The days of the Leastern Conference are now long gone, but the league still isn’t quite up to par when compared to the West.
However, talented, up-and-coming young teams like Orlando, Charlotte, and Cleveland combined with standbys with staying power like Miami, Detroit, and New Jersey give the conference a bright future.
Here is my prediction for how the Eastern Conference will stack up by the end of the 2006-2007 NBA season:
1. New Jersey-
The Nets are treading water on their ultimate quest to take home an NBA Championship, but they remain a strong team built to run and score a lot of points. Marcus Williams should be a fine understudy for Jason Kidd and his UConn teammate Josh Boone has some potential at the PF slot.
2. Boston Celtics-
Danny Ainge has acquired a lot of young talent but most of it still hasn’t panned out. Paul Pierce is a true superstar but he hates losing and it has affected his attitude. They’re here pretty much by default in a bad division. Sebastian Telfair might benefit from playing with Pierce and cash in on some of his immense potential.
3. Philadelphia 76ers-
Allen Iverson will win them a couple dozen games on his own, but he’s getting up there in age and deserves a better supporting cast. Rodney Carney is an interesting draft pick who should help but there’s not enough offense or speed on defense here.
4. Toronto Raptors-
The Raptors finally cut bait with some of their deadweight players like Rafael Araujo and Matt Bonner and added speedy point guard T.J. Ford. They’re headed in the right direction but don’t have much depth right now. Chris Bosh is a superstar in the making but number-one overall pick Andrea Bargnani isn’t ready to contribute much yet.
5. New York Knicks-
Looking at their roster on paper in comparison to other teams in the division, you’d think they’d compete for the title. But there are too many egos and too many players that don’t play without the ball. This is like a far weaker version of the USA Olympic team of 2004. If Isiah Thomas were smart, he’d try to replicate the Phoenix Suns’ up-and-down style because this selfish bunch will be painful to watch in a half-court offense.
1. Detroit Pistons-
Losing Ben Wallace hurts the defense but Nazr Mohammed is a decent fill-in. The other four All Star-caliber players on the roster should raise their games to compensate for Big Ben’s absence and the bench will be much better this year.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers-
Historically an inept franchise, but they have some guy named LeBron now who’s pretty good, not to mention near-unstoppable in a league where traveling calls are rare and almost any kind of honest defense is discourage by the rules. Rookie Shannon Brown should be a good running mate for the King.
3. Chicago Bulls-
Ben Wallace will make an already great defense that much better, but he also makes an inconsistent offense worse. P.J. Brown is not exactly the ideal compliment to Wallace, either. This team will remind many of the 2002-2003 Pistons.
4. Indiana Pacers-
This team is overloaded with talent swingmen but still doesn’t have a reliable point guard to get them the ball. Al Harrington should make their frontline very athletic and dominating, however, and Rick Carlisle is a great regular season coach.
5. Milwaukee Bucks-
This is a very good team stuck in a stacked division. They got talented big man Charlie Villanueva from Milwaukee for T.J. Ford to add to a solid frontline, but they’re lacking at point guard now. Michael Redd can get hot and carry them for stretches but he’s their only proven, consistent scorer. They’ll stay competitive and be a contender very soon, however.
1. Miami Heat-
The defending champs bring everybody back, including coach Pat Riley, and Shaq and Dwayne Wade still form the league’s best duo. They’re an aging team but as long as they have those two, everyone else will continue to get open shots and the team will continue to hit on all cylinders in a weak division.
2. Washington Wizards-
Gilbert Arenas’ scoring talent is off-the-charts and he has a good supporting cast of solid wing players. Free agent pickups Darius Songaila and DeShawn Stevenson are quality players but that’s all the Wizards added in the off-season, leaving little hope for much more than a run to the second round, and even that may be too much to ask.
3. Orlando Magic-
This team came on late last year and almost made a run at the 8th playoff spot. They should continue to improve this season as Dwight Howard makes his ascent toward the top of everyone’s list of best big men. Darko Milicic might actually contribute some this year if he stays focused and works hard.
4. Charlotte Bobcats-
This team is a who’s who of collegiate stars from the past couple of years but doesn’t have any proven All Star-caliber NBA players. Adam Morrison adds much needed outside shooting and should help sell some tickets, but he doesn’t play much defense. There’s a solid core here but no go-to guy. Raymond Felton should get the opportunity to start as he is an important piece to the puzzle and Brevin Knight isn’t in their future plans.
5. Atlanta Hawks-
They needed a starting point guard, so they went out and got Speedy Claxton, a backup point guard, for starter’s money. Still, he’s an upgrade over what they had last year and Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, and Joe Johnson are all top-notch athletes with good versatility. Shelden Williams will also help at PF but is a bit undersized and doesn’t have a very high ceiling as a player.