With the Eastern Conference facing a LeBron-less era for the first time since 2003, the race for first is officially underway. But who comes out on top? Looking at teams stats, depth charts, free agent signings and last years success, we have made our “far too early” playoff predictions.

No. 8 seed: Detroit Pistons (proj. 43-39)

Image result for detroit pistons

(photo credit: http://www.crainsdetroit.com)

PG- Reggie Jackson-Jose Calderon-Ish Smith-Dwight Buycks

SG- Reggie Bullock-Luke Kennard-Langston Galloway

SF-Stanley Johnson-Glenn Robinson III

PF-Joe Leuer-Henry Ellenson

C-Andrew Drummond-Eric Moreland

The Detroit Pistons have been relatively quiet this offseason. Two moves, however, may just help improve them from last season’s 39-43 record.

The hiring of recent Coach of the Year winner, Dwane Casey, is a great improvement. Casey brings in a winning mentality and looks to change the culture of Detroit, a team who missed the playoffs by four wins last season.

So far, Casey has been looking at the young talent the Pistons present in the NBA Summer League. He has been eyeing Henry Ellenson, Luke Kennard and rookies Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown, to see how they can possibly fit into the final roster.

Stanley Johnson has also made an impression on Casey. Johnson, entering his fourth season, has been underwhelming in his first three seasons with Detroit. Dwane Casey however, believes he will have a breakout season. “I believe in Stanley,” Casey said. “The talent is there and I believe in him. I know it’s there and he’s shown it.”

To help Johnson, Detroit signed former Pacer, Glenn Robinson III. Robinson, the 3-and-D wing, spent the majority of last season injured and saw little playing time. The Pacers thought he could be a great asset off the bench, and possibly a starting role, but that simply did not pan out as they parted ways this summer.

Robinson provides the team with defense and shooting, two fields the team lacked last season, and particularly off the bench. He could also possibly challenge Johnson for the starting role. He ranked 21st in the NBA in DRPM in 2016 through 69 games played. He also shot 39.2 percent from behind the arc. Both are major improvements over Johnson, but he will have to prove himself to Casey coming off last season’s injury.

Pistons will also look to stars, Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin, to be the leaders on the court. Griffin showed promise for Detroit before his injury. Through 58 games, he averaged 21.4 points on 43.8 percent shooting, including 34.5 percent from three point range. He also provided 7.4 rebounds per game along with 5.8 assists.

The 29-year-old power forward from Oklahoma has been plagued with injuries during his career. He has yet to play 82 games since his rookie season and hasn’t played more than 67 games since the 2013-2014 season. If he can stay healthy, he can provide much needed help on both ends of the floor.

Look for Detroit to change the way they play. Though they won’t be near the top of the conference, Detroit may do just enough to take the No. 8 seed in the playoff picture.

No. 7 seed: Miami Heat (proj. 44-38)

Image result for pat riley erik spoelstra

(photo credit: http:www.sports.yahoo.com)

PG-Goran Dragic-Tyler Johnson

SG-Dion Waiters-Rodney McGruder

SF-Josh Richardson-Justise Winslow

PF-Kelly Olynyk-James Johnson-Derrick Jones Jr.

C-Hassan Whiteside-Bam Adebayo

The Miami Heat have been in a holding pattern this offseason. As of late, they have been rumored to be a possible trade destination for Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love. For now though, it remains speculation.

Though the Heat lack a star and are coming off a brutal first round exit in five games thanks to the Philadelphia 76ers, they have two big factors that promise success.

Head Coach Erik Spoelstra and President Pat Riley are both known to finding a way to win. Spoelstra, entering his 10th season as head coach with Miami, has accomplished a 440-282 (.609 franchise best) regular season record. He also is the franchise’s leader in postseason victories (70-43), winning percentage (.619), games coached (113), and series won (15). Though some may argue LeBron James is a key factor behind his success, Speolstra holds a 90-74 record without him.

