This summer was one of the most active and talked about in NBA history. It started with a pretty good draft in terms of potential talent. Then LeBron James and the Miami Heat shunned all doubters by winning the NBA Championship. The US Olympic Team looked unbeatable in London and manhandled the world en route to another gold medal. And finally, after holding the Orlando Magic for ransom for two months, Dwight Howard got his wish and he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, joining Kobe Bryant and former two-time MVP Steve Nash to form their own Big Three.
With all the wheeling and dealing and the season set to start the day before Halloween (Heat vs. Celtics), now seems like the perfect time to assess the Eastern Conference and how the New York Knicks look to figure in the playoff picture.
2012-13 Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions (listed in order of finish):
1. Miami Heat
No matter how much other teams improve, unless you are completely dismantled like the 1997 Florida Marlins, my opinion is that if you are the reigning champs you’re the team to beat.
That being said, not only did the Heat win the title, but they DID improve on an already stellar squad. With the Big Three of LeBron, D-Wade and Chris Bosh already on board, they added seasoned vets Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis to the mix.
Allen will provide a nice lift in scoring and deadly shooting to go along with his leadership skills. Lewis has been sort of an enigma the past few years, clearly not living up to what was in fact the largest salaried contract in the NBA.
My feeling is that this will change as he will learn he is no longer the star player and will try to contribute in any way to help the team get another ring. Also having long time Miami vet Udonis Haslem as well as a seemingly healthy Mike Miller and a much improved Mario Chalmers should almost guarantee this team another spot in the NBA Finals, but who knows, this is why we play the game, folks.
2. Boston Celtics
What can I say about Boston? For the first half of the season they looked every bit their age. They had no depth and their aging stars seemed have lost all their ferocity. It looked like an era was finally coming to an end…until after All-Star Break when they caught fire and became only the fourth team in NBA history to win their division after having a sub-.500 record before the break.
While Allen has departed to the sunny shores of South Beach, the Celts still have first ballot Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and arguably the best, or one of the best, point guards in the league in triple-double machine Rajon Rondo.
KG seemed possessed in the second half of the year and carried that all the way through the playoffs. One of the more lacking aspects of the Celtics was their bench depth so they went out and signed super sixth man Jason Terry and acquired Courtney Lee from Houston. Terry is so determined to shine in Celtic green that he tattooed their logo on his arm.
Chris Wilcox is back this year after he had somewhat of a breakout campaign and after dangling Brandon Bass around, they decided to keep him, which was smart because he proved very valuable with a 12.5/6.2 season. He also had a very good stretch of games in the playoffs.
Rookie guard and defensive specialist Avery Bradley had a surprisingly good season and Jeff Green is back after missing the entire year due to heart issues. Take into account some risky, yet possibly high reward draft choices in big men Fab Melo and Jared Sullinger and you’ve got yourself a very, very good team.
3. Indiana Pacers
One of the more upstart teams of the 2012 season was the Indiana Pacers. Seemingly loaded with untapped potential, they barely made the playoffs the prior year. This past season, under the guidance of Coach Frank Vogel, they put everything together. The Pacers were one of the deeper teams in the NBA and have since added point guard D.J. Augustin (now free from the burdens of playing in Charlotte) and former dunk champ Gerald Green to the mix.
Moving George Hill into the starting point guard role seemed to really get their offense going towards the end of last season thus making Darren Collison expendable, who was subsequently shipped off to Dallas. In return the Pacers got young C Ian Mahinmi to back up budding superstar Roy Hibbert.
With the high scoring Danny Granger, the insanely athletic Paul George, do-it-all Tyler Hansbrough and wily vet David West, Indiana looks like a team who can make a championship run. Although the Pacers are a quality team, this ranking is highly predicated on the injury to the Bulls’ Derrick Rose.
4. Chicago Bulls
Coming into last season the Bulls were on many people’s lists as the team to beat. They had incumbent MVP Derrick Rose and a slew of other stars returning to improve on their 4-1 Conference Finals loss to the Heat. Unfortunately for them, the injury bug hit Rose…and it hit him hard. With numerous ailments including injuries to his groin, back and ultimately a torn ACL in the playoffs, he ended up playing only 39 regular season games.
This team is very good without him, but with him they can be arguably the best in the league. But to the chagrin of Chicagoans everywhere, D-Rose is not due back on the court until at least March, so they will have to make due without him. Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah are no NBA saps and they will try to keep the Bulls’ record afloat until their star player comes back.
General Manager Gar Forman brought in former Bull Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson and drafted Kentucky’s Marquis Teague to help man the point in Rose’s absence. While they HAD to let Omer Asik go with what Houston is now paying him, Taj Gibson should now flourish in an expanded role. Nazr Mohammed adds some front court depth and Italian sharp shooter Marco Belinelli should fill the same role Kyle Korver had here, but with more scoring ability.
Coach Tom Thibodeau is a defensive mastermind and that should keep the team in the hunt until Rose arrives. They could be a scary team come playoff time when they are working on all cylinders.
