2012 NBA Playoff Predictions: Eastern Conference Edition
The Eastern Conference is becoming more stacked than the Western Conference. While a lot of confusion lies at the doorstep of the most dominant franchise in the West, the Los Angeles Lakers, the East is building upon dynasties in order to recapture crowns that had been guided to the opposite side of the country. This year’s playoffs were rejuvenating to those who had lost their purpose in the league and gave people full of indifference a side to pick. Which side was that?
Any side that did not include LeBron James.
However, next year will look a tad bit different than this year’s postseason in the East. While most of the same teams will be reappearing, there are some that will have fallen lower in the ranks. There are some that were not even mentioned last season that will claw their way to recognition. The lockout may be in place, but the season has got to start sometime.
When it does, we must be ready for the change that will follow.
One Seed: Miami Heat, Cause: Transition Will Only Improve with Draft Addition
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Do not confuse Miami’s first season with luck. They were well within their rights to make it as far as they did in the Finals. Taking into account the teams they were facing and the skill-set that each individual player brought to the table, they had enough to sweep every opponent they encountered. They were not too far from it either.
In the entire Eastern Conference Playoffs, the Miami Heat only dropped three games, one against each of their opponents. By only allowing a single game when facing two of the toughest home crowds in the league, Chicago and Boston, Miami demonstrated the chemistry they had developed early on. Do not make the mistake of thinking that since they fell to Dallas in the Finals what had been molded in 2010 will spontaneously disappear in 2011.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will be together next season no matter what. Pat Riley is a grand businessman when it comes to shuffling players around his roster, however, there will not be a moment where the thought will cross his mind that the trio should disperse.
Rumors were scattered around the league that Riley had promptly informed executives that he would not be splitting up the Three Musketeers in the near future, especially not as soon as the 2011-12 season.
The addition of Norris Cole in this year’s draft should be considered in the Heat’s formula back to the playoffs. Although he is not an established league player as of yet, Cole implements the exact same offensive style that Spoelstra is looking to exploit.
Miami’s transition game is by far their most efficient, but the lack of speed and athleticism outside of James and Wade proved difficult last season. Even though the Heat would sometimes have an advantage over their opponents, their depth would be exposed rather than their temperament for agility and strength.
Cole will be used much more than people think.
Miami fans need not worry about how dominant this team will be in the future. Barring some type of freak accident like tripping over a gym bag and breaking a hand, sorry Carlos Boozer, all three of Miami’s leading scorers will be front and center whenever each side of the labor dispute decides that things need to change.
It may take a while, but it is just embarrassing for the league that reports are flying out of every direction negating the claims that they have been losing $300 million +. It is equally embarrassing to see the players comfortable in a situation that will not allow the league to stand on its own two feet for much longer.
It just makes the billionaires seem a little incompetent and the millionaires a little blind to reality.
Two Seed: Chicago Bulls, Cause: Derrick Rose Headlines and Boozer Flops
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The Chicago Bulls are not going anywhere anytime soon. The time has not come for them to succeed in the Finals, because they will not make it this upcoming season either. Derrick Rose is the most important player and will always be, but as long as they have Carlos Boozer disappearing like he did in the last postseason, the Bulls will never strike the right chord.
Rose was locked down defensively, but Chicago still had chances to win. If they had exasperated the effort of Boozer, things may have gone a little differently. Since the NBA is rarely the template of exploring ‘would haves, should haves, could haves’, we must move past what Boozer should have done and what he can do to help his team make it back.
First things first: No more throwing shade at opponents who are clearly more skilled than you. I understand that the playoffs are filled with mind games. The whole purpose of trash talking pre and post games are to get into the heads of your enemies, at the moment, and throw them off.
Boozer’s comment about ‘The Big 2’ was only sustainable for one game and the rest was history. Chicago was tossed out of the postseason on their behinds with not so much as a moral victory. Their leading man performed like he was a bit intimidated and Boozer’s points meant nothing.
It is one thing to make clutch shots and put your team up in the last moments of a quarter. It is another to only score at moments where your team is on an up tempo. When the Bulls struggled they could not depend on the testosterone to shoot through Boozer’s veins and Miami was able to capitalize every time.
