While Western Conference competition will thrill basketball fans for another season, we regrettably have to follow it's weak sister, too: the Leastern Conference. Now that LeBron James has the championship monkey off his back, he and the Miami Heat will be playing with house money all season long - and that's terrifying. Not only did James turn in his finest all around NBA season in 2011-12, but he capped it off with a dominant playoff and championship performance, besting as many as six Hall-of-Fame players along the way.
And thus, the race to the top of the Eastern Conference is really a race for second place. I foresee the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn (still getting used to this) Nets vying for the right to lose to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Below, you'll see my, Nate Timmons, Jeff Morton and Colin Neilson's predictions for the Eastern Conference followed by my team-by-team preview. Be sure to read all the way to the bottom where we serve up our post-season and NBA Finals predictions, with commentary from all of us ...
|1. Heat||1. Heat||1. Heat|
|2. Pacers||2. Pacers||2. Pacers||2. Celtics|
|3. Nets||3. Celtics||3. Celtics||3. Pacers|
|4. Celtics||4. Nets||4. 76ers||4. Knicks|
|5. Knicks||5. Bulls||5. Bulls||5. Nets|
|6. 76ers||6. 76ers||6. Bucks||6. 76ers|
|7. Bulls||7. Knicks||7. Knicks||7. Hawks|
|8. Hawks||8. Hawks||8. Nets||8. Bulls|
|9. Bucks||9. Wizards||9. Wizards||9. Bucks|
|10. Cavaliers||10. Bucks||10. Hawks||10. Wizards|
|11. Raptors||11. Pistons||11. Cavaliers||11. Cavaliers|
|12. Magic||12. Raptors||12. Raptors||12. Pistons|
|13. Wizards||13. Bobcats||13. Bobcats||13. Raptors|
|14. Pistons||14. Cavaliers||14. Pistons||14. Bobcats|
|15. Bobcats||15. Magic||15. Magic||15. Magic|
1. MIAMI HEAT
Outlook: Even though the Heat were pushed in the 2012 post-season by both the Pacers and the Celtics, the Heat ultimately defeated both franchises and did so with a banged up Dwyane Wade and an injured Chris Bosh. This simply illustrates just how amazing LeBron James' 2011-12 campaign was. I've been an admitted James-basher since "The Decision" and will never be a fan of the guy, but that doesn't prevent me from being astounded by his playoff run. Down 2-1 to the Pacers in the playoffs' second round, James turned in a 40 points, 18 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks performance to even the series at 2-2. Down 3-2 to the Celtics in the conference finals, James delivered a 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists game ... in Boston! And to closeout the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, James served up a triple double: 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists. These are, "holy shit, these are Larry Bird numbers!" folks. And now James has outside gunners Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis to deliver to, as well. The only question is: who will James face in the NBA Finals?
Heat Non-Stiff: I just spent the entire "outlook" above gushing about James, so you know who my Heat "Non-Stiff" is.
Heat Stiff: I know Ray Allen had every right to leave the Celtics and probably had every right to feel wronged by the Celtics for potentially trading him last season. But jettisoning Boston just wreaks of gravy-training in Miami to win another ring and I'll have trouble rooting for Allen - one of my favorite non-Nuggets - this season.
2. BOSTON CELTICS
Outlook: My esteemed colleagues have the Celtics a spot below the Pacers, but I'm seeing some good things afoot in Boston to believe otherwise. I like the acquisitions of Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Leandro Barbosa and even Darko Milicic ... combined with the return of Jeff Green and Avery Bradley, and the drafting of Jared Sulinger and Fab Melo, I see the Celtics being able to reduce the minutes for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and making another substantive playoff run.
Celtics Non-Stiff: When talking about the NBA's best point guards, the conversation seems to lead to Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Derrick Rose. Why the Celtics' Rajon Rondo isn't mentioned more befuddles me. All Rondo does is win games.
