Ron Glover’s 2012 NBA Eastern Conference Preview

(Rhona Wise/Reuters)

An NBA crown makes the Miami Heat the hunted — with everyone coming for their heads.

The 2012-13 NBA season is here. Thanks to a feverish off-season full of trades and free agent signings, the Easten Conference was shaken up just a little.

The Miami Heat are looking to repeat as NBA Champions. LeBron James has cemented himself as the NBA’s best player hands down. The Boston Celtics have gotten younger and deeper and believe they have enough to overthrow the champs. The three-way deal that landed Andrew Bynum in Philadelphia puts the 76ers in the mix.

The future of Derrick Rose is the primary concern for the Chicago Bulls now, but they will challenge for one of the top four seeds. The Brooklyn Nets will make waves as Joe Johnson and Deron Williams will form one of the NBA’s best backcourts. The Knicks are hoping many of the seasoned veterans they’ve acquired can stay healthy long enough to make a playoff run.

Here’s my preview of the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

NBA Atlantic Division (Predicted order of finish):

1. Boston Celtics – The return of Jeff Green is critical to the C’s success. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are turning the keys over to Rajon Rondo — whether they realize it or not. Rookies Fab Melo and Jared Sullinger will play major roles in bench production and depth. Jason Terry better be a big reason for the Celtics winning it all this year if he’s going to make the fans forget about Ray Allen. Doc Rivers may want to do away with the Miami Heat more than any player on his roster.

2. Philadelphia 76ers – The mention of Andrew Bynum’s knees makes the most die-hard of 76ers fans uneasy. With Bynum missing the preseason for precautionary reasons — there are whispers of the 76ers being dealt a lemon of a center. Bynum is closer to Moses Malone than Jeff Ruland, but if things don’t work out they’ll look elsewhere next summer. Center Spencer Hawes isn’t a bad insurance policy. Point guard Jrue Holiday must improve his shot selection and assist total. Evan Turner made strides last season, but needs to score just a little more. Thaddeus Young is the team’s best perimeter defender. The bench is full of frontcourt talent led by Lavoy Allen and rookie Arnett Moultrie. Jason Richardson, Nick Young and Dorell Wright give the Sixers quality shooters to open things up down low.

T3. Brooklyn Nets – In my opinion, the Brooklyn Nets are better without Dwight Howard. The trade fell through at the 11th hour — saving the Nets from being gutted and swimming with the (Toronto) Raptors. Joe Johnson’s quiet demeanor may not be a direct reflection of the in-your-face Brooklynites, but his game is. Gerald Wallace, when healthy, is one of the best small forwards in the league. Night in and night out, he’s a double-double waiting to happen. Rebounding machine Kris Humphries (11.0 rpg.) and Brook Lopez round out an impressive frontcourt. Explosive second year player MarShon Brooks will be a great sixth man this season.

T3. New York Knicks – After Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler there isn’t much to fear when it comes to the Knicks. After losing Baron Davis and Iman Schumpert in the playoffs the Knicks lost Jeremy Lin to the Houston Rockets. The Knicks countered by signing Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton. To bolster the bench, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace were added. The Knicks have two streaky shooters in J.R. Smith and Steve Novak. Smith will more than likely start while Novack will appear in a sixth man role. The health of Stoudemire (knee), who will miss the first four to six weeks of the season, will determine where the Knicks finish in the division.

4. Toronto Raptors – The Toronto Raptors are starting over again. New head coach Dwayne Casey takes over for a team that finished 23-43 last season. With more youth than experience, it will be another year or two before the Raptors are mentioned in the same breath as their division foes. Free agents Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields will give Toronto scoring and depth in the backcourt.

The future of veteran point guard Jose Calderon is up in the air, but the underrated floor leader has remained professional throughout the preseason. If he’s on the roster opening night, it only helps Toronto. DeMar DeRozan will be asked to contribute from the small forward position. Andrea Bargnani nearly half of the season and was still able to average close to 20 points per night. The arrival of 2011 first round pick Jonas Valanciunas is a welcome edition for the Raptors — who have struggled to land a presence in the middle. Rookie Terrence Ross will be a key reserve on a bench that features Ed Davis, Alan Anderson and Amir Johnson.

