How important to the Cleveland Cavaliers present, and future, is Larry Nance Jr.?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Larry Nance Jr., NBA, Patrick Beverley, Trae Young

As the losses for the Cleveland Cavaliers mount, it’s imperative to pull back. View the franchise from afar, with an eye toward the future. What players deserve to be there? When the Cavs are a playoff contender, who from this squad makes an impact? Are there difference makers already in place, guys who do things big and small that affect wins and losses?

Larry Nance Jr. is one such player. He isn’t a superstar and will never develop into one. His skill set, however, is essential to winning. Nance can be a top 4-6 player on a playoff team. While his limitations prevent him from leading a franchise, teams don’t win without meaningful contributions from players such as Nance, willing to do whatever is asked and having the talent to do so.

Nance is a Swiss army knife; not great at anything yet capable of everything. About to turn 27 on New Years’ Day, he’ll enter his prime as a player without an obvious flaw. A poor outside shooter to this point in his career, Nance dedicated his summer to becoming a dangerous option on the perimeter. Bigs who knock down 3’s are among the most valuable commodities in the league, providing space for penetrators to attack the basket on offense and keeping size on the floor to discourage the same on defense. Nance recognized a weakness in his game and worked to eliminate it. Before this season, he’d shot just 168 threes in his career, making 28% of them. He’s already fired 58 this year and his percentage has skyrocketed, canning 39% from deep. A key to the comeback against Milwaukee on Friday night which fell short, Nance Jr.’s 3 threes pulled Giannis and Brook Lopez away from the basket, allowing Cedi Osman and Collin Sexton more space to get to the rack. Because of the diminutive size of Sexton and Darius Garland, opponents’ length has caused each problems early in the season. Nance’s (and Kevin Love’s) shooting will be essential going forward to clear the lane for their teammates.

Nance(22) sets a good screen to free Garland(10). Nance’s man follows Garland to the bucket. Nance makes them pay by burying the 3

Another overlooked aspect of Nance’s game is his passing acumen. A big whose touches can be sporadic, he was 2nd on the team last year, averaging 3 dishes per contest. While his numbers have dropped this season to just 1 per game, Nance sees the floor well, possessing the size to see over defenses and the ability to find the open teammate. He’s adept at pocket passes in tight spaces, quick bounce passes to other bigs or cutting guards that open up the Cavs’ offense.

Perhaps leading to lower assist totals, Nance is scoring in double figures for the first time in his career. His true shooting percentage, 12th in the league at 64.1% according to, is another sign of his improvement. He’s averaging 2 points per game more than a year ago despite having almost the same usage rate. Nance is scoring more without burdening the offense. He just fits in any lineup John Beilein wishes to put him in.

The enhancements to Nance’s game over a year ago aren’t specific to his shooting numbers. He struggled to stay on the court last year, committing 3 fouls per game. Nance has cut those in half this year to 1.5. His turnover rate dropped from 1.4 to 0.9, all while playing the same number of minutes. He has examined his game and has shown he can improve upon weaknesses. Though he’ll never be an All-Star, the bet here is that Larry Nance will become a valuable contributor to playoff teams in the future.

One fact for the front office to be cognizant of concerning Nance is who he’s on the floor with. At 6’7”, Nance is undersized at the center position and struggles to guard 5’s. The best lineups featuring him include Tristan Thompson. For all his attributes, he cannot overcome his size issue. Talented bigs such as Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid can shoot over him. The Cavs lack of size has become more glaring as the season has progressed and will need addressed in future drafts. A long, athletic 7 footer is a must. In the short term, playing Ante Zizic next to him will help. Zizic is a mystery, though he’s shown flashes of talent during the little time he’s had on the floor. Given the lack of size, Beilein should try to find him some minutes. A healthy John Henson would help, too. Henson gave the Cavs’ second unit a boost defensively in the eight minutes he’s played this year. While counting on anything from the oft-injured center is foolish, his presence in the lineup would help Nance, Love, and Thompson, all over-matched when guarding the center position.

