"There is a lot of basketball left to play"
"We just taking it one game at a time..."
"We are not looking ahead..."
The above statements and variations of them will come out of NBA players and coaches over the next 3 plus months of the NBA season but the reality is that the outcome is done and dusted in 50% of the Association. Most of your preseason opinion was that the best teams in the East were some combination of Boston, Miami, Orlando, Chicago with Atlanta on the fringe of the top half. While the Knicks return to relevance has been a pleasant surprise,things have gone as we thought. Combined that with the fact that the other nine teams in the conference are non-factors, we can go ahead and preview the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Even injuries to players like Joakim Noah, big trades made by Orlando, and the ever-looming Carmelo watch haven't done anything to shake up standings. Let's look at where we stand today in the East. Keep in mind, unlike the NFL which doesn't re-seed, the NBA correctly does. Record takes priority over division winner
1. Boston : Despite injuries to Rondo and KG, Celtics have been most consistant team in the East from Day One. They still hold a slight lead on Miami for home-court advantage which doesn't mean much. Boston and San Antonio are the only teams in the NBA who don't need home court throughout to win the title. Veteran leadership, toughness, depthy and the best defense in NBA when its all clicking, They have already beaten Miami twice. Will Boston take foot of the gas a bit to save legs?
2. Miami (1/2 game behind Boston, 4 games ahead of Orlando in Southeast,): Put the first two weeks out of your mind, no one wants any part of the Heat right now. LBJ and DWade are doing their best MJ-Pip impersonations and Bosh has found his sea legs. Still worry about this team's lack of credible size but there is no doubt they have more than enough firepower to get out of the East and fulfill all the lofty expectations. One weakness is lack of cap flexibility to make a move for a quality big man. Should have enough to hold off Chicago for 2nd and very much in race for #1
3. Chicago (3.5 games behind Boston, 8 games ahead of Indiana in Central): Leaders of arguably the worst divsion in the NBA (Pacific Divsion right there), the Bulls have the pieces to give any of the elite fits. Well-coached and organized, tough interior defender (Noah), an elite player (Rose) and a great second banana (Boozer). If they can swing a deal for a shooting guard (JR Smith? Rip Hamilton? Stephen Jackson?), Bulls become a real threat to come out of the East. Achilles heal is team struggles to score when Rose is not on the floor. A lock to win division, Bulls need to hold that #3 seed to get a better matchup with the Knicks. Falling to 4 or 5 , means Magic or Hawks who have given them fits in last two to three seasons
4. Orlando (4.5 games behind Boston, 4 games behind Miami in Southeast): Correctly recognized that team they began season with wasn't good enough to compete with Miami once Heat got on track and too soft to beat Boston. Terkoglu, Richardson, and Arenas bring them much needed scoring and late-game toughness. Needs a backup center or power forward to assist Howard on the interior. Despite the move, this is the one team in the top 4 who needs homecourt, best bet is to catch Chicago for 3rd to get a better matchup with New York.
5. Atlanta (5.5 games behind Boston, 5 games behind Miami in Southeast): The Hawks are what they are: a high 40's to 50 win team who doesn't have the matching parts like a Boston or even Chicago to go further, a highly athletic team that plays slower than it should. Hawks need a starting center to allow J-Smoove to move to small forward and Al Horford to power forward. The trio of Johnson, Smith, Horford are just below an elite trio but talented enough to make Hawks a scary first round matchup. Do they part with reigning NBA 6th man of the year Jamal Crawford (in the final year of his contract) to get the center? Like Orlando, Hawks need to start at home in a series, grabbing the 4 seed would be an accomplishment for Larry Drew in his first year as coach
6. New York (7 games behind Boston overall and in Atlantic): Will stop here with the East as the rest of conference is garbage. The upstart Knicks are a nice story but now comes the question? With a lack of tradeable assets (Wilson Chandler? Eddy Curry's terrible but soon to be over contact?), can they make Carmelo's wishes (and satisfy Denver's wants). Felton and Stoudamire have been terrific in the first half, complimented by the erratic but skilled Gallinari and Chandler. If they can pull the Anthony deal, Knicks become a legit threat for #4. The Knicks are probably a year ahead of schedule but the MSG is back abuzz and that's a good thing
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