1. Miami Heat
There’s no doubt about it: As soon as LeBron decided to "take his talents to South Beach" and join forces with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat cemented their place as the NBA’s most talked-about team. Whatever you think of their decision, the presence of these three alone automatically makes the Heat one of the most exciting and dynamic teams in the NBA.
Once the three stars had signed, the big question was who the Heat would add around them. But credit to Pat Riley, he’s come through pretty big with the cap space he had. The Heat have added not only sharpshooter Mike Miller and re-signed role players Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem, but also a host of established veterans desperate for a ring. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, Jerry Stackhouse, Jamaal Magloire and Eddie House have all been added to the roster. The Heat still have everything to prove, but it will certainly be interesting.
Likely Starting Five: Chalmers—Wade—James—Bosh—Joel Anthony
It could all hinge on: Chris Bosh. Hold on, before you call me crazy for picking the least talented of the big three, just hear me out on this one. We all know that both LeBron and D-Wade are locks to perform at superstar level all season as long as they remain healthy. Bosh’s situation is slightly different. He could be anything from an 18-8 man to a 25-12 man this season depending on his desire to dominate and his fit within the Heat’s system.
Prediction: Talk of a 70-win season or a procession to the NBA title seems premature, but the Heat are certainly the most talented team in the East, should win over 60 games and top the East and would be a good bet to reach the NBA Finals. Beyond that it’s difficult to tell, but if LeBron and Wade are healthy, then anything is possible.
2. Boston Celtics
June 17, Staples Centre, Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The Celtics led by as many as 13 points after halftime, but the Lakers outhustled, outrebounded and outfought the Celtics to claw back the deficit and retain their NBA Championship crown. There is no greater motivator than the pain of defeat, so expect the Celtics to be the most motivated team in the NBA this season.
The Celtics were determined not to let that happen again, but in an offseason where they had neither draft picks nor cap space, they had to do what they do best: pack the roster with veterans. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce returned on reduced (if still sizeable) salaries, allowing the Celtics to add Shaq, Jermaine O’Neal and Delonte West as well as re-sign Marquis Daniels and Nate Robinson.
The Celtics will be without Kendrick Perkins for much of the season, something that hurt them big time in that Game 7. How much it hurts them this year will depend a great deal on the impact made by the "O’Neal brothers" as they seek to deputize for Perkins. If those two come up big and the other veterans stay healthy (two big ifs), then the Celtics could go all the way once more.
Likely Starting Five: Rajon Rondo—Allen—Pierce—Kevin Garnett—J. O’Neal
It could all hinge on: Shaquille O’Neal. Don’t quote me on this, but the $1.4 million that the Celtics are paying Shaq this season could just prove to be the best money they spend all year. If he accepts a reduced role, fits with the chemistry and reduces the threat of Dwight Howard, he’ll have earned his check.
Prediction: Somewhere around 50 wins in the regular season, plenty of doubters going into the playoffs, but still likely to be the biggest threat to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
3. Orlando Magic
The Magic were always going to find it a challenge to match their run to the NBA Finals in ’09, but even so, the Eastern Conference Finals defeat was a major disappointment. The 4-2 series defeat against a supposedly banged-up and "past their prime" Celtics team they had beaten in the previous year’s playoffs was not in the script for the Magic.
The thing is, by the end of the series, the Magic can have had few complaints, as they were simply outplayed by the Celtics. Dwight Howard is a beast, simply unplayable when in the mood, but the Magic were often too reliant on D12 and missed Hedo Turkoglu more than they could ever have anticipated. While new signings Chris Duhon and Quentin Richardson add depth, Orlando needs a big year from Rashard Lewis (see below), Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter and the loss of Matt Barnes is a blow.
Likely Starting Five: Nelson—Carter—Mickael Pietrus—Lewis—Howard
It could all hinge on: Rashard Lewis. Being one of the highest-paid players in the NBA isn’t enough to guarantee elite performance (see Tracy McGrady ’09 or Stephon Marbury ’08), but it should count for something. Lewis is one of only two NBA players with a salary of over $20 million this year; the other is Kobe Bryant. Lewis struggled miserably for much of last season to reproduce his form from the Magic’s run to the NBA Finals in ‘09. This time around he needs to step up, particularly from three-point range, if the Magic want to go back to the NBA Finals.
