With a compressed 0ff-season almost completed, it's time to break down the Eastern Conference.
11-15: The bottom of the barrel
15: Detroit Pistons
They basically swapped out Richard Hamilton for Brandon Knight. Knight joins the Pistons large but distinguished cast of short guards who fit in more as SGs than PGs. He's a high quality prospect, but the team still has no balance and an overall low talent level. Don't expect much out of this squad.
14: Charlotte Bobcats
I loved watching Kemba Walker in college, but it will be interesting to see how well his game translates to the NBA. Biyombo is a guy who's impressed with his athleticism and hustle, but he doesn't necessarily have a high skill level. The team as constructed has virtually no front court. They do have quite a few young players with potential for improvement, but I expect little this year.
13: Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers fell into tremendous fortune when the Clippers won the lottery giving them the first and fourth picks in the draft. Too bad that didn't happen in 2012 when the draft looked a whole lot more promising. Tristan Thompson and Kyrie Irving give them some reason to be hopeful, but they'll take time to develop and the rest of the cast stinks anyway. They'll be playing for ping pong balls and player development by the end of the year.
12: Toronto Raptors
Well they were terrible last year, and they added no one. Any improvement will come have to come from internal improvement. They have some young talent, but no one that looks likely to switch it into another gear this coming season. DeMar DeRozan is probably their best hope there, but they're still lacking too much talent on the team to go anywhere.
11: Milwaukee Bucks
I remember at the beginning of last season when people thought the Bucks could win 50 games. That was a quick drop back into the cellar. They have a bunch of solid players, but too many of them are new arrivals without enough time to put anything together in camp. If Bogut can sty healthy, and Skiles can pull a rabbit out of his hat they have the best shot of these five teams of climbing into the playoffs.
10-9 They probably stink too
10: New Jersey Nets
The roster is a pile of trash outside of Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, however, maybe that's enough to show build something. They also have the potential to trade for Dwight Howard mid season and turn this whole thing around real fast. If they aren't able to complete a Howard trade, then the rest of the roster probably drags these guys down.
I'm going out on a limb and guessing they don't land Dwight Howard and end up with around a pro-rated 30 wins.
9: Washington Wizards
I'm perhaps forecasting too much improvement on the Wizards not to simply expand my lousy group to seven teams. However, John Wall has star potential and will enter his second year. Nick Young, Jordan Crawford, Andray Blatche [foo!], and JaValee McGee give them young players potentially on the upswing at virtually every position. Rashard Lewis may be the most overpaid player in the NBA, but he's still a quality veteran.
I view them as the wild card of the low rung teams from last season. They could simply not improve as much as I think, or they could take very significant steps forward and become a .500+ team.
6-8: Happy to be there
No one expects these teams to win, but hey at least they're in the playoffs and fans can dare to dream.
8: Atlanta Hawks
They basically swapped out Jamal Crawford for Tracy McGrady last season, but their victory over the Magic covered up a fairly pedestrian season. The Hawks are good enough to consistently beat up on the lousy teams, but aren't good enough to ever fight against the good teams. I expect them to have a moderate decline from last year.
7: Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers didn't really do anything to get better transaction wise and will simply hope Elton Brand can hold things together for another season and that Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, and Thaddeus Young can take steps forward to improve the team. I like their odds of staying a bit over .500, but they aren't a real serious threat to improve considerably.
6: Indiana Pacers
The Pacers, as we know, played the Bulls tough in the playoffs and made one significant signing by adding David West. They look like a tough, physical, annoying team to go against, but ultimately, they're lacking the talent of the teams ahead of them to make it into the next group. Still making it up to the sixth seed and leap frogging a few teams should be viewed as steady progress for the fan base even if it's fools gold with no real way to jump ahead further.
3-5 Contenders in name only
5: Orlando Magic
They're dysfunctional right now, and Dwight Howard looked like he didn't give a rats ass in preseason. Of course, that doesn't mean he'll feel that way when the regular season starts, but he's pissed off and doesn't want to be here. The team hasn't added any real talent and will look to simply do better with the same pieces that failed last season. If things get really bad, the Magic might fall even lower than this, and of course if they trade Howard at the deadline, they likely won't even make the playoffs.
4: Boston Celtics
The loss of Jeff Green and Glen Davis decimates an already pedestrian bench. They're also a much older team not suited to playing in a heavily compressed schedule, and their core group of guys just got a year closer to retirement. The Celtics were somewhat between contender and pretender last year in my opinion, and they'll fall squarely into the pretender category this year. Some will still consider them an elite team, and they'll have their moments, but they won't be able to take out a top team in a playoff series and may not survive the first round.
3: New York Knicks
The Knicks have the star power to play with the big boys. Carmelo and Amare are legit star scorers who should be able to carry the offensive load. Tyson Chandler is a perfect complement to the team even if he's now overpaid by about 5 million dollars a year. They'll need to hope they get motivated Baron Davis and will struggle with depth, but they have the stars in place, and the role players will only need to hit open shots and play defense. I expect the Knicks to lose in the second round, but they'll give either Chicago or Miami a heck of a fight there.
2: Miami Heat
I think Miami wins the championship this season, but I don't think they win the East. They will likely drop a few games due to lack of depth in this compressed schedule, and I don't think they'll push an an absurd pace in order to get the #1 seed. They easily dispatched Chicago last year while playing from the 2 spot, and they're in the old Mavericks zone already where regular season means nothing. They either win a championship or they fail. I think they'll get it done this year.
They swapped some deck chairs in their role playing department, but the improvement this team has to make is getting LeBron and Wade to complement each other on offense rather than taking turns isolating against their opponents. If they can find a way to make their games complement each other rather than overlap so much, this team would become completely unstoppable.
1: Chicago Bulls
This number one ranking reflects regular season performance. I think the Bulls will likely lose to Miami in the playoffs again.
However, they improved the team with the best regular season record on the NBA last season by swapping out Keith Bogans for Richard Hamilton. They have several young pieces that will likely make incremental improvements and no one on the team who played a considerable role last season should be on the down swing. Their depth will allow them to cope with a condensed schedule better than many other teams as well.
Much like the Heat, it's championship or bust for this team. They'll have their shot, and they'll need health, but ultimately, I think the big three in Miami figure out how to play together and are simply too much for Chicago in the playoffs.