Additions: Garrett Temple, Patrick Williams, Arturas Karnisovas (general manager), Billy Donovan (coach)
Losses: Kris Dunn, Shaq Harrison, John Paxson (general manager), Jim Boylen (coach)
2019-20 Record: 22-43, 11th in Eastern Conference
Analysis: For the third straight season, the Chicago Bulls missed the playoffs. While 2021 might not reverse that trend, there is significantly more optimism around the Bulls now than the previous few years.
After a long run with John Paxson and Gar Forman leading the front office, Chicago finally made a change at the top of the organization. The Bulls hired Arturas Karnisovas from the Denver Nuggets, and he revamped the entire front office. Karnisovas built a reputation as a savvy talent evaluator in Denver, and was part of a group that built one of the Western Conference’s deepest teams.
After a lengthy evaluation period, Karnisovas replaced Jim Boylen with Billy Donovan as head coach. Donovan had a lot of success in Oklahoma City as he regularly led the Thunder to playoff appearances. Now, he’ll look to replicate that with one of the NBA’s younger teams.
On the court, Chicago didn’t make a lot of changes. They brought in Garrett Temple, a respected locker room veteran, to replace Kris Dunn in the backcourt. The Bulls also drafted Patrick Williams, who was one of the highest rising players in the 2020 draft. Williams should bring some wing versatility to a team that was short on two-way wings. He may need some development time, but his athleticism is a nice pairing to the more ground-bound games of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.
Getting those two bigs healthy and on the court at the same time has been a challenge for Chicago. Actually, health has been a challenge for the roster as a whole. The Bulls are entering the second year with essentially the same group of players, but have rarely seen them all available at the same time.
Seeing this group together is a primary goal this season, as it’s an evaluation year for Karnisovas. Otto Porter Jr. is a free agent following the season, and Lauri Markkanen didn’t sign an extension and will be a restricted free agent this summer. Zach LaVine is consistently mentioned in trade discussions.
Karnisovas was patient in hiring a coach and that paid off when Chicago landed Donovan. Now, expect him to be patient this season with the roster. With better health, stable coaching, and growth from Coby White as the team’s lead guard, the Bulls will finally be able to evaluate how this group fits together. Expect changes to come, but likely in the offseason. This year is all about evaluation.
Additions: Isaac Okoro, JaVale McGee, Damyean Dotson, Thon Maker
Losses: Tristan Thompson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Ante Zizic
2019-20 Record: 19-46, 15th in Eastern Conference
Analysis: The Cleveland Cavaliers are bringing back much of the same roster, but have hopes that a full season of J.B. Bickerstaff on the sidelines, plus Andre Drummond at center, will lead to a more successful season. The Cavs remain a bit of an odd mix of veterans like Drummond and Kevin Love combined with young, high upside players. The hope is that the kids develop, while the vets play well enough to lift Cleveland towards the Play-In tournament.
With another high draft pick, the Cavaliers selected Isaac Okoro. If his play in the abbreviated preseason is any sign of what’s to come, it looks like Koby Altman got a good one. Okoro is already the team’s best wing defender and his offensive game looks better than expected. He may not start immediately, but it won’t be long before he’s in the opening lineup.
When he does start, Okoro will team with Darius Garland and Collin Sexton to make up an interesting young trio. Sexton was much-improved in his second year, as he took better shots. Sexton excised the midrange pull-ups he loved as a rookie and turned those into three-pointers and layups. That made him more efficient and he now looks the part of an NBA scorer.
Garland had a rough rookie season. Early on, he played off the ball and he clearly wasn’t comfortable in that role. Eventually, he took on the primary ballhandler role, with Sexton shifting off-ball. Once that happened, Garland looked a lot more like the highly regarded prospect Cleveland drafted. He’s still learning how to run an offense and make plays for others, but there are signs he’s getting it.
Up front, the Cavs will lean on Love and Drummond. Defense hasn’t been, and will never be, a strength for either. But both can make up for it by scoring at a decent clip. And when the team does get stops, they can feel confident they’ll get the ball, as Love and Drummond both remain excellent rebounders.
Behind the starters is an interesting mix of younger players and mid-career veterans. Cedi Osman will likely cede the starting small forward role to Okoro eventually, but when he does, Osman will look better as a reserve. He’s overmatched as a starter, but should be a solid backup wing. Kevin Porter Jr. is currently working through some off-court issues, but showed promise as a potential two-way wing player as a rookie.
Larry Nance Jr. will be the primary backup big man. He even played some small forward at times in lineups that featured two bigs. That’s probably not necessary this year, but Nance remains a very good backup for Love and Drummond.
Two more players to keep an eye on are Dante Exum and Dylan Windler. Exum has flashed some of that ability that made him a high draft pick, but is still inconsistent. This may be his last chance to prove he’s an NBA player.