Celtics Stiff: For all the crap Darko Milicic has taken solely by being drafted before Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, he has still been able to find a roster spot for nine straight seasons and could be a decent backup to Garnett this season. But he'll forever be a Stiff.
3. INDIANA PACERS
Outlook: Other than overpaying to keep center Roy Hibbert and losing undersized point guard Darren Collison (and replacing him with undersized point guard D.J. Augustin), the Pacers had a relatively uneventful summer coming off an exciting 2012 playoff run. A lot of NBA pundits look at the Pacers as "Nuggets East" - i.e. a deep team with lots of assets, but no superstar. Fortunately for the Pacers, they get to play in the Eastern Conference where they can feast off the likes of the Raptors, Cavaliers, Pistons, Bucks, Magic, Bobcats and Wizards for easy wins. Which is why the Pacers will finish in the conference's top-four and lose in the second round again.
Pacers Non-Stiff: Danny Granger had a bit of a down year last season, but he's the engine that makes the Pacers run and is the closest thing they have to a bona fide All-Star.
Pacers Stiff: Tyler Hansbrough just might turn out to be the Stiff that many thought he would be at the NBA level. In his third season last year, the undersized big man shot just 40.5% from the field.
4. NEW YORK KNICKS
Outlook: Intentionally or not, the Nuggets have done a great job of dumping their high maintenance problems off on the Knicks. Entering his 10th NBA season (can you believe that?!), it's clear that Carmelo Anthony will never be the all around player that his fans and supporters believe he can be ... and he doesn't play well alongside Amar'e Stoudemire to boot. Another former Nugget - J.R. Smith - is already griping about coming off the Knicks bench. Ray Felton - briefly a Nugget - will be under a tremendous amount of pressure to make Knicks fans forget about Linsanity. And former Nugget center Marcus Camby somehow got the Knicks to pay the 38 year old $13 million for the next three years - even though we all know that Camby might only appear in half the games he's eligible to play. How the Knicks couldn't find a few million to throw at Kenyon Martin is beyond me.
Knicks Non-Stiff: Boy those were a fast 10 years, weren't they? It seems like just yesterday when Carmelo Anthony was getting busted at DIA for having marijuana in his (ahem, cousin's) backpack. Now entering his 10th season, Melo must get the Knicks into the second round of the playoffs or his 2009 Western Conference Finals run in Denver will be his only playoff glory to speak of ... and it's fast becoming a fading memory.
Knicks Stiff: Former Nugget and current Knicks GM Mark Warkentien (or is it Isiah Thomas?) has his hand prints all over this Knicks team. Not only does he have Melo, J.R. and Camby on the roster, but he recently signed Rasheed Wallace and before that he brought in multiple law offender Jason Kidd as a free agent, while letting Jeremy Lin - the one good story the Knicks have had in decades - leave for Houston. The architect of Portland's "Jail Blazers" and Denver's "Thuggets" is at it again, placing a premium on talent over character.
5. BROOKLYN NETS
Outlook: Let the arms race begin. Determined to spend, spend, spend their way into NBA relevancy, the Nets debut in Brooklyn loaded with big contracts and enough talent to do some damage in Year One at the Barclay's Center. The Nets' ceiling is as high as a three-seed, but if this talent doesn't mesh their floor is as low as an eight-seed. It will be up to head coach Avery Johnson and star point guard Deron Williams to make this team tick.
Nets Non-Stiff: Having just secured his second gold medal, Deron Williams rewarded the Nets for gambling on a trade for him by re-signing for five more years. Without Williams, the Nets would have been totally screwed. With Williams and the talent around him (notably Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace), the Nets can theoretically defeat any team on any given night.
Nets Stiff: In a crazy world where JaVale McGee, Roy Hibbert and Omer Asik get grossly overpaid, it shouldn't be surprising that center Brook Lopez commanded $60.1 million for four years. But that's still a lot to pay for a seven-foot center who has averaged 7.5 rebounds per game during his career.
6. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Outlook: The 76ers benefited greatly from Derrick Rose's tragic ACL injury in the 2012 playoffs first round and became just the fifth eight-seed in NBA history to defeat a one-seed. Needing to build upon that, the 76ers shipped out All-Star swingman Andre Iguodala and brought in All-Star center Andrew Bynum from the Lakers. Curiously, however, the 76ers let Lou Williams leave for nothing and in the wake of losing both Iguodala and Williams, overpaid for backup center Kwame Brown, singed gunner Nick Young, and traded for the one-dimensional Dorell Wright. But in a conference absent of quality centers, a healthy Bynum should guide the 76ers back into the playoffs.
76ers Non-Stiff: Andrew Bynum is a head case, but when healthy and "with it" he's probably the NBA's second best center. And even though the Nuggets hope to go big places with Iguodala, the 76ers were going nowhere with him. Trading for the un-signed Bynum was worth the gamble.
76ers Stiff: Kwame Brown received a two-year, $6 million contract? Kwame Brown? No wonder the 76ers allegedly wanted to steal Masai Ujiri from Denver. Who exactly is running things in Philly?
7. ATLANTA HAWKS
Outlook: Immediately upon taking over the Hawks as GM, Danny Ferry shook things up by trading perennial All-Star (but vastly overpaid) Joe Johnson for a collection of players and a 2013 first round pick. Ferry also signed the aforementioned Lou Williams and acquired Devin Harris and Kyle Korver. Look for the Hawks to return to the playoffs and even ascend higher than 7th in the conference if this new collection of players can mesh.
Hawks Non-Stiff: Injured for most of last season, look for a nice comeback from former All-Star center/forward Al Horford this season.
Hawks Stiff: Former Nugget Johan Petro is in the final year of a deal that will pay him $3.5 million this season. Further proof that if you're really, really tall you don't need any discernible skills whatsoever.
8. CHICAGO BULLS
Outlook: Even though former NBA MVP Derrick Rose isn't due back until February as he recovers from an ACL injury and the Bulls made virtually no upgrades over the summer, it's hard to imagine a Tom Thibodeau-coached team missing the playoffs altogether. Moreover, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng are still on the roster, and the serviceable Kirk Hinrich can fill in for Rose until the star point guard comes back. Could the Bulls slip to eighth and then a healthy Rose returns just in time for the playoffs making the Bulls a very tough out for the Eastern Conference's one-seed?
Bulls Non-Stiff: As if we needed proof of Derrick Rose's MVP-caliber value, the first-seeded Bulls lost promptly to the eighth-seeded 76ers soon after Rose went down in last season's playoffs.
Bulls Stiff: Take your pick between Vladimir Radmonovic or Marko Jaric, although I'm sure Jaric has a much hotter wife than Radmonovic.
9. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
Outlook: The Bucks finally gave up on the oft-injured Andrew Bogut last season, shipping the center to Golden State in trade for Monta Ellis. By doing that, the Bucks now have the same problem in pairing Ellis alongside Brandon Jennings that the Warriors had in pairing Ellis with Stephen Curry: an undersized shooting guard playing next to an undersized shoot-first point guard. At least Ellis can be counted on to play nightly. Adding to the Bucks' odd backcourt mix is an assortment of okay-but-not-great players, ensuring that the Bucks will flirt with and then fall short of the playoffs yet again.
Bucks Non-Stiffs: Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are dynamic players, but it's hard to imagine the two of them co-existing for more than a full season.
Bucks Stiff: Joel Pryzbilla, the ultimate big white Stiff and former thorn in the Nuggets' side, joins the Bucks this year.
10. WASHINGTON WIZARDS
Outlook: On paper, the Wizards have the makings of a playoff bottom feeder in the Eastern Conference. They have a budding star point in guard John Wall, an exciting rookie in Bradley Beal, a sophomore with upside in Jan Vesely and solid veterans like Nene Hilario, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. In reality, however, things don't look so rosy. Wall is hurt. Nene is and will be hurt. And Okafor will certainly miss games. The Wizards are going to need a lot of things to go right if they're to sneak into the 2013 playoffs.
