Handicapping the New East

The Celtics made the big splash, but there are plenty of teams that looked around the Eastern Conference this offseason and said: You know what? If we spend a little money, we just might be able to win this thing.

And we end up with a situation where it will not be possible for all of the promising teams to even make the playoffs. Consider that there are eight playoff spots and:

  • The Bulls are a very strong team, returning a lot of young talent. They are my pick to win the East.

  • The Pistons remain a perennial Eastern powerhouse.

  • The Cavaliers are the defending conference champions, and although they haven't done much to improve so far this off-season, it's not like they're about to miss the playoffs.

  • The Celtics now have three big-time players and are the talk of the league.

  • The Nets have Jason Kidd in his prime, Vince Carter, some new youth, and most importantly a returning Nenad Krstic.

  • Toronto was one of the most improved teams last year when all of their bits and pieces were brand new together. You mean to tell me Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani and the like won't be improving?

  • The Heat are NBA champions who were injured most of last season. If they can be healthy for long stretches of this season, they're many people's pick to win the whole conference.

Just pause right there for a minute. That's seven teams that I anticipate will make the Eastern playoffs. Which leaves one spot to be fought over by everyone else. At least half of these genuinely expect to make the playoffs, too, so there is sure to be disappointment:

  • Despite suspect defense, Washington was one of the best teams in the East last year before one of the worst strings of injuries you can imagine. And this is a contract year for Gilbert Arenas. Watch out.

  • Orlando has a new coach, the best young big man in the East, and now Rashard Lewis too.

  • Charlotte has too many good players to be bad forever, and Gerald Wallace, Jason Richardson, and Raymond Felton are three of the best perimeter players in the conference.

  • The Knicks scare a lot of people with a very big pair of scorers to go with some young talent.

  • Andre Miller is one of the best point guards in the NBA. That means a lot. Playing with Andre Iguodala, Miller led Philadelphia to more than their fair share of games for after the Allen Iverson trade -- taking the Sixers out of the cellar in the second half of last season. I wouldn't count them out.

  • Fans in Milwaukee will tell you that if they had been healthy they would have been much better last year. Maybe they're right!

  • Indiana has a new coach and a new attitude, and still has Jermaine O'Neal.

  • Atlanta has all kinds of promising young players.

So, who will make the playoffs? Who will win the conference? Who will stand out?

UPDATE: A bunch of ESPN experts weigh in.

I put a bunch of those kinds of questions to a bunch of bloggers, journalists, insiders, and lovers of the game. Here's some of what they said.

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo columnist Dan Wetzel objected to a question about which teams would squeak into the playoffs. "Asking who's eighth in the East," he points out, "is kind of like asking which side of Adam Morrison's mustache is thicker." (It's close, but I'll go with Morrison's right, for the record.)

Wetzel says that if they're healthy the Heat are his pick to emerge from the East. "No one has an answer for Wade and Shaq. And Alonzo has promised to 'verbally motivate' everyone all season, which would seem likely to work." For that reason alone, Wetzel adds that if Shaquille O'Neal shows up to camp in great shape, Mourning deserves MVP consideration.

Tony Gervino
Former editor in chief of SLAM, HOOP, and Inside Stuff, New York-based Tony Gervino is undeniably a Knicks fan. But all the same, he has a point when he says the Knicks might be the second most improved team in the East (behind Boston): "Zach Randolph, Randolph Morris, Demetris Nichols, and Wilson Chandler have great size and skill and the latter three seem to be willing to play some D. David Lee is back. And, lo and behold, Renaldo Balkman is turning into Ron Artest without the drama."

Sherman Alexie
Author Sherman Alexie emailed thoughts about every Eastern team. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Miami: Shaq will not make it through the year, retiring due to depression caused by the loss of Kapono.

  • Boston: KG will be Eastern Conference MVP, and the GAP trio will all average 20 or more, but will lose a collective 35 games to injury, though the team will limp to an 7th or 8th place finish, and will upset whomever they play in the first round, only to lose in the second round.

  • New York: When was the last time a team had two guys average 20 and 10? And yet be the two worst players on the team? Meanwhile, David Lee and Renaldo Balkman dream of their impending free agency.

  • Milwaukee: Sometime during the season, Bogut expresses admiration for the non-materialistic, simplistic, and communist ideals of Yi, after which the Bucks have the Famous Communist Genocidal Dictators Bobblehead Night, featuring Mao, Castro, Stalin, and Bill Laimbeer.

