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2011-12 NBA Eastern Conference Preview: The Rise of the Heat

Welcome to the Eastern Conference, aka, where fun basketball goes to die. Where teams like the Charlotte Bobcats, Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, and Detroit Pistons (to name a few) churn out the type of unwatchable basketball that would make even the most hardcore League Pass subscriber opt to watch NBA Gametime on repeat for hours at a time (before eventually getting completely sick of the Kevin McHale-Chris Webber dynamic). This year’s Eastern collection of teams promises to be no different: with a handful of watchable teams (Heat, Bulls, Knicks, Celtics) followed by a dizzying array of complete bores. Still, there is a reason we play the games (i.e., you never know when Lebron will decide to just park himself at the 3 point line for quarters at a time), so here goes our 2012 Eastern Conference NBA preview :

8. Indiana Pacers

Do we really need to rank the bottom of the Eastern Conference? Every year, this collection of teams seems to be interchangeable: between the Pacers, Bucks, 76ers, Bobcats, and others, the dregs of the East lacks star power and just entertainment period. To the Pacers credit, they have upgraded themselves in recent years from being perennial 9 or 10 seeds to now being playoff fringe players. Among the teams in this category, the Pacers have the most legitimate All-star, in Danny Granger.  They have also added some nice (if not overwhelming) pieces to complement Granger in David West, Roy Hibbert, George Hill and others. Unfortunately, these pieces are all flawed in one way or another. Both David West and Hill played in systems that made them appear better than they were (the Spurs especially were masterful in extracting maximum value out of their George Hill trade). Hibbert is young, raw and talented, but still far from a polished product. All this means that this young team will once again rely on Danny Granger for its heavy lifting, which would appear to leave them destined for a repeat at the 8 seed.

7. Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers are many folks’ popular pick to make a big move within the Eastern Conference this year. I disagree. Iguodala remains an all-around beast and there are some excellent young assets in Thaddeus Young and Jrue Holiday (though as a UCLA basketball fan, I question how good Holiday can actually be). The primary issue I have with the 76ers is that they don’t seem to have any defined structure as a team. Iguodala is resistant to the alpha dog label, their young talent are hybrid ball handler/wing players that don’t fit most traditional molds, and their veteran bigs (Brand, Battie) are fragile at best. As a result, the 76ers (in this writer’s opinion) appear destined to remain in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

6. Atlanta Hawks

What would you do if you were the GM of the Atlanta Hawks? Amnesty Joe Johnson? Axe Larry Drew? Just blow up the entire operation? Any of the above seem like valid choices, and unfortunately for Hawks fans, management is unlikely to take any of these bold steps this year, once again relegating the Hawks to a 1st/2nd round playoff exit. This team makes it up here purely based on talent alone. Regardless of what you think of them individually, the core of Joe JohnsonAl Horford, Marvin Williams, and Josh Smith still gives the Hawks definitively more talent than any of the teams below them on this list. The addition of cast-offs T-Mac, Vlad-Rad, and Stack (it’s going to be a fun year for the Hawks announcing team) provides the Hawks with some veteran presence off the bench (ok, perhaps I’m being generous).  Look for a quick first round exit this year followed by a Larry Drew firing and a Joe Johnson amnesty – even if it’s a year late, at least you’ll get 2 out of 3 Hawks fans.

5. Orlando Magic

Easily the toughest team to handicap given the uncertainty around Dwight Howard. With Dwight Howard for a full season, the Magic are probably a 4 seed. With the potential packages they would get for him (Gasol/Bynum, etc.), they drop to a 6 or 7 seed, so we’ll flip a coin and take an average. Howard remains the most dominant center in the game by a landslide. Jameer Nelson and Jason Richardson comprise a decent (though not much more than that) backcourt. Ryan Anderson…actually, I take the last sentence back. This team really just starts and ends with Howard. If they can build up a good enough record prior to the trade deadline, they have a decent shot of hanging on to the 5 seed. If not, then we may see an all-Florida 1st round playoff matchup.

4. New York Knicks

Let me start by saying – I *really* don’t like this team. Don’t like the direction they’re going. Don’t like their superstars. Don’t like their future prospects in a conference headlined by the Miami Heat. Still, this team is a hundred times better than when Donnie Walsh took over the Isiah Thomas wreckage. In a flawed Eastern Conference, having two flawed superstars will be enough to get the Knicks into the top half of the conference this year. However, they overpaid for an injury-prone Tyson Chandler and now have 2 bigs that can go at any time. Melo remains one of the best clutch players in the game, but much is yet to be written about his ability to truly put a team on his back and lead them deep into the NBA playoffs. And with Chris Paul looking entrenched for the time being in Clipperland, being in their current position may be as good as things get for the Knicks.

3. Boston Celtics

Where for art thou Kendrick Perkins (besides being the leading candidate to follow Jessica Simpson as spokesperson for Weight Watchers)? Danny Ainge’s best laid plans went to waste, with Jeff Green out this year – proving the Lakers are once again the only NBA franchise that can truly rebuild on the fly (that is, except until David Stern decided to get involved). The experience of the Big 3 along with Rondo’s continuing emergence as one of the game’s great point guards will keep the Celts in the hunt throughout the year. However, all signs point to the window being completely shut on Garnett and the Gang.

