While there are still a lot of free agents to be signed, all of the big free agents are now in place and the playoff picture for next year has become a little clearer. Looking ahead, we predict the playoff teams, ranking them No. 1 through No. 8, in each conference. Where does your squad stack up?
1. MIAMI HEAT – When you have three of the 10 best players in the League on one team, you can’t not put them in the first spot. No matter who they have around these guys, they will be the beasts of the East. There is just simply too much talent in those three guys alone to not put them on top. Remember the questions about the rest of the roster after Boston’s Big Three in 2008? They proved to be alright and the rest of Miami’s roster will be okay too.
2. ORLANDO MAGIC – While the Magic will finish second in their own division, they will also be second in the conference. With two straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Magic have a ton of talent still on the roster. If they trade Marcin Gortat for some wing help (in addition to signing Quentin Richardson), they will probably be back there. Also, the roster has had a year to gel, and with no major changes like last offseason when Hedo Turkoglu left and Vince Carter was brought in, they should be ready.
3. BOSTON CELTICS – Despite their old age creeping up by the minute on their big men such as Jermaine O’Neal Kevin Garnett, the Celtics will win the Atlantic Division by default, securing the three-seed. They will show a lack of focus and disinterest at times, but ultimately their talent will allow them to settle into this spot easily.
4. CHICAGO BULLS – The low-post scorer the team has craved for years has finally arrived in the form of Carlos Boozer. Boozer will help Derrick Rose like he did with Deron Williams in Utah. With Joakim Noah and Luol Deng also in place, plus Kyle Korver and possibly J.J. Redick on their to Chicago the Bulls will be very deep and very talented.
5. MILWAUKEE BUCKS – The Bucks were a surprise last year, but this season, they will be on a lot of people’s radars. This offseason they shored up their biggest weakness: the ability to create shots by re-signing John Salmons while adding Corey Maggette and Chris Douglas-Roberts. They also added Drew Gooden and Larry Sanders to their frontcourt, making them an incredibly deep team.
6. ATLANTA HAWKS – While the Hawks grossly overpaid Joe Johnson, his presence there ensures the playoffs for another year. This team has a lot of talent with Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford. But, they are unfortunately stuck in the same division as Miami and Orlando, so they won’t be a top-four seed like last year.
7. CHARLOTTE BOBCATS – Charlotte made its first-ever playoff appearance last year, and they will probably repeat that feat this year. Even though they lost Raymond Felton, he won’t be terribly missed, especially if D.J. Augustin comes up big for them. With Larry Brown as coach again, the Bobcats will likely only need 40 wins to get back to the postseason, and that is certainly achievable.
8. NEW YORK KNICKS – LeBron didn’t choose the bright lights of New York, but Amar’e Stoudemire did. It will only take 37-42 wins to garner the eighth seed in the East this year, and the Knicks have just enough talent to sneak into the postseason. With Stoudemire, Anthony Randolph, Felton, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari, the Knicks do have some nice pieces which are superior to the rest of the lower part of the Eastern Conference.
1. LOS ANGELES LAKERS – The defending champs resume their rightful spot atop the Western Conference this season. They will be top dog on talent alone like they were this year, and with the signing of Steve Blake, re-signing of Derek Fisher and their crop of talented second-round picks, L.A. may actually have improved this offseason.
2. DALLAS MAVERICKS – Dallas has basically the same roster intact as last season when they earned the No. 2 seed, and with more time for Caron Butler to get acclimated, Dallas should be very good again. The emergence of Rodrigue Beaubois and the addition of Dominique Jones give the Mavs some much needed scoring punch off the bench, keeping them here.
3. DENVER NUGGETS – Assuming George Karl comes back healthy, the Nuggets will win their division this year. Karl’s loss on the sideline threw the team into disarray. His presence will give the team some stability. Talent-wise, the Nuggets are loaded. With Carmelo potentially in a contract year, Stan Kroenke & Co. will add whatever pieces necessary to ensure he re-signs.
4. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER – The Thunder were one of the surprises of last year and will be even better this sean with another year of experience under their belts. With their entire core returning, GM Sam Presti has added some great pieces to fill some of the team’s weaknesses. He traded for Cole Aldrich to provide toughness and rebounding, and also got Daequan Cook and Mo Peterson to improve their outside shooting.
5. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS – Portland had 53 wins last year despite being decimated by injuries all season. If the team can stay even remotely healthy, they should reach that number yet again. They brought in Luke Babbitt and Elliot Williams via the Draft to help provide depth and shooting, and with Marcus Camby back, Portland’s depth should be greatly improved.
6. PHOENIX SUNS – I didn’t think the Suns would make the playoffs before the moves they made yesterday. Turkoglu should thrive in Phoenix and Josh Childress can provide energy and defense off the bench that complements Jared Dudley. Also, Robin Lopez will continue to develop and if Hakim Warrick can average between 12 to 16 points and 6 to 8 rebounds, it will help lessen the loss of Amar’e greatly.
7. SAN ANTONIO SPURS – Despite being more talented than a seventh seed, Gregg Popovich‘s strategy for the last few years has been just get into the playoffs without regard for seed. With his aging roster needing more rest each year, Coach Pop will monitor Duncan, Parker and Ginobili‘s minutes, greatly preventing the Spurs from being a higher seed. But then again, does it matter with this team?
8. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES – The Grizzlies were very close to the playoffs last year and by retaining Rudy Gay, they are ready to enter the postseason in 2011. They added Xavier Henry and Greivis Vazquez to provide much needed bench scoring this year, and if Mike Conley can prove to be more than serviceable, the Grizz will make the playoffs for the first time since Pau Gasol left town.
What do you think?
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