NBA Eastern Conference Preview

1. Boston Celtics: After a storybook season last year, the Celtics are looking for nothing short of back-to-back championships this year. With Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett, this team has too much talent to not dominate the regular season as they did last year in compiling a 66-16 record. Although it remains to be seen whether they can pull out as many close calls in the playoffs as they did last year, look for the Celtics to reel in the East’s top seed in May.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers: With the addition of point guard Mo Williams, who recorded averages of 17.2 points and 6.3 assists per game for the Milwaukee Bucks last year, the Cavs finally appear to have assembled a half-decent backcourt to complement all-world SF LeBron James. That being said, the Cavs will only go as far as James is willing to carry them. If he comes out looking to establish his dominance night in and night out, James should bring home Cleveland its first Central Division title of his career.

3. Philadelphia 76ers: After over-achieving all of last season, the Sixers made the biggest deal of the off-season in luring Elton Brand away from the Clippers and landing him in Philadelphia. While Andre Iguodala may not be a franchise player, he now becomes an excellent second option on a team that also features athletic youngsters Thaddeus Young, Willie Green, and Louis Williams. If the perennially underrated Andre Miller was capable of leading the hard-working Sixers to within two games of knocking of the Pistons in the playoffs, the sky is now the limit for this team that finally has the talent to compete in the Atlantic Division.

4. Detroit Pistons: After yet another loss in the Eastern Conference Finals, President Joe Dumars promised changes this year in the Motor City. However this time around he was unable to deliver, as the Pistons have again brought back the same aging nucleus that won them the NBA title in 2004. This is bad news for Detroit fans, whose team has to be demoralized by coming up short so many years in a row. If it was not clear already, last year made it evident that even the players themselves are beginning to question their ability to compete for the title. Although they do posses young talent coming off the bench in Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiell, it seems unlikely that the Pistons will be headed to their seventh straight Conference Final in 2009.

5. Orlando Magic: Similar to the situation in Cleveland with Lebron James, this team will only go as far as Dwight Howard is capable of carrying them. While Hedo Turkoglu turned out a great season last year, and the addition of ultra-athletic Frenchman Mickael Pietrus from the Warriors definitely gives much needed depth to the Magic backcourt, the fate of the Magic lies squarely on the broad shoulders of their star center.

6. Chicago Bulls: Returning every key player from a team that advanced to the conference semifinals in 2007, the Bulls were the most disappointing team last year, as they started the season in disarray and eventually ending up missing the playoffs altogether. It remains to be whether the addition of number one overall pick Derrick Rose will bring any immediate results this season, as his play in summer league indicated he still has plenty of room for improvement, but regardless the Bulls have too much talent to repeat their perplexingly miserable performance last year, so look for them to make the playoffs in 2009. If they can emerge from their season-long slump they could even cause some serious damage in the playoffs, but that remains a big if at this point.

7. Washington Wizards: Similar to the Raptors, the Wizards have put together a formidable core of players, but have not been able to make the ultimate leap into the NBA’s elite. Unfortunately for Washington fans, as entertaining a persona star Gilbert Arenas is off the court, it remains to be seen whether the Wizards are truly a better team on the court with him running the point. Perhaps priority number one for this franchise is to simply stay healthy during the regular season and most importantly for the playoffs, so that they can finally determine how far the “Big Three” of Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler is capable of taking them.

8. Toronto Raptors: The Raptors are the perfect example of a team that just seems to be unable to make the jump into serious contention. In a desperate move this off-season, Toronto’s front office sent point guard T.J. Ford to Indiana in return for oft-injured Center Jermaine O’Neal. While in his prime O’Neal was one of the best all-around players in the game, the truth of the matter is that it has been years since he has been relevant. If he can recover even a semblance of his all-star form, the Raptors would have one of the most formidable frontcourts in the game in pairing O’Neal up with franchise player Chris Bosh. For this reason fans in Toronto are hoping that O’Neal proves to be the missing piece to the puzzle.

9. Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks are a team that seems to really struggle getting the most out of its talent. It would appear the Bucks have a solid core of players, in Olympian Michael Redd, Andrew Bogut, Charlie Villanueva, and others, but their records over the past few years have indicated quite the opposite. The fact that they all appear allergic to defense certainly does not help, however the hiring of Scott Skiles should improve Milwaukee in that category. Additionally, the addition of Richard Jefferson and Joe Alexander brings even more athleticism to the Bucks’ roster.

10. Atlanta Hawks: Atlanta was the surprise team in the East last season, coming to within one game of knocking off the Celtics. However this offseason the Hawks’ front office seemed to express little interest and sustaining and improving upon last year’s performance, allowing swingman Josh Childress walk off to Europe, and refusing to compensate restricted free-agent Josh Smith until after he signed a deal with the Grizzlies. Motivation will probably be a big an issue for this young team, and hence they will most likely miss out on the playoffs in 2009.

11. New Jersey Nets: While the Nets admit they are in the midst of a rebuilding campaign after missing the playoffs for the first time in 6 years last season, they are aiming to do so on the run. Rod Thorn pulled off yet another heist in shipping off disgruntled Jason Kidd to Dallas, landing both youthful talent and an assortment of draft picks. While Milwaukee got the better end of the Richard Jefferson deal for Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons. If Yi develops into any kind of consistent contributor, the Nets could contend sooner than most people think, as they have great frontcourt depth in Yi, Josh Boone, Sean Williams, and rookie Brook Lopez.

12. Miami Heat: For Heat fans who tuned into the Olympics this summer, the inspiring play of Dwyane Wade brought signs of hope to the franchise. Many experts are predicting that the Heat will improve upon a dismal 2007-2008 campaign in which they could only muster a mere 15 wins, and even perhaps contend for a playoff spot. Unfortunately, such lofty predictions are completely unfounded. It doesn’t matter who your shooting guard is if you have Chris Quinn and Mark Blount in your starting line-up. While the addition of Michael Beasley definitely bulks up their anemic frontcourt, don’t expect the Heat to present a serious challenge to any Eastern Conference contenders.

13. New York Knicks: The big news for the Knicks this summer was the signing of Mike D’Antoni away from the Phoenix Suns. New York is hoping that D’Antoni’s presence will resonate with an uninspired group of players, and that he will be able to avoid the same abysmal results as the previous two coaches they hired-Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas.

14. Charlotte Bobcats: Despite the fact that they are entering their fifth season in the league, the Bobcats remain years away from serious contention. Gerald Wallace is one of the most underrated all-around players in the game, and Jason Richardson is an above average two-guard, but the rest of their line-up is deficient in many ways. While Charlotte fans may hail the arrival of coach Larry Brown, they may be forgetting the results of the last rebuilding project Brown inherited. Look for the Bobcats to spend another season as cellar-dwellers in the East.

15. Indiana Pacers: After missing the playoffs in back to back seasons for the first time since the 80’s, the Pacers were looking for change heading into the 2008-2009 season. Unfortunately this team is still struggling to recover from the Malice at the Palace that occurred almost four years ago. While they have been stockpiling youthful assets and have solid building blocks in Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy, the Pacers will still find themselves in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference when it’s over.