kemba Walker (22.1 ppg), G Jeremy Lamb (12.9 ppg), G Nicolas Batum (11.6 ppg), F Marvin Williams (9.5 ppg), C Cody Zeller (7.6 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: C Dwight Howard, G Treveon Graham
KEY ADDITIONS: G Tony Parker, C Bismack Biyombo, F Miles Bridges
PLAYERS TO WATCH: The Hornets added 17-year veteran Parker to bolster their second team and to play down the stretch of tight games alongside Walker, a two-time All-Star and the team’s best player. Lamb is expected to replace former No. 2 overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the starting lineup, although second-year guard Malik Monk could push him for that job. Zeller regains his starting job after Howard was traded, a move that may prove to be addition by subtraction. Borrego is expecting big things from Batum, who should have a bounce back season playing with close friend and fellow Frenchman Parker.
OUTLOOK: The Hornets should compete for a playoff spot in the East, where mediocrity reigns. Their starting lineup isn’t any better than it was a year ago, but they’re much deeper this season and there shouldn’t be as much drop off as last season when it comes to the second team. Charlotte will play an up-tempo game under Borrego, a former assistant with the Spurs. In fact, the Hornets have been working with a 12-second shot clock in practice to get used to playing at a faster pace. Rebounding could be an issue with Howard gone.
LAST SEASON: 44-38, lost in Eastern Conference first round.
COACH: Erik Spoelstra (11th season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Goran Dragic (17.3 ppg), G Tyler Johnson (11.7 ppg), F Josh Richardson (12.9 ppg), F Kelly Olynyk (11.5 ppg), C Hassan Whiteside (14.0 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: None
KEY ADDITIONS: None
PLAYERS TO WATCH: It’s the final season for Dwyane Wade, who is still going to be a vital piece of the puzzle if Miami is going to have success this season. Whiteside needs to return to past form, after a frustrating 2017-18 season where he was dogged by injuries.
OUTLOOK: The Heat brought back virtually the same team, with the exception of some new players on two-way deals. It speaks to a few things — how they didn’t have much financial flexibility this summer with so many players under long-term contracts, but also a belief that if healthy Miami can compete in an East that no longer has LeBron James. That being said, the health concerns are already evident in how Dion Waiters won’t be ready to return for several more weeks while he continues rehabbing his surgically repaired ankle and James Johnson missed the preseason while recovering from hernia surgery.
LAST SEASON: 25-57, missed playoffs.
COACH: Steve Clifford (first season, sixth NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Evan Fournier (17.8 ppg), G D.J. Augustin (10.2 ppg), F Aaron Gordon (17.6 ppg), F Jonathan Isaac (5.4 ppg), C Nik Vucevic (16.5 ppg).
KEY LOSSES: C Bismack Biyombo, G Mario Hezonja
KEY ADDITIONS: C Mohamed Bamba, C Timofey Mozgov
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Gordon, armed with a new long-term contract at age 23, is expected to emerge as a team leader and All-Star in his fifth NBA season. Bamba, a 7-footer and first-round draft pick, and Isaac, who’s listed as 6-10, will give the team a different defensive capacity with their enormous wingspans.
OUTLOOK: Clifford was an assistant coach under Stan Van Gundy when the Magic last qualified for the playoffs in 2011-12. In six seasons since, under four different head coaches, the Magic have averaged 26 wins and have not come close to a playoff berth. The roster appears deeper, especially at the big positions, but much of that depth depends on the health of the injury-prone Isaac, Gordon and Vucevic.
LAST SEASON: 43-39, lost in Eastern Conference first round.
COACH: Scott Brooks (third season, 10th NBA season).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G John Wall (19.4 ppg, 9.6 apg), G Bradley Beal (22.6 ppg), F Otto Porter Jr. (14.7 ppg), F Markieff Morris, (11.5 ppg), C Dwight Howard (16.6 ppg, 12.5 rpg, Charlotte).
KEY LOSSES: C Marcin Gortat, F Mike Scott, G Tim Frazier
KEY ADDITIONS: Howard, F Jeff Green, G Austin Rivers, F Troy Brown.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: As has been the case for a while, the Wizards will go as far as their All-Star backcourt of Wall and Beal take them. Brooks wants more 3s, especially from Beal and Porter, who made 44.1 percent from beyond the arc last season. Another key will be Howard; he missed all of training camp with a bad back.
OUTLOOK: They’ve been knocking on the door of a run to the conference finals without ever quite taking that next step. They lack discipline on defense, for one thing, a point that Brooks makes over and over again, without making any progress. There seems to be more depth this time, with players such as Green and Rivers offering hope for the second unit and the occasional rest for Wall, in particular. One major question is going to be how much Howard helps or hurts — on the floor and in the locker room.
More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports