What’s interesting about the East this season is that you can very easily come up with 4 very distinct tiers of teams: contenders, playoff locks, bottom seed contenders, and no hope teams. I think there are three contenders and three playoff locks. I think five teams will be in the hunt for the last 2 playoff spots, and there are four teams that are in for long seasons.
Miami Heat- Whenever you have three of the best players on the planet you are going to have a chance to contend, and I think the Heat can win the East, but I don’t think they will. The biggest problems with Miami are that they have no depth and they are thin inside and will have problems with physical teams like Boston. They will be great in the regular season because they will be able to get out and run, but the game slows down in the playoffs. They will win a championship with James, Wade, and Bosh eventually, but I don’t think this is the year. Boston’s big three gelled quickly because they complimented each other perfectly, they played defense, and they had depth. I don’t think that is the case for this Heat team. I’m not sure they can defend inside, and the team around the Big 3 is weak.
Orlando Magic- They seem to be on a mission since losing to Boston in the East Finals. Dwight Howard appears to have improved after working with Hakeem Olajuwon over the summer, and Otis Smith basically kept the team intact, losing only Matt Barnes while picking up Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon. Richardson fits well into their offense, and Duhon is a much-needed upgrade backing up Jameer Nelson. If Howard has in fact taken the next step, then watch out, but if he is the same player as last season the Magic may not get out of the second round. Orlando will be great defensively because of Howard, but they can also be average offensively because of him too, that’s why its so important that he command double teams. Rashard Lewis is a big key for them. He had a down season last year. They need him to get back to putting up over 17 points a game, not the 14 he averaged last season.
Boston Celtics- Right now they are my pick to win the East. They probably won’t be great in the regular season, because they are older, but don’t read anything into that. Danny Ainge did a great job of adding bigs in the offseason, and that will help them against Orlando and Miami. They might be the best defensive team in the NBA, although losing Tony Allen will hurt. They have reliable scorers like Pierce and Allen, but they can also bring Nate Robinson off the bench to give them a burst if they need it. We will write them off a few times during the regular season, but they are built for the playoffs, and this could be their last serious run.
Atlanta Hawks- They are basically the same team that won over 50 games last season, except they might have a coach they will listen to. They didn’t lose anyone except for Mike Woodson, and they brought in a few guys through the draft and free agency who can contribute off the bench. The big key for them will be to transition minutes away from Mike Bibby to Jeff Teague and/or Jordan Crawford. If Bibby is forced to play big minutes again this season it won’t be a good thing. They are athletic, and I hope new head coach Larry Drew is able to install the motion offense that he wants. They faded last year because Joe Johnson was asked to do too much. Atlanta has made the East Semis the last 2 seasons and could get there again this season, but they have also been swept each time. I can see that happening again if they are able to get back to that point.
They were the surprise team of last season, and they actually spent some money in the offseason to get better. They are well coached, and have a healthy Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings in year two, where he will hopefully be more consistent. They were able to hold onto John Salmons who was their best scoring threat after they traded for him, and they picked up Corey Maggette who makes them more athletic. The Bucks also signed Keyon Dooling, Drew Gooden. They have depth, but they don’t shoot the 3 real well, and they will take a lot of them, especially Jennings. Bogut is the key, they need him on the floor, he will get them a double-double every night, and he is a defensive presence down low. It’s a miracle they were able to take Atlanta to a game 7 last year.
The Bulls could wind up being the best of this second tier. They’ve been hurt the last two seasons by awful starts, but despite being seeded low, they have played well in the playoffs. They made a couple of big moves in the offseason, signing the former Utah trio of Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, and Ronnie Brewer. Those additions should make them a better offensive team, and the addition of new head coach Tom Thibodeau should improve them defensively. They could wind up being the most athletic team in the league, and the additions of Boozer and Korver should improve their half-court offense. If Derrick Rose takes the next step in year three they could be very dangerous. Big key for them will be health. Carlos Boozer is always hurt, while Deng and Noah have had their problems.
In the Playoff Mix
Made the playoffs for the first time last season, but they lost a couple of key guys off that team, starting point guard Raymond Felton and center Tyson Chandler. They really didn’t replace either player. They are hoping former lottery pick D.J. Augustine is ready to step into Felton’s spot, in his third year in the league. Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace carried them last season, and will have to do the same this season. They re-signed Tyrus Thomas, who played great for them after they got him from Chicago, and he can be a nightmare because of his athleticism. With Larry Brown on the sidelines they are on the best coached teams in the league, and they will be very good defensively, but they will struggle to score points, especially on nights when Jackson isn’t shooting it well.
