Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in Boston. Zach Randolph in New York. Rashard Lewis in Orlando. Say what you want about the weak Eastern Conference, but it has definitely improved this summer. So, has the balance of power shifted in the East? Our experts chime in with their early thoughts:
1. Does the addition of KG and Ray Allen make the Celtics a postseason lock?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Yes, which is really just a comment on the weak Eastern Conference. Rajon Rondo might prove me wrong, but I think they're a bona fide point guard away from being a truly important team. I assume Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Cleveland, Miami, Toronto, and probably New Jersey will make the postseason, barring injury or unpredictable bizarreness.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: I hesitate to use the word "lock" because injuries can ravage almost any team out of the blue, especially one as thin as the Celts. But under reasonable scenarios, yes, they're a lock.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: C'mon. They're a lock for 50-plus wins and my favorites to win the East. I know a lot of folks are comparing this trio to the ill-fated Atlanta triumvirate in the late 1980s (Dominique Wilkins, Moses Malone and Reggie Theus) or Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen in Houston. But those comparisons overlook the fact that the East of today is insanely weak.
David Thorpe, Scouts Inc.: Lock? No, they are now so thin that any injury to one of the big three spells doom. It is more than likely that they make it in, but far from definite unless a few more additions are made.
Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine: In a conference where one All-Star can get you to the Finals, having 2 1/2 certainly assures a playoff berth and a shot at the Finals.
2. Any particular player(s) you think the Celtics should target to fill the roster?
Abbott: It's tough because they are over the cap, can't be in the mood to move a lot of draft picks, and need someone who is ready to win now. They'll have to gamble on someone else's rejects. I'm sure they're looking at all kinds of free agents who have been playing in Europe, the CBA and the D-League.
Hollinger: Wang Zhizhi. Don't laugh. The C's need minimum wage guys who can make open shots. Wang has shot 38.5 percent on 3s for his career and averages nearly a point every two minutes. I really don't understand why he's not in the NBA, and he'd be perfect on this team.
Stein: Everything I'm hearing suggests that the Celtics are targeting only minimum-salary guys at this stage because KG, Allen and Pierce will cost more than $56 million alone. So they probably can't get Brevin Knight or any of the top remaining free agents.
Thorpe: I like Sarunas Jasikevicius from a personnel standpoint. He is a born leader who excels at passing and shooting (and winning).
Bucher: It's a little late in the game for finding a veteran point guard, which they desperately need, but both Austin Croshere and P.J. Brown would help fill out the front line and can contribute without needing touches -- which will be in short supply.
3. Does the addition of Zach Randolph make the Knicks a postseason lock?
Abbott: If I'm right that Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Cleveland, Miami, Toronto, and probably New Jersey will make the playoffs, then there's one spot left. The Knicks may well take it, but they're not a lock for anything. Practically every player on the roster needs the ball to be effective. I hope it'll work out, but I wouldn't count on it. And they'll have to beat out Orlando, Washington, Philadelphia and everyone else.
Hollinger: Not with that defense, no. The only lock here is that the Knicks will be a bottom-five defensive team with that Curry/Randolph frontcourt. Maybe they sneak in and maybe they don't.
Stein: Even though I thought trading for Zach was a worthy risk for Isiah Thomas, if his owner is willing to take on the added expense, I have to see how Randolph and Eddy Curry co-exist before I buy all the way in. I know Zach can step out and hit jumpers, but I still have doubts about how those two divvy up the offensive touches on top of their shared defensive shortcomings.
Thorpe: No. We still need to see how Eddy Curry does when the offense does not revolve around him. And they will struggle to defend people inside. Toronto, Orlando, New Jersey, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Boston are all better on paper, leaving just one spot. And Charlotte plus the Hawks will be improved, too.
Bucher: It makes them a lock for the most volatile chemistry experiment, on and off the court. I'm most interested to see how the league determines who to suspend if an altercation occurs between teammates and someone leaves the bench area.
4. Does the addition of Rashard Lewis make the Magic a postseason lock?
Abbott: Like Boston, I feel the Magic need a top-flight point guard before they can be considered a reliable top Eastern team. And again, I'm feeling that barring a surprise there aren't a lot of Eastern spots up for grabs.
Hollinger: Again, not so fast. The Magic lost nearly as much as they gained between Hill, Darko and Diener, and their neighborhood just got tougher.
Stein: A lock, yes. Just because Lewis is way -- W-A-Y -- overpaid doesn't mean I don't like the idea of pairing Rashard with Dwight Howard. As long as we're only talking about finishing in the top eight, sure. Howard and Lewis aren't enough to lift Orlando to contender status, but those two get you in the playoffs in spite of some obvious holes around them.
Thorpe: Barring injury, probably yes. Especially with the new coach. They can play big or small effectively, and Dwight Howard should only keep growing as a player. Jameer Nelson is obviously a key, as is getting production from J.J. Redick. I like both to have better seasons this year.
Bucher: No lock, but I like their chances, as much because they hired Stan Van Gundy as having added Lewis to a team that squeaked into the playoffs last year. Boston is the only certifiable lottery team from last year joining the playoff mix and with the Wizards still a mixed bag and huge question marks about Miami, the Magic have as good a shot as they did last year. Which was good enough.
5. Besides the Celtics, which '07 East lottery team has the best shot of making the playoffs next season?
Abbott: New York is a big possibility, but I wouldn't count out the Sixers. Mismanaged as they may be, they have Andre Miller, and he's really something.
