Atlantic Division (predicted order of finish and record)
Boston Celtics (60-22) – The defending champs probably won’t match their 66-win total from last season, but they could and should win it all once again. Some say Boston won’t be as hungry after winning a title, but they clearly are the team to beat in the East (no one else is close), as Doc Rivers will have them playing hard every night. Garnett, Pierce, and Allen are bound to experience the effects of age to a degree, but their young bench and roleplayers will be a contributing factor to Celtic success. This Boston squad is one of the best teams I’ve seen in a long time; look for big things.
Toronto Raptors (49-33) – The acquisition of Jermaine O’Neal to complement Chris Bosh gives Toronto the most formidable big-man duo in basketball for an incumbent Eastern Conference playoff team. If Calderon can continue on his path to stardom at the point, and Bargnani can give the Raptors increased production, this Toronto roster resembles one of a sleeper in the East, but they don’t have quite enough in terms of a bench or wing scoring to challenge Boston for first in the Atlantic. They may very well win a playoff round, but it might be a few years before they’re elite.
New Jersey Nets (42-40) – A team that blew up their core and has started to move towards youth may be a pleasant surprise in the East this season. For the first time as a Net, Vince Carter can finally be the featured player, which is a good thing for a ball-dominant player like him. The progression of Harris in the backcourt and the development of their young frontcourt will be the make or break factor for the Nets’ season. One thing that is always constant is the desire of coach Lawrence Frank to win, something that might propel the Nets into the 7th or 8th playoff seed.
Philadelphia 76ers (39-43) – The acquisition of Elton Brand has been seen as the move that puts Philly over the top, but health concerns for Brand are always prevalent. This team has gotten a tremendous amount of hype after their improbable playoff appearance last season, and though they do have talented, athletic youngsters, this isn’t a team I see getting back to the postseason. They lack outside shooting, and their bench isn’t very good aside from youngsters like Young and Williams. Don’t be surprised if the Sixers are a bit disappointing this year.
New York Knicks (32-50) – There will surely be some improvement after last season’s debacle, but there will also be a transition period into the uptempo style of coach Mike D’Antoni. New York hasn’t been good defensively over the past few years, and it seems unlikely that this style will encourage defense. These are still most of Isiah Thomas’ players despite the new hierarchy, and until this team makes some credible moves in terms of player personnel, the Knicks will struggle. Look for no more than 35 wins from the Knicks this season.
Central Division (predicted order of finish and record)
Detroit Pistons (54-28) – If we’re going to use past years as our guide, then the default prediction for Detroit will be a season with mid-50’s wins and a loss in the conference finals. The acquisition of Allen Iverson may not make Detroit a whole lot better, but it makes them different, something that they would like to be after losing in the conference finals each of the past three years. The rest of the cast is basically the same on the court, but the hire of Michael Curry as head coach brings young and lively character to the position. Detroit will be very good, but making that next step can’t be their downfall again.
Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32) – Cleveland isn’t built to be a dominant regular-season team, but with LeBron James surrounded by a better team than ever before, they are legitimate threat to Detroit and possibly a threat to win the East. Mo Williams is a credible point guard, something that they have lacked in years past, and toughness on the inside has been added. LeBron, in my opinion, is the NBA’s best player, and in a league driven by stars, the sky is the limit for the “King”, and as seen in recent years, one player can win a series for a team, especially after what happened just two seasons ago.
Milwaukee Bucks (37-45) – The division really drops off after the two top teams, but Milwaukee should be much improved after a season where they were only 26-56. The trade for Richard Jefferson was a steal for the Bucks, forming one of the best swingman duos in the league with him and Redd. Their frontcourt depth is scarce, but they won’t finish last in offensive efficiency as they did last year. Scott Skiles is fiery and hungry coach that can motivate big men, such as Bogut and Villanueva, possibly lifting them to a low playoff seed in the East.
