Yesterday was the Western Conference. Today, the Eastern Conference has a chance to show off who the best of the best really is. It has been a very interesting off-season in the East, with guys switching to different teams within the conference (I heard LeBron left Cleveland?), and a couple of big guns (Stoudemire, Boozer) deciding to take their games from the West onto the ‘other side’. With that said, I bring you my Eastern Conference Power Rankings:
1.) Miami Heat – The Heat seem to be the talk of the town these days, and for good reason. Not only did they resign Dwyane Wade, but they also lassoed Chris Bosh and persuaded LeBron James to take his services to South Beach. Not bad, I say. The question quickly became, “who else plays alongside these 3 superstars?” Well, Mike Miller signed. So did Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Resigning Udonis Haslem for $14 million less than what he had on the table from teams like Dallas and Denver was a surprise. All of this adds up to one solitary fact: this is the newest top dog in the Eastern Conference. I don’t see how there can be much debate over that considering a James-Wade-Bosh triad is one of the best the NBA’s seen in quite some time (could it go down as the best of all time?). Throw in a Miller, Ilgauskas, Haslem and a guy like Mario Chalmers, and you have yourself a studly cast of characters that are ready to challenge for an NBA Championship right now.
2.) Orlando Magic – After getting ran off the court in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals this past year, it was apparent that the Magic needed to make some moves to reinvigorate a team that was a year removed from going to the NBA Finals. Though not headliner signings, getting Chris Duhon as a back-up point guard was very saavy; he should be able to help shoulder the load and take some of the pressure off of Jameer Nelson. Also, Quentin Richardson should see plenty of minutes for Orlando, especially after shooting a career high 39.7% from 3-point range last season with Miami. Add this to what Orlando already had on the roster (minus Matt Barnes who will be sporting a different jersey next year) and this team looks solid yet again. I think we see Dwight Howard progress even more this year offensively, and I believe Rashard Lewis bounces back from an abysmal year last year to put up much more respectable numbers. Orlando looks to be a major contender yet again.
3.) Boston Celtics – I’m very up in the air with this team. They still look like they are contenders on paper, but the likes of Pierce-Allen-Garnett are also a year older. Garnett seems to have lost a step if the NBA playoffs were any indication; he just doesn’t seem to have that explosiveness that he once had. Also, losing Kendrick Perkins for who knows how long is a blow to a team that relied so heavily on its defense, with Perkins being a large contributor (literally and figuratively). Couple this with Rasheed Wallace retiring, and it was obvious they had to get a big. They did just that with the signing of Jermaine O’Neal. I’m not overly crazy about the move, but something had to be done and the Celtics responded by getting a guy who can score a little bit and grab some rebounds. Rajon Rondo has quickly established himself as one of the elite point guards in basketball and Pierce can still score in droves. If Allen and Garnett don’t completely break down before season’s end (something I’d expect more from KG than Ray-Ray), Boston can make another run at the title…could it be the last one we see from them for a while?
4.) Milwaukee Bucks – This team looks to be a much scarier squad than I think people believe. Brandon Jennings, a rookie of the year candidate last year, looks to build on his rookie success (15.5 ppg, 5.7 apg, 1.3 spg) and elevate his game to the next level. John Salmons was brought back after helping the Bucks to a 22-8 record after being acquired from Chicago, Chris Douglas-Roberts was added to bolster the bench, and Corey Maggette was shipped in from Golden State to add another scorer and another dimension to a seemingly dynamic offense. With Drew Gooden, and a healthy Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee seems to be sitting very pretty in a much tougher conference than last year. If Michael Redd is healthy, watch out for the Bucks; the “Fear the Deer” adage might be out in full-force again this year. I know this might seem ballsy, but I’m calling the Milwaukee Bucks a contender.
