NBA Preseason Power Rankings: Eastern Conference

Rael MasonCorrespondent IOctober 27, 2010

NBA Preseason Power Rankings: Eastern Conference

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    This week sees the start of the 2010-11 NBA season, which is without doubt the most anticipated NBA campaign in history.

    Anyone with even a passing interest in basketball will be aware of what has happened this summer, with the movement of some of the league's top players, including one LeBron James, making this the most eventful offseason in NBA history.

    Most of the activity this summer involved the biggest teams in the Eastern Conference, with the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks all making significant changes.

    Where all those changes leave each team remains to be seen, but right now this is how the East's 15 teams shape up.

15. Toronto Raptors

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    It was the league’s worst kept secret that Chris Bosh was going to leave Toronto this summer. Unfortunately the only people who hadn’t heard was the Raptors front office. The Raptors management ignored potential trade options in the hopes that Bosh would re-sign, but the inevitable exit happened and left the Raptors with possibly the weakest roster in the NBA.

    Andrea Bargnani is a reasonably talented center, DeMar DeRozan looks promising, but outside of that the Raptors have almost nothing. Point guard Jose Calderon is a shadow of what he used to be, the team traded away Hedo Turkoglu to Phoenix in exchange for Leandro Barbosa and Dwayne Jones, as well as overpaying both Amir Johnson and Linas Kleiza to replace what they’d lost.

    It was hard enough for the Raptors to attract attention in a country where hockey is king, but now they’ve lost their franchise player, the team will likely be an afterthought even in their own city.

    Likely Starting Five: Jarrett Jack – DeRozan – Linas Kleiza – Amir Johnson - Bargiani

    It could all hinge on: DeMar DeRozan. The 20-year-old enjoyed an impressive rookie season, with his athleticism helping in both scoring and rebounding, although he still has a lot to learn when it comes to defense and cutting down on his fouls.

    DeRozan was thrown in at the deep end as he started throughout last season, something that helped him develop quickly. Even more will be expected of him this time around, with DeRozan one of the team’s top talents now that Bosh and Turkoglu have left. He is the only real glimmer of hope in a dark situation for the Raptors right now.

    Prediction: It will be a real surprise if the Raptors manage to finish outside the bottom two or three in the East, with very little to suggest they will be anything other than a struggling franchise for years to come.

14. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    What can you say about the Cleveland Cavaliers? Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past six months, you’ll be well aware of the ordeal every Cavs fan has been through as they lost their greatest ever player in the most painful of circumstances.

    When LeBron left, so did the Cavaliers’ seat at the NBA’s top table. Forget what their owner Dan Gilbert says, the Cavs will not win an NBA Championship before LeBron, and they will not be challenging for anything any time soon, except maybe the No. 1 pick in next summer’s draft.

    Looking forward, the responsibility falls to former LeBron sidekick Mo Williams to step up and lead the team, so his admission that LeBron’s exit left him ready to quit basketball was far from inspiring. The exit of troubled guard Delonte West and legendary center Zydrunas Ilgauskas mean there is now very little for the Cavs fans to get excited about. The only bright spot for the Cavs right now is young power forward J.J. Hickson, who may well be recognized as the team’s best player by the end of the season.

    Likely Starting Five: Williams – Ramon Sessions– Jamario Moon – Hickson - Anderson Varejeo

    It could all hinge on: J.J. Hickson. Hickson showed glimpses of quality at various stages last season, and is promising enough that new coach Byron Scott may start him ahead of Antawn Jamison, or move Jamison to the small forward position. The Cavs will be hoping that Hickson continues developing and gives them something to shout about going forward.

    Prediction: Last year the Cavaliers won 61 games, this time around they’ll do well to win 20. This team is not getting near the playoff positions, and the best they can hope for is that they win next summer’s draft lottery and a chance to rebuild with a new talent.

13. Detroit Pistons

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    It’s hard to believe that the Pistons won a championship in 2004, had the NBA’s best regular season record in 2006 and swept the Magic in a playoff series as recently as 2007. The reason it’s hard to believe is because the current incarnation of the Detroit Pistons is simply terrible.

    The veterans have gotten older, with Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace all way past their best, while the big contracts given to Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva look like huge errors at this stage. Worryingly for the Pistons, they don’t have much young talent either, with only Rodney Stuckey, Will Bynum and this year’s draft pick Greg Monroe not the most inspiring group.

    The signing of the once-great Tracy McGrady is low-risk given the salary, but it’s hard to see a core of Hamilton, McGrady, Gordon and Prince getting it done on a nightly basis.