Chicago Bulls (34-48) – Chicago has as much young talent as anyone in the East, but their roster is still weighed down by backcourt players, and also lacks a proven big man that can score. Derrick Rose is a special player, being selected first overall, but point guard wasn’t really an urgency for the Bulls, while their frontcourt is loaded with energy players and doesn’t really resemble much of anything. No matter how much of an impact Rose makes, it seems as if Chicago will miss the playoffs once again in the first season under new coach Vinny Del Negro.
Indiana Pacers (26-56) – This team has really entered a full rebuilding process after trading their star in O’Neal. Their roster isn’t even close to being one that can contend, though Danny Granger has All-Star potential in his fourth season. Even though Jim O’Brien is a proven coach in this league, Larry Bird has given him next to nothing to work with. They have controversy at almost all of their positions, not that it will matter. In the watered-down East, Indiana is as bad as it gets; even the 26 wins I’ve given them may be a bit too generous.
Southeast Division (predicted order of finish and record)
Orlando Magic (52-30) – The Magic should still be the class of the Southeast Division, but that actually might be by default, as the outlook for Orlando might not be as bright as it’s been recently. Dwight Howard is still entering his prime as a dominant big man, and his wing players in Lewis and Turkoglu are very good. Other than that, the Magic aren’t very impressive. They haven’t had a solid off-guard in a long time, and their bench is composed of a bunch of rookies and retreads. Orlando will win the division, but don’t let that deceive you.
Washington Wizards (45-37) – There’s no reason to say that the Wizards are dangerous when healthy, because they never are, but if Arenas returns sometime around the new year, Jamison and Butler can help him in carrying the load for one of the East’s most consistent teams over the past few years. There’s not much in the area of depth, but if this core can return and produce for Eddie Jordan, they’ll certainly be good enough to stay in contention for first in this division. Even if Arenas can’t play a ton of games, Washington is still a playoff team.
Miami Heat (41-41) – Last year’s Heat season can be thrown out the window; it wasn’t a true indication due to injury, and with a full season from a healthy Wade and Marion, Miami is a possible playoff contender. Michael Beasley is the favorite for Rookie of the Year, and if he quickly becomes a legitimate third option for new coach Eric Spoelstra, the Heat could see a turnaround akin to Boston’s last year, though they might not have that much success. Both point guard and center need to stabilized, but Miami is clearly on the upswing.
Atlanta Hawks (36-46) – Don’t be fooled by Atlanta’s playoff appearance last season; this team still won only 37 games. Their best players in Johnson and Smith are extremely talented, but the loss of Childress hurts, not to mention that their bench is an absolute disaster. If Atlanta can’t win more games than they did last season, they won’t be in playoff contention, since the East has a few more “fringe” playoff contenders than it did last season. If Atlanta struggles as I see them doing, Mike Woodson will be gone at season’s end for the Hawks.
Charlotte Bobcats (30-52) – If this roster had fewer holes, and if Charlotte was getting the Larry Brown from a few decades ago, I’d say the Bobcats were a team that could surprise in the East, but it still isn’t meant to be for this squad. This team will play hard because of their energetic youth with the likes Okafor and Wallace, but aside from this duo and swingman Jason Richardson, Charlotte will struggle. Brown is motivated to eradicate his lasting memories of New York, but this team is far too weak to contend.
All Eastern Conference First Team
C - Dwight Howard, Orlando
F - Kevin Garnett, Boston
F - LeBron James, Cleveland
G - Dwyane Wade, Miami
G - Allen Iverson, Detroit
All Eastern Conference Second Team
C - Chris Bosh, Toronto
F - Elton Brand, Philadelphia
F - Paul Pierce, Boston
G - Vince Carter, New Jersey
G - Gilbert Arenas, Washington
All Eastern Conference Third Team
C - Rasheed Wallace, Detroit
F - Shawn Marion, Miami
F - Richard Jefferson, Milwaukee
G - Joe Johnson, Atlanta
G - Michael Redd, Milwaukee