2013-14 NBA Eastern Conference Preview

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The annual tradition continues as Denver Stiffs predicts how the Eastern Conference will shake out in 2013-14.

Even with the return of Derrick Rose to the Chicago Bulls and the additions of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets, the Eastern Conference is still the poor sister to it's Western counterpart in the NBA. Yes, LeBron James's Miami Heat remain the odds-on favorite to claim a third straight NBA title (and fourth straight NBA Finals appearance ... impressive!), but outside the top-five Eastern Conference teams the conference is a joke. As it has been for decades now.

With their roster as presently constructed, Carmelo Anthony's New York Knicks would probably finish 7th (at best) in the Western Conference, and yet they could repeat as a Final Four team in the Eastern Conference in 2014. And the sort of, not really rebuilding Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks would have no prayer of making the playoffs if they were located a thousand miles to the west.

But you play in the conference that you're located in, and as a result those Pistons and Cavaliers just might crack into the playoffs in 2014, something my fellow Denver Stiffs writers seem to agree with (see our picks below).

Regular Season Picks

Nate Colin Jeff Andrew
1 Miami Miami Miami Miami
2 Indiana Indiana Brooklyn Indiana
3 Chicago Brooklyn Indiana Chicago
4 Brooklyn New York New York Brooklyn
5 New York Boston Chicago New York
6 Atlanta Chicago Detroit Detroit
7 Washington Atlanta Boston Atlanta
8 Detroit Detroit Cleveland Cleveland
9 Cleveland Cleveland Atlanta Washington
10 Milwaukee Orlando Washington Milwaukee
11 Boston Milwaukee Milwaukee Toronto
12 Toronto Philadelphia Orlando Orlando
13 Orlando Toronto Toronto Boston
14 Charlotte Washington Charlotte Charlotte
15 Philadelphia Charlotte Philadelphia Philadelphia

As you can see, Nate, Colin, Jeff and I generally agree on the order of the top five (with Colin shockingly picking Boston to finish 5th ... you know Larry Bird and Bill Russell don't play there anymore, right Colin?). And three of four of us are picking the Heat to repeat as Eastern Conference Champions. But both Colin and Jeff are thinking big things for the newly assembled (with very old guys) Nets:

Conference Finals Picks

Nate: Heat vs. Pacers, Pacers win
Jeff: Heat vs. Nets, Heat win
Colin: Heat vs. Nets, Heat win
Andrew: Heat vs. Pacers, Heat win

So there you have our collective picks. And here's a quick rundown on what to look out for this season from the Eastern Conference:

1. Miami Heat

In addition to being back-to-back NBA Champions, Miami has become known as the home for wayward would-be NBA stars, including former Nugget Chris Andersen and now recent castoffs Greg Oden (former 1st overall pick from 2007) and Michael Beasley (former 2nd overall pick - by Miami - from 2008). Frankly, I'm shocked that Hasheem Thabeet hasn't found his way onto this roster yet.
Why Heat fans should be optimistic: Frighteningly, the amazing LeBron James claims that his game is still developing and even though the Pacers may prove to be a tougher out in 2014 than they were in 2013, there's little reason to believe the Heat won't repeat as Eastern Conference Finalists for the fourth year in a row come June 2014.
Why Heat fans should be pessimistic: The ultimate Stiff thanks to a litany of injuries and bad breaks since being drafted first overall in 2007, newly acquired Greg Oden is firmly ensconced in the debate for "worst first overall pick ever". And yet Miami is hoping that at long last, they've solved their center problem by signing Oden (even though it may have already been solved thanks to the Birdman). Miami tried this sort of reclamation project once before by picking up Eddy Curry two seasons ago, who produced no-factor results. For Oden's sake, let's hope he pans out better for Miami than Curry did ... which is a pretty low bar to pass.

2. Indiana Pacers

After striking fear into the Heat during a thrilling seven-game Eastern Conference Finals last spring, the Pacers will enter 2013-14 with renewed confidence and look to overtake their South Florida rivals. And they're well positioned to knock off the Heat in 2014 thanks to the (potentially) healthy return of one-time All-Star Danny Granger and the savvy acquisition of Luis Scola who, combined with the reliably tough David West, forms the NBA's toughest one-two punch at the power forward position (with apologies to Kenneth Faried and J.J. Hickson of course).
Why Pacers fans should be optimistic: If Granger can come back at even 75% of his former self, he might be the difference between another Eastern Conference Finals run versus an NBA Finals run.
Why Pacers fans should be pessimistic: Danny Granger? Healthy? Those two things don't seem to go together. And I just don't see the NBA allowing the Pacers to get to the finals in place of the big-market Heat, Nets or Bulls (sorry to sound conspiratorial here but I have decades of experience following this stuff).

