For the last three seasons, an NBA eastern conference preview seemed rather unnecessary. Unless you were interested in who was the second-best or third-best team. It’s been foolish to pick anyone other than the Heat to be the best team in the east and even with some great talent on the teams near the top, there is still no reason to pick a team other than the Heat, the defending NBA champions, to win the east. Here is the predicted order of finish.
1. Miami Heat
Last year: 66-16, 1st in Southeast, 1st in East. Won NBA Finals.
Key Additions: F Michael Beasley
Key Losses: F Mike Miller
Outlook: The Heat are almost a lock to be the favorites as long as LeBron James is healthy and on their team. There were times even last year where they looked like a one-man team, and they still won the title. If Wade is healthy, too, then forget it. Beyond James they are clearly not the most talented team. But that’s how good James is. Plus James claims he worked on some part of his game and is even better than he was last year. I’m not saying it will be easy, Indiana showed that last year. I am saying they will get it done…again.
Best Case: LeBron gets a healthy Wade, Ray Allen and Chris Bosh to join him as he wins another regular season and NBA finals MVP.
Likeliest Case: See above.
2. Indiana Pacers
Last year: 49-32, 1st in Central, 3rd in East. Lost in conference finals
Key Additions: G C.J. Watson, F Chris Copeland, F Luis Scola
Key Losses: G D.J. Augustin, F Tyler Hansbrough
Outlook: The future is very bright for the Pacers as they may have finally seen a glimpse of their potential during their conference finals matchup with the Heat. Paul George is a bonafide star and a star at both ends of the court. The clear leader of the team, but on a team that has lots of leadership with center Roy HIbbert and forward David West carry loud voices also. Lance Stephenson and George Hill lack the consistency to raise their game to the next level. Coach Frank Vogel is among the league’s best. Last year’s postseason experience should have been very helpful for him moving forward.
Best Case: Paul George is up to the task of putting the team on his shoulders in a matchup with LeBron James and the Heat, plus he gets help from Hibbert every night, instead of just most nights.
Likeliest Case: This season ends exactly the same way as last season, with a conference finals loss to the heat.
3. Chicago Bulls
Last year: 45-37, 2nd in Central, 5th in East. Lost in conference semifinals
Key Additions: G Derrick Rose, F Mike Dunleavy
Key Losses: G Nate Robinson, G Marco Belinelli, G Richard Hamilton
Outlook: They were the top seed in the East in the playoffs two seasons ago, when Rose went down with his ACL injury. Now that he is finally returning, they should vault right back into title contention. This is really a strong veteran team with Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah flanking Rose. They are a strong defensive team, but should not struggle to score as much as they have both with and without Rose. If not for the Herculean effort from Nate Robinson (signed with Denver in free agency), they might not have scored at all in last year’s playoffs.
Best Case: Sitting out the entire 2012-13 season pays off large for Rose, who resumes his place among the NBA’s elite. They stay healthy and push into the conference finals to face the hated Heat.
Likeliest Case: They produce an epic second round series with the Pacers and come up just short.
4. Brooklyn Nets
Last year: 49-33, 2nd in Atlantic, 4th in East. Lost in first round.
Key Additions: HC Jason Kidd, F-C Kevin Garnett, F Paul Pierce, F Andrei Kirilenko, G Jason Terry
Key Losses: G Marshon Brooks, F Kris Humphries, F Gerald Wallace, G C.J. Watson
Outlook: Much like the Rockets in the West they are trying to win a championship right now. However, unlike the Rockets, the Nets are ancient and hired a coach who hasn’t coached at any level before. They took a gamble on trading for Deron Williams a couple of seasons ago, but that is the move that led to adding Joe Johnson and now Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. They are paying through the nose for this roster and they think they can win right away. Their talent suggests they can, but counting on Williams and Johnson over the past few years has not worked out. So unless Pierce and Garnett can carry this team, I think they come up a little short this year. The talent is there, but it just doesn’t feel like they are better than at least a couple of teams in the east.
Best Case: It all comes together for their rookie coach and Garnett, Pierce and Johnson all find the fountain of youth. Garnett’s fierce attitude rubs off on some of the less intense Nets.
Likeliest Case: They look phenomenal at times, but age gets the best of them and they’re not at their best in the playoffs ad fall short of the conference finals
5. New York Knicks
Last year: 54-28, 1st in Atlantic, 2nd in East. Lost in eastern conference semifinals.
Key Additions: F Andrea Bargnani, F Metta World Peace, G Tim Hardaway, Jr.
Key Losses: F Chris Copeland, G Jason Kidd, F Steve Novak
Outlook: I just can’t see my way clear to thinking what fixes the Knicks problems was adding Andrea Bargnani and Metta World Peace. Basically when J.R. Smith gets hot they have a chance and when he’s not, then no one other than Carmelo Anthony can score. They claim to want to be a more defensive-minded team, but Tyson Chandler is no longer the best defender in the league and their only other plus defender is Iman Shumpert, who missed roughly half of last season. They still don’t play with the right amount of focus on a nightly basis and with both the Bulls and Nets adding tremendous talent this offseason, the Knicks are just simply getting passed up.