5. New York Knicks
The major news for the Knicks in the offseason was the decision to not match the $25 million offer the Houston Rockets’ made to sensation Jeremy Lin. While many look at this as a failure on their part to keep a great player and media/marketing sensation in the Big Apple, in the end it may be viewed as a smart move.
Looking at the decision in financial terms it makes sense. In my opinion that is a lot of money to commit to someone who pretty much has 25 games under his belt as an NBA starter. As aforementioned, the Knicks no longer have Jeremy Lin…yup no more Lin, so they brought back former guard Ray Felton and future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd to man the point. While that duo may not light up the scoreboard like the Harvard alum, they will play more sound basketball and commit fewer turnovers, which was a major flaw in Lin’s game last season.
Depth has been an issue for New York for a while and bringing a guy like Kidd off the bench along with big man Marcus Camby will help out a lot. They will also add a lot of veteran leadership to the team. The Knicks also acquired the versatile G/F hybrid Ronnie Brewer, who has since had knee surgery but expects to be back for opening night.
Hope has emerged on the defensive front with Tyson Chandler winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award and the re-signing of defense first coach Mike Woodson. J.R. Smith is back to provide a bench spark and rookie standout Iman Shumpert is set to return from offseason knee surgery around January.
Of course the main concern in New York is whether Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire can EVER co-exist. It’s been a rough going for the pair since Melo was acquired in 2011. If these two superstars can finally figure things out the Knicks should be a team to be reckoned with. If this can’t be accomplished I think I flip-flop their seed with the Nets.
6. Brooklyn Nets
After an entire offseason of “Dwight Howard Drama” the New Jers…err…Brooklyn Nets finally removed themselves from that debacle, re-signed their own big men, Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries, and plan on beginning their first season in the new Barclays Center with a bang.
While they didn’t trade for Superman, they DID make another big move, landing perennial All-Star Joe Johnson from the Atlanta Hawks. Johnson should fit in nicely on this team and should thrive with Deron Williams dishing him the rock. Gerald Wallace, who was acquired late last season, is also back and is a proven star in the league. By not trading for D12 they were able to keep one of the brighter young stars in the game in MarShon Brooks and added some more talent through the draft with former Kansas star Tyshawn Taylor.
The signing of Bosnian sensation Mirza Teletovic could prove to be a boon and adding rebounding machine Reggie Evans will surely give them some tenacity on the glass. I like the signing of C.J. Watson as one of the more underrated moves of the offseason. He should bring some experience and scoring punch to the backup point guard role.
The health of Lopez should be a concern all season long, but if he can stay on the court I expect the Nets to make the playoffs in their first season in The Borough.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
Philly basketball is finally back. They had a very good season and beat the highly favored Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Basketball minds everywhere are so impressed that there are rumors of Coach Doug Collins being the next coach for Team USA. Capitalizing on their success from last season, the Sixers involved themselves in the Dwight Howard proceedings and in doing so were able to land stud center Andrew Bynum from the Lakers.
One of the knocks on Philly last season was their depth in the front court. Spencer Hawes proved to be a valuable asset when he was healthy, but bringing in a still young Bynum makes them a huge threat. While the rest of their “big men” are more like tweeners (Thaddeus Young and former-Warrior Dorrell Wright), they have upgraded tremendously from last season.
In getting Bynum they had to send All-Star Andre Iguodala to Denver, but I still think they made out very well. In that huge trade the Sixers also got Jason Richardson from Orlando. He seemed like a very unhappy person in the Sunshine State and the move up north may help turnaround what has become a downward spiral in his career.
PG Jrue Holiday had a breakout season last year and the addition of former no. 1 pick Kwame Brown (really Wizards??) and Nick Young will help bolster the bench. Former No. 2 overall pick Evan Turner now has his time to shine in the City of Brotherly Love. The versatile Turner improved a ton over his rookie season and will fill the void left by Iguodala and if he continues to make improvements, he could become a star at both ends of the floor.
8. Milwaukee Bucks
With apologies to the Atlanta Hawks and the much-improved Washington Wizards, the Bucks are my final pick to round out my projected Eastern Conference standings. Milwaukee made one of the biggest mid-season splashes last year shipping former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Bogut to Golden State. In return they got multi-talented guard Monta Ellis and blossoming center Epke Udoh.
While Ellis’ scoring came down with the Bucks, he contributed elsewhere. I think an offseason of meshing with Brandon Jennings will remedy that. While Udoh is still somewhat of a project, he and newly acquired centers Samuel Dalembert and Joel Przybilla represent something Milwaukee has been lacking in many years which is depth in the form of true centers.
Drew Gooden had a tremendous season last year and Turkish import Ersan Ilyasova proved to be a star while averaging a double-double in the second half of the year. Ilyasova was one of the best offensive rebounders last season and he also can provide a 3-point touch. The Bucks have a solid bench led by Mike Dunleavy, Beno Udrih and rookie Doron Lamb. The bottom half of the East has lots of potential, but I see the Bucks eking out the last spot.