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Babbling Through An NBA Season Preview, Part II: The East

Eastern_medium A Daily Babble Production

We took our swings (and likely quite a few misses) yesterday at projecting the Western Conference's regular season results.  Let's roll out the picks in the East, home of the defending world champions, your Boston Celtics.

(I really love saying that.)

Worse Than the Knicks

15.  New Jersey Nets

What's good:  They have cut some salary, and they have their point guard of the future in Devin Harris.  Vince Carter has been saying all the right things about seeing this rebuilding phase through and being a leader on this team.  Sean Williams has the potential to be a major shot-blocking presence in this league with some seasoning.

What's bad: No matter what he says, we'll believe that Air Loafer Carter can truly be a leader for a young team when we see it.  The Nets aren't especially well-coached, and they spent the summer bringing in low-priced veterans in order to more firmly entrench themselves in playing-for-LBJ-in-2010 mode.  Trenton Hassell, Eduardo Najera and Keyon Dooling aren't leading this group to the promised land anytime soon.

What happens: The Nets keep saving for 2010, and they remain largely irrelevant until then.

The Knicks Themselves

14.  New York Knicks

What's good: Isiah Thomas is no longer in control.  Mike D'Antoni is in, and he plans to let this team run and gun, which might make a group with a fair degree of selfish offensive firepower more dangerous than it was in past seasons.

What's bad: See here.  And here.

What happens: They score a bit more than they did last year, and the likes of Zach Randolph and Stephon Marbury probably see their individual statistical production rise.  But the 'Bockers still don't defend anyone and still have largely the same roster of selfish head cases that they have had for some time.  Which means they still won't be winning too many games.

A Little Better Than the Knicks

13.  Charlotte Bobcats

What's good: Enter one of the game's greatest teachers in Larry Brown.  He's got a lot of promising young tools to work with in Emeka Okafor, Gerald Wallace and Ray Felton alongside veterans Jason Richardson and Nazr Mohammed.

What's bad: No one's entirely sure of Wallace's health status or whether or not the Bobcats are currently trying to move him.  Felton hasn't developed as quickly as some would hope, and he may be on a short leash with draftee D.J. Augustin waiting in the wings at the point.  Adam Morrison looks like he's going to be a terrible NBA player, and there isn't a ton of depth here.  We saw in New York what can happen if Brown loses patience with a young team, and there is at least a threat of the same here.

What happens: Brown sticks it out and struggles through with his youngsters, and by the end of the season, they show some progress on the defensive end in particular.  But the learning curve is a slow one, and this team remains on the short end far more often than not in its fifth year in existence.

12.  Milwaukee Bucks

What's good: Larry Harris is out as general manager.  The Bucks have solved their hole at the three by bringing in Richard Jefferson.  Enter Scott Skiles, the type of take-no-prisoners defensive-minded coach needed by a team that finished dead last in defensive efficiency a year ago.

What's bad:  Starting with centerpiece Michael Redd, the defensive personnel still isn't very good.  Ramon Sessions had a few insanely productive games down the stretch when the Bucks were playing out the string last year, but instituting him as the starting point guard has the potential to backfire.  No one is really sure what the long-term front office plan is.

What happens: They make some improvements defensively, and Andrew Bogut continues to improve at center.  But the Bucks don't have the horses to compete for the playoffs.

The X-factor

11.  Chicago Bulls

What's good: Hello, Derrick Rose!  Luol Deng should be fully healthy this time around, and the team has Ben Gordon back on a qualifying order rather than a mega-contract.  Vinny Del Negro comes in as a new coach with a fresh start who doesn't have to deal with Ben Wallace (traded at the February deadline last season).

What's bad: The backcourt is a jumble.  Kirk Hinrich is getting paid a lot of money to either play out of position at the two or to sit behind Derrick Rose.  Larry Hughes is being paid a lot of money to be Larry Hughes, which is really not a very good thing.  Ben Gordon's role, as always, could be in flux.

