What an offseason it was for the Eastern Conference, with big names changing teams, big names staying put and the pecking order being altered dramatically.
From Pau Gasol going to the Chicago Bulls, to LeBron James picking Cleveland over Miami, to Carmelo Anthony deciding to remain in New York, it has been a very busy summer.
So what will the East look like this year? Who can we expect to make the playoffs and contend?
Here are my predictions for which eight teams will finish in each playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
With the Kevin Love addition now a certainty, the Cleveland Cavaliers have firmly planted themselves at the top of the Eastern Conference. I’m not ready to call them a championship-caliber squad just yet, but even the Miami Heat won the East in LeBron James’ first year there.
If we’re being honest, this Cavs team is more talented and looks even better on paper than that Miami team of 2010. With the new “Big 3″ of Kyrie Irving, James and Love, Cleveland will undoubtedly be the perennial favorite in the East.
2. Chicago Bulls
A healthy Derrick Rose is key in Chicago, where the additions of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott have people’s expectations rising through the roof. With Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson already on the roster, the Bulls may have the best front court in not only the East, but the entire NBA.
Head Coach Tom Thibodeau always finds a way to get the most out of his lineups, and the Bulls were a solid playoff team even without Rose last year. If he’s healthy and playing the way he played in the Team USA scrimmage, the Bulls could be a major roadblock in the Cavs’ path to the finals.
3. Miami Heat
As much as us Cavs fans like to joke that Miami is headed for irrelevancy, they’re absolutely not. Pat Riley made sure that he did everything he could to fill the void left behind when LeBron departed for Cleveland.
While there is no substitute for the best player in the world, retaining Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and adding guys like Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger will ensure that the Heat remain competitive in the East. I’m anxious to see if Chris Bosh’s style of play will return to the way it used to be now that he’s the undisputed star of the team.
I’m not sure if he’s worth the money Miami gave him, but if Bosh can contribute like a max guy, Miami will remain a threat in the weak Eastern Conference.
4. Washington Wizards
Losing Trevor Ariza was definitely a blow to the Wizards, but with Marcin Gortat coming back to anchor the best young backcourt in the NBA, Washington just keeps improving. After surprising many around the league with their performance last season, the Wizards should continue the upward trend this year.
John Wall and Bradley Beal are both emerging stars under the age of 25, and have shown steady improvement under Head Coach Randy Wittman. I expect big things from the Wizards this season, and it would be the ultimate reward to see Cleveland and Washington battle it out in the second round of the playoffs once again.
5. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors are chock full of young talent, including point guard Kyle Lowry who just signed an extension to remain in Toronto long-term. DeMar DeRozan and Terrance Ross have both evolved into budding stars, and Head Coach Dwane Casey has done a fantastic job of molding this roster into a winner.
There’s no reason to believe that Toronto will take a step back this season, as they played extremely well in their first playoff series since 2008. I didn’t like their draft at all, but they should still be a solid contender in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
6. Charlotte Hornets
Maybe Michael Jordan knows what he’s doing after all. Last season Charlotte surprised everyone by sneaking into the playoffs as an 8-seed, and giving the Heat a scare in a number of games.
Add Lance Stephenson to the mix and you can easily envision the Hornets being a very solid team. Noah Vonleh will need some time to adjust to the NBA game, but he’s poised to be a star in Charlotte as well. It looks as if the Hornets will ride the momentum from their franchise overhaul into another successful year this year.
7. Atlanta Hawks
The playoffs last year have given me all the proof I needed that Jeff Teague has arrived at the NBA level. Just like Chris Paul, the former Wake Forest PG showed that he has the ability to take over games.
With Al Horford anchoring the front court and Teague running the show, Atlanta is young and dangerous. I don’t see them being major players in the regular season, but if they can sneak into the playoffs as a low seed, they could be a dangerous matchup for almost any team.
8. New York Knicks
This was the toughest one for me to decide on.
Do I go with the Indiana Pacers to squeak in, even without their two top scorers from last season? Or what about the Brooklyn Nets, they gave the Heat a run for their money in the playoffs didn’t they?
Well, in Brooklyn they have a new coach yet again, no Paul Pierce and two guys in Deron Williams and Kevin Garnett who are shells of the players they used to be. I think it all adds up to a lottery year for the Nets.
I’m probably being unfairly harsh on the Indiana Pacers, but there has never been a team that I was more afraid to believe in. Last year, they had me convinced they were unbeatable, then spontaneously self destructed in the second half.
I like Frank Vogel, but I think there are major chemistry issues in Indiana and without Paul George and Lance Stephenson, who’s going to step up and hit clutch baskets? I want to call the Pacers my 8a, but there are no bailouts in these predictions, so I’m counting them out.
The New York Knicks.
What do I even say about them? They’ve got a new organizational structure under Phil Jackson, a new Head Coach in Derek Fisher, and a roster that is incomplete at best.
So why do I have them in?
I loved the trade they made with the Dallas Mavericks, getting rid of Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler in exchange for Josè Calderon and a few other players. In addition, they had a draft gem fall into their lap with Cleanthony Early, a hometown kid from Wichita State. They also stole Shane Larkin from the Mavs in that trade, and if he can stay healthy he has the potential to be a star.
They are burdened with horrible contracts this season so they don’t have much room for improvement, but with some of the young talent they have I think the Knicks can squeeze in to that last playoff spot.