Wizards Non-Stiff: The Wizards go as John Wall goes, and until Wall is back the Wizards are going nowhere.
Wizards Stiff: After signing Nene to a lucrative contract extension last year, Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke clearly saw warning signs that Nene's contract would be poisonous for years to come. Now Nene and his routine of taking nights off is Washington's problem.
11. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Outlook: The Cavaliers will miss the playoffs again in 2013, but there's upside in Cleveland thanks to Kyrie Irving having a great rookie year and the other young players with upside around him.
Cavaliers Non-Stiff: Remember when Irving single-handily led the Cavaliers to victory over our Nuggets at Pepsi Center last season? Expect more of that from Irving this season and in seasons to come.
Cavaliers Stiff: After this season, Luke Walton's obscenely large contract (inherited by Cleveland, offered by the Lakers) will finally come to an end!
12. DETROIT PISTONS
Outlook: The Pistons have every right to be excited about their youth movement, but unfortunately they've been drafting outside the top three for so many years that the best they've been able to do is put together a team of so-so young talent that ensures they won't be the Eastern Conference's worst team, but rather just good enough to get another pick between five and 10. Frankly, it's a pretty depressing place to be if you're a Pistons fan.
Pistons Non-Stiff: 6'11" center Greg Monroe had a breakout year in his second season, averaging 15.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Can Monroe make another leap to All-Star caliber this season?
Pistons Stiff: Corey Maggette is going to steal $10.9 million for playing basketball this season. The good news is that his contract is up at season's end.
13. TORONTO RAPTORS
Outlook: Unless rookie Jonas Valanciunas is the second coming of Arvydas Sabonis this season, the Raptors are destined for the NBA lottery for the fifth straight season. Valanciunas has already shown flashes of solid rebounding and shot blocking in the pre-season, but he'll be pretty raw as a 20 year old rookie. Picking up point guard Kyle Lowry will be a nice addition for Toronto, as well, but I don't see enough talent here for the Raptors to get out of the Eastern Conference cellar anytime soon.
Raptors Non-Stiff: DeMar DeRozan is turning out to be a decent NBA player with one exception: his field goal percentage is going in the wrong direction with each subsequent season. DeRozan must make shots consistently if he's to anchor the swing spot in Toronto for years to come.
Raptors Stiff: Aaron Gray is big, white and doughy - the very definition of a Stiff!
14. CHARLOTTE BOBCATS
Outlook: Former Nuggets assistant coach Mike Dunlap has the unenviable task of coaching a team that finished with the worst winning percentage in NBA history last season. The good news, I suppose, is that you can only go up from here, right?
Bobcats Non-Stiff: After struggling as point guard of the Lakers, Ramon Sessions has the opportunity to redeem himself by doing it all in Charlotte.
Bobcats Stiff: After torching his own franchise to the ground with suspect personnel moves, Bobcats owner Michael Jordan has left Dunlap with an absolute mess of a roster. Dunlap will be lucky to replicate Jeff Bzdelick's 17 wins with the 2002-03 Nuggets.
15. ORLANDO MAGIC
Outlook: Both armed with rookie coaches, the Magic and the Bobcats will duke it out for the Eastern Conference's worst record and to see which - if either - of these two teams will get their win totals higher than the teens. In the wake of Dwight Howard's departure, the Magic's roster has been depleted and much will be asked of former Nuggets Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington.
Magic Non-Stiff: If there's a silver lining to the Howard trade it's that Arron Afflalo will have the opportunity to become an All-Star.
Magic Stiff: Even though the Magic amnestied him, Gilbert Arenas will be collecting the remaining $43 million of his contract over the next two seasons.
|Western Conference Champion||Nuggets||Lakers||Nuggets||Lakers|
|Eastern Conference Champion||Pacers||Heat||Heat||Heat|
Nate's Take: Predicting the same old boring NBA Finals teams is not what I like to do. The Pacers had a nice playoff push last season and had things gone a little different, they easily could have won the East. They are deep, can play small and big, score in bunches, and lock teams up defensively. They can match up with anyone and should be a tough team to deal with.
