The Eastern Conference Playoff Picture

Cleveland Cavaliers Delonte West (13) goes to the basket and splits the defense of Chicago Bulls defenders Taj Gibson (L), Kirk Hinrich and Joakim Noah (R) during the fourth quarter of Game 2 of their NBA Eastern Conference playoff series in Cleveland, April 19, 2010. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

With the Cavs having lost the unstoppable Delonte West (plus I think some other guy?), how bad will they be? You might be surprised by our take. (Source: Yardbarker.com)

We already examined how much teams improved/regressed during the off-season, but now we’ll talk about how they stack up against each other.  Meaning, we gave Orlando a zero for their summer and the Wizards a +2, but now we’re here to tell you that yes, of course Orlando is still gonna be far better.  For those who haven’t seen those posts on off-season grades, click the following links to see what we had to say about the Northwest, Atlantic, Central, Southeast, Pacific and Southwest Divisions.  Also, we’re only gonna be talking about the regular season here.  So even though we don’t think the Celts will be a top two team record-wise, it doesn’t mean we think they’re incapable of making it through the gauntlet again.  Lastly, some teams will be put in clusters ‘cuz they’ll likely end up with similar records and what does a victory or two here and there matter?

#1 – The Miami Heat

A no-brainer ‘cuz these guys have the most to prove and both Dwayne Wade and LeBron James have shown they can bring it hard consistently every night (okay, maybe not LBJ in the playoffs, but he’s sterling during the regular season).  Do I think they’ll make it out of the Eastern Conference come playoff time?  Who knows at this point?  People have worried that there won’t be a clear top dog or that these guys won’t be able to blend together, but I doubt those will be issues.  Their true one big weakness will be defending bigs, which is the strength of their top two rivals, Boston & Orlando.  People use the Celts as an example for how a super trio can turn everything around and win a ring in one season, but it’s not a perfect analogy.  While this new trio is perhaps even better, they don’t have the same level supporting cast.  Kendrick Perkins is arguably the best big defender in the league, while Rajon Rondo has shown himself to be an All-Star in his own right.  Plus, that first year they won it all, they needed big time contributions from vet players like James Posey and PJ Brown.  The Heat will win a championship, but it might not be this year.  But expect them to run away with the regular season.

#2 – Orlando Magic

Expect them to be more motivated than ever after being easily dismissed by the Celts.  They won’t catch the Heat in wins, but no one else in the East (or West) should catch up to them for second.

#3 – Chicago Bulls

With new coach Tom Thibodeau, plus players Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer & Kurt Thomas, not to mention the improving (or newly found?) jumpshot of Derrick Rose, and this team should take a big leap in the standings.

#4 – Boston Celtics

Last season proved to them that the regular season ain’t too important and that the focus needs to be on not overtaxing the players.  Expect the same again, but this time don’t be surprised if they upset the #1 seed in the second round one mo’ time.

#5 – Atlanta Hawks

A week ago they might’ve been #3, but word has come out that Jamal Crawford is bitter that he’s not being offered an extension after all the dough that was showered on Joe Johnson.  As a result, there’s even now been rumors that he wants to be traded if he can’t get the extension.  With management seeming unlikely to pony up the money now, that seems like bad locker room mojo.  Since they haven’t really added anything new to this team, expect that dissonance to cause a drop in wins.

#6 – Milwaukee Bucks

They could jump as high as fourth, but sadly that depends mostly on whether their two stars, Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut, are able to bring their games to the next level, NOT on all the players they paid big bucks for over the summer.

#7-10 – New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards

Expect the last two playoff participants to come from this foursome, with my money on the first two (yeah, yeah, I realize I’m biased when it comes to the Knicks).  People are seriously underestimating the Cavs for this upcoming season.  These are players who have gotten very good at winning, which is a skill that can be more important than technical know-how or athleticism (see Fisher, Derek).  When Jordan retired for the first time, the Bulls were still pretty darn good ‘cuz they had excellence ingrained in them (okay, and they had Pippen).  I don’t think the Cavs will be an elite team or anything, but they should easily be in the race for one of the bottom playoff spots.  Likewise, many people have written off the Pistons, but they suffered through an insane amount of injuries last season.  The Wizards, besides adding John Wall and Kirk Hinrich, will have a Gilbert Arenas who’s had an additional year to recovery from his injuries, plus adding a potentially healthy Josh Howard.  If JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche can continue with their growth, this team could have a huge about-face.

#11-15 – Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Bobcats, New Jersey Nets, Philadelphia Sixers, Toronto Raptors

Expect decent improvement from both the Nets and Sixers that could even keep them near the playoff picture for a chunk of the season.  The Raptors struggled mightily without Chris Bosh last season, so it’s reasonable to assume that’ll continue.  They already have point guard controversy with Jarret Jack now potentially unseating Jose Calderon, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this team ends up being the worst in the East.  The Pacers’ future looks good with new addition Darren Collison, but since they’re so thin at power forward, the loss of Troy Murphy could keep them at the same level for this season.  Plus their star, Danny Granger, has shown an inability to make it through a season healthy.  The Bobcats lost two starters in Ray Felton and Tyson Chandler, which should cause them to take a big step back.  Although if they can get something of worth for Eric Dampier’s unguaranteed contract that could change things.  If not, they’ll cut him, and while he could re-sign with them on the cheap, it’d seem a much smarter move for him to do so with Miami.

For our Western Conference Playoff picture, click here.

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Tags: Andrew Bogut Atlanta Hawks Boston Celtics Brandon Jennings Carlos Boozer Charlotte Bobcats Chicago Bulls Chris Bosh Cleveland Cavaliers Derrick Rose Detroit Pistons Dwayne Wade Eastern Conference Gilbert Arenas Indiana Pacers Jamal Crawford Joe Johnson John Wall LeBron James Miami Heat Milwaukee Bucks New Jersey Nets New York Knicks Orlando Magic Philadelphia Sixers Raymond Felton Tom Thibodeau Toronto Raptors Washington Wizards

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