Eastern Conference Preview

Joe Johnson took his talents to Brooklyn. How will that affect the Eastern Conference playoff landscape?

8. Milwaukee Bucks: Yeah, I just bounced the 76ers from the playoffs.  I’ve changed my mind on them.  Andrew Bynum just seems off.  He has a grey-haired afro, for one.  His knees hurt again, for another.  Before last season, when Bynum stayed healthy and played 60 out of 66 games, his previous four season totals out of the usual 82 were: 54, 65, 50, 35.  That’s an average of 51 games played and 31 games not played.  With Andre Iguodala in Denver, the Sixers need a production replacement.  Bynum was supposed to be that guy, but he’s out with knee pain and received an injection that was referred to as “routine.”  I’m expecting Bynum to miss at least 30 games of which the Sixers will then lose more than 20.  Doug Collins might get fired, as he tends to do.  Wait a second–I’m supposed to be writing about the Bucks.  The Bucks are what we thought they were: an almost-.500 team that plays beat-em-up halfcourt defense.  I don’t love the Monta trade (why not just let Andrew Bogut get healthy?) but Skiles will at least demand consistent defense from Ellis, which wasn’t happening in Oakland.

Predicted record: 40-42

7. Atlanta Hawks: Joe Johnson was the face of the Atlanta Hawks for the past seven seasons.  “Iso Joe” is known for one-on-one offense and humongous pay checks.  He’s no longer a Hawk, after his trade to Brooklyn.  Hawks fans seem to be happy about this.  They’re happy to lose a a guy who has played in the last six All-Star Games.  Count me out of that group.  I think the Hawks will miss Johnson more than people realize.  The team improved in six of his seven seasons in The ATL and I expect his departure to mean regression in 2013.  They’ve still got talent, no doubt.  Josh Smith and Al Horford can play–either or both of them are candidates to make All-Star, this year.  But a star shooting guard was part of what made the old reliable Hawks competitive and always in the playoffs.  Without him, they’ll be worse.

Predicted record: 44-38

6. Brooklyn Nets: Speaking of Iso Joe, he’s a Net now and you’re not supposed to call him that name anymore.  The Nets have a new arena in a hip new city.  They’ve got a starting backcourt that costs over $40 Million per year.  They’ve got Crash Wallace to provide toughness.  They’ve got Brook Lopez to make sure nobody thinks they’re too tough.  And last but not least, they’ve got K-HUMP!  Brooklyn has a proven winner at point guard, shooting guard and shooting forward.  The questions lie in the frontcourt and whether anybody on that team can guard their own shadow.  The big-picture point with this team is that Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are both RIDICULOUSLY talented players who thrive on the ball or off it.  If they click as a tandem, this prediction might be too low for the Nets.  They should have a solid team.

Predicted record: 45-37

5. Chicago Bulls: I’m assuming that Derrick Rose will be a non-factor here.  Even if he returns (which is not a certainty) it will be late in the season, and he’ll be struggling to get his groove back by playoff time.  Without Rose, the Bulls will be competitive with the league’s best front-line defense.  Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, coached by the great Tom Thibodeau, is an above-average team.  Missing Rose simply means that Chicago can forget about title contending for one year.  His absence is huge, but so is the room to fall from recent 60+ win-pace seasons.

Predicted record: 46-36

4. Boston Celtics: Because the C’s took eventual champion Miami to seven games in the conference finals, it’s easy to forget that they were under .500 after 33 games and looked to be hitting the eventual “blow it up” point that would’ve involved trading Ray Allen and maybe others.  Instead, they turned things around, in part behind the decision to start Avery Bradley at shooting guard; a decision that irked Allen to the point of him leaving for South Beach, accepting less money that what was reportedly offered by Boston.  But the same thing holds true for this team: At some point, they’re going to just be too old.  Kevin Garnett played historically-great defense in last year’s playoffs and he still has plenty of game.  But remember when he came down with that generalized knee pain (read: he’s old and has bad knees) in 2009, costing the C’s a legitimate title defense?  At some point, the 36-year old warrior is going to break.  He’s played almost 46,000 career minutes, and that’s just regular season.  KG played 60 games out of 66 last year.  This year, I bet he plays 60 out of 82.  He’s more important to Boston than its “superstar” point guard, Rajon Rondo.  If KG misses games, the Celtics will struggle.  But they have new firepower with the Jason Terry addition and will certainly be a competitive team in the East.

