By Drew Dykowski, Sports Editor and Chris Cheetam, Staff Writer
- Miami Heat
The Heat may be on the outside looking in for these rankings, but they are not a team to be slept on. They lost Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside in the offseason, which is no small feat to overcome. The acquisition of star wing Jimmy Butler provides the backcourt with some firepower as Butler is one of the best players in the East.
His 18.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4 assists per game gives this team a de-facto number one option. However, the Heat do not seem to have a consistent second option to rely on. Goran Dragic is a decent point guard who is an excellent outside shooter. He averaged 13.7 points and 4.8 assists and may be the closest thing to a secondary option for this team.
Justise Winslow has yet to prove he is anything more than a role player at 12.6 points per game. Guard Dion Waiters, forward Kelly Olynyk, and center Bam Adebayo round out the starting lineup, but none have been anything more than average starters. Adebayo has shown some promise as a big with 8.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in a limited role last season.
Adding Butler to a deep roster was a great move for the Heat, but they were not able to pair him with another big name. Adding a big piece may be key for this team if they want to make some noise this season. The team has already been in trade talks to acquire Chris Paul from the Oklahoma City Thunder, but nothing has come to fruition.
Without a first-round draft pick next year, they might struggle to put together the pieces to acquire a talented second star. If these role players cannot step into a more prominent role, Butler may be forced to watch the playoffs from the beach.
- Atlanta Hawks
Although it would be easy to be fooled by their low ranking, they are one of the most intriguing teams in the league. They may have a ceiling that no other team in the East has. Trae Young already looks like a proven star with 19.1 points and 8.1 assists, but needs to improve his shot selection for this team to take the next step.
Interestingly enough, Young is not even the best player on this team. Forward John Collins is flat-out awesome. He averaged an impressive 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds last season and was one of the NBA’s biggest surprises. He has the all-around skills to be a top-five player in the East.
De’Andre Hunter was their top selection in the draft and could be a solid two-way starter for years to come. He may not be a star in this league, but 15 points and seven rebounds per game seem reasonable.
Cam Reddish was another high pick in the 2019 draft and could be another solid member of a deep team. Guard Kevin Huerter and center Alex Len provide some steadiness for this young team. They also acquired Jabari Parker, who can still score at 14.5 points per game, and re-signed the ageless Vince Carter to provide veteran leadership.
DeAndre’ Bembry is another young player who can provide some all-around skills to a deep bench.
This team may not be terrific defensively, but they have more than enough firepower to compete with any team in the league. They drafted Hunter to be a great defender, which he showed in his time with Virginia.
Eventually, they can be good enough defensively to match their high-powered scoring. The future is bright. They may not be able to earn a playoff spot this season, but could be a legitimate threat in 2020-21.
- New York Knicks
The Knicks tanked for the entirety of the 2018-19 season in hopes of drafting Zion Williamson with the first overall pick. The Knicks lost the Draft Lottery and Williamson was drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans. They traded injury-prone star Kristaps Porzingis to clear cap space in order to sign Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
The Durant and Irving rumors dominated headlines for most of the season and it seemed like a forgone conclusion that they would don the iconic blue and orange. Instead, Irving and Durant signed with the crosstown rival Nets, and the Knicks were left once again in the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
After striking out on the big-name free agents, New York scrambled and signed multiple mid-tier veterans, most notably Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, and Marcus Morris. All of these players were signed to short-term contracts, making them attractive trade options for contending teams later in the year.
Randle has the most value as a potential trade package, as he had the best season of his career last season, averaging 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists for the Pelicans. He should have even more opportunities this year for the Knicks.
The team is rebuilding around RJ Barrett, who was taken with the third overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft after averaging 22.6 points and 7.6 rebounds with Duke. Barrett has the potential to be a star in the league and there is a good, young nucleus around him. New York may also look to build around 2018 first-round pick Kevin Knox, guard Dennis Smith Jr., and center Mitchell Robinson.
Management must do well at the trade deadline and in the 2020 NBA Draft in order for this team to compete for a playoff spot next year. It will be another long season for Knicks fans as the team continues their lengthy rebuild.
- Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have been stuck in rebuilding mode for several seasons and the outlook does not look much better for the 2019-20 season. The only significant loss to the team was center Robin Lopez, but he provided quality veteran leadership to the young team.
The Bulls were not super active in free agency, but were able to sign forward Thaddeus Young (12.6 PPG, 6.5 RPG) and trade for Wizards guard Tomas Satoransky (8.9 PPG) to bolster the depth of the team. They drafted electric point guard Coby White, who many believe will be one of the better players in this deep draft class.
The focal point of the team is high-volume scorer Zach LaVine. He averaged 23.7 points as their point guard last year and may benefit from moving back to shooting guard, assuming White can make an impact in his rookie year. LaVine is no superstar, but has the talent to get to that level if he can improve his defense.
