Last week I broke down the Western Conference playoffs in five categories: Sure Things, Most Likely, On The Bubble, Long Shots and No Chance. Here is the same breakdown for the East.
1. Heat ? They have a lot of new faces with the additions of Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, James Posey and Gary Payton, but Shaquille O?Neal and Dwyane Wade are still the leaders of this team.
Despite all those big names, there are still questions that need to be answered if this team wants to win the East. Can they all share one ball? Walker and Williams are known for chucking up a ton of 3?s, and Payton was ineffective the last time he and Shaq were teammates.
If this team struggles, don?t be surprised if Stan Van Gundy loses his job. Still, this team is a lock for the playoffs.
2. Pacers ? Ron Artest is back, and that alone makes the Pacers one of favorites to win the East.
The loss of Reggie Miller hurts, but the additions of Sarunas Jasikevicius, Danny Granger and the return of Artest should make up for the loss.
The Pacers are one of the deepest teams in the league. Their starting five of Jamaal Tinsley, Stephen Jackson, Artest, Jeff Foster and Jermaine O?Neal are backed up by Jasikevicius, Granger, Fred Jones, Jonathan Bender and Anthony Johnson.
If healthy ? and if Artest manages to behave ? Indiana will be fighting with Miami and Detroit for home court in the East.
3. Pistons ? They are the two-time defending East champs and they didn?t lose any players, so it?s safe to call them a sure thing for the playoffs. However, Detroit could slip a little with the improvement of both the Heat and Pacers, as well as the departure of Larry Brown.
New coach Flip Saunders should be fine as the players will try and prove they can win without Brown.
The starting lineup of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Teyshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace is excellent. But their depth is a question mark with only Antonio McDyess as the only proven impact player. With Brown gone, this could finally be Darko Milicic?s chance to prove he can play. He?s looked good in preseason so far.
4. Nets ? They were the No. 8 seed last season, but Jason Kidd missed 16 games and Vince Carter played 57 games for the Nets after the trade from Toronto.
If Kidd and Richard Jefferson can stay healthy, and if Carter can play like he did after the trade, this team will roll through the Atlantic Division and grab one of the top three seeds. Those are big ?ifs? however.
The Nets frontcourt and bench are their weaknesses. They don?t have a reliable post player, though the 7-foot Nenad Kristic did show flashes last season, and their bench consists of newly-signed Marc Jackson, Jeff McInnis, Scott Padgett and Lamond Murray.
This team will clearly rely on their trio of Kidd, Carter and Jefferson, and that should be good enough to win the Atlantic.
5. Cavaliers ? The Lebron Show should continue to improve and give James his first playoff appearance.
Outside shooting was their biggest weakness last season as they ranked 28th in 3-pointers made, but the additions of Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall, along with a healthy Luke Jackson will help James and prize free agent pickup Larry Hughes create open opportunities.
Though James and Hughes are excellent defending the passing lanes, interior defense could be a problem. Drew Gooden and Marshall have struggled on that end of the court.
But let?s not forget, James will turn 21 in December. If he stays healthy, there?s no reason not to think he?ll become the best player in the league hands down. We?re talking about a guy who averaged over 27 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists as a 20-year-old.
On The Bubble:
6. Bulls ? Their only significant move of the off-season was trading Eddie Curry to the Knicks for Tim Thomas and Michael Sweetney. And though it may appear that they?re weaker because of that, one must consider that they re-signed the rest of their own free agents, including Tyson Chandler, Chris Duhon and Othella Harrington.
The Bulls struggled offensively last season and Curry was their leading scorer, but Sweetney will get plenty of looks down low, and the improvement of Luol Deng and Ben Gordon could help overcome the loss of Curry.
Defensively, this team was great last year, leading the league in field-goal percentage against. Tyson Chandler will move to his natural center position while Sweetney will be the starting power forward.
The Bulls are a young team that had a magical season last year. They could fall off and miss the playoffs, or they can continue to thrive as they did last year, going 45-22 after a 2-13 start. It?s hard to say.
7. Wizards ? They lost Hughes and Juan Dixon, but they added Caron Butler, Antonio Daniels and Chucky Atkins.
Daniels was a valuable member of Seattle?s 52-win team as their sixth man last season, and his explosiveness and solid defense should help replace Hughes.
Butler averaged 15.5 points last season and can flat-out score while Gilbert Arenas just keeps getting better.
They also have a solid frontcourt with Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas, and if they get better contribution from Jarvis Hayes and/or Jared Jeffries, the Wizards should be back in the playoffs.
8. 76ers ? The biggest news in the off-season was the hiring of Maurice Cheeks, which bodes well for Chris Webber, who did not get along with Jim O?Brien.
