NBA Predictions 2012-13: Projecting Every Division Winner
The first step towards an NBA championship for any team begins with winning its division.
This is something that's often overlooked when projecting overall win totals and conference standings.
Each of the NBA's six division winners guarantee themselves a seeding no worse than third in the conference playoffs, regardless of anything else that happens from outside that five-team division.
Some of the divisions this season, like the Atlantic, could include as many as four playoff teams. Other divisions, like the Southeast, may only include one.
I am projecting who the six divisional winners will be this season. I'm not suggesting an overall win total associated with each team or where exactly they'll place within the conference. I am simply identifying which team will win each division.
Atlantic Division: Boston Celtics
Projected Atlantic Division Standings: Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Toronto Raptors
Projected Winner: Boston Celtics
The Atlantic is the deepest division in the Eastern Conference. Last season this division sent three teams to the playoffs. This year it will send everyone except the Toronto Raptors.
Through the acquisition of Jason Terry, the return of Jeff Green and infusion of young talent like Jared Sullinger, the Boston Celtics have a deeper bench right now than they did a season ago.
Doc Rivers has made Rajon Rondo the focal point of his offensive attack this year too, and Rondo will reward his coach for that decision. He will prove to be too much to contain offensively and find himself in the discussion for league MVP by year's end.
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett also have more left in the tank than people are giving them credit for.
The Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks will make this the most collectively competitive division in the league this season. Neither of those three teams, however, will have enough to top Rondo and his Celtics for the division crown.
The Celtics will win the Atlantic again, just like they did last year.
Central Division: Indiana Pacers
Projected Central Division Standings: Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons
Projected Winner: Indiana Pacers
The two best teams in this division will open their season with key players sidelined by injury. It may come down to which team's top scorer from a year ago is able to return first.
Danny Granger led the Indiana Pacers with 18.7 points per game last season. He is currently out indefinitely with a sore left knee.
The Chicago Bulls, meanwhile, could be without Derrick Rose for upwards of 40 games as he continues to rehab the ACL injury suffered in last season's playoffs.
If Derrick Rose were healthy, the Chicago Bulls would win this division regardless of whether or not Granger was able to play.
Without Rose, the edge goes to the Pacers.
The talent surrounding Granger in Indiana, when compared to the supporting cast in Chicago, only serves to reinforce this projection.
Roy Hibbert is coming off an All-Star season, David West is still playing at a high level and Paul George is expected to take a step forward this year too.
All reasons why the Pacers will inevitably edge the Bulls for the divisional crown.
Southeast Division: Miami Heat
Projected Southeast Division Standings: Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Orlando Magic, Charlotte Bobcats
Projected Winner: Miami Heat
The best team in the Eastern Conference this season plays in its worst division.
The Miami Heat will win the Southeast division by the biggest margin of any divisional champion in the NBA this season, and the Atlanta Hawks will be that team looking way up at the Heat from second place.
The Charlotte Bobcats and Orlando Magic will be two of the five worst teams in the NBA this year, but the Washington Wizards could also find themselves in that group by season's end.
Two of Miami's Big Three could literally miss the entire season and the Heat would still win the Southeast.
Northwest Division: Oklahoma City Thunder
Projected Northwest Division Standings: Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz
Projected Winner: Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder won the Northwest Division last season with James Harden, and they'll win it again this year without him.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the two best players in this division overall, and they're on the same team. No offense intended to Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge.
The Denver Nuggets will certainly be an improved team. They could challenge some before eventually finishing second to OKC.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz will round this division out in solid fashion. I expect there to be one playoff team to emerge from that group of three.
Ricky Rubio and Love, when healthy, would give the Timberwolves the best chance at becoming that third postseason team from this division.
Pacific Division: Los Angeles Lakers
Projected Pacific Division Standings: Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings
Projected Winner: Los Angeles Lakers
The Pacific was the most highly competitive division in the NBA last year with respect to the top overall spot. The Los Angeles Lakers won out over the Los Angeles Clippers by one game a season ago.
Expect the same type of battle between the same two teams to come down to the last week of the season again this year.
The Clippers will finish second again, followed by the Golden State Warriors at third. I'm not sure if that means the Warriors would end up in the playoffs or not.
They will end up ahead of the Phoenix Suns, though, along with the Sacramento Kings.
Southwest Division: San Antonio Spurs
Projected Southwest Division Standings: San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, New Orleans Hornets
Projected Winner: San Antonio Spurs
The Southwest just became a really intriguing division from top to bottom.
The New Orleans Hornets will be rolling out the top overall pick in Anthony Davis this season. We learned last week that James Harden will be joining Jeremy Lin in the Houston Rockets backcourt.
Two pretty compelling storylines this year for the teams set to occupy the bottom tier of this division.
Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and the rest of the San Antonio Spurs will continue to try to make winning as compelling as they can too.
They'll be crowned champions of this division again, edging out the Memphis Grizzlies for this year's honors.
The Dallas Mavericks will be formidable in their own right but not better than either of those two teams this season.