Forward Lauri Markkanen is an up-and-coming player in this league. He averaged 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds last year and proved that he can hang with most big men in the NBA. He could take the next step this season as a scorer and defender.
Forwards Otto Porter Jr.(13.9 PPG) and Wendell Carter Jr. (10.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG) look to develop into an above average starting frontcourt. They should be an average team offensively, but have the ability to hit the three ball.
Defensively, this will be one of the worst teams in the league. LaVine is a terrible defender and none of the other role players have proven to be any more than average defenders.
A few more years in the cellar could help them accumulate top picks in the draft and lead to a more promising future.
- Washington Wizards
Washington team really is a one-man show. Bradley Beal is a top ten player in the NBA and has to carry this inept roster. The Florida product posted averages of 25.6 points, 5 rebounds, and 5.6 assists. He is a legitimate MVP candidate on a team that will not give him enough support and result in him wasting another one of his prime years. The Wizards have given Beal a two-year, $72 million max extension.
All-Star point guard John Wall will miss the 2019-2020 season, so Beal won’t have any sort of help this season. It is tough to pick out the second best Wizard player, but they signed capable guard Ish Smith to fill the void Wall’s injury leaves.
Aside from Smith, Thomas Bryant is a decent center who should average a double-double this year. In order for this team to reach past the 13th seed in the East, rookie first-round pick Rui Hachimura will have to be a star. He averaged almost 20 points and 7 rebounds a game at Gonzaga and is going to have every opportunity to score this year.
The team lacks depth pieces as their supporting cast consists of former Michigan star Moritz Wagner and forward Davis Bertans. Bertans projects to be the starting power forward on the Wizards, but has yet to prove himself in the NBA.
Wagner was a bench player for the Lakers, but played well during a few games when many of LA’s starters were injured. He may be walking into a nice role for himself and could be one of the more interesting players on this team.
Washington won’t be able to contend for a spot in the playoffs this season. Beal’s best bet: get out while he still after his contract is up.
- Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers enter year two of the second post-LeBron era and the team has some intriguing young prospects. Second-year guard Collin Sexton’s development will be worth monitoring throughout the year.
After getting off to a tough start, Sexton finished with averages of 16.7 points and 3.0 assists. He was the third rookie in NBA history to average 16 points and shoot 40% from behind the arc and 80% from the free-throw line. The other two players to accomplish this feat were Larry Bird and Stephen Curry.
Cleveland took Vanderbilt guard Darius Garland with the fifth-overall pick in the draft. Before the season, he was projected to be picked in the top-three, but tore his meniscus after just five games in the preseason.
Despite the injury, he still averaged 16.2 points per game and showed potential to be an elite scorer in the NBA. The biggest concern going forward is that they drafted a guard with a top-pick two years in a row, rather than focusing on other positional needs.
Along with Garland, rookies Kevin Porter Jr. and Dylan Windler should also be fun to watch. The remainder of the team is made up of holdovers from the LeBron-era that will hopefully be traded before the end of the season. Former All-Star Kevin Love is the most notable name on their roster and their most valuable trade asset.
Unfortunately, Cleveland made a questionable move last offseason and signed Love to a max contract extension although he was entering his age-30 season. He still has four years and $120.4 million left on the deal, which makes it difficult to move. Regardless, Love is still a top player in the league and teams will bid for his services up until the trade deadline.
Jordan Clarkson is another intriguing trade chip as he averaged 16.8 points off the bench last season. Hopefully, Tristan Thompson will stay healthy and effective to help Cleveland move him and his $18.5 million salary as well.
Cleveland’s record will not be good and they will likely have another top-five pick in next year’s draft. It will be interesting to watch all of their young prospects, especially Sexton and Garland, and see which team the Cavaliers trade Love and their other veterans to.
- Charlotte Hornets
After losing star Kemba Walker to the Boston Celtics, it is hard to find a team that had a worse offseason than the Hornets. It looks to be a long, tenuous rebuild for Charlotte. The loss of Kemba took them from a near playoff team to the weakest rosters for years to come. Who do they turn to now to lead this team?
Their best player might be forward Miles Bridges. He showed flashes of greatness last year, but was not much more than a bench scorer. This year he will be thrust into a starting role and will have to show improvement for a team that needs him. To replace Walker, the Hornets brought in an intriguing young guard in Terry Rozier.
Scary Terry will need to improve upon his 9 points and 2.9 assists per game season as the starting point guard in Charlotte. Swingman Dwayne Bacon is another piece that can provide some scoring punch for a team that is starved of it. Big men Marvin Willaims and Cody Zeller each averaged 10.1 points per game last year, but their leadership will be more valuable to the Hornets this year.
Other young players with a huge opportunity are guard Malik Monk and rookie P.J. Washington. Veteran Nicolas Batum will help provide a wing defending presence and hopefully give this team what he has remaining in the tank.
The Hornets will be interesting to watch this season, but that does not mean they will be good. There is, however, plentiful opportunity for players to make a name for themselves. It should a long season in Charlotte.