NBA Basketball: Predicting the Final Eastern Conference Standings

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMarch 13, 2013

NBA Basketball: Predicting the Final Eastern Conference Standings

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    While many basketball fans are enamored with the impending release of the NCAA tournament bracket and the resulting madness that follows, NBA squads are fighting for position with the playoffs right around the corner.

    Storylines abound in the Eastern Conference, ranging from the possible return of Derrick Rose to the continued dominance of LeBron James. Throw in upstart seasons from the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers, and the East should be entertaining, even if the Heat are running away with it.

    Read on to see how the final standings will look once the playoffs get underway. With seeding as important as ever (nobody wants to play Miami), it is worth keeping an eye on those NBA scores even as March Madness heats up.

No. 8: Milwaukee Bucks

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    The Milwaukee Bucks are more formidable than they were before the trade deadline thanks to the addition of three-point sharpshooter J.J. Redick, but they will still earn the dubious No. 8 seed, otherwise known as the team that gets the privilege of losing to Miami in the first round.

    The Bucks are a case study of inconsistency, primarily because of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. Each is capable of lighting up the scoreboard on any given night, but each is also capable of throwing up ill-advised shots and damaging their team’s chances of going on an extended run or winning streak.

    Look for more inconsistency from Milwaukee down the stretch. This is a good enough squad to beat the lesser opponents on the remaining schedule, but games against the Heat (twice), Pacers, Lakers, Thunder (twice), Knicks and Nuggets will make life difficult down the stretch.

    The Bucks will certainly be a playoff team this season, which is a step up from last year’s result, but don’t expect them to seize a higher spot than the No. 8 position.

No. 7: Atlanta Hawks

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    No Joe Johnson, no problem for the Atlanta Hawks this year. Unless, of course, you count being a perennial mediocre team that is destined to lose in the first round a problem.

    The Hawks are led by the trio of Al Horford, Josh Smith and Jeff Teague now that Johnson is lacing it up for the Nets. Nevertheless, no team on this list is trending down quite as drastically as Atlanta.

    The Hawks have lost six out of their past seven games, many of which came against probable playoff teams. The good news is the schedule lightens up a bit down the stretch run, but not enough for this squad to climb any higher than the No. 7 slot.

    It also wouldn’t be surprising if Milwaukee caught Atlanta from behind, but let’s keep the Hawks in the ever-important spot of avoiding Miami in the first round.

No. 6: Boston Celtics

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    The Boston Celtics were left for dead when Rajon Rondo (and even Jared Sullinger) was lost for the season, but behind veteran leadership and the determination of a former champion, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and company are once again a threat in the East.

    Jeff Green has picked up his play significantly, the corpse of Jason Terry is still making timely shots on occasion and Boston is a certainty to make the playoffs and perhaps give one of the top seeds a run for their money.

    Jordan Crawford gives the Celtics an intriguing piece in the backcourt that they basically got for nothing, and the Garnett and Brandon Bass combination gives Boston some heft in the middle. Nevertheless, on paper, this team shouldn’t pose much of a threat to the East’s best teams, but it’s a safe bet that nobody wants to play the Celtics in the playoffs.

    It’s also worth mentioning that a No. 6 seed would mean they avoid the Heat until a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup. It may seem far-fetched, but so does an extended winning streak without your star point guard.

No. 5: Brooklyn Nets

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    The Brooklyn Nets may be a team of overpaid players (Joe Johnson, anyone?), but they have performed well enough this season to ensure themselves a spot in the playoffs. Now the only question that remains is what seed they will get when they get there.

    Deron Williams has been playing more effectively recently, and the Nets could realistically seize the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage for the first round. The remaining schedule isn’t terribly daunting either.

    However, for reasons we will get to in the next slide, Brooklyn will have to settle for the No. 5 seed. The worst part of that is probably the fact that Miami would be waiting in the second round, but the Nets would be more than happy to find themselves still playing at that point.

    Brook Lopez has performed admirably all season, and if Williams and Johnson play up to their potential, this is a dangerous squad.

No. 4: Chicago Bulls

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    The Chicago Bulls are currently part of a crowded logjam between the No. 4 and No. 8 seeds in the Eastern Conference, but they have one potential advantage over those other squads—the return of Derrick Rose.

    Granted, that is a bit presumptuous considering the fact that Rose himself recently said his hamstrings are bothering him and he isn’t sure if and when he will return. But let’s work under the assumption that he will eventually return, especially since he has been medically cleared.

    In addition to adding one of the NBA’s premier superstars to the roster (even if he isn’t 100 percent), the Bulls have a light schedule in April. Chicago plays Washington twice, Orlando twice, Toronto twice and Detroit during the season’s final month.

    There is too much space between the Bulls and the East’s top three teams to make up with a lighter slate and the return of Rose, but Chicago should seize the No. 4 seed in the playoffs. That would mean home-court advantage for the first series.

No. 3: New York Knicks

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    It has been a tremendous regular season for the New York Knicks, but the year and star player Carmelo Anthony will ultimately be judged by the postseason performance.

    The remaining schedule is loaded with playoff teams, so look for New York to slide into the No. 3 seed when the dust finally settles. Games against Denver, Los Angeles (Clippers), Boston (twice), Memphis, Miami, Indiana, Chicago, Atlanta (twice) and Oklahoma City still await the Knicks.

    That’s not to say Anthony and company can’t hold off the Pacers for the No. 2 spot, but that is a lot to ask this squad that seems to always be in the pressure cooker. It’s never wise to overreact to one regular season NBA game, but when the Knicks are involved, that always seems to be the case (see the Golden State blowout on Monday).

    As long as Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire continue to coexist, which is less difficult with Stoudemire coming off the bench, the Knicks will be a factor in the Eastern Conference race.

No. 2: Indiana Pacers

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    The Indiana Pacers have been portrayed as the last great hope for Miami Heat haters this season, at least in terms of Eastern Conference opponents. However, that storyline took somewhat of a hit when Paul George and company were eviscerated in Miami this week.

    A loss at Miami shouldn’t take away from what Indiana has done this year though. After all, everyone loses to the Heat nowadays, and the Pacers are still the NBA’s best rebounding team and arguably its best defensive squad.

    That ability to lock down opponents will be critical in the season’s final stretch. The April schedule is a bit dicey, and the April 14 contest at Madison Square Garden could go a long way towards determining who gets the No. 2 seed in the East.

    The Pacers have beaten the Kicks two out of three times this year and will look to do so again on the back of their defense and athleticism. The No. 2 seed will be the ultimate result.

No. 1: Miami Heat

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    At this point it seems more likely that the New York Knicks or Indiana Pacers miss the playoffs entirely than catch the Miami Heat.

    LeBron James and company have won approximately 200 consecutive games (give or take a few) and have looked completely dominant during the process. And it’s not as if Miami has been beating up solely on the league’s minnows—victories over Houston, both Los Angeles teams, Chicago, Indiana, New York, Memphis and Oklahoma City are spread across that winning streak.

    The only drama remaining in Miami’s regular season is whether it can beat out San Antonio and the Thunder for home-court advantage in what seems like an inevitable NBA Finals.

    There isn’t much more to say about the Heat that hasn’t been repeated ad nauseam throughout the second half of the season. James will win the MVP, Dwyane Wade is playing at an impressive and overlooked clip and the supporting cast is hitting on all cylinders.

    The real test will come when the Heat try to defend their crown in the playoffs.