What’s What Around the League

1. If you could transport a player from today’s game back in time, allowing them to play in an era better suited for their game, DeMar DeRozan would be a good choice to ship to the ‘90s. DeRozan’s mid-range game is exquisite. He averages 21.7 a game and shoots 52%, taking nearly all of his shots inside the arc. But on a Spurs team also employing LaMarcus Aldridge, its redundant. San Antonio is 7-13, 12th in the West, and stuck in a time warp. DeRozan would have been more appreciated twenty-five years ago, before math taught us the value of the 3. He makes 27 million this year, with a player option for the same next year. Does anyone want to pay that much for a semi-high usage rate player who has a sketchy playoff history? DeRozan got caught on the wrong side of the 3 point revolution.

2. Brooklyn, 4-7 with Kyrie Irving, is 6-2 since he’s sat with a shoulder injury. Instead of bashing Irving, let’s give credit to Spencer Dinwiddie. Since Kyrie’s injury, Dinwiddie is averaging 24.5 points and 8 assists, up from 17 and 4.5 when Kyrie was on the court, in full control of the Nets’ offense. Dinwiddie has performed this role before, taking the reins of Kenny Atkinson’s squad when DeAngelo Russell went down with injury last year. He’s a pro, respected by his teammates and trusted by Atkinson to get the offense in their sets. He’s also their go to option in crunch time, hitting a game winner in Cleveland at the buzzer on Monday. Did the Nets make a mistake in signing the dynamic, if mercurial, Irving? Let’s see how the Nets fare after Kyrie returns and gains more court time with his teammates before jumping to conclusions.

3. The Toronto Raptors’ defense, and Marc Gasol specifically, held Joel Embiid scoreless this week. Embiid shot 0-11 from the field, and with Al Horford now a teammate, Gasol has become the new Embiid stopper. The Raptors continue to surprise in their title defense. Expected to be a trade candidate at the deadline, why would Toronto trade Gasol now? This Raptors team, with Pascal Siakam vaulting into the MVP conversation, has as good a shot as any Eastern Conference team to make the Finals. Gasol’s defense against Embiid in a seven game playoff series would be invaluable.

4. At 12-7, the Indiana Pacers have continued their success without Victor Oladipo despite a slight remake of the roster over the summer. Domantas Sabonis is a beast in the paint, averaging 18 and 13. Malcolm Brogdon has been better than expected, posting 19 points and 8 dimes a game. Nate McMillan continues to impress, imploring a funky roster to play over their heads. What happens when Oladipo returns? He and Brogdon seem to be a perfect backcourt duo. Both are good defensively and either can handle the ball or play off it. The question will be what Oladipo looks like when he returns. If he can get 90-95% healthy by playoff time, the Pacers could spring an upset.

5. Is there anything better than the Patrick BeverleyRussell Westbrook feud? Started during the 2013 playoffs when Beverley lunged at Westbrook and injured him as he dribbled toward the sideline to take a timeout, which knocked Russ out the rest of the season, don’t look for cooler heads to prevail anytime soon. Both players run hot, which is why I love them. Each’s game is imperfect, but both play with a fire that demands respect. A Clippers-Rockets playoff series is a must.

6. It takes a light brush of the arm or a hot breath in the face of a shooter for the defender to get whistled for a foul. Meanwhile, offensive players in the post get beaten, arm barred, and slapped without so much as a second look. Protecting shooters is important, but players are taking advantage of quick perimeter whistles. Referees need to watch the tape. They’re getting fooled into calling fouls when little contact occurs on jump shooters while allowing big men to get mugged in the paint. While the three point shooting revolution has ultimately been good for the NBA, watching players shoot foul shots isn’t. Give perimeter defenders some leeway.

7. Trae Young torched Indy Friday night with 49 in and O.T. loss before watching James Harden score 60 in 3 quarters on Saturday. Shooters need no help.

