When ranking the NBA Eastern Conference, it is hard not to notice that the teams have already aligned themselves into three distinct tiers. There are the top five teams that all expect to be in the Eastern Conference Finals. A muddled middle of teams where the debate rages about the virtue of being a one-and-done playoff team in the 6, 7 or 8 spot versus tanking for a better draft pick in June. Then there are the obvious tankers that have already committed to the lottery in what may be the best draft since LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade went in the top five back in 2003.
As usual, injuries, hidden agendas and plain old fashioned luck will impact the final standings and being first in the East during the regular season may not mean all that much in June.
The Top Five
1. Chicago Bulls – 45-37 last season, projected 62-20
The Bulls operated at a first-place 62-win pace for two seasons behind Derrick Rose’s leadership and managed to finish in fifth last season without him. The winning core of Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Carlos Boozer are together again, plus Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich return off the bench. Add to this the solid job the Bulls have done with the rest of their roster and they are good enough to produce another 60-plus win season.
The risks for Chicago are Rose may have lost a step, the possibility Deng still has issues from his spinal tap this summer and Noah’s issues with planter fasciitis. The other risk is the Bulls organization may move one or more of their key veterans to get out of the luxury tax this year or next. However, if everyone stays put and healthy for a reasonable number of games, the Bulls can take first-place in the East again this year. Perhaps more importantly, the Bulls will want to reclaim first place.
2. Miami HEAT – 66-16 last season, projected 60-22
The back-to-back NBA Champions won 66 games last season because of a 27 game win streak followed by an 8 game win streak that saw them close out the season on a 37 win 2 loss run. That isn’t likely to happen again. The HEAT found it hard to be consistent early in the season after winning a championship last year and that will be doubly hard this time around.
The HEAT still have James, Wade and Bosh, so they remain favorites to return to the Eastern Conference Finals, however, they won’t lose any sleep about what position in the top four they end up at during the regular season. That alone makes first place an unlikely result.
3. Brooklyn Nets – 49-33 last season, projected 58-24
The Nets have the highest payroll in the NBA and will set a luxury tax record this season. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if they ended up in first place in the East, but it should be more important to get Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Brook Lopez and Deron Williams to the end of the season healthy.
Pierce and Garnett are durable enough if Head Coach Jason Kidd can avoid wearing them down during the regular season. However, Lopez has been in a walking boot since having surgery on his right foot in June to have the screw in his surgically-repaired right foot replaced and Williams had three rounds of cortisone shots to deal with his ankle issues last year. Unfortunately, the pressure will be on the Nets all season to justify the huge investment in this roster, so these players may be pushed harder than they should be.
While Kidd would probably let his big guns get more rest during the regular season if this wasn’t his first year at the helm don’t expect the Nets to let any regular season games get away if they can win them. This team will fight for first place even if it costs them later on.
4. Indiana Pacers – 49-32 last season, projected 55-27
The Pacers should have won more games last season and with the addition of Luis Scola and the return of Danny Granger they are better now. This team’s issue was they took games off and ended up just 1 game above .500 against teams in the East outside of their own division and there was no excuse for that.
It is possible the improved bench pushes the Pacers to achieve up to their potential, however, it can be hard to change the personality of a team. The Pacers will probably play their best against the teams they respect and do just enough for a top 4 finish against everyone else. Look out for these guys in the playoffs though. They will not wear themselves out during the regular season.
5. New York Knicks – 54-28 last season, projected 48-34
The Knicks should be insulted by the projections being tossed around about the upcoming season. They should do better, but they have done most of the damage to expectations themselves.
J.R. Smith is recovering from knee surgery which will likely delay his return, but now he’s tacked on a 5-game suspension for a failed drug test.
Just assume Amar’e Stoudemire will miss half of the games this season due to his knees, back or something else and any disappointment will be mitigated. Last year, he missed more than half.
Andrea Bargnani is still suffering from pneumonia. It’s not his fault, but that fact isn’t going to help him to show up at training camp in shape or fix his jump shot.
Tyson Chandler has a history of injuries that he was able to play through but seriously impacted his performance and during his exit interview after the playoffs, he admitted his neck injury wasn’t fully healed. Chandler will give all he has, but if it’s less than you expected, he probably hurting somewhere again.
Metta World Peace had knee surgery at the end of last season. He is supposed to be fully recovered – did anyone mention he turns 34 in November?
The torn labrum in Carmelo Anthony’s shoulder has healed without surgery according to the league’s leading scorer. Let’s just take him at his word.
Pablo Prigioni is 36-years-old and skipped the FIBA Americas with Argentina, but that might be a good thing.
Raymond Felton said he lost 15 lbs this summer. Last summer he said he lost 20 lbs. Maybe Felton should just stop talking about his weight before he either fades away completely or convinces everyone he still has a weight problem.
There is no need to go on and the Knicks won 54 games last season under Head Coach Mike Woodson facing many of the same issues. Somehow Woodson kept this team winning games during the regular season and he will probably do it again this year.
Risks and Obstacles
The top five teams in the East are all deep enough to deal with reasonable injury risks and still compete for home court in the first round of the playoffs and it would be a surprise if any of the other teams in the Eastern Conference were able to bump them into the sixth spot or lower. However, each team faces the real possibility that key players will miss games to known injury concerns and if this happens at the wrong time, their regular season standing will be affected.
Anyone in our top five could end up first in the East if the breaks go their way, however, the two teams that are going to try the hardest will be Chicago and Brooklyn and Chicago has done this twice before recently.
Who do you think will put forth the effort it takes to be first in the NBA Eastern Conference at the end of the season? Which one of these teams do you think gives up home court in the first round of the playoffs? Can any other team crack the top five in the East? Let us know in the comments below.
The muddled middle of teams competing for a playoff spot at 6, 7 and 8 will be available for discussion soon.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report. You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors