1) Boston Celtics (65-17)
(low: 59 high: 68)
There’s quite a difference between the highest and lowest possible amount of wins I have listed for this team isn’t there?
The reasoning behind that is rather simple:the Celtics have more room for fluctuation than any other team in the NBA. And it's not very difficult to understand why.
With Kevin Garnett, the Celtics were head and shoulders better than the rest of the league in 2008 (in no small part due to the fact that the Lakers, their Finals opponent, were lacking two of their key components in Trevor Ariza and Andrew Bynum). However, without KG in the mix last year, the Celtics were pushed to the brink by a middling Chicago team and found themselves unable to even reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
With KG returning, and Rasheed Wallace on board, this team will closely resemble the imposing championship unit it was in '08 in both defensive ferocity and swagger.
Unlike last year’s Cavs, who were powerless to defend their interior;last year’s Magic whose offense proved to be too one-dimensional for them to grasp the title; and last year’s Lakers who were flat out terrible at defending the league’s faster point guards; the Celtics have no real weaknesses, at least not on paper.
Even Rajon Rondo, who was once considered to be the weak-link in the Celtics’ starting five, has emerged as a top five player at his position and a legitimate All-Star. Rondo averaged a near triple-double in last year’s playoffs with averages of 9.7 rebounds, 9.8 assists, and 16.9 points per game.
If the Celtics can stay healthy, there isn’t a team in the Eastern Conference that can beat them in a seven-game series.
2) Cleveland Cavaliers (63-19)
(low: 57 high: 64)
This is NOT the second best team in the Eastern Conference.
They will, however, win the second most amount of games. Why? LeBron James is the best workhorse the game has seen since Jordan, hands down.
The addition of Shaquille O’Neal was a move of desperation, and we saw how well that worked out for the last team that tried it. While Shaq may not be as out of place in Cleveland as he was on the fast-paced Suns, there are still many question marks he represents.
How will LeBron, whose offense heavily relies on getting into the paint, coexist with Shaq, who always takes up a sizeable amount of space and attracts a sizeable amount of attention inside? How will Shaq’s body hold up under the pressures of an entire season, without access to Phoenix’s excellent medical staff? Will Shaq be able to adjust to the reality of being a role player now?
Winning at least the second seed in the Eastern Conference is more of a necessity for the Cavs than most may realize. Cleveland was simply terrible on the road against the upper-echelon of the NBA, going a combined 0-5 in Orlando, Los Angeles and Boston last regular season. They lost the contests by an abhorrent average of over 14.5 points.
While the Cavaliers seem to be an elite team on paper, one has to wonder how seriously they can contend for a championship when faced with the same matchup problems they were incapable of dealing with against Orlando last year.
3) Orlando Magic (62-20)
(low: 58 high: 63)
Had just a few plays turned out differently in the Finals, we may well be talking about the reigning champions here.
Many point out that the loss of Hedo Turkoglu’s play making abilities could prove to be more toxic than the Magic had anticipated, but with a healthy Jameer Nelson, this team should be just fine.
Still, the Magic certainly have their work cut out for them this season. Only seven of the 63 championship teams in the NBA history have won the title the year after a Finals loss. The Magic certainly have the talent to make it happen, but the biggest problem with this team isn’t a talent; it’s a lack of leadership.
The Lakers have Kobe Bryant, the Celtics have Kevin Garnett, the Cavaliers have LeBron James, but the Magic have no one. Dwight Howard just isn’t a championship-caliber leader.
We saw as much in last year’s Conference Semif-finals against Boston. In Game 5, the Magic were taken out of their game plan and simply could not get Dwight Howard the ball. However, instead of Dwight resolving the issue on the court or even the sidelines, he criticized Stan Van Gundy’s coaching and his teammates inability to find him, during the post-game interview.
Championship-caliber leaders are guys that can resolve the strong majority of their team’s deficiencies during the game, but I don’t think that Dwight likes being that confrontational.
He certainly isn’t afraid to be, but I just don’t think that direct in-team confrontation is in Dwight’s comfort zone. He’d rather be the approachable, almost cartoonish big guy that everyone likes.
It’s not that the Magic don’t have other question marks, they do. Can Jameer stay healthy? If the team’s shots don’t fall and Dwight can’t throw it down, where does the offense come from? Are they good enough to handle the Celtics with KG in the lineup?
However, I’m a firm believer that if the Magic are going to win the NBA Championship, it has to start up front with Dwight Howard.
If Dwight can’t develop a more firm demeanor that holds his teammates accountable (or at least some offensive back-to-the-bucket moves to add to his repertoire) then the Magic won’t ever win. Period.
