Boston, Cleveland, and Orlando comprise the top 3 in the East -the order is unsure, but seeing those 3 at the top of the standings in April is a safe bet. Beyond that though, and the East gets murky. James and I conferred, and we came up with some tiers and he has some thoughts on each -why they could be better than the Charlotte Bobcats and why they may not be.
Tier 1: Playoff bound -We believe these teams are most likely to see bonus basketball…but that does not mean there are not flaws.
Why better: This team just has more talent than the Bobcats and after the big three in the east I believe they're on the next tier with Washington. They're deeper after adding Jamal Crawford as a 6th man combo guard type, which is the best position for him. Marvin Williams continues to get better as does Al Horford, although it's clear they're nearing a plateau in their development. Rookie Jeff Teague and veteran Joe Smith were added to provide a solid bench capable of shouldering the burden of an injury or two to the starters. 50 wins is an optimistic but real possibility for this squad.
Why worse: The only way this team would be worse than Charlotte this season is the blowup/turmoil factor but trust me there are plenty ingredients here to make that work. A coach who could be fired in season after a rough start? Check. A starter who the team depends on who has a long history of being at odds with said coach (see Smith, Josh)? Check. A star player who will be a free agent and could use that as leverage to force a trade to a contender for pennies on the dollar (see Johnson, Joe)? Check. A city full of fans with a history for apathy that could turn on the team because they're expectations may be too high expectations thanks to some impressive but somewhat fortunate playoff runs. Check.
Why Better: Everyone is healthy(editor's note -they were when this was written -Sorry, Antawn Jamison). The best case scenario for this team is to gel with one of the most underrated coaches of the last decade, Flip Saunders, and make East's Big 3 a Big 4 steamrolling teams with a devastating offense. They'll need an average defense to do so but with Brendan Haywood patrolling the paint that's possible. More likely is a 45-50 win season with a second round playoff exit. Our swap tool shows about about a 9 win gain with Mike Miller and Randy Foye being major upgrades over Deshawn Stevenson and Mike James respectively so as long as Arenas gives this team 70 games at decent production the Wiz can punch their playoff tickets.
Why Worse: I don't say this as a cop out but injuries. Both Gilbert Arenas and Randy Foye haven't been the picture of health in their NBA careers so it's not out of the question that these guys could both miss extended time which would mean another year of Deshawn Stevenson and Nick Young masquerading as point guards which would make for an ugly offense and a 39 win season. Again if Charlotte finished with a better record than these guys it will be quite a success story here in the Queen City and a likely playoff spot to boot.
And those are the only 2 we feel are near locks for the playoffs…Tier 2 (or Tier 3 after the elite) is up and those are the contenders for the final spots in the playoffs.
Why Better: Dwayne Wade. That is all. The guy is one of the few legit challengers to Lebron for best player in the game status right now and seems fully recovered from the injuries of years past. Also don't sleep on Michael Beasley his per minute numbers were very impressive and if he is committed to being a more mature, professional player a breakout year could be in order. I'm also a fan of Mario Chalmers who was quite a 2nd round steal by the Heat.
Why Worse: Dwayne Wade. Although he's back to 100 percent healthy it only takes one nasty fall to relegate this team to lottery status and given his attacking style of play that remains a possibility. Also if it becomes clear that Wade will not resign with the Heat at any point this season there is a chance for a pennies on the dollar trade so the heat can get some return on the investment albeit with a hit to the coming season's win total.
Why Better: Derrick Rose should make another leap to stardom this season and with the way Brad Miller and John Salmons played after the trade this team could likely challenge for the 5th spot in the east. Luol Deng will be back and should make up for Ben Gordon's loss and Vinny Del Negro has all those rookie head coach mistakes behind him.
Why worse: This team could really take a step back. There were whispers of unhappiness from players about Del Negro and his draconian coaching rules like no eating in the locker room. Over a year later the Del Negro hire still looks really questionable despite their thrilling 7-game series with Boston. There's plenty of data out there that shows Ben Gordon was really valuable to this Bulls team and the way they played and that style may not be as accommodating to Deng.
Why Better: This is basically the same team that gave the eventual Eastern Conference Champs quite a scare in the first round the plays, plus a healthy Elton Brand. They've been to the playoffs the last two years and while there are certainly some question marks this season there is no reason to expect them to miss the postseason.
Why Worse: I don't think Louis Williams is a point guard and our swap tool shows that Philly will be 7 losses worse with him playing Andre Miller's minutes maybe Eddie Jordan's offense can shift plenty of those duties to Andre Iguodala but I think that's not a good use of all his talents despite his point forward abilities. Samuel Dalembert isn't getting any better and I don't think Elton Brand is a good fit for a team without a reliable point guard who can stroke it from deep. Still if Charlotte is to outperform this bunch it will probably be because the Bobcats performed way above expectations, because even if Philly takes a step back at least 35 wins are likely.
