Predicting the 2012-13 NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Bracket

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 20, 2012

Predicting the 2012-13 NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Bracket

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    The 2012-13 NBA Eastern Conference projects to be the deepest that this conference has been in years.

    There's a new super team (Brooklyn Nets) and a new super big man (Andrew Bynum).

    Most of the faces of the predicted playoff bracket may be the same, but there are climbers and free-fallers among them.

    The question marks that surround the conference will spark debates up to and through the regular season.

    How does Bynum's arrival change Philly's fortune? How will Chicago respond to Derrick Rose's absence? Who are the real kings of New York? Is Indiana more than just a one-year wonder?

    And, most importantly, who can challenge the champions?

8. Atlanta Hawks

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    2011-12 record: 40-26

    Key additions: Lou Williams (free agent), Devin Harris (trade), Kyle Korver (trade) and Anthony Morrow (trade)

    Credit new Atlanta GM Danny Ferry for finding his way out of the contracts of Joe Johnson (four years, $89 million remaining) and Marvin Williams (two years, $15 million) without sacrificing too much talent.

    Johnson's departure will surely hurt Atlanta's record this season, but the arrival of the potent Williams along with shooters Korver, Morrow and first-round pick John Jenkins should be enough to keep Atlanta in the playoff hunt.

    Ferry didn't find a third piece to complement Atlanta's star-studded duo of Al Horford and Josh Smith, but the 25-year-old Williams and 24-year-old Jeff Teague should have their best basketball in front of them.

    In addition, the franchise's financial future appears to have them set to contend for the superstar-laden, free-agent class of 2013, which includes Atlanta's most intriguing star (Smith).

    2013 projected record: 41-41

7. Chicago Bulls

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    2011-12 record: 50-16

    Key additions: Kirk Hinrich (free agent), Marquis Teague (draft) and Marco Belinelli (free agent)

    Chicago managed to not only withstand former MVP Derrick Rose's absence last year, but actually posted the conference's best record despite his missing nearly half of the strike-shortened season (27 games).

    Coach Tom Thibodeau's squad remained the Eastern Conference leaders thanks in large part to the production from his bench and the production of Rose's replacements (C.J. Watson and John Lucas).

    This season, however, Rose's absence projects to make a much larger dent in the Bulls' regular season.

    For starters, Rose's debut reportedly will not likely occur before January and could come as late as April, according to Cindy Boren of The Washington Post.

    Of more immediate concern, however, is the fact that Chicago's second unit will have a much different appearance. Watson (Brooklyn) and Lucas (Toronto) left the Windy City during free agency, as did Ronnie Brewer (New York), Omer Asik (Houston) and Kyle Korver (traded to Atlanta).

    2012-13 projected record: 42-40

6. Boston Celtics

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    2011-12 record: 39-27

    Key additions: Jason Terry (free agent), Courtney Lee (trade) and Jared Sullinger (draft)

    For the first time since Boston's championship 2007-08 season, coach Doc Rivers will not have his entire "Big Three" at his disposal.

    The sharp-shooting Ray Allen spurned the Celtics for a chance to play with the reigning NBA champion Miami Heat.

    But despite earlier concerns to the contrary, Rivers will in fact have Kevin Garnett at his disposal, along with Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo.

    More intriguing, though, is the arrival of Allen's replacement, the 34-year-old Terry. Terry won't be the outside threat that the NBA's all-time leader in three-pointers was, but he did outscore Allen (15.1 to 14.2) last season despite playing nearly two-and-a-half fewer minutes.

    Rivers' bench should show marked improvement with the arrival of Lee, Sullinger and fellow rookies Fab Melo and Kris Joseph.

    However, the biggest addition for Boston could be a player who's spent the last season-and-a-half in Boston: Jeff Green. The 25-year-old missed all of last season after an aortic aneurysm was revealed in an offseason physical.

    2012-13 projected record: 45-37

5. Brooklyn Nets

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    2011-12 record: 22-44

    Key additions: Joe Johnson (trade), C.J. Watson (free agent) and Mirza Teletovic (free agent)

    From Marcy to luxury suites?

    With part-owner Jay-Z's reported involvement in everything from new logos and uniform colors to arena music and champagne selection, these Nets are hoping to go from cellar-dwellers to conference powers.

    Just three seasons removed from a disastrous 12-win season, the Nets will enter their new home of the Barclays Center arena with more than just a playoff appearance on their mind.

    While their publicized pursuit of Dwight Howard ultimately fell through, Nets GM Billy King continued to improve his starting lineup with the six-time All-Star Johnson and bolstered his bench with Watson, Keith Bogans and Reggie Evans.

    But it's the Bosnian Teletovic who could tantalize this fanbase. The 6'9", 255-lbs forward has the shooting touch to spread the floor, but the size and physicality to play on the block.

    Losing out on Howard may have cost them their championship hopes, but a second-round run or better could still be in the works.

    2012-13 projected record: 47-35

4. New York Knicks

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    2011-12 record: 36-30

    Key additions: Raymond Felton (trade), Jason Kidd (free agent) and Ronnie Brewer (free agent)

    So the Carmelo Anthony/Amar'e Stoudemire pairing hasn't planned out as well as Spike Lee would've hoped by now. 

    Why does everything fall in to place this season?

