The NBA season starts this week, so here’s the first part of a two-issue look at all 30 teams and their chances this season. We’ll start with a look at the Eastern Conference, where the top three teams remain Orlando, Boston and LeBron James’s team – but the order has changed:1. Orlando Magic (59-23 last season, second in Eastern Conference, lost to Boston in conference finals)
Returning players: C Dwight Howard, PG Jameer Nelson, SG Vince Carter
Key additions: PG Chris Duhon
Key losses: none
Orlando is definitely the deepest team in the conference – and probably the NBA. J. J. Redick would be starting for the Bulls if that trade had gone through, but he’s not even one of the seven best players on the Magic. With 10 returning players from last year and the only team to finish ahead of them, Cleveland, absolutely dismantled by “The Decision,” Orlando could definitely win the conference. However, after they demolish the 76ers, I see Orlando going out in a seven-game conference semifinal as Joakim Noah holds his own on the boards and All-NBAer Howard can’t produce.
2. Boston Celtics (50-32 last season, fourth in Eastern Conference, lost to Los Angeles Lakers in NBA Finals)
Returning players: PF Kevin Garnett, PG Rajon Rondo
Key additions: C Shaquille O’Neal, C Jermaine O’Neal
Key losses: SG/SF Tony Allen
I can’t bring myself to root for Boston, but there’s something to be said for the moves they made over the summer. While most of the moves can be explained by Boston’s desire to add more apparently-Irish players to their depth chart – a quest that should have stopped with Luke Harangody – it’s clear that Boston is gearing up for an NBA Finals against the Lakers. As much as it kills me to say, the Celtics look likely to lose to the Heat in the conference semifinal.
3. Miami Heat (47-35 last season, fifth in Eastern Conference, lost to Boston in first round)
Returning players: SG Dwyane Wade
Key additions: SF LeBron James, PF Chris Bosh
Key losses: almost every other player on the 2009-10 roster
As of writing, the Heat stand at 0-1, with a loss to the Celtics in their season opener. So they won’t be going undefeated. Still, there’s something to be said for playing two of the top five players in the NBA in the same lineup, and Bosh is no slouch. My prediction is that the Heat start slow, losing four of their first 10 games, but finish strong and claim the three-seed behind Orlando and Cleveland. In the playoffs, Miami will knock off Atlanta in five games and Boston in seven – LeBron won’t choke in that series because he doesn’t need to do all of the work himself – before slipping past the Bulls in six games. Thankfully for all of us newly-christened LeBron haters, though, the Lakers look very capable of winning the NBA Finals in six games.
4. Chicago Bulls (41-41 last season, eighth in Eastern Conference, lost to Cleveland in first round)
Returning players: PG Derrick Rose, C Joakim Noah
Key additions: PF Carlos Boozer, SG Kyle Korver
Key losses: PG/SG Kirk Hinrich
It just kills me to see Hinrich go – Kirk, you’ve been a class act ever since your time as a Jayhawk. But even with Hinrich gone and LeBron, Bosh, Wade, Amar’e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson signing elsewhere, the Bulls did quite well in the offseason, even picking up a solid new head coach in Tom Thibodeau. I’ll admit that this is a biased pick, but I think the Bulls will get past Scott Skiles’s Bucks in five games before upsetting the Magic in an epic series. Just after the Magic’s season ends, though, the magic will end for the Bulls, and Wade will lead his Heat past his old hometown team.
5. Milwaukee Bucks (46-36 last season, sixth in Eastern Conference, lost to Atlanta in first round)
Returning players: SG John Salmons, C Andrew Bogut
Key additions: SF Corey Maggette
Key losses: PG Luke Ridnour
The pick of Milwaukee over Atlanta is largely due to my respect for Scott Skiles – there’s a lot of scoring potential on this team, but there are too many shooters and they’ll have to learn to share. Skiles knows how to coach defense, though, so if the offense jells, good things will happen. The question: Who will step in for Brandon Jennings when he has an off night or a meltdown?
6. Atlanta Hawks (53-29 last season, third in Eastern Conference, lost to Orlando in conference semifinals)
Returning players: SG Joe Johnson, PF Josh Smith
Key additions: none
Key losses: none
The Hawks’ offseason consisted mostly of two things: resigning Joe Johnson to a six-year deal. and sulking about their ugly elimination in four games at the hands of the Magic. With all of the top four teams in the conference improving, this was not the season to tread water, but this is still a team with a lot of talent.
