FanPost

Eastern Conference Preview

Eastern Conference


Atlantic

Rec

Central

Rec

Southeast

Rec

1

Brooklyn Nets (4)

53-29

Chicago Bulls (2)

56-26

Miami Heat (1)

61-22

2

New York Knicks (5)

49-33

Indiana Pacers (3)

54-28

Atlanta Hawks (7)

43-39

3

Toronto Raptors

38-44

Detroit Pistons (6)

45-37

Washington Wizards (8)

41-41

4

Boston Celtics

22-60

Cleveland Cavaliers

37-45

Charlotte Bobcats

31-51

5

Philadelphia 76ers

12-70

Milwaukee Bucks

24-58

Orlando Magic

22-60

Atlantic Division

Brooklyn Nets

Projected record: 54-28 4th seed

Depth Chart

PG

Deron Williams

Shaun Livingston

MVP: Brook Lopez

Biggest surprise: Mirza Teletovic

Biggest letdown: Deron Williams

Key to success: Health, staying fresh

Grab bag: Inevitable comparisons to the Spurs before injuries and chemistry hiccups.

SG

Joe Johnson

Jason Terry

SF

Paul Pierce

Andrei Kirilenko

PF

Kevin Garnett

Andray Blatche

C

Brook Lopez

Mason Plumlee

There wasn't a more built to win now transformation for a team in than for the Brooklyn Nets. Without giving up any significant pieces (Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and MarShon Brooks) the nets added Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry. That's even a pretty good group of starters by itself and that lineup doesn't include the current starters.

On paper the starting lineup is the most impressive in the league from top to bottom. All five have been all -stars, two of three are in their early or late prime and two of them (Pierce and Garnett) are two of the greatest competitors in the game. They are built along with a great bench and look to be able to adapt to play any style.

This team is no doubt a championship contender, but with the amount of money the Nets are spending the expectation has to be a championship. I can't help but feel something in my throat when discussing their championship aspirations. What gives me pause is Deron Williams. It was only three or four years ago when he was battling it out for best point guard in the league with Chris Paul. Deron Williams will have to be THAT Deron Williams if the Nets have a chance. His attitude and his play must improve. Coach Jason Kidd along with Pierce and Garnett will not allow Williams to ruin the season. I am not sure Williams knows what he wants. He complained in Utah, he has complained as a Net. Since he's gotten to the Nets they've done everything to improve their team around him, and it really will never get better than it is this year. With the biggest weakness in the east point guards, especially among the top contenders, Williams absolutely will need to be at his best if Brooklyn hopes to advance far into the playoffs. All of this said, I don't think he will be that transcendent player he once was. He'll play fine, put up his average stats, but he won't be that game-changer, which will then fall to Pierce and Joe Johnson in a wing heavy east.

The other player that can really push the Nets is Brook Lopez. An all-star last year, Lopez probably became the most offensively gifted center in the league. An especially important trait when going up against the practically centerless Miami Heat (we will get to this in a bit). If he can improve defensively there is no reason he can't be right up there with Dwight Howard as the best center in the league.

Pierce and Garnett will be on the Spurs resting plan this season but with solid backups there won't be many games dropped because of this. Andray Blatche and Kirilenko have both been starters and productive and will fill in nicely. Jason Terry will again be counted on as a sixth man and will play much less point guard this year with the resurgence of Shaun Livingston. The bench will be the difference between home court through the playoffs and a third seed.

New York Knicks

Projected record: 49-33 5th seed

Depth Chart

PG

Raymond Felton

Beno Udrih

MVP: Carmelo Anthony

Biggest surprise: Metta World Peace

Biggest letdown: Amar'e Stoudemire

Key to success: Commit to Carmelo at PF

Grab bag: One losing streak from combusting,

SG

Iman Shumpert

JR Smith

SF

Metta World Peace

Tim Hardaway Jr.

PF

Carmelo Anthony

Kenyon Martin

C

Tyson Chandler

Andrea Bargnani

The Knicks had a very good season last year winning 54 games with some hot three-point shooting. Despite their record I don't think anyone believed that really had a shot at making the NBA finals and that will be even more so this year.

If you look at the projected depth chart you notice that there is a little more toughness with the addition of Metta World Peace and a full season from Iman Shumpert. What you don't see is a lot of floor spacing shooters. Shumpert is improved and Felton and World Peace are below average. The Knicks have "threatened" to start Andrea Bargnani but I think that would be a mistake. You have arguably the best scorer in the game in Carmelo Anthony and he proved last year that is his much more effective as a power forward. I envision a good starting defense that will turn into a transition team for easy baskets. It would need to be a little more creative in the half court but that's what Anthony's for. It also means there is much more fire power off the bench. I don't dislike Bargnani as much as most, but right now he is a jump shooting big man coming off a bad couple of years, he'll need to show he can play again.

Beno Udrih was a good pick up and eventually he'll overtake Pablo Prigioni as the back-up point guard. Tyson Chandler will need to anchor the back line and hit quick outlet passes to initiate the transition game. If Chandler goes down similar to last year, the Knicks will struggle to stop anyone and the whole transition game will disappear. One player that I didn't include on the depth chart was Amar'e Stoudemire. I don't think he ever plays more than a handful of games or very limited minutes. It is sad that one of the most exciting players in the league has been sidelined for what seems like two years by injuries. Unfortunately I don't expect anything to change this year.

The Knicks will need to hope that their chemistry can overcome the sum of the parts in some instances. They can't expect the three-point runs to continue, it isn't reliable and they don't have the same personnel. JR Smith wanting to start, Bargnani in the starting lineup, these players will need to make sacrifices for the Knicks to get to where they want to be. Tim Hardaway Jr. could provide a youthful exuberance alongside Shumpert that could be the inspiration that the Knicks need to make sacrifices.

Toronto Raptors

Projected record: 38-44

Depth Chart

PG

Kyle Lowry

DJ Augustine

MVP: Rudy Gay

Biggest surprise: Jonas Valanciunas

Biggest letdown: DJ Augustine

Key to success: Shot selection

Grab bag: Is Toronto known for its dinosaurs?

SG

DeMar DeRozen

Terrence Ross

SF

Rudy Gay

Landry Fields

PF

Amir Johnson

Tyler Hansbrough

C

Jonas Valanciunas

Aaron Gray

Toronto is smart. They may make the playoffs this year, but that's not necessarily the plan. There are just too many pieces before they can do any type of damage in the playoffs and the half season of Rudy Gay didn't really go the way they wanted. This team should be pretty excited nonetheless though. With three high flyers on the wings in DeMar DeRozen, Rudy Gay and Terrence Ross there should be plenty of dunks. At least until one of them is traded. It won't be Terrence Ross, who's shown a nose for the basket, the ability shoot both outside and get to the basket, as well as defend fairly well. Oh, and he's on a rookie contract. Both Gay and DeRozen are prime candidates. Gay might be a little too expensive, so DeRozen may be the better trade option. GM Ujiri has a plan, but it's not something that is going to happen right away, nor something that is readily apparent.

Kyle Lowry is finally the one true starting point guard, a title he SHOULD have had the past three seasons. Something is still off about him as a starter so he'll need to prove it early and often that he is a legitimate starter. I really like Jonas Valanciunas as a player. He's crafty and strong, needs to add a little reliable jump shot and he'll already be a top ten center. He has good defensive instincts and he's still very young.

Amir Johnson is a good low post defender and hustle player, but not much more. Ideally he'd be coming off of the bench, but with Tyler Hansbrough and Aaron Gray the other options the Raptors will have to live with him. If Rosen or Gay is traded and promising big man would be an ideal return. Also on the bench is Landry Fields, a great role player, but doesn't do anything particularly well besides defend, and DJ Augustine; who was so bad in the playoffs last year that Indiana just wanted rid of him.

The Raptors are another one of those teams with nice pieces but ultimately not strong enough or the right ones. After a trade is made the picture will become clearer, but until they do, they are mired in mediocrity, which in the eastern conference can get you into the playoffs.

Boston Celtics

Projected record: 22-60

Depth Chart

PG

Rajon Rondo

Avery Bradley

MVP: Jeff Green

Biggest surprise: Kelly Olynyk

Biggest letdown: Rajon Rondo

Key to success: Draft Lottery

Grab bag: How many young not-all-that-good prospects can you have on one team?

SG

Courtney Lee

Jordan Crawford/MarShon

SF

Jeff Green

Gerald Wallace

PF

Brandon Bass

Jared Sullinger

C

Kelly Olynyk

Kris Humphries

It has finally happened. The Boston Celtics are officially rebuilding with only one more piece left to jettison in Rajon Rondo. Rondo will be hurt to start the year, and it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that he misses the entire season. Moving Rondo won't be easy. There aren't a lot of teams that don't have a point guard right now, and a lot of the stuff coming out doesn't make Rondo the easiest player to work with. The teams at the bottom of the table (to borrow a term from soccer) already have their point guard projects, and most contenders are on the cusp teams that are set with their point guards as well. Rondo is a good point guard, but he's not a shooter, and spreading the floor is the current ‘hotness' in the NBA. He may not be traded until his final year as an expiring; he is too good of a player to not find a home, but also with injury and attitude, too hard to take a chance on right now.

So, this season the Celtics will be Jeff Green's team. That's not a great prognosis, but Green is another player that could be traded for prospects or draft picks and it will be important for him to have a good season so that the Celtics aren't threatening the lowest amount of wins record. He'll have all the responsibility he wants and he won't have a lot of options around him. I have been surprised by the solid play of Kelly Olynyk in both summer league and preseason. Brandon Bass has carved out a nice solid career, but his days of improvement are over. Jared Sullinger was playing well before his back injury so it will be interesting to see if he can come back and become a quality starter-type player.

Basically, ever player on this team is expendable, no one is untouchable. I do hope MarShon Brooks gets some minutes, he is a clever scorer and a big guard. He reminds me of Joe Johnson a little bit, not athletic, but uses his size and touch very well as a scorer. Will need to develop playmaking skills and if he can get out of Boston could be a nice addition to some team. Shooting guards are pretty rare in today's NBA so there is an opportunity there.

For Boston to be successful though, they need to either trade for a high pick or just "earn" it themselves. With a loaded draft and a poor team, it may not be more than a couple years before Boston is back in the playoff picture.

Philadelphia 76ers

Projected record: 12-70

Depth Chart

PG

Michael Carter-Williams

Tony Wroten

MVP: Evan Turner

Biggest surprise: Royce White

Biggest letdown: Evan Turner

Key to success: Don't win too much.

Grab bag: "The Hyphen" will be fun to watch and possibly lead the league in turnovers.

SG

James Anderson

Jason Richardson

SF

Evan Turner

Royce White

PF

Thaddeus Young

Lavoy Allen

C

Spencer Hawes

Kwame Brown

Nerlens Noel will not play and the Sixers will be horribly bad in the wins column but there is some promise here. Between Evan Turner and Michael Carter-Williams the Sixers have two oversized playmakers. I've heard comments saying that "finally Turner will have the keys to run the offense" yet they just drafted their point guard of the future. If I was guessing I would say that Carter-Williams will have more time spent in Philly, at least in the short term when compared to Turner. Obviously the Sixers will decide who it is "running" the offense. Nevertheless Turner will have the ball in his hands more than he did last year, if nothing else to take the pressure off of Carter-Williams. The Sixers also picked up Tony Wroten, a point guard/shooting guard hybrid who has shown well in preseason. He comes from the athletic-point-guard-playmaker-who-can't-shoot vine and will need to add some semblance of an outside game to make a significant contribution this year.

The shooting guard position will be kind of a selection by committee as the season proceeds. Jason Richardson is injured for quite some time meaning that the aforementioned Wroten and James Anderson will fill time in there. Upfront Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes remain the best options. Both would be great guys off the bench or the two non-stars on a star heavy starting lineup, but with this team they are the most proven players. Hawes might be a trade candidate because Nerlens Noel is waiting in the wings. It is still unknown what position best fits Nerlens Noel and we probably won't know which fits him best. He is very slight and doesn't have a frame that would lead you to believe he can add more than twenty pounds, still keeping him on the small side. He doesn't have a skilled all-around game like Anthony Davis though, so projecting as a defensive power forward isn't that exciting of a prospect. While the lack of big centers in the NBA has been lacking in recent years they are starting to make somewhat of a comeback with Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert, DeAndre Jordan, Andrew Bynum (if ever healthy), Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol and of course Dwight Howard. Counting Nerlens Noel among this list is tough due to the sheer girth and strength he lacks.

The Sixers are going to be bad this year, possibly approaching worst record of all time bad. With a high draft pick coming, Nerlens Noel back from injury and a full season of development from Michael Carter-Williams the future isn't as bleak as the present. The fans will be fine, I mean they only booed Santa Claus that one time.

Central Division

Chicago Bulls

Projected record: 56-26 2nd seed

Depth Chart

PG

Derrick Rose

Kirk Hinrich

MVP: Derrick Rose

Biggest surprise: Carlos Boozer

Biggest letdown: Luol Deng

Key to success: Rose playing like league MVP

Grab bag: Derrick Rose looks more explosive than Harry.

SG

Jimmy Butler

Tony Snell

SF

Luol Deng

Mike Dunleavy

PF

Carlos Boozer

Taj Gibson

C

Joakim Noah

Nazr Mohammed

Ladies and gentlemen, Michael Jordan is back! Well, close. Derrick Rose returns to the Bulls and if preseason performance is any indication, he looks better than ever.

The Bulls had a valiant Rose-free season last year and one of the best side-effects of the Rose injury was the emergence of Jimmy Butler. Rose's injury combined with several others had Chicago reaching deeper into their bench as the season went on and that allowed Butler to get significant time. Butler had an especially good playoffs proving to be an efficient scorer and a great defender. The Bulls had been searching for a backcourt mate for Derrick Rose since his Chicago arrival and they finally have it in Butler. Butler combined with Luol Deng and substitutes Mike Dunleavy and Tony Snell create a dynamic wing corps that can contend with any in the league. Dunleavy fills that Kyle Korver role that was missing last season and is also a better ball handler and playmaker.

