NBA 2013 Preview: Eastern Conference

In the post-Jordan Bulls NBA the East has been inferior to the West. That will continue this season and into the foreseeable future. The West is full of smart, creative GMs who can quickly make a bad team good. The East roster of GMs is full of guys in their 2nd or 3rd stints in the job. They are often ex-players who have experienced more failures than successes in their executive careers. They continue to draft and trade their teams into the lottery and hope for a big score there. They’re the old boys network. The gap between the two conferences will remain as long as all the smart GMs continue to reside in Western locales.

The East has 4 bad teams, 2 teams that could crash the playoffs should everything go right but are more likely to finish solidly in the lottery, 3 bubble playoff teams, 5 pretenders and the Heat who will almost certainly win the conference again.

Here are my projections. The records are calculated as the West records were. Basically math followed by tweaking. Records are listed in reverse order, with the top 8 teams hitting the playoffs.

15. Orlando Magic: 14-68: My guess is they’ll be the worst team in the league and that’s by design. The only explanation for the “haul” they received in exchange for the game’s best center is the rebuilding game plan is to get bad as quickly as possible so they can get good again as quickly as possible. They’ll load up on draft picks and hope for a big score in a future lottery. They’re skipping the part where there’s a futile attempt to stay competitive with the 60 cents on a dollar talent typically received for a superstar. This isn’t a terrible plan, but in the first year is always ugly. Any veteran of value will be on the block for draft picks. The best case scenario has the remaining players from the Howard era take a circle the wagons approach, and come out of the gate with a spirited run that carries them to 30+ wins. The problem with that is the veterans remaining on the rosters are a group of role players whose defensive weaknesses were covered by Howard’s presence. Without Howard the weak defense of the likes of Redick, Nelson and Turkoglu is going to become a much bigger issue. I see things in Orlando falling apart quickly.

14. Charlotte Bobcats: 16-66: They were bad last year and did little in the offseason to lift themselves up from the depths. The draft brought a player, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who is better cast as a super role player than some sort of savior. He’ll help, but not enough to lift this bunch to 20+ wins. I do feel they’ll improve enough that they won’t threaten last year’s record bad winning percentage. There are a lot of young players on the roster and that always points the arrow up. The Bobcats remain at least a couple of drafts away from relevance.

13. Detroit Pistons: 20-62: This record is probably a little tough. I tried to tweak some of the records that just didn’t look right, but I can only do so much. To defend the projection, I’ll say that the Pistons have not done a good job drafting and acquiring free agents in their attempts to get back to the level they were in the mid-aughts. Other than Greg Monroe the talent here just isn’t that special. As they stand now, the roster has a promising young center, but a big hole at PF, not much on the wing and an unproven PG whose college numbers project him as a bust. This could well be the year poor personnel decisions of the past will come back to bite the Pistons.

12. Cleveland Cavaliers: 23-59: The Cavs picked a real bad time to get dumped by their superstar. The two drafts that should have served as a start of a rebuilding may have been the worst back-to-back drafts ever in terms of overall talent. While the Cavs have done a nice job with what was available and are forming a decent young core, they’re still at least a couple of more young studs away from looking like a team of the future. Kyrie Irving is definitely a top PG and he’s a good start on the rebuilding.

11. Toronto Raptors: 25-57: The big problem the Raptors have is the two leading scorers, Andrea Bargnini and Demar Derozan, are not only inefficient scorers, but add little in the way of rebounding, defense and passing. Both are the type of player who would might work in the role of 3rd option or as offense off the bench on a contender. Neither is talented enough to be one of the top options on a good team. The Raptors will not get out of the lottery as long as these two are the top offensive options on the team. What this year could become for the Raps is the start of the Valanciunas era. The center, drafted #5 overall in 2010, was impressive in Europe last year and should bring some hope in what looks like an otherwise bleak year.