What happens: Who knows?  The questions extend well beyond the backcourt.  What does this team actually have in Tyrus Thomas?  How will Hinrich and Deng bounce back this season?  How far will Jo Noah progress this year?  How much is it fair to expect from Rose as a rookie?  As I said during my chat with Sopan Deb on WTBU's "Friday Night Sports Block" last week, I wouldn't be shocked to see this team finish 10th or 11th in the East, and I wouldn't be shocked to see it finish fifth or sixth.  For now, the guess will be that there are too many new adjustments that need to be made and bounce-back seasons that need to be had, and while this team develops throughout the season, it won't be ready to make a real statement in the East.

On the Outskirts of the Playoff Picture

10.  Indiana Pacers

What's good: Mike Dunleavy and Danny Granger fit very well in Jim O'Brien's fling-fling-fling system.  Larry Bird has committed to giving his coach players that will fit within his system, and he brought in T.J. Ford on draft night while exporting Jermaine O'Neal's contract.  Brandon Rush is a Babble favorite from the 2008 draft class, and he projects to be a contributor off the bench right away for the Pacers.

What's bad: The system isn't actually all that great.  It's fun to watch, and when shots are falling, it leads to a lot of points.  But as Celtics fans know too well, you can only get so far by living and dying with the three-pointer.  The teams Obie coached in Boston were led by stars in Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker.  This one isn't anywhere near as good.

What happens: The uptempo Pacers are a lot of fun to watch, but they aren't particularly adept at outscoring their opponents.  The Pacers stay in the fight for the eighth spot in the East, but they run out of steam down the stretch.

9.  Atlanta Hawks

What's good: They bring back a highly promising core of youngsters that features Marvin Williams, Al Horford and freak athlete Josh Smith.  Joe Johnson returns as a veteran leader and one of the league's biggest scoring threats and most clutch players.

What's bad: They didn't do anything to get better this summer.  Yes, the Hawks' young core should improve with time, but in a conference in which Toronto traded for Jermaine O'Neal, Philly acquired Elton Brand and Miami got healthy, the Hawks countered by losing Josh Childress overseas.  Mike Bibby's ability to regain his old form is in plenty of doubt.

What happens: They play the same peaks-and-valleys mediocre brand of basketball they did throughout the 2007-08 regular season, only this time it isn't good enough to get them into the postseason.

Securing Births

8.  Washington Wizards

What's good: If they're healthy, the Wizards are really dangerous.  Gil Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison give this team a lot of explosiveness.  Jamison was absurdly good in the 2007 playoffs, and he was one of just four players to average better than 20 points and 10 boards per game last season.

What's bad: They rarely seem to be healthy, and even when they have, the defense hasn't been good.  The Wiz finished just 24th in defensive efficiency last season.

What happens: Another injury-laden season pushes the Wizards to the brink of the playoff picture, but their stars give them just enough to complement an improvement in defensive philosophy (thanks to new assistant Randy Ayers) and squeeze them into the playoffs.

7.  Miami Heat

What's good:  A healthy Dwyane Wade is one of the best players on this planet.  A healthy Shawn Marion is a very nice complement for him.  Michael Beasley adds a new dimension to this team in the frontcourt.

What's bad: Nobody knows exactly what's going to happen at the point and in the pivot, only the two most important positions on the floor.

What happens: Dwyane Wade plays really, really well.  Marion plays like he's in a contract year (which he is).  Beasley alternates between flashes of brilliance and idiocy.  Shaun Livingston has a resurgence at the point.  While still a year or two away from really contending, the Heat remind us that at full health, they are nothing like the D-League squad that won 15 games last year while wearing Heat jerseys.

6.  Toronto Raptors

What's good: Jose Calderon is entrenched as the starting point guard coming off a year in which he put up better than 11 points and 8 assists per game to go with 60.7 percent true shooting.  Chris Bosh is a model of consistency and has a true frontcourt complement in Jermaine O'Neal, who comes to Toronto hungry for redemption after a decline in recent seasons.