Besides Dunleavy and drafty Tony Snell the Bulls didn't make a lot of changes this offseason and that is OK. Derrick Rose healthy is a top three player in the league, a former MVP and a player that other contenders in the east don't have an answer for. Carlos Boozer is the second option and after having a bit of a rough start to his Chicago career he has been solid and consistent and after years under Coach Thibodeau, Boozer has more of an edge and toughness to him while is no longer a poor defender. The Bulls could trade him, but unless the recipient is desperate the Bulls won't be receiving equal value.

Kirk Hinrich slides back to the bench after filling in for Rose and while his offense has abandoned him he can still guard both point guards and shooting guards at a high level. Being able to play alongside Rose most nights gives the Bulls back some roster flexibility that they didn't have last year. In a perfect world the Bulls would find one more offensive option to come off the bench, a scoring guard (not Nate Robinson) that can get their own shot so that there can be more of a singular bench unit and not as much mixing and matching. As constructed now the Bulls wouldn't want to trot out all five bench players at once and expect to produce much scoring.

While the central division is among the toughest if not the toughest in the league, the Bulls figure to be a favorite to make the conference finals and challenge the Heat to make the NBA Finals.

Indiana Pacers

Projected record: 54-28 3rd seed

Depth Chart

PG

George Hill

CJ Watson

MVP: Roy Hibbert

Biggest surprise: Danny Granger health

Biggest letdown: George Hill

Key to success: Dominate with bigs.

Grab bag: Pscyho T is going to create an unwanted grudge with the Pacers that will go ignored.

SG

Lance Stephenson

Danny Granger

SF

Paul George

Chris Copeland

PF

David West

Luis Scola

C

Roy Hibbert

Ian Mahinmi

The past two seasons the Indiana Pacers have proven to be a much better playoff team than regular season. One reason for that is that there was a lack of depth. Once the playoffs come around, the depth doesn't hurt them as much since the starters play more minutes, but in the regular season it is a big factor. This offseason the Pacers addressed their lack of depth.

The bench is much improved. Whether Danny Granger or Lance Stephenson start, one will be providing help off the bench. Granger off the bench makes more sense to me as he can provide much more offense giving the bench a true go-to player. Stephenson started last season known for defense but added some offense to his game as the playoffs rolled on. Also added to bench is CJ Watson, always a solid offensive player off the bench and a definite upgrade over DJ Augustine. Chris Copeland brings outside shooting and dreadlocks which the Pacers didn't have from their bench last season. The biggest pickup was Luis Scola who is so crafty and efficient at scoring that it always bothers me when I root against him. He is a better defender than he gets credit for and his hair is bound to piss off opposing fans.

The starters from last year remain the same (Granger/Stephenson decision notwithstanding) and the emergence of Paul George as an all-star has added legitimacy to that first unit. Roy Hibbert and David West are possibly the top offensive combo in the league, are both tough and legitimately strong low post players, which less face it is the biggest weakness of the champion Miami Heat. It would be nice to see Roy Hibbert playoff version play in the regular season. If he can he'll be at least a top three center in the league and propel the Pacers to a higher seed. George Hill has shown that he is a good NBA starter and he'll need to become more efficient if they expect to beat the other favorites in the eastern conference. With Derrick Rose and John Wall most likely back in the playoffs George Hill could end up having his hands full and will need to be an attacker to ensure these players work hard on defense.

With the crowded and talented top of the eastern conference, 48 or 49 wins will be enough wins for the Pacers to get a top seed and home court through at least the first home court advantage through the first two rounds. The revamped bench, natural progression of George and the return of Granger should allow the Pacers to win more games throughout the regular season and get a higher seed.

Detroit Pistons

Projected record: 45-37 6th seed

Depth Chart

PG

Brandon Jennings

Will Bynum

MVP: Greg Monroe

Biggest surprise: Tony Mitchell

Biggest letdown: Chauncey Billups

Key to success: Be one of the top Ds in the league.

Grab bag: Three intimidating front line players sub out for the sandwich artists in Kyle, Jonas and Josh.

SG

Chauncey Billups

Rodney Stuckey

SF

Josh Smith

Kyle Singler

PF

Greg Monroe

Jonas Jerebko

C

Andre Drummond

Josh Harrellson

The Pistons added two starters in the offseason. No one expects the Pistons to contend for a championship, but they should certainly make the playoffs when you look at their roster on paper.