Meetings in the Eastern Conference will become much more complicated than previously. With Carmelo’s addition to NY so late, a lot of teams were able to flash past them because of the lack of experience they had together. That will not be an issue going into the full or half season of 2011. Chicago will need to depend on more than the A-game of Rose to survive. He is not a diamond in the rough anymore.
Everyone has seen and studied him by now.
Three Seed: Boston Celtics, Cause: Experienced Yet Aged
The Boston Celtics are quickly diminishing in their power rankings in the Eastern Conference. Kevin Garnett is looking less and less like his old self, even in the light of his refurbished Game 3 against Miami in the second round.
Boston must be granted kudos because they swept a trigger-happy Carmelo Anthony and defenseless Knicks out of the first round. But, only so much credit can be given when it looks like a team shot themselves in the foot. Messy plays and injuries dealt the Knicks their cards and the Celtics were more than ready and willing to take advantage.
Things were not so simple against Miami. The kicker with Boston is that while their experience gives them an edge, their age is beginning to creep through their joints.
Ray Allen can last another three or four years in the league doing what he does best. Paul Pierce and Garnett, on the other hand, are very susceptible to injury and their games work primarily around their ability to defend and use their less-than-fresh legs to get around their opponents. Garnett is not going to be able to post up younger, better conditioned players in the paint for much longer, so the Celtics must explore ways to prepare for his departure.
Still, they will finish the season as the three seed because they have something that no one else does. Coach Doc Rivers is one of the greatest coaches I have ever seen operate under pressure. He does not crack. No matter how much he screams at his players for botching a play, he keeps the faith in them even after they have lost it in themselves.
There is a reason why the Celtics and Lakers rivalry had continued to be such an anticipated regular season game. It was never just a battle between the players. Coach Rivers and Coach Phil Jackson were trying to outcoach one another. Now that Coach Jackson is no longer active, Coach Rivers is the best coach to lead an aging team through their last bout beside one another.
This lockout break will give their bodies the much needed extra time to recuperate, but it will not be enough to grant them amnesty over Chicago or Miami.
Four Seed: Orlando Magic, Cause: The Franchise Has Reached Potential
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Orlando is just sitting at the same spot that they were last season, because not much has changed. While the arrival of Justin Harper and DeAndre Liggins will prove to be instrumental, nothing each of these players does against the likes of the three aforementioned teams will amount to a higher end-of-season ranking.
Dwight Howard will do what he does. He will catch the lobs, create his own poster-type dunks, grab rebounds from competitors and improve upon his free throw percentage. If his comrades could only take a page out of his ever-improving handbook, the Magic would have the opportunity to advance against the likes of Derrick Rose and LeBron James.
Coach Stan Van Gundy is also contributing to Orlando’s mediocrity. It must be said that when he ventured out of Miami, reportedly forced out by Pat Riley, the team won the very next season. Orlando has reached the height of their potential with the men they have recruited and are now paying desperately for a bad three-team trade.
Howard’s discontent with the efforts of his men in the postseason was heard loud and clear. While none of his teammates have come forth and addressed his concerns, you have to wonder if they are simply waiting to be waived and replaced, because no one matters as much as Dwight Howard does on that squad.
Some of Van Gundy’s decision making skills have been questionable and more than one star player has come forth about it, i.e. Howard, Shaquille O’Neal.
Until Orlando clears some of their cap space by relieving contracts like Gilbert Arenas, which will be virtually impossible, they must settle for in-between.
Five Seed: New York Knicks, Cause: Fan Push, but Lack of Defense
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Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Mike D’Antoni cannot survive at the top in the same franchise.
Coach D’Antoni’s system only enables both Anthony and Stoudemire to stay within their comfort zone, which is offensively based. Anthony’s three-pointers are great, but if you cannot control the tempo of the game on the other end of the floor, there is a problem.
Drafting Iman Shumpert was the last great move that Donnie Walsh made before he officially stepped down as President/GM of the Knicks. His decision to bring in Anthony was both risky and a little too brash, seeing as how he gave up so much in Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton and Danilo Gallinari.
Mike D’Antoni may be the next person to step down from his position before the weight of the city comes crashing down on his head. Still, even though their internal struggles will show throughout the entire season, they will get off to a good start. This is the main factor in their season’s end.
