Central Division Champion: Indiana--Clearly the best team in the East, at least until the Heat either trade or stop playing Antoine Walker or the Pacers lose multiple starters to ill physical or mental health. Drafting Danny Granger limits the loss of production should Artest or Stephen Jackson make themselves expendable.
Southeast Division Champion: Miami--Yes, Pat Riley may be setting Stan Van Gundy up to fail. I have no idea if this is a conscious decision on Riley's part. Shaq's not going to play hard for (or even play in) 82 games. Antoine Walker is sufficiently prolific in his incompetence that he will counteract some of Dwyane Wade and Shaq's effectiveness. Posey, Jason Williams, and Gary Payton, on the other hand, should all fit in and contribute.
Atlantic Division Champion: New Jersey--In no way are they a title contender, but they should win the Atlantic handily. Vince Carter will either have to play at the level he demonstrated once arriving in Jersey or let his teammates touch the ball occasionally. Marc Jackson and Krstic derive most of their ability from scoring. Neither they, nor Clifford Robinson nor Jason Collins rebound very well. That will be a problem in the playoffs.
4th Seed: Cleveland--I think Danny Ferry's already surpassed the achievements of his professional playing career. He acquired guys who fit in alongside LeBron and Ilguaskas and can provide cover for Drew Gooden's inconsistency. There aren't many good defenders on the roster, but James, Hughes, and Gooden will create some turnovers and everybody can rebound. Your 2007 Eastern Conference Champions.
5th Seed: Detroit--The Pistons will find it was easier to be better than the sum of your parts when you were younger and had either the best (Larry Brown) or second-best (Rick Carlisle) coach in the NBA. However (to a lesser extent than Garnett), Flip Saunders never received appropriate credit for overcoming Kevin McHale's work as GM in Minnesota. No longer a title contender, the team won't fall apart as they work in Milicic, Arroyo, Delfino, and Maxiell, and will make a final stand as a tough out in the playoffs.
6th Seed: Chicago--Reasons to be optimistic about making the playoffs: Sweetney and Songaila are ready for more responsibility, Deng is healthy, Chris Duhon may continue to make positive contributions imperceptible to the human eye.
Reasons to be pessimistic: The Curry trade doesn't solve their interior defensive limitations once you get past Chandler, at some point it won't be worth playing hard for Scott Skiles, Chris Duhon may be as bad as he looked last year rather than as good as the numbers suggest.
7th Seed: Washington--Reasons to be optimistic about making the playoffs: The rotation, wherein Daniels, Butler, and Haywood are all underrated, Arenas and Jamison are properly lauded, and the role players are all capable of succeeding.
Reason to be pessimistic: After the first nine, nobody on the roster can play basketball very well.
8th Seed: Boston--Reasons to be optimistic about making the playoffs: Pierce plays hard every night and he plays well. (He doesn't deal well with frustration. If he had played on better/more successful teams and/or was more personable, his playoff and fourth quarter performances would indicate his desire to win, not that he is a malcontent.) Al Jefferson getting more minutes.
Reasons to be pessimistic: I think Doc Rivers is a mediocre head coach. This season could push my opinion of him in either direction. If he finds ways to use his young depth successfully, he's better than I thought. If he cycles through his options without purpose, especially at point guard, he's worse than I thought.
First Playoff Runner-Up: New York--Reasons to be optimistic about making the playoffs: Larry Brown, amidst the ridiculously long, expensive, and in some cases uninsurable contracts he's handed out Isiah has found some interesting young, cheap talent. Brown could take a strong liking to any and all of Trevor Ariza, Nate Robinson, Jackie Butler, Matt Barnes, and David Lee.
Reasons to be pessimistic: Quentin Richardson's back, Eddy Curry's heart, Eddy Curry's limitations as a basketball player, the inability of Curry, Jerome James, Channing Frye, and Mo Taylor to rebound, the possibility of Isiah and Larry Brown constantly rebuilding the team on the fly.