8. There seems to be a good player somewhere inside Mo Bamba, but he only appears in fits and starts. Long and athletic with touch from 3, Bamba’s size and skill set fit today’s NBA. He was 5-5 on threes in Cleveland last week and, after looking lost defensively earlier in the year, has become more aggressive on that end, averaging 2.5 blocks in his last 5 games. Orlando’s jammed frontcourt lacks minutes, but they need to find some for the sixth pick in the 2018 draft. Nik Vucevic’s injury has opened up minutes at the center position for Bamba, but he’ll need consistent time on the court once Vucevic returns to continue his development. If not, a smart team with minutes would be wise to buy low on Bamba if Orlando relegates him to the bench.

9. After a so-so sophomore year, Jayson Tatum is turning a corner, although just like a semi-truck. While slow, Tatum is improving his shot selection, taking 2.5 more 3s and 1.3 more foul shots this year over last. These numbers are key for Tatum’s career arc. He’s also taking 5.5 shots more per game overall, another welcome sign, considering his disappearing act in games in the past, going shifts on the court with no one recognizing he was on the floor. Tatum is the key to the future of the Boston Celtics. For the franchise to reap the benefits of the draft pick haul from the Nets, to prove they spent the picks wisely, Tatum must become a superstar. Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown are fantastic; they’re secondary players on a championship team, however. For the Celtic rebuild to be a success and for Boston to win a title, Tatum must get to the level he showed during the playoff run his rookie year.

10. I’m all for fresh ideas to spice up the regular season, but an in-season tournament isn’t it. The NBA has proposed a single elimination tournament, college style, perhaps in December. Christmas Madness, if you will. Rumors are the league would award the winning team a draft pick, yet that won’t be incentive enough to create the do-or-die atmosphere present in the college game. The league struggles with getting its star players on the floor now. Think Kawhi Leonard will play through injury for a semifinal game against the Jazz? Tournaments work only with high stakes. Home court advantage in the playoffs won’t do it, either. Since no team’s season would be over with a loss, fans and players will not care. Back to the drawing board, Adam Silver.

All stats courtesy of

Ahead of Schedule?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Darius Garland, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Love, Kevin Porter Jr., NBA, Trae Young, Tristan Thompson, Uncategorized

When a young NBA team expected to lose begins stacking wins together, their confidence level rises. It’s happening right now with the Cavaliers. Regardless of the competition (the Wizards and Knicks are bad) back-to-back road wins by a team supposed to be one of the worst in the league breeds assurance that the system is working, and the effort is worth it.

John Beilein is an excellent coach. This was never in doubt. The questions related to his hiring focused on his age and his ability to sell established NBA players on his “old school” principles. Koby Altman nailed his first coaching hire. Beilein is a master at player development and getting the max out of his roster.

His most important sell, and the reason for the Cavs’ early success, was getting Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love on board. The two title holdovers have grabbed leadership rolls and are taking pride in guiding the young players through the trials of an NBA season. On the court, throughout games, both are teaching, pointing out defensive mistakes to guards Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, while also praising them when they succeed. Coming into the season, each was a prime target for a trade. Trades may still happen, and both are becoming more valuable as they continue to play well, but the organization is in a great position. Their worth to the young players is clear. The opportunity to bounce ideas off ring owners, players who battled with LeBron and Kyrie against one of the greatest teams of all time, is priceless. The rebuild will be less painful with Thompson and Love embracing the situation.

If the front office wants to trade them, however, the price is increasing. Since the Cavs need not trade either, they can afford to hold teams’ feet to the fire. If, say, Portland or Boston get desperate, Cleveland can extract a high price from someone for their playoff tested vets.

Beilein’s best work has been the rookies’ development. Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. are improving. Small changes are paying big dividends. The most obvious is the aggression of the rookies. Both tentative early, they’re finding their footing while gaining confidence. Garland’s playmaking skills are showing; he tallied 12 assists in two games over the weekend, while also scoring 27. He’s started making shots, which has given him the confidence to attack. On those drives, he’s having success throwing lobs to Thompson or shooting floaters over the defense. Though the 3 ball isn’t falling, with his mechanics and quick release, it’s a matter of time.

Porter Jr. is a herky jerky, “No! No! Yes!” type of shooter, who, if he figures out the league, will be a dynamic scorer. He has size, quickness, ball handling skills, and the shooting touch to average 20 a game. Can he harness his bad habits? This will be Beilein’s greatest test. If he turns Porter into the player he has the talent to be, the Cavs’ rebuild will shorten.

