With the new NBA season only a couple of days away, here is my preview of what to expect from each team in the Eastern Conference and where I believe they will finish this year.
1. Miami Heat
After coming up just short of being NBA champions, the Heat are hungry to get back and accomplish what everyone expected them to do last year and that is win the title. Miami was able to add a couple of key pieces this offseason, adding Shane Battier via free agency and drafting Norris Cole. Shane Battier gives them a great defensive and is an intelligent player that will be a good influence in the locker room. While Norris Cole is a rookie with a lot of hype, as he can score and distribute well and was considered a sleeper prospect going into the draft. Bosh will have to get better and LeBron James will need to play more in the post and work better with Wade, but that shouldn’t be a big issue. I fully expect them to at least make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals.
2. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls had the best record in the NBA a season ago, but had a relatively disappointing postseason. I say that due to the close matches with the Pacers and Hawks and losing in a poor fashion to the Miami Heat. The good thing is Derrick Rose is only going to get better and they added a crucial piece to a championship run in Rip Hamilton. Rip may not seem like a gigantic free agent signing, but for a team that had Keith Bogans starting, it is monumental for their chances to be champions of the league. Rip will provide the team with extra offense and will spread and tire defenses out, which should allow for a better all-around year for Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, Loul Deng, Joakim Noah, etc. Bulls could very easily represent the East, but also could go out in the second round. I expect the team will get back to Eastern Conference Finals, but the Knicks and possibly the Celtics will challenge that.
3. New York Knicks
Knicks could make a serious run in the playoffs this year that could see them in the Eastern Conference Finals and possibly even the NBA Finals. They made a pretty good free agent signing this offseason in acquiring Tyson Chandler, who will help them become a better rebounding and defensive team. He also can run the court and will fit in D’Antoni system quite well. However, they are really going to miss having a point guard that can run the offense as well and as tough as Chauncey Billups was able to. Due to Billups’ absence, I think the Knicks will fall short of the Eastern Conference Finals, but they are not far off. Amare and Carmelo, if they decide to play defense, could prove me wrong.
4. Boston Celtics
Could Boston’s years at the top be a thing of the past? First the original big three (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen) are getting older. Then you have them losing a huge part of their team last year in Kendrick Perkins for a guy that will miss all of this season due to heart issues in Jeff Green. Then Boston made only some minor moves this offseason adding Brandon Bass while parting ways with Glen “Big Baby” Davis. Overall the move to me is only a slight upgrade, as Bass can provide them a little bit more toughness and Bass a bit of a better shooter. However, he may benefit learning under Garnett. I still feel the Celtics could have one more shot at, especially in a shorter season. However, this is the last shot for the Celtics because time is running out on the original big three. It may be time to think about building around Rondo or using him to get more, younger pieces for the future.
5. Indiana Pacers
This is going to be a dark horse this year and could, if they get hot, find their way into the Eastern Conference Finals. Tyler Hansbrough looks like a very solid power forward and as long as he sees more minutes, could help make this team very competitive and bring more energy to the team. David West was a nice addition, as was George Hill. Paul George is also a key player to watch this year, he grew two inches and looks primed to have a big year. The depth is up there with best of them and as long as they get solid production from Collison and Hibbert they should be a very good team in the East. Still I think Heat, Bulls, Knicks, and Celtics will be too tough for them, but this is a good bunch that has a lot of upside.
6. Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta had a solid run in the playoffs and gave the Bulls all they could handle. Jeff Teague looked good in that postseason too after Hinrich went out and could be a player to watch for in the NBA this year. However, Joe Johnson didn’t have great season and they lost Jamal Crawford. In order for the Hawks to be a top competitor in the East, Joe Johnson will have to step up and Teague will have to take his game to a whole other level. Also Marvin Williams seems to be healthy and could also be a key contributor. However, I think the Hawks just don’t have the weapons to compete with the Heat, Bulls, Knicks and Celtics. Expect them to finish between fifth and seventh this year in the East.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia had a surprisingly good year and was a hot team down the stretch of last year. Elton Brand played a lot better last year than the previous years, but will likely have to improve on his game some more in order for this team to take the next step. They have a lot of nice pieces especially at the guard spots with Jrue Holiday, Andre Iguodala, Jodie Meeks, and especially Evan Turner, who I am expecting big things from this year after a somewhat disappointing rookie season. Thadeus Young is also a nice piece off the bench and should probably start, but with Andre Iguodala on the team will be forced to start on the bench. Watch for Iguodala to be traded for some help in the post. I could see them finishing as high as fifth this year and could make it to the second. This is a real nice up and coming team in the NBA, led by a quality coach in Doug Collins.