10. Washington Wizards: 32-50: I don’t like the trades the Wizards made in the last year and over the summer in their quest to crash the playoffs. That’s reflected in this projection. I know they have designs on the playoffs and went all-in with trades of some youngsters for Okafor, Nene and Ariza. Honestly the players they brought in just aren’t all that good. Okafor has been in decline for years. Nene is 30, battling injuries and comes with a bad contract. Ariza just isn’t all that good. Their coach, Randy Wittman, brings a career .331 winning pct. into his 3rd NBA coaching stint, which is another reason to be pessimistic. They could hit the playoffs if everything goes right. The biggest development would be John Wall stepping up in his 3rd season as the all-star he was projected to become. If that doesn’t happen, the trades are more likely to send the team backwards to another rebuilding plan in a couple of years than turn them into a contender.

7. (tie) Milwaukee Bucks: 39-43: The Bucks, Nets and Hawks are all pretty close, so I’m going to bunch all 3 together in the final 2 playoff spots and let the tiebreaker sort things out at the end of the year. The Bucks remade themselves with the Bogut-Ellis trade last season. While the idea of dealing a borderline all-star center for a borderline all-star SG is usually a bad one, The Bucks could come out of this one OK. Ellis’s scoring prowess should allow PG Brandon Jennings to concentrate more on play-making, which is what he does best. Another thing to like about the Bucks is they’ve stockpiled some young, athletic size in players like Ekpe Udoh, John Henson and Larry Sanders. If one or more of these youngsters develops into a valuable energy player, that’s going to give the team quite a boost. The young bigs and Scott Skiles ability to get production out of them is a wild card that makes me think the Bucks have a slight edge on the Hawks and Nets when it comes to hitting the playoffs.

7. (tie) Brooklyn Nets: 39-43: The Nets have spared no expense to remake the team into  a borderline playoff contender.  The playoffs are damn near mandatory for this bunch, since they’re acting like one of the East’s elite. What the Nets have in their favor is the owner does appear willing to take on any contract he can to make this team competitive. That could be either a help or a hindrance, depending on the contracts they decide to take on. The long term problem is the Nets are locked into some really bad contracts for the next few years to a group that has very little upside. While I’m sure it is a fun thing to have a professional sports team back in Brooklyn, there’s a lot of work to be done here before they join the elite of the East. As it stands the team is too weak defensively to contend for anything but a lower seed. There are very few tradable assets on the roster, because the roster is full of overpaid players on long-term contracts. The fact that the brain trust seems ready to pull out all the stops to make this team great is a good thing. But they’re a long way from that point now. Going into the 2013 season this looks like a team that will struggle to make the playoffs.

7. (tie) Atlanta Hawks: 39-43: This projection kind of puzzled me. I think the system was kind of hard on Horford for his injury-hindered season in 2012. They’ll probably be better than this, but they’ve fallen behind the rest of East pretenders, so the 7 seed seems about right. Even if they finish better than this, there’s little about the Hawks to suggest they’re ready to make the leap from pretender to contender. There’s a new GM in town. As is the case with Eastern teams, he’s an ex-player coming off a stint that would have to be called a failure. He’s already dealt one of the main pieces, Joe Johnson, from the team’s recent playoff run and another piece, Josh Smith, seems to always be on the block. The Hawks look like a team that’s going to spend the year deciding on what direction the team will be taking now that the Johnson-Horford-Smith core has been broken up. There will be a lot of: “who stays and who goes” questions being asked and trade scenarios considered. That won’t help the win total and will keep the Hawks as a borderline playoff team.

6. Chicago Bulls: 49-33: If they get the top seed again this year, we can certify Tom Thibideau as a genius, at least during the regular season. The Bulls have a couple strikes against them. Derrick Rose is out until at least sometime in 2013. That will obviously hurt. What really hurts the team though is the gutting of the league’s best bench. Radmanovic, Belinelli and Mohammed are a pretty substantial downgrade from Brewer, Korver and Asik. The team is still good enough to win a lot of games though. Best case scenario for the Bulls seems to be Rose comes back in February as good as ever making them the lower-seed no one wants to face in the playoffs.

