Each summer, HOOPSWORLD breaks down the offseason moves and ranks all of the teams in the Eastern Conference. This is a particularly tough task heading into the 2010-11 season. After all of the movement we've witnessed this offseason, last year's standings don't paint an accurate picture of where teams stand. For years, the West has been considered the stronger of the two conferences but with LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer, Amar'e Stoudemire, John Wall, and Evan Turner finding new homes in the East, this could be the season that the trend changes.
One thing that is guaranteed to change is the top team in the East. After finishing with the top record last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers could very well finish as the worst team in the conference. Several contenders will fight for the number one seed but who will emerge as the top team after a summer of shuffling? HOOPSWORLD breaks down the Eastern Conference and where the teams stand today.
1. Miami Heat – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh were the objects of every team's desire and the Heat were able to sign all three at a bargain price. Throw in a cast of veterans hungry for a championship and it's clear that Miami is the East's best team on paper heading into the season. There have been some concerns about how the superstars with coexist and share the ball but that's a pretty good problem to have, especially after last season when Wade had very little help throughout the season and in the team's first round battle with the Boston Celtics. The Heat may not have the deepest bench but their starting lineup more than makes up for it and the reserves that will see the bulk of the minutes – Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Juwan Howard, and James Jones – are experienced and will get the job done. Since winning the championship in 2006, Miami has been a struggling that was searching for their identity. But after an offseason of moves, they have emerged as the favorite in the East and dramatically changed the landscape of the conference.
2. Orlando Magic – While other contenders made big additions this summer, the Magic took a different approach to the upcoming season. After shaking up the roster last offseason, Orlando's options were limited and decided that they only needed to make tweaks to the roster. Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, and Dwight Howard have developed some chemistry while reserves Jason Williams and Matt Barnes were replaced with Chris Duhon and Quentin Richardson. The Magic continue to pursue Chris Paul, which would shrink the gap that Miami has created in the East, but even if they don't land the point guard they could still improve on the fifty-nine wins they had last season. Competing with Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Washington in the Southeast division will make things tough but this group is up for the challenge. Howard is improving offensively this summer, spending time with Hakeem Olajuwon among others, and the team expects this to be the year that his scoring increases. Until their surprising loss to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Magic were undefeated in the postseason and looking like the team to beat. They'll hope that their experiences together will carry over into next season and their chemistry will allow them to compete with the newly assembled powerhouse in their division.
3. Boston Celtics – After dropping Game 7 of the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers, many assumed that Boston's window had closed. But rather than rebuild the team, Danny Ainge was able to convince Doc Rivers into coaching for at least one more season while retaining Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Nate Robinson, and Marquis Daniels. Kendrick Perkins will sit out until February after undergoing surgery on his torn ACL so the team inked veteran Jermaine O'Neal with their mid-level exception. The Celtics may have another move up their sleeves, adding another wing such as Jarvis Hayes or Von Wafer to replace Tony Allen, but they'll be entering the season with very few new faces. As always, playing in the weak Atlantic division will help Boston as they should rack up some easy wins against Toronto, New Jersey, and possibly Philadelphia. With that said, the big question in Boston has always been can they're core remain healthy. Rajon Rondo has emerged as a star and the Celtics will receive nice contributions from their bench but they won't be able to compete for a championship if Pierce, Allen, or Garnett spends a lot of time in street clothes. Perkins will already miss a large chunk of the season and don't be surprised if Boston rests their Big Three to make sure that the group will available in time for the playoffs. As they proved last year, the regular season doesn't always matter as long as they are healthy and come together in time for the postseason.
4. Chicago Bulls – If all goes as planned, this will be the season that the Chicago Bulls make the jump from promising young team to legitimate contender. The Miami Heat may have dominated the headlines this summer but the Bulls had an excellent offseason as well. Chicago was able to sign Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson, and Kurt Thomas without overspending. Meanwhile, adding Tracy McGrady to the mix remains a possibility. Carlos Boozer gives the team a second star alongside Derrick Rose and they've added specialty players that can shoot or defend. Last season, there were stretches in Chicago where players weren't stepping up and the team just couldn't win games. That shouldn't be a problem this season and expect a big improvement over last season's forty-one win total. Milwaukee is the only team that could give them issues in the Central division but they'll be able to walk over Cleveland, Detroit, and Indiana. The Bulls have put themselves in an excellent position and while the future is still promising, the present is looking pretty good as well.