8. New Jersey Nets
This really is all dependent on Dwight Howard and where he will land if he gets traded at all this year. If he gets traded to the Nets, which I believe is his likeliest destination, then I believe the Nets could finish as high as forth in the East depending on how soon Dwight gets traded. I think it is going to be closer to the trade deadline for Dwight to get traded, so don’t expect too much from the Nets this year. Besides Brooks Lopez and Deron Williams, this team kind of looks ugly, but those two at the very least should keep them in the playoff hunt.
9. Orlando Magic
The reason I have Orlando out of the playoffs is that I believe Dwight will be gone from this team by the trade deadline and if that is the case they certainly don’t have enough talent to make it without him. They will be close though, because they should get a solid return for Dwight Howard. It is really a shame to think where this team was at not too long ago and now they are likely to lose their superstar centers. The scary thing is, the worst may be yet to come, especially if they can’t manage a nice lottery pick out of a Dwight Howard trade this rebuilding process could take a while so it may be better to trade Dwight sooner than later.
10. Milwaukee Bucks
Once again I think this is a season for the Bucks that will hinge on Andrew Bogut’s health. If he is healthy, then the Bucks have a shot for the playoffs. Stephen Jackson was a pretty good addition to a team that has a tough time scoring. Brandon Jennings should have bounce back year and expect big things from him this year. Also with Skiles as the coach, they always have a shot for success with his great defensive mindset. However, with the East growing stronger, it could be tough for Milwaukee to make it to the postseason.
11. Washington Wizards
This is quite an interesting team. John Wall has a full year under his belt and I think we are going to see big improvements in his game this upcoming year. They have some solid post players, but they will have to play smarter on both offense and defense for the team to improve and Rashard Lewis will be a key player in whether this team can make a run towards the playoffs. Watch out for Jordan Crawford this year as I think he is going to be pretty dynamic offensive player in the league. Also Ronny Turiaf was an underrated pick up, should help on defense. Expect them to take steps forward, but I still think they are a year away from making the postseason.
12. Toronto Raptors
This is a team to watch out for in the East. I know that sounds silly, but I really like some of the potential of the players on this team. Especially guys like Ed Davis and DeMar DeRozan. If Andrea Bargnani can improve his game, especially on the defensive side, this team could make some noise in the Eastern Conference. As of now they are still a year away, but watch out for this team, they could be tougher than people think.
13. Charlotte Bobcats
This is likely going to be a real rough year for the Bobcats. They should have a good defense, but they lack a lot of offensive skills. They have a few bright spots on this team, especially their drafted players in Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo who should be key players for the future of this franchise. Paul Silas is also a great coach for this team and should be a good mentor for these young players. They are going to have to wait a year at the very least to sniff the playoffs, but even then it is likely two or three years down the line.
14. Detroit Pistons
After the terrible moves of signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, the Pistons are trying to get back to the playoffs. It won’t likely happen this year, but as bad of free agent signings as they have made, they have some solid prospects to watch out for in second year player Greg Monroe and rookie Brandon Knight. Brandon Knight has a lot of potential, but needs to improve his shooting (especially his consistency), but I like his upside. The Pistons are also going to have to become a more unselfish group in order to have success, which I find unlikely with Stuckey, Gordon and Villanueva on the team. It will likely be a couple years for the Pistons to be a playoff team again.
15. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers were pretty awful last year with the absence of LeBron James. However, they did add some nice pieces through the draft in Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson. Still it is going to take more than that for Cleveland to take the next step and Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson are just too young and raw to make a gigantic impact right away. If Cleveland can get another top three pick next year, the future could be looking bright in a couple years for them.
Eastern Conference Final Prediction: Miami Heat over Chicago Bulls in 7 games