Predicted order of finish in the NBA’s Eastern Conference:
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: This might be LeBron James’ last season in Cleveland. However, James is enough of a centerpiece to make another realistic run at the NBA Finals. Losing Kyrie Irving is a hit. Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose will be key.
2. Boston Celtics: This team is loaded with talent for now and the future. The question is incorporating Irving, Gordon Hayward and rookie Jayson Tatum efficiently. Their preseason looked pretty smooth.
3. Washington Wizards: John Wall and Bradley Beal form an elite backcourt. Center Marcin Gortat is a bigger factor in this team’s results than he’s probably given credit for by fans.
4. Toronto Raptors: Shooting guard DeMar DeRozan is a throwback to a past NBA era when the mid-range jump shot was more highly valued. He is one of the East’s crafiest scorers
5. Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo is hard to spell, hard to pronounce, and hard to guard: A 6-11 player with genuine backcourt skills, and a matchup nightmare.
6. Miami Heat: It took a while, but Gastonia’s Hassan Whiteside has approached his massive potential as an NBA center. Point guard Goran Dragic comes off a busy summer of international basketball.
7. Charlotte Hornets: Losing Nic Batum (elbow) early will be a big hit. Depth was the biggest weakness last season; injuries this preseason made it hard to gauge how well that flaw was addressed over the summer.
8. Detroit Pistons: Stan Van Gundy has turned over the roster extensively since taking over as coach/head of basketball operations. Is this the season SVG starts getting tangible results?
9. Philadelphia 76ers: They have made a huge investment in Joel Embiid’s potential. He is that talented, if he stays healthy. Ben Simmons should be one of the NBA’s most versatile players down the road.
10. Indiana Pacers: They didn’t seem to get much return on trading All-Star Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Is big man Myles Turner ready to be this team’s star attraction?
11. Chicago Bulls: Will Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, both acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves, thrive in Chicago? Dunn could be an elite defender, but needs to be a much better shooter.
12. Orlando Magic: The Magic has assets, but little continuity. Mario Hezonja, fifth overall pick in 2015, looks like a bust so far; a scorer averaging 5.5 points and a poor shooter from the field and 3-point range.
13. Brooklyn Nets: The Nets’ guard situation has been miserable. Jeremy Lin was hurt much of last season. Acquiring D’Angelo Russell is a key move for the long-term rebuild.
14. Atlanta Hawks: This roster has been dismantled over the past two seasons. Dwight Howard lasted a single season with his hometown team before being traded to the Hornets.
15. New York Knicks: With Carmelo Anthony traded to the Thunder, this is now Kristaps Porzingis’ team. He’s terrific, but there’s not a lot else in the short run.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell