The Bulls have finished with the best record in the NBA over the past two seasons, but no one expects that to happen again due to Derrick Rose's injury and the potential weakening of the supporting cast. However, the end record is less relevant than how well is capable of playing come playoff time. Where does this healthy Bulls team stack up in the East?
#6 The Boston Celtics
Yes, they added Courtney Lee, may have gotten a steal in Sullinger in the draft, and replaced Ray Allen with Jason Terry. In terms of off-seasons, Boston probably couldn't have done anymore than they did. It was awesome. That said, the Bulls would have kicked the Celtic's ass without Rose last year with a healthy Noah.
Outside of Rondo [who's not on the decline, but is past the point of significant improvement], the key cogs are a year older and a year worse. Terry's not much younger than Allen and is a significantly worse fit for the team. If the Bulls played Boston last year in the playoffs without Rose but with a healthy Noah, they'd have won IMO, and if Rose is healthy in the playoffs, I think Boston does little to slow them down this year either.
#5 The Indiana Pacers
The Pacers had a dicey off-season IMO. I think the loss of Darren Collison will hurt them significantly as I don't really trust George Hill as a PG, nor do I think D.J. Augustine will do anything special for them. Collison had a rough season last year, but he was the only guy on the team who moved the ball well.
While the Pacers still have the pieces to give the Bulls trouble, they scare me less than two years ago. They're a lot less thuggish than they were in the past, and I don't think they have the same physical presence as they used to.
#4 The New York Knicks
The Knicks may be a tough team to get a handle on, because in terms of talent, they've got enough to potentially top the Bulls, and anyone outside of Miami in the East. However, their two stars are both selfish guys without the best work ethic, and the result has been a team that's never come remotely close to living up to the sum of its parts.
They're additions of Ronnie Brewer and Raymond Felton probably outweigh their losses of Jeremy Lin and Ronnie Fields, and if Iman Shumpert comes back from the ACL injury they'll have a lot of perimeter athleticism to throw at Derrick Rose [or any star guard]. I could see New York dropping down to six though, and I have to admit, I've overrated them in preseason last year as well.
#3 The Brooklyn Nets
The Nets clearly made the biggest splash of any team in the NBA this off-season. Had they pulled off the Howard deal, they could have gone from scrub to superteam in one move. It's worth watching that blueprint, because if you have one star player and build flexibility, you can make a lot happen in one year.
Something to remember for as long as the Bulls have Derrick Rose.
I don't think the Nets have much staying power, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace are both going to decline significantly over the next couple of seasons, but they've got near all-stars at SG, SF, and C, a superstar point guard, and a cast of quality depth at power forward.
Their bench has a nice mix of guys with potential and role players with specific niche skills to help a team win as well.
Overall, it's hard not to like everything New Jersey did during the off-season, and if they put it all together and face a healthy Bulls team in the playoffs, then it will be a heck of a battle.
#2 The Chicago Bulls
Chicago's been lambasted by this blogger for their weak off-season, but if Derrick Rose returns to health, this team of similar caliber to the squads of the past two years. The cast they brought in largely makes up for the cast they lost. The only true thing not replaced is Omer Asik, but I think the Bulls can get more out of the big men on the roster and not lose much there.
Belinelli brings a little more creation to the table than Korver, Hinrich brings a bit more defense, passing, and common sense than Watson, and Nate Robinson plays with enough balls that they drag on the floor when he walks, just like John Lucas. The Bulls questions really all come down to whether Rose hits the playoffs healthy.
If he does, I put the Bulls at #2 in the East. If he doesn't, then Chicago could drop down to the 4-5 range pretty easily.
#1 The Miami Heat
The top of the Eastern leaderboard is easy.
Look, it's stupid to even make an argument that anyone in the East is better than the Heat. If everything falls just right for the Lakers then maybe they're better, maybe they're not, but I don't think anyone else is even seriously in the running.
That doesn't mean Miami can't be toppled by a different Eastern Conference team (including Chicago), it just means that they're the heavy favorite. Favorites lose sometimes though. That's why they play the games instead of handing out trophies at the beginning of the year.
Still, they would have been the favorites this season no matter what, but on top of that they absolutely crushed the off-season adding Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. They still don't have a center, but they effectively made it through the East last year without a center and with Chris Bosh out for most of the playoffs.
It will take a significant injury or a mighty special performance by another team for the Heat to not make it back to the finals this year.