The hope was that Windler would provide some consistent outside shooting to a roster lacking in that regard as a rookie. A leg injury cost him his entire first season, but Windler is healthy now. He’ll get minutes and should fit in just about any lineup Bickerstaff can dream up because of his shooting.
Being more competitive night-to-night, and possibly being in range of the Play-In Tournament, is a good goal for Cleveland this season. Bickerstaff is more respected as an NBA coach than his predecessor and the young talent seems ready to bloom. It may not lead to many wins this season, but they look like they are on the way.
Additions: Jerami Grant, Killian Hayes, Mason Plumlee, Josh Jackson, Delon Wright, Wayne Ellington, Saddiq Bey, Jahlil Okafor, Isaiah Stewart, Rodney McGruder, Deividas Sirvydis, Troy Weaver (general manager)
Losses: Christian Wood, Bruce Brown Jr., Luke Kennard, Tony Snell, Langston Galloway, Thon Maker, Brandon Knight, John Henson, Jordan McRae
2019-20 Record: 20-46, 13th in Eastern Conference
Analysis: Troy Weaver came in and tore the Detroit Pistons down to the studs as much as is possible in one offseason. The Pistons are returning only four players from the previous season. You couldn’t blame Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, Sekou Doumbouya and Svi Mykhailiuk if they asked for nametags when training camp started.
As the offseason began, Weaver’s vision was hard to see. Initially it looked as though he was going to acquire every available center that he could. When the dust cleared, the roster construction made more sense, even if some questions still remain.
Up front, Weaver signed Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee from Denver to start alongside Griffin. Grant became a key forward for the Nuggets, while Plumlee was a solid backup to Nikola Jokic. Both players were looking for bigger roles and got them with the Pistons. The question is: Are both truly ready for those bigger roles? Time will tell.
On the wing, Josh Jackson comes in as a second (maybe third?) draft kind of guy. Jackson was so bad in Phoenix that they declined his rookie scale option and then dumped him on Memphis. While with the Grizzlies, Jackson showed a newfound maturity and his game blossomed. He’ll have every opportunity to continue that growth in Detroit.
The backcourt is going to be led by rookie point guard Killian Hayes. Dwane Casey handed him the starting role at the beginning of camp, and there’s no reason to believe the team will turn away from that. Hayes will have some ups and downs, as all rookie point guards do, but he’s a terrific prospect. He’s got a good understanding of how to run an offense and his defense is already fairly solid. If Hayes’ shot comes along, Detroit has their floor leader for years.
To aid in Hayes’ transition to the NBA, Weaver kept Rose and traded for Delon Wright. Rose will back up Hayes, while Wright looks like he’ll start next to him. Both will allow Hayes to grow at his own rate. And, should his stellar play from last season carry over, Rose will be a major trade chip by the deadline.
Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart rounded out Weaver’s first round draft haul and both are intriguing players. Bey seems likely to force his way onto the floor at a forward spot eventually, and Grant is an ideal player for him to learn from. Stewart is rawer, but brings more bounce to the frontcourt than the guys in front of him.
With so much turnover, and no true stars in place, it’s likely to be long year in Detroit. This year is about getting Griffin re-established, showing that Grant and Plumlee are good fits long-term and making sure the kids develop. Detroit will probably play better later in the year, after they’ve developed some chemistry together. It probably won’t matter much this season, but it could pay off heading into 2021-22.
Additions: Kelan Martin, Jalen Lecque, Nate Bjorkgren (coach)
Losses: T.J. Leaf, Aliza Johnson, Nate McMillan (coach)
2019-20 Record: 45-28, lost in Eastern Conference First Round
Analysis: In terms of players, the Indiana Pacers are bringing back almost the same roster. They made minor additions to the backend of the roster in hopes of improving their wing and guard depth. But the lack of upgrades roster-wise belies a team that hopes with better health, they’ll improve upon their first-round playoff exits as of late.
To lead them out of the first round, the Pacers hired Nate Bjorkgren from the Toronto Raptors to replace Nate McMillan. Despite giving McMillan an extension, the feeling during the restart was that the team’s progress had stagnated. That put Kevin Pritchard in a spot where he needed to make a change on the sidelines or with the roster. He chose to change the coach vs rebuilding his roster.
Bjorkgren comes in after a career as a highly respected assistant. It’s expected he’ll adopt some of the adaptable schemes the Raptors run. Expect Indiana to have a more varied inside-outside offense, and to push the pace. On defense, the Pacers will probably change defenses quite a bit, while mixing in a good amount of zone. That should aid in keeping their two big men on the floor together at the same time.
If Bjorkgren can install some solid defensive concepts, it will quiet the noise about needing to split up Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner as frontcourt partners. Both players have solid skills that complement each well on offense, but defense has been a bit of an issues. Sabonis and Turner are both better fits at the five and either sliding over to play the four has been a problem at times, especially against smaller teams.
