Eastern Conference Preview

Up until this past summer, few things were as certain in the NBA as the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Any observer worth their salt knew that Orlando would probably secure themselves home court advantage in round one with a No. 3 or 4 seed and that Atlanta would find their way into that good-but-not-elite middle ground, likely winding up on either side of the 4/5 match-up.

Then came a turbulent off-season that saw Dwight Howard ditch Disney World for Disney Land and Joe Johnson get sent packing, alongside his mammoth contract, to Brooklyn in exchange for a pile of warm bodies. The fallout from the pair of Southeast division mega-moves will likely see the Magic fade to also-ran status, with the potential of the Josh Smith-led Hawks still very much to be determined.

So who steps in to fill the void?

Indiana Pacers

The deep roster that propelled them back towards relevance remains mostly in tact, save for a slight downgrade at the point with Darren Collison (traded to Dallas for Ian Mahinmi) out and free agent signee D.J. Augustin in. Still, another year’s maturation for Paul George and Roy “Gangnam Style” Hibbert will help a club that still managed 42 wins last year in a 66-game season against what was a more top-heavy East.

Philadelphia 76ers
I can’t figure out why there isn’t more talk about this young Philly team that made the Conference’s biggest addition by trading for Andrew Bynum. It cost them long-time face of the franchise AI, but the two-way veteran is a small price to pay for the league’s second best center. Beyond Bynum lies the rest of a potential-laden core (Jrue Holliday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young) supported by complementary incoming veterans (Jason Richardson, Nick Young).

Chicago Bulls
The Bulls’ presence on this list, which would have been perceived as an unimaginable slight at this time last year, speaks volumes of the value of Derrick Rose. With a healthy Rose, Chicago would be a lock for a top three seed. Without him, the team faces plenty of questions as to whether it can simply tread water while awaiting the return of their point guard (likely around February). Can Kirk Hinrich balance the offense? Can Luol Deng or Carlos Boozer take charge as leading scorers?

Atlanta Hawks
A salary dump usually coincides with a drop down the standings. However, credit Hawks GM Danny Ferry with not only keeping the rest of a productive core (Smith, Al Horford), but bolstering it with some savvy additions to offset the loss of Johnson. The signing of Lou Williams helps address the scoring void in the back court, while acquiring Devin Harris from Utah for Marvin Williams creates depth at the point alongside Jeff Teague. The club also quickly accounted for the loss in outside shooting from the Johnson trade, bringing in veteran shooters Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow and will find minutes for rookie marksman John Jenkins. One more thought: are we sure that Johnson is actually that good?

New York Knicks
All the stories gleefully talking about the Knicks and their historically old roster are missing the point. Truth is, all of Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Pablo Prigoni could wind up showing their age and flopping in NYC – and this team could STILL be a top four seed. This team will go as far as Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler (and, strange as it sounds, Ray Felton) take them – no more, no less.

Brooklyn Nets
The addition of Joe Johnson could easily be costly in the long term, but that’s not the concern of Mikhail Prokhorov and the Nets for now. Heading into their first season in Brooklyn, the club boasts a defensively porous high-priced star-laden back court, but could struggle when it comes to getting stops and securing critical rebounds. Still, those in attendance at the Barclays Center likely have playoff dates to look forward to.

Quick omission explanation: Miami and Boston are too good, whereas I don’t see any of Toronto, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, Charlotte, Washington or Orlando being in the mix.