What's bad:  Andrea Bargnani still has yet to prove himself worthy of a first overall selection.  The bench doesn't have a ton of scoring pop.

What happens: The Raps play good basketball, and O'Neal has a good if unspectacular inaugural season north of the border.  But they get leapfrogged by an Atlantic Division foe that made a bigger improvement than they did this summer.

Not To Be Taken Lightly

5.  Philadelphia 76ers

What's good:  They took a stable of young talent that overachieved last year (Thaddeus Young, Louis Williams, Willie Green) and augmented it with Elton Brand while keeping veteran leader Andre Miller and rising stud Andre Iguodala around as well.

What's bad:  Not a whole lot.  The team had a great offseason with the addition of Brand, and the Sixers are poised to make a jump in the East.  Sam Dalembert needs to continue to improve his defensive positioning, but he showed progress last year and is likely to do the same this year alongside Brand and with veteran reserve Theo Ratliff in his ear.

What happens: They do everything short of gaining homecourt advantage in the first round, and they play consistently solid basketball throughout the season.  Williams and Young continue to blossom, and a healthy Brand returns to his workhorse form of 2006-07.

4.  Orlando Magic

What's good: The best young big man in the game in Dwight Howard.  A rare true point forward in Hedo Turkoglu, who only continues to get better.  One of the game's most promising coaches in Stan Van Gundy.  An acclimated Rashard Lewis entering his second season in Orlando. 

What's bad: Confusion about the bench rotation and worries about Jameer Nelson at the point.

What happens: Howard's monstrosity increases, and the Magic sail to the Southeast Division title.

3.  Detroit Pistons

What's good: They return the core of a team that has made six consecutive appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals, and they have two of the league's best young players coming off the bench in Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiell.  Also, Flip Saunders is gone and replaced with defensive-minded Michael Curry.

What's bad: Very little as far as the regular season is concerned.  The veteran core isn't getting any younger, and this team has had trouble getting past the ECFs as of late, but flying through the regular season has yet to become an issue.  No reason to believe it will now.

What happens: The Pistons cruise through another productive regular season but have to proclaim that they don't care about seeding as they get unseated atop the Central Division.

Royalty Rising

2.  Cleveland Cavaliers

What's good:  LeBron James.

The Cavs also bring back a defense that has finished 11th and fourth in efficiency over the last two years, and the 2007-08 squad that finished 11th did so after being without Anderson Varejao for the first quarter of the season.

The Cavs brought in Mo Williams to add some scoring punch alongside the head honcho, and if Mike Brown can convince him to share the ball and play some defense, he could really be an asset.  Of course, that's no certainty.

Also, LeBron James.  This guy gets better every year.  He was miserable for a good portion of the series with the Celts last year, and he still almost carried his team to victory against the eventual champs.  His next frontier seems to be becoming a dominant defender on the perimeter, and he may already be well on his way in that direction.  Just an absolute freak.

What's bad: There's still a question as to whether or not the non-LBJ guys on this team can score enough to support him.  Williams should help that, but he requires a lot of shots and may occasionally stagnate ball movement.

What happens: That James character continues to play superbly good basketball, and the Cavs' defense is stingy enough to offset the occasional offensive drought.  The Cavs win the Central Division for the first time in James' career, and Cleveland retains its status as the biggest Eastern threat to the reigning champs.

Champion and Favorite Until Proven Otherwise

1.  Boston Celtics

Matt Watson has it right in his mission statement over at Detroit Bad Boys:  "...completely fair and unbiased opinions of 29 of the Association's 30 teams."

That about sums it up for the Babble as well.

Alas, it might not hurt to note that this particular squad is also returning the entire starting five of a reigning championship team.

Sure, the concerns about the loss of James Posey and the bench remain here, and come playoff time, we may have to scrutinize those issues a bit more carefully - before ultimately coming to the same conclusion about how the Celtics will finish, no matter the evidence.  But as for now, this is a team that should still be well built to cruise right on through the regular season.

And that's just what the defending world champion Boston Celtics (couldn't resist it one more time) will do.

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