Next year’s Eastern Conference Preview is probably going to be pretty easy. Whomever LeBron plays for will be number one. They will be followed by the Bulls and Pacers. We will have a better idea by then of how much Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett can contribute, as well as where Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are really at in their careers. We will know how much potential Cleveland really has, how dysfunctional the Knicks truly are, how dynamic John Wall and Bradley Beal can be, and how much tanking Boston will actually do.
We don’t have those answers this year. That makes this NBA season (potentially) quite entertaining and (certainly) difficult to predict. We can say pretty safely that the Heat, Bulls, and Pacer will all be very good this year. We can also say, perhaps with equal certainty, that the 76ers, Bobcats, and Magic will all be quite bad. The remaining nine teams are pretty difficult to sort out. If I have to predict their order of finish, this is it:
So, in typical sportswriter style, let’s go through the Eastern Conference by groups.
The Miami Heat are the favorite to win it all. Sometimes I stop myself from declaring them to be unbeatable when I think about Ray Allen backpedaling to the corner and launching what is at this point in my life the most significant shot I have watched. Despite how close they were to losing to the Spurs a few months ago, I can’t convince myself that anyone has a real shot of beating them. For someone to beat the Heat, they will have to have a star that can go 12 rounds with LeBron. The only teams that have anyone even close to that aren’t complete enough to deal with rest of the Heat, who are no push-overs. They’re number one until proven otherwise, and I don’t see that happening this year (as long as Dwyane Wade stays reasonably healthy).
The Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls are pretty close for me. The Bulls are going to go through a difficult time of adjustment as they determine how much Derrick Rose can do (seems like he should be able to do everything considering how long he’s been out). I don’t love their scoring options outside of Rose and Deng. It’s because of this time of adjustment that I think they will finish behind the Pacers. Although Indiana has to deal with reincorporating Danny Granger into a team that he appears to no longer be the best player on, I think their continutiy from last season has them ready for a great season. Granger can be incorporated as just a shooter at first, while the entire offense in Chicago will revolve around Rose. Indiana has a great chance of getting back to the Eastern Conference Finals, and as much as I think Paul George will have a big year, I don’t think he (or anyone else on that team) is going to be able to lead Indiana past Miami. Chicago can’t beat Miami with their current roster, because we’ve seen that late in the game Rose can’t beat LeBron. If Chicago makes a trade this season for someone like Pau Gasol or Al Horford, we might have a different conversation. For now, the Bulls and Pacers are just two superior teams that don’t have a shot against the Heat.
I think the Brooklyn Nets could be very dangerous this year. If Deron Williams and Joe Johnson can play at a high level, which they should considering the improvement of the roster, then Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett won’t have to do too much heavy lifting. With Garnett and Lopez in the paint and Williams handling the ball, Pierce, Johnson, and Jason Terry should find themselves open for simple jumpshots time and again. This team has all the pieces to make a run in this one or two year window that they have bought themselves. Pierce and Garnett have had it in for LeBron for a long time, and if they get a shot at Miami in the postseason they will make good on it. They match up very well versus the Heat.
The New York Knicks, Washington Wizards, and Detroit Pistons could all make the playoffs and they could all end up in the lottery. They all have very intriguing rosters that I don’t really know what to make of. Despite Carmelo Anthony’s immense shortcomings, sometimes he has games that only three or four other guys in the league can match. On a game-to-game basis, he’s a winner. Over the course of a playoff run, surrounded by a strange mix of players, I don’t think he’s your guy. Simply based on his scoring ability, alongside the talents of J.R. Smith and the skills of Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert, the Knicks are probably going to be too good to not make the playoffs, no matter how flawed they may be. It’s a shame Melo and Amare Stoudemire have never figured out how to play together. The Wizards’s success is really contingent on John Wall and Bradley Beal. The rest of their roster has some talent, but is overall just mediocre. However, Wall could be special and Beal has immense potential. The Wizards could really surprise people this year, especially if Wall and Beal play well AND Nene plays like he did during his best days in Denver. As for the Pistons, I’m skeptical about a team that features Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith. Their frontcourt is as talented as any in the league, with Andre Drummond looking impressive his rookie season, Greg Monroe developing into one of the better big men in the game, and the aforementioned J-Smoove. However you look at it, none of these three teams have a shot at contending and all could potentially have a bad season.
The Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks will contend for the eighth seed, but that’s about all. The Bucks have apparently decided not to tank. In fact, the best case scenario for Larry Sanders, Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, and Bo is a really good young core that just needs time and a big signing to be pretty good. For now, players like Caron Butler and and Ersan Ilyasova will help to keep Milwaukee good enough to avoid the best draft picks but not good enough to be a real threat. They’ll just bother teams better than them. The same might go for the Hawks. Their starting five might at times look really good. Like Milwaukee, they don’t seem to have much direction. It would not be surprising to see them deal Al Horford and surrender this season.
Like the mercurial teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, and Toronto Raptors all could finish in a range of places. However, for these teams much of that depends on what roster moves they make during the season. The Raptors seem certain to trade Rudy Gay at some time. The Celtics, as they are now, are probably too good to get any of the best players next draft, but they have a lot of options available, including dealing Rajon Rondo. The Cavaliers are a little different, but so much of their success is related to Andrew Bynum. He could play close to a full, healthy season, or he could be released by January. Regardless, I don’t see much in this team this year. I’m not a fan of scoring point guards who don’t play defense (see: Irving, Kyrie). Diot Waiters isn’t there yet. Anthony Bennett won’t make an impact right away. No one seems certain how high Tristan Thompson’s ceiling really is.
The Charlotte Bobcats successfully signed themselves out of the Andrew Wiggins/Jabari Parker lottery with the nonsensical signing of Al Jefferson. The Orlando Magic suddenly have a really intriguing young core that could be the next Supersonics/Thunder if they get one of the five-stars in next year’s draft. The Philadelphia 76ers are in full tank mode. Evan Turner gets to try to earn a big contract and Thaddeus Young can be the man for a season. None of these teams are a threat to make the playoffs, whereas the three teams above them have a puncher’s chance.
Like I hinted at, I think the only team in this conference that can beat the Heat is the Nets. If they do meet, I’m guessing it’s in the second round because I think they’ll be the 1 and 4 seeds. I don’t think any of the 5-8 teams can beat any of the 1-4 teams because none of them have the kind of experience or depth necessary. The one exception could be if the Pistons are on a roll and play the Pacers. Their frountcourt could possible match Indiana, and if Brandon Jennings is playing well they might sneak past Indiana only to be decimated by Chicago or Miami. Indiana and Miami will meet in the Conference Finals and Miami will win. We’ll talk if Chicago makes a move and upgrades from Boozer to someone like Al Horford.
And, like I said, I really (really) like the Nets this year.
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