There are a couple of players you worry about in Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, a couple of I-don't-give-a-f**k type of scorers that will need to be more efficient if the Pistons are to find success. I am hearing it should help Josh Smith to play his natural small forward position, but he's been playing against post players the last few years in Atlanta and has enjoyed an advantage on the offensive end because of this by using his quickness. As a small forward he will need to use his strength, which is a different mindset for him. Smith will also be chasing around perimeter players on defense much more, preventing as many weak side blocks from the post and more one on one defending in space. It should be worth it though because the Pistons have a formidable rest of the front line with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Greg Monroe is very highly skilled and underappreciated outside of the central division. Part of that is the Pistons haven't been any good since he's gotten there, which should change this year, but he's also not a highlight real type of player. I compare him to LaMarcus Aldridge in that he puts up great numbers but not in the flashiest way. Monroe combined with Smith and Andre Drummond creates a very big defensive line in front of the basket. Drummond is a lot more flashy. Thunderous dunks and blocks and hilarious free-throws (he'll need to improve) out the league on notice last year. So far in preseason he's looked like a competent, dangerous player who could have a breakout season, specifically defensively. Most of his points will come from very low post position, lob dunks and just lots and lots of hustle, but his defense can make Detroit a dangerous team. Let's not lie to ourselves, Chauncey Billups is no longer the player he once was and will need all the help he can get guarding shooting guards. Having Smith, Monroe and Drummond on the court with him will certainly provide that.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will break into the rotation, but not as a shooter as some may hope. It will be his defense that gets him minutes. Combined with Will Bynum (who is extremely underrated) Caldwell-Pope will form a smothering defensive backcourt off the bench. Also on the bench will be rookie Tony Mitchell who to me is Anthony Bennett-light. He'll find some time behind Jonas Jerebko and will surprise.

The Pistons, again, on paper are a solid team. One big reason Billups was brought in was for his leadership and he'll need that to make sure Jennings and Smith, in particular, stay focused.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Projected record: 37-45

Depth Chart

PG

Kyrie Irving

Jarrett Jack

MVP: Kyrie Irving

Biggest surprise: Earl Clark

Biggest letdown: Andrew Bynum

Key to success: Outside shooting from the wings.

Grab bag: LeBron coming back? "The Sopranos. It's over. Find a new show."

SG

Dion Waiters

CJ Miles

SF

Earl Clark

Alonzo Gee

PF

Tristan Thompson

Anthony Bennett

C

Anderson Varejao

Tyler Zeller

There is no doubting that Kyrie Irving is a star. His ball-handling, sweet outside shooting and general playground style are both entertaining and efficient. He hasn't yet proven to be a winner but his supporting cast is improving year by year.

Obviously the biggest acquisition this summer was that of center Andrew Bynum. Not guaranteed to play a single minute, the Cavs invested (albeit smartly) into Bynum getting healthy and regaining his form as a low post threat. I wouldn't bet on it, but that's the difference in making the playoffs or not this season. The other factor is that Andersen Varejao is the other center known for a history of injury. Before he was injured last year the Cavs looked to be a promising team. Tyler Zeller is a capable backup, but that's just it, he's a backup. If Bynum doesn't return and Varejao has to deal with injuries again, it could be another tough season.

It does appear that the power forward position is in good shape. Tristan Thompson is a solid 10 and 10 guy who may add some points to that average with the new shooting techniques he picked up in the offseason. Playing behind him in kind of a stretch four or big three hybrid is the number one draft pick, Anthony Bennett. His preseason has been good. His jump shooting is much better than I expected and he throws his big body around well down low. Something to keep an eye one would be his weight. He has to find that balance between weight and strength. This is especially important if the Cavs intend on Bennett becoming a small forward as opposed to a power forward.

This is Irving's team and he's not without injuries either. Three of your top players all fighting injuries is never going to spell success. Hopefully the addition of Jarrett Jack can ease the pressure and minutes of Irving. Jack was my pick for sixth man of the year last year, and his departure from Golden State is one reason I don't think they'll be as good this year. Jack can score and defend, but most importantly he can run a team. He's a good leader and without many veterans on the roster I expect Jack to become the leader of this team, just like he was in Golden State. He'll help guys like Dion Waiter, who won't have to be the emergency point guard when Irving is injured and he'll be a good court mate off the bench for players like Bennett and Zeller.

The last addition, and my sleeper pick for most improved player, is Earl Clark. There is just something about his all-around game that I like. He's huge and mobile, is a decent ball-handler and shooter and should be a good defender this year guarding threes and not fours. He'll be great in transition along with Irving and Waiters and be that stereotypical "glue guy" that all teams need. He'll be one reason the Cavs won't be forced to play Bennett at small forward, at least right away.

The season really comes down to Bynum. If he can get healthy and give him that offensive presence down low, the Cavs will be a playoff team.