Outside of coaching, the Heat planned to rely on guard Dion Waiters to bring home the “W” in tight games. That was before his season ending ankle injury. The 6-foot-4 Philly native played a disappointing 30 games this past season, averaging 14.3 points on 39.8 percent shooting. Waiters posted a 30.6 three-point percentage, landing him 170th in the league in that field. Miami could look to trade Waiters, though the return may not be ideal and the Heat lack a replacement shooting guard.

On the upside, Miami has All-Star point guard Goran Dragic returning for his fifth season with the team. Dragic has found success since joining the Heat from Phoenix. Last season, the 10-year veteran posted 17.3 points per game on 45.0 percent shooting to go along with 4.1 rebounds and 4.8 assists. For his four seasons with Miami, he is averaging 17.2 points per game on .470 percent shooting, 3.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.0 steals and just 2.5 turnovers.

Dragic enjoyed his first All-Star selection last season, and shows no signs of slowing down as he enters his 11th season. He is the veteran leader the Heat and Spoesltra need. Barring no trades the remainder of the offseason, Miami has neither improved nor gotten worse. If Waiters can remain healthy and improve his shot, the Heat should post around the same record as last season, and likely have the same first round exit in the playoffs.

No. 6 seed: Washington Wizards (proj. 46-36)

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(photo credit: http://www.nbcsports.com)

PG-John Wall, Thomas Satoransky

SG-Bradley Beal-Austin Rivers-Troy Brown-Jodie Meeks

SF-Otto Porter Jr.-Kelly Oubre Jr.

PF-Markieff Morris-Jason Smith-Thomas Bryant

C-Dwight Howard (pending Nets buyout)-Ian Mahinmi

Washington, lead by Bradley Beal and John Wall, had a generally quiet season at 43-39. This was just enough for the final spot in the playoff picture.

John Wall had another disappointing season playing just 41 games for the Wizards. Although he averaged 19.4 points, 9.6 assists, and 3.7 rebounds, Wall missed 11 games in November and December before opting for surgery in January causing him to miss six weeks.

Recently, Wall has been subject to trade rumors, being a possible target for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Wall, who has played his entire career in Washington, is still recognized as one of the league’s top point guards, despite his recent injuries. Washington would require a good return though, as they lack depth in the point guard position. Despite the rumors having gained momentum as of late, Washington plans to stick with John Wall.

Another move the Wizards have made this offseason is the acquisition of Dwight Howard, following his buyout from the Brooklyn Nets. The 14-year veteran averaged 16.6 points, 12.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.6 blocks last season for the Charlotte Hornets. Howard was acquired in a draft-day trade for Timofey Mozgov and the 45th pick in June’s NBA draft.

Howard, entering his 15th season, still brings a strong rebounding and defensive presence for Washington. The Hall of Fame bound center averaged 3.1 offensive rebounds last season, 3.5 for his career. Offensive rebounding has been an area Washington has looked to improve, they ranked 13th in the league last season with Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi at center.

With Beal, Howard and a healthy John Wall, Washington could see an improvement on last season’s record. Though they lack the depth, and at times, the late-game playmaking needed to push them into the top four in the conference, their offseason moves have improved the team. They look promising at the No. 6 seed and could push their first round matchup to six or seven games.

#5 seed: Milwaukee Bucks (proj. 47-33)

Image result for milwaukee bucks

(photo credit: http://www.therunnersports.com)

PG-Eric Bledsoe-Donte DiVincenzo-Matthew Dellavedova-Brandon Jennings

SG-Tony Snell=Malcolm Brogdon

SF-Khris Middleton-Sterling Brown

PF-Giannis Antetokounmpo-Ersan Ilyasova-D.J. Wilson

C-John Henson-Tyler Zeller-Thon Maker

Milwaukee Bucks have been a team on the rise as of late, finishing the 2017-2018 regular season with a 44-38 record. Milwaukee improved on the 2016-2017 season by two wins, but many around the organization felt the team did not quite meet their expectations.