  • Charlotte: Adam Morrison will be the 12th man by December, and will be playing in Italy 16 months later, but will make a triumphant comeback in 2013 when he leads his team (featuring Blake Steppe, Josh Heyfeldt, and a Stockton to be named later) to the championship at Spokane's 3-on-3 tournament (the largest in the world, baby!).

The Big Lead
The Big Lead blogger, who describes himself as "Stubbornly Uncorrupted and Unbeholden" says: "If LeBron James were using emoticons, it'd be a series of sad faces. The Celtics overhaul the squad and add two Olympians while not losing their best player, the Knicks add one of the best power forwards in the league, Orlando improved and so did New Jersey. The East got significantly stronger, and the best team in the East didn't do a damn thing."

Dan Shanoff
I love it when people introduce bloggers. "Will from Deadspin! Kurt from Forum Blue and Gold! And Dan Shanoff from ... Dan Shanoff!" Yes, that Dan Shanoff says there are now no Eastern Conference spots up for grabs. "With this move, the Celtics lock up what was the lone unaccounted 2008 playoff spot in the East: "Miami, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto, Washington, New Jersey, and Boston (not in that order). Boston will be the East's most improved, obviously, but everyone is sleeping on the Wizards, a few key injuries away from earning a top two playoff seed in the East last year." And Shanoff adds that LeBron James has no shot at being the MVP of his conference, even: "East MVP is a stone-cold lock: KG"

The Painted Area
The Painted Area is one of the smartest basketball blogs out there, and Jay Aych is a big part of the reason why, He says that Boston, New Jersey, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit are the five teams sure to make the playoffs in the East. After that he's interested in Miami but not at all convinced about the team's health. Assuming Miami makes it though, leaves two spots. "They can be had by anyone else (besides the Sixers, who should be challenging the TWolves for most ping-pong balls next May). I'm leaning toward the Wizards & the Raptors for the last two spots right now, but think the Knicks, Bobcats, Pacers, and Magic have a real chance. Even the Hawks have a slim shot in my mind. Not that high on the Bucks, but can't totally count them out of a eight-seed, and think they h
ave a slim chance. I also think Charlotte has done a very fine job this off-season upgrading their wing spots, and with the natural maturation of Felton, Okafor, Herrmann, May (if he can stay healthy) and Morrison, they could sneak in to the playoffs.

Unsilent Majority
DC-based, and a big believer in the power of Wizards, the blogger who helped to found the famous Kissing Suzy Kolber (and is now a weekend contributor to Deadspin) would like us to remember that the Wizards are good: "Let's try not to forget that the Wizards sat atop the conference before their string of devastating injuries. Now they've added three promising young players. ... The East has improved considerably from top to bottom but like last year it lacks a top title contender. The Celtics will certainly contend within the conference but just think how much better the team would look if they had traded for a point guard instead of Ray Allen. Rondo and Pruitt are both promising young guards but I'm not sure they can offer support enough support for the three stars. The Celtics are merely a poorly coached team with no point guard and no bench. They'll win a fair share of their 82 regular-season games, but the big three is going to need a nap come playoff time. Boston, Washington, Detroit, Miami, Toronto, Chicago, Cleveland, and New Jersey (tough break Orlando) will make the playoffs (not in that order). If healthy Miami will beat Washington in the Conference Finals."

The blogger known as "The Cavalier" is, not surprisingly, a fan of the Cavaliers, and writes: "Based on the amount of time it seems like LeBron is putting in on his midrange and post game this summer, you can't pick the Cavaliers. Based on how much time I wish LeBron was putting in on his midrange and post game this summer, you would have to pick the Cavaliers." He refuses to pick Boston to win the conference, just on principle.

J.E. Skeets
The hilarious blogger and podcaster of The Basketball Jones, and Deadspin Weekends, writes: "I've peered deep into my crystal ball, analyzed left-over coffee grounds, and even had Sylvester Stallone's mother read the lines, crevices and pimples on my backside ... it's about time to predict the Eastern Conference, folks! Who makes the playoffs? Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, and Boston are locks. Miami, though they'll still sneak into the playoffs, won't even be the best team in Florida. Simply put: '06-07 Magic + Rashard Lewis - Brian Hill (!) = approximately 10 more wins. Yes, I think Orlando will win 50 games this year. Book it. And barring injuries to their Big Three/Four, I'll take Washington and New Jersey to round out the top eight. Who wins the conference finals? Chicago over Detroit in six."