If the Pacers can’t figure out how to play Sabonis and Turner together, it’s likely one will be moved in trade. It’ll probably be Turner, as Sabonis has been a bit better on both ends and was a 2020 All-Star.
Should that come to pass, Indiana is fortunate to have a versatile forward in T.J. Warren. Warren was one of the best players in the bubble and can play either forward spot. He’s a solid scorer and has become a good shooter. His defense is better than you think, and he’s improved as a passer as well.
In the backcourt, the Pacers are bringing back Malcom Brogdon and Victor Oladipo. Injuries robbed the team of seeing the two play together as much as hoped for. The idea is that they can both play on and off the ball, allowing for a seamless pairing. This is a contract year for Oladipo and a chance to show he’s recovered from the leg injury. If he’s back to his All-Star level, that changes the ceiling of this team quite a bit.
If chemistry develops between Brogdon and Oladipo, Indiana will have a deep backcourt. Behind them, the Pacers have Aaron and Justin Holiday. Aaron is a true point guard, while Justin is one of the better bench shooters in the league. In addition, T.J. McConnell is around and Bjorkgren can count on him to give good minutes when necessary as one of the NBA’s premiere pests.
The depth behind Sabonis and Turner is a little shakier. Doug McDermott is a good shooter, but he’s not doing much else. JaKarr Sampson has done a nice job as a deep bench player, but the Pacers have to hope 2019 draftee Goga Bitadze is ready for a bigger role as a backup center. If Bitadze can step up, they’ll be in a good spot.
Everything is in place for Indiana to be a good team once again, but there’s lingering questions they have to answer. If Sabonis and Turner can play together and Oladipo is back to being himself, the Pacers can make a deep playoff run. If neither of those things come together, they’re probably still a playoff team, but it’ll be another one-and-done postseason appearance.
Additions: Jrue Holiday, D.J. Augustin, Bobby Portis, Torrey Craig, Bryn Forbes
Losses: Eric Bledsoe, Wesley Matthews, George Hill, Robin Lopez, Kyle Korver, Ersan Ilyasova, Sterling Brown
2019-20 Record: 56-17, lost in Eastern Conference Second Round
Analysis: The 2020 season came to a disappointing end for the Milwaukee Bucks as they fell to the Miami Heat in five games in the second round of the playoffs. This exit followed a dominant regular season, where the Bucks were historically good. This left the future of the franchise a bit in peril.
We start with the team’s most recent, but also absolutely most important, transaction, as the Bucks reached a five-year, super max contract extension with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Keeping the two-time MVP home in Milwaukee was all the Bucks really needed to accomplish to have a successful offseason. But now that Antetokounmpo is locked up, eyes turn to where this team stands for the 2020-21 season.
To show Antetokounmpo they were willing to do what it takes to win, Jon Horst sent multiple first round picks to the New Orleans Pelicans for Jrue Holiday. While the price was steep, Holiday is a perfect fit with Antetokounmpo and fellow All-Star Khris Middleton. Holiday is an upgrade over Eric Bledsoe defensively and can do a lot of the same things on offense. He’s also more comfortable playing off the ball than Bledsoe, giving Antetokounmpo and Middleton more time to work with the ball.
That was far from the only change in Milwaukee though. The strength of the Bucks the last two seasons was their depth, as they went 11-12 players deep. That overwhelmed lesser opponents, but oddly became a negative in the postseason. As Milwaukee fell to Miami, Mike Budenholzer repeatedly said he couldn’t extend his stars to 40-plus minutes per game, because they weren’t used to playing that much.
This season, less may turn out to be more. An 11-12-player rotation is great in the regular season, but come playoffs you need eight or nine guys you can trust. Budenholzer has that this season. Donte DiVincenzo will take over for Wesley Matthews in the rebuilt backcourt. He’s more than ready for the increased role after a solid sophomore season.
Up front, Brook Lopez returns to anchor the league’s best defense. He can play more than the 26.7 minutes per game he played last year. That’ll be a benefit to the already-great defense. Bobby Portis has had a roller coaster career, but should thrive in a defined role in Milwaukee. The Bucks want him to defend, rebound and run the floor. If he’s got open jumpers, that’s fine. But he won’t be asked to do anything more than that.
Torrey Craig will be a solid defender that Budenholzer can put on wing scorers. Pat Connaughton is also back to provide some wing shooting and scoring. And Bryn Forbes replaces Kyle Korver as the designated shooter.
This Bucks team isn’t as deep as previous editions, but by pushing their starters just a bit more in the regular season, they shouldn’t have an issue stepping them up to 40 minutes or more in the playoffs. That should make the difference between an early exit and finally making that NBA Finals run we’ve all been expecting.