There were two real sleeper teams in the eastern conference playoff picture last year. The Indiana Pacers who took LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to a seven-game series, and Milwaukee who pushed Boston to a seven-game series, as well.

During the Celtics-Bucks series, a couple of areas were highlighted that the Bucks will need to work on this offseason: their three-point shooting, bench scoring and improving the center position.

A possible answer to all three of those areas is two-year center, Thon Maker. Maker, who may receive punishment for his recent role in the FIBA brawl, is hopeful of increasing his three-point percentage along with his minutes this upcoming season.

In the 2016-2017 season, the 7-foot-1 center connected on 37.8 percent of his three-point shots in 74 attempts. This past season, Maker increased his three-point attempts by 30, and decreased his percentage to 29.8. While the Bucks don’t expect the big man to be as effective as 76ers Joel Embiid, they do hope that he can blossom into an effective starting role.

Barring any NBA punishment, or injuries from remaining FIBA matches, Maker should be focusing on his shot from behind the arc and physicality in the paint. The Bucks would like Thon to contribute around 12.0 points and 7.0 rebounds off the bench this upcoming season and have his three-point percentage right around 38 percent.

The majority of focus for Milwaukee and the rest of the NBA is star power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek-Freak has increased in points per game, rebounds per game, field goal percentage and three-point percentage in all five of his NBA seasons. This past season Giannis posted a 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists stat line. At 52.9 percent, Giannis was 18th in the league in field goal percentage and 10th in the league in total rebounds with 753 in 75 games played.

It is without a doubt that Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ future. If he continues his trend the last five seasons, Giannis could be looking at a 30-12-7 season.

With the return of Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee looks to be even more of a threat in the eastern conference. Last season, they struggled to compete in the upper echelon of the conference. But this year, they look to be a part of it. If the Bucks can retain Jabari Parker and he can stay healthy, they could be even more of a threat. For now though, look for Giannis to increase Milwaukee’s record by another three wins and put them in the thick of the battle for the No. 4 seed in the east.

#4 seed: Toronto Raptors (proj. 51-31)

Image result for toronto raptors

(photo credit: http://www.onlinegambling.com)

PG-Kyle Lowry-Delon Wright-Fred VanVleet

SG-DeMar DeRozan-CJ Miles-Malachi Richardson

SF-OG Anunoby-Normal Powell-Alfonzo McKinnie

PF-Serge Ibaka-Pascal Siakam

C-Jonas Valanciunas-Jakob Poeltl

Toronto is coming off a near 60-win season and a second-round playoff exit by way of LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Raptors are no strangers to regular season success as of late. Since the 2013-2014 season, Toronto has averaged 52 wins per season with their lowest year at 48 in 2013-2014. They have lead the Atlantic Division in all five of those seasons with exception of the 2016-2017 season where they finished second.

Playoff success, however, is another topic. Since the 2013-2014 season, the Raptors have been eliminated in the first round twice, conference semifinals twice and a loss in the conference finals to the LeBron-led Cavaliers in 2015-2016.

Dwane Casey, this past season’s Coach of the Year, earns as much credit for their regular season success as he is to blame for their playoff woes. In a somewhat surprising move, the Raptors and Casey went their separate ways after seven seasons in the head coach position. The changing of the guard could be a sign of a possible rebuild in the future, but as long as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan remain the team’s leaders, a rebuild will take a backseat.

Defensively, the Raptors have found promise in the young forward, OG Anunoby, from Indiana University. Though his stat line does not reflect the energy and defensive grit he brings to the team, during the playoffs he was given the task of guarding the unguardable LeBron. He increased in his point per game average, steals per game and blocks per game in his first 10 playoff games.

Still though, this remains DeRozan and Lowry’s team. DeRozan averaged a career high 5.2 assists last season, to go along with his 23.0 points per game. Through all his regular season success, he is often criticized for not being able to bring his team to the NBA finals.

