Shortly after LeBron James proclaimed that he was going to “take his talents to South Beach,” the entire landscape of the Eastern Conference has changed. The Cavaliers have gone from championship contenders to a team that just hopes to make the playoffs, the Heat have gone from mid-level playoff hopefuls to Eastern Conference juggernauts, and everyone else in the conference is just trying to find the best way to combat the best one-two-three punch in the NBA.
1. Miami Heat
LeBron James was able to lead a Cavaliers team that had no other consistent All-star to back to back top seeds in the Eastern Conference. Dwayne Wade was able to lead a team of otherwise underachieving players to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. The main reason the Toronto Raptors missed the playoffs is because of Chris Bosh’s late season injury. It seems almost impossible that teaming up three of the best players in the NBA will not result in the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
What this team hasn’t proven, however, is how it will do in the playoffs. The one weakness that always doomed LeBron’s Cavaliers teams was the lack of a dominant, physical inside presence, and this Miami Heat team doesn’t seem to have anyone quite strong enough to combat players like Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, and Pau Gasol.
2. Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic have three straight seasons with at least 50 wins, including back to back 59 win seasons. They haven’t made any noteworthy additions for the 2010-11 season, but they also haven’t had any noteworthy detractions. This is still the same type of team that made the NBA Finals two seasons ago and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals last season.
The biggest threat to Orlando’s prospects this season, besides Miami’s resurgence, will be attrition. Rashard Lewis has seen his production drop for each of his three seasons in Orlando, Vince Carter averaged less than twenty points per game for the first time since his rookie season, and Dwight Howard has yet to show that he’s willing to be a dominating offensive force. Will Orlando be able to avoid the increasing decline that afflicted the Cavaliers over the past few seasons, or will the Magic continue to post strong regular seasons only to fall in the postseason when the Magic’s lack of explosiveness catches up to them?
3. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have been on the cusp of breaking through the past two seasons. The additions of Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver, along with the continued growth of potential stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, should be enough to propel Chicago firmly into the ranks of the Eastern Conference elite for the first time since a guy named Michael Jordan played there. It’s hard to believe they have enough to match up against the top teams in the Western Conference or the new look Heat, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bulls find themselves making a run at least to the Eastern Conference Finals.
4. Boston Celtics
This season will likely look a lot like last season for the Boston Celtics. They’ll stumble through the regular season, looking older and slower (compounded by the addition of the oldest and slowest center in the league, Shaquille O’Neal), but will win enough games to secure a decent playoff seed and then use their collective experience to surprise everyone and actually play well in the playoffs. Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett will eventually break down for good, but it’s tough to bet against a team that came within a game of winning the NBA Finals last season.
5. Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks have defied all expectations, improving their win total for six straight seasons, peaking with 53 in the 2009-10 season. Unfortunately, the Hawks have shown themselves to be the polar opposite of the Celtics. Atlanta will roll through the regular season, dominating lesser opponents and playing strong against the big boys, but ultimately are not talented enough to make it deep into the playoffs. 2010-2011 will be no different, except that the continued playoffs defeats will take their toll on the psyche of the Hawks players, and they will find themselves backsliding in the win column.
6. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks were coming on strong last season before Andrew Bogut’s horrific injury. They have the talent to rise as high as the fourth seed in the East, but the most likely scenario is that they struggle early on and play the spoiler as a lower seed in the playoffs. There’s no guarantee that Bogut will be completely recovered by the start of the season, and former All-star Michael Redd cannot be relied upon due to continued injury problems. The Bucks will be a dangerous team in the 2010-11 season, but it might take a few weeks before they can really start hitting their stride.
7. New York Knicks
The Knicks have completely transformed their roster, and the addition of Amare Stoudemire should be able to get them back into the playoffs…if he can stay healthy. He should fit right in with D’Antoni’s system in New York (having played for D’Antoni for years in Phoenix), but the Knicks are a broken team, and they are still at least a superstar ala Carmelo Anthony away from being anything more than first round fodder in the playoffs. They aren’t good enough to really threaten anyone if they make the playoffs, but considering how they’ve played in recent seasons, just making the playoffs should be considered a huge victory for the Knicks’ fan base.
8. Charlotte Bobcats
The Charlotte Bobcats stunned everyone by making the playoffs last season. They did so by playing staunch defense, relying on the coaching acumen of Larry Brown and making the most of acquiring Stephen Jackson for peanuts. Unfortunately, they played above their talent level last season, and although Brown can transform a team from scrubs to contenders overnight, he can rarely sustain that transformation for more than a couple of years before he bails on the team and moves on to another coaching gig.
9. Philadelphia 76ers
10. Indiana Pacers
11. Detroit Pistons
12. Washington Wizards
13. New Jersey Nets
14. Toronto Raptors
15. Cleveland Cavaliers
All stats and standings from espn.com