Predicted record: 50-32

3. New York Knicks: People who write about basketball tend to hate Carmelo Anthony.  It is for that reason, I suspect, that our Twitter timeline includes a steady supply of jabs at the Knicks.  (I should also point out that this team has the best crew of writer-Twitter accounts in the league.  Follow @JPCavan, @netw3rk, and the rest if you aren’t already.)  The vitriol sent Melo’s way in the blogging community stems from what I suspect are three reasons: 1) He’s a scoring specialist, and everybody feels smarter when they’re slighting scorers; 2) His advanced stats aren’t elite–not all of them, anyway; and 3) He has a history of acting like a d-bag (whether it’s the Melodrama leading up to his trade, or his “Stop Snitching” thing).  But last season when Mike Woodson (the architect behind the aforementioned Iso Joe Era in Atlanta) took over for Mike D’Antoni, we saw what everyone knows deep down to be true: Carmelo Anthony is an elite NBA player.  Is he LeBron James?  No, and neither is anyone else.  But he’s a legitimate All-Star scorer whose presence alone makes a team competitive.  Few players fit in that category and when Melo is used correctly (in New York, that has meant as a power forward) he’s a beast.  The Knicks team won’t miss Jeremy Lin, even if the Knicks fans will.  Woody’s .750 winning percentage on the Knicks bench is skewed high due to sample size.  But it showed pretty clear change from Mike D’s below-.500 record; change that will carry over into this upcoming season.  Sure, the Knicks have the league’s All-Time AARP slate of rotation players (Marcus Camby is 38, Jason Kidd is 39, and Kurt Thomas is 40 (!!!) and Rasheed Wallace is 38 going on 50.  Sheed’s conditioning level will be one of the funniest things about this NBA season.)  but their core of Ray Felton, Melo, and Tyson Chandler will be formidable-enough to make this team difficult to beat.  Before moving on, I should also point out that Steve Novak is the best standing shooter that I’ve ever seen.  When they put Melo at the 4 and stick Novak in the corner, you simply pick your poison.

Predicted record: 52-30

2. Indiana Pacers: Indy had the league’s 9th best defense and 7th best offense last season.  They’re a two-way team, not great at anything (or any position) but “good” across the board.  Their 42-24 record from last year is a 52-win pace. Paul George is a PDWolves favorite and has star potential as he continues to expand his offensive arsenal.  He’s already a terror when defending point guards at 6’10”.  The Pacers are not a serious threat to win the East–not unless Chris Bosh gets hurt again, at least.  But they’ll be a really good regular season team.  Frank Vogel is obviously a good coach.  I’m not sure what else to say.  The Pacers are good.

Predicted record:  54-28

1. Miami Heat:  The Heat finishing first in the East is a sure-thing if there ever was one.  That’s because their chief regular season rival, Chicago, is no longer in the conversation with Rose on the shelf.  The only question, then, is how many games they’ll win?  Bill Simmons is on the record predicting a high number–something in the upper-mid 60’s.  I could certainly see that happening, but I’m predicting slightly less, because they rely so heavily upon James and Bosh, and there will be nights when either a) one of them is injured; or b) one of them is really exhausted.  Also, the Heat’s rotation players are old.  Ray Allen, the controversial and prize recruit of the summer, is 37 and battled ankle problems at the end of last season.  Mike Miller looked like his body was falling apart during the Finals, before his Game 5 barrage of treys.  Shane Battier is 34 and appears to have lost a step.  Maybe two.  Udonis Haslem is 32.  You get the idea.  The Heat will be the title favorite all the way through, as they should be.  But the ’96 Bulls don’t need to sweat over their record being in jeopardy.  The Heat will rest as needed and cruise to a 60-win season and number one seed.

Predicted record: 60-22



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