Elie Seckbach
"The Embedded NBA Correspondent," and legend of YouTube writes: "For Boston, having Garnett join their team is like white smoke over the Vatican. It's a brand new dawn. Boston ended last season with one foot out the door the other on a banana peel, and now they are hotter than David Beckham. My playoff prediction: Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Miami, Toronto, Chicago, Washington, and New Jersey. I especially like the moves Toronto have made in the off season, not to mention the fact they came into the playoffs limping (No Jorge Garbajosa) and still had a nice run. If they jell, they'll give Phoenix a run for their money as the best European Team in the NBA."

Matt Bernhardt
When I started TrueHoop, Matt's Bulls Blog, now called BlogaBull, was the big dog of basketball blogging. Way ahead of his time. Very smart guy who loves him some Bulls. He writes: "I think the Bulls are the best team in the East. In the coming regular season, anyway. They were the best in the East last season in terms of point differential, and the two big frontcourt additions of Joe Smith and Joakim Noah should make them better. I also think they'll be less prone to yet another circus trip stumble, with much fewer new players to break in to Skiles-ball (no headbands and lots of kneescrapes and fist pumps, basically). And as I said before last season, they're suited to win a bunch of games just by being deep and relentless. It got them to 49 wins last year even after some bad luck (yes, I'll bang that point differential drum as much as I can), I don't see why they can't be in the mid-50s and take the #1 seed. That's not what it's all about though, obviously. Regardless of a potentially gaudy record, are they better than Detroit, Cleveland, and now Boston? Even Miami or New Jersey?
Eh, I don't know. But the good thing is that since most of this team is young, none of us really know. Every year Skiles has coached this team, his players and teams have progressed as the season goes along. I look on paper now and foresee a lot of regular season success, but it's that progression that can enable them to win the conference"

The very funny site that brought you the tattoo for your basketball (in yesterday's bullets) adds: "The playoff teams are Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, New Jersey, Toronto, and Washington. You'll notice that, for the most part, these are the teams whose core players have been together the longest. After all, consistency usually = winning. These picks are, of course, contingent on key players remaining healthy, Dwyane Wade and Gilbert Arenas each making a full recovery, Shaq choosing to play more than half the season, and Vince Carter not wimping out now that he's got a new big-money contract. The Celtics, thanks to the additions of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, will improve the most. The Bucks and Magic will fight a losing battle for the final playoff spot. The Bobcats, Hawks, and Sixers will surprise some people. The Knicks will continue to disappoint, much to chagrin of their fans and the delight of everybody else. There's going to be very little separating the top eight teams. Any of them could advance, although my heart says Chicago and my brain says Detroit for the Eastern Conference Finals, with the Pistons moving on. Of course, Cleveland, Miami, and yes, even Boston all have a legitimate shot at reaching the promised land. Wait, Boston's still coached by Doc Rivers, right? Okay, scratch them."

Brian Windhorst
The Cavaliers beat writer from the Akron Beacon-Journal writes: "Boston has great upside, but why is it assumed they will be better than the Nets and Wizards? Those teams have three have three stars in their starting lineups, too. Plus they have been together longer. The Celtics have great promise, no doubt, but so do others. You'd like to say the Magic will make the playoffs after they spent all that money, but it's unclear how much better they will be. The Bobcats have added and kept some good pieces and they are due for some injury luck. I think it is a mistake to put New Jersey in the also ran category. They have three stars and an above average big man in Nenad Kristic coming back. They are one of the four or five best defensive teams in the conference as well. They played very well at the end of the season and in the playoffs, yet seemed to get very little credit for it. They have also taken steps to improve their rebounding and shot blocking by adding Jamaal Magliore and Sean Williams. They simply have a more complete team than the Celtics, more firepower than the Raptors, more stability and sensibility than the Knicks and overall more talent than the 76ers. You could make a case if they stay healthy that they could win that division. And the two best players in the conference are Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, but if you're looking for MVP candidates it is more fun to talk about the darkhorses: Andre Iguodala and Gerald Wallace. Both are so good and, seemingly, so overlooked. But neither of their teams will make the playoffs, so they can't win it.

Bethlehem Shoals of FreeDarko and FanHouse fame writes: "I would be shocked and stripped bare if the Wizards didn't make the playoffs, especially with all of them trying to decide if they can really mean it there. For that other spot, I'm going with the Bobcats. Getting Richardson gives them that lead scorer Morrison wasn't, and a competent coach will help. But more importantly, that core group probably has to gel at some point, right? If today's Eastern Conference allowed the Bulls to ascend, there's no reason that this more talented Charlotte roster can't squeak into the postseason. Or I can put it another way: Rashard Lewis is not that good, Vince Carter doesn't complete Jason Kidd, and the Knicks would have more chemistry if they ran an offense based on Marco Polo. The game, or the adventurer."