The Nuggets, the ultimate homer pick! I'm a big believer that once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen - it's all about the match-ups. If you look at my standings (from Part 1), it'd be the No. 3 Nuggets versus the No. 6 Warriors in round one. If the Nuggets took out the Warriors, who knows what would happen in round two. Denver, like Indiana, can play big or small, should lead the league in scoring or be near it, and will be able to throw multiple versatile defenders at their opponents. It would take a special season for the Nuggets to take it home, but that's what prediction columns are made for! Go Nuggets!
About the West: I've never been great at predicting how the standings will shake out. Until proven otherwise, I'm giving the top spots to the Thunder and Lakers and I would love to be proved wrong there. The Nuggets have a great chance to finish the season with home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but they must focus on beating the bad teams and they'll need a tremendous road record this season. I love trying to predict the fall of the Spurs, so that's why I placed them lower on the Western totem poll. I'm seeing bigger things from the Warriors and Timberwolves and calling the Mavs to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2000. I think the Trail Blazers will be a surprisingly good young team and I'm taking the Suns to grab the basement spot out West (not sure that'll happen though).
About the East: The Heat will run away with the conference, unless a major injury occurs. After Miami, I have no idea how things will shake out. I don't see a let down from the Pacers, they are too deep and can withstand some bumps in the road. The Nets will make things interesting and the addition of Joe Johnson will help them secure home-court in round one. I'm curious to see what happens with the Knicks - they could come together or it could be a total train-wreck. I think the Sixers will face an uphill battle this season, a little disappointing to their fans coming off an exciting 2012 playoff run. I don't think the Hawks will be as bad as some think, after losing Joe Johnson. And I can't quite put my finger on which team out East will surprise, but we should see a non-playoff team from last season sneak in out East.
Jeff's Take: As much as I would love to see the Nuggets progress into the Western Conference Finals this year, I can't see them making that leap until next year at the earliest. The Lakers are stacked, and the Thunder will be still formidable (particularly if they stay remarkably healthy as they have). After that it's pretty much a dogfight in the conference. As far as the East goes, it's the Heat's to lose ... although I think Brooklyn will be better than people think.
Colin's Take: I'm super high on the Nuggets this year. I think they finally have the pieces they need to make that Pistons-esque run that we've been waiting for for so long. I think that the Warriors and Timberwolves will make surprise playoff appearances amid the decline of the Mavericks, Jazz, Rockets and Suns. The East as usual is a total shitshow, and I have four of five teams from the Atlantic Division making it in. The Magic are going to crater. I might be a little high on the 76ers, but if Bynum's knee can stay healthy they might make some noise.
Andrew's Take: While I admire my colleague's optimism that the Nuggets could make - and win! - the NBA Finals, I think they're dreaming in technicolor.
With the exception of those 2003-04 Pistons that Colin refers to, every NBA Champion since 1980 has had multiple Hall of Famers and a former/current league MVP on the team. And while it was impressive that the Pistons repeated as Eastern Conference Champions again in 2005, the bottom line is that they didn't have to go through the type of competition that the Nuggets will face in the Western Conference this season. And as soon as Hall of Famers / superstars emerged in the East (first Dwyane Wade in Miami, then LeBron James in Cleveland and then the Big Three in Boston) the Pistons run was over. Do we really think this collection of Nuggets players will overtake Kobe Bryant / Steve Nash / Dwight Howard / Pau Gasol or Kevin Durant / Russell Westbrook / James Harden or even Chris Paul / Blake Griffin or Tim Duncan / Manu Ginobili / Tony Parker? To quote Lieutenant Frank Drebin: "That's a pretty tall order, Nordberg."
It pains me greatly to predict another NBA Championship for the hated Lakers. But Nash is going to make things so easy in Lakerland that anything short of a championship will be a disappointment for that storied franchise.