2. Chicago Bulls

The Bulls are in a more tenuous position given the history of their franchise. They have one clear superstar (Rose) surrounded by some promising young talent (Noah), an up-and-coming coach (Thibodeau), a few hefty contracts (Boozer, Deng), and some decent role players (Brewer, Gibson, Korver). Their path is clear. Rose needs another superstar to seriously compete with the Miami Heat and Boozer must be amnestied at some point. Bulls fan should not get caught up in whether the Bulls will be a 1 or 2 seed because this just really isn’t their year. The focus should be two-fold: (1) the young Bulls gain additional deep playoff run experience and (2) management doesn’t compromise any of the pieces of their future  in return for a “win now” type trade. The acquisition of Rip Hamilton perfectly fit this criteria. If these two things are accomplished throughout the remainder of the season, the baby Bulls can feel good about their 2011-12 campaign.

1.       Miami Heat

I am not sure I’ve seen a team more likely to win a championship at the outset of a season in recent history. There are 4 factors at play here that make this year’s Miami Heat the prohibitive favorite to win it all:

(1) They are hungry and desperate. LeBron James absolutely needs to win this year to avoid a career verging on complete disaster.

(2) The Eastern Conference does not currently pose any credible challenges, the Bulls still seem a year or two away while the Celtics are just about done.

(3) The Western Conference is similarly weakened, with a transition of power occurring between the Lakers/Spurs and the Thunder/Mavericks.

(4) The Heat should be even better this year than last, when they were one LeBron James brain freeze away from winning it all. The addition of Shane Battier plus a healthy Udonis Haslem should provide some much needed depth.

The only thing standing in the Heat’s way is a potential lack of focus, but given last year’s results, it seems likely that this team will be motivated from the first game through its last. Look for Miami to finish with the no. 1 seed and LeBron James to win MVP.


9 Responses to “2011-12 NBA Eastern Conference Preview: The Rise of the Heat”

  1. I’m not sure we’re watching the same season. The Knicks are going to be superior to the Celtics in every way this season. I hate that. Mainly because I dislike the Knicks.
    But what I’m not sure about is why you think the Pacers are flawed? Are we watching the same basketball team? This is a fundamentally sound, young team. In a shortened/compressed season, that should flourish. They will be a playoff team.

    Posted by Andrew | December 27, 2011, 1:56 pm
  2. Andrew — thanks for the comment. Pretty sure I’m watching the same season. The Knicks eked out a win against a Pierce-less Knicks. Two of their best players are extremely injury prone (Chandler and Amare) and their guard play is inexperienced. The Celtics are also a better defensive team. Not sure how you draw a conclusion here that the Knicks will be superior in ‘every way’ from the first 2 days here.

    Regarding the Pacers, the better question here is: why wouldn’t you consider a roster heavily featuring David West, George Hill, and Roy Hibbert to be flawed. David West’s career to date has been largely predicated off of getting fed by Chris Paul and he lacks an all-around game. George Hill is a nice backup and Roy Hibbert has potential but still has a ways to go. I don’t think they have more talent than the Hawks and you can make as good (if not a better) argument about the Sixer and their talent. And yes, no disagreement on the fact they will be a playoff team.

    Posted by Brown Mamba | December 27, 2011, 2:28 pm
    • I can see your argument against the Knicks and I think they’ll probably run Amare into the ground with their run-and-gun offense. I still think they’ll finish with a better record. (“every way” may have been a bit much!)
      I think that rotation is going to be better than we think. Just a gut feeling. I don’t think West lacks an all-around game, but I suppose we’ll have to wait and see what happens without Paul feeding him the ball.
      I don’t think you’re predictions are that far off. I just really enjoy devil’s advocate.
      I do have one question though – is there anyone who can challenge the Heat for the title with the way this season is set up? It seems like a lock to me.

      Posted by Andrew | December 27, 2011, 4:27 pm
  3. Seems like a lock to me as well Andrew. The only thing I can see derailing the Heat’s date with destiny would be a Wade injury (which I would put at a 25% chance or so). The Heat are just too good and the remaining contenders are in transition in one way or another.

    Posted by Brown Mamba | December 27, 2011, 9:19 pm
    • Good point! I was going to try to argue for someone else (just for argument sake) but you’re right. I just don’t think anyone can beat them. Chicago might have a chance if they can get a series to go 7 games.

      Posted by Andrew | December 28, 2011, 9:58 am
  4. I don’t think that the Bulls have any shot to compete with the Heat in a 7 game series assuming that both teams are fully healthly. The Bulls couldn’t beat a weakened Miami team last year with a major lack of depth. This season’s Miami team has more depth and if their health holds out they will be a much better team. Plus they have to win as Mamba said.

    Lets not forget that Miami crushed Chicago in 5 games last year. With Chicago having home court in the series. The Bulls haven’t fixed the issue that they still are Rose and a collection of scrubs. Again Lebron will guard Rose and again Rose will come out the loser in that matchup. Rip is a good player but hes not quite the number 2 that Chicago needed. Hes not a superstar anymore.

    And if Miami can keep crashing the post like they have the first 2 games this year its going to be very hard to defend aganist them night in and night out. And Chicago’s only remote chance in a series would be to have 7 low scoring games in the 80’s where the pressure would be on Lebron and Wade to hit the final shot every game.

    All that being said I expect Chicago and Miami to split the regular season games 2-2, and then the Bulls will lose in 5 again when the teams meet in the ECF.

    Mainly because Boozer will vanish again when it counts denying Chicago any chance of a balanced inside attack.

    Posted by Nightbladehunter | December 28, 2011, 1:34 pm
  5. I thought the Bulls were a great fit for James. Had James and Bosh gone to Chicago and teamed with Noah and Rose and Deng, the Bulls would have gone after another 3 peat.

    Posted by Paulie Walnuts | December 29, 2011, 10:35 am
  6. 8-1 so far for Miami including a triple overtime win with Wade and Lebron sitting. Whats this haters about Miami having no bench?

    So far so good for Miami.

    Posted by nightbladehunter | January 6, 2012, 7:59 pm

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