1. MIAMI 63-19: They have LeBron James, enough said.
The Heat are a cut above everyone in the East. James finally figured it out in last year's playoffs, taking his game to a level not seen since the Jordan days.
Miami poached the NBA's all-time three-point scorer Ray Allen and added Rashard Lewis (a career 38.8-percent shooter from deep) to their roster, which will make teams who double James in the post pay big time.
The one major concern is the Heat’s depth inside. Big teams such as the Lakers will pose a mammoth challenge to James and Co. But they will cruise through the regular season and are the clear favorites to repeat.
2. BOSTON 52-30: These Celtics are better than last year's version, and to me clearly remain the second-best team in the conference.
Jason Terry is an upgrade over Allen at SG, because he can do more than Allen at this stage in their careers. Jeff Green is back after missing all of the 2011-2012 season after undergoing heart surgery, and he looked surprisingly good in the preseason.
Courtney Lee, an underrated pickup, is a knockdown three-point shooter from the corner and is an excellent wing defender. Add Avery Bradley to the mix (coming off surgery to both shoulders) and the C's could upgrade what already was a lockdown defensive squad.
Don’t forget they added Leandro Barbosa to an already deep bench to provide instant offense. Look for Doc Rivers to limit the minutes of Garnett and Pierce during the regular season, as they prepare to make another deep postseason run.
3. ATLANTA 47-35: New GM Danny Ferry finally gave this franchise a fresh identity, yet some people are forgetting about this team, simply because they dumped Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams.
Josh Smith is coming off a career season and should be motivated in his contract year. The Hawks will have Al Horford back to form a formidable frontcourt duo that will punish opponents on the glass and on the defensive end.
Throw in scoring guard “Sweet” Lou Williams (led Philly in scoring at a 14.9 clip last season) and speedy point guard Devin Harris, and this team is quite balanced. They also brought in deadly three-point shooters in Kyle Korver (career 41.3 percent from deep) and Anthony Morrow (42.6 percent from long range) to space the floor.
Watch for the continued development of fourth-year guard Jeff Teague (who started all 66 games in ’11-’12, averaging 12.6 points and 4.9 assists), who is still only 24.
4. INDIANA 47-35: The Pacers are coming off an impressive season in which they held a 2-1 series lead over the eventual champions, before sputtering in the final three games.
They are banking on growing from within, and that starts with third-year guard/forward Paul George. Indiana hopes George can make the leap to becoming at least the second-best player on a championship contender.
George Hill was handed a contract extension this summer to stay at starting point guard but is still unproven, having never started more than 43 games in a season.
The big question for Indiana is whether Danny Granger's knee will allow him to be productive this year. He was ruled out indefinitely on Tuesday, which is a huge blow, because he's the only guy on this team that is a proven 23-24 point scorer.
The Pacers will need David West to regain his scoring form from his days in New Orleans, which would help lessen the burden on Granger when he returns.
5. BROOKLYN 46-36: After moving across the river and overhauling the roster, Brooklyn will have the spotlight on them from Day 1.
They re-signed Deron Williams, Kris Humprhies and Brook Lopez, and traded for six-time All-Star Joe Johnson. Scoring should not be the issue; defense will be.
None of their starters are particularly known for their prowess on that side of the ball, which will be an issue in close games. The bigger issue may be Williams’ bum ankle, which could require offseason surgery.
If the ankle acts up, it could be a crippling blow to a team and fan base full of energy.
6. PHILADELPHIA 46-36: Andrew Bynum's health is the key, but more importantly, the Sixers need to find out what they have in Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner.
Holiday has the physical tools to take that next step and become a top-five point guard, but must get to the charity stripe more often (1.8 FTA last season), take less long twos and more threes.Turner is one of the biggest enigmas in the league, and finally gets his chance to prove that he can contribute at this level.
The Sixers did a great job of turning their weakness (long distance shooting) into a strength by surrounding Bynum with shooters. Philly was 25th in the league in three-point attempts last season and 24th in three-point makes, but should vault into the top 10 in both categories with the additions of Jason Richardson, Dorell Wright and Nick Young.
A healthy Bynum is the one player in the east for whom Miami has no answer, but this team is still a year away from being a true championship contender.
7. CHICAGO 44-38: Their ceiling depends on the health of Derrick Rose, who is recovering from a serious knee injury suffered in the playoffs last April. His status for the season is uncertain, with some people suggesting Chicago should shut him down for the season.
However, this is still a playoff team without Rose, led by the coaching wizardry of Tom Thibodeau, who will have these guys playing top-10 defense. Aside from Rose, the Bulls return their four starters, while bringing back Kirk Hinrich to run the point.
Nate Robinson will provide scoring off the bench, while Taj Gibson will be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
But unless D-Rose returns, this team is not deep enough or talented enough to pose a serious challenge to Miami.
8. NEW YORK 43-39: Amar'e Stoudemire is out six to eight weeks after having minor knee surgery, but that might not be such a bad occurrence.
New York was terrible when their three best players (Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler) shared the floor, scoring an anemic 98.5 points per 100 possessions, roughly equivalent to 25th in the NBA.
Seeing how the Knicks play without their star power forward will be a top story. If New York sprints to a fast start, look for the trade rumors to swirl around Stoudemire, even though he is due $19.5 million this season and $45 million over the next two seasons.
New York is the oldest team in NBA history, after adding Jason Kidd (39), Marcus Camby (38), Kurt Thomas (40) and even coaxing Rasheed Wallace (38) out of a two-year retirement. Too bad it’s not 1999.
I have them edging out the new-look Toronto Raptors for the final playoff spot out of the best division in basketball.