The NBA season is quickly approaching, and as fans, this is sure to be a promising season with many headlines. LeBron James and the Miami Heat are on the hunt for a third straight championship, unless Derrick Rose, holding the most anticipated comeback in sports this year, has something to say about the reign of terror in the East.
Meanwhile in New York, a rivalry is brewing as old division foes settle in with with championship aspirations on the Knicks’ stomping grounds, even as Indiana looks to dominate in an improved Central Division.
Until all of those questions are answered, quench your NBA thirst with a look at the predicted top eight teams in the Eastern Conference.
*** *** ***
8. ATLANTA HAWKS
Key Losses: Josh Smith
Key Additions: Elton Brand, Dennis Schroeder, Paul Millsap
Atlanta took a blow this offseason, losing All-Star Josh Smith, but the Hawks have turned the page and look to start the ’13-14 season with a clean slate, inking new head coach Mike Budenholzer, former assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs. They also injected the roster with young talent, including draftee Dennis Schroeder to deepen the backcourt of Jeff Teague and Lou Williams, the sixth man who averaged 14 points per game before his injury. He’ll be returning from an ACL tear this year.
The Hawks will lack a solid superstar this year, however, a first-year head coach gets a slate of young players to work with and find the best way to utilize the team’s efficient rebounding and shooting. Al Horford should be the center of attention this year, but it will be tough to go any further than the first round with him alone. Jeff Teague is heading into his firth year and is viewed by some to have a big year, but unless there is a dramatic pickup in his scoring, Atlanta needs more offense.
Predicted record: 39-43
7. DETROIT PISTONS
Key Losses: Jose Calderon
Key Additions: Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, Chauncey Billups, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tony Mitchell
The Detroit Pistons had a wad of cash to spend this offseason; they also have a young team with a few veteran leaders. Their biggest acquisition was Josh Smith, choosing to flock to Detroit over signing with Atlanta. Smith now takes the young frontcourt of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond to another level. Last year, the duo together averaged 17 rebounds per game, and they take up a lot of real estate in the painted area.
In the backcourt, the Pistons went out and got the young, short-fused Brandon Jennings to steer the ship. Jennings has been a microwave throughout his early career, and a change of environment could boost Jennings into an All-Star caliber point guard. He will undoubtedly see a raise in his assists, having players like Josh Smith, who want to bring a high-flying style of play to the Motor City. There is also no reason Jennings can’t drop at least 20 points a night, averaging 17 last year.
It will take time for the plethora of personalities on the Pistons to gel, so this year should be more about finding an identity and seeing what works well. As the Pistons work out the kinks and growing pains, edging themselves into the playoffs for the first time in four years is a good starting point for this group of players.
Predicted record: 44-38
6. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Key Losses: Wayne Ellington, Marreese Speights
Key Additions: Andrew Bynum, Anthony Bennett, Jarrett Jack
For the first time since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, Cleveland looks to make a return to the playoffs this year after spending three seasons in the draft lottery. Now rejuvenated by the emergence of Kyrie Irving and a talented young roster, the Cavaliers have a chance to make some noise this year.
There’s little doubt the Cavs spend this season above .500, especially considering Irving is ready to take the step to the top-tier of point guards. Kyrie is looking to build on his 22-point-per-game scoring average from last season, and yet there is a cast around Irving this year that scores very well.
Andrew Bynum, when healthy, is a true hard-nosed center who rebounds and scores on the block. His presence will be felt greatly on the boards, as the Cavs finished in the bottom of the league in rebounding.
As for the rest of the offseason, by adding four rookies, including their No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett, and signing veteran sixth man Jarrett Jack, Cleveland made some moves to make them a very deep, young team with chemistry. All of this makes them a legit presence in the East.
Predicted record: 45-37
5. BROOKLYN NETS
Key Losses: Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks
Key Additions: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, Andrei Kirilenko
The biggest offseason transaction of the year was seeing Billy King and the Brooklyn Nets going all in on a championship now. Somewhat surprisingly, they actually have a good chance of making it happen.
Deron Williams is still the best player on this team, in the midst of his prime, but has been ailing the past two seasons with ankle injuries. If Brooklyn can see a healthy Williams all season, the Nets become a better team.
The Nets starting five consists of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez, a lineup with a combined 36 All-Star appearances. Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko will also play key reserve roles all season, adding to the possibilities of differing lineups and offensive schemes.
