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NBA Eastern Conference Preview, Part 2: Playoff Teams

The Heat are this season's favorites to win the East and the Finals, but expect challenges from both the Bulls and Knicks. (

After previewing the Eastern Conference’s non-contenders in Part 1, Sports of Boston concludes with a look at the likely playoff-bound teams.

8. Philadelphia 76ers

If the Sixers don’t take a step forward this season, they never will. Though 26-15 at home last season, they were terrible on the road, going 15-26. While the Sixers are still a young, talented team, it seems that everyone else in the East has gotten better while they’ve remained the same.

The Sixers have a slew of youth in the likes of Thaddeus Young, Marreese Speights and Nikola Vucevic, but can all that potential and athleticism actually translate to wins? The Sixers as of right now don’t have a go-to scorer. If they could trade a younger player for one, I’d feel a lot better about their playoff chances.

7. Orlando Magic

The Magic should send a gift basket to the league office, because if it weren’t for the Chris Paul saga, Dwight Howard and the Magic would be front and center.

Howard might be a Glen Davis fan, but in basketball terms that trade doesn’t do a whole lot to help them win. Getting rid of Gilbert Arenas was a step in the right direction, but this Magic team still has to find a way to shed Hedo Turkoglu‘s contract. I believe the Magic will trade Howard before the trade deadline because he’ll realize they can’t win a championship. Marquee free agents simply don’t want to play in Orlando.

6. Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks have been one of the more consistent teams in the East over the past few years, but they have nothing to show for it. Every year we expect a good season followed by a first-round elimination from the playoffs – I expect this season to be no different.

The Hawks still have plenty of talent with Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, and Jeff Teague showed in the playoffs that the sky is the limit. They still have All-Star center Al Horford, and Marvin Williams will finally get a chance to start at small forward now that Jamal Crawford has moved on to Portland. Atlanta will make the playoffs, but what they do after that remains a mystery to everyone.

5. Indiana Pacers

No one is talking about the Pacers right now, but by the end of the season I believe they will be. The Pacers already had a good young team in place, adding David West and George Hill this offseason. This will be Frank Vogel’s first full season at the helm, and I’m expecting last season’s efforts for Vogel to continue this year.

The Pacers are young but talented, with a quality starting five and capable coach. Hill, Paul George and Tyler Hansbrough provide depth off the bench. And if Indiana can swing their rumored deal for O.J. Mayo, it may drive the bandwagon towards the Pacers. Either way, basketball appears to be back in Indiana.

4. Boston Celtics

This is the Celtics’ last chance at a championship. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen are in the final years of their contracts, and don’t expect Danny Ainge to bring them both back.

Right now the Celtics lack both the skill/athleticism to match up with the Heat and the size to match up with the Knicks and Bulls. A 66-game schedule with so many back-to-backs does them no favors either – they could be completely worn down by the playoffs. There’s still enough talent to make some noise, but as of right now the deck is stacked against them.

3. New York Knicks

I really love this Knicks team because they’re the only team that can beat the Heat in the East. They’ll now have Carmelo Athony for an entire season, and the addition of Tyson Chandler gives them a quality rebounder and some much-needed toughness.

The Knicks will score a lot of points and play little defense – we know this. Chandler’s pickup eliminated New York from the Chris Paul sweepstakes, but pairing Chandler and Amare Stoudemire gives the Knicks a legit “twin tower” attack. With Anthony on the wing, the Knicks may be the best “team.” The biggest remaining question is at point guard: Tony Douglas will take over, and a look at past Mike D’Antoni point guards suggests he’ll do just fine.

2. Chicago Bulls

The Bulls were a big surprise last season, finishing with the East’s best record, going a nigh-unstoppable 36-5 at home, and featuring MVP Derrick Rose. But this season everyone should expect a step back. If Carlos Boozer stays healthy and plays to his ability, the Bulls will be in good shape. If not, Chicago’s looking at the four-seed in the East.

Chicago will be one of the best defensive teams in the NBA again, but can Rose match last season’s performance? The Bulls have the size to make another appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals, but they still don’t have the athleticism to match up with the Heat.

1. Miami Heat: 

The Heat are clearly the best team in the East and the favorites to return to the NBA Finals. It took the Big Three some time to gel last season, and with the kinks all worked out they’ll be even better this year. Beyond a full season together, the Heat’s NBA Finals loss makes them a better team. If they were hungry last season, imagine how hearing nothing but accusations of choking this past off-season made them feel.

The Heat have NBA’s best player in LeBron James, plus arguably the second-best player in Dwyane Wade. Pairing two of the three best players in the league gives you a great chance at a championship, but the maturation of Mario Chalmers will be huge this year. Chalmers averaged 11.8 ppg and four assists for the Heat in the NBA Finals.

Now that the corpse of Mike Bibby is gone, Chalmers should step up and provide the Heat with a quality point guard who can knock down the open jumper – something they were missing last year.

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