Porter Jr. can score at the rim when the mood strikes

Want a stat that illustrates why the Cavaliers have surprised? Cleveland’s starting five man lineup is outscoring opponents by 16 points per 100 possessions. Only Denver’s is better.

Now the bad.

Kevin Love is the Cavs best player, and the offense must run through him to function well. Love needs to cut out the dribbling, however. When he catches in the post, takes 1-2 dribbles and either shoots or passes, he’s fine. When he pounds and pounds the basketball he gets in trouble. The Celtics guarded him with Marcus Smart and, trying to take advantage of the height mismatch, Love took bad shots while allowing Smart to take the ball from him on multiple occasions. Same on Sunday against the Knicks. Taj Gibson and Marcus Morris pestered him into turnovers when he over dribbled. Love’s a better passer than he’s given credit for. He needs to keep the ball moving after he’s drawn the defense’s attention.

If Matthew Dellavedova plays another minute, it’s too many. He isn’t bringing anything of value to the court. He can’t shoot, is turning the ball over, and gets smoked on defense. At least Brandon Knight can knock a 3 down.

An improved defense has resulted from the team trying harder on that end than last year. While Sexton is better and Thompson has been stronger defending the rim, there aren’t enough natural defenders on the roster for them to be an above average unit. Altman’s next challenge will be to draft long, athletic wings capable of guarding multiple positions to mask the deficiencies of the smaller guards. John Henson’s return will help the bench unit tremendously.

Although he’s a dynamic scorer, Jordan Clarkson’s game is a nuisance. Too often he doesn’t have it, yet is firing away. He’s bringing nothing else to the table, so when his shot isn’t falling Clarkson becomes a burden. Maybe Beilein can get him to look for his teammates more often, but there’s been no sign he’s willing to share the rock. On nights when he’s cold early, the Cavs would be better off with him sitting next to Dean Wade during second halves.


What’s What Around the League

1. In Utah, Giannis showed the grit and determination that made him an MVP. Two time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert locked him down in the first half, holding Antetokounmpo to 2 points on 0-7 shooting, with a disrespectful rejection at the rim thrown in for good measure. Giannis awoke in the second half, however, dragging the Bucks back from a 20 point deficit by draining 3’s and re-establishing his dominant paint presence. His 28 in the second half was only overcome by a Bojan Bogdanovic 3 at the horn to give Utah the W. While Milwaukee’s roster remains thin, the Bucks will have the best player on the floor in any playoff series in the Eastern Conference. Is Giannis good enough to topple better rosters in Philly and Boston?

2. With a collection of young talent and a bona fide superstar in Jimmy Butler, the Heat are feisty in the East. Though his shooting numbers are poor, 38% from the field and 25% from 3, the playmaking of Justice Winslow is superb. Despite the lack of shooting, his ability to get to the rim draws defenses’ attention in the pick and roll, allowing him to thread pocket pass after pocket pass to the roller. When the weak side defense sags toward the lane to cut that action off, he’ll whip a cross-court pass to an open shooter. An enigma for much of his early career because of injuries and position confusion, Winslow is establishing himself as a top of the rotation player for a dangerous team.

3. The rules of basketball are hard.

4. Orlando has disappointed, and it’s time to throw more responsibility Jonathan Isaac’s way. The Magic offense is a slog; they’re worst in the league in 3 point percentage and 26th in points per game. Isaac owns Orlando’s best shooting numbers, hitting 36% from deep and 58% on twos while only taking 9 shots per game, fifth on the team. More of the offense needs to flow through him. Long and athletic, Isaac possesses the ideal NBA body type, giving him the versatility to guard anyone on the court and score from anywhere on the floor. His stat line against Dallas, 13 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, and 5 blocks, is an example of the adaptability of his game. Though Orlando is 3-6, he’s 7th in the league in plus/minus rating. His 92.8 defensive rating is fourth. If the Magic are to rebound, realizing who their best player is needs to occur soon.

