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NBA Season Preview: Heat, Pacers, Nets are tops in Eastern Conference

No fewer than three teams are viable challengers to Miami’s three-year supremacy.

Miami Heat small forward LeBron James passing as New Orleans Pelicans power forward Ryan Anderson defends during the second half of Wednesday's preseason game.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

First of three articles

Welcome to MinnPost’s 2013-14 NBA preview. Today we’ll look at the Eastern Conference, where no fewer than three teams are viable challengers to Miami’s three-year supremacy and a competitive scrum for the final two or three playoff spots is likely to remain unresolved right up until the end of the regular season.

Tuesday will be devoted to the Western Conference as the NBA regular season begins. Wednesday will feature my preview for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who open their season that evening. The Wolves will be the focus of attention and commentary through to the playoffs — and hopefully beyond — next spring.

Both the Eastern and Western Conference previews are organized according to how I think teams will fare within their divisions, with predicted conference seedings in parentheses.

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Feedback is encouraged and intelligent comments are especially appreciated and enthusiastically engaged. I have long cherished the wisdom and willingness for dialogue among my readers. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of this endeavor, this expressed mutual enjoyment of the greatest game on the planet.


Atlantic Division

Brooklyn Nets (3)
To get the best out of this sudden surfeit of talent, I would go with Andrei Kirilenko starting and Paul Pierce as sixth man, am only three-quarters convinced Jason Kidd will immediately be a good coach, and wonder if Kevin Garnett and Reggie Evans will kill each other in practice, with Andray Blatche egging them on (they should charge for admission). Touches and shots will be at a premium on such a star-studded squad, but Kidd and crew can’t forget about Joe Johnson, who is key to spreading the floor for Brook Lopez. Biggest question: Can point guard Deron Williams curb his game and his ego to fit championship caliber teammates?

New York Knicks (5)
Prepare for regression. Eight Knicks shot better than 35 percent on at least 100 attempts from three-point territory last season (that’s obviously never been done before) and New York committed 82 fewer turnovers (one less per game) than the next best team — and a whopping 204 fewer turnovers than the league average. Even if Jason Kidd hadn’t retired to go coach in Brooklyn, those extraordinary examples of offensive efficiency are not sustainable. Hope for improvement rests on season-long health and vigor from Tyson Chandler and Iman Schumpert, which along with the acquisition of Metta World Peace would upgrade the defense. Trading for Andrea Bargnani and paying big bucks to J.R. Smith highlighted a dumb off-season.

Toronto Raptors (10)
There are more questions than answers in Toronto. Can point guard Kyle Lowry, who hasn’t had a truly satisfying season since playing for Rick Adelman in Houston three years ago, balance his own offense with enabling shooters Rudy Gay and Demar DeRozan on the wing? How high is the performance ceiling for raw but burgeoning big man Jonas Valanciunas? Will new GM Masai Ujiri be patient enough with his roster and coach Dwane Casey — a superb defensive tactician and all-round nice guy — to allow them to realize their potential, or will he blow up the team? If two out of Lowry, Valanciunas and Ujiri blossom on the job, the Raptors can make the playoffs. 

Boston Celtics (13)
The year after removing the cornerstones is always dreadful for a franchise and so it will be in Boston without Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and coach Doc Rivers. How long it takes for Rajon Rondo to fully recover from his knee injury and how well overhyped rookie Kelly Olynyk performs will still only spell the difference between about 16 and 25 wins. Avery Bradley is a full-court stud on defense, but Jeff Green and Brandon Bass are, at best, complementary players. Pundits enamored of his focus on analytics seem to be underestimating the learning curve for new coach Brad Stevens in his jump from Butler of the Horizon League to Boston of the NBA.

Philadelphia 76ers (15)
You know it is a bad team when players are cast in roles that dwarf their ability to fill them. So it is that swingman Evan Turner is the key cog in their offense, rookie Michael Carter-Williams is their playmaker at the point, combo forward Thaddeus Young will carry the burden for scoring in the paint and pick-and-pop mediocrity Spencer Hawes qualifies as their best “big man.” Rookie coach Brett Brown will wait for wunderkind center Nerlens Noel (for whom the Sixers sacrificed point guard Jrue Holiday) to recover from his college injury, and Jason Richardson will be the designated gunner off the bench.

Central Division

Indiana Pacers (2)
The Pacers pushed Miami to seven games in the Conference Finals and then dramatically improved their depth during a very productive off-season. Luis Scola is a far superior backup power forward than the departed Tyler Hansbrough, with a similar skill-set as starter David West. New backup combo guard CJ Watson is properly deferential to more talented teammates but can and will step up and hit the clutch basket. And, oh yeah, former All Star and Olympian swingman Danny Granger will gradually return after missing all but five games last year with a knee injury. (He’ll have to adjust to a lesser role, however.) If Roy Hibbert can join Paul George as one of the league’s top 20 players (a possibility) and George Hill refines his point-guard enabling skills, Indiana won’t be an underdog against the Heat next time. 

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Chicago Bulls (3)
The return of Derrick Rose is an aesthetic delight for hoops fans everywhere, and with center Joakim Noah and swingmen Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler, coach Tom Thibodeau has the barbed wire he needs to scrap for extra possessions and strangle opposing offenses, especially when Taj Gibson comes off the bench to replace Carlos Boozer. The abiding concern is that Thibs pushes his charges, especially his starters, too hard, burning them out in the course of the regular season. On the other hand, it will be fun to see what he wrings out of Mike Dunleavy, a talented scorer who has never defended well.