Why better: Our swap tool shows Detroit coming out even to slightly ahead in wins replacing Rasheed Wallace and Allen Iverson with Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon respectively. Gordon's efficient offense basically made up for Charlie's subpar defense so even if Detroit doesn't get much better you're still talking about a 40 win team which is pretty close to the best case scenario for Charlotte. Austin Daye is a player and will help their depth and as long as the productive Jason Maxiell sees more time than last season this team is likely in the playoffs.
Why Worse: John Kuester is a first time head coach in the NBA and a few Pistons have a reputation of giving coaches like that a hard time. While Ben Gordon will be okay with being a 50 million dollar 6th man I don't know how Rip will respond with the likely reduction in minutes. Basically this could blow up and be really bad for everyone including Joe Dumars if things don't work out. But the other concern is the Pistons slide back to the back in the defense standings. This team is pretty average defensively now and with Wallace now gone they really don't have a frontcourt defensive ace and Kuester himself is know for his work on offense not defense. I expect a season with 40 wins but if the number slides to 35 I wouldn't be surprised.
Why Better: This could really work. On paper Toronto looks like a devastating offensive team with shooters at every position able to make shots all over the court. Chris Bosh seems to be excited about the season with the team spending 50 million on Hedo Turkoglu. Hedo should make things easier for both Bosh and Bargnani who each are very effective pick and pop players. Reggie Evans and Amir Johnson can provide some toughness off the bench or with sporadic starts. This offense could be both entertaining and deadly effective.
Why Worse: Two words defense and rebounding. Other than Bosh there isn't a player on the starting five that's known for their defense. Two seasons ago with Bosh out the Bobcats set an NBA record by out scoring the Toronto 32-0 in second chance points. Not much has changed from the roster back then to now especially up front and if opposing teams can play volleyball with their misses it could be a long season north of the border. And I hate to mention this but if Bosh starts to sour early there could be an in-season trade since I heard he is a free agent and the word is there are no state taxes in Miami.
Time for the last tier -Tier 3: The lottery locks.
Why Better: Bobcats fans need to be concerned about this team because Scott Skiles can coach and this team looked like a playoff team before Andrew Bogut and Michael Redd went out with injuries and they went off the rails. Our swap tool says the underrated Haik Warrick should be able to make up for Charlie Villanueva's offense and improve on his questionable defense.
Why worse: They have plenty of questions at point guard after letting go of Ramon Session and electing to go with a Brandon Jennings and Roko Ukic combo. While Luke Ridnour might not kill you he misses about 14 games a season so Jennings and Ukic will get plenty of opportunities to frustrate Skiles. While Villanueva has a replacement Richard Jefferson doesn't and handing those minutes to Charlie Bell and Carlos Delfino won't make up the difference.
Why better: Danny Granger became an All-Star and there are areas in his game that he can continue to grow. Bumping his assists up some would help out some of his lesser talented teammates as he draws plenty of attention. TJ Ford can play better than he did last season and with Jarrett Jack gone he really doesn't need to worry about someone else stealing his minutes so if that translates into more team friendly play then that'll make the Pacers better.
Why worse: Not a bunch of offseason moves here. And acquiring Dahntay Jones in place of Marquis Daniels actually make their defense worse according to our player swap tool, while the Earl Watson signing to take Jarrett Jacks minutes downgrades their offense. Also the Pacers have two guys starting off the season hurt with Mike Dunleavy's knee still on the mend and Tyler Hansborough dealing with a shin injury that has him out indefinitely. Not good omens.
New York Knicks
Why better: This season is not about this season, everyone knows that. I don't think Lebron or Wade is coming next season, but if they come it will because of the potential that the current roster shows this season. Danilo Gallinari can really shoot when healthy and his plus/minus numbers are surprisingly positive, Mike D'Antoni can really coach and does Darko Milicic really still have some potential? Maybe.
Why worse: Everyone knows this is a cellar dweller team and it would not surprise anyone if the Knicks had the worst record in the conference, although I think D'Antoni will be able to coach them up enough to avoid that fate. But with trades likely to be a factor this season where the Knicks sell off over-paid talent for an expiring contract and spare parts it's likely that this roster is strip mined over the course of the season for the free agent bonanza of next summer.
New Jersey Nets
Why better: This hodgepodge of talent includes an NBA All-Star, a young and talented Center who could have been the rookie of the year and a few intriguing pieces. Lawrence Frank is a solid coach and he could get these guys to play hard for him. But
Why worse: There is a lot of transition with the Nets, they're in-between a relocation, in-between a sale, and in-between a roster rebuild. Those situations rarely equal a playoff spot or even a record north of 35 wins. This team has worst in the conference written all over it.Click here to comment/view comments for this post.