3. Chicago Bulls

Even without the services of former NBA MVP Derrick Rose throughout the entire 2012-13 season, the Bulls were able to win 45 games, best the Nets in the playoffs' first round and play somewhat competitively against the Heat in Round 2. Now with Rose back, Bulls fans are thinking a return to the Eastern Conference Finals is in order for 2014.
Why Bulls fans should be optimistic: The emergence of third-year small forward Jimmy Butler combined with Rose's return has the Windy City giddy about pro basketball again.
Why Bulls fans should be pessimistic: The obvious source of pessimism revolves around Rose's surgically repaired knee. What made Rose special en route to that MVP in 2011 was his unrivaled quickness and explosiveness and it's fair to question if he'll return to that level in 2011. And was Butler's 2013 playoff performance an aberration or a sign of more to come?

4. Brooklyn Nets

You have to give Nets' GM Billy King credit: he's a gambler who's not afraid to pull the trigger on big deals. And it certainly helps when you have a gazillionaire owner backing you. King's mega-deal of this past off-season netted the Celtics trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry who will join a roster including four players who have appeared in an All-Star game at some point in their career in Deron Williams, Joe JohnsonBrook Lopez and the all-purpose Andrei Kirilenko
Why Nets fans should be optimistic: Garnett and Pierce have a lot of pride and know full well that the entire NBA and its punditry have written them off as too old, too tired and too injury-prone to compete for another NBA title. That pride - especially if it can be instilled in the talented but turbulent Williams - just might take the Nets to the 2014 NBA Finals.
Why Nets fans should be pessimistic: It's not 2008 anymore. Or even 2011 for that matter. Garnett (37) and Pierce (36) are old, and they might have blown their last best chance to make it to the Finals when the Heat bested their Celtics in 2012. And does Jason Kidd actually know how to coach?

5. New York Knicks

A fading copy of the Denver Thuggets of yore, the Knicks enter the 2012-13 season with a roster relatively unchanged from last season with the exception of the pickup of Andrea Bargnani. Bargnani gives the Knicks more of the same of what they already have: oft-injured offensive players who don't play a lick of defense.
Why Knicks fans should be optimistic: Carmelo Anthony will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, which means the me-first Melo will play his ass off this year proving to all that he deserves a max extension next summer. Melo's effort will translate into wins, but will it be enough wins to get the Knicks deep into the playoffs?
Why Knicks fans should be pessimistic: The Knicks may have been the biggest beneficiary of Rose's absence, which allowed them to pick up some extra wins and finish second in the Eastern Conference. But the Pacers exposed the Knicks many flaws in the 2013 playoffs and the Knicks have done nothing since to give us confidence that 2013-14 will be any different.

6. Detroit Pistons

Needing to do something to revive his franchise's fortunes, Pistons GM Joe Dumars decided to relive the summer of 2009 and once again overpaid for a small forward and an undersized shooting guard. Except this time, the dollars went to two players - Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, respectively - who will immediately impact the Pistons in a positive fashion. Adding in the savvy vet Chauncey Billups will help, too, and the Pistons should be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009. 
Why Pistons fans should be optimistic: Smith and Jennings - combined with big man youngsters Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond - will make many nights difficult for their opponents. Especially at home where a once amazing fan base should be rejuvenated somewhat.
Why Pistons fans should be pessimistic: Dumars turned a sub-30 win team into a sub-42 win team with little upside. But at least they'll be fun to watch.

7. Atlanta Hawks

I'm hard pressed to think of a team that I want to watch less than the Hawks, who have assembled a roster that would have no prayer of making the playoffs in the Western Conference but will likely find themselves participating in the Eastern Conference playoffs this season as a bottom feeder.
Why Hawks fans should be optimistic: Maybe the cap space that's coming in 2015?
Why Hawks fans should be pessimistic: The Hawks are in the worst type of no-man's land in the NBA - not bad enough to land a top lottery pick and just good enough to provide an easy playoff victory for a higher seed.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers

Could this be the year that the Cavaliers return to the playoffs for the first time since James stabbed the franchise (and the entire city of Cleveland) in the back by leaving for Miami in 2010? A lot of indicators say yes. The Cavs have an emerging superstar guard in Kyrie Irving, the first overall pick in Anthony Bennett, an improving Tristan Thompson and Mike Brown back as head coach.
Why Cavaliers fans should be optimistic: If the third-year Thompson and second-year Dion Waiters make big leaps in productivity this season, and the newly acquired Andrew Bynum actually play, the Cavaliers could be one of the NBA's best surprise teams.
Why Cavaliers fans should be pessimistic: Pinning one's hopes on the oft-injured, mentally questionable Bynum is a frightening proposition for any NBA team. And if Irving is so good, why hasn't his play translated into any wins thus far?

9. Washington Wizards

With the return of a healthy John Wall, Wizards fans are thinking playoffs for the first time since 2008. But that's a lot to ask of Wall, who - like Irving - hasn't seen his individual achievements equal wins.
Why Wizards fans should be optimistic: Coming off five straight sub-30 win seasons, things can only get better in Washington. Moreover, when Wall returned last season the Wizards played surprisingly competitive (although they did lose their last six straight games).
Why Wizards fans should be pessimistic: Wall doesn't have a lot of options to pass to. Second year two-guard Bradley Beal has some legitimately exciting upside, but Wall can only count on his two primary big men (Emeka Okafor and Nene Hilario) to play in about half the games this season, as is par for the course for those two.

10. Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks barely made the playoffs last season with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis forming a mismatched, but often formidable, back court. Now Jennings and Ellis are both gone and in their place are Brandon Knight and O.J. Mayo. A big downgrade. It's going to be a long season in Milwaukee.
Why Bucks fans should be optimistic: There's little reason to be optimistic in Milwaukee, but new head coach Larry Drew was able to take a mediocre Hawks roster and turn them into a bona fide competitive playoff team for two years in Atlanta. Could he do the same thing in Milwaukee?
Why Bucks fans should be pessimistic: What's the plan here? Like the Hawks, the Bucks aren't bad enough to compete for a lottery pick or good enough to make any noise in the playoffs. Historically, the Bucks are content with being competitive but this roster will have difficulty being competitive in 2013-14.

11. Toronto Raptors

When ex-Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri defected for Toronto over the summer, he inherited a roster that makes very little sense. Desperate to be competitive, Ujiri's predecessor - Bryan Colangelo - pulled the trigger on a deal to bring the talented but expensive Rudy Gay to Canada and even with Gay, the Raptors found themselves in the lottery again.
Why Raptors fans should be optimistic: Ujiri's arrival should immediately make fans north of the border excited about basketball again. While the Raptors roster as presently constructed won't go anywhere, Ujiri and the assets being bestowed upon him by Raptors ownership might be uniquely suited to deliver a winner to the NBA's third-biggest market (something most fans, and unfortunately players, don't realize) sooner than later.
Why Raptors fans should be pessimistic: With the presence of Gay plus DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin and second year big man Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors might be "too good" to land a top-three lottery pick and thus could miss out on drafting Canadian sensation Andrew Wiggins.

12. Orlando Magic

Attempting to make the most of the post-Dwight Howard era, the Magic enter the 2013-14 season in a continued rebuild mode. The selection of Victor Oladipo - a could-be star shooting guard - in the 2013 NBA Draft was somewhat curious considering the Magic's best player, Arron Afflalo, already plays that position.
Why Magic fans should be optimistic: Between Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Andrew Nicholson, the Magic have some exciting upside at the forward positions and their continued improvement just might make the Howard trade look like a good one for Orlando.
Why Magic fans should be pessimistic: There's just not enough talent here to make any sort of run any time soon. But the Magic are well positioned for future growth.

13. Boston Celtics

With all due respect to my colleagues Colin and Jeff who have picked the Celtics to finish fifth and seventh, respectively, I don't know how anyone could possibly pick this team to make the playoffs. The Celtics will be starting a rookie center, All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo will miss considerable time as he recovers from ACL surgery and the Celtics two best shooting guards - Avery Bradley and MarShon Brooks - can't shoot.
Why Celtics fans should be optimistic: GM Danny Ainge probably picked the right time to rebuild the Celtics, and by assembling cap flexibility and draft picks the future could be bright ... down the road ... again in Boston.
Why Celtics fans should be pessimistic: I actually like the Brad Stevens hire for head coach. But if Stevens is successful in making the NCAA-to-NBA transition, he'll be the first. In the history of the NBA, no college coach from a big time program has made a good NBA head coach (just ask John Calipari, Tim Floyd, Rick Pitino, Mike Montgomery, Leonard Hamilton, Lon Kruger, Jerry Tarkanian and a litany of others).

14. Charlotte Bobcats

Michael Jordan's failed experiment as an NBA owner continues as his Bobcats appear to be ready to miss the playoffs for the 9th time in 10 seasons of existence.
Why Bobcats fans should be optimistic: Rumors abound that the Bobcats name will be changed to the Hornets - the first name of the city's original NBA team in 1988 before it left for New Orleans in 2002 - after the 2013-14 season is over.
Why Bobcats fans should be pessimistic: Michael Jordan still owns the team.

15. Philadelphia 76ers

The 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers will rival the 2002-03 Denver Nuggets for one of the great tank jobs in recent NBA history. Knowing they had a roster going nowhere (thanks to an assortment of suspicious personnel moves) in 2013, the 76ers traded away their lone All-Star in Jrue Holiday, didn't re-sign shooter Dorrell Wright or center Andrew Bynum, and are playing for the first overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Why 76ers fans should be optimistic: Holiday was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans for the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft which was used to select Kentucky center Nerlens Noel, regarded by many as the should-have-been first overall pick in the draft. Noel has huge upside and could be the anchor that the 76ers build around for years to come. 
Why 76ers fans should be pessimistic: What if Noel doesn't pan out? What if the 76ers don't land a top-three pick in the 2014 NBA Draft? Tanking is always a risky option when rebuilding an NBA franchise.

Western Conference Preview coming later today ...

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