Everybody expected Philly to contend for the Eastern Conference title after acquiring Webber, but instead the Sixers were a major disappointment. If Cheeks can help Webber get close to the old Webber (he is 32), the Sixers will contend for the Atlantic Division crown.
The development of Andre Iquodala, Kyle Korver, and Samuel Dalembert will be paramount if this team expects to return to the playoffs.
Philly has a terrible bench, with newly signed Steven Hunter and Lee Nailon leading the way. How much longer can Allen Iverson play 42+ minutes per game?
9. Bucks ? They will be vastly improved from the team that won 30 games a year ago.
First, No. 1 overall pick Andrew Bogut should be solid in the middle, and he?s backed up by another solid player, Dan Gadzuric.
Second, newly acquired Bobby Simmons, who was the league?s Most Improved Player last year, will help the Bucks on both ends of the floor. The signing also strengthens the bench, as Desmond Mason goes from the starting lineup to the sixth man.
Third, T.J. Ford is back and he gives the Bucks a solid 1-2 punch at point guard with Maurice Williams.
Finally, the team re-signed leading scorer Michael Redd. Although I think they overpaid to keep him, the Bucks only got better this off-season and should make a strong playoff push.
10. Knicks ? Their biggest weakness last season was at center, so they acquired Eddie Curry and Jerome James and drafted Channing Frye. Yet I still don?t know if they?ll make that much of an impact.
Perhaps their biggest move was the hiring of Larry Brown. It should be interesting to see how Brown and Stephon Marbury get along since they had their problems on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team.
The Knicks also traded Kurt Thomas for Quentin Richardson, and rookie Nate Robinson should provide a spark off the bench.
This team is hard to gauge. It should come down to whether Brown can get guys like Marbury and Jamal Crawford to play his way. If he can, the Knicks will sneak into the playoffs. If he can?t, the drama that is Larry Brown will continue in the Big Apple.
11. Celtics ? They were the Atlantic Division champs last year, but Danny Ainge is going with the young guys by letting go of Antoine Walker and Gary Payton.
That suggests the team is willing to take a step backwards before going forward. Paul Pierce continues to lead this team, but it wouldn?t shock me if he was traded before the deadline.
That might not happen if the Celtics are in playoff contention, but that will depend on the development of young players such as Al Jefferson, Tony Allen, Delonte West, Marcus Banks and high-schooler Gerald Green.
Either way, this is a young and talented team that Ainge has put together (though I still have no idea why he gave Brian Scalabrine $15 million over five years).
12. Magic ? Dwight Howard has limitless potential, and he could soon be the East?s answer to Amare Stoudamire, but the Magic have too many question marks elsewhere to count on a 20-year-old to lead them to the playoffs.
Steve Francis will slide over to shooting guard with Jameer Nelson and Keyon Dooling taking over at point. Francis, who is 6-foot-3, will find himself in size mismatches defensively. On offense, it?ll be compelling to see how Francis manages while not dominating the ball.
First-round pick Fran Vasquez decided to play in Spain, giving the Magic no help from the draft. Grant Hill?s health is always a question mark.
13. Raptors ? Chris Bosh is one of the best young big men in the game, but he likely won?t have enough help to make a strong playoff push.
Last year?s first-round pick Rafael Araujo has bust written all over him while Loren Woods was a bust before he was drafted. That leaves Bosh, a power forward, at the center position.
The trade for Mike James will help the Raptors as he should be one of the leading scorers on the team.
How much of impact their three rookies (Charlie Villanueva, Joey Graham and Jose Calderon) make will determine how competitive Toronto will be.
14. Hawks ? They overpaid for Joe Johnson, who gives Atlanta about 17 swingmen.
I like Johnson. He?s a very good player. But he?s not a superstar and he got superstar money. Nevertheless, the Hawks should be better with the additions of Johnson and first-rounder Marvin Williams.
The Josh?s ? Childress and Smith ? along with Al Harrington are all young and should get better. The Hawks will be better than they were last year, but they only won 13 games so that?s not saying much.
15. Bobcats ? They don?t have a shot this year, but the Bobcats are building their team the right way. Draft picks Raymond Felton and Sean May should play significant minutes right away. And the fact that they come from North Carolina should help the Bobcats sell more tickets.
Emeka Okafor won the Rookie of the Year award and looks to be an All-Star player for years to come, and expansion draft picks Gerald Wallace and Primoz Brezec give the Cats an excellent frontcourt.
Combine all those young players, along with the fact that they?ll have tons of cap money next off-season, and Charlotte should be very competitive within a couple of years.
If you can any comments or questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.