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Summer Forecast: Eastern Conference standings for 2017-18

Last season, the Boston Celtics earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, only to see the Cleveland Cavaliers eliminate them on their home floor in the conference finals. What has changed at the top of the standings for 2017-18?

Not much. The Celtics are projected to edge the Cavaliers again for the top seed, and by the same amount of games as well.

Cavaliers' LeBron James and Celtics' Isaiah Thomas.
We asked the ESPN Forecast panel to predict the win totals for each Eastern Conference team. Here are the results:

Forecast: 2017-18 East standings

1. Boston Celtics
Projected record: 54-28
Last season: 53-29

By now you've probably heard or read this stat a thousand times, but it bears repeating again: Last season's Celtics were a 53-win team that had the point differential of a 48-win team. So it's not entirely unexpected that they're projected for "only" 54 wins despite the addition of prized free agent Gordon Hayward. And it's not as if Hayward came without a cost -- Boston had to ship out defensive stalwart Avery Bradley to clear cap space for the former Jazz All-Star.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers
Projected record: 52-30
Last season: 51-31

There are two huge questions to consider when attempting to forecast the Cavaliers' win total: For how many of Cleveland's 82 games will Kyrie Irving be on the roster, and how much does Cleveland even care about the regular season? Last year, the answer to the latter question seemed to be "not in the slightest," and the Cavs still won 51 games -- then went 12-1 in the East playoffs, when they finally seemed to reveal who the "real" Cavaliers were.

3. Washington Wizards
Projected record: 49-33
Last season: 49-33

The Washington Wizards have never won 50 games in a season (Washington's last 50-win season came when the team was known as the Bullets). The panel sees that trend continuing in 2017-18, with a repeat of last year's 49-win season. On the plus side, if the standings land this way, we could be set up for a Cavs-Wizards playoff meeting in the second round. The two teams met three years in a row from 2006 to '08 but haven't faced each other in the postseason since.

T-4. Milwaukee Bucks
Projected record: 47-35
Last season: 42-40

In one of the strangest trends in the NBA, the Bucks have alternated playoff and lottery seasons for the past five years, making the postseason in 2013, 2015 and 2017, and landing in the lottery in 2014 and 2016. That trend should come to an end this season, as Milwaukee is expected to take another step behind forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. If the Bucks can live up to this projection, they'd have home-court advantage in a playoff series for the first time since 2001.

T-4. Toronto Raptors
Projected record: 47-35
Last season: 51-31

From 2011 to '16, the Raptors increased their win total every season, starting at the bottom with 22 wins and topping out with 56. They took a step in the wrong direction last season and look as if they're going to continue that trend again, falling back below the 50-win plateau. And "plateau" might be what the Raptors have done, as their big offseason addition was CJ Miles, who essentially replaces DeMarre Carroll in the rotation.

6. Miami Heat
Projected record: 44-38
Last season: 41-41

The Heat were two teams last season -- one that started 11-30 and one that finished 30-11. They're neither that bad nor that good, but they should be back in the playoffs in 2018. In fact, Miami hasn't missed the postseason in consecutive years since 2002 and 2003, and their longest playoff drought in franchise history is only three seasons.

7. Charlotte Hornets
Projected record: 42-40
Last season: 36-46

In a way, the Hornets are the anti-Celtics. They won only 36 games last season but had the point differential of a 42-win team. And like Boston, Charlotte added a former All-Star this offseason. However, Dwight Howard got the most votes for "worst newcomer" from our ESPN Forecast panel. Still, the dislike for Howard's fit wasn't enough for the panel to keep Charlotte out of the playoffs for a second consecutive year.

T-8. Philadelphia 76ers
Projected record: 37-45
Last season: 28-54

It's hard to tell whether the panel trusts the process or not. The 76ers' 37-win forecast represents a nine-win improvement from where they finished 2016-17 but still keeps Philadelphia well below the .500 mark. However, in the dismal Eastern Conference, 37 wins is a playoff team (for at least one team), so Sixers fans can hang their hat -- maybe the one from the head of No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz -- on that.

T-8. Detroit Pistons
Projected record: 37-45
Last season: 37-45

While 37 wins gets the Sixers into the playoffs in our projections, it's not enough for the Pistons, who came in just percentage points behind Philadelphia when the numbers were crunched. Missing the postseason would be devastating for a Detroit franchise that had high hopes when it gave total control to Stan Van Gundy in 2014 but has played in only one playoff series (with zero playoff game wins) since then.

T-10. Indiana Pacers
Projected record: 31-51
Last season: 42-40

The Pacers lost a lot when they traded Paul George to the Thunder, and the panel agrees with the conventional wisdom that they didn't get nearly enough back to keep them competitive. Pacers fans might be temporarily buoyed by the fact that Indiana is projected for a 10th-place finish in the East -- on the fringe of playoff contention -- but the win spread between the Pacers and the No. 9 Pistons is bigger than the one between the Pacers and the cellar.

T-10. New York Knicks
Projected record: 31-51
Last season: 31-51

The Knicks might have ditched the triangle, but the math shows them stuck in something of a basketball Bermuda Triangle. They won 32 games two seasons ago, 31 last season, and are projected for 31 again this season. Trading Carmelo Anthony might finally give the team a sense of direction, but it's not likely to get them closer to the postseason any time in the near future.

12. Orlando Magic
Projected record: 30-52
Last season: 29-53

It's hard to believe that it has been five years since the Magic traded Dwight Howard, in part because it seems as if the franchise has made little to no progress in that period. Their best season in that span was a 35-win run two years ago, and they proceeded to drop back to 29 wins last season. The mistakes of last summer have largely been washed away, but there weren't enough improvements this summer to project a big leap forward for this team yet.

13. Atlanta Hawks
Projected record: 27-55
Last season: 43-39

The days of the Hawks being "Spurs East" seem at an end. Atlanta has made the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons (the longest active streak in the NBA outside of San Antonio), but the talent drain has caught up with the Hawks, leaving them with none of their quartet of 2015 All-Stars. Kevin Pelton gave the Hawks a D-plus for their offseason, and it seems the panel agrees, dropping them a remarkable 16 wins from a season ago.

T-14. Brooklyn Nets
Projected record: 26-56
Last season: 20-62

The Nets edged the Bulls by mere percentage points to avoid the cellar for the second consecutive year, thanks to a forecast that sees Brooklyn adding six wins from its total a season ago. Some of that can be attributed to the additions of D'Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, but it also helps that the Nets have no incentive to tank -- they owe their pick to the Celtics no matter what.

T-14. Chicago Bulls
Projected record: 26-56
Last season: 41-41

The last time the Bulls had the worst record in the NBA was 2001-02. That season Tim Floyd, who'd been hired away from Iowa State three years earlier, resigned after a dismal 4-21 start. Now Fred Hoiberg, who was hired away from Iowa State two years ago, enters the season with a depleted roster after the trade of Jimmy Butler, and expectations in Chicago couldn't be lower -- which might be what spares Hoiberg from a similar fate.

* Notes from ESPN.com's Adam Reisinger.

Source: http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/20353282/2017-summer-forecast-eastern-conference-standings

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