Charlotte Hornets

Handicapping the NBA Eastern Conference

Cleveland’s LeBron James (23) continues to be the dominant force in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
Cleveland’s LeBron James (23) continues to be the dominant force in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. AP

Staff writer Rick Bonnell predicts an order of finish in the NBA’s Eastern Conference:

Cleveland Cavaliers: It took forever for the Cavs to work out a contract with J.R. Smith, but now the key pieces from last season’s title team are reassembled. The Cavs will benefit from LeBron James skipping the Rio Olympics to rest up.

Boston Celtics: This team had lots of depth, plus an explosive point guard in Isaiah Thomas and solid coaching in Brad Stevens. It lacked a star until big man Al Horford chose the Celtics over re-signing with the Atlanta Hawks.

Toronto Raptors: This team has an All-Star backcourt in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. The key will be keeping the frontcourt healthy; Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll were limited by injury last season.

Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks took a hit when Horford chose not to re-sign, but Paul Millsap still has All-Star credentials and Dennis Schroder is a rapidly improving point guard. Keep an eye on rookie forward Taurean Prince.

Indiana Pacers: Forward Paul George is one of the top 10 players in the Eastern Conference. He’ll get some help this season with the Pacers acquiring point guard Jeff Teague, power forward Thaddeus Young and reserve center Al Jefferson.

Miami Heat: Dwyane Wade left for the Chicago Bulls and the Heat has ruled out playing Chris Bosh, because of blood-clot issues. This team is now about center Hassan Whiteside (a Gastonia native) and point guard Goran Dragic.

Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets won’t be as deep or as good offensively as they were last season. Coach Steve Clifford says they can be better defensively, particularly with the return to health of small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Chicago Bulls: The Bulls went through major changes, with point guard Derrick Rose and center Joakim Noah leaving for the New York Knicks and Pau Gasol signing with the San Antonio Spurs. A Jimmy Butler-Dwyane Wade combo could be formidable.

Detroit Pistons: The trade for Tobias Harris worked out well last season. That makes a “Big Three” of center Andre Drummond, point guard Reggie Jackson and Harris, which is sufficient to stay in playoff contention.

Washington Wizards: The Wizards took a step back last season, and that was mostly about going from a very strong defensive team to one of the NBA’s weaker defensive teams. Keeping shooting guard Bradley Beal healthy is a crucial.

New York Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis is one of the better young big men in the league, with the ability to score in the post or along the perimeter. Can Rose stay healthy? And will Carmelo Anthony’s starring role on Team USA in Rio launch him to a strong season?

Milwaukee Bucks: Shooting guard Khris Middleton will miss about six months after hamstring surgery, which is a major setback. The acquisition of Greg Monroe hasn’t worked out and he has a huge salary.

Orlando Magic: The Magic seemed to be slowly building through the draft, but then took a different turn during the summer with the acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo. Drafting Mario Hezonja got a lot of attention, but he struggled as a rookie.

Brooklyn Nets: The Nets had arguably the worst point-guard situation in the NBA. They addressed that with a big-money free-agent offer to former Hornet Jeremy Lin. Center Brook Lopez is the only remnant of the Nets who chased a title a couple of seasons ago.

Philadelphia 76ers: No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons breaking his right foot (he’s out until January) is the latest of this franchise’s awful injury luck. It seems inevitable one of three big men – Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor – will be traded for backcourt help.