5. The trade to New Orleans has been a godsend for Brandon Ingram. Out of the L.A. spotlight, where he never seemed comfortable, Ingram has become one of the better scorers in the league. His 25.9 points per game rank 11th in the league on 53% shooting. A career 34% shooter from 3, he’s shooting 47% from deep to this point. Though the Pelicans aren’t winning, just 2-7, Ingram is becoming more consistent. New Orleans’ future will hinge on Ingram and Zion meshing on the court.

6. If you’re a big in the NBA, do your best not to get switched onto Trae Young.

7. Through the injuries and Boston’s drama of last year, it’s been easy to forget about Gordon Hayward. The best player on the East’s best team to this point, Hayward has re-established himself as the All Star he was in Utah. The league overlooks his size and strength. It allows him to find his comfort zones on the floor where he can shoot over his defender or probe closer to the basket. His mid-range shooting touch is elite. The Celtics were dealt a tough break Saturday, however, when Hayward fractured his left hand, putting him out of the lineup indefinitely. Boston may find their way into Finals contention, but they’ll need Hayward to return from this injury at the level he’s played so far.

8. If you could have made a bet before the season started on which NBA player would eat an edible on the team plane and have a panic attack, Dion Waiters would have been the 1:5 favorite, right? Who else is even on the board? JaVale McGee would make for a good exacta wager, I suppose.

9. While the trade for Mike Conley garnered the headlines, the Jazz signing of Bojan Bogdanovic was as important to the team’s title chances. With Giannis leading a Bucks second half comeback Friday, Bogdanovic shouldered the offensive load, scoring 13 straight for the Jazz and drilling a three at the buzzer to seal the win. Though Conley can take some playmaking pressure away from Donovan Mitchell, Bogdanovic’s clutch shooting is as important. The spacing he’ll provide those two in tight playoff games will be key for Utah to score enough to keep up with Houston and the L.A. teams.

10. Pascal Siakam may have won Most Improved Player last year, but how many expected him to develop into an MVP candidate? The Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Siakam is averaging 27, 9, and 3.7 while shooting 50% from the field and 37% from 3. His Raptors are 7-2, and play like this from him gives them a shot at the Eastern Finals. Though most expected a drop off and consequent tear down of the roster, the Raptors’ organization is proving once again that culture matters. Toronto is taking its title defense seriously.

All stats courtesy of


Eastern Conference Preview

Cleveland Cavaliers, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Love, NBA, Trae Young

Western Conference Preview is here.

1. Milwaukee Bucks 61-21
When young teams take the leap from scrappy playoff out to title contender, they label the year a success. Considering the MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year awards went to Bucks, 2019 was a gigantic leap forward in Milwaukee. Playoff loses have a way of redefining progress, however. After leading the league with 60 wins and racing to a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals, Milwaukee was within arm’s reach of a championship. They wouldn’t win another game.

Playoff disappointments aside, last season was a breakthrough for the organization. Winning a playoff series for the first time in Giannis’ career, the Bucks now must deal with expectations and pressure. Anything less than a Finals appearance is a failure. Antetokounmpo is the favorite to win back-to-back MVPs, and the East figures to be a two team race. Questions abound, however. Eric Bledsoe signed a 4 year, $70 million extension before the end of the season, then gagged all over himself in the playoffs, rendered unplayable. Malcolm Brogdon, the Milwaukee guard who came through in crunch time, was deemed too expensive by Bucks management and signed with the Pacers. Still, Giannis is one of the top three players in the league. He is a force on both ends of the floor, finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting a season ago. He is unguardable without a three-point shot. If he improves his shooting, game over.

To win the title, the Bucks will need contributions from oft injured Wes Matthews, Pat Connaughton, and growth from Donte DiVincenzo. George Hill, excellent in last years’ playoffs, must continue his stellar play in high leverage minutes. What can they get out of Sterling Brown?

The clock is ticking. Antetokounmpo’s contract is up in two years. If the Bucks struggle or do not make the Finals, the questions will start if they haven’t already. Will Giannis bolt or sign the mega extension only the Bucks can offer? A high leverage season in Milwaukee.

2. Philadelphia 76ers 60-22
The Sixers dealt with their own playoff nightmare this off-season, reliving Kawhi Leonard’s three that bounced, bounced, bounced, and bounced on the rim before dropping in Game 7 of the conference semis, sending Philly home. Closer to the title than many gave them credit for, the Sixers retooled, trading Jimmy Butler, per his demands, to Miami in exchange for Josh Richardson, a long defender and excellent three ball shooter. They will need his outside touch to replace some of what they lost after J. J. Redick departed. The signing of Al Horford away from Boston, however, was the biggest splash made during the summer. A Hall of Fame defender, Horford’s experience, defense, and outside shooting boosts Philly, while giving them a fail-safe to replace Joel Embiid when he’s injured or on the bench.

With Jimmy Butler gone, who will handle the ball during crunch time? It’s time for Ben Simmons to step into this role. If the 76ers are to win the title, Simmons needs to be successful with the ball in his hands at the end of games. He is a devastating slasher and pinpoint passer. Can he knock down enough jumpers to keep defenses honest?

If Embiid can stay healthy and is in as good of shape as claimed in training camp, he’s MVP worthy. Stout defensively, his arsenal of offensive moves are unparalleled. The Sixers are title contenders if Simmons and Embiid take the next steps in their development. With Butler gone, both need to replace the scoring and toughness he brought. The starting five may be the strongest in the league. The bench is short, however. Will it stop them from winning a title?

3. Boston Celtics 52-30
Will the swap of Kemba Walker for Kyrie Irving work as well as those in Boston envision? Walker is a smidge worse at just about everything than Irving, yet Celtics fans hope the attitude adjustment Kemba brings will make up for the lost talent. One subtraction they have not replaced is Al Horford. His defense, offensive adaptability, and leadership loss will hurt come playoff time.

For this team to reach the potential its brass has been crooning about since the Brooklyn heist, the Celtics need Jayson Tatum to become their best player. Ultra talented, they seldom saw the Tatum who flashed in the playoffs in 2018 last year. He disappeared too easily on offense, taking an alarming amount of long twos and rarely attacked the basket. An All-Star exists there; will he shrug off his poor sophomore year?

Brad Stevens struggled last year, unable to balance the talent and egos of a team predicted by everyone to make the Finals. As one of the NBA’s best coaches, Stevens needs to prove he can win when he’s expected to. He must massage the Gordon Hayward/Jaylen Brown situation. One needs to come off the bench. Will either accept a lesser role with free agency a possibility for both next summer?

4. Brooklyn Nets 47-35
The Nets made the biggest splash of the off-season, yet they won’t be whole until Kevin Durant returns. In the meantime, it will be up to Kyrie Irving to prove that, now that he’s in the place of his choosing, the moodiness and drama are past him. One of the most talented players in the league, Kyrie is the leader of this young Nets squad while his partner rehabs.

Nets fans have to wait a year before seeing this duo in action.

Irving and Durant aside, the Nets amassed one of the best collections of young talent in the league, mostly without the benefit of first round picks. Jarrett Allen is a bouncy shot blocker and rim runner. Joe Harris is lethal from three. Caris LeVert, if he can kick the injury bug, may be one of the best young players in the league. Spencer Dinwiddie has shown he can score, either starting or off the bench, and run an offense. This team will be fun. In a muddled Eastern Conference, the Nets will attempt to lay a foundation this year for a title run when Durant returns in 2020.

5. Orlando Magic 46-36
One of the better defensive teams in the league a year ago, the Magic surged over their final 31 games, posting a 22-9 record and forcing themselves into the playoffs. Another jump is in store this year if they can solidify the point guard position. While D. J. Augustin shoots the 3 well and is reliable with the ball, the hope is for Markelle Fultz to regain the form which made him the number one pick in the 2017 draft. An enigmatic career to this point, Fultz has fought injury and self-confidence. A change of scenery from Philly should help.