The Pacers have been looking for a point guard for a long time, and they might have found him in Darren Collison, who was excellent when he filled in for Chris Paul last season. Indiana was a pretty good defensive team last season, and it looks like Roy Hibbert will turn into a pretty good center. Their best player is Danny Granger, who is a great scorer, but he’s had trouble staying on the floor recently. They need him healthy, and they need him to be a leader, especially with this team getting younger. In order to get Collison, they had to trade Troy Murphy who was solid for them last season. He was also their best rebounder, and that will leave a big hole for them. They need Tyler Hansborough to make an impact, which he didn’t do last year.
New York Knicks
The Knicks were able to give their fans hope with the signing of Amare Stoudemire, even though they weren’t able to land the big prize they had hoped for. The Stoudemire signing allowed them to get a pretty decent package for David Lee from the Warriors, headlined by Anthony Randolph who is very talent. They also upgraded at point guard by signing Raymond Felton. They are young and athletic, but I’m not sure if they have the offensive personnel to do what Mike D’Antoni wants to do, which is shoot threes. I would also be concerned with Stoudemire being away from Steve Nash. He will still put up numbers, but he won’t be as efficient. There aren’t a lot of players who improve after leaving Nash. They could win up trading for Carmelo Anthony, and that would vault them into the playoffs.
I put Washington in this tier because of John Wall who I really like, and with the addition of Kirk Hinrich, I like the Washington backcourt, especially if they can get something out of Gilbert Arenas, which if they can, they can finally trade him. The Wiz basically bought Yi Jianlian from New Jersey, and I think that could be a good move. He has talent, he just doesn’t know how to play. Javale McGee had a good season last year, and should continue to get better. I think they could wind up being a good defensive team, and Wall will give them fits. They have a shot to make the playoffs because the East isn’t very good at the bottom.
I talked myself into the Sixers at the last minute even though their front court could be the worst in the conference, but their backcourt, could wind up being dynamic, and give a lot of teams matchup problems. Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holliday, Evan Turner, and Lou Williams can all get to the basket, and if they play small it will be tough for teams to match that quickness. The problem for Philly is that they need Elton Brand to be good again, and I don’t think that’s possible. The rest of their bigs are all perimeter guys, and they are soft.
Going to be a long season
New Jersey Nets
The Nets will obviously be better then the team that won 14 games a year ago. But I don’t see them being that much better. Their biggest addition was drafting Derek Favors #3 overall, and I think he will be good, but he is very raw. Eventually, Favors at the 4 and Brook Lopez at the 5 will be a great combo. Jersey also added Troy Murphy who will help them, plus his contract expires after the season. Devin Harris was never healthy last season, and if they can get him back at 100% they will be a much better offensive team, and that will make life easier for Lopez. The Avery Johnson hire was also a positve, and it should improve them defensively. They are on the right track, but they have a long way to go.
Detroit has talent, but it is all vastly overpaid, and their 2 big signings last summer of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva completely flopped last season. The Pistons made two additions in the summer, drafting Greg Monroe, and signing Tracy McGrady. Monroe could be good, McGrady will not be. They actually have 3 starters from their championship team, Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton, and Tayshaun Prince, but the last 2 will likely be traded.
They lost Chris Bosh for nothing and traded Hedo Turkoglu. They added Amir Johnson, Linas Kleiza and Leandro Barbosa. They won 40 games last season, but I wouldn’t be shocked if that number was cut in half. The Raptors were a good offensive team last season, and they will be good in that area this season. They have shooters all over the place, and Andrea Bargnani is a matchup nightmare for other centers. DeMar DeRozen is also incredibly athletic. The problem for Toronto is that they are a horrific team defensively, and they can’t rebound either. Soft is putting it kindly. They might be fun to watch because of some of their offensive talent, but it won’t translate to wins.
I really wanted to put them in the 3rd tier, but I couldn’t do it. The supporting cast around LeBron James wasn’t as bad as people said it was this summer. Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams, J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao are good players, but I think its going to take them a long time to figure out how to play without LeBron. I think they will be pretty good defensively, and they have size, but they are going to struggle to score points at times. I don’t think I will be the only person though who is rooting for them.