Detroit Pistons (9)
I’d have the Pistons even higher if they hadn’t bothered to sign shoot-first and shoot-streaky point guard Brandon Jennings and simply left the playmaking in the hands of aging Chauncey Billups and flawed combo guards Will Bynum and Rodney Stuckey. Jennings is a bad fit on a team that already added high-profile free agent Josh Smith to an imposing front line of Greg Monroe and beefy Andre Drummond. Add in the capable second-year man Kyle Singler and the inspired draft pick of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the team is set on the wing. If Smith can improve his shot selection (I am in the minority as a believer) and Tonya Harding whacks Jennings coming out of the dressing room, Detroit will be in the playoffs.

Cleveland Cavs (8)
If everything pans out, the Cavs could become the fifth member of the Eastern Conference elite. But that would require Andrew Bynum getting healthy and reminding us of his glory days with the Lakers; Anderson Varejao staying healthy and comprising a formidable twin tower beside Bynum; Jarrett Jack reprising his stellar season in Golden State last year as an all-purpose combo guard; and Mike Brown (on his second stint in Cleveland) persuading offensive juggernaut Kyrie Irving to play a little defense. Even if one or two of those things happen, the Cavs will be atop the scrum for one of the final two or three bottom playoff seeds in the East. But none are certain, or perhaps even probable.

Milwaukee Bucks (12)
The Bucks have assembled the NBA’s deepest collection of mediocrities, which should land them about 7 to 15 games below .500. Their chances of improvement hinge on whether the freakishly athletic young forwards John Henson and Giannis Antetokounmpo can bend the game to their physical will, whether the freakishly athletic center Larry Sanders can stop fouling and still remain a force on defense, and whether new coach Larry Drew can sell his soul to the devil for some genius pills.

Southeast Division

Miami Heat (1)
What is there left to say about the Heat? They were tempered in the crucible of the public backlash to their self-generated super-team shenanigans, bearing the scrutiny and emerging with three straight Finals appearances and a pair of rings — thus far. Lebron James is in the conversation with Michael Jordan as the best to ever play the game. Miami is confident enough in their depth and team chemistry to take a flyer on chucklehead Michael Beasley and perennial injury tease Greg Oden. Yes, as star cornerstones go, Dwyane Wade is dinged and aging, and Chris Bosh is a trifle soft, enigmatic and maligned. It’s a fascinating dynamic: The less help Lebron receives, the better he becomes to make up the difference. Sign me up for another round. 

Atlanta Hawks (6)
The Hawks get this seeding by default: The teams I ranked 7-10 could all surpass Atlanta but are less reliable with steeper downsides. For example, the new frontcourt duo of Al Horford and Paul Millsap features two unselfish, admirable all-around performers who possess a little too much redundancy for maximum synergy, but contain a high-level of quality control. DeMarre Carroll is a great role player; Jeff Teague a decent second-tier point guard; Kyle Korver a mostly one-dimensional performer who can rain in long jump shots. It all seems pre-programmed for a first-round playoff loss, but credit GM Danny Ferry for cutting what was once a horrible salary situation enough to retool over the next few years.

Washington Wizards (7)
That Washington felt it necessary to trade the injured Emeka Okafor to Phoenix for center Marcin Gortat late last week was an indictment of center-forward Nene Hilario, who theoretically fits better at center (he shoots much better in the paint) but seems to lack the will, if not the skill, to earn the $13 million a year he will make for the next three seasons. In any case, Gortat can play uptempo and Washington is most effective when the backcourt tandem of John Wall and Bradley Beal are freelancing in transition. Small forward is a choice between Martell Webster spreading the floor via three-pointers or Trevor Ariza for defense. Or both, in smallball, if Nene continues to be bedeviled by minor injuries this season. With or without him, the Wizards are on the rise.

Orlando Magic (11)
The Magic have established an identity as a scrappy squad of underdogs, and Rookie Of The Year favorite Victor Oladipo fits perfectly into that mode but with a higher skill set. Third-year center Nikola Vucevic overachieved last season by grabbing a dozen rebounds in 33 minutes per game but is solid even if he takes a slight step back. Aaron Afflalo provides capable defense and veteran leadership and forwards Tobias Harris and Moe Harkless are 20 and 21 years old with significant potential. Throw in Jacque Vaughn as one of the NBA’s best young coaches and it is clear that the rebuild in Disneyland, while slow, is sure — and will be hastened when overpriced vets like Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu and Glen “Big Baby” Davis come off the books.

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Charlotte Bobcats (14)
Bringing in low-post scoring maestro Al Jefferson will bolster an offense that ranked 28th in points per possession last season, but Big Al’s bad instincts at the other end of the court will further befuddle a defense that finished 29th in points allowed per possession. College hoops fans are high on rookie power forward Cody Zellar, who will be thrown into the fray much like last year’s top pick, small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, with mixed results. Point guard Kemba Walker doesn’t facilitate and shooting guard Gerald Henderson would be a nice component off the bench but is overmatched as a starter. The future is not bright.