4) Washington Wizards (50-32)
(low: 46 high: 52)
Gilbert Arenas is the one player on Earth capable of really shaking things up for the Eastern Conference’s top three teams prior to the Finals. He’s the best scoring point guard the league has to offer and now he’s back with a lot to prove.
With sharpshooter Mike Miller and offensively oriented coach Flip Saunders, the Wizards should certainly be able to put some points on the board. Whether or not they'll be able to defend is a different story.
Knocking off any of the top three team is probably too tall of an order for this year, but in another two or three years, who knows where Boston will be? Besides LeBron may even walk away from Cleveland after the season.
If you keep in mind that the landscape in the Eastern Conference has changed dramatically every few years for the last decade, its not that difficult to predict Washington as the next team in line to reach elite status.
5) Atlanta Hawks (48-34)
(low: 45 high 50)
Molehill highs and valley lows about sums things up here.
After their dismal 38 win season in 2008, everyone jumped on the bandwagon once this team managed to somehow push the Celtics to seven games.
Many had even projected that this would become an elite team afterward, particularly after they became one of only two teams in the NBA to open last year’s season with a 5-0 mark. Yet, it simply wasn’t to be.
Injuries to Joe Johnson, Al Horford and Marvin Williams certainly didn’t help the Hawks any, but the Hawks seemed to be treating the playoff series against Cleveland as a pre-season exhibition. We saw very little, if any of the heart we had seen in their series against Boston the previous year.
6) Miami Heat (45-37)
(low: 42 high: 49)
One of three things is going to happen here: 1) Dwyane Wade’s back is going to give out from carrying all the team’s weight 2) Miami is going to renew its sense of urgency in surrounding Wade with quality players 3) Wade books a one-way ticket to Chicago.
As far as figuring out which of the three is actually going to happen, its anyone’s guess.
The fact of the matter is that Dwyane Wade is not LeBron James. He simply doesn’t have the physique to safely carry the workload that he does year in and year out.
It has to be disheartening for Wade that Miami’s front office was literally on the cusp of surrounding him with a contending team again, until Lamar Odom and Carlos Boozer decided to remain with their respective teams.
Michael Beasley’s problems won’t push this team down any further, but they certainly won’t help.
On the bright side, Wade won't pull a Vince Carter as he’s simply too competitive to give anything but 100 percent, regardless of whether he’s happy with his team’s direction or not.
Still, the most eventful thing headed in Wade’s direction this year will likely be the 2010 offseason.
7) Toronto Raptors (43-39)
(low: 40 high: 45)
Hedo Turkoglu entered the 2009 offseason with little, if any desire to remain with the Magic, and insulted the Portland Trailblazers before landing himself in the greener pastures of. ... Toronto?!
It isn’t exactly secret that Chris Bosh is disappointed with the team’s direction and is looking forward to his free agency in 2010, and Toronto hasn’t won a single playoff series since 2001. So what exactly was Hedo’s reasoning here?
Hey, must be the money.
Hedo’s playmaking abilities should be enough to catapult the Raptors into the playoffs, but what then? Their chances of winning anything higher than a bottom seed are slim and their odds of beating Boston, Orlando or Cleveland are nonexistent.
8) Philadelphia 76ers (41-41)
(low: 38 high: 44)
Andre Miller’s contract is up. Elton Brand has proven to be unreliable (albeit to no fault of his own). The Eastern Conference is getting taller all around you.
What do you do?
Well, logic dictates you should ignore the team’s offensive incompetence, drop Miller, keep Brand, and change the one thing about the team that its fans are alright with, the logo... or at least that's what management thought.
Exactly what made these people decide the Sixers needed that old, hideous, outdated Clipper-like logo back?
Well, Ed Snider says that “This logo evokes memories of some of this franchise’s proudest moments. We also made this change because we understood how much this logo means to our fans, this franchise and to our city.”
You're absolutely right, Ed. If you can’t compete for a championship, wearing the jerseys of the last team in your franchise to do so is the next best thing, right?
The 76ers are quickly losing the feel of an “up and coming team”, their half-court offense is about as potent as a one-legged race horse, and they’ve shown absolutely no signs of improvement in the last two years. But at least they’re wearing the jerseys of former champions.
Gimme a break.
1) Celtics vs 8) 76ers
PREDICTION: Celtics in Four
2) Cavaliers vs 7) Toronto Raptors
PREDICTION: Cavaliers in Four
3) Magic vs 6) Miami Heat
PREDICTION: Magic in Five
4) Wizards vs 5) Hawks
PREDICTION: Wizards in 6
1) Celtics vs 4) Wizards
PREDICTION: Celtics in 5
2) Cavaliers vs 3) Magic
PREDICTION: Magic in 6
1) Celtics vs 3) Magic
PREDICTION: Celtics in 6