5.) Chicago Bulls – Chicago lost role players’ Hakim Warrick and Kirk Hinrich. Pressed into making a move with a huge amount of cap space, the Bulls came through with the signing of Carlos Boozer. I know it wasn’t ‘Bron or D-Wade, but I applauded the move when it happened and I still stand by it today as I believe it was an excellent signing. They also managed to take his Jazz teammate, Kyle Korver, with him as well. For that, I say kudos. It was a definite upgrade, notably over the Warrick/Hinrich tandem, and makes Chicago a better team than what it was at the end of this past season. That being said, I still don’t see Chicago as a serious threat. Yes, I do believe Derrick Rose is a star-in-the-making, and I do like Joakim Noah’s game a lot, but I don’t believe this team is overly deep (something that is needed now more so than ever in the overly competitive Eastern Conference), and I still don’t see a game-changer on this squad. Look, I love Rose’s game, but he’s the closest thing they got to someone than can take over a game in the 4th quarter and I don’t believe he’s ready for that role yet, at least not on a consistent basis. This is the most apparent reason why I don’t see the Bulls as true threats to win the East.
6.) Atlanta Hawks – You know the Eastern Conference has to be deeper if I have a Hawks squad that won 53 games this past season, and didn’t lose anybody off of that squad, 6th in the conference. Signing Joe Johnson was a must, but it came at a much steeper price tag than originally anticipated. The point guard situation in Atlanta does not look very good right now. I think Mike Bibby’s time as a starting guard in the NBA has run it’s course, yet, do you hand the reigns over to 2nd-year guard Jeff Teague? I don’t think so. Defensively, Josh Smith is as good as they come, but he still needs to take his game up a notch offensively if the Hawks want to move forward. Al Horford seems to be Mr. Consistent for this squad (14.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg last year) outside of Johnson, but they have to get more production from Marvin Williams. He could hold the key to Atlanta’s fortune if they wish to be more competitive this year. Jordan Crawford, a guy they acquired from the Nets, should be someone who sees noticeable minutes as a rookie. I love the kid’s game and fieriness. He seems to have the tools needed to play in the NBA and Atlanta was smart in trading for him. Add his scoring punch off of the bench with Jamal Crawford, and there could be some highly-scored games in ATL next season. All-in-all, Atlanta looks to be a good squad, but not enough to hold up as a serious contender.
7.) New York Knicks – The Knicks have had a very active off-season. They’ve acquired 4 players via S&T, most notably Amare Stoudemire and Anthony Randolph, and they signed Raymond Felton away from Charlotte to run point. Now we sit back and wait to see what goes wrong first…joke, Knicks fans, but you have to wonder if New York did enough to make a playoff run. I’m in the group that believes they did, albeit barely. A starting 5 consisting of some combination of Felton, Chandler, Gallinari, Stoudemire, Randolph/Turiaf/Curry seems to be one that could go out and compete on a nightly basis. Outside of that, I’m not sure how good this team really is. Losing David Lee hurts, and Al Harrington’s scoring prowess is something that might not be easily replaced (I’m stressing the word might). But I believe New York had a nice draft with all 3 picks (Rautins, Fields, Jordan) being 2nd round picks, even though I don’t know how much these guys will contribute as rookies. And I’m very high on Toney Douglas. I think this kid is a solid player who can not only score, but dish out the rock and be a pest defensively. If Kelenna Azubuike is 100% healthy, perhaps he could be a nice pick-up as well, but I just don’t think the Knicks surrounded themselves with enough talent to be considered legitimate threats in the East.
8.) Charlotte Bobcats – When I think of Charlotte, I think of a formidable squad that plays pretty well in the regular season, but could never do any serious damage when it came playoff time. I still stand by that thought. Look, they have some nice pieces in guys like Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace and Tyrus Thomas, but outside of those guys, it gets thin in a hurry. They lost starting point guard Raymond Felton to the Knicks, so we will get a chance to see just how good D.J. Augustin is as a guy playing heavy minutes night in and night out. They lost Tyson Chandler to Dallas, although he didn’t play much in Charlotte, yet did manage to get Erick Dampier, a guy who, at the very least, will play hard every game (but won’t put up any significant numbers). The catch is that there is a strong possibility that Dampier is either released or traded before the season starts due to his $13 million non-guaranteed expiring contract. Regardless, the bottom-line is that Charlotte might be a playoff team, but that’s it.
Just missed the cut: Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors
*Disclaimer: I just wanted to throw out how odd it is seeing Cleveland not in the top 8 of any discussion about the Eastern Conference. Mr. James, I believe you have some explaining to do…