Milwaukee Bucks

Projected record: 24-58

Depth Chart

PG

Brandon Knight

Luke Ridnour

MVP: Larry Sanders

Biggest surprise: John Henson

Biggest letdown: OJ Majo

Key to success: Lopsided trade

Grab bag: What is Bill Simmons thinking?

SG

OJ Majo

Gary Neal

SF

Caron Butler

Carlos Delfino

PF

Ersan Ilyasova

John Henson

C

Larry Sanders

Zaza Pachulia

The Bucks let go two of their best offense players, and two of their three best players total. A backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis was never going to get the Bucks far, but it was keeping them afloat. You can't knock Bucks management for letting them go though, they needed to start over.

The Bucks picked up a couple of nice stop gaps to at least attempt to make the playoffs. OJ Majo is a proven scorer and will be the number one option on this squad. He really has no excuses not to pick up big numbers and really be the leader of the offense. Brandon Knight was part of the Jennings trade and he's a nice piece. He doesn't have star potential as a point guard but can at least be a solid starter and defender at his position. Caron Butler seems to be on his last legs so there is really no telling what kind of a season he is going to have. I wouldn't guess it will be good. He hasn't looked good the past few seasons in Los Angeles and I am not sure that a move to a bad team from a championship contending one is a move that will inspire an improved year.

The Bucks' best assets are at the four and five positions. Ersan Illyasova started very slowly last season, losing his starting job and not able to hit a thing but bounced back and nearly reached his career year averages of the previous season. Illyasova is probably the best stretch four in the league, hitting at a high clip from outside and is pretty good at putting the ball on the floor. He's not the greatest defender in the post, but doesn't get burned on pick and rolls or on the perimeter (when guarding other power forwards). It also doesn't hurt to have one of if not the best shot eraser in the league playing behind him.

Larry Sanders blocks a lot of shots. That's about the extent of his game. He gets some rebounds, scores some points, but he's not really a great defender one on one. The Bucks are really hoping he develops into something more, and he may, it just won't happen this year. Sanders also has a problem with technical, something that a team with no clear leader won't help. Can Butler be the leader? Probably not. The Bucks do have some good options behind him in Zaza Pachulia and John Henson, but neither of those guys really provide offense either.

Will the Bucks win more than 25 games? Will OJ Mayo have to score 25 ppg for this team to compete? Will that be enough? Will I end this Milwaukee Bucks preview with another question? The answer to all these questions is no.

Southeast Divison

Miami Heat

Projected record: 61-21

Depth Chart

PG

Mario Chalmers

Norris Cole

MVP: LeBron James

Biggest surprise: Michael Beasley/Greg Oden

Biggest letdown: Greg Oden/Michael Beasley

Key to success: Sustaining this run

Grab bag: Somehow it is all going to work out even better this year.

SG

Dwayne Wade

Ray Allen

SF

LeBron James

Shane Battier

PF

Udonis Haslem

Michael Beasley

C

Chris Bosh

Chris Anderson

The Champion Miami Heat retooled in the offseason. Adding to their bench in hope of giving the starters a little more rest heading into the playoffs, they Heat are in great position to three-peat.

Anytime you have the best player in the league on your team, you have a chance at a championship. LeBron James continues to get better, stat healthy and now has the confidence and knowhow of winning tough games. It doesn't hurt that his running mate is Dwayne Wade. Wade got a lot of criticism last year for not being the "Wade of old" but if you look at his numbers there isn't anything to say he's lost a step. Wade scored less, but at his most efficient, he assisted and rebounded at the same rate he always has and the only statistic that really fell were his minutes. He did look human in the playoffs, but was still great. The expectations for Wade are so high that even when we plays well he is getting the short end of the stick. Bottom line is that James doesn't win the past two championships without him. If any other shooting guard in the league not named James Harden or Kobe Bryant put up those numbers last year they'd be praised as arguably the best shooting guard in the league.

Last year, when Miami when on their huge winning streak, James played a majority of time at power forward. He is strong enough to guard most power forwards and is certainly able to take advantage of them on the other end. For this to be the case this year, Shane Battier will have to be the small forward in those limited minutes. Another candidate is Michael Beasley, whose career has had something of a free fall in recent years. He'll have to commit to defending to earn minutes, but he's still young, not injured, can still score and I really think this team is the wakeup call he'll need to play well. All this lineup speculation could change even further if Greg Oden finds his legs. He won't be a starter this season, he'll be limited to coming off the bench, however if he can start getting around fifteen minutes per game on the floor Miami can move Chris Bosh to power forward and James back to small forward for significant minutes. This is mostly important for Chris Bosh because he's become nothing more than a jump shooter (albeit an effective one) the past two seasons. If he can play the four next to a legitimate center, it might afford him the chance to play in the post much more. Bosh is an effective center but he can't post up against most, he's just not strong enough in most cases.