    Likely Starting Five: Stuckey – Hamilton – Prince – Villanueva - Wallace

    It could all hinge on: Ben Gordon. He won the Sixth Man of the Year award as a rookie with the Bulls, and Gordon has the raw talent to do it again. The very fact that a man with a five-year $55 million deal is likely to be part of the second-string points to some of the errors the Pistons have made, but Gordon’s scoring threat from the bench could well be key for the Pistons this year.

    Prediction: Last season they won only 27 games, and unfortunately for the Pistons, they may struggle to match that total this time around. Not good.

12. Indiana Pacers

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    The Indiana Pacers are certainly not one of the more exciting teams in the league, but they have quietly assembled a core of young players who are capable of making an impact in the East, although it probably won’t happen this year.

    Danny Granger is a real star, the trade for Darren Collison gives them one of the best young point guards in the league, while Roy Hibbert is a highly promising big man. Outside of that, it’s difficult to get too excited about the Pacers, other than hoping for Tyler Hansbrough and rookie Paul George to develop and the team to use some of their vast cap space next summer to sign new talent.

    Likely Starting Five: Collison – Brandon Rush – Granger – Hansbrough - Hibbert

    It could all hinge on: Roy Hibbert. The 7’2” center is fast becoming one of the league’s better big men with his shooting improving all the time. He’s not the most mobile, which is understandable for a player of his size, but on a good night he can dominate the boards and provide a real scoring threat, something the Pacers will be hoping he does with increasingly regularity this season.

    Prediction: The Pacers won 32 games last year as they finished 10th in the East, and they’ll probably achieve a similar record this time around.

11. New Jersey Nets

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    The New Jersey Nets were another team who cleared a great deal of cap space in anticipation of this past summer of marquee players on offer, but unlike the Knicks, Bulls and Heat, they didn’t even land one of the top free agents. New owner Mikhail Prokhorov has promised a championship within five years, but it looks a tall task to turn around a team that was the NBA’s worst last season.

    The team may have missed out on all the top free agents, but they did give out a number of contracts this summer. Johan Petro, Jordan Farmar and Anthony Morrow will all receive between $10 million and $12 million over the next three years, while Travis Outlaw’s five-year $35 million deal was one of the more questionable contracts in a summer of questionable contracts.

    The Nets will be hoping for much from Derrick Favors, the third pick in this summer’s draft, with new coach Avery Johnson hoping Favors will learn from Troy Murphy. The trade for Murphy, a talented power forward and New Jersey native, must have been made with Favors’ development at least partly in mind. The team will also be hoping that Brook Lopez continues to develop, with the big man now possibly the second best center in the league behind Dwight Howard.

    Likely Starting Five: Devin Harris – Morrow – Outlaw – Murphy – Lopez

    It could all hinge on: Anthony Morrow. Morrow is one of the best pure shooters in the league, which was why many neutral observers were surprised when the Warriors let him leave without a fight. He led the league in three-point shooting in his rookie year, and certainly has the potential to do the same again in his third season in the NBA. That kind of outside shooting threat, couple with Lopez and Favors potentially top level frontcourt partnership gives the Nets something to build on going forward.

    Prediction: Last year the Nets won only 12 games and were the worst time in the NBA, which certainly won’t be the case this year. That change is partly down to the improvements made by the Nets, but owes more to the other teams such as the Cavs and Raptors falling apart. Expect them to win around 25-30 games without threatening the playoff positions.

10. Charlotte Bobcats

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    It’s a shame for your franchise when your owner gets talked about more than any player on your roster, but when that owner is Michael Jordan, and your roster is as uninspiring as the Bobcats roster, then it makes sense. Perhaps that’s a little harsh on the Bobcats, particularly talented duo Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace, but the Bobcats are certainly more solid than spectacular.

    In many ways there’s nothing wrong with that; the Bobcats formula was enough to secure a playoff place last year, which is something they’d definitely settle for again this time around. The problem for Charlotte is that its lack of financial muscle necessitated cost cutting measures this summer, measures which led to the loss of Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler. Their replacements, in the form of Shaun Livingston and Kwame Brown, are far from inspiring. On a more positive note, the Bobcats did manage to re-sign Tyrus Thomas, a player who made a really positive impact after joining midway through last season.

    Likely Starting Five: Livingston – Jackson – Wallace – Thomas - Nazr Mohammed

    It could all hinge on: Shaun Livingston. The 25-year-old was signed to replace Raymond Felton, and will attempt to fill his shoes as the starting point guard. Livingston has had a difficult six years in the NBA, suffering serious injury and playing for the Clippers, Heat, Thunder and Wizards already. The Bobcats have placed great faith in him by giving him a $7 million two-year deal, and will be hoping Livingston can repay their faith in him.