Can Jonathan Isaac become a reliable starter, and can Aaron Gordon become an All-Star? Brimming with talent, Steve Clifford began to unleash the skill of these two. If they both make another leap, Orlando will as well.

6. Toronto Raptors 46-36
Rarely are the champs relegated to such a low seed the year after a title, yet the circumstances here are unprecedented. NBA Finals MVPs don’t leave in free agency. Kawhi is gone however, and the Raptors won a title. All sides won.

Does anyone remember the Raptors are the champs?

The Toronto front office has a decision to make. Keep the team together and stay respectable, or trade off parts for assets to hasten the rebuild? Kyle Lowry signed a one year, 31 million extension, yet it may make him easier to trade. Marc Gasol will be sought after again at the trade deadline. Serge Ibaka could draw interest. It may be difficult to dismantle a title team, but the returns could be too good to pass up.

The future of the Raptors lies with Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. While Anunoby was injured during the title run, Siakam became a household name. A star in the making, he’s a future All-Star who’s too good to let Toronto tank. Trade the vets and build around Siakam, Anunoby, and VanVleet.

7. Miami Heat 44-38
Jimmy Butler may be the third best player in the Eastern Conference. A bulldog, he’s the type players yearn to go to war with. Outstanding defensively when he wants to be, Butler can take control of a game in the fourth quarter and will a team to victory. Very few in the league can do that.

The problem with the Heat is the rest of the roster. Goran Dragic, while still capable of scoring, has begun his regression. Dion Waiters is a thrill to watch ball; no one knows what will happen next, and it’s impossible to look away. Justise Winslow has always been intriguing and remains so, especially at point guard, but is inconsistent.

Bam Adebayo is the exception. Athletic and springy, Adebayo will take over the center minutes with Hassan Whiteside gone. Already a force defensively, he averaged 2.5 blocks and steals combined last year in only 23 minutes per game. The Butler-Adebayo pick and roll should be a headache for opposing defenses.

Bam Adebayo could become one of the best rollers in the league

The Heat seem to have a trade in them. While they sniffed around Chris Paul, the asking price was too high. Though they’re low on future assets, Pat Riley is looking to make one more run before he retires. If a big name asks for a trade, Miami will be lurking.

8. Indiana Pacers 42-40
If Victor Oladipo’s return from injury wasn’t up in the air, the Pacers would be higher. No timetable yet, rumors are he’ll return in December, yet may take longer to return to full strength. While the team held their own without him a year ago, Oladipo gives them a higher ceiling.

Once he returns, Oladipo will form an outstanding young backcourt with Malcolm Brogdon. Underrated by the Bucks, Brogdon provides the perfect complement to Oladipo. A high stakes player, Brogdon joins another free agent signee, T. J. Warren, adding offensive punch to a stagnant unit.

The team must decide if Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner can play in the same frontcourt. Both possess mid-range jumpers, while Turner is an excellent shot blocker and Sabonis a dominant rebounder. With Sabonis due to become a free agent and earn a higher paycheck, the Pacers need to find out if there’s space for both on the floor.

9. Detroit Pistons 40-42
Another season in Detroit, another rotation on the hamster wheel. The Pistons are perpetually in the 7-10 range in the Eastern Conference. Blake Griffin makes them somewhat interesting, a forgotten superstar who posted one of his best seasons last year. Averaging a career high 24.5 points per, he drained 36% of his 3s while taking 7 a game. Injured in the playoffs, however, Griffin can be counted on to miss 20 games a year.

Andre Drummond was a monster in the paint as usual, averaging 17 and 15, destroying teams in the paint who dared to go small. The fit of Detroit’s two best players remains clunky and places a ceiling on their expectations.

Could the Pistons be in the market for a point guard if one becomes available(Kyle Lowry)? The Reggie Jackson/Langston Galloway/Tim Frazier trio inspires eye rolls.

Luke Kennard can shoot. Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris will provide some veteran stability. Sekou Doumbouya is an intriguing young prospect from France, athletic and skilled offensively. He isn’t 19 yet, however. The Pistons will again play meaningful basketball in April, attempting to make the playoffs while most of the league is preparing for the postseason.

