Atlantic Division (projected order of finish and final record)
Boston Celtics (62-20) – The champions once removed return with a vengeance and a rejuvenated ‘Big Three.’ A healthy Garnett, Pierce, and Allen still combine to form the best trio in the league, and after a season where Rondo emerged as one of the league’s best young point guards and an offseason where they definitely upgraded their bench, they’re not just re-loaded, they’re overloaded. What will probably be the best defensive team in the league never got a fair chance to defend their crown last season, but they are sure to be right back in the picture this year.
Philadelphia 76ers (47-35) – The rest of the Atlantic is a somewhat organized toss-up, but the return of Elton Brand should allow Philadelphia to play runner-up to Boston. Early indications are that new coach Eddie Jordan has found a way for his squad not to miss a beat without Andre Miller, and with a faster-paced offense. Iguodala and Young have both become tremendous scoring options, and even though both health and depth could creep back as problems for the Sixers, I like their roster enough to compete in the division and conference.
Toronto Raptors (38-44) – A team that took a proverbial year off did their best in trying to re-work their look in what may be their final year with Chris Bosh. The acquisition of Turkoglu will definitely help, but the young players that they have given ample opportunity too have not seized it by the throat. A team with this many European players scares me because they aren’t known to be the best rebounders or defenders, and even though they’ll be able to score with the best of them, they could hang around in the playoff picture, but even that’s no certainty.
New Jersey Nets (32-50) – They have gutted the core completely and tried to go young. It didn’t work last year, and it won’t work again. Many think this will be the worst team in the East, and though I won’t go that far, the Nets won’t be far from a cellar lock. They actually have some young talent, headed by Harris and Lopez, but looking at the bigger picture, New Jersey will have trouble selling tickets and the franchise could be on the move shortly. They exceeded their expectations last year, but with little veteran presence, the Nets won’t win much.
New York Knicks (31-51) – It’s sad that not many care about this Knicks season, but that thought is becoming more true going into the campaign. Their hopes clearly ride on the mammoth free-agent class of 2010, and with seven players on the roster who have expiring contracts, a ninth-consecutive losing season is a foregone conclusion. The NBA wants, and to a degree needs a good team in New York. They won’t get their wish this year with a Knick team that will attempt to run and gun with a roster half-full of small forwards. Push fast forward to 2010, please.
Central Division (projected order of finish and record)
Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16) – The team that was the best throughout the regular season in 2008-09, but flopped in the playoffs made a number of acquisitions in order to get them over the hump. Obviously, they are led by their superstar LeBron James, and by acquiring Shaq, they are clearly out to win a championship before James’ possible departure. They are built to roll through the regular season, and with a superstar, post presence, and guards who can shoot, they will rack up the wins and take their division easily. The Cavs have yet to prove themselves in the playoffs though.
Detroit Pistons (46-36) – I don’t expect the Pistons to take as much of a hit as everyone does this year. They rid themselves of Iverson and Wallace, which may be addition by subtraction, do well in the free-agent market by signing Gordon and Villanueva, keep two of their core players in Hamilton and Prince, and finally give Stuckey a chance to flourish at the point. I expect new head coach John Kuester to try to push the ball since there is a true lack of big men. This lack of size and toughness will hurt, but not enough to keep the Pistons out of the playoffs.
Indiana Pacers (43-39) – The best team that no one’s talking about is the Indiana Pacers. They were riddled with injuries throughout the year, and still almost made the playoffs. They can score with the best of them, led by their star, Danny Granger. The supporting cast is good if it’s healthy, specifically Dunleavy and Ford, who played well when not sidelined. They didn’t add much star power, but improved through the draft, and should be a lot better defensively. A franchise like this won’t be held down for too long; look for a return to the postseason.
