Cleveland and Chicago should comfortably distance themselves from the field in the race for the East's best record. Cleveland has the advantage of the league's best player and a supporting cast that has to improve on last year's sub-standard production.
Chicago possesses not just the NBA's deepest team, but the one with the smallest talent difference between their best and 12th-best player. The extreme balance won't be much help come playoff time but will allow the Bulls to survive any reasonable amount of injuries.
Third seed, Southeast Division Champion: Miami Heat
As I've mentioned earlier, Pat Riley is committed to negating as much of the advantage of having two of the ten best players in the league as possible. This to me, considering the likely absence of O'Neal and Wade from about 30 games combined, is madness. If either Washington or Orlando get off to a hot start, Miami will be forced to chase them down just to get home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
Fourth seed, Atlantic Division Champion: New Jersey Nets
New Jersey's only a 45-win team, but that should be enough to win the Atlantic handily. If either Antoine Wright or Marcus Williams develops into a decent player by playoff time, New Jersey could present matchup problems with a small lineup.
Fifth seed: Detroit Pistons
I think I was a year early in predicting Detroit's retreat from the NBA's elite though could finish the regular season fifteen games worse than last year and still have the East's third-best record. An overextended Antonio McDyess is most likely to break Detroit's streak of good health. Maurice Evans will be missed as well. Even though he didn't play much, he played more and played far better than any other backcourt reserve.
Sixth seed: Washington Wizards
DeShawn Stevenson could make a big difference in the Eastern Conference this year. I think he's a better defender than Jared Jeffries and he won't force Caron Butler out of position. Even if Washington can't overtake Miami in the regular season, they'll have a good chance of playing the Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That will be a tremendously difficult series for Miami to win.
Seventh seed: Orlando Magic
Orlando's probably a year away from challenging the best of the Eastern Conference. Unless, of course, Grant Hill stays healthy.
Seriously, though, Orlando needs to improve their frontcourt depth and get JJ Redick in playing shape as quickly as possible. If Redick can't go, I would advise Brian Hill to play two of his three small point guards together as much as possible rather than let Keyon Dooling hurt the team on both ends of the floor.
Eighth seed: Boston Celtics
I've got no confidence in this pick because I have no confidence in Doc Rivers finding the very effective nine-man rotation that's latent in this roster.
First playoff runner-up: Indiana Pacers
Al Harrington is not a major addition. Al Harrington is as average as an NBA player gets. Furthermore, I think he'll limit Jermaine O'Neal's touches. Combine that with the lack of a quality NBA point guard on the roster and a glut of young wing players and I'm very pessimistic about the Pacers. That being said, Rick Carlisle is a good coach.
I really have no idea how many games Indiana will win. It'll be somewhere between 30 and 45.
Second playoff runner-up: Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee should be pretty good once everyone gets healthy, but they'll be too far behind the pack once that happens. Another good off-season from Larry Harris will make them a perennial playoff team.
Eleventh place: Philadelphia 76ers
Twelfth place: Charlotte Hornets
Thirteenth place: New York Knicks
Fourteenth place: Toronto Raptors
Fifteenth place: Atlanta Hawks
Put the bottom five in a hat, pick them out, and go with that. None of these teams will be good, one of them will suffer a significant injury and be terrible, and the rest will clump around 32 wins.
1st Round Playoffs
Cleveland over Boston 4-0
Chicago over Orlando 4-1
Washington over Miami 4-3
Detroit over New Jersey 4-3
Cleveland over Detroit 4-2
Chicago over Washington 4-3
Cleveland over Chicago 4-2