10. Chicago Bulls 39-43
A rebuild that is turning the corner, the Bulls will exit the tanking dregs in favor of the borderline playoff class this season.

A breathtaking scorer, Zach LaVine getting buckets is fun to watch. An effortless jumper and athlete, he may have another step to take in his development.

The future of the Bulls and the key to success this season, however, is the frontcourt combination of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. Markkanen has established himself in the league, a 7 footer who can score from anywhere on the floor. Carter seems to be the perfect fit alongside him, a gifted passer and rebounder who can set screens and allow Markkanen to stretch the floor.

By trading for Otto Porter Jr last year and signing Thaddeus Young and underrated point guard Tomas Satoransky as free agents, Chicago has added strong veterans to their young core. A playoff berth isn’t out of the question if the Carter/Markkanen combo blossoms.

11. Atlanta Hawks 37-45
An intriguing outfit, the Hawks are too young to be a playoff contender just yet. After struggling early, Trae Young popped as the season progressed, averaging 19 points and 8 assists. His elite level shooting and playmaking abilities should have Atlanta fans salivating. Though his size will never allow him to be a good defender, Young’s offense will make him an All-Star lock for years to come.

Can Trae Young make an All-Star team in his 2nd year?

Nailing the draft last year, GM Travis Schlenk has set the table for a quick rebuild in Atlanta. Kevin Huerter flashed as a shooter and passer in his rookie year, while John Collins showed tremendous finishing ability and rebounding.

Will this year’s rookies produce as well? De’Andre Hunter is expected to shoot the 3 and defend. Cam Reddish’s draft stock fell because of a so-so freshman year at Duke, yet has the size, athleticism, and shooting ability to be the steal of the draft. The floor is the ceiling for the Hawks.

There’s too much Alex Len/Jabari Parker/Chandler Parsons/Evan Turner on the roster for Atlanta to make a playoff push this year. This collection of veterans is a garbage dump of NBA what ifs. Never mind them, however. The young Hawks will be a fun watch.

12. New York Knicks 30-52
Spurned by the Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving duo, the Knicks spent their cap money on a collection of decent NBA players who will at least make the Knicks watchable. Julius Randle is a high motor, point forward/bulldozer, a clunky shooter who does a myriad of things well, but nothing great.

For the Knicks to become the free agent destination they think of themselves as, the youth must grow in Madison Square Garden. R.J. Barrett has superstar potential. Excellent size, quickness, and scoring ability, Barrett can turn this morbid franchise around.

Can the other young Knicks make jumps in their development? Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson are good defenders. Kevin Knox showed little in his rookie year. Dennis Smith Jr. is an elite athlete who lacks shooting touch but can get to the rim and has shown some playmaking ability. If the Knicks hope to lure a free agent to New York in 2021, these four must join with Barrett to convince a superstar this aimless, punch drunk franchise has turned a corner.

The Last 20 years of Knicks basketball

13. Cleveland Cavaliers 26-56
Another long season is in store for the Cavs as they try to teach three rookies the NBA game while experimenting with a small but offensively gifted backcourt in Darius Garland and Collin Sexton. Can they trade Kevin Love for picks and/or young players? Read my extended Cavs preview here.

14. Washington Wizards 24-58
One early season question was perhaps answered last week when the Wizards signed Bradley Beal to a contract extension. Coveted by many a contender throughout the league, if Washington wished to entertain offers, trading Beal would return a king’s ransom. His complete offensive game would fit with any team striving for the title. For now, however, he’s stuck in our nation’s capital, leading a team of no names and misfits. Is Thomas Bryant his best teammate? Unless Isaiah Thomas is about to throw it back to 2017, the Wizards may want to cash in their Beal ticket and begin the rebuild that is staring them in the face.

Brad Beal, or James Harden?

15. Charlotte Hornets 21-61
What can be said about this mish mash of players? Malik Monk is entertaining, I guess.

How many times will Jordan smack Malik Monk upside the head this year?

The Hornets signing Terry Rozier to a three year, 56 million dollar contract. They also have 70.5 million tied up in Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, according to Oof.