Prediction: The Magic will probably win 55 games, enter the playoffs as the second seed in the East, but may find they have no Plan B against any team that can shut Howard down, and no answer to the Heat’s big three or the Celtics' depth. Eastern Conference semi-finals seems likely.
4. Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls were right in the thick of things during a marquee free-agent summer, with Bulls fans hoping that, for the first time since MJ retired, one of the league’s top three players would be playing his ball in Chicago.
The bad news was that they missed out on both LeBron and Wade, while the worse news was that the star duo joined forces at an Eastern Conference rival. The consolation for the Bulls is that in signing Carlos Boozer, giving an extension to Joakim Noah and maintaining a roster where Derrick Rose runs the show, they have laid the foundation of a team that can be a real contender in the East in the coming years.
The Bulls also added Kyle Korver, the league’s top three-point shooter last season, as well as fellow guards Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson and center Kurt Thomas, giving them a far deeper talent pool than they have enjoyed in a long time. The continued progression of Rose and Noah will be key, as will Boozer’s ability to stay healthy, but there are certainly reasons to be optimistic in Chicago.
Likely Starting Five: Rose—Brewer—Luol Deng—Boozer—Noah
It could all hinge on: Joakim Noah. Fresh from a breakout season and a new five-year $60 million contract extension, much will be expected of Noah this time around. The addition of Boozer gives the Bulls a huge frontcourt scoring threat, but it also gives Noah a lot of work at the defensive end. Noah will be expected to do what he does best: crash the boards, block shots and provide high-energy defense. If the Boozer-Noah combo works out, then the Bulls could do real damage in the playoffs.
Prediction: The Bulls are certainly a level below the East’s top three teams, but they are easily the fourth best in the East and should surpass last season’s total of 41 wins by some distance. Expect them to win between 48 and 55 and finish fourth in the East, but it’s difficult to know right now whether they can go the distance with the Heat, Magic or Celtics come playoff time.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks were the surprise package of last season’s Eastern Conference, with rookie point guard Brandon Jennings enjoying a stellar debut season and Andrew Bogut developing into one of the best centers in the league before his elbow injury. The team also got great contributions from Luc Mbah a Moute and Ersan Ilyasova, while the arrival of John Salmons took the team to another level.
The team took the Atlanta Hawks to seven games in the first round of the playoffs and were by far the most improved team in the East, with Scott Skiles unlucky to miss out on the Coach of the Year Award. The big question amongst Bucks fans was how the team would maintain their momentum and try and join the top table in the East. The Bucks front office answered that question with Corey Maggette, Drew Gooden and Salmons.
Each of these players will add something to the Bucks, but all three are probably being paid more than they’re worth; the three will make a combined $74 million over the next three years. The good news for the Bucks is that Michael Redd’s $18.3 million expiring contract can be used as a trade chip or left to come off the books next summer.
Likely Starting Five: Jennings—Salmons—Maggette—Gooden—Bogut
It could all hinge on: Corey Maggette. Maggette is a highly gifted scorer who can get to the basket almost at will, but he is also foul-prone and a potential threat to team chemistry. The Bucks decided he was worth the risk, and if the gamble pays off, Maggette’s scoring could take the team to the next level.
Prediction: Milwaukee finished sixth in the East last season with 46 wins, but with the demise of the Cavaliers, the Bucks could challenge for a top five seed and maybe even home-court advantage come playoff time. Once the playoffs come around, a healthy and in-form Bucks roster could be a threat to the East’s big guns.
6. Atlanta Hawks
The biggest contract in this marquee summer was the one the Hawks gave to Joe Johnson. Just let that sink in. The same Joe Johnson who bombed in the playoffs, criticized his own fans and looked longingly toward New York will receive $123 million over the next six years.
In truth, the Hawks had very little choice, as somebody would have paid Johnson big bucks if they hadn’t, and they almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten a replacement player even close to Johnson’s level had they let him leave. The problem with the contract isn’t so much the first four years; the problem is the last couple when Johnson will be in his mid-30s and making almost $25 million, giving the Hawks little room to maneuver an aging roster.