    For starters, there's hopefully residual confidence from the 18-6 record the team posted when coach Mike Woodson grabbed the reigns. Anthony played his best basketball under Woodson, and showed how little his supporting cast matters when he's hot.

    But the veteran additions made by this club, including Felton, Kidd, Brewer and Marcus Camby, are the type of additions that can change an organization's culture. Talent-wise the Knicks can compete with anyone in the Eastern Conference, and these veterans could help the locker room buy in to putting the team first.

    Felton and Kidd can help get Stoudemire closer to the 25.3 points per game he averaged in 2010-11 (and farther from the 17.3 he managed last season).

    Brewer and Camby can help maintain the NBA's fifth-best defense (in terms of points per possession), which could even improve when Iman Shumpert returns from his torn ACL.

    2012-13 projected record: 48-34

3. Philadelphia 76ers

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    2011-12 record: 35-31

    Key additions: Andrew Bynum (trade), Jason Richardson (trade) and Nick Young (free agent)

    No matter how painful 76ers' fans had imagined the departure of longtime Sixer Andre Iguodala would be, it's hard to fathom their tears were for anything but joy considering what they got in return.

    Bynum's tenure in Los Angeles was spent equally exciting and frustrating the fanbase. Fans questioned the 24-year-old's desire, commitment and work ethic.

    Funny that few questioned the limited touches he was getting.

    As a second option for the Lakers last season, Bynum posted career-highs in points (18.7), rebounds (11.8) and minutes (35.2). He even skipped his annual trip to the training room, appearing in 60 of the team's 66 games.

    Bynum now has the chance to blossom as the focal point of a 76ers team that has been searching for a go-to player since the departure of Allen Iverson.

    The arrival of shooters Richardson, Young and Dorell Wright will not only clear up space for Bynum to work in the post, but will also open up driving lanes for rising stars Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner.

    2012-13 projected record: 50-32

2. Indiana Pacers

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    2011-12 record: 42-24

    Key additions: D.J. Augustin (free agent), Gerald Green (free agent) and Ian Mahinmi (trade)

    Indiana may still hold the second-best center in the Eastern Conference, but Roy Hibbert should enjoy a better supporting cast than Andrew Bynum.

    The Pacers have one of the league's most complete starting fives, with players at each position capable of carrying the team on any given night.

    Danny Granger led last year's team in scoring (18.7) and likely will again, but further improvement from the young Hibbert (25), George Hill (26) and Paul George (22) could be the difference between a nice regular season and a prolonged postseason stay.

    Augustin could have the best chance to make an impact among the newcomers, but Mahinmi's role can not be understated. With the midseason retirement of Jeff Foster and the departure of Louis Amundson, coach Frank Vogel needs a physical interior presence when Hibbert comes off the floor.

    Green, meanwhile, used 31 games to show that he's no longer the one-trick pony that he was when he last played an NBA game in 2008-09.

    Projected 2012-13 record: 53-29

1. Miami Heat

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    2011-12 Record: 46-20

    Key Additions: Ray Allen (free agent) and Rashard Lewis (free agent)

    New collective bargaining agreement, or not, the NBA's rich seem to be still getting richer.

    Adding Allen and Lewis doesn't quite equate to the Lakers adding Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, but bear in mind that Los Angeles was dismissed in the second round while the Heat brought the championship back to South Beach.

    Miami breezed to the second-best conference record last season, despite Dwyane Wade missing 17 games. The Heat then survived a six-game struggle with Indiana and a seven-game battle with Boston, despite getting just 88 minutes from Chris Bosh over those 13 games.

    With Bosh and Wade eschewing an Olympic trip in efforts to enter next season healthy, it's safe to say that the NBA championship goes through American Airlines Arena.

    LeBron James captured his third MVP en route to his first NBA championship.

    Mario Chalmers and second-year Norris Cole have eased concern about the point guard position.

    And now Allen and Lewis join Mike Miller, Shane Battier and James Jones to give Miami one of the greatest collections of shooters the league has ever seen.

    With Orlando and Atlanta taking significant steps backward, Miami could seemingly pencil in victories in all 14 Southeast Division games.

    Projected 2012-13 record: 68-14

First-Round Preview

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    (1) Miami Heat vs (8) Atlanta Hawks: Between James, Bosh, Horford and Smith, this series could bring plenty of exciting matchups, even if it lacks for exciting games. Underrated matchup for this series: Teague vs Cole.

    (2) Indiana Pacers vs (7) Chicago Bulls: Two years ago, the Pacers arrived on the scene with a better-than-it-sounds five-game defeat to the then top-seeded Bulls. This Pacers team is better equipped to challenge Chicago, but a healthy Rose could still end this series early.

    (3) Philadelphia 76ers vs (6) Boston Celtics: A repeat of last season's second-round matchup. Philadelphia has a better answer (Holiday) for Boston's best player (Rondo) than Boston does (Garnett) for the 76ers' best (Bynum).

    (4) New York Knicks vs (5) Brooklyn Nets: An all-New York matchup could shut down Twitter and garner it's own ESPN channel. While the stars may not battle head-to-head often, interesting to see how scorers (Williams, Johnson, Anthony) handle the challenges from the defensive stoppers (Shumpert, Brewer, Gerald Wallace).