It's been an interesting couple of days, to say the least. But in most NBA followers' minds, the Miami Heat just secured at least the top spot in the Eastern Conference for this upcoming season by signing the most highly coveted free agent in recent memory, LeBron James.
But let's not forget about teams like the Boston Celtics, who have resigned Ray Allen and Paul Pierce this offseason. They also have electric point guard Rajon Rondo and experienced big man Kevin Garnett on the roster. They will have something to say about the Heat ruling the east.
And what about the Orlando Magic? They did make it to the NBA Finals just two seasons ago and were in the Eastern Conference Finals this past season. Can Dwight Howard and his teammates put the Magic on top?
Nothing is certain. But it sure is going to be one of the most exciting NBA seasons in a long time.
So here is one man's opinion of how the Eastern Conference pans out in the 2010-11 season.
1. Miami Heat
In my opinion, it really isn't that tough of a call for the regular season. They not only have the aforementioned James, but superstars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. I think the roles shake out pretty well on this team.
James is the facilitator; people don't talk about this guy's passing ability much. He averaged 8.6 assists a game last year, which is sixth in the NBA. The dude didn't even play point guard! However, James is going to have to sacrifice some of his shots for Wade and Bosh. He was involved in 48 percent of the Cleveland Cavaliers offensive plays by either scoring or making an assist, and he will have to tone that back a bit to make this work.
Wade is the first scoring option; he drives to the basket harder than anyone and can shoot the medium range jumper well. He is not consistent from the three-point line, shooting a pedestrian 30 percent from deep, but still needs to be accounted for out there. Wade will be the team's No. 1 option in my opinion, but will also play a faciliatiting role (he averaged 6.5 assists per game last year, 10th in the league).
Bosh will be the low-post prescense. Bosh is a big man who is incredibly efficient around the basket. He can rebound, has a solid mid-range jumper, and will run the pick-and-roll well with James and Wade. I don't think he has a problem playing third fiddle to James and Wade.
The next question is how the rest of the roster will work out. It looks like Michael Beasley could be traded to clear up more cap space to sign the three superstars and then have a little left over to get some guys who can play, because that leaves them with just Mario Chalmers, the young point guard from Kansas, left on the roster. Miami will sign it's three second-round selections from this year's draft, giving them seven. They'll need some veterans willing to take a paycut to fill out the roster, which is a bigger concern than many may realize.
2. Orlando Magic
Orlando has not been a big player in this year's free agency game, but they do return everything but bench shooter JJ Redick. The Magic retain maybe the NBA's best center right now in Dwight Howard, along with a solid point guard Jameer Nelson, an experienced guard in Vince Carter, and sharp shooting forwards Matt Barnes and Rashard Lewis.
Although this group has had a year to gel unlike the Heat, they aren't as talented. They don't have that one dynamic scorer who you can rely on; Carter has seen his best days. Howard is known more as a defender, and doesn't have a lot of offensive skills outside of the paint. Barnes, Lewis, and Nelson are role players who can't be relied on to score consistently.
Another problem this team has is the lack of bulk underneath. The Boston Celtics absolutely had their way with the Magic under the basket with Garnett and Kendrick Perkins. Outside of Howard, there is Brandon Bass and Marcin Gortat, but they don't get much clock from coach Stan Van Gundy. Lewis and Barnes cannot battle down low; it's been proven.
Despite their faults, expect the Magic to be in the top four of the Eastern Conference at least this year.
3. Boston Celtics
Celtic fans can now breathe a sigh of relief. Pierce and Ray Allen have resigned to four-year and two-year deals, respectively. Coach Doc Rivers has also decided to return. While this was expected, it must be nice to know that you'll have your top four healthy for next season. Perkins, on the other hand, is injured pretty badly and might not be 100 percent by the beginning of next season.
The Celtics aren't really a regular season team, considering they have a pretty old team that racks up the injuries. Still, I think Rondo has improved enough to lead this team to better than the fourth seed that they got last year.
Outside of their age and injury issues, Boston doesn't have a ton of concerns. They have some firepower off of the bench in defensive specialist Tony Allen, young big man Glen Davis, and explosive point guard Nate Robinson.
Expect the Celtics to be a top four seed in the east, but a major player in the playoffs.
The Chicago Bulls may have missed out in the LeBron sweepstakes, but they still got a decent consolation prize in power forward Carlos Boozer. Pair him with center Joakim Noah, who averaged a double double last year, and the Bulls may have the most formidable frontcourt in the east. But we're also forgetting young point guard Derrick Rose, who is an All-Star, and is good as anyone at getting to the basket.
Rose will have a breakout year next season. Boozer and Noah will rebound like no other frontcourt in the east. But who else on the Bulls' roster can play? They have experienced small forward Luol Deng, but he has probably seen his best days. They also have an emerging power forward in Taj Gibson. Guard Ronald Murray is also okay off of the bench.
The Bulls have two major problems; outside shooting, and inexperience. The Bulls need to sign a free agent like Mike Miller, who shot a ridiculously high three-point percentage last year to compliment Rose, who needs to improve his jump shot. Put Miller in the starting line-up with Rose, Deng, Boozer, and Noah, and you have something.
The other problem in the Windy City is experience. Rose has done well in college, but how many of these other guys have been to an NBA Finals? Or even a conference finals? I'd be willing to bet that there isn't enough of them, even if they do sign an experienced veteran.
The Bulls are ready to move up in the east. Expect a seeding between four and six.
The Hawks were the third seed in the east last year, and were fortunate to resign star guard Joe Johnson. Why do they move down?
They didn't improve enough.
Do I really need to go over why Miami jumps them? Chicago on the other hand signed Boozer and has young guys like Rose and Noah who are ready to take their game to the next level. The Hawks have older guards who have reached their ceilings, like Mike Bibby, Jamal Crawford, and Johnson. They do have a good young center in Al Horford and explosive forward Josh Smith. But outside of that, the Hawks run low on consistent players.
Atlanta would benefit from signing a player like Miller, who can play the three. The Hawks could use depth at the position. Marvin Williams is anything but consistent there.
Atlanta will be fine. Expect them to be seeded anywhere from four to six.
The Milwaukee Bucks limped into the postseason last year, but gave Atlanta a run for its money as the sixth seed. Brandon Jennings is a fantastic young player, he's explosive with the ball and runs the offense there nice. Andrew Bogut is a very valuable center who can rebound and score. Michael Redd can stretch a defense with his shooting ability. They also resigned John Salmons, who is a playmaker as a two or a three.
There is only one problem; Bogut and Redd have a hard time staying on the court. Redd has played 51 games the last two seasons; Bogut has played 105. Those aren't very good percentages in an 82 game season.
The Bucks do have a very underrated bench though. Carlos Delfino, who averaged 11 points a game, comes back. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is a very good defender as well as having a cool name, but he's a marginal scorer. If they get Kurt Thomas back they have an experienced center. Ersan Ilyasova is a sharp shooting forward who stepped up in the playoffs for Milwaukee.
If Jennings, Redd, Salmons, and Bogut were all healthy and playing at the same time, there isn't any doubt in my mind that they would compete for a top-four spot in the east. However, that isn't the case. They will likely be seeded anywhere from fifth to seventh.
The Bobcats have Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson coming back, two high scoring swingmen who propelled the Bobcats into the playoffs last year. They will likely lose Raymond Felton to free agency, however. It will be hard to replace Felton, but they have been grooming DJ Augustin to take over the point for a few seasons now.
There is a definite break in quality of teams from Milwaukee to Charlotte. Charlotte doesn't have a consistent low post player, and the two that they like the most, Tyrus Thomas and Tyson Chandler, are free agents. So who knows what could happen?
Charlotte, the New York Knicks, and the Indiana Pacers will all be fighting for the last two spots in my opinion. Wallace and Jackson are better than anything New York or Indiana have, so they go seventh.
8. New York Knicks
The New York Knicks don't move into the playoffs because of Amare Stoudemire; in my opinion, David Lee is just as good or maybe better than Stoudemire. However, Stoudemire is a better fit in Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced system. They competed in the crowded Western Conference with Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns.
Unfortunately, the Knicks don't have Nash. Or anyone else really on his level.
However, New York has cleared too much cap space to not get another decent free agent like the aforementioned Miller or someone else. I think Stoudemire is motivated to be in New York, unlike in Phoenix, and that he will recruit somebody to come there with him.
The other pieces in New York include Danillo Gallinari, who had the second best three point percentage in the NBA last year. They also picked up Kelenna Azukuike, Anthony Randolph, and Ronny Turiaf in a sign-and-trade for Lee with the Golden State Warriors. All three can produce to some degree.
The Knicks will be in full swing when they sign Carmelo Anthony, like they're expected to next summer. I'd imagine that Anthony and Stoudemire would make them a top-four team in the east. But for now, New York squeaks into the playoffs and gets embarrassed by Miami in the first round. But it's better to be embarrassed in the playoffs than in the regular season, I suppose.
The most important thing to note is the definite tiers among teams; Miami is at the top as the big time winners of free agency. Orlando and Boston are the proven teams who will rely on experience and the pieces they've acquired in the past to win.
Chicago, Atlanta, and Milwaukee all have different stories, but appear to be on nearly even ground (when healthy). The Knicks and Bobcats have good starting points, but aren't there yet.
Still, they are better than anything else the East has to offer.
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