Originally published in SLAM 173

by Ben Osborne / images courtesy of NBA 2K14

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Pacers, 58-24

It seems like people forget how close the Pacers were to dethroning the Heat last year. And now they added Luis Scola, get Danny Granger back, and should see Lance Stephenson and stud Paul George get even better. My only question with Indy is at point guard, where neither George Hill nor CJ Watson do much for me.

2. Heat, 56-26

I really hope this is not interpreted as a slight of LeBron. He is easily the game’s best player, and I say he’s fully on track to be in the best-ever convos. But how much does DWade have left? Will Miami’s bench do anything? We’ve seen what happens when LeBron has to do it all on his own: His team loses in the Conference Finals.

3. Bulls, 54-28

There should be zero questions about this team’s motivation (high) or coaching (the best), and by the time you read this, any D Rose doubts will probably have been assuaged. A title by the Bulls seems only slightly less likely than the preceding two teams; Indy and Miami just happen to be a smidge better.

4. Knicks, 52-30

Something tells me this might be the most-beefed-with prediction. Yes, the griminess of the Knicks’ front office may portend a return to lower-division status as soon as next season, but this season’s games will be won and lost on the court. And, frankly, I like the players the Knicks will be trotting out there. Melo is still in his prime, and players two-eight all strike me as above average. I think this team will score, be fun to watch and be a very tough out in the Playoffs.

5. Nets, 43-39

Another pick that may go against conventional wisdom. If BK gets off to a 20-6 start and smells the chance to win a title, I will sing a whole different tune. But if they take time to gel and are clearly not in the upper echelon of the League, what will KG and Paul Pierce be playing for, exactly? And who’s the leader of this team? The old Celtics? The young coach? The occasionally passive-aggressive Deron Williams? The six-time All-Star Joe Johnson? That’s a lot of questions…

6. Hawks, 42-40

Sadly for Lang Whitaker, the OG of SLAM pre-season previews, “#ATLshawty” has come to mean “boring franchise” in NBA speak. Signing Paul Millsap and re-signing Jeff Teague keep the Hawks firmly in the Playoff mix, but it’s hard to see them doing much once they get there.

7. Pistons, 42-40

Accuse me of having no respect for proper shot selection if you must, but I will be watching a LOT more of the Pistons’ 42-40 campaign than I will be of the Hawks’. Look, I like watching Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith play. And if that’s a guilty pleasure with little upside beyond entertainment value, well, the Andre Drummond-Greg Monroe duo is one that has real-life upside. I think in 12 months we’ll be projecting these guys to finish a lot higher.

8. Cavaliers, 40-42

Yes, the city seems cursed and the last couple of seasons have been dreadful, but this is a franchise back on the right track. New coach Mike Brown should straighten out some of the defensive issues while Kyrie Irving and the young talent around him will take care of the O. A Playoff berth would be a nice accomplishment for this group.

9. Bucks, 37-45

Oh, Milwaukee. The BJ Era came and went without a whole lot happening, and the Monta Era won’t even be remembered. Now OJ Mayo is in town to help deliver more mediocrity. Larry Sanders is fun to watch but this is just a team in purgatory. Meanwhile, Tobias Harris—oh, nevermind.

10. Magic, 36-46

While I hope for their sake that Bucks’ fans don’t read this entry, supporters in O-Town are only too happy to study up on Tobias. The versatile forward from Long Island teams up with another versatile forward from Long Island (technically speaking), Maurice Harkless, to give the Magic one of the more intriguing young starting lineups in the L. Our Advertising Director, Dave Schnur, doubles as the president of the Tobias Fan Club and even thinks this will be a Playoff team.

11. Wizards, 34-48

I may be John Wall’s biggest supporter in the media. I love his speed and skill set, and I think 80 games and sick across-the-board numbers are in the offing this year. So he’s not the problem. It’s the rest of the roster that does little to inspire, hence, the 34 wins. How long does Ernie Grunfeld get to turn this thing around?

12. Raptors, 33-49

I actually like Andrea Bargnani for the Knicks, but I’m sure the Raptors and their devoted fans are happy not to have the specter of “failed No. 1 pick” around any longer. A new foreign big man, Jonas Valanciunas, should ultimately be better than Bargnani was and, with promising GM Masai Ujiri on board, will get the Raps back in the Playoff picture before long.

13. Bobcats, 28-54

Defensive snobs can hate on Al Jefferson all they want. For an outside-in team like the Cats have been, getting one of the game’s best offensive low-post weapons was a no brainer. Kemba Walker, who went from most-known college player to little-known NBA player, is quietly becoming a top-shelf point guard, and MKG and Cody Zeller give Charlotte some nice young forwards. I wouldn’t be shocked if MJ cajoled 30 Ws out of this team.

14. Celtics, 27-55

No one knows if Brad Stevens will turn out to be a great NBA coach, but I absolutely loved the hire. This rebuilding team wasn’t going to the Playoffs if Red Auerbach was coaching them, so why not let the former Butler wunderkind see how his approach translates in the League? Jeff Green will provide steady numbers, Rajon will be Rajon once he’s healthy, and the rest of the squad will be on a year-long audition.

15. 76ers, 16-66

As a firm believer that Nerlens Noel should have been the first pick in the Draft, I have no choice but to give the Sixers some props for their long-term outlook. This season, however, will be for Fantasy NBA junkies only. Someone has to get stats, right? Fantasy and the Noel watch aside, the biggest thing to look for in Philly is how Michael Carter-Williams plays. If he proves to be a responsible enough ballhandler, the Sixers have a really nice weapon in their backcourt. If not, this team may be headed for less than 20 wins in 2014-15 as well.