Second Playoff Runner-Up: Milwaukee--Reasons to be optimistic about making the playoffs: They have more decent players than they used to have.
Reason to be pessimistic: Teams that make that make the playoffs without all-star talent (and, yes, I'm aware that Redd and Magliore are nominally all-stars) usually have more depth, or, in Memphis' case an all-star they don't play very many minutes for whatever reason. The Bucks go seven deep in terms of quality players (assuming Ford is healthy and Bogut adjusts relatively quickly). Their playoff hopes can't survive any injuries.
Eleventh Place: Philadelphia--At some point, Iverson's body is going to give out. I hope that day doesn't come soon. When it does, unless the rest of the roster gets filled with better the players, Philadelphia will immediately become the worst team in the league.
Iguodala is the only good, multi-dimensional teammate on whom Iverson can rely. Webber's a shadow of his former, overrated self. Dalembert is strictly a shot-blocker and rebounder. Korver is strictly a spot-up jump shooter. Nailon can only score (mostly against second units or in garbage time). Hunter is a good backup center, a less athletic Dalembert. Salmons is a poor man's Iguodala. Kevin Ollie dreams of being even one-dimensional, still, he's the only point guard on the roster.
Twelfth Place: Orlando--I saw Peter Vecsey on NBA TV talking about how the addition of Keyon Dooling will help the Magic. Keyon Dooling has had an even less successful NBA career than fellow Missouri Tiger Kareem Rush. Dooling is the fourth best point guard on the Orlando roster. Hell, I'm not sure he's better than DeShawn Stevenson. Shouldn't a professional NBA writer and analyst recognize this?
With Grant Hill, they're mediocre at best. Without him, it's Dwight Howard becoming very good, Steve Francis and Hedo Turkoglu shooting a lot, a bunch of guys who used to be decent-to-good role players (Outlaw, Battie, Garrity, Augmon), guys who have never been good (Stevenson, Dooling, Kasun), and two good backup point guards (Nelson and Diener). All in all, they would benefited from drafting someone who would have joined the team.
Thirteenth Place: Toronto--Bosh is really good. I hope by the time he joins a good team, or the Raptors succeed in rebuilding (kidding), he isn't worn down from playing center at 230 pounds.
The acquisition of Mike James allows them to ease Calderon into the Association while also providing someone a good team will look to acquire at the trading deadline. Rose and Bonner will score but do little else. I expect Joey Graham to follow their lead. The ignorant assume Graham is a good defender having played for Eddie Sutton. He's not. In fact, last year, Oklahoma State was a pretty poor defensive team. Coincidentally, last year Tony Allen found an immediate role in the NBA as a defensive specialist. Wait, that's not coincidental, it's causal.
Villanueva should score eventually and rebound immediately. I don't know how much of Morris Peterson's burgeoning defensive reputation comes from his play or the opposition's willingness to give the ball to whomever Jalen Rose is guarding.
Fourteenth Place: Atlanta--The Hawks aren't going to get much better by acquiring the fourth-best player from good teams. Especially if they then play those guys out of position. Now, if there was a point guard on the roster (Tyronn Lue most definitely does not count), I'd be all for throwing any four of Joe Johnson, Al Harrington, Josh Smith, Josh Childress, Marvin Williams, Salim Stoudamire, and Zaza Pachulia on the court alongside him, ignore positional definitions, and see what happens. They'll probably just trade Al Harrington at the deadline and try to get a point guard or a center.
Fifteenth Place: Charlotte--The Bobcats may be closer to contention than the Hawks in that their roster composition lacks gaping holes. Felton and Knight should handle the point capably. Okafor, Brezec, and May form a strong young post rotation. Gerald Wallace is a solid starter at one wing spot and Keith Bogans and Matt Carroll offer decent options off the bench. They only need to add a scorer on the wing and to upgrade the rest of their bench over the next two years to mount a serious run for the eighth-seed. Not a bad outlook for year two.