The grueling 82-game season from the end of October to the middle of April is only the beginning to the NBA season for 16 teams. What follows is a two month long battle royal to the top of the NBA mountaintop. It certainly will be fun to watch this year with so many key players shifting uniforms. The top teams are evident, but you can’t count out the sleeping giants or the Cinderellas. The following is a breakdown of my top eight seeds in the Eastern Conference.
No. 8 New Jersey Nets
I believe the Nets have what it takes to make the playoffs this year. As detailed in my surprise teams post, the Nets are primed and ready to drastically improve from last year’s poor showing. A new coach (Avery Johnson), the number three draft pick (Derrick Favors), a deeper and more talented sharpshooting and bench contributors (Troy Murphy, Anthony Morrow, Travis Outlaw, Jordan Farmar, etc.), and the continued improvement from the young franchise benchmarks in Devin Harris and Brook Lopez, and it looks like this team could very well sneak in the postseason with 40 wins, maybe even fewer.
No. 7 Philadelphia 76ers
Philly was one of my three teams that could surprise this year. They, like the Nets, have a new coach in Doug Collins and a promising young talent in the second overall draft pick Evan Turner. He should be a solid rotation piece.
It will be interesting to see how he and Andre Iguodala will mesh together. As has been the case for some time, Elton Brand is still a question mark in Philly. Spencer Hawes was brought in to pretty much offset the exit of Sam Dalembert. Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, and Jrue Holiday are three young studs in a promising backcourt rotation. Let’s not forget, the Sixers were a playoff team in 2009. I believe they can get back to that level this year in a top-heavy East with around 38-44 wins.
No. 6 Atlanta Hawks
Joe Johnson is resigned to a ridiculous six year, $124 million contract. So there’s that. That’s about the only good thing the Hawks have going for them this year, although they severely overpaid for him. The Hawks failed to add frontcourt size in Shaquille O’Neal. They have failed to offer the reigning sixth man of the year in Jamal Crawford a new contract. Their major offseason acquisitions were Xavier rookie Jordan Crawford and center Etan Thomas. Once considered (albeit arguably) a contender, due to their inactivity, they are no longer near that level.
They still have Josh Smith, Al Horford, Marvin Williams, etc. There’s just not much else going for this squad. I think they’ll get about 45 wins this year, good enough for no better than the sixth seed.
No. 5 Milwaukee Bucks
This year, teams might want to really consider fearing the deer. This team surprised last year with the emergence of Brandon Jennings and improved play from Andrew Bogut. They took the Hawks to seven games and almost beat them. They resigned John Salmons to a new deal, who was a key piece in the Bucks success last year. They signed two guys that figure to be big contributors in Corey Maggette and Drew Gooden. Michael Redd is always a question mark with his injury history, but if he stays healthy, it puts this team in an even better situation.
Scott Skiles has this bunch playing tight and tough defense and they have the offense needed to stay relevant. I flirted with putting this team as the number four seed. These guys are looking good and can make some noise. I think they’ll get around 46-49 wins.
No. 4 Chicago Bulls
The Bulls are in the conversation as a contender in the East due to their pickup of Carlos Boozer. His scoring and rebounding coupled with Joakim Noah’s toughness and rebounding could be the best frontcourt tandem in the league. Noah will be energized with the organization putting faith in the big man with a $60 million contract extension. They’ve also added the sharpshooting Kyle Korver, the versatile and lanky Ronnie Brewer, a backup point guard in C.J. Watson, and old man river Kurt Thomas. Add to that Derrick Rose’s drive to win the MVP this year and you’ve got quite the determined bunch. And don’t forget about their new defensive-minded coach in Tom Thibodeau.
Boozer’s early injury could mean tough sledding in the early going, but once he comes back, they have a legitimate shot at competing. However, I think they were at the level the Hawks were last year: on the cusp of contender, but not quite. Too bad they didn’t trade for Carmelo Anthony. That would have put them in that company. 50-52 wins for this squad.
No. 3 Boston Celtics
The reigning Eastern Conference champs are determined to not let last year happen again. The slow finish to the regular season, I mean. An injury mired second half of the season was a contributing factor to the Celts going 27-27 to finish the year. It lead to a lot of tinkering with lineups. Doc Rivers is hoping he doesn’t have to do that again because he wants home court advantage, something they lacked throughout the playoffs last year.
The O’Neal brothers are in town this year (Shaquille and Jermaine), adding even more size to an already beefy frontcourt. Delonte West is back with the team after a hiatus in Cleveland. So is Nate Robinson with the signing of a new contract after his stellar performance off the bench last year. This team should compete for the title once more. Their window (boy that phrase is getting old) is not closed yet. They win 51-53 games this year.
No. 2 Orlando Magic
Frankly, I’m not quite sure what to expect from the Magic this year. You know Dwight Howard will be his regular beastly self. Jameer Nelson will be their steady and trusty point guard. But question marks abound after that. This team has the talent to compete, but on any given night a guy who they need to win under-performs. Case in point with Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis in their playoff loss to the Celtics last year. J.J. Redik might even start. That doesn’t bode well for them in my eyes. Brandon Bass was underused last year.
Hopefully Stan Van Gundy can realize what a talent he is and use him more. Their offseason was relatively quiet. They let Matt Barnes bolt for the Lakers. They signed former Knick Chris Duhon, and they drafted the unproven big man from Kentucky in Daniel Orton. The more I look at the Magic the more I am tempted to put the Celtics at the No. 2 spot. Then I look at what they have in Howard and am tempted to put them at No. 1. It will certainly be an interesting season for the other team from Florida. I think they’ll win 54-56 games this year.
No. 1 Miami Heat
Who would’ve guessed? Any team with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, regardless of the talent surrounding them, will be a surefire lock to contend for a title. Thing is, I believe that’s as far as they will go, for now. They aren’t going to win it all just yet in my opinion. There’s too many question marks. Mike Miller is a brilliant find, but outside of that, you’ve got to wonder. Carlos Arroyo and Mario Chalmers are their options at point guard. Neither are serviceable starters. Take a glance at their frontcourt: Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, and Dexter Pittman. Yikes. None of these guys can begin to even think they can cover the multiple skilled bigs the Celtics have as well as Howard in Orlando.
One thing’s for sure, the Magic-Heat rivalry is back with all the smack talk Van Gundy and Co. are doing. I can’t wait to see how the Heat deal with their shortcomings against the elite in the east. They will win anywhere from 59-67 games, but certainly not 73. Let’s get real here. And don’t forget about the injury bug, which has already bitten Wade. Anything can happen.
Stay tuned for my eight playoff teams in the Western Conference.
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