Hollinger: Don't sleep on Charlotte. They were wracked by injuries last season and still won 33 games; with the addition of Jason Richardson to the Wallace-Okafor-May-Felton nucleus, they could break into the top eight.
Stein: New York has upgraded and so has plucky Charlotte. Milwaukee, if healthy, will be in the mix for No. 8, too. The hard part is coming up with teams to bounce out of last season's top eight.
Thorpe: I like Charlotte. Richardson and Wallace on the wings is a great combination, and I think Felton is ready to make serious strides. If May can stay healthy then their chances are solid.
Bucher: Atlanta makes the most sense on paper, but until its ownership situation is cleared up, it's Philadelphia. They were a .500 team after the Iverson trade and .500 is good enough to make the playoffs in the East. Late-season performances by teams whose fate is sealed can be wildly misleading, but I like their chemistry and how their talent meshes more than I like the Knicks'.
6. If the Celtics make the playoffs, which '07 East playoff team most likely will not make the playoffs next season?
Abbott: Gilbert Arenas could be the guy left standing at the altar, which would be especially troublesome for the Wizards, as he will be heading into free agency.
Hollinger: One of the Florida teams. Be great to see Stan Van Gundy and Pat Riley slugging it out for the 8 seed on
the last day of the season; let's hope the schedule-makers come through.
Stein: The team that's about to be wracked with injuries but doesn't know it yet.
Thorpe: The Heat are in trouble. Ironically, they are beginning to look like the South Beach Lakers with maybe the best all-around player on the planet in Dwyane Wade, and little else beyond a few solid role players. It's no longer a question of "if Shaq can stay healthy," but "how many games will he miss?" Even if Wade can stay healthy all season, it may not be enough.
Bucher: Miami. It's hard to imagine Shaq and a healthy Wade not in the playoffs, but Shaq couldn't prevent a first-round sweep or attract any quality free agents and Wade's return is up in the air. And if it comes down to a battle between Orlando and Miami, I like the karmic and revenge-inspired motivation SVG brings to the table.
7. Which East team will have the best-regular season record?
Abbott: I'll guess Chicago, because they play hard, effective defense and have great young players coming into their prime.
Hollinger: I'll go with Chicago by a nose over Cleveland and Detroit right now, although with the caveat that I haven't done all my prognostication homework yet.
Stein: Cleveland and Chicago will be a year older and thus theoretically more consistent during the regular season. I see Detroit as a bit of a sleeper because the Pistons' kids (Jason Maxiell, Rodney Stuckey, Amir Johnson and Cheikh Samb) are underrated and will pump some life into a team that still has a strong core. But I can't deny it: I've got Celtics Fever.
Thorpe: The Bulls should hit the ground running and will be a solid threat to be the East's best team. Luol Deng has jumped up to a new level, and the addition of an energetic Joakim Noah should help the bench.
Bucher: Cavs. Getting to the Finals is an intangible boost to a team's ability to execute under pressure during the regular season. That has to be worth four wins even if LeBron the Entertainer has another slow start. Darkhorse: Toronto.
8. Which team will represent the East in the NBA Finals?
Abbott: I'd rather pick this in a few months when we see the rosters settle down, but I'd guess the Bulls. They have been playing together for awhile, they are built for the playoffs, they got a taste of success last year and want more. ... Plus, I'm a big fan of Luol Deng. I think he's only going to get better, and could become the reliable scorer they have lacked.
Hollinger: As much as I'd love to spend a week in Boston in June, I'm not banking on it. Chicago and Cleveland are
deeper and defend better, and that will put one of them over the top.
Stein: There are probably 12 or 13 teams that have legit playoff aspirations in the conference, but my fever is such that I just don't think KG, Allen and Pierce need a lot around them to get to the Finals in this East. As LeBron James just proved.
Thorpe: At this point, I like Chicago. Had Detroit not peaked against them and knocked them out, the Bulls could have made the Finals last season. That experience, along with the improved play of Tyrus Thomas and the emergence of a superstar in Deng should add up to home-court advantage throughout the Eastern playoffs and a Finals appearance.
Bucher: Seeing as every team still has the same flaws it had last season, the Cavs are the easy answer -- except that last year's red-carpet path can't possibly be duplicated. If recent history has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected from the East, so I'll go with my darkhorse: Toronto.
9. Has the balance of power in the NBA shifted East?
Abbott: No. The teams that are a threat to win the title are still concentrated in the West. If Miami figures out a post-Shaq plan that could change things, and Chicago likely will win a title at some point. Toronto is on the right track. But whatever greatness is in Detroit and Boston now won't be around all that long, and at some point the Greg Oden and Kevin Durant effect will kick in. Not to mention, I think the biggest reason the West has been strong is that they have some well-run teams, and that's not changing.
Hollinger: Good heavens, no. Forget the Spurs, Mavs and Suns -- find me a team in the East that could even beat Utah. The best team in that conference is still a No. 7 seed out West.
Stein:: Let's not start with the balance-of-power questions. The West is still best by a fair distance. But the East desperately -- desperately -- needed a player of Garnett's stature to switch conferences. Allen, Rashard Lewis, Zach Randolph ... they all help, too.
Thorpe: Not at all. The West's Final 4 from last season would all be favorites to win the East. And I'll take Portland's and Seattle's future over almost any Eastern team.
Bucher: No and No.