With the NBA beginning its preseason and the regular season just around the corner, it’s time to delve into playoff predictions for each conference. There are many off-season storylines that make this season particularly interesting to follow. Many of basketball’s top players are suiting up for new teams, as was seen just last week with the first games of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan in their new uniforms. Although they all played sparingly, their presence on the court ushers in a new era and new hope for their franchises. LeBron, the best player in the NBA for the past decade, looks to take a group of unproven youngsters and disregarded role players on a deep playoff run in the loaded Western Conference. 

The reigning champion and super team, Golden State Warriors, only increased their depth by adding one of the most skilled big men in the NBA to their roster — Demarcus Cousins. This move made what is already considered by some to be the greatest team of all time, even stronger. Cousins will, however, begin the season on the bench as he deals with lingering injuries from last year, prolonging the wait to witness five all-stars on the court at the same time. Fans coming into the season will be left wondering whether or not a real challenger will emerge or if the Warriors will easily win their third straight championship. Additionally, young teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers, Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves will be maturing and looking to move up in the standings. Lastly, as is true every year, a new crop of intriguing rookies will be entering the league and looking to prove that they belong. Names to keep in mind are Luka Doncic, Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Collin Sexton, Kevin Knox, Wendell Carter Jr. and Trae Young. Although some of these players are more in the boom or bust category, they all have the potential to make a splash immediately. Now, without further ado, here are the pre-season projections. 

The Eastern Conference allows for lot more room for teams to leap into playoff contention due to its relative lack of talent. For the first seed, the Boston Celtics will make it to the top of the conference with a healthy roster, featuring Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, as well as breakout rookie Jayson Tatum. They surprised many by making it to the finals last season, but won’t be surprising anyone this year with their amazing mix of youth and veteran experience, depth and excellent coaching. The Philadelphia 76ers will take the second seed, further progressing after snatching the third seed last year. 76ers fans have been rewarded for “trusting the process” and their core of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid has as much talent as any other combination in the league. Seemingly, forgotten top pick Markelle Fultz is also poised to make an impact after making crucial modifications to his jump shot this offseason. 

The Toronto Raptors will slide down to the third seed after losing their franchise player in the offseason. Although Kawhi Leonard is viewed by many as even better than DeRozan, it will undoubtedly take time for him to develop chemistry with Kyle Lowry and the rest of the team. The Raptors should not to be slept on and are viable contenders coming out of the East in the postseason. The Milwaukee Bucks will take the fourth seed with “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way. Their team is extremely athletic with the likes of Giannis and Eric Bledsoe, as well as newly acquired Brook Lopez. It is scary to think that Giannis is only 23 years old and still improving. The Indiana Pacers will solidify their place in the middle tier of the Eastern Conference with the 5th seed. Victor Oladipo has turned into a perennial all-star, as he proved last season and through his matchup with Lebron’s Cavaliers in the playoffs. The Washington Wizards will take the 6th seed with a very skilled starting five of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris and Dwight Howard. Wall and Beal make up one of the best backcourts in the NBA, and Howard will be looking to prove that he can be an asset for the team, after being reduced to a journeyman these last few seasons. Rounding off the last two spots in the East are the Detroit Pistons and Miami Heat, representing the 7th and 8th seeds, respectively. The Pistons will have a full season with Blake Griffin, who makes scary tandem in the paint with Andre Drummond. Their presence, as well as the leadership of point guard, Reggie Jackson, should be more than enough for them to make it into the playoffs this year. Lastly, the Heat, no longer the team they used to be, will have one last ride to the playoffs — a fitting end for their legend, Dwyane Wade, as he prepares for retirement. The team has the talent to to sneak through with Goran Tragic and Hassan Whiteside still in the rotation. This should be a fun season for Heat fans, but a rebuild is surely on the horizon.

In the Western Conference, there are a surplus of talent with several seemingly deserving teams not making the cut this year. The first seed will be claimed by the reigning champion, Golden State Warriors, after shockingly falling to the second seed last year. Although they are obviously mostly focussed on preserving health and freshness on their path to the playoffs, their squad has only improved with the acquisition of Bougie Cousins, as well as the rest of their stars being firmly in their primes. The second seed will belong to the Houston Rockets after picking up aging star, Carmelo Anthony, and losing two key glue players in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. Although Melo can surprise the league and turn back the clock this year, he is a potential liability with his high volume shooting and defensive restrictions. 

The third seed will be taken by Melo’s old team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook will bounce back to his 2016 form, and his chemistry with Paul George will undoubtedly improve. George, one of the best two way players in the NBA, will have more opportunities to score and should emerge as a legitimate MVP candidate this year. Next, in the fourth seed, is the Utah Jazz who proved their legitimacy last season with the emergence of Donovan Mitchell. In his sophomore season, Mitchell should already be regarded as one of the best players and athletes in the league. Additionally, Ricky Rubio shined at point guard after leaving Minnesota and Rudy Gobert is one of the most dangerous big men in the NBA, winning last season’s defensive player of the year award. 

The Portland Trail Blazers will make it to the fifth seed as they struggle to make the moves necessary to reach the next level. Although they have one of the best backcourts in the West with Damian Lillard and CJ Mccollum, they have repeatedly been ousted early in the playoffs. Lillard is a superstar and deserves the utmost respect, but in today’s NBA, that isn’t enough to compete with the best. The Los Angeles Lakers will make the greatest jump of any team in the NBA and reach the sixth seed. Yes, one man can be that good. LeBron James will change the current culture of the franchise, accelerate the growth of young players like Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram and push the lakers into the playoffs. In his age 34 season, LeBron will still be in the MVP conversation and quite possibly attract some notable mid-season free-agents to bolster the team during its playoff run. 

The last two slots will be filled by the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets. The Timberwolves will make it to the 7th seed with one of the most young and excited rosters in the NBA. Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler and Karl Anthony Towns are all excellent, franchise players and could catapult the team deep into the playoffs. However, the chemistry is not where it should be as Butler has asked for a trade, amid conflict with Towns. The Wolves are as volatile as they are talented, which will make for a compelling story as the season comes underway. Finally, the ever balanced and consistent Denver Nuggets will take the final spot in the West. Spearheaded by a frontcourt of Paul Millsap and triple-double-machine, Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets will be back in the playoffs this season, after missing it a season ago. Explose guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray will make great strides as they come closer to joining the NBA’s elite, and off the bench Isaiah Thomas will have a lot to prove on his quest to show that he is still the dominant player he used to be.