7. Charlotte Bobcats (44-38 last season, seventh in Eastern Conference, lost to Orlando in first round)
Returning players: PF Tyrus Thomas, PG D. J. Augustin
Key additions: C Kwame Brown
Key losses: PG Ray Felton, C Tyson Chandler
The young talent on the Bobcats will need to step up to replace Felton and Chandler, but even with the possible dysfunction – inconsistency from Thomas, coach Larry Brown’s temper – this is a team that will give the Celtics a run for their money in the first round of the playoffs. Look for that series to go to Game Six despite the Celtics’ obvious superiority.
8. Philadelphia 76ers (27-55 last season, T-twelfth in Eastern Conference)
Returning players: SG Andre Iguodala, PF Elton Brand
Key additions: PG Evan Turner, head coach Doug Collins
Key losses: C Samuel Dalembert
Doug Collins is this good at rebuilding teams. Honestly. The ‘Sixers can make the playoffs this year if Collins works his magic and the newly drafted Turner lives up to his reputation. They’ll get absolutely smashed by Orlando in four games – who on this team can stop Howard inside? – but I think Philly is looking at a 15-game improvement.
9. New York Knicks (29-53 last season, eleventh in Eastern Conference)
Returning players: SF Danilo Gallinari
Key additions: PF Amar’e Stoudemire, PG Ray Felton
Key losses: PF David Lee, PG Chris Duhon
Despite the additions of Stoudemire, Felton, Timofey Mozgov and Anthony Randolph, the Knicks are going to miss the playoffs this year – they’re not ready to make a jump under coach Mike D’Antoni. They’ll still be the best team in the city, though, despite Mikhail Prokhorov’s antics in Jersey.
10. New Jersey Nets (12-70 last season, fifteenth in Eastern Conference)
Returning players: PG Devin Harris
Key additions: see below, PF Derrick Favors, PG Jordan Farmar, head coach Avery Johnson
Key losses: SG Courtney Lee
The Nets are this high for two closely related reasons: Prokhorov, their crazy Russian billionaire of a head coach, and Carmelo Anthony, who is looking to be traded somewhere from his current home with the Denver Nuggets. If Prokhorov lives up to his past level of craziness – which, for the record, includes a professionally produced video of the six-foot-eight magnate water-skiing – the Nets roster will look different at the end of the season.
11. Washington Wizards (26-56 last season, fourteenth in Eastern Conference)
Returning players: SG Gilbert Arenas
Key additions: PG John Wall, PG/SG Kirk Hinrich, C Yi Jianlian, SF Josh Howard
Key losses: SG Randy Foye
The Wizards have improved a ton since last year, and Wall’s going to put on a show en route to finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Blake Griffin of the Clippers. However, Arenas’s ridiculous antics have, in recent weeks, expanded to the level of faking an injury to give a specific teammate more
playing time. That’s just too much crazy for this team to go anywhere unless Arenas finally gives up and signs with a Turkish team.
12. Cleveland Cavaliers (61-21 last season, first in Eastern Conference, lost to Boston in conference semifinals)
Returning players: C Anderson Varejao
Key additions: none of consequence
Key losses: SF LeBron James
The only things that will keep the Cavaliers afloat this year are the play of young forward J. J. Hickson and the burning rage of owner Dan Gilbert. Don’t expect much here. Strike that, actually – expect a huge amount from Gilbert, who never fails to explode in Comic [Sans] fashion.
13. Detroit Pistons (27-55 last season, T-twelfth in Eastern Conference)
Returning players: C Ben Wallace, SG Ben Gordon, SF Tayshaun Prince
Key additions: C Greg Monroe, SG Tracy McGrady
Key losses: PF Jonas Jerebko
Honestly, who cares about the Pistons? I didn’t like them when they were good, and I don’t like them now – but they’re just not talented enough for me to hate them. This is an incredibly boring team, even with McGrady, and I don’t think the horrible chemistry in the locker room will help.
14. Indiana Pacers (32-50 last season, tenth in Eastern Conference)
Returning players: SF Danny Granger, C Roy Hibbert
Key additions: PG Darren Collison, SF Paul George
Key losses: PF Troy Murphy
I really look forward to seeing the Pacers improve in the next couple of years – as George, Hibbert and Collison gain experience, the core of those three and Granger will get stronger and stronger. I’ll pick the Pacers to make the playoffs in 2012-2013 but not yet… not until they get more depth and experience on the team.
15. Toronto Raptors (40-42 last season, ninth in Eastern Conference)
Returning players: C Andrea Bargnani
Key additions: SG Leandro Barbosa
Key losses: PF Chris Bosh, SF Hedo Turkoglu
This was a mediocre team with Bosh, and they didn’t really replace his and Turkoglu’s scoring presence with anything of note. The Raptors might have the funniest-sounding lineup in the NBA, with Barbosa, Bargnani, DeMar DeRozan, Jarrett Jack and the deceptively funny-sounding Sonny Weems, but that’s about the only category in which they’ll be near the top of the standings.