With a rather active offseason shaking things up in the NBA, the main thing that stands is Miami remains the best team in the league. While they could be a lock for the top seed in the East, just how will the playoff road look for Miami?
The Eastern Conference is wide open for those teams looking to make serious runs in the playoffs. Teams like the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics will continue to build on last season's success, but other teams like the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic could find themselves looking for a nice lottery pick.
With the Chicago Bulls missing Derrick Rose, we could see a team like the Brooklyn Nets leap up to grab home court advantage in the first round of playoff action. With their newly formed squad, a team like this could have an impact similar to that of the Los Angeles Clippers last season.
As it stands now, we could see some wild results in the upcoming season. The one thing we might not see is any team taking championship glory away from the Miami Heat in the 2012-13 campaign.
Let's check out just how this playoff picture could look.
Even without Monta Ellis for the full season, the Milwaukee Bucks were a team that caused frustration for Miami last year. Now with an improving young roster with some offensive explosiveness, this is a team that could crack the playoffs once again.
Besides the production from Ellis, Milwaukee also has a guard in Brandon Jennings who can put up points in bunches. Jennings continues to better his shot selection and raise his points per game significantly each season.
The young Bucks duo has the potential to become the best backcourt in the East, if not the entire league. While others are more established, it will be interesting to see just how well the pair spreads the production throughout the team.
Bringing back Ersan Ilyasova this offseason will also prove to be a major factor going into next year. He significantly improved his three-point shot and can really spread the floor opening lanes for the attacking guards.
John Henson and Samuel Dalembert will provide Milwaukee with an athletic inside game, but neither are polished enough offensively to exploit Miami's size disadvantage down low.
Overall, this is a tough team who should see playoff action based off potential. They have some nice supporting players who can do anything from rebounding to knocking down treys, but Miami will prove to be too much.
The Heat will continue to put pressure on Jennings and Ellis in order to create turnovers and bad decisions. LeBron should have no problem finding ways to the basket, thus opening up opportunities for wing shooters along the way.
Milwaukee's best chance at winning is to catch fire offensively, but Miami has way too much defensive talent to let that happen in four losses.
Prediction: 4-1 Miami
Not only are the Nets a new fit in Brooklyn, but they also look like a new fixture in the NBA playoffs. With Deron Williams and Joe Johnson suiting up for the team, Brooklyn could look to grab a top seed within the East.
Williams carried the Utah Jazz to the playoffs before, but didn't have the same success in his first full season in New Jersey. He still remains one of the league's best point guards who can both score and distribute, but he also brings a stronger cast of players with him this season.
Joe Johnson was brought to Brooklyn simply to score big points. There is little doubt he will get that opportunity playing alongside Williams.
While his contract may not justify his worth, Johnson can still put up all-star caliber numbers offensively, He's most effective from long range, but doesn't have a true weakness on either end of the floor. He plays solid defense and continues to be one of the streakiest players in the NBA.
Brooklyn will be happy to have center Brook Lopez back as well. He is often criticized for his rather soft defensive efforts, but makes up for it with his finesse ability in the post.
At just 24-years-old, Lopez has plenty of time to progress in all aspects of his game. He must learn to body up defensively and find his way out of trouble when double-teamed in the paint. With Williams at the point, look for the former Stanford standout to continue to improve.
This team has a solid nucleus, but will also bring some valuable depth.
Kris Humphries will continue to be a double-double machine while Gerald Wallace slashes to the basket and plays key defense. A wildcard for Brooklyn will be MarShon Brooks, who has the ability to be a top scorer in the league in the right situation.
The Nets are talented, yes, but will still not get past Miami.
Look for Brooklyn to struggle slowing down the offensive arsenal of the Heat in a seven-gamer. This is a series where we should see both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh breakout to help lead the surge into the Eastern Conference Finals.
This could end up being a matchup we often see in the near future, but as it stand Miami is clearly better.
Prediction: 4-1 Miami
Just thinking about this potential matchup makes me crave basketball season even more. This could be Boston's last legitimate chance of winning another NBA championship for the foreseeable future, so look for them to lay it all on the line at this point.
With Ray Allen donning Miami colors this time around, Boston will have to look for other options to torch the Heat from deep. Luckily for them, free agent Jason Terry should be the right fit for the job. He's a veteran shooting guard who can light it up from downtown and be effective in any given role.
While Terry is a nice fit, Boston still brings back most of the main pieces that have made them so dangerous over the past few seasons.
Rajon Rondo continues to develop offensively and prove to be one of the best overall players in the NBA. He's quick, plays elite defense and continues to be a playmaker with the ball. He caused Miami fits in last season's playoffs, averaging 20.9 points and 11.3 assists during the series, but will have to play an even bigger role now.
While past their respective primes, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce provide much more than statistics for Boston. They will have to be emotional leaders on the floor as well as step up when called upon.
The Celtics will have a well-rounded group of guards with the acquisition of Courtney Lee and a healthy Avery Bradley on board. While Lee will be a threat from deep, Bradley will greatly contribute with solid defensive efforts and a lot of energy.
We will also see some physical big men in Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger. Both can rebound effectively and hit jumpers from mid-range.
Looking at this roster shows that they will have no lack of depth next season. Injuries plagued them heavily last season, but a fresh start could bring different results in a potential rematch.
Miami will once again have to rely on their athletic ability to down the Celtics in seven or less games. Boston is a tough, defensive-minded team that can spread the floor and create turnovers. Taking care of the ball will be a major difference for the Heat, but they continue to improve upon this.
In the end, no player will be able to stop LeBron James. He had his way with Boston the last two years and nothing looks like it will change now.
Spreading the floor and drawing out Garnett will be a deciding factor in this one. Chris Bosh and the rest of the outside shooters will need to be consistent in order to win comfortably, so look for Ray Allen to show exactly why he jumped sides in this rivalry.
Prediction: 4-3 Miami
Will one more year in experience make that much of a difference for the young Oklahoma City Thunder in a series with Miami?
Kevin Durant continues to put up freakish offensive production while becoming a valid defender. He can score from anywhere at any moment and developed a rather polished clutch ability when given the chance.
If the Thunder want a true chance in this series, it all depends on Westbrook. He is still developing into a true point guard, but has to realize he's the second scoring option for Oklahoma City.
Westbrook put up some memorable games in the finals, but his 27 points on 24 shots a game with atrocious three-point shooting doomed them in the end. On the flip side, Durant was able to put up 30.6 points a night on three less shot attempts.
I'm not totally blaming Westbrook for a quick exit. James Harden didn't help either.
Harden had a great Game 2 in the finals, but then pulled a disappearing act on all of us. He could not buy a bucket and fouled way too often for a player of his caliber.
This young trio needs to continue to mesh together and find their proper roles in order to grab a championship. Point guard distribution is key, along with Harden showing up to provide a spark off the bench.
Besides Serge Ibaka, the rest of the Thunder depth is questionable. While Ibaka was my personal choice for Defensive Player of the Year last season, Oklahoma City didn't have many other statistical difference-makers.
The Thunder do have a notable group of hard-working role players, but not enough to get them over the top next season against Miami.
Miami will be able to fend off Oklahoma City's explosive offensive game just like last year. The Heat blew a few sizable leads last time around, but learned to play together in the final minutes in order to pull out wins.
We will once again see the two best players in the league fight it out for bragging rights. Both James and Durant will dazzle, but Miami has the better, more battle-tested group surrounding their star.
Look for James, Wade and Bosh to once again have a big series, capturing their second-consecutive championship.
Prediction: 4-2 Miami