With next season bringing in a new head coach, Nick Nurse, look for the Raptors to have a successful season. It may not be enough to surpass Indiana, Boston and Philadelphia in the regular season, but the change may be enough to get Toronto back to the conference finals.

#3 seed: Indiana Pacers (proj. 54-28)

Image result for indiana pacers

(photo credit: http://www.1070thefan.com)

PG-Darren Collison-Cory Joseph-Aaron Holiday

SG-Victor Oladipo-Tyreke Evans

SF-Bojan Bogdanovic-Doug McDermott

PF-Thaddeus Young-T.J. Leaf

C-Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis-Ike Anigbogu

The Indiana Pacers were highly criticized for the Paul George-Oladipo trade. Most analysts and GM’s predicted Indiana to be dead last in the eastern conference. As the season started, though, the Pacers took off strong.

Oladipo, a fan favorite when he played for Indiana University, won over the city quickly with his high energy, hot shooting and all-NBA level defense. In his fifth year and third team, Victor averaged career highs in points (23.1), steals (2.4), rebounds (5.2) and assists (4.3). Add on his .477 percent field goal shooting and .371 percent from behind the arc, and you have the NBA’s most improved player by a landslide.

Sabonis also fit nicely into the Pacers rotation averaging 11.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in just 24.5 minutes per. Sabonis is entering his third NBA season, and will see increased minutes behind starter Myles Turner.

The story for the Pacers, though, is while most teams focused on landing stars this offseason, Indiana simply got better with their quiet free agent signings.

GM Kevin Pritchard has shown he has an eye for talent, and this offseason he released guard Lance Stephenson and signed Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott.

Evans will bring a much needed bench presence for the Pacers. Last year with the Grizzlies, Evans averaged 19.4 points on 45.2 percent shooting, including 39.9 percent from behind the arc. This is a huge improvement on Lance Stephenson’s 9.2 points on .427 percent shooting and .289 percent from three. Evans also brings a more level-headed approach to his playing style. Lance was a fan favorite in Indiana, but as Pritchard put, “Sometimes he was the best player on our team, and sometimes he was the best player for the other team.”.

McDermott is also an underrated signing for the blue and gold. Doug McDermott averaged 7.8 points off the bench for the Mavericks, with .467 percent shooting and .426 percent from deep. McDermott may have an issue with increased minutes in terms of defense, but if he continues to find his groove offensively, that’s all the Pacers are asking for.

Indiana lacked offensive output from the bench when Oladipo took a breather, and with these two signings, they have more than corrected that.  Top it off with their first-round pick, Aaron Holiday, who looks to be impressing the club so far with his Summer League output. Then when you take into effect the fact that Indiana almost did the unimaginable and beat LeBron in the first round of the playoffs before ultimately losing game seven in Cleveland, the Pacers are going to be real trouble this season for the rest of the league. It would be no surprise if the newly energized team challenged the eastern conference for first place and made its way to the conference finals.

#2 seed: Philadelphia 76ers (proj. 57-25)

Image result for philadelphia 76ers

(photo credit: http://www.thesixersense.com)

PG-Ben Simmons-Markelle Fultz-Jerryd Bayless-Landry Shamet

SG-JJ Redick-T.J. McConnell-Justin Anderson-Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot

SF-Robert Covington-Wilson Chandler-Zhaire Smith-Furkan Korkmaz

PF-Dario Saric-Nemanja Bjelica

C-Joel Embiid-Amir Johnson-Richaun Holmes

The Philadelphia 76ers were one of the NBA’s top teams last year before being eliminated in five games by the Boston Celtics.

This offseason, they were rumored to be in the LeBron sweepstakes. When that fell through, they were engaged in talks with San Antonio for a trade involving former MVP Kawhi Leonard. Realistically though, the 76ers would be asked to give up too much for Kawhi as they look to stick with their young core.

