1. Boston Celtics: How can I pick against a team with three perennial All-Stars in a division that has been the doormat of the NBA for the past five years? Even if only two of these stars stay healthy – Pierce and Allen are both injury-prone while Garnett is an iron man – this team still has the best duo in the East. The Celtics are a lock to win the East, even with a weak bench.
2. Toronto Raptors: Chris Bosh is a flat-out stud, and this team is led by its stellar guard play in T.J. Ford. Andrea Bargnani seems legitimate and should only improve during his second year in America. This is a well-balanced team that should be able to duplicate last year’s results.
3. New Jersey Nets: The Nets have the best 1-3 in the game. Jason Kidd can still ball, Vince Carter can still fly and Richard Jefferson is a solid small forward, but this team has no frontcourt presence. Unless they improve their bench, or Sean Williams can make an immediate impact, the Nets seem likely to remain steeped in mediocrity.
4. My New York Knicks: If Zach Randolph can stay away from strip clubs and Eddy Curry’s heart doesn’t explode, these two low post scorers can co-exist. The Knicks will also be set if Stephon Marbury plays like he did during the second half of last year and David Lee, Quentin Richardson and Jamaal Crawford can stay healthy. But those are some serious Ifs.
5. Philadelphia 76ers: Andre Iguadola is a budding superstar, but the pieces are just not there around him yet. While the team has some interesting young players in Rodney Carney and Thaddeus Young, there are too many holes for this team to make any noise.
1. Chicago Bulls: The Bulls are clearly the class of the Central Division. Deng cannot be stopped and has one of the best mid-range games in the NBA. Combine Deng’s prowess with Gordon’s sweet stroke, Hinrich’s intelligence, Ben Wallace’s defense and some potentially lethal youngsters (Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah) and the Bulls look primed to make a run.
2. Detroit Pistons: While everyone else makes drastic changes, the Pistons seem to stay the same every year. Chauncey Billups will have a bounce back year, Richard Hamilton seems to only get better with age and their defense and frontcourt are solid as usual. If Tayshaun Prince continues to raise his level of play and Jason Maxiell gets an opportunity, the Pistons will surprise their critics.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers: Yes, LeBron James is the best player in the NBA, but the Cavs continually fail to add any pieces to this puzzle. And aside from Daniel Gibson, Cleveland has no one that would start on any other NBA team, let alone play a major role. LeBron’s back will be hurting by the end of this year.
4. Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks were decimated by injury last season and rarely played with all parts healthy. If the Bucks can stay half as healthy this year, they should improve upon last year’s misery. But the pick of Yi Jianlian is baffling and seems to add to the string of lackluster, young big men on the Bucks.
5. Indiana Pacers: This team has never been the same since the Palace Melee. Call it the curse of Ron Artest or the curse of Stephen Jackson. The Indiana Pacers are a team that needs to rebuild and Jermaine O’Neal will not last the season on this futile team.
1. Washington Wizards: Gilbert Arenas is in a contract year. This is a guy whose whole career has been motivated by proving people wrong for passing on him. Think he wouldn’t love to rub it in to these teams by demanding top dollar on the free agent market? Arenas will light up the NBA this year, and Caron Butler is a more than adequate second option. While the defense and front court are suspect, this team should win a ton of games.
2. Miami Heat: An angry Dwayne Wade is bad news for the rest of the East. If Shaq plays 50 regular season games and the Heat can get a decent seed in the East, anything can happen. Wade will do enough to carry this team to the playoffs. While they might not win as many games as the Wizards, they remain the more balanced, dangerous team come playoff time.
3. Orlando Magic: Dwight Howard is the real deal, but he cannot take over games offensively yet. Also, the Rashard Lewis signing is a head scratcher, as he has never proved he could play on a winning team and has never stayed healthy. The Magic just don’t seem to have the necessary pieces in place to do any serious damage.
4. Atlanta Hawks: It took long enough, but the Hawks finally have a good point guard in Acie Law IV. Law IV and Al Horford are two of the most NBA ready rookies in the league and should help bring some stability to Atlanta. But even with this plethora of youthful talent, the Hawks are a year or two away.
5. Charlotte Bobcats: Simply put, no one on this team can stay healthy, and no one is that good. Gerald Wallace fills the stat sheet and is a fantasy monster but has never been a winner. Jason Richardson was a nice addition, but he is in no means going to make this team an immediate contender. They are a long shot, at best.