These offseason moves allow the Heat a chance to get more creative during the regular season with their lineups. Bosh can find time as the focal point while James and Wade rest. Beasley and Allen can provide bench scoring while some combination of Chris Anderson and Oden protect the rim. This should keep the Heat's big two fresh and rested going into the playoffs.

Atlanta Hawks

Projected record: 43-39 7th seed

Depth Chart

PG

Jeff Teague

Dennis Shröder

MVP: Al Horford

Biggest surprise: John Jenkins

Biggest letdown: Paul Millsap

Key to success: Wing play

Grab bag: This would be the Sacramento Kings if they played in the west.

SG

John Jenkins

Jared Cunningham

SF

Kyle Korver

DeMarre Carroll

PF

Paul Millsap

Elton Brand

C

Al Horford

Gustavo Ayon

This might be the team I am least confident in predicting. I gave them the benefit of doubt, plus they are in the east and I think they can make the playoffs but this could be a very disappointing season. I am absolutely not sold on Kyle Korver and Jon Jenkins as their wings. Both are good shooters and nothing else. Kyle Korver is not the worst defender but the small forward position is probably the hardest to defend in the league and with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George all in your conference there will be some rough defensive nights. Jenkins is similar. He is undersized, not very athletic and is still young and learning the ropes. Luckily the two players behind them on the depth chart are both known for their hustle and defense. This doesn't make them good players, but at least they have that going for them. DeMarre Carroll is a hustle player through and through and Jared Cunningham hasn't really gotten a chance to showcase himself. He's an athletic 6' 4" guard with long arms and has a nose for the ball. If he can get his shots down he should be a productive player and quite possibly end up in a starting role.

It's not all bad though. Jeff Teague is quietly one of the best point guards no one thinks about. He's similar to Mike Conley in that he doesn't put up huge numbers but he runs the team and is consistent and smart. Backing him up is the German rookie Dennis Shröder, a good prospect who is seasoned already despite his age.

Upfront is where the most talent is. Despite his size Paul Millsap has been good for a long time now. In a perfect world he'd be the first big man coming off the bench, but he is quality starter. Al Horford, who still manages to play out of position, is an all-star level player. He does everything very well, none of it great. He's played center for so long it is hard to see him as a power forward and he isn't as spry as he used to. He's a great one on one defender but not a rim protector. There are no real rim protectors on this team. Gustavo Ayon and Elton Brand are decent complimentary pieces but won't really impact the game.

The bench is pretty thin with the absence of Lou Williams. He'll obviously help when he's back from injury and they'll need him to be a sixth man of the year type player if they are to make it into the playoffs.

Washington Wizards

Projected record: 41-41 8th seed

Depth Chart

PG

John Wall

Eric Maynor

MVP: John Wall

Biggest surprise: Nene

Biggest letdown: Otto Porter

Key to success: John Wall running the show.

Grab bag: Just where the Bullets throwbacks every single night. Please.

SG

Bradley Beal

Shannon Brown

SF

Martell Webster

Trevor Ariza

PF

Nene Hilario

Al Harrington

C

Marcin Gortat

Kevin Seraphin

The recent trade of Marcin Gortat entrenches the Wizards as a playoff team. The only reason the win and loss column is even here is that John Wall has yet to play an fully effective season. With how many good point guards are in the league today sometimes John Wall gets forgotten. He's added a nice midrange game to help open up his offensive game and he is already a top three transition player in the league with his speed and athleticism. In the limited time they played together, Wall and Bradley Beal had the makings of a great duo. Beal is slightly undersized but with long arms is still an effective defender. His shooting touch improved as the season went on and he'll need that to continue as Wall will find him when he's open.

With the trade of the injured Emeka Okafor for Marcin Gortat the Wizards signaled their intent of being a dangerous team and pushing for a playoff spot. While not the defender that Okafor is/was, Gortat is much more capable around the basket. He should receive plenty of lops from Wall and backup point guard Eric Maynor. Joining him on the front line is Nene Hilario who has his own injury history to worry about. Moving to the true power forward spot should help him as he can use his size and not just rely on quickness to score. He's not a terrible defender and can rebound on both ends. Al Harrington will be a welcomed stretch four off the bench and will give John Wall another target to find after drives and in transition.

One of the most competitive positions on the team is at small forward. Martell Webster was solid last year, a "three and OK D" guy was platooned with Trevor Ariza. Ariza may finally play down to his true skill level this year after really overdoing it and shooting poorly the last three years. Draft pick Otto Porter may be in for a bit of a shock. This team, as the play for a playoff spot, may not find much time for the number 3 overall pick. He hasn't shown well and to make matters worse, Glen Rice, Jr., drafted after him, might even win more time and possibly the starting spot. Can the Wizards consolidate this position through a trade?

