NBA Preview – Eastern Conference

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Atlantic

1. Philadelphia – Only one starter (Jrue Holiday) returns from 2011’s opener, and the health of newbie Andrew Bynum is a huge issue. But the minutes formerly allotted to veterans Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, and Elton Brand are now going to better fits in Doug Collins’ game plan: Evan Turner, Jason Richardson, and Thaddeus Young. They’ve added an additional two shooters in Nick Young and Dorell Wright. Promising young big men Lavoy Allen & Arnett Moultrie compliment veteran PF/C Spencer Hawes. Without Bynum, this team wins 45 games. If he plays 50 games, they win 55.

2. New York – I wasn’t a fan of the Knicks ditching Jeremy Lin in favor of Jason Kidd/Raymond Felton. You don’t let promising young PGs just walk out the door. Now you have a knucklehead starting backcourt of Felton & J.R. Smith; neither are efficient shooters and Felton has a lot to learn about

running a team (perhaps Kidd can teach him). Still, this team has plenty of talent, and adding Marcus Camby & Ronnie Brewer will improve the defense. They’re slightly better than the Nets in the division.

3. Brooklyn – Like Philly, this team looks a lot different from the crew going through the motions at The Rock last year. This is probably the most starting talent that Deron Williams has had around him in his career. Gerald Wallace is a better short-term add than Joe Johnson, as Johnson’s presence is bound to stunt the growth of second year guard MarShon Brooks. Brook Lopez needs to develop at the other end of the floor; the frontcourt depth is too thin for him to be an average defender, and his rebounding is atrocious. Kris Humphries is underrated.

4. Boston – Lot of “if”s going on up in New England. If Paul Pierce & Kevin Garnett can stay healthy; if Avery Bradley can return from injury and be the same valuable defensive weapon; if Jeff Green can be the player the Celtics envisioned when they traded for him; if Brandon Bass is ready for an expanded role; if Rajon Rondo locked himself in a gym this summer and shot 5,000 jumpers a day. Green is going to be pivotal for them – 15 off the bench consistently would be huge. They are actually deeper than they’ve been in a while with the addition of vets Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa. Jared Sullinger will prove to be a steal. Fourth place in the East’s best division isn’t as bad as it sounds.

5. Toronto – It seems like 25 years since the Raptors have had a good team. Remember when they took the eventual East champion Sixers to 7 games in the semis? Back to reality: Toronto just doesn’t have very many good players. DeMar DeRozan was just tied up long-term, and Andrea Bargnani finally looks like what a #1 overall pick is supposed to. Other than that, they have a bunch of guys that would be lucky to play 10 minutes a game on good teams. Dwane Casey has his work cut out for him. Not the worst team in the conference, but 50 losses is a lock.

Central

1. Indiana – In 18 months, Frank Vogel has turned the Pacers into a very difficult team to play against, especially at home in front of great crowds. With the emergence of Paul George and Roy Hibbert (and a healthy David West), Danny Granger no longer needs to score 25 for Indiana to win games. I love the addition of D.J. Augustin; he is an upgrade over Darren Collison. The defense is as tough as any in the league, and they gave Miami a scare last year. They are a player away from being the best team in the East, and they should win the Central by 8-10 games.

2. Chicago – The Bulls will survive without Rose. They’ve played good basketball before without him, and Tom Thibodeau will maximize what he has to work with. They need to get more out of Carlos Boozer (I could have typed that sentence the last two season previews). Never been high on Kirk Hinrich, but he is decent on the defensive end. Marco Bellinelli was a good add, and should see plenty of minutes. I can’t see Rose being close to pre-injury form come playoff time, so this looks like a first round exit.

3. Milwaukee – It will be interesting to see if Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings thrive together or implode. As much as has been written about how Scott Skiles needs to find a way to keep them from getting exploited defensively, I feel that the opposite is also true: how many teams have a backcourt that can stay in front of both of them on the other end? Ersan Ilyasova is as underrated a forward as there is in the league, and the Bucks have some good role players off the bench in Mike Dunleavy and Luc Mbah a Moute. They have little up front in the way of a defensive presence, so Skiles is going to have them pushing the ball as much as possible. With a couple breaks, they could sneak into the playoffs.

4. Cleveland – They may have the best backcourt in the league in two years; Kyrie Irving was outstanding in his rookie year, and Dion Waiters has a ton of talent – the only guy that stopped him in college was Jim Boeheim. But you’re in trouble when your frontcourt is Alonzo Gee, Tristan Thompson, and Anderson Varejao. The bench is thin. It was a testament to Irving that they even won 20 games last year. They are a couple of lottery picks away from being a playoff team, but should be fun to watch.

5. Detroit – The Pistons are a mess. They have an improving young talent in center Greg Monroe, so what do they do in the draft? Pick a project C with the 9th pick. The year before, they took Brandon Knight over Kemba Walker and traded Ben Gordon for Cory Maggette. Whats left is mediocre talent that Lawrence Frank has to work with. There isn’t a scorer on the team or a leader that can will this team to overachieve. Its gonna be a long, cold winter in Motown.

Southeast

1. Miami – The Champs return the top eight players from last season, and sprinkle in a shooter (Ray Allen) and a scorer (Rashard Lewis). So they will be better, which is bad news for the rest of the conference. Lewis will come in handy when the inevitable Dwyane Wade injury has him out two weeks. 65 wins is not out of the question, even if Lebron James or Wade is out for an extended period.

2. Atlanta – This is Josh Smith’s team now (at least for this season), and he needs to raise his play to an  All-Star level. Either way, he may be gone at the trade deadline. Lou Williams finally gets the starters’ minutes he has craved, and combined with shooter Anthony Morrow they will more than match Joe Johnson’s production. They only have two good big men, and while the bench has some decent guards, they’re in serious trouble if Al Horford or Zaza Pachulia get hurt. If they are a .500 team at the deadline, Smith is a goner and they will mail it in and get ready to spend in free agency. But even .500 will get you second place in the league’s worst division.

3. Washington – The training wheels need to come off John Wall. To this point in his career, he resembles Rondo, but without the passing acumen. Sam Cassell has been an assistant with the Wizards since 2009, and was a respected PG in the league. Why hasn’t Wall developed? I thought Bradley Beal should have been drafted in the teens, and I don’t see him as a great fit next to Wall. Their frontline is better than last year, and I like Randy Wittman as a coach. They will beat a good team now and again, but ultimately their season’s success rests on Wall’s play after he returns in December.

4. Charlotte – His Airness has brought in a new head coach and a bunch of new players. It can’t possibly be worse than last season. I like the guard rotation of Ramon Sessions, Ben Gordon, Kemba Walker, and Gerald Henderson. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist already knows how to guard three positions better than most vets, and when his offense catches up, he is going to be a tremendous pro. I don’t know much about Mike Dunlap, but if this team wins 30 games, he will have done a great job.

5. Orlando – Back in August, I wrote about the relief the franchise got after getting rid of Dwight Howard. The Magic are going to stink this year, but that’s OK. New coach Jacque Vaughn doesn’t have a lot of talent , but they were scrappy last year at times without Howard. Aaron Afflalo is on the verge of stardom, and Jameer Nelson has been underrated his entire career. Other than that, it’s just a bunch of fill-the-roster vets and young kids. Orlando will have the most ping-pong balls next spring.

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