BOSTON, ORLANDO, MIAMI TO DO BATTLE BACK EAST
Boston came out of nowhere last year and stole the conference. Although both Cleveland and Orlando had better records and home-court advantage, it wasn't enough.
Due to LeBron James checking out of the series starting in Game 5, Boston was able to crush Cleveland. But Orlando had no such excuse. The Celtics earned their victory over the Magic and their trip to the NBA Finals.
After the season, LeBron James announced his "Decision" to take his talents to South Beach and play with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat. Boston signed Jermaine and Shaquille O'Neal, and Orlando signed Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon.
It would certainly appear that everyone else is playing for fourth place. As stated in the Western Conference Preview, there are far too many variables (injuries, coaching decisions, team chemistry, trades, etc.) to predict exact records and specific playoff seeds for an entire NBA season.
Instead, teams will be placed into broader categories to allow room for the various things which can alter the NBA landscape. This is more reasonable and still allows the intent to remain in place.
Here is how the East looks heading into the season.
The Eastern Conference champion will likely be one of these three.
Celtics -- Now that he appears to be healthy again, Kevin Garnett has to focus on improving his poor defensive rebounding numbers. As Pat Riley might say, no rebounds, no rings. It has been revealed that Jermaine O'Neal played while injured during the playoffs last season, which explains his miserable performance. Doc Rivers will have to rely on his young players to carry the team through the regular season and at the same time try to win home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. It will be a tough juggling act.
Heat -- Miami deserves all of the credit in the world for putting this team together. They are built exactly like the '90s Bulls, with not-so-talented point guards and centers but a dominant shooting guard, small forward and power forward. Coach Erik Spoelstra showed last year that he has what it takes to succeed at a high level. I think he'll be just fine.
Magic -- To win a championship, Stan Van Gundy is going to have to expand the Orlando offense beyond just (1) the pick-and-roll, (2) Dwight Howard down low and (3) letting somebody go one-on-one. This just isn't enough against good, playoff defenses. Orlando actually struggled in the first round against Charlotte's defense but was able to win the series because Charlotte didn't have any firepower and because Jameer Nelson absolutely dominated Raymond Felton. Van Gundy needs to look at coaches like Alvin Gentry, Nate McMillan, Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers and come up with (or steal) some more inventive plays for Orlando to run.
These teams will battle for the remaining playoff spots but won't seriously compete for the conference crown.
Hawks -- Charles Barkley once said that he felt like all Philadelphia wanted to do was put him out on the floor and go to the playoffs and lose every year. That is the state of the Atlanta franchise. They aren't serious about winning a championship. All they want to do is go to the playoffs and lose.
Bobcats -- Charlotte made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last year and will probably be back this season. Gerald Wallace is just fantastic, and Tyrus Thomas is coming into his own. DJ Augustin also has gotten better. Stephen Jackson has to be more careful with the basketball.
Bulls -- This is another huge bandwagon which I am not on. The new Bash Brothers Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah will no doubt make their presence known, and Derrick Rose is all that they say he is and more. But beyond these three players, there isn't nearly enough to make Chicago anything close to an elite team.
Cavaliers -- LeBron James didn't win 60+ games by himself in each of the past two seasons. There is still some talent left. Cleveland could sneak into the playoffs.
Pistons -- Detroit will be fine, but they really need a backup point guard to make this engine purr. This is especially true because neither Rodney Stuckey nor Will Bynum has mastered the position yet, particularly in the half-court offense. Detroit may need to bring Chucky Atkins back.
Pacers -- TJ Ford can't get healthy fast enough. The sooner they get Paul George ready, the better off Indiana will be; and Roy Hibbert has to continue to improve. Indiana still hasn't picked up the rebounder/shot-blocker they need at power forward to really take off.
Bucks -- Milwuakee is the one team which can break the Boston-Miami-Orlando triangle. Unfortunately, they have already been decimated by injuries. Darington Hobson will miss the entire season with multiple hip surguries; Andrew Bogut is still working his way back from his elbow injury; Corey Maggette and John Salmons have both missed the entire preaseason so far; and Michael Redd won't be ready to go until February. Milwaukee needs a healthy Michael Redd to be elite.
Knicks -- New York is not talented enough to be declared a playoff team but is too talented to be written off completely. They are one more good off-season away from being a guaranteed playoff team.
76ers -- To become a true contender, Philadelphia is going to have to hire a better coach, upgrade the point guard position and improve their depth. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. They look like a team that can make the playoffs.
Wizards -- The pieces are there; it is up to coach Flip Saunders to put them together. Based on the way he used his rotations during the preseason, it doesn't look like he is going to be able to pull it off. Washington also looks like they are going to need a new coach.
HARRISON BARNES TEAMS
These are the teams with the best chance to land projected No. 1 pick Harrison Barnes in the 2011 NBA Draft.
Nets -- They missed out on John Wall in 2010. They'll be back again next year, hoping to improve their luck.
Raptors -- It would be interesting to compare the talent on their first roster in franchise history to this one. They appear to be going backward.
Note: Teams listed alphabetically by city in each category.
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