15. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors had a rough season last year after watching Chris Bosh bolt for South Beach. They had no one to replace any of his scoring or rebounding. Their current roster does not include one player with superstar potential, but rather a bunch of journey-men type players. Andrea Bargnani has been a bust so far after being selected first in the NBA draft a few years ago and no one else can carry the load for this team. It’s going to be another difficult season for the Raptors.
14. Charlotte Bobcats
Last season, Michael Jordan had a fire sale with the bulk of his expensive veterans to clear up some cap space for the years to come. The Bobcats nearly made the playoffs last season, but with this youth movement they are taking, the Bobcats will take a step back this season. They traded for a high draft pick in the off season so that they were able to draft UConn guard Kemba Walker and African phenom Bismack Biyombo. It will definitely be a rebuilding year for the Bobcats, but they could be very good in the next few years.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers had a shocking off season last year when LeBron James made “The Decision” to take his talents to South Beach and leave Cleveland in the dust. This dramatically hurt the team and they had an awful season, but they made some key draft pick acquisitions including getting the number one overall pick in the NBA Draft. With the first and fourth pick they were able to get point guard Kyrie Irving and power forward Tristan Thompson. With some other role players on the squad like Anderson Varejo, Antawn Jamison and Daniel “Booby” Gibson, the Cavs are bound to improve, but not very much. A loss like LeBron James is something that will take a few years to recover from.
12. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons have yet to find their playoff form since they traded Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson four years ago. They have had the same core for the most part with players like Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton, but with Rip gone to the Bulls and with Prince and Wallace aging, the Pistons have significantly defined. They do have some nice young pieces like Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight so Detroit could be poised for a breakout season in the next year or two.
11. Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee has been right around playoff contention for the last couple of years since drafting Brandon Jennings, but they are extremely consistent. Andrew Bogut has had significant injuries every year and without him on the floor it will be very hard for the Bucks to be competitive. They don’t have much scoring on the roster other than Jennings and Bogut either. Stephen Jackson can pour in some points, but he doesn’t pass the ball much and isn’t a great defender; something that head coach Scott Skiles hounds his players on. If Bogut can stay healthy this team could squeeze their way into the playoffs, but he has yet to stay healthy for an entire season.
10. New Jersey Nets
The Nets made a blockbuster deal last season acquiring Deron Williams and it didn’t prove to help the team much. Whether that was because he wasn’t acclimated to Avery Johnson’s system or they just didn’t have the right players remains to be seen. However, the Nets will definitely improve this season with Deron Williams and Brook Lopez leading the charge. New Jersey does have some nice young players like Marshon Brooks and Damion James, but they don’t have a good enough roster to compete for the playoffs this season. If they can somehow make a deal for Dwight Howard that might change very quickly.
9. Washington Wizards
The Wizards will make the biggest leap in the NBA this year with John Wall at the helm. After a solid rookie season, Wall should now become the leader that Washington has been looking for since Agent Zero left a few years ago. Washington has a lot of young, raw talent on their roster including: JaVale McGee, Nick Young, Jan Vessly and Jordan Crawford, but I’m still not sold that they will be a playoff team this year. However, in another year or so the Wizards will be quite a force in the Eastern conference once this young bunch gets some experience under their belts.
8. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers made a nice, late season surge for the playoffs last season and actually gave the Bulls a run for their money in the first round of the playoffs. After watching them play the Bulls again on Friday night, it looks like the Pacers will take that experience and become a stronger team from it. They have also made a great pickup, signing David West to help bolster Indiana’s front court. The keys for the Pacers will be the continued development of Roy Hibbert and Darren Collison as well as Danny Granger slowing down in the offense and taking better shots.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
Like the Pacers, the Sixers made a great run towards the end of the season and also gave the Heat a frustrating matchup in the first round of the playoffs. Louis Williams and Jrue Holiday turned out to be a solid point guard duo with help from Andre Iguodala and Jodie Meeks. They do have some question marks in the front court such as the health of Elton Brand and whether or not they can get a center to step up and give them solid minutes. The Sixers have a lot of room for improvement this season, but it will be hard for them to move up with a loaded top six in the East.
6. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks were a solid team last season and had a surprising performance from point guard Jeff Teague in the playoffs. Even though they lost a great sixth man in Jamal Crawford, they have enough talent to stay competitive in the Eastern conference. The biggest problem for the Hawks will be themselves as they often play one on one type style of basketball rather than a team play approach. If they can figure out how to play as a team for 48 minutes a night then watch out because the Hawks are crazy athletic and can score a lot of points, very quickly. Look for them to trade power forward Josh Smith for a more prototypical power forward as well as to create some cap space for next summer’s ridiculous free agent class.
5. Boston Celtics
This will most likely be the Celtics last run with the “Big 3” of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. With their uncertain futures, they will make a strong push for one last title, but it will be without last seasons acquisition Jeff Green who will miss the whole season due to a heart issue. With a very thin bench and an old roster, things could be difficult for the Celtics this year, but they always find a way to stay competitive no matter what.
4. Orlando Magic
Any team with Dwight Howard will almost certainly make the playoffs and that is no different for this year’s Magic team. They have pretty much the same team they’ve had for the last three years, but look for that to change per Dwight Howard’s request. If the Magic want Howard to stay in Orlando for the rest of his career, they will need to make some drastic changes to their roster. However, that being said they will still be competitive with Howard scoring 20-25 points a night and grabbing over 15 rebounds per contest. The key to their season will be whether or not Hedo Turkoglu can return back to his form of a couple of years ago when the Magic were in the NBA Finals.
3. New York Knicks
It pains me to say this, but New York will make a significant leap this season in the Eastern conference after acquiring Carmelo Anthony late last season and then signing center Tyson Chandler to a big deal this off season. With Chandler, Carmelo and Stoudemire in the front court, it will rank as one of the best in the NBA. They will have a lot of questions to answer in the back court however, after releasing point guard Chauncey Billups to make room for Tyson Chandler as well as a bench full of no-name players. If they can find some consistency at the guards, they will be a very strong team this season, giving Chicago and Miami a run for their money.
2. Miami Heat
The Heat are an obvious choice to win the NBA title this year after making the finals last year, but it is highly possible that teams will be much more acclimated to their style of play this season. With over 2/3 of their cap space going to three players, finding solid role players has proven to be difficult for Miami, but they did make one nice pickup this offseason, signing defensive mastermind Shane Battier. If Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony can be consistent for the Heat, it will be very difficult to beat them any night, but they have yet to click on all cylinders many times.
1. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls are also an easy choice to win the title this year, but unlike the Heat, they have a nine man rotation at Tom Thibodeau’s disposal. With arguably the best bench in all of the NBA, a.k.a. “the Bench Mob” it makes things difficult for any team to stick with the Bulls. The reigning MVP, Derrick Rose will be hungrier than ever for an NBA title as he has already told the media several times this year. The key to the Bulls success this season will solely rely on the health and the performance of last summers acquisition, Carlos Boozer. Boozer had a great season last year when he was healthy, but after tearing a ligament in his foot during the playoffs, his performance was abysmal. He will be looking to prove his haters wrong and this could be the year that the Bulls win their first championship since the Jordan era.