Whoa to the mighty Eastern Conference where the Miami Heat have won the past two NBA championships. In the last eight seasons the Eastern and Western Conference have split championships with the Heat winning three of the East’s four titles; The Celtics winning the other. This season promises to be more competitive as many teams have made improvements to their rosters in an attempt to knock off the mighty Heat led by four time MVP, LeBron James. Along with off-season acquisitions made by many teams, there are young players such as Kyrie Irving, Paul George and John Wall looking to prove they are amongst the elite in the conference. Is there a team or few capable of over taking Miami for the Eastern conference crown? Lets go division by division through the east to help determine the odds.
In the Atlantic Division there appears to be a major shift as the Celtics and Nets made a blockbuster deal that could threaten the Heat’s reign as champions. The Celtics sent future hall of famers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, to the Nets for a chance to rebuild their franchise. Garnett and Pierce will join Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez to create one of the most lethal starting five’s in the NBA. With a bench consisting of quality players like Jason Terry, Andrei Kirilenko and Reggie Evans, the Nets have depth to go along with an exceptional starting five. The moves made by Nets general manager, Billy King, should allow the team to jump the rival Knicks as the division winner. It’s also safe to say the Nets will make a return trip to the playoffs.
As far as the Knicks go, they were able to acquire former number one pick, Andrea Bargnani, from the Raptors for crumbs. Bargnani is a big man who can spread the floor with his above average shooting ability. If healthy, which he rarely is, Bargnani is capable of averaging 20 points per game to aid Carmelo Anthony with scoring duties. The Knicks will be good and more than likely earn a playoff spot but with the off-season moves made by the Nets, second place in the Atlantic division would be respectable for the Knicks.
The Toronto Raptors will lean on ex-Grizzlies star, Rudy Gay to lead them to the playoffs with an athletic cast around him. They traded their best player, Andrea Bargnani, for what turns out to be Quentin Richardson, three-point specialist, Steve Novak, and future draft picks. Unfortunately, future draft picks can not contribute this season leaving them, the Celtics and 76ers to finish at the bottom of the Atlantic division, missing the playoffs.
The Central division may be the most competitive division in the NBA. As many as four teams from this division are projected to make the playoffs this season. The Bulls will welcome back their MVP point guard, Derrick Rose, as they look to regain their position atop the Central division and challenge the Heat for the Eastern conference championship. With head coach Tom Thibodeau’s terrorizing defensive scheme to go along with Rose’s return and the acquisition of Mike Dunleavy, the Bulls are an 8/1 favorite to win the NBA championship and a 4/1 favorite to win the Eastern conference championship (odds courtesy of Bovada). The only team with better odds in both categories are the Miami Heat.
One team in the Central who may challenge the Bulls for the division will be the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers were able to push the Heat to the limit in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals and add more firepower to push them over the top this season. The Pacers were fortunate the Phoenix Suns are deciding to tank the season allowing them to acquire power forward, Luis Scola, for a chance to win down the road. Way down the road. The Pacers also add scoring by acquiring former Knicks player, Chris Copeland via free agency. The addition of C. J. Watson to go along with the departure of D. J. Augustin slightly improve the Pacers back up point guard situation. Based on future playoff match-ups, the Pacers look to be a formidable opponent for the Heat.
Two teams in the Central division looking to make a return to the playoffs this season are the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Detroit Pistons. The Cavs are relying on a young veteran core, led by Kyrie Irving, to help the team reach their playoff goals. With the addition of sixth man, Jarrett Jack, and number one pick, Anthony Bennett out of UNLV, the Cavs add both veteran leadership and depth to their roster. If they can get any production out of the often injured Andrew Bynum, whom the signed to a two year deal in the off-season, the Cavs could be a surprise team in the East. The Pistons are also relying on young veterans such as power forward, Greg Monroe and point guard, Brandon Jennings whom they acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks in the off-season. Signing Josh Smith to a lucrative multi-year deal is a move saying the Pistons are ready to compete on a playoff level again. It also says something when Chauncey Billups is brought back to Detroit in an unofficial, player coach mode while Maurice Cheeks has been hired as head coach. Look for the Pistons to make a run at the 7th or 8th seed in the East this season. As far as the Milwaukee Bucks go, do not count them out. They do not project to be a playoff team but if there are as many major injuries in the Eastern conference this season as there were last season, then the Bucks have an outside shot. New head coach, Larry Drew, will have a challenge getting a variety of recently acquired players led by O. J. Mayo, to finish better than last in the division.