Chicago Bulls (40-42) – Chicago definitely could crack the top eight, in what is an improving, yet still uncertain conference. I don’t expect them to be any better, and even though they get Deng back from injury, they lose Ben Gordon, who was most of their offense in the playoffs. They still lack a true scoring presence in the low post, and though Derrick Rose has quickly become a great star in just one year, the loss of Gordon leaves a hole, and a lot of mismatches will be had up front with Noah and Thomas. The Bulls will be on the outside looking in come spring.
Milwaukee Bucks (28-54) – If NBA teams were rappers, they’d be Hurricane Chris. It has just all fallen apart in Milwaukee, and really hasn’t been good in a while. They still have Michael Redd, who is never healthy, Andrew Bogut, who is looking more and more bust-like each year, and lost Jefferson, Villanueva, and Sessions this offseason. The Bucks finished 34-48 with that group, so things will probably much uglier in 2009-10. They put a lot of stock of rookie point guard Brandon Jennings, but wins will be hard to come by for lame-duck Scott Skiles this year.
Southeast Division (projected order of finish and record)
Orlando Magic (59-23) – The defending conference champs come back with a bit of different look this year. It will be very interesting to see how Vince Carter does on a winning team with some actual talent around him. Stan Van Gundy’s team is led by its own superstar, Dwight Howard, along with Rashard Lewis, and Jameer Nelson. In my opinion, it is a three-horse race in the Eastern Conference, with the Magic being the weakest, but in no way is that a knock on their squad. Their division is not bad, and has the potential to send four teams in the playoffs.
Miami Heat (51-31) – The Heat kind of collapsed in the playoffs last season, but they actually should be better than projected by many this season. They know what they’re getting from Wade: 30 a night. They know what they’re getting from Jermaine O’Neal in a contract year, and they have a solid young nucleus in Beasley, Cook, and Chalmers. Spoelstra did a tremendous job last season in his first year, and with a much more well-rounded team this year, they should sail back to the playoffs even if winning the division is asking too much.
Atlanta Hawks (50-32) – Depth and young players are not hard to find on Atlanta’s team, but with a bunch of shoot-first players, spreading the wealth might be a problem for point guard Mike Bibby, who didn’t look like he had much left in the tank last season. Joe Johnson in a contract year could put some big numbers, and Horford and Smith make up a young, athletic frontcourt. They’re young, fun, and versatile, and I like them a lot, but they fall into the category of second-tier teams in the East, and will be watching the second round, not in it.
Washington Wizards (38-44) – The Wizards would have had the team they wanted last season, and brought in coach Flip Saunders to lead it, but have proven even before the season starts, they fail to stay healthy once again with an injury to Jamison. Arenas needs to have a rebirth to his career this season, or else it is pretty much over. With the depth that they have by adding Miller and Foye, they could certainly be a dark horse team in the East, but injuries are always a problem, and I’d be stunned if their core stays healthy for the duration of the 2009-10 season.
Charlotte Bobcats (34-48) – In a year where everyone expected Charlotte to finally do something and battle for a playoff spot, they fell flat on their faces, and made an impulsive, illogical trade of Okafor for Chandler, and now are left with not much of anything in terms of frontcourt scoring or veteran experience. Wallace and Felton will provide most of the offense for the Bobcats, but it looks like Larry Brown has tried to rebuild the Bobcats in his own image, but has just made a bunch of lateral moves. No dice for the Bobcats in their sixth season.
All-Eastern Conference First Team
C - Dwight Howard, Orlando
F - Kevin Garnett, Boston
F - LeBron James, Cleveland
G - Ray Allen, Boston
G - Dwyane Wade, Miami
All-Eastern Conference Second Team
C- Chris Bosh, Toronto
F - Danny Granger, Indiana
F - Paul Pierce, Boston
G - Joe Johnson, Atlanta
G - Derrick Rose, Chicago
All-Eastern Conference Third Team
C - Al Horford, Atlanta
F - Tayshaun Prince, Detroit
F - Hedo Turkoglu, Toronto
G - Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia
G - Gilbert Arenas, Washington