Those schemes will come from none other than the master playmaker Jason Kidd, entering his first year as a head coach after retiring as a player only four months ago. Kidd will be coming into a good situation with veterans like Garnett and Pierce, who are able to coach themselves and their teammates. Something Kidd must achieve on his own is proper rotations and keeping his veteran’s legs fresh for April. Although slightly on the injury-prone side, the Nets are an elite team who will be jockeying for position in the division all season with the team across the river. IF healthy, the Nets have a chance to bump up a few positions in the standings, but that’s a big if. (There are already rumors Kidd wants to rest Garnett on back-to-backs to save his legs. Garnett isn’t interested, but these concerns will chase the team all season.)
Predicted record: 52-30
4. NEW YORK KNICKS
Key Losses: Chris Copeland, Steve Novak, Jason Kidd
Key Additions: Metta World Peace, Andrea Bargnani, Tim Hardaway Jr., Beno Udrih
Carmelo Anthony heads into his 11th season and has made it out of the first round of the playoffs only twice. ‘Melo is facing a great deal of scrutiny to win a championship after adding a scoring title to his rÃ©sumÃ© last year, and the New York Knicks have planned accordingly.
While keeping their core intact, the Knicks managed to go out with the old guys, and bring in the young guys. But the real steal for the Knicks this offseason was signing Metta World Peace to his hometown team. World Peace brings toughness and defense to a team that is slowly piecing together many great individual defenders. Meanwhile, their offense has more options outside of J.R. Smith and Anthony. Andrea Bargnani was brought in to take some of the load off Anthony’s back, and Iman Shumpert is pinned by many to have his best season yet.
Last year, the Knicks managed to win 54 games with a shredded roster. This year, their health is improved and their depth has been patched. A hungry Carmelo Anthony and company should have something to prove after being out-toughed by the Indiana Pacers in the playoffs. With an improved roster over last season, the Knicks are looking to defend the Atlantic Division and silence doubters.
Predicted record: 55-27
3. CHICAGO BULLS
Key Losses: Nate Robinson, Richard Hamilton
Key Additions: Derrick Rose (missed entire season), Tony Snell, Mike Dunleavy
The spotlight in Chicago this year will be on the returning Derrick Rose, who takes the Bulls to a whole different level. But it’s not like the Bulls were awful without Rose. They sported a 45-37 record and went on to the second round to face the champion Miami Heat. They did, however, lose Nate Robinson to free agency, a big part of their playoff run that could have went further with Rose. Before tearing his ACL, D-Rose was averaging 22 points and eight assists. It shouldn’t take him long to get back to form and take back his spot as perhaps the best point guard in the NBA.
The one thing that has changed drastically since Rose last played is the competitiveness of the Central Division, where there are at least four playoff contenders. This could be the toughest division this year, which will take some wins away from Chicago as it will be much tougher to dominate their division like they used to. But Tom Thibodeau is a mastermind that gets his players to play their best defense possible with bullying their opponents.
Predicted record: 57-25
2. INDIANA PACERS
Key Additions: C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, Luis Scola
Key Losses: Jeff Pendergraph (has legally changed his name to Jeff Ayres)
The Indiana Pacers fell one game short of making the NBA Finals last season and showed the league they mean business. They are a young, resilient team that was maintained over the offseason. Paul George is ready to get over the hump after averaging 17 points last season and defending LeBron James very well in the playoffs. In the frontcourt, David West and Roy Hibbert will look to continue their dominance offensively in the post, making mince meat of their opponents all night on the boards and under the rim.
Indiana will be determined to finish second and avoid Miami at all costs until the Eastern Conference Finals. Still, their team has grown together as a unit with stable coaching, and has a roster that has a great deal of experience together. They have to beat Miami at some point, especially after losing in each of the last two years to the Heat in the playoffs. Last year they finished 49-32, but ultimately played much better in the playoffs, especially on defense and with George’s offense. The defense should help them end up on the high end of 50 wins.
Predicted record: 57-25
1. MIAMI HEAT
Key Losses: Mike Miller
Key Additions: Michael Beasley, Greg Oden
The defending back-to-back champions still have no reason to worry as long as LeBron James is their ace. If you think you’ve seen the best out of LeBron James, you should rethink your logic. James can win 60 games alone, but he may have one of the best teams he’s ever played with this year.
As Dwyane Wade‘s game continues to slow, he still averaged 21 points per game last year, and Chris Bosh is quietly in the prime of his career, all while filling their biggest need in a defensive center. The low risk/high reward signing of Greg Oden will help solidify the boards and make teams think twice about trying to bang on the Heat. Oden will need to be healthy when it matters most in May, so his minutes could possibly be limited during the regular season. This isn’t too much of an issue though; James will have no problem helping out on the boards.
Miami will ultimately cruise until the playoffs, and kick it into their notorious second gear around the conference finals. They have their eyes set on a three-peat this year, and it’s very realistic.
Predicted record: 60-22
What do you think?
Follow Steve on Twitter at @Steve_Scafidi.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.