It sounds cliché as it has been said over and over again but the Wizards playoff hopes rely on John Wall. John Wall playing like he did at the end of last season was all-star John Wall. His injuries must be limited and he must be the leader of the team for the Wizards to succeed.

Charlotte Bobcats

Projected record: 31-51

Depth Chart

PG

Kemba Walker

Ramon Sessions

MVP: Kemba Walker

Biggest surprise: Cody Zeller

Biggest letdown: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

Key to success: Al Jefferson NOT leading the league in scoring

Grab bag: I honestly think that a new name and uniforms will help this franchise not suck so bad.

SG

Gerald Henderson

Ben Gordon

SF

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

Jeff Taylor

PF

Cody Zeller

Josh McRoberts

C

Al Jefferson

Bismack Biyombo

The Bobcats are better than last year. They've added a legitimate scorer in Al Jefferson and drafted a power forward in Cody Zeller. It remains to be seen if the other starters have improved, and if last season's second pick has added anything resembling a jump shot.

Kemba Walker turned in a good campaign. He even looked like a point guard and not just a undersized two guard. There wasn't a lot of hope for Charlotte last year and the failed to get the number one pick again. They did however get the best big man in the draft. The pick was booed in Charlotte but there was a time when Zeller was the consensus number one pick. It wasn't his poor form that caused him to drop as much as it was other players improving theirs. It also took some time to figure out if Zeller was a center or a power forward and it looks like that has been decided. Zeller is athletic with a nice shooting touch and a decent low-post game (rare for a rookie). The problem becomes the pairing with Jefferson. Neither are good defenders right now and Al Jefferson is going to own the post. Will that relegate Zeller to just being a Chris Bosh-like jump shooter? I hope not as Zeller has more game than that.

Gerald Henderson has been solid and should be a good contributor on this team surrounded by productive players. The best part about the addition of Jefferson besides the scoring is the attention he will demand. This should leave shooters like Henderson, Walker and Ben Gordon off the bench much cleaner looks than they have gotten in the past.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was a bit of a disappointment last season. Without a jump shot Kidd-Gilchrist was very easy to guard. Other parts of his game were fine, but he couldn't get to the basket because defenders were playing him for the jumper. Kidd-Gilchrist will need to add a jump shot, even if it is at a low percentage at first. Last year he wouldn't even take it, and that isn't just him playing within himself but a lack of confidence altogether. We aren't even talking three pointers here, basically couldn't hit the net unless it was inside of ten feet.

The Bobcats need a big jump from Kidd-Gilchrist to make any kind of noise. They also have to be careful not to get to one dimensional dumping it down to Jefferson. They have made definite improvements but will need a few more years of seasoning.

Orlando Magic

Projected record: 22-60

Depth Chart

PG

Jameer Nelson

E-Twaun Moore

MVP: Oladipo

Biggest surprise: Tobias Harris

Biggest letdown: Jameer Nelson

Key to success: Oladipo's development

Grab bag: The lottery will be kind to the Magic.

SG

Arron Afflalo

Victor Oladipo

SF

Tobias Harris

Moe Harkless

PF

Andrew Nicholson

Glen Davis

C

Nikola Vucevic

Jason Maxiell

Orlando will be bad, but will be fun to watch. They have great athleticism on the wings and their draft pick looks poised to have a good rookie campaign.

On the depth chart, draft pick Victor Oladipo is not starting. It is hard to sit either Jameer Nelson or Arron Afflalo right now, both are solid players. As soon as one of them goes down with injury though, Oladipo will start and never relinquish his spot. It is possible that Tobias Harris (breakout second half last year) will be moved to the four and Afflalo up to the three paving the way for Oladipo, but what is more likely is that Afflalo gets traded and the Magic are all in on Oladipo.

Oladipo is ultra-athletic but I've been most surprised with his jump shot. Before last year a jump shot was Oladipo's only weakness. Last year in college he shot much better from deep albeit with limited attempts. He has shown in summer league and preseason that the three point shot, and a nice fading jump shot are a common dependable part of his repertoire. This is important. He can't have a season like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and struggle to score because he won't shoot, he has to be aggressive offensively.

Tobias Harris was a nice story last year and has been solid in preseason. His development has given the Magic another piece along with Oladipo and center Nikola Vucevic to build around. Those three are a nice core and finding a power forward among Andrew Nicholson, Moe Harkelss (more of a three) and Glen Davis could really change the outcome of the season. Honestly, the best case scenario would be to perform poorly and get that high draft pick all while developing their players, which I expect to happen. But there is a little part (my brain) of me that says not to discount a decent season.

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