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 Johnson, Al 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.
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.