Late, yes, but as long as I get these out in the open early on, it’s within the margin of prediction/preview error. Division champs have asterisks by them.
1. Boston Celtics* – Losing James Posey as the defensive intensity/bench guy is a tough thing, but this provides an opportunity for young guys like Leon Powe and maybe even Big Baby Davis to step up and fill that role in intensity (if not in actual position.) They’ll still top the East because no one has that collection of talent on the team, and I don’t expect Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, or Ray Allen to slack off. Injuries might be a concern again.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers* – Mo Williams is a good add, they probably need to deal for one more scorer to combat the fact that neither of their power forwards (Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao) do anything offensively, and they’re getting to at least the conference semis with LeBron James. Is this the year the Prince that wants to be King James leads his team back to the Finals, at least? I suspect this is their best shot if they can figure it out offensively. Mike Brown, being of the Gregg Popovich school, is good with getting players to click on the defensive end, but he might need to hire an offensive Tom Thibodeau first.
3. Detroit PIstons – More by default of not necessarily being thrilled about Orlando enough to put them third this year than anything. This team is always solid, but the core of it is getting a year older. The crucial devleopment to watch is how much more of the load Rodney Stuckey will take for Chauncey Billups and whether moving Amir Johnson to the starting line-up pays off — and whether new coach Michael Curry can keep a good bench rotation going.
4. Orlando Magic* – Rashard Lewis paid off for Orlando last year, expanding their O in a way that opened up further opportunities for Dwight Howard down low. After Jameer Nelson, they are very thin at point guard now, and his development (along with Howard’s) isn’t assured. However, it should be good enough to get them back to where they need to be, although they’ll go no further in the playoffs than conference semis.
5. Toronto Raptors – I don’t believe in Jermaine O’Neal’s resurgence — centers don’t get better magically after they are injured repeatedly during their careers, but you can essentially call it a trade of injury for injury by dealing T.J. Ford to Indiana, and it means Jose Calderon will be playing a lot of minutes and starting. I hope O’Neal gets through the season fine and proves me wrong. He deserves a chance to come back.
6. Washington Wizards – The Wizards will play well enough to get a six spot with Gilbert Arenas out until December, but will flake out in the first round, as usual. It’s a shame, because Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison are really, really good together and should be better with Agent Zero, but that isn’t the case because Gilbert has to get his shots. If DeShawn Stevenson can keep growing into an option with Arenas out, and maybe, just maybe, they can figure out how to rotate that ball when Arenas returns, they might be a threat.
7. Philadelphia 76ers – I’m sorry, Philly fans. I want to believe in Elton Brand again, but I’m not sure how you just come back off an Achilles injury, and that acquisition alone isn’t enough to make you an Eastern Conference power.
8. Milwaukee Bucks – I’m actually bullish on this team when probably no one else is. Luke Ridnour is not really anyone’s idea of a great PG, but having Michael Redd, Richard Jefferson, and Charlie Villanueva there should add up to something that is more than the sum of its parts, although admittedly, more of this pick is about Scott Skiles getting these guys to play defense. If Joe Alexander becomes any sort of help off the bench in his rookie season (rumors are he’s already in Skiles’ doghouse), they could be good down the road. (I’m willing to admit to being completely wrong on this.)
9. Chicago Bulls – Probably more for what’s below them at this point than anything Vinny Del Negro can get out of this team as coach. Derrick Rose will be a good one, and maybe Tyrus Thomas is set to finally make that leap into a solid double-double player down the line, but there’s still not enough in the low post with this team to be much more than an under-500 playoff team if they can sneak into the eight spot.
10. Indiana Pacers – Having a legitimate point guard, albeit a frequently injured one in T.J. Ford, should help.
11. Miami Heat – They’re not making the playoffs, but they’ll look much better this year with Dwyane Wade healthy. When Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley develop, they’ll have something to build on.
12. Atlanta Hawks – Their bench is now way too thin after Josh Childress went to Greece. Expect Mike Bibby to get traded again in a salary dump and Mike Woodson to be fired as soon as it’s clear they’re not sneaking in as an 8 seed again.
13. New York Knicks – It’s going to take a lot of work for Seven Seconds or Less to work in the Garden, and this year will be spent getting the kinks out.
14. Charlotte Bobcats – This team is a mess. Combine a GM/prez in Michael Jordan who does not seem to give a shit with a coach in Larry Brown who has trouble with young talent, and this could end badly. Drafting D.J. Augustin instead of Brook Lopez still seems ridiculous.
15. New Jersey Nets – The offense now has to rotate around Devin Harris and worry about whether Vince Carter may do his annual disappearing act in an obvious rebuilding/save up money to try and lure LeBron year.
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