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Eastern Conference Preview

Overshadowed by an NFL season loaded with parody and conspiracy, the NBA, one week from now, will quietly begin the most intriguing season of the last twenty years. The obvious story line surrounds LeBron James and the Miami Heat’s offseason overhaul, firmly entrenching them as the championship front runner for the next 6 years. Less heralded stories involving the return of Blake Griffin and Yao Ming, an immanent eastward migration of another Western Conference superstar, Chicago rebuilds, New York attempts to rebuild, lover’s scorned, and a handful of veteran teams desperately making their final charge for the Larry O’Brien trophy before the sun sets on some of the greatest franchises in NBA history.

The Eastern Conference is no longer the whipping post of the NBA. Miami, Boston, and Orlando, are the clear front runners, but up and coming teams like Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and New Jersey are developing into solid franchises with great opportunities for future success. Meanwhile, Philly, Washington, and Toronto earn the “Fool’s Gold” award for the last decade, after spending millions of dollars on big name acquisitions and acquiring countless draft busts, they have made little progress to escape mediocrity.

Here are my preseason rankings for the Eastern Conference:

1. Miami Heat: Miami is the shiny new toy of the NBA. Whether you love or hate what happened this summer, everyone will be watching as the Heat try to become champions once again. After spending all of their cap space on the “Biggest Three Ever”, the Heat had to settle for C list players to fill out the remaining 12 spots on the roster, in doing so they have surpassed the Spurs and Celtics as the oldest team in the NBA. Big questions surround the bench rotation once the big three leave the game, but if LeBron, Wade, and Bosh can stay healthy they will have the best record in the East when the playoffs begin. Make no mistake that is no guarantee of a championship. In the last decade, only three of the Eastern Conference leading teams have made it to the finals, and only one team managed to win the championship (2007-2008 Celtics).

If you want to hear my thoughts on LeBron take a look at my last article, “The Aftershocks of Lebron’s Decision Hit Home”.

2. Orlando Magic: In the offseason Orlando added veterans and shooting to their team. The addition of Chris Duhon will bolster the point guard position, and add a viable replacement if Jameer Nelson has another injury. The loss of Matt Barnes will hamper their man to man defense, but the Magic are a physical and athletic team that is deep at every position. Look for them to finally overtake an older Boston squad in the East. The Magic have a great shot at reaching the Eastern Conference finals and possibly bring a championship to Orlando.

3. Boston Celtics: The re-signing of Nate Robinson is the best move this team made in the offseason. Unfortunately, the rest of the acquisitions the Celts made will only add to their demise. Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal are aging veterans that have little overall impact on the game in their current state. Big, lumbering post players have little value in what is now a guard driven league. Adding these two dinosaurs only takes away from a young, talented front court with Davis and Perkins. Perkins found himself in Doc’s doghouse last year with the O’Neals now on the roster don’t expect him to be a Celtic for much longer if he can’t repair his status with the franchise.

4. Chicago Bulls: I did not like the John Salmons trade last year, but I understand the long term result. Chicago spent their open cap space acquiring Carlos Boozer, a shrewd move after missing out on LeBron. Boozer adds some much needed physicality to this young team. Combining him with Noah, Rose, Deng, and a slew of role players added this summer, makes this team extremely competitive. A pre-season injury to Boozer hampers their initial viability, if Boozer recovers quickly and if the team can stay healthy they will be a solid franchise for years to come. Even without Boozer, Taj Gibson is a talented forward who should fill in nicely in Boozer’s absence and provide a solid reserve upon his return.

5. Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks have underperformed the past couple seasons, they are loaded with offensive firepower, but lack real grit on the defensive end. Al Horford is developing into a well rounded big man, but they have no depth in the post. Josh Smith is a great defender, but lacks an outside shot making him narrowly one dimensional on the offensive end. Keeping Joe Johnson was the key to saving any championship hopes, and if the team can get past the Crawford drama, they will once again be a top team.

6. Milwakee Bucks: The East is pretty evenly matched at this level, a favorable schedule or an injury could catapult one team to the top and another to the drudges. The Bucks have a decent team. John Salmons, Drew Gooden, and a more experienced Brandon Jennings make for some good leadership. Bogut’s injury issues continue to hamper this potential All-Star from being a real threat. A healthy Bucks team and a little luck could give them the boost they need to overtake the slightly disfunctional Hawks.

7. Charlotte Bobcats: This is another team that has under achieved the past few years. Jordan, now the majority owner of the Bobcats has rekindled his love affair with Big Bust Kwame Brown. Charlotte has some nice pieces but had little success turning those pieces into wins (sounds like the Cowboys). Gerald Wallace, Captain Jack, and Boris Diaw are all quality players. If the Bobcats can avoid injuries, and mature under Larry Brown, they could be this year’s most improved team.

8. New Jersey Nets: There is always one team in the East that manages to sneak its way into the playoffs with a losing record, this year it will be the Nets; new coach, many new players, new owner, and new possibilities. The Nets made some great moves this offseason. Favors, Morrow, Murphy, and Outlaw, are all great building blocks for this young team. Favors will be a project, but could develop into a solid back up by year’s end. Murphy and Outlaw provide some veteran leadership and much needed defense. The piece this team lacks is a true point guard. Harris is good, but he’s more of a Monte Ellis, good scorer, bad ball handler. The Carmelo trade, if completed, would not help this team a great deal, but a little patience might. Chris Paul will be a free agent next year, if the Nets make it into the playoffs over the Knicks, they could leap frog the Knicks and become pack leaders to land Chris Paul’s services next summer.

9. New York Knicks: Good, but not good enough. No defense, no depth.
10. Indiana Pacers: Made some great moves in the summer, but not enough talent.
11. Washington Wizards: They need to get rid of Arenas.
12. Detroit Pistons: Ben Gordon has to get going, too old, not enough talent.
13. Philadelphia 76ers: Their compass is spinning, they need some direction.
14. Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron was the only thing keeping them afloat.
15. Toronto Raptors: Need I say more.


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