With Al Horford also set to get a big extension, the Hawks will need to hope that a core of Johnson, Horford and the ever-improving Josh Smith will be enough to keep them amongst the East’s top teams. The worry is that while all three are talented players, recent seasons suggest that they can’t quite cut it against the NBA elite.
Likely Starting Five: Mike Bibby—Johnson—Marvin Williams—Smith—Horford
It could all hinge on: Al Horford. Horford has gotten better in each of his three NBA years, with last season’s 14-10 average his best yet. He may be on the small side for a center, but Horford plays with a lot of intensity and certainly has the potential to progress to being an 18-12 man at some stage.
The Hawks will certainly try to tie Horford down to a new long-term deal soon with the hope that he becomes one of the elite centers in the league; if he does, then the Hawks might just have a shot.
7. New York Knicks
For two years, July 1, 2010 was marked on the calendar of every New York Knickerbocker fan as the day that things really started to happen in New York. The fans dreamed of LeBron, coach Mike D’Antoni joined with summer 2010 in mind, and even the New York mayor tried to recruit King James.
So when the summer ended with LeBron and Wade in Miami and Amar'e Stoudemire the only big name to arrive at Madison Square Garden, you could forgive the New York faithful for being slightly disappointed. As the season draws near and anticipation takes over, dreams of Danilo Gallinari and Anthony Randolph fulfilling their potential alongside Amar'e provide a certain level of optimism for Knicks fans.
Talk of a trade for Carmelo Anthony also refuses to go away, with many people convinced that 'Melo will end up in New York at some point in the next year, providing the Knicks with another legitimate star alongside Amar'e. Other new arrivals like Raymond Felton, Roger Mason, Ronny Turiaf and Timofey Mozgov certainly add depth, but it still can’t help feeling like this summer was one big anticlimax for the Knicks.
Likely Starting Five: Felton—Wilson Chandler—Gallinari—Stoudemire—Turiaf
It could all hinge on: Raymond Felton. Amar'e can dominate on his day, but someone has to get him the ball. For years in Phoenix, that job fell to the inimitable Steve Nash, but in New York it’s down to Felton. The former Charlotte Bobcats point guard is a good play, but in New York, good is often not good enough, and he will have to produce the best form of his life if he is to become a fan favorite, and more importantly, if he is to lead them to the postseason once more.
Prediction: Call me a hopeless romantic, but it really seems like a good New York Knicks team is good for the NBA, particularly going into one of the most anticipated seasons in NBA history. A lot depends on Amare being fit and firing, but I see New York being good enough to make the playoffs this year. Expect just over 40 wins, an appearance in the postseason, but probably a first-round exit.
8. Philadelphia 76ers
Opinion is split on a number of big questions facing the 76ers. Was Evan Turner the right choice with the No. 2 pick in the draft? Can Turner and Andre Iguodala coexist in the same lineup? Will Jrue Holiday build on the promise of last season and become an accomplished NBA point guard? Will Elton Brand ever justify his salary?
Actually, that last question is fairly easy to answer.
Another thing that most people can agree on is this: Surely the Sixers can’t stink as much as they did last season. Last year was a disastrous one in Philadelphia, with the only teams below them in the East being the abysmal New Jersey Nets and the self-destructive Washington Wizards.
This time around, there are certainly reasons to be optimistic, with much hope being placed in young talent like Holiday, Turner, Lou Williams, Marreese Speights and Thaddeus Young. Even Iguodala is only 26, so this is certainly a roster with plenty of room to improve, which will be vital after last season’s failings.
Likely Starting Five: Holiday—Turner—Iguodala—Brand—Speights
It could all hinge on: Jrue Holiday. There were spells in the second half last season when rookie point guard Jrue Holiday looked like the real deal. He didn’t receive much attention in a draft class that included Tyreke Evans, Stephon Curry and Brandon Jennings, but the 20-year old has lightning quickness and is effective at the defensive end as well.
If Holiday continues to develop and Turner and Iguodala gel alongside him, then the future of the 76ers suddenly looks a lot brighter, and they have a real chance of the playoffs.
Prediction: The 76ers really could finish anywhere from seventh to 12th in the East, and there have been some less than favorable reports coming back on Turner early on. Despite that, the talented young core they have could make a real impact, and the 76ers could just scrape into the playoffs with somewhere close to 40 wins.