One of my favorite blogs, TrueHoop, asked a boatload of bloggers what they think of the Eastern Conference. It certainly has improved by leaps and bounds across the board. Personally, I'm not exactly sold in the Celtics just yet. Doc Rivers is still their coach, and their depth chart no longer goes very deep. Yes, this team will make the playoffs with Ticket, but I don't see the supporting cast there. That said, here's my own breakdown of the Eastern Conference, starting with the Southeast:
Atlanta Hawks. It seems like every year, the Hawks target some 6'9" combo forward who can jump out of the gym. This year, they switched things up a bit and drafted a 6'10" power forward who can jump out of the gym AND appears to have a solid basketball IQ. It doesn't hurt that he was the go-to guy on a championship team either. With their second lottery pick, they went with Acie Law, a point guard out of Texas A & M who I really like. He's not super athletic, doesn't excel in any one area, but is a crafty player and a great competitor. The Hawks did quite well in the draft, which is fortunate considering their messed-up ownership situation will not allow them to sign any free agents.
Looks like another year of seasoning for the Hawks' lanky wingmen. Josh Smith, Josh Childress, and Marvin Williams should continue to improve at that position, while Joe Johnson remains the star. If Shelden Williams and Horford can step it up, this team will be very entertaining to watch, but without a true leader, they'll continue to struggle. The Hawks will continue to be the NBA's official "development" team, and some team will overpay for their players in this coming offseason.
Charlotte Bobcats. Due to the newfound strength of the East, I'm hesitant to say this club is on the verge of a breakout season, but they've certainly got some pieces in place. Re-signing SF Gerald Wallace was huge, as a lot of teams were knocking on the door for this guy. 2005 Rookie of the Year Emeka Okafor continues to get rebounds at a breakneck pace, and he's quite an able shot blocker as well. As for last year's draft pick, Mustache Morrison, he had a very Dunleavy-esque rookie season, shooting under 40 percent from the floor and averaging less than 3 rebounds despite 30 minutes per night. Ouch.
This team did very well in the draft, swapping their pick, future bust Brandan Wright to the Warriors for the overrated scorer Jason Richardson. Richardson should play well with Raymond Felton, who has also improved considerably, averaging 7 assists per game last year. The Bobcats also picked up 2 favorites of mine entering the draft, tweener Jared Dudley from BC and Jermareo Davidson from Alabama. Both players made the Summer League All-Pro Second Team, and I expect the 'cats to improve from last year's 33-49 record.
Orlando Magic. This team only now strikes me from the deja vu aspect. Draft an insanely talented high schooler (Dwight Howard / KG), overpay for a one-dimensional shooter (Rashard Lewis / Wally), keep a good PG for a few years (Jameer Nelson / Cassell, Billups, Brandon), and surround with inadequate role players (Garrity, Dooling, Ariza / Kandi, Peeler, Hudson). Combine that with an ability to draft non-NBA-ready Duke players (Redick / Avery), and wow. I really don't see this team improving as much as they should. Rashard Lewis' contract will prevent this team from getting much better for awhile, though the warm weather might snare a solid veteran nearing the end of his prime.
This team is out in the first round of the playoffs, if they make it at all.
Miami Heat. This is what happens when you surround stars with role players - you win a championship, then you get blown out of the water when your stars go down. The ability of this team to do much of anything in the postseason relies on the health of Wade's shoulder and Shaquille's everything else. This team is now 2 years removed from a championship, and guys like Zo and J-Will are as vet-savvy as they're going to get - the only difference is the number of minutes left on their bodies.
I expect this team to take a step backwards this year. Though I liked the drafting of Cook from Ohio State, they negated that with the signing of Smush Parker from the Lakers. If Smush is the answer, you're probably not asking the right question. I wouldn't be surprised to see this team have a trade-deadine fire sale for a team needing "one more piece", and try to rebuild around Wade, Dorell Wright, and Cook.
Washington Wizards. My pick to win the division by a country mile. The Wiz were hit pretty bad by the injury bug last year, and I expect them to really bounce back and step it up this year. They've got the coolest quirky superstar in the league in Gil Arenas, and guys like Caron Butler, who is savvy beyond his years and always brings something to the table. Throw in Antawn Jamison (I wasn't a big fan of his game when he was forced to "star" on some teams, but I really like him as a glue guy), an underrated DeShawn Stevenson, and a young guy waiting to have a breakout season (Andray Blatche), and that's a potent recipe for success.
This team does need some interior help though - poet/anti-war activist Etan Thomas needs to stop fighting with Brendan Haywood, and I honestly don't like the drafting of Nick Young from USC. Sure he fills a need (scoring at the SG spot, as Gil is more of a combo guard), I just don't see him producing right away, and why would you leave your school early when OJ Mayo is coming? Don't want to share the limelight? Jarvis Hayes should have something to prove as well (assuming they re-sign him), as he was drafted pretty high in a deep 2003 draft class.
Well, that's the Southeast Division, and here's how it will all break down:
Stay tuned for more!