    Prediction: It’s difficult to see the Bobcats matching last season’s total of 44 wins and seventh place in the East, with a ninth- or 10th-place finish and somewhere around 35 wins more likely given their cutbacks.

9. Washington Wizards

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    One thing is for sure, the Washington Wizards are a vastly different team to what they were a year ago. Caron Butler has gone, Antawn Jamison has gone, shifting two of their three biggest contracts. Unfortunately for the Wizards, they were not able to get rid of the one contract they wanted to shift the most, that of Gilbert Arenas (more on that later.) Still, there is reason for optimism in Washington, most of which is down to the Wizards winning the draft lottery and with it the chance to pick John Wall.

    The rookie point guard is simply phenomenal, certainly the best point guard drafted since the year of Chris Paul and Deron Williams, and Wall may well have the potential to be even better than D-Will and CP3. Add to that the improvement of Andray Blatche and the continued development of JaVale McGee, and it seems there may be glimmers of hope for the Wizards this time around.

    Likely Starting Five: Wall – Arenas – Al Thornton– Blatche - McGee

    It could all hinge on: Gilbert Arenas. After LeBron James, there is probably no more maligned NBA player right now than the artist formerly known as ‘Agent Zero.’ Arenas’ fall from grace has been simply catastrophic; from a 2007 All-Star appearance, to three seasons blighted by knee injuries and gun charges that have seen Arenas play just 47 games. That record makes his six-year $124 million deal look like the worst in the NBA by some distance, and it is no wonder the Wizards allegedly explored every avenue they could to get Arenas’ contract cancelled after his arrest. With Arenas now displaced as the Wizards’ franchise player by rookie John Wall, what would make this season any different? Maybe it’s exactly that; Arenas doesn’t have to be the star, he can concentrate on getting on with his job, helping Wall to adjust to the NBA and quietly going about his business. Then again, Arenas doesn’t usually do quiet.

    Prediction: Wall will be in the Rookie of the Year conversation all season, the rest of the Wizards will benefit from his presence, with the Wizards will improve from 26 wins last year to somewhere around 35, although a playoff position may be a stretch. 

8. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Opinion is split on the 76ers on a number of big questions. Was Evan Turner the right choice with their No. 2 pick in the draft? Can Turner and Andre Iguodala co-exist in the same line-up? 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 question 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, Stephen Curry and Brandon Jennings, but the 20-year -ld has lightning quickness and is effective at the defensive end as well.

    If Turner and Iguodala gel alongside him, and Holiday continues to develop, 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 favourable 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.

7. New York Knicks

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    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, even the New York mayor tried to recruit King James.

    So when the summer ended with LeBron and Dwyane 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 provides 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 fans favourite, 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 is good for the NBA, particularly going into one of the most anticipated seasons in NBA history. A lot depends on Amar'e 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.

6. Atlanta Hawks

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    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, criticised his own fans and looked longingly towards 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 manoeuvre 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, and will hope that he progresses to a level that he becomes one of the elite centers in the league; if he does that then the Hawks might just have a shot.

    Prediction: The Hawks have enough to make the playoffs, but are now some way off the top teams in the East and will surely struggle to win as many as the 53 games they did last year, with 45-50 a more realistic target.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

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    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.

4. Chicago Bulls

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    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 foundations 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 once he recovers from, 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 probably the fourth-best in the East by some distance, 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.

3. Orlando Magic

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    The Magic were always going to find it a challenge to match their run to the NBA Finals of ’09, but even so, last season's 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 are often too reliant on D12, and missed Hedo Turkoglu more than they could ever have anticipated. They need a big year from Rashard Lewis (see below), Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter, while new signings Chris Duhon and Quentin Richardson add depth but 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 Celtic’s depth. Eastern Conference semifinals seems likely.

2. Boston Celtics

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    June 17, Staples Center, 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, Delonte West, as well as re-signing 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 deputise for Perkins. If those two come up big, and the other veterans stay healthy (two BIG if’s) 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 cheque.

    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.

1. Miami Heat

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    There’s no doubt about it; as soon as LeBron decided to ‘take his talents to South Beach’ and join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat cemented their place as the NBA’s most talked-about team. Whatever you think of the decision of James, Wade and Bosh to join forces in Miami, 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 seem premature, but the Heat are certainly the most talented team in the East, should win over 60 games and top the conference, and look 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.