Posted by Sekou Smith
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Now that all the fun and summer games are over, it’s time to turn our focus back to reality.
The Cleveland Cavaliers as we knew them the last five years are history.
The playoff allergy that has plagued the New York Knicks in recent years might be over.
And of course, the Miami Heat is the new rising power in basketball, particularly in a new-look Eastern Conference playoff power structure.
A New World Order is in place after the draft and free agency, and the Heat is rising in the East. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh — along with a better-than-anticipated supporting cast — will make sure of that much.
Hang Time‘s mid-summer look at the favorites to make the playoff field in the East:
1 — Miami
Last season: 47-35
The Skinny: We’ve foolishly resisted the urge to jump on the Heat bandwagon the past 10 days. But after several conversations with some of our best sources, we’ve reconsidered that position. “You saw what happened in Boston,” a veteran player who recently signed with a Western Conference playoff power reminded us via text. “Don’t be a fool. Those boys are already the best team in the East. Hands down.” Wade, Bosh and James are easily the best, three-man nucleus in the league (sorry Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Ron Artest or Andrew Bynum). But the supporting cast being assembled in Miami is first-rate as well. Veterans like Udonis Haselm, Mike Miller, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and James Jones should help the Heat separate the Heat from the rest of the pack in the East. The brunt of the title chase, however, rests with the Three Amigos. And while Erik Spoelstra is no Doc Rivers, anyone assuming he can’t handle the egos he has been handed by Pat Riley is underestimating the abilities of one of the league’s brightest young coaches.
2 — Orlando
Last season: 59-23
The Skinny: We know Dwight Howard probably won’t agree with where his team has been placed in our revamped Eastern Conference food chain. But the Magic didn’t make a major personnel move this summer that assists them in their pursuit of the Florida state title hunt. Matching an offer sheet for J.J. Redick is great for continuity, but doesn’t compare to what the folks in Miami pulled off. (Though we do like the addition of Quentin Richardson in place of Matt Barnes.) The Magic will remain a power as long as Howard wears the uniform. But there were some serious flaws exposed by the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. Neither Vince Carter nor Rashard Lewis has proved capable of taking over games in the postseason, leaving only Howard and Jameer Nelson to serve as true game changers for Stan Van Gundy‘s bunch. The Magic never could decide what to do with Marcin Gortat and Brandon Bass, two players that might have helped more against the Celtics had they been utilized sooner and more strategically. The Magic’s resolve will no doubt be fueled by doubters who assume they have been passed up by not only the Heat but also the Celtics. That’s a good thing, because they’ll need an added edge to fight for that top spot.
3 — Chicago
Last season: 41-41
The Skinny: We’re gambling big on the additions of Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer and the head coaching potential of Tom Thibodeau in placing the Bulls this high on the list. Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng are good enough as a core group that the simple addition of a All-Star caliber forward like Boozer and specialists like Korver and Brewer lift this team out of that .500 realm and into the ranks of the East’s elite. Rose is one of the most dynamic talents in the league, at any position. And Noah showed during the playoffs that he’s ready for a starring role, even if he’s not necessarily an All-Star. The loss of Kirk Hinrich would be more significant if both Korver and Brewer hadn’t been signed. The linchpin in this whole affair is Thibodeau, who was lavished with praise for his work as a defensive coordinator, of sorts, for the Celtics the past three seasons. If he can get the Bulls playing defense in the same manner and also clean up the chemistry issues that existed under Vinny Del Negro, the Bulls are poised to continue climbing the ladder in the East.
4 — Atlanta
Last season: 53-29
The Skinny: Other than jettisoning Mike Woodson, the Hawks’ summer makeover has left them looking like much the same team that finished third in the East last season, including a season sweep of the Eastern Conference champ Celtics. Larry Drew assumes the controls of an offense that will still feature All-Star Joe Johnson, he of the $124 mac contract signed this summer, albeit in a much different role than the “Iso-Joe” offense Woodson favored and Hawks fans deplored. Drew’s new motion offense will be designed to take advantage of a starting unit that consists of two All-Stars (Johnson and Al Horford) and potentially a third (Josh Smith) as well as the highest-scoring non-starter the league has seen in years (Jamal Crawford‘s 18.0 points per game without starting a game was the league’s best tally since Ricky Pierce averaged 23.0 during the 1989-90 season). The key for the Hawks will be sorting out their point guard situation (youngster Jeff Teague or veteran Mike Bibby?) and securing the services of a true big man capable of aiding their cause in the playoffs against the likes of Howard and other power bigs of his ilk. Shaquille O’Neal makes sense for so many reasons, but the luxury tax ramifications remain the biggest hurdle for the Hawks.