The fire will be burning to get back on the court and it will show in Anthony’s shooting and Stoudemire’s attempt at a more intensive paint presence. Chauncey Billups will be his usual self, even though he has not been readily mentioned as a factor in the franchise. Billups has been there and done that, so while NY is in their place of redemption from irrelevance, he will be there to guide them through it.
The city has fans that have always been extraordinarily dedicated, even when all hope was lost and the Knicks became more of a rest day than actual competition.
Now that the team has resurged, fans will be behind them more than ever, even with the considerable rise in ticket prices. Drones will come through in support. But even with the rise of the people, the Knicks will fall back into their defenseless ways. Shumpert will provide the best he can, but as a rookie in such a heavy influence like New York, he will only be held accountable for so much.
Six Seed: Indiana Pacers, Cause: Vogel Leadership, Hansbrough Heart
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The Indiana Pacers showed an immense level of promise in the face of men much more experienced and talented than they were. That will carry into the 2011 season no matter when it starts.
Darren Collison, an elite point guard in the works, will become much more inept in the situations he faltered in against Derrick Rose. Even though the two were ill-matched, the competition swaying in Rose’s favor most of the time, Collison’s speed reared its head as Rose would try to exhibit those athletic moves that led him to the regular season league MVP award.
Tyler Hansbrough aka ‘Psycho T’ also gives me the hope that this franchise should not be overlooked. At a point when Hansbrough was knocked silly and taken behind the scenes to be given a concussion test, he returned and played harder than he had before his break.
He has an engine that never slows and that is very important in the Eastern Conference where pace determines everything. The fact that he was on an eighth-seeded team playing against Derrick Rose and the number one seed meant nothing. Indiana was not intimidated and even managed to steal a game of the series.
Indiana could have fared much better if Frank Vogel would have been in the head coaching position from the beginning. When he took over after Jim O’Brien was dismissed, the team meshed a lot better on the court and Hansbrough was allotted a lot more playing time.
During O’Brien’s reign his moments on the hardwood were very limited and for seemingly no viable purpose at all. Hansbrough would produce every time he was on the court and O’Brien just seemed more and more hesitant to make him a firm starter.
Vogel made no bones about it. He threw Hansbrough in head first and as a result, Indiana gave Chicago a run for their money. The Pacers will definitely move up in the ranks in the East.
Seven Seed: Charlotte Bobcats, Cause: Kemba Walker
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Charlotte took a huge leap for mankind when they drafted Kemba Walker with the ninth pick in the 2011 NBA draft.
People expected that he would not fall out of the top ten, but I for one did not expect the Bobcats to be the ones to scoop him up. He was definitely a steal as the ninth name called that night. Now that his position with the franchise is set, expect Walker to make an instant impact.
It is not as if he is some overhyped freshman who does not have the shape to his game to be a solid NBA player yet. His clutch performances may be talked about continuously, but it is with great merit. The shots that he would hit against teams that were supposed to stomp all over UConn’s roster immaturity, like Pittsburgh, fell victim to a pull-up jumper that has generated 400,000 views on Youtube.
Not saying that he is the only athlete on that team that can make a difference, but after Charlotte gave up Gerald Wallace, he will add a much needed fourth dimension. They will fair well in the Eastern conference behind the elite because they do not have a solid roster yet.
Eight Seed: Atlanta Hawks, Cause: Talented but Disheartening
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The Atlanta Hawks have one huge issue that needs to be addressed.
They have no heart.
As a team that briskly made their way through the Orlando Magic, I expected to see them make a little bit more noise against the Chicago Bulls. The biggest difference between the two squads is that the Atlanta Hawks do not have nearly as much heart and dedication to the game as the Bulls.
I understand that to even be an average Joe in the league it takes a lot of time and preparation, but at moments when things need to be done to restore the energy into Atlanta’s game it is left up to the coach or Josh Smith. Jeff Teague was there to restore the guard position with an unseen amount of energy, but it still was not enough.
There is no voice on the bench or on the floor other than Smith and their coach and that concerns me in moments where it takes nothing but pure determination to pull away from an opponent.
They will finish their regular season with a postseason bid, but only barely.