1. Miami Heat: One of the least-notorious shortcomings of the Heat last year was that the team spent the entire year trying to figure out how everyone fit in. Injuries, midseason acquisitions and the challenge of getting three guys used to being the No. 1 option to function cohesively left the rotation in turmoil all the way through the Finals. After a season worth of tinkering, it seemed only appropriate that Erik Spoelstra switched starting point guards for Game 6 against Dallas. This year, there figures to be more stability. Now that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have a better understanding of how to play with each other and, just as importantly, know who else will be on the floor with them, the Heat can fulfill their potential.
2. Chicago Bulls: A match almost a year in the making finally came to pass when Richard Hamilton signed to fill the gaping hole at two-guard in Chicago. If they avoid the injuries to Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer they suffered last year, the team that last year had the league’s best record and the youngest MVP in NBA history is poised to improve. It may still not be enough to catch the Heat, particularly if Boozer continues to disappoint as he did in the playoffs last year.
3. Atlanta Hawks: After the Heat and the Bulls, there’s a major drop-off in the East. Since the Celtics and Magic aren’t what they have been in recent seasons, the Hawks suddenly go up a few notches by default. In a shortened season that will reward stability, Atlanta stands to benefit from a core that’s been together since 2008. This is especially true if Jeff Teague carries over his revelatory performance from last year’s playoffs.
4. Indiana Pacers: Everyone’s favorite Eastern Conference team on the rise. And why not? Adding David West and George Hill to a promising young roster is reason for excitement. Plus, Paul George reported to camp 2 inches taller than last year, meaning he’ll be a matchup nightmare as a 6-foot-10 shooting guard.
5. Orlando Magic: The 4-2 first-round defeat to Atlanta last year, in which Dwight Howard scored 46 points in a game the Magic lost by 10 points, said volumes about the potential of this Magic team. They can only go as far as Dwight Howard can take them on his broad shoulders, and that might not be any farther than the first round of the playoffs. If they trade Howard, it’s not as if they’re breaking up a championship team.
6. Boston Celtics: The obituary of these Celtics has been written many times before, and yet they always seem to remain contenders. This time, though, they’re really in trouble. A compressed schedule minimizing the impact of their veteran core, and Jeff Green’s year-long absence robs them of the depth they needed to keep everyone fresh. It’s also a morale-killer that confirms the worst fears about the Kendrick Perkins trade.
7. New York Knicks: If last year’s Heat was supposed to be a three-man team, these Knicks take the idea a step further. Aside from the monster frontline of Carmelo, Amare and Tyson Chandler, there’s really not much else on the roster. Since depth is more valuable this season than it usually is, this is a problem, even if Amare can stay healthy. The Knicks need Baron Davis and Landry Fields at their best to have hope of grabbing a high playoff seed.
8. New Jersey Nets: If Mikhail Prokhorov’s manifest destiny is realized, a playoff appearance could be just the beginning for the Nets. Whether or not they land Dwight Howard this year, they probably still have enough to beat out weak competition for a postseason berth. A full season of Deron Williams and the veteran presence of DeShawn Stevenson, who, like Kris Humphries, signed in the final week of the shortened preseason, should be enough to push this team out of the lottery.
9. Philadelphia 76ers: It’s hard to argue the Sixers didn’t overachieve last year, especially considering the limited contributions they got from Evan Turner, the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft. It’s reasonable to expect him to be better, but it’s just as reasonable to believe everyone else will take a step back. Their stability will help them stay competitive for a playoff spot, but their overall lack of talent will keep them from getting there.
10. Washington Wizards: John Wall is telling us to expect a breakout season from him, and he showed glimpses of his potential in his rookie season last year. No one else comes near his talent level on this team, but you don’t need much to be in the hunt for the postseason in the East.
11. Milwaukee Bucks: The team’s fate may depend on whether Andrew Bogut is finally healthy after his horrific arm injury curtailed a surprising run to the playoffs in 2010. The Bucks are hoping Stephen Jackson will play the same kind of role John Salmons did two years ago to boost their pop-gun offense. Jackson, who has back issues and has already made rumblings about his contract, might not be the guy to lean on.
12. Detroit Pistons: Greg Monroe’s steady improvement went largely unnoticed last season. If he keeps it up, he may get his due as an up-and-coming post presence, but because the rest of roster is bloated with tweener guards and small forwards, it will mean little in terms of wins and losses.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, the first and fourth picks in this year’s draft, respectively, provide hope in Cleveland. And hope is all they have.
14. Charlotte Bobcats: It says a lot about the Eastern Conference that this reprehensible roster might not be terrible enough to finish last.
15. Toronto Raptors: The team went 22-60 last year, failed to sign No. 5 pick Jonas Valanciunas, and its most significant offseason acquisition might be Gary Forbes. Enough said.Playoffs
First Round: Heat over Nets; Bulls over Knicks; Hawks over Magic; Pacers over Celtics
Conference Semis: Heat over Pacers; Bulls over Hawks
Conference Finals: Heat over Bulls