Best Case: Carmelo Anthony doesn’t just lead the league in scoring again, but shows he can be a complete player. Bargnani at least returns to the type of player that at the very least could at least put the ball in the basket.
Likeliest Case: Anthony and Smith take turns playing hero ball and they mix a few great nights, with a lot of disappointing ones.
6. Washington Wizards
Last year: 29-53, 3rd in Southeast, 11th in East. Missed playoffs.
Key Additions: F Otto Porter, F Al Harrington, G Eric Maynor
Key Losses: None
Outlook: John Wall played in 49 games last season. The Wizards were 24-25 in those games. They were 5-28 in the others. Even better, the Wizards were 15-7 when Wall, Bradley Beal and Nene played together. Obviously if that happens only 23 times again this season, then the Wizards hopes are sunk. The Wall-Beal backcourt has a chance to really grow together now that Wall has signed his long term extension. The recent addition of Marcin Gortat is a sold move, nothing spectacular, but a capable big to pair with Nene does help this team. Wall clearly had his best season a year ago, but he probably needs to lay even better if the Wizards are going to make the playoffs.
Best Case: Wall and crew pick right back up where they left off last season. Wall and Beal become a deadly duo and the Wiz taste the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Likeliest Case: The top five in the eastern conference are good. Pretty much nobody else in the east is good, so they’ll have a chance to grab a playoff spot.
7. Cleveland Cavaliers
Last year: 24-58, 5th in Central, 13th in East. Missed playoffs.
Key Additions: HC Mike Brown, C Andrew Bynum, G Jarrett Jack, F Earl Clark, F Anthony Bennett
Key Losses: F Marresse Speights, G Wayne Ellington, G Shaun Livingston
Outlook: They took a calculated risk by signing Andrew Bynum to a reasonable contract, but naturally Bynum is not ready for the start of the season, so counting on him for much this season is a stretch. Either way it’s time for their young nucleus to start producing wins. Kyrie Irving is a star at the point and Dion Waiters is a nice fit alongside him in the backcourt. Upfront they need a step forward from Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller. They also welcome back center Anderson Varejao, who has played less than 82 games combined over the last three seasons. Hs 25 games at the start of last year represented the best 25-game stretch of his career. Mike Brown returns as coach of the Cavaliers and might just have the right demeanor for this young group.
Best Case: Irving’s skills translate into wins as he has already shown some incredible flair for the dramatic in close games.
Likeliest Case: They are still growing but adding 13-15 wins from last is enough to grab a playoff spot in the east.
8. Detroit Pistons
Last year: 29-53, 4th in Central, 11th in East. Missed playoffs
Key Additions: HC Maurice Cheeks, F Josh Smith, G Chauncey Billups, G Brandon Jennings, G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Key Losses: G Brandon Knight, G Jose Calderon, F Jason Maxiell
Outlook: The last time Billups was in a Pistons uniform, Detroit was in the Eastern Conference Finals. They have not won a playoff series since and are on their fourth coach. Billups will be looked to for leadership as much, if not more than his basketball skills, playing with fellow backcourt newcomer Brandon Jennings who vows to be more of a distributor than he showed in his years with Milwaukee. Jennings, along with Smith, make this a significantly more talented team, but they have to come together and have to want to play some defense. Clearly that’s what Cheeks will try to stress with them, but I’m one of the few who liked the Andre Drummond selection last year and if he’s healthy, their frontline of Smith, the versatile Greg Monroe and Drummond can be trouble for the opposition and can set the tone for the team.
Best Case: Cheeks finds productive minutes for their talented trio upfront and Jennings is happier dropping dimes on those three and opposed to dropping in his own threes.
Likeliest Case: They take some time to figure things out, but are able to keep it together enough to flirt with .500, which should be good enough for the playoffs in the east.
9. Atlanta Hawks: Al Horford is very good. Newcomer Paul Millsap and point guard Jeff Teague aren’t bad. John Jenkins and Kyle Korver can shoot pretty well. That should be enough for them to just miss the playoffs.
10. Toronto Raptors: This team is just like the Hawks. Lots of good, not great players, but that’s just not good enough, even in the east.
11. Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks seem ready to start losing. Too bad for them there are quite a few teams in the east that are better at being bad than they are.
12. Boston Celtics: There were championship pretenders last year, hanging on to their aging talent. Their roster this makes their intentions clear. Find talent in the draft.
13: Charlotte Bobcats: Just not much talent here. Kemba Walker is a nice player, but he’s not a star in the making. None of their players are.
14: Orlando Magic: They are hoping rookie Victor Oladipo will turn into their cornerstone player. That’s a possibility, but he has a long way to go and a lot of skills to develop.
15: Philadelphia 76ers: They traded Jrue Holiday and have said they plan to sit first round pick Nerlens Noel for the entire season. They appear destined to have the worst record in the NBA and with it a 25 percent chance to land the top pick in the draft. Or in other words, a 75 percent chance to not land the top pick.