It does not take a neurological genius to break down the Southeast division. When surveying NBA general managers, 100% of them voted on the Miami a Heat winning this division. Based on the competition in the Southeast division, it is safe to say, barring a catastrophic turn of events, the Heat will win this division and have a top seed in the playoffs. Without further ado, let us glance at the rest of the Southeast division.
What once was arguably the toughest division in the NBA when Dwight Howard was a Magic; before Gilbert Arenas went cowboy. Now the Magic are a young, rebuilding team not worth rambling on. The Charlotte Bobcats are another team in the division not worth rambling on though they acquired former Jazz center, Al Jefferson, to add legitimacy to the roster as Michael Jordan attempts to turn around the fortunes of the team before the “Hornets” nickname is restored to the organization next season. They have a ways to go, but they appear to be headed in the right direction.
The battle for second place in the Southeast division and perhaps one of few playoff spots in the Eastern conference is between the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards. The Hawks allowed Josh Smith to depart north to Detroit and brought in veteran power forward Paul Millsap to replace him. While Millsap is not as effective on the defensive end of the floor as Smith typically is, he is a more polished player on the offensive end off the floor with his ability to make 15 feet jump shots allowing Horford to work inside. The Hawks hired ex-Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer as head coach. Budenholzer is expected to bring the Spurs system to Atlanta. With shooters like Kyle Korver, John Jenkins and Pero Antić to spread the floor to go along with point guard Jeff Teague whose scoring and assists numbers have increased consistently over the last three seasons, the offense can be good. How fast can the Hawks players adapt to a new defensive scheme will be key factor when it comes to beating out the Wizards to finish second behind the Heat in the division. The Wizards future is very bright as they come into the season with high expectations as electrifying point guard John Wall enters the season healthy and happy after receiving a significant contract extension during the off-season. Last year’s third overall pick, Bradley Beal, also returns after battling nagging injuries his rookie season. After a trade with Phoenix for center Marcin Gortat, the Wizards have one of the best front courts in the Eastern conference now that Nene can play his natural position of power forward. Health and bench play will be a determining factor if the Wizards are to hold off the Atlanta Hawks for second place in the division and perhaps a playoff spot in the East.
Final Eastern Conference Projections
At the end of the day the Heat may prove to be powerful to topple barring a significant injury. If former number one pick Greg Oden can give them 15-20 minutes around playoff time giving them an inside presence, they will be nearly impossible to beat. It is hard to believe any team led by Deron Williams and Joe Johnson can lead a team to defeat the Heat and the Bulls may not have enough firepower. The Pacers match-up well with Paul George’s athleticism and Roy Hibbert’s size, but they did not address their point guard deficiencies by adding C. J. Watson who can make open jumpers, but is not the ball handler and distributor they needed at the position. All that needs to mentioned of the Knicks is Carmelo Anthony is their best player, Amare Stoudemire is still on the roster and their point guard is Raymond Felton. For those reasons, I project the Heat will win the Eastern conference championship for the fourth consecutive season. Listed below are my projected Eastern conference standings.
1. Miami Heat
2. Chicago Bulls
3. Brooklyn Nets
4. Indiana Pacers
5. New York Knicks
6. Cleveland Cavaliers
7. Atlanta Hawks
8. Detroit Pistons
Those are my Eastern conference projections. Stay tuned for my Western conference projections along with my pick to win the NBA Finals. Til then, you may follow me on twitter @nottydred for more stats, Atlanta Hawks information and sports entertainment from the Cadre. Thank you and stay blessed.