Instead, Marco Belinelli signed with the San Antonio Spurs. Belinelli provided 13.6 points off the bench off .495 percent shooting. To help replace him, the 76ers signed Wilson Chandler and Nemanja Bjelica.

Chandler last year for the Denver Nuggets, provided 10.0 points per game off .445 percent shooting, including .358 from behind the arc. Bjelica, in his third season for the Timberwolves, averaged 6.8 points per game, .461 percent shooting and .415 from three in just 21 minutes per game.

The bench is an area that needed improving for the 76ers. Bjelica will see increased minutes and will be expected to produce closer to 10-12 points per game, especially with the high shooting percentage he provides. Chandler will look to continue his consistent play as Philadelphia looks to continue to “trust the process.”

Markelle Fultz had an underwhelming rookie season for Philadelphia. The former overall number one pick of the 2017 NBA draft played just 14 games, averaging 7.1 points on .405 percent shooting and 3.8 assists. The Rookie also attempted only one, yes one, three-pointer.

If he can improve this offseason and show that he is worthy of a starting position, the 76ers could play him at starting point while sliding rookie of the year Ben Simmons to the shooting guard position. This would put recently re-signed shooter JJ Reddick to a bench role, making Philadelphia’s depth become a real threat as they push to the conference finals.

A starting lineup of Fultz, Simmons, Covington, Saric and Embiid is a young core that could prove to be their own super-team. Simmons and Embiid are already there, Covington and Saric are right behind them and Fultz would be the final piece to the puzzle. If the team can remain healthy and Fultz prove himself worthy of a number one pick, the Philadelphia 76ers are on their way to being a force to be reckoned with in the east.

#1 seed: Boston Celtics (proj. 60-22)

Image result for boston celtics

(photo credit: http://www.clutchpoints.com)

PG-Kyrie Irving-Terry Rozier

SG-Jaylen Brown-Marcus Smart-Brad Wanamaker-Abdel Nader

SF-Gordon Hayward-Semi Ojeleye

PF-Jayson Tatum-Marcus Morris-Robert Williams-Guerschon Yabusele

C-Al Horford-Jabari Bird-Daniel Theis

The Boston Celtics are coming off a 55-win season without Gordon Hayward who broke his leg in the first game of the year and Kyrie Irving who missed the last part of the season after electing to have surgery.

Jaylen Brown found himself in a lead role in just his second NBA season. Brown averaged 14.5 points per game on .465 percent shooting including .395 percent from three. He started in all 70 games he played this past season and increased his stat line in every field. If Brown can improve his three-point shot just slightly, he could provide the team with 20 points per game easily.

Horford also had a strong role in keeping the Celtics afloat. The veteran big man averaged nearly 13 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. Tack on his 4.7 assists per game, most coming as he was double-teamed in the paint or being run off the three-point line, and Horford was near perfect for the Celtics.

Marcus Smart may not have had a stat-stuffing season, but he brought similar energy and defensive grit that Draymond Green provides for the Warriors. The restricted free agent has yet to receive a new contract from Boston. With the salary cap playing out the way it has been, the Celtics are more than likely waiting to see what offers Smart receives before submitting their final offer to him. This could end up in Boston getting Smart for a bargain price and keeping cap space for next season. Although Smart says he is “hurt” the  Celtics have not talked to him about a new contract, all signs are leading to him re-signing with Boston.

With Gordon Hayward improving his shot this offseason and the return of Kyrie Irving, Boston would appear as the new favorite for the upcoming season, especially with the departure of LeBron James to the western conference. Anything less than a conference finals trip, and frankly, a trip to the NBA finals, would be a disappointment for Boston. This year could be the only year they have to prove their strength with both Hayward and Irving. A sense of urgency and slight desperation will play a role and push the Celtics to the number one seed and be the favorites to come out of the eastern conference.

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Photo Credit: http://www.beinsports.com

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