5 — Boston
Last season: 50-32
The Skinny: We’re done dismissing this aging crew’s ability to turn it on when they need to. They showed us all in the playoffs, and in that epic NBA Finals run, that they are capable of sustaining a championship-level of play for long stretches. The regular season isn’t nearly as critical for a team like this as it is for some of these other outfits. Rivers knows that it’s more important that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen are in a collective groove in April, May and June. And the importance of the Celtics re-signing both Pierce and Allen cannot be overstated. Equally crucial is the role Big Baby Davis, Jermaine O’Neal and Nate Robinson will play off the bench. There is still concern that Kendrick Perkins won’t be fully healed from knee surgery until sometime late in the season. That’s why the Celtics snagged a quality veteran like O’Neal, who can be inserted as a starter or work off the bench. This is one team that won’t be preoccupied with piling up the best regular season record. Come the postseason, though, you might want to avoid them at all costs. And with Rivers working the sideline, the Celtics will have the coaching advantage in every single playoff matchup.
6 — Milwaukee
Last season: 46-36
The Skinny: How much different would the Bucks’ playoff fate have been with a healthy Andrew Bogut to throw at the Hawks in that first round series last season? Bucks fans will wonder for years if they might have had a better chance against Orlando in the conference semifinals, since they’d have had a big man capable of at least matching up with Howard’s size. Instead, they’ll head into this season with the valuable byproduct of having worked without their best player in the postseason: an identity without him. Brandon Jennings proved his mettle with a stellar rookie season and a playoff debut that flashed glimpses of superstar ability. John Salmons returns to his job as the Bucks’ quiet warrior on the wing, a job many are paid much more to perform without the same results. Reigning Executive of the Year John Hammond has assembled the ideal blue-collar roster for a coach, Scott Skiles, that excels when he has a team like this to push. Newcomers Corey Maggette, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Drew Gooden and rookie Larry Sanders round out an impressive supporting cast that will help the Bucks challenge the Bulls for supremacy in the Central Division.
7 — New York
Last season: 29-53
The Skinny: Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton doesn’t have the same ring to it as say James and Wade or James and Bosh. But the Knicks had to make sure they came away from the biggest free agent summer of all time (or whatever) with something. Stoudemire is a healthy consolation prize for not reeling in one of the Big 3 free agents. Felton’s an upgrade over Chris Duhon (who has departed for Orlando) and Toney Douglas, a promising rookie but hardly ready for full-time starter duty at the point. Whether or not he can form the kind of pick-and-roll relationship Stoudemire was a part of the last time he played for Mike D’Antoni (in Phoenix, alongside two-time MVP Steve Nash) isn’t terribly realistic. And truth be told, that’s asking for a bit too much from all involved. But folks might forget that the Knicks have two dynamic frontcourt performers in Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. Rookie Landry Fields was a surprise in summer league and could be a solid contributor as well. But make no mistake, this team now centers around Stoudemire (until next summer and the Knicks’ next free agent hunt). And despite tepid reviews from those who grew accustomed to his game (and flair for dramatics off the court), Stoudemire is a low-post force more than capable of holding his own against any of the bigs in the East.
8 — Charlotte
Last season: 44-38
The Skinny: We were expecting more fireworks from Michael Jordan this summer. How could the league’s most iconic figure not be a bigger player in the biggest free agent summer ever? Well, the Bobcats spent to make the playoffs last season and had to sit out much of the fun this summer. With Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace in place as team leaders and catalysts, the Bobcats held on to the 8th spot ahead of the Lebron-less Cleveland Cavaliers, who are sitting with their nose pressed against the playoff glass after being sucker-punched by “The Decision” for all to see. They kept Tyrus Thomas, who wasn’t in as much demand in a thick free agent market that saw plenty of other restricted free agents passed up for easier to attain unrestricted free agents. D.J. Augustin takes over the reigns as the Bobcats’ floor leader, a role he couldn’t wrestle away from Raymond Felton in his first two seasons in the league (granted, Shaun Livingston is a fabulous insurance policy). The Bobcats have a veteran security blanket in Larry Hughes and still have versatile point-forward Boris Diaw to work with, when he’s engaged, but they need a dynamic director to run Larry Brown’s system. So Augustin (or Livingston) has to be the answer at point guard or their hold on this spot gets really shaky.
COMING TOMORROW: The Western Conference, where the Lakers still reign supreme.