Atlantic Division (Predicted Order of Finish and Records)
Boston Celtics (51-31)
The defending conference champions have shown that the regular season means almost nothing to them, beating two teams with better records en route to the NBA finals.
Rondo has emerged as the team’s best player and one of the league’s best point guards, as he leads the aging, but still productive "Big Three." Their offseason player movement was highlighted by the veteran signings to fortify the front court, as health means everything for the Celtics into yet another postseason.
New York Knicks (43-39)
The Knicks and their fans had a much bigger jump in the standings in mind coming into a year where they pursued and missed out on all of their free agent targets outside of their new star, Amar’e Stoudemire, though some prospective trades may be in the works to land them another.
Essentially, New York is a new look team devoid of many bad contracts that have dragged them down in recent years, leaving D’Antoni with a squad that should be able to run his system effectively.
Philadelphia 76ers (37-45)
Philadelphia took a substantial step back after making the playoffs in consecutive seasons, and brought in a new coach to try to return the Sixers to contention.
Only 12 home wins made it impossible for them to crawl back into the playoff picture, but with the exception of their high draft pick in Turner, they return the same team that fell short of the postseason. Their best players (Iguodala, Brand, etc.) are good ones, but not good enough for Philly to be a playoff team.
New Jersey Nets (30-52)
The Nets are not nearly as bad as their 12-70 record last year, and bringing in a new coach alone should bump that total up substantially. They added a few pieces in the offseason, none of which will turn heads, but the cornerstones are certainly in place with Lopez and Harris, making New Jersey all the more competitive this season.
Despite their owner’s bold claims, the Nets won’t be good enough to make the playoffs, but are undoubtedly headed in the right direction starting now.
Toronto Raptors (25-57)
It’s no fault of the Raptors that their star of the last decade decided to jump ship, but in any case, Toronto could be the worst team in the conference, and among the most lowly in basketball.
They’re starting over with a roster more random than designed, and really without a go-to scorer like they’ve had in Bosh. Given the significant dollars tied up in players like Bargnani, Calderon and the newly overpaid Amir Johnson, don’t expect success north of the border anytime soon.
Central Division (Predicted Order of Finish and Records)
Chicago Bulls (56-26)
The Bulls whiffed on the premier free agent targets of the past summer. However, they landed one of the better second-tier free agents in Carlos Boozer.
A deep team balanced with young players and veterans up and down the roster, the Bulls are led by Rose and Noah, who are bound to the take the next step into stardom.
An unmotivated and poorly-coached Bulls team last year dropped to eighth in the conference’s final standings; results should be much better come 2010-11.
Milwaukee Bucks (42-40)
A team that was projected to be among the league’s worst surprised many by making the playoffs last year, especially without some of their best players. They got a phenomenal rookie season out of Brandon Jennings, and before he went down, a marvelous season from Andrew Bogut.
They re-signed Salmons and add Maggette to this hard-nosed, defensive-oriented team, as the pieces are surely in place for Milwaukee to crack the East’s upper echelon and make a postseason run.
Indiana Pacers (40-42)
The streak of five consecutive playoff-less seasons may come to an end in Indiana, especially with a depleted Central Division. The Pacers are armed with a number of good young players, including one of the league’s best stars in Danny Granger and the newly acquired Darren Collison.
Perhaps last season’s 10-4 finish is a sign of things to come for Indiana, who at first glance may not look like a playoff team, but is just as good, if not better than anyone else vying for the eighth seed.
Detroit Pistons (28-54)
A fall from grace as steep as this one is uncharacteristic for a solid franchise like the Pistons, but they seemingly have done nothing to avoid straight season with a win total in the 20s and out of the playoffs.
Joe Dumars did himself in with bad signings before last season, and though he added a few players this season through both free agency and the draft, the Pistons are sure to struggle even with players from that championship team who are now shells of themselves just five years later.
Cleveland Cavaliers (27-55)
In an unfortunate turn of events, Cleveland’s win total in the first year of the post-LeBron era could decrease by as much as 40. Left high and dry by their hometown hero, Cleveland is left with a bunch of role players designed to help the departed "King," but all of a sudden, this cast doesn’t look very appealing.
The hiring of Byron Scott is certainly a good one, as this veteran coach has reached the playoffs before, though he shouldn’t expect to do so in his first year in Cleveland.
Southeast Division (Predicted Order of Finish and Records)
Miami Heat (68-14)
Think of a time where three of the top 10 players in the league were on the same team. It hasn’t happened in my lifetime, but the signings of LeBron James and Chris Bosh to complement Dwyane Wade makes the Heat the best NBA team that we’ve seen in years, and possibly decades.
They even added a number of solid role players, and at times, this Miami team will be both unguardable and unbeatable. Expect the Heat to challenge the all-time wins record en route to a deep playoff run.
Orlando Magic (54-28)
Though they may find themselves 10 or more games behind the Heat, the Magic are still among the best teams in the NBA. Their inability to score doomed them in the postseason last year, but return a deep team led by the league’s top center in Dwight Howard.
They have won five series in the past two postseasons, and though players with bad contracts like Lewis and Carter look like burdens at this point, Orlando is still a certain playoff team with aspirations of reaching the Finals again.
Atlanta Hawks (51-31)
Improvement in five straight seasons and playoff appearances in three of those five certainly make expectations fairly lofty for Atlanta, that and the highest paid free agent of this summer’s class, Joe Johnson.
He is surrounded by talented bigs and wings, however, the Hawks still appear to a team that can’t get over the hump in the later playoff rounds. They’re not quite stuck in mediocrity, they just haven’t reached that next level of elite, a trend that will continue in 2010-11.
Charlotte Bobcats (32-50)
The Southeast may be the best division in basketball, but only because of its top three teams. Despite their first playoff appearance last year, Charlotte lost several core pieces that helped them get there.
They retain their top two players in Wallace and Jackons, and though they were among the best defensive teams from last season, their futility on the road manifested itself with just a 13 wins away from Charlotte. With some playoff spots up for grabs, they may be in the mix come April.
Washington Wizards (30-52)
There is a lot of uncertainty at the bottom of the East, but this playoff mainstay of the 2000’s is not much of a factor anymore. They have a logjam at guard, though they lucked out when they landed John Wall. Though they have some talent in the front court, it just doesn’t seem like a group that is bound to mesh with so many moving parts.
The Arenas saga has become a weight on the Wizards, one of the many reasons that they will not be a playoff team.
All-Eastern Conference First Team
C—Dwight Howard, Orlando
F—Chris Bosh, Miami
F—LeBron James, Miami
G—Joe Johnson, Atlanta
G—Dwyane Wade, Miami
All-Eastern Conference Second Team
C—Amar'e Stoudemire, New York
F—Carlos Boozer, Chicago
F—Danny Granger, Indiana
G—Rajon Rondo, Boston
G—Derrick Rose, Chicago
All-Eastern Conference Third Team
C—Al Horford, Atlanta
F—Gerald Wallace, Charlotte
F—Paul Pierce, Boston
G—Devin Harris, New Jersey
G—Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee