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With the NBA regular season less than two weeks away, it is time to take a look at how the Eastern Conference standings may shape up. As recent as 2007, the Eastern Conference’s struggles against Western Conference teams earned it the moniker: “The Least-ern Conference.”
Last season, we saw a bit of a power shift in the conferences. The Cavs, Celtics, and Magic were all serious title contenders, while there was little doubt that the only team in the Western Conference who had a legitimate shot at winning the NBA Finals was the Los Angeles Lakers. How did this happen? How did the “Least-ern Conference” suddenly turn into the “Beast-ern Conference”?
Three “title” teams in the West have gone through some serious turmoil over the last few seasons that certainly attributes to the East’s rise. The Houston Rockets have seen their franchise cornerstones, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, suffer injury after injury the last couple seasons to the point where I don’t remember the last time the two superstars shared the court together.
Two hundred miles north in Dallas, the Mavs are still trying to shake the ghost of their miraculous 2006-07 franchise-best season that was ended by a startling first round exit to the Golden State Warriors. The team has gone through an identity crisis each season since then. Now, with a starting lineup with a combined age of over 150 years old, the championship window is closing.
Speaking of identity crisis, let’s head west to Phoenix, and ask Steve Kerr what style of ball he hopes the Suns will play this year…and you’ll be lucky if you get a straight answer.
Not only have the teams the top of the Western Conference gotten weaker, but the teams at the bottom have gone from bad to worse. Sacramento, Minnesota, Memphis and Golden State looked to be locked in the lottery for a while. Coaching controversies, questionable personnel moves, and disinterested players have doomed the bottom of the West, while at least the Knicks and the Nets (from the East) will be playing for Lebron James this season. With the landscape of the NBA set up for the upcoming season, let’s take a look at how the Eastern Conference Playoff standings might shake down.
I’ve gone back and forth on this for a while. On paper, the Magic have the best and deepest team in the East. But, when you examine non-statistical intangibles like leadership, experience, and motivation, it’s hard to beat the Celtics.
In addition, in the team’s two preseason games against the New Jersey Nets, it was obvious how much of an impact the retooled bench will have this season. In the first meeting, it was the bench, not the starters that were able to push a cushion against New Jersey. In the second meeting with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen sitting the game out, the bench had no problem dismantling the Nets. Granted the Nets aren’t going to win many games this season, but the Celtics’ bench last year wouldn’t have been able to beat anyone. Injuries will likely play a factor, but the C’s now have insurance on the wings and in the frontcourt with the additions of Marquis Daniels and Rasheed Wallace.
This team will be scarier than last year’s team. The additions of Brandon Bass, Ryan Anderson, Jason Williams, and Matt Barnes now make the Magic one of the deepest teams in the league. Still, Vince Carter’s attitude will likely play a huge factor, and given Rashard Lewis’s suspension, the Magic are going to rely heavily on Carter early in the season.
The biggest improvement the Magic will make will revolve around a healthy Jameer Nelson. This guy was an All-Star before he went down mid-season with an injury. Rafer Alston may have been a serviceable replacement, but Mr. “And1” will never be an All-Star caliber player. Nelson’s speed and production will be a big boost to the Magic. As Nelson goes, so go the Magic.
They’re pumped in Cleveland, and rightfully so. Shaquille O’Neal is an international icon whose imprint will be felt on the game forever. Still, I’m not sold on Shaq-daddy being Lebron’s answer. The Shaq trade was a trade with no eye to the future at all.
If the Cavs don’t win the title this year, LeBron is gone. GM Danny Ferry could have used the non-guaranteed pieces he had to make a run at Richard Jefferson and Tyson Chandler or Emeka Okafor. He could have made a bigger push via free agency for Trevor Ariza, or Charlie Villanueva. Instead, he overpaid for Anderson Varejo, traded for a superstar on his victory lap, and used his MLE on two backup wing players, Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker. Suddenly, Cleveland doesn’t have the cap space to sign anyone but LeBron next year, and after Shaq leaves, their remaining core looks about as appealing as the Nets.
If this team struggles out of the gate, the “will he stay or will he go” distraction surrounding LeBron could be enough to derail Cleveland’s season.
This team is going to turn some heads. Here are the reasons:
The Bulls didn’t have a glamorous off-season, but that might be a good thing for the confidence of Derrick Rose. With Ben Gordon gone, this is Rose’s team. I’m not worried about the Bulls making up for Gordon’s production. Increased minutes for Kirk Hinrich and John Salmons, added with the return of Luol Deng, will more than be enough to make up for Gordon’s scoring, because let’s face it, Gordon doesn’t do much else. Plus, the Bulls now have the cap space and space in the backcourt for a certain Chicago native who currently mans the shooting guard position in Miami. Bulls management is playing it real smart this year.
They’ll score points. They’ll outscore the Nets, Bobcats, Pacers and Bucks multiple times this season. They’ll rack up wins when shots are falling. They’ll lose close games when shots aren’t falling. As many changes as this team made this offseason, they may turn out to be more predictable than anyone imagined. Chris Bosh, Hedo Turkoglu, Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani is a formidable foursome, but not one that looks like it’s built to get past the first round of the playoffs. They could prove me wrong, finish 5th and sneak into the second round, but that’s their absolute ceiling.
If Elton Brand stays healthy they’re a lock, but without Andre Miller, there is no hope for the miraculous first round upset they’ve been sniffing at the last couple years. There’s not much else to say about the Sixers. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like Thaddeus Young and Maureese Speights.
I’m worried for the Heat. The only real addition they made this offseason was the recent signing of Carlos Arroyo, and that in and of itself is pretty underwhelming. Michael Beasley just checked out of rehab. Jermaine O’Neal isn’t going to be suddenly not-washed-up. Dwayne Wade can carry this team himself, but can he stay healthy doing it? Yikes.
They were there two years ago. The big three of Antwan Jamison, Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas has yet to see the second round of the playoffs. They’re thin in the front court. They don’t play defense. Yet, the addition of Mike Miller and Randy Foye gives them some experienced depth and if Arenas is healthy, they can win games. Keep an eye on these guys, but don’t be surprised if they find themselves in 10th or 11th and decide to blow the ship up.