Last week, we talked about the teams that will lord it over the Western Conference. In that column, I picked the Los Angeles Clippers to finally get over the hump and come out in the West with the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder closely behind. For the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat, barring major injuries, will dominate and have a good shot at winning their 3rd straight title. The following are the beasts in the east by ranking:
1) Miami Heat—The Miami Heat return with the same line-up from last year’s championship run. However they added two key pieces in versatile forward Michael Beasley and come backing center Greg Oden. If Beasley can focus on basketball instead of his off-court issues, he can play a vital part in the rotation given his talent. Oden, meanwhile, is not expected to contribute right away given the extent of his injuries. If he is able to play, his defensive presence alone will be a boost to the Heat frontcourt. Of course the Heat’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh are all at the peak of their careers. Enough said.
2) Chicago Bulls—After a one-year hiatus, the Bulls’ franchise player Derrick Rose has returned. Judging by his performance in the preseason, the 2010-11 MVP has rehabbed successfully and looks explosive as ever. Rose rejoins a core (e.g. Joakim Noah, Luol Deng) that he is familiar and comfortable with. Add the development of guard Jimmy Butler and the Bulls have a good shot of dethroning the Heat. Coach Tim Thibodeau remains on the bench and you can be sure that the Bulls will have one of the stingiest defenses in the league.
3) Indiana Pacers —The Pacers were only one game away from reaching the NBA Finals but fell short due to the lack of bench depth. In the off-season, the Pacers have reloaded and acquired key bench players namely Luis Scola, Chris Copeland, and C.J. Watson. We will also see the return of resident star Danny Granger from injury, which would give more scoring options to coach Frank Vogel. The team has a rising star in Paul George and other young talented turks in George Hill and Roy Hibbert. The Pacers are definitely primed to go all the way.
4) Brooklyn Nets —The arrival of veterans Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce gives stability to the Nets both on the court and in the locker room. Owner Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov is pulling out all the stops (read that as spending tens of millions in salaries and luxury taxes) to ensure that the Nets win a championship now. An interesting addition is defensive specialist Andrei Kirilenko whose main job will be to guard the scorers of other conference rivals. The main concern for the Nets is that they have too many alpha dogs on one team, which may wreak havoc on chemistry. Another is first-year coach Jason Kidd’s relative inexperience.
5) New York Knicks—Good but not good enough. This has been story of the New York Knicks over the past several years. Forward Amar’e Stoudemire is still injured (again) and the team will have to lean on Carmelo Anthony once more. While Anthony can score in bunches, his poor defense offsets this. The Knicks have been constrained with the signing of these max salary superstars and their only notable acquisition in the offseason is Andrea Bargnani – another scoring forward terrible on the defensive end. The Knicks will definitely be fun to watch but don’t expect any surprises from this team.