Forum Blue and Gold
Kurt from the influential Laker Blog Forum Blue and Gold says that Luol Deng will be the East's leading MVP candidate this season, and adds: "Are we sold on Miami? I guess it depends on: 1) How focused on getting in shape Shaq decides to be this offseason; 2) How fast Dwayne Wade heals. They lost a good outside shooter in Kapono and replaced him with the moody and streaky Smush Parker. They may well make the playoffs just because the big two, even if they are together for just part of the season. But I wouldn't bet much on it. And what about the Magic? They have the growing and improving Howard and they add a guy who will bring a lot of offense in Rashard Lewis (who I think people are seriously underrating -- yes, the contract was overpaying but the guy is 6-10, shot 39% from beyond the arc last season and averaged 22 and 6 against the power forwards in the West last season, he'll do well). They need that offensive boost, and new coach Stan Van Gundy will get them playing even better defense. Not a contender, but they will take a step forward."

Jason Gurney, founder of the very cool and busy Web 2.0 basketball blogging community BallHype, writes:

I'm more excited for the Eastern Conference next year than I have been in years, not necessarily because the overall quality of play will be higher, but because many of the teams will be fun to watch:
- Boston's Medium Three: Tommy Heinsohn will be a joy on League Pass.
- Flight brothers: J-Rich and Gerald Wallace together in North Carolina.
- Z-Bo and Eddy Curry: giving up at least as many points as they pour in.
- Back in the U.S.: Bogut will be lucky to see the ball.
- Jim O'Brien picking up the pace in Indiana (note 5 mentions of tempo in this 10-question chat).

Must make playoffs or heads will roll: Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit
Should make playoffs: Toronto, Washington
Expecting to make playoffs but probably won't: New Jersey, Miami, Orlando
Would be happy to make playoffs: Charlotte, Indiana, Philly, Atlanta
Hard to imagine making playoffs: Milwaukee
The only thing we know for sure is that they'll have the highest payroll again: New York

Talking music or basketball, blogger Joey runs a tight ship. He is not ready to hand the conference to Boston yet: "If Allen spreads the floor while Pierce slashes and gets to the line and Garnett does his Garnett stuff (wing jumpers, post spins, passing from the high post), they'll score in the halfcourt, and most teams can't defend three scorers. Plus, Pierce can be a good-enough defender when he's trying, Garnett can play that one-man zone Flip used to have him playing in Minnesota or match up with a big man like Jermaine O'Neal (though not an Eddy Curry or Shaquille O'Neal), and they'll get defensive intensity from Rondo and Tony Allen. They seem like they'll be a competent defensive team, at least among the top five players. But ... they don't have a shot blocker to protect the paint; they don't have consistent outside shooting beyond Ray Allen; they don't have a point guard who has proven that he can run an offense; they don't have much quality depth up front; and they haven't played together. That's a lot of questions. Meanwhile, Detroit, though not what it once was, has a roster that can guard the Celtics and will be adding some new pieces that should make it a little deeper; Chicago has so many guys and so many prospective lineups that some permutation would likely be able to play with three all-stars and a bunch of also-rans; Cleveland has LeBron and the referees; Miami has Shaq, Wade, and the referees, although everyone else on the Heat seemed worn out by the end of last year; and Washington has a similar nucleus to Boston's. So the Celtics seem like a clear contender, but I don't think they're gonna destroy the whole conference to the tune of 72-10. Especially not if KG's knee flares up or Ray Ray goes down again."

Jeff Clark iof CelticsBlog has a Celtic shamrock tattooed on his soul, and writes: "For one thing, the so-called 'Titanic' Division is gone. Or as Will Smith might say, 'Old n' Busted' just became 'New Sweetness.' Of course, the Celtics just added KG and Allen, but don't discount the effect Zach could have on Zeke's squad. Toronto is solid and improving, and New Jersey still has Jason Kidd. And who says the dealing is done? Boston not only needs to fill in the gaps left by the all-in gamble, but they also just turned up the heat on everyone else too. Think Cleveland can bear to stand pat now? I think that Bibby deal might get done sooner than later. Miami is already looking under every rock to improve its roster. Who knows what could happen if Kobe Bryant forces a trade? There's still fun to be had in the East this offseason."