Charlotte Hornets

NBA Eastern Conference outlook

Observer NBA writer Rick Bonnell ranks the teams in the Eastern Conference, based on projected regular-season results.

Cleveland Cavaliers

1 LeBron James didn’t return to Northeast Ohio just because he likes Akron. He expects to win big and playing with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving will give him that chance. James dominates the ball, but not in a selfish way, so it’s easy to play off his skill set.

Chicago Bulls

2 If point guard Derrick Rose can stay healthy – and that’s no given after the last two seasons – the Bulls can certainly reach the Eastern Conference finals. Pau Gasol’s versatility inside will help Joakim Noah be an even better defender. Rookie Doug McDermott can help a sometimes struggling offense.

Washington Wizards

3 The Wizards took a hit when it was discovered Bradley Beal broke a wrist in an exhibition against the Charlotte Hornets. Marcin Gortat is back after a terrific first season with the Wizards and John Wall is one of the East’s top point guards.

Toronto Raptors

4 The Raptors improved dramatically last season after trading Rudy Gay. The reason? Much better ball movement. The decision not to trade point guard Kyle Lowry proved correct. Combine him with DeMar DeRozan and you have a nice ensemble, NBA-style.

Miami Heat

5 With James gone, the Heat must find another way. It probably won’t be possible to give Dwyane Wade games off, as Miami frequently did to preserve his knees. Re-signing Chris Bosh and adding Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts give the Heat enough skilled veterans to compete.

Charlotte Hornets

6 For the second consecutive summer this franchise made a major free-agent signing. Lance Stephenson can complement Al Jefferson and raise this team’s offensive output. The question is whether the Hornets will maintain the defensive and rebounding standard of last season.

Indiana Pacers

7 Between Stephenson’s departure and Paul George’s compound fracture, this team has been severely depleted. However they still have a rim-protector in Roy Hibbert and a rugged scorer in David West. And the experience of the past two seasons should carry them to the postseason.

Brooklyn Nets

8 This team is getting old, an inevitable result of the trade that brought Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn. Pierce is now a Wizard, but Garnett is back for a 20th NBA season. Center Brook Lopez had more issues with his right foot that limited his preseason.

Atlanta Hawks

9 Keeping center Al Horford healthy is crucial to the Hawks contending for a playoff spot. Last spring they somewhat backed into the final playoff seed and New York, Brooklyn and Detroit figure to be strong enough to challenge for the postseason.

New York Knicks

10 They managed to retain Carmelo Anthony after his summer free-agency tour. It will take a while for the Knicks to adapt to the Triangle offense. There’s optimism in New York that Amare Stoudemire is as physically well as he’s been in a long time.

Detroit Pistons

11 New coach Stan Van Gundy received total control of the basketball operation, a good move by a franchise that has floundered of late. The Pistons will have a huge front line with Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith all starting.

Boston Celtics

12 The biggest addition of the offseason was drafting guard Marcus Smart. That could offer some flexibility should Danny Ainge take a serious look at what Rajon Rondo would bring in trade.

Milwaukee Bucks

13 The Bucks weren’t trying to lose last season. They were so ravaged by injury they could never build any traction, even in the Eastern Conference. Rookie Jabari Parker could help a lot, assuming he stays in decent condition.

Orlando Magic

14 This team should eventually build its identity around perimeter defense. Victor Oladipo and rookie Elfrid Payton have the ability to make the game miserable for opposing guards.

Philadelphia 76ers

15 Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel could form quite an inside duo if the 76ers can keep them healthy. Big men and leg injuries are a dicey business. Point guard Michael Carter-Williams was limited in the preseason by a shoulder injury.