There’s been a lot of talk about how much tougher the East is and where the Bulls will sit in it. I think only a complete homer puts Chicago ahead of Miami, but after that it’s fairly close. I’m taking Chicago over Brooklyn, Indiana, and New York though.
#1. The Miami Heat
There’s not much that needs to be said about Miami. They’ve won the title the past two seasons and have the best player in the NBA on their roster along with a fading superstar and another all-star. They come back a year older, but with more or less the same cast. While there’s probably a bit of degradation on the team this season, they’re still better than everyone else as long as LeBron is in his prime.
#2. The Chicago Bulls
The #2 spot is sort of a toss up, but I’m going to put in Chicago. I believe Derrick Rose will be back healthy and perform at a peak level right out of the gates. I think people have forgotten how good Rose is after a season off and have underrated this Bulls team. Indiana has been commonly picked ahead of Chicago and won only four more games than the Bulls did last season while Rose was out.
This Bulls team might just be the best team Rose has played on as the key components from the seasons they led the league in wins are still around, but they now get to throw in the post-break out Jimmy Butler into the mix. Their perimeter defense matches up much better with Miami than it did in 10/11 with Korver, and they won’t lose the offense like they did with Brewer.
The Bulls have 60+ win talent again this season, and the pundits have either forgotten it or are being very cautious in how well they project Rose to play.
#3. Brooklyn Nets
It’s tough to say where Brooklyn lands, because on paper they’re potentially amazing, but they have some key cogs near the end of their career who probably sound a lot better on paper than they will perform on the court. That said, they’ve still addressed considerable weaknesses from a team that was pretty good last season.
Kevin Garnett and Andre Kirlenko replace a nondescript PF rotation last season. Jason Terry upgrades C.J. Watson and Paul Pierce upgrades Gerald Wallace. The biggest question with the Nets is how well the players on paper translate on the court. Terry, Pierce, and Garnett are all towards the end of their careers and not the players they once were.
Even so, they’re still considerably better than what they had, and that was a team that was pretty good when Brook Lopez was healthy. The downside to the Nets though is that they don’t have a real superstar player. Deron Williams looks like he’s lost a step and was a notch below true superstar anyway. Pierce/Garnett are well past their superstar days.
They’re going to be significantly improved from last season, but they still probably only can climb to the mid 50s due to the regression of some of the name players who aren’t quite what we think even if they’re much better than what they had.
#4. Indiana Pacers
There’s a lot of hype about the Pacers because they took the Heat to seven games, but Indiana simply matches up absurdly well with the Heat. I think they’d have an awfully tough time knocking off either Chicago or Brooklyn and won’t be able to knock off the Heat either.
In the end, this is a team that won 49 games last season with the only significant injury being to Danny Granger who’s an awfully dicey fit next to Paul George anyway. Unlike Rose, I don’t really expect Granger to come back fully healthy, nor do I think he’ll integrate smoothly into the team if he does.
Outside of Granger, their off-season consisted of adding the aging Luis Scola. They might give the Heat fits again with their size up front, but they still lack the star player to carry them.
#5. New York Knicks
They traded for Andrea Bargnani which means their defense go down a notch, and they’ll be even more soft in the playoffs. I don’t think he makes them better even on paper as the Knicks didn’t really lack of guys willing to launch long jumpers, so the move doesn’t look all that great to me.
They’ll always have a shooters chance of knocking off anyone as they have a potent offensive lineup and Chandler’s still a defensive anchor, but I don’t see the team play or intangibles existing on this team to get out of the second round and probably not out of the first this season.
#6. Washington Wizards
There’s a huge gap between #5 and #6 looking at the rosters in preseason. By the end of the year it likely won’t be a huge gap in record, but some team will emerge to be better than we think around sixth. It’s just tough to figure the team. My bet is on the Washington Wizards.
They were actually quite good last year with John Wall playing and my guess is that Bradley Beal will improve considerably in a second season and full one with Wall and that Otto Porter will give them another useful weapon.
They’re still young, likely inconsistent, and don’t have the front court to make a serious push at getting out of the first round, but if Wall is healthy then I think they’re at least a .500 team and will make the playoffs.
#7. Detroit Pistons
I’m not nearly so high on Greg Monroe as many people appear to be and Josh Smith/Brandon Jennings aren’t amazing adds to the roster either. That said, the Pistons are trying to be good, and in an Eastern conference where around five or six teams are already looking at next year’s draft that’s probably enough to get them in the playoffs.
I think this squad will be improved, but will be difficult to take to the next level. They’ve got a bunch of good players but lack a star and several of their good players are real boneheads. That said, they have legit size/talent up front which few teams have, so that will give them something to lean on against most of their opponents.
#8. Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland is a Kyrie Irving away from being the post-Jordan Jerry Krause Bulls. They keep adding players picked at the top of the draft, but they don’t seem to really be improving nearly so much as you’d hope for with a team stocked with top four picks. They did well with Irving, but too many other players either missed expectations or were just high picks in poor drafts.
That said, if Irving can stay healthy, the roster’s still good enough to grab the final playoff spot over the Hawks who are the only other team in the conference that appears to not be overtly tanking this season.
#9. Atlanta Hawks
They may not be completely tanking, but they’ve let a lot of talent go and brought back a lot less. They could maybe grab a playoff spot still as all three teams in the six-eight spots have considerable flaws which may cause them to vastly underperform my projections. The Hawks are basically down to Al Horford, Paul Milsap, and Jeff Teague for talent though, and that’s not a whole lot.
#10-#15. How can you even rank these guys?
Of the remaining teams maybe Charlotte and Toronto aren’t overtly tanking, but their roster are so bad that they should be. Rondo has enough fight in him to potentially drag a listless Boston roster somewhere even though Boston would like to be tanking. Philadelphia’s trying to build a roster that couldn’t beat a D-League team, while Milwaukee and Orlando are going to challenge the 76ers for most dreadful roster imaginable.
Maybe I’ll go Boston (if they keep Rondo), Toronto, Charlotte, Milwaukee, Orlando, then Philly, but who knows how far any of these teams might go to lose.
The East is better than it was, and the disparity between the East and West is minimal where it counts. The Heat are still the best team in the league, and a healthy Bulls team has as much claim to 2nd best team as anyone else in the league. The Pacers, Nets, and Knicks are all solid teams even if the rest of the East more or less stinks.
The West definitely has more depth, but once the teams hit the playoffs there’s no longer a free ride for anyone to get to the finals like in years past.