2. Chicago Bulls- Chi Town is officially back on the basketball map, as evident by their NBA best 62-20 regular season effort in 2011. Reigning Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau will continue to preach defense (second in the league in rebounds and points allowed) and rescuing Rip Hamilton from the barren wasteland that is Detroit is a win-win for everyone. Last year shooting guard was their only weakness, but with Rip's stellar D and a deep bench full of guards like CJ Watson, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and Jimmy Butler, that problem shouldn't slow these raging Bulls down one bit.
3. New York Knicks- The Knicks put up the second most points in the league last year (106.5/gm), but were third worst when it came to points allowed (105.7/gm). Look for that to change after the acquisition of defensive standout, the protector of the paint, Tyson Chandler. The Knicks were able to sign Chandler after using their amnesty clause on Chauncey Billups earlier in the month. The move left them thin in the back court, but they were able to make up for it by adding proven vets like Mike Bibby and Baron Davis as free agency progressed. I'm looking forward to following the first (somewhat) full season of Stoudemire and Melo, and if they gel correctly the Knicks could own one of the most dominate inside-out duo's the league has ever seen.
4. Boston Celtics- Every year I ask myself "Is this going to be the year Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett finally start to show their age and wear down?" and each year they prove me wrong. Well this time around that might change for one of the two. The Celtics hit a stretch in early April where they play 7 games in 9 days and I think that could be the final straw that breaks KG's back (or knee). Allen's stroke isn't going away anytime soon, and anytime Paul Pierce suits up for your team he immediately puts you in a position to compete. If Rondo can put his ego in the backseat and forgive management for shopping him around for Chris Paul then there's no reason to believe the C's won't play .600 basketball. However with Jeff Green leaving to have surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm in his heart, the Celt's bench will be paper thin. Not a good sign, especially in a shortened season where youth and fresh legs are going to pay huge dividends.
5. Orlando Magic- The Magic coming in at fifth in the East is strictly contingent upon the fact that Dwight Howard will be playing this season out in the O-Town. They aren't going to trade him before the All-Star break because they're hosting it this year and that would be a total black eye for the franchise, however a deadline deal is definitely in play to ensure they're not left empty handed come July. They didn't really improve much otherwise this off-season (Big Baby for Brandon Bass = downgrade) but bringing back J-Rich was a decent silver lining for a team on the brink of shambles.
6. Philadelphia 76ers- The Sixers enter the season with a new mascot, however Elton Brand's albatross of a contract remains. They return their top seven scorers from a year ago, and I think Evan Turner is really primed for a breakout season. The #2 pick in 2010 from Ohio State put up decent numbers (8.4 PPG/4.6 RPG) in just nineteen minutes per game off the bench. Look for him to scratch the starting lineup come April. This team is by no means on par with the rest of the conferences elite, however they should be able to feed off of the weaker teams enough to make the playoffs.
7. Milwakee Bucks- The Bucks just missed the post season last year, and had center Andrew Bogut not been plagued by his oft-injured elbow, they would have easily backed in. Brandon Jennings continues to make his presence felt on the offensive end (16+ PPG) but you would like to see him crack the five spot when it comes to assists per game. They were able to acquire Stephen Jackson in a three team draft day deal for Corey Maggette, and rookie Tobias Harris has a bright future ahead of him. With veteran sharp shooter Mike Dunlevey coming their way at a fair price (2 years, 7 mil) to go alongside Carlos Delfino behind the arc, the Bucks will definitely be able to make it rain in 2012.
8. Atlanta Hawks- The Hawks are my choice for "team most likely to self-combust and potentially miss the playoffs". On paper they have more talent than Philly and Milwakee, but do you really trust Kirk Hinrich running the show? Additionally, they lost super-sub Jamal Crawford to free agency and made up for it by signing Tracy McGrady and Jerry Stackhouse, two guards that come May will be a combined 70 YEARS OLD!!! Throw in an unhappy Josh Smith and first year coach Larry Drew could have his hands full in hotlanta.
9. Indiana Pacers- I want to pencil Indiana back into the playoffs, I really do. I.... just.... can't. Yet. They made leaps and bounds last year and added to their core nucleus by signing one of the better 4's in the league, David West, this off season. The Pacers are a gritty team and for the first time in years they are absolutely loaded with young talent. Hibbert/Hansbrough/West/Granger/George/Hill/Collison is a formidable top 7, and this team may very well be poised to out perform my expectations. And after knocking on the door last year, look for 7'2 center Roy Hibbert to finally crack the 2 block per game club.
10.- New Jersey Nets- The Nets came into this shortened free agent signing period with deep pockets looking to make a big splash that would elevate them to contender status. What they walked away with was Sheldon and Shawne Williams. After several failed offers for Dwight Howard, the best of which being Lopez and 5 first round picks, it looks like the Nets will be spending their last season in New Jersey swimming below the mediocrity line. Surprisingly, they haven't yet made an offer to last years leading rebounding, Kris Humpdashian, but bringing the reality star-turned-divorcee forward back could go a long way in solidifying their front court. However, at some point Prokhorov must lure another big time talent to this organization because if Deron Williams walks this summer, that trade could set their rebuilding process back five years.
11. Charlotte Bobcats- I loved what Charlotte did at the draft this past June, taking the most proven player on the board (Kemba Walker) and balanced it out by rolling the dice on one of the biggest mystery players as well (Bismack Biyombo). After it first appeared that Bismack would have to miss this season due to contractual agreements with his Spanish club team, we have now learned that a buyout took place late last night, meaning the 6'9 big man from the Congo will be good to go come opening day. The Bobcats could be a fun team to keep an eye on this year, but realistically they are still two or three pieces away from contention.
12. Washington Wizards- The Wiz are the closest thing the Eastern Conference has to Lob City (the Clip Show) with last years runner-up Rookie of the Year John Wall running the show. Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and high flying rookie Jan Vesely look to be on the receiving end of many alley-oops from the former Wildcat. Washington is a Rashard Lewis amnesty and big time free agent signing away from competing in the East. Athletically speaking, this team may be tops in the league, but right now they lack the experience and leadership to make their presence felt.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers- We already know that Dan Gilbert is a crazy person, but he's also a lucky son of a gun too. Last season he swung a deal a with the Los Angeles Clippers in which he took on pudgy point guard Baron Davis' joke of a contract and the Blake shows first round pick (for Mo Williams). Despite having just the eighth best odds, that pick turned out to be #1 overall, and the Cavs got their point guard of the future in Kyrie Irving. Fast forward eight months and one brutal lockout and the Cavs were now able to use the previously unavailable amnesty clause on Davis, clearly up nearly fifteen million in cap space. Too bad no free agent in their right mind would willingly chose this franchise, because with two players chosen in the top 5 of last years draft and lots of financial flexibility their future should be bright.
14. Detroit Pistons- To quote the great American scholar Silkey Johnson, what can be said about the Detroit Pistons that hasn't already been said about Afghanistan? The team looks bombed out and depleted. If I were starting my own NBA team, there is not one players contract on this roster with more than two years of professional experience that I would willingly take on. Greg Monroe showed some promise last year, but even with the additions of Brendon Knight and Kyle Singler there is no shot this team sniffs 25 wins.
15. Toronto Raptors- I think it might be time for the Raptors to go the way of Old Yeller. This is a team that allowed over 105 PPG last season and made
Dan is the co-founder and editor in chief at the 2 man weave