5. Atlanta Hawks – Last season, the Hawks seemed like they were ready to join the East's elite. That is, until the playoffs. After suffering the worst defeat in a playoff series, Atlanta is back to the drawing board this season. With the improvements made in the Eastern Conference, the Hawks seem like they'll be the odd team out when it comes to home court advantage. Atlanta finished with worse division records than Miami and Charlotte last season and their struggles will only continue as those teams, along with Washington, are poised to improve. The Hawks ensured that they would stay competitive by giving Joe Johnson a maximum deal but many have criticized the move. The team is already feeling the consequences of their spending and has been forced to shop Mike Bibby and Marvin Williams in exchange for financial relief. In recent years, the Hawks were competitive with the top teams in the conference but as those teams have made improvements and grown, the Hawks are in the same spot and will likely be stuck there for some time.
6. Milwaukee Bucks – What if Andrew Bogut hadn't gotten injured just before the playoffs? Many have wondered if the Bucks would have been able to upset the Atlanta Hawks in the first round and put up a better fight against the Orlando Magic. But rather than dwelling on their bad luck, the Bucks have moved on a big way. Going into the offseason, Milwaukee wasn't one of the teams that were expected to make many moves. But several weeks later, the team has handed out contracts to Corey Maggette, Drew Gooden, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Keyon Dooling, Jon Brockman, and Larry Sanders while retaining John Salmons. The team that won without spending money is now taking things to another level by opening up their wallet. Rather than waiting for their talent to develop as we've seen the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers do in recent years, the Bucks are being proactive by signing veterans and surrounding their youth with players that can help them experience success now. While Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut will still be the main options and most important players in Milwaukee, the new acquisitions give them some more weapons to work with and opposing teams will have to deal with a Bucks team that is looking to win now.
7. New York Knicks – This is not a typo. The Knicks should make the playoffs for the first time since 2003 after adding significant pieces such as Raymond Felton, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Anthony Randolph this offseason. Mike D'Antoni finally has his point guard and New York has their star. While the team couldn't land LeBron James, they've done a terrific job putting together a team that can compete in the East as soon as this season. The Knicks, like the Magic, are still holding out hope that they can somehow land Chris Paul but the team will win more than twenty-nine games either way. Like the Celtics, they'll benefit from playing in the Atlantic division and if all of their new pieces can gel together, the Knicks will be playing in the postseason rather than watching from their living rooms.
8. Philadelphia 76ers – This may seem too high for the young 76ers but all of the signs are pointing to a breakout season in Philadelphia. Doug Collins has already met with many of the players and they're buying into his system after struggling under Eddie Jordan last year. Andre Igoudala seems ready for a bigger role after working on his game and playing with Team USA. Everything is starting to come together for Jrue Holiday, who was finished as the Most Valuable Player of the Orlando Summer League after leading all players in points and assists. Marreese Speights showed glimpses of what he's capable of at times last season and he could emerge as a consistent contributor this season. Then there's that Evan Turner guy. While he didn't have the most impressive Summer League showing, he is a player that can contribute right away and will help this team surpass their twenty-seven win mark of last season. Philadelphia isn't an experienced squad and that will show at times next season, but there's no question that they've improved and could compete for the final seed in the East next season.
9. Charlotte Bobcats – After being swept by the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs, many of Charlotte's players agreed that the team had given up. The young players lacked a sense of urgency and felt like they were in over their heads against the Magic. After losing Raymond Felton, Tyson Chandler, Theo Ratliff, and Larry Hughes this offseason, the Bobcats can almost count their veterans on one hand. Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson will keep the team fighting for a playoff spot but the team's success will ultimately depend on who steps up. Shaun Livingston played some of the best basketball of his career late in the season with the Wizards but is he ready to be the every night starter? Will Tyrus Thomas, Derrick Brown and Gerald Henderson be able to step up in increased roles? The Bobcats seemed poised for their second postseason appearance but the cost cutting moves they made this summer may put them on the outside looking in.
10. Indiana Pacers – Danny Granger, Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, and Tyler Hansbrough each missed a considerable amount of games last season and the Pacers were still able to win thirty-two games. While they weren't able to acquire the point guard that they were searching for this offseason, the team did an excellent job adding Paul George and Lance Stephenson through the draft and should improve now that they're healthy and have developed some chemistry. Indiana's rookies were two of the most impressive players at the Orlando Summer League and they should be able to help Granger carry the scoring load. Indiana will continue shopping T.J. Ford in a package and could make a midseason trade if the right deal presents itself. But heading into the season, the Pacers will be healthy and looking to compete for one of the finals spots in the East.
11. Washington Wizards – If the Wizards played in an easier division, they would likely be higher on this list. Last season, they were only able to win three games against division opponents and as the Heat, Magic, Hawks, and Bobcats improve their schedule will only get harder. But there's no question that this team will see improvement after last year's miserable twenty-six win season. John Wall is the type of player who makes those around him better and he's going to turn things around in Washington. The transformation will be gradual but it will begin this season. Wall will score the ball when he needs too but first and foremost, he'll play the role of distributor. Gilbert Arenas will be able to play away from the ball, JaVale McGee is poised for a breakout season after developing chemistry with Wall this summer, and players such as Nick Young, Andray Blatche, Al Thornton, and Yi Jianlian will also elevate their games alongside the point guard. Wall put on a show in Las Vegas and he's ready to make the Wizards better, even if the win column doesn't automatically reflect the improvement.
12. Detroit Pistons – While the teams around them have changed, the Detroit Pistons sit in our rankings exactly where they finished last season. They'll return with many of the same players that struggled alongside one another last year and have made few additions to their roster. The team is hoping that head coach John Kuester can get everyone on the same page after playing together for one season. The veterans spent last year adjusting to the changes in Detroit, the new acquisitions were learning their new roles, and the young talent tried to develop with limited playing time. Now, it seems as if the groups are starting to come together. Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye are spending the summer training together at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas, many of Detroit's young players played together in Summer League, and the Pistons are hoping their mix of veterans and youth can lead to wins now and later rather than confusion. Greg Monroe and Terrico White are raw players who will have a difficult time contributing right away so it'll be important for others to step up. The Pistons look good on paper but that hasn't translated into wins just yet. That could change this season but until we see results, it's hard to justify moving them up in the rankings.
13. Toronto Raptors – Even though the Raptors won't be making the playoffs this season, Bryan Colangelo deserves some credit for the moves he has made this offseason. Ed Davis looked like a man among boys in Las Vegas, swapping Hedo Turkoglu for Leandro Barbosa will give the team cap flexibility in two years, and DeMar DeRozan and Sonny Weems appear ready for increased roles judging by their Summer League performances. Whenever a team loses a franchise player, it's difficult to rebound the following season. But rather than fielding the leftovers and becoming irrelevant, Toronto will have an identity and young players to build around. They'll obviously miss Bosh's production but we'll be hearing from the Raptors again in a few years once their young talent develops and that's because Colangelo was willing to make the necessary moves - and admit some of his mistakes - this summer.
14. Cleveland Cavaliers – The negative reaction from free agents this summer reflects the opinion of the Cavaliers around the NBA. Even when Cleveland was offering more money or longer deals, available players were still signing with other teams because they didn't want to be stuck on a perennial bottom feeder. Sadly, that's what the Cavaliers have become after the departure of LeBron James. The roster is made up of specialty players who were brought in to fit with James. But with no superstar leading the way, they're now a team full of role players with new management and head coach. Antawn Jamison will likely be the first option on offense but with little help, it's going to be tough for the Cavaliers to compete next season, especially since the other teams in the Central division have improved. It's going to be a long season in Cleveland and Dan Gilbert's guarantee is looking crazier and crazier each day.
15. New Jersey Nets – After watching the Nets come together during the Orlando Summer League, it's clear that they're heading in the right direction. Avery Johnson is the right man for the job and Derrick Favors is a few years away, right on schedule to hit his prime with Devin Harris, Courtney Lee, Terrence Williams, and Brook Lopez. While the young talent in New Jersey is a few years away from making them a competitive team, the additions this offseason were puzzling and won't help the Nets improve the product they put on the floor in the immediate future. Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, and Travis Outlaw are talented role players but they're not the big acquisitions that Nets' fan were hoping for when this summer started. The team wanted to make a splash after missing out on James, Wade, and Bosh but their backup plan didn't stack up to the ones put in place in Chicago or New York. The Nets will win more than twelve games this season but they're still a couple years away from climbing up these rankings.