5. Boston Celtics: 50-32: I expect their 5-year stranglehold on the Atlantic to end this year. Garnett is 36, Pierce is 35 and Allen is gone. When superstars age, teams decline and that is what’s starting to happen in Boston. The Celtics have done some smart things to keep themselves competitive. Bringing in solid pros like Bass last year and Terry this year will help them stay in the upper echelon of the East. But the Heat knocked them down a peg last year and this is the year they fall behind the improved Sixers and Knicks.

4. Philadelphia 76ers: 52-30: The trade for Bynum and a couple of free agent signings have reorganized this team into what should be a much better functioning unit. This has been a team of slashers and defenders with little scoring punch. Bynum brings an inside game while Nick Young and Dorrell Wright add needed scoring punch from the outside. The presence of these three should make things easier for the likes of Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner.  Iguodala will be missed, but his exit and the remaking of the roster should help Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday to improve their games. Especially Turner, whose skills mirrored those of Iguodala’s. The Sixers have added an improved perimeter game and the league’s 2nd best center to what was already a decent young core. This team is young, talented and put together very smartly. They should finally make a splash this year.

3. Indiana Pacers: 53-29: The Pacers are the one team in the East that would qualify a one of the smarter guys in the room. They built a strong team through the draft and some smart trades. They hired a smart, young coach. They did it without a big lottery score or a superstar showing up at their doorstep. This is a team you should root for. They’re solid at every position and they have a promising young coach. Paul George is a potential star whose emergence should boost a solid roster even more. Granger, West and Hibbert are capable of playing at or at least close to an all-star level. What keeps the Pacers below the Heat and Knicks is there is no real superstar on the roster. That’s going to keep them at a win total in the mid-50s and a playoff ceiling of a conference champion runner-up.

2. New York Knicks: 56-26: The coaching change made a huge difference last year. The Knicks were 17-6 after Woodson took over in March, before losing to the eventual champ in the first round of the playoffs. I wasn’t impressed with Woodson in Atlanta and I have my doubts he’s the answer here. But it’s possible that he’s a good fit with these veterans. The main reason I like the Knicks to emerge as the top challenger to the Heat is the supporting cast they have around Carmelo Anthony. They have the conference’s top defensive presence in Chandler, a solid #2 in Stoudemire, good perimeter defenders in Shumpert and Brewer, a gunner in Novak and steady PG play. That’s pretty much everything a superstar could want. In other words, it’s all there for Carmelo Anthony, so it’s time for him to deliver. Carmelo is a very good player who really needs a “shut up and deliver” type of season after a couple seasons that involved too much drama. Even if things go as well as possible in NY, they’re still not on the level of the Heat and barring a Miami implosion they’ll come up short of a conference championship.

1.Miami Heat: 62-20: They’re the obvious top dog in the East and maybe the entire league. Now we’ll find out if they’re about to embark on a team of the teens dynasty run, or if this is the only title they win and they’re pushed back to mere contender status for a few years before splintering like the ’67 Sixers, ’83 Sixers or the ’08 Celtics. Or maybe it will be something in-between these two extremes. I’m skeptical of the narrative that LeBron James went through a big change and suddenly developed the same sort of psychotic championship drive possessed by Russell and Jordan. An all-time great like LeBron, playing with a supporting cast this good is going to win a championship or two regardless of his mentality. In 2012 the Rose injury, the Thunder’s inexperience and the lack of another great team paved an easy road for Heat. I believe these circumstances had more to do with LeBron’s first title than any sort of personal transformation he may have gone through. I mean they didn’t exactly charge through the playoffs taking no prisoners like the ’91 Bulls or the ’01 Lakers.  The Heat really could go either way in 2013. I like that there’s talk of using a smaller lineup and running more. I don’t like that the interior defense still looks a little weak for a champion. In the final analysis I have to pick them as a repeat champ. The biggest reason is I don’t see a team like Russell’s Celtics ready to take back the league from the ’67 Sixers or a Lakers-Celtics rivalry that became the story of the league following the great one year run of the ’83 Sixers. In other words, I don’t see anyone who can challenge the Heat. I have questions about the chemistry of the Lakers and I think the Harden trade kills off the Thunder. I picked the Nuggets to emerge from the West and I doubt they’ll be much competition for the Heat in the finals. Look for Miami to repeat.

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