NBA Central Division (Predicted order of finish):

1. Indiana Pacers – The collective sigh of relief when Roy Hibbert’s contract was matched by the Pacers this summer could be heard as far away as Portland — where Hibbert was headed. The Pacers were a physical test for the Miami Heat in last year’s playoffs, but have they done enough to push themselves past the second round? Indiana native George Hill is the new starting point guard after Darren Collison was shipped to Dallas. D.J. Augustin comes over from the Bobcats –Augustin could be a steal if he can regain his shooting touch. The versatility and production of swingman Paul George will allow Danny Granger to move to small forward. Granger struggled in the first two months of the season. He didn’t heat up until April and fizzled again in the Miami series. David West was solid in his return from an ACL injury, but the Pacers will expect more. The bench is solid with Tyler Hansbrough, high-flyer Gerald Green and Augustin. Talented rookies Orlando Johnson and Miles Plumlee give the bench athleticism.

2. Chicago Bulls – The Bulls have to stay the difficult course without their leader Derrick Rose. There is no definite timetable for the 2010 NBA MVP. Speculation ranges from February to opening night 2013. Free agent signee Kirk Hinrich is dependable and will contribute. Joakim Noah is back from the ankle injury he suffered in the playoffs. Pressure is on Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer to carry the scoring load. Boozer has played beneath his talent level since arriving in the Windy City. The team may need to cut their losses if Rip Hamilton can’t stay healthy. Taj Gibson is instant energy and offense for the Bulls. Rookie Marquis Teague will compete for minutes at the point. Marco Bellinelli and Nate Robinson will boost scoring as reserves.

3. Milwaukee Bucks – The scoring tandem of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis is one of the league’s best. But it’s the Bucks frontcourt that will provide the muscle. Samuel Dalembert will replace Andrew Bogut in the middle, giving the Bucks a top flight shot blocker with athleticism. Rookie John Henson has a ton of potential and should find a spot in the rotation. The Bucks are expecting forward Ersan Ilyasova (13.0 ppg., 8.8 rpg.) to improve. Luc Mbah a Moute is the trigger of the Bucks defense. Mike Dunlevy is a sixth man with starter skills.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers – The star watch for second year guard Kyrie Irving (18.5 ppg.,5.4 apg) is officially underway. Irving had 117 of 120 votes for NBA Rookie of the Year. Anderson Varejao posted career highs in points and rebounds, but he was limited to 23 games with a wrist injury. Tristian Thompson showed flashes at the power forward position as the season progressed. Alonzo Gee enjoyed a career season and should improve in a contract year. Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller will play key roles as rookies.

5. Detroit Pistons – The Pistons are a team in managerial disarray. For a team with so much young talent, they just don’t seem intent on making the move that could elevate them in the standings. Greg Monroe and Rodney Stuckey are two pieces that can be built upon. The Pistons brought in journeyman Corey Maggette to add scoring to a team that was 27th in the NBA last season at just under 91 points per game. Tayshaun Prince is one of two holdovers from the Pistons last championship team. Prince has started all 82 games for the last five seasons and finished fourth on the team in scoring. They are still waiting on Prince clone Austin Daye — who has been a disappointment. Relief for Prince could come in the form of Jonas Jerebko — who missed the entire 2011 season. Skilled big man Andre Drummond from UConn will add beef in the Pistons frontcourt.

NBA Southeast Division (Predicted order of finish):

1. Miami Heat – The Miami Heat are now the hunted, and from the looks of things that’s exactly how they want it. For all the greatness we’ve witnessed from LeBron James this year, he hasn’t reached the height of his powers. Dwyane Wade is the most dangerous shotgun rider — who isn’t afraid to take the wheel when the situation arises. Chris Bosh working out at center, could increase his 18 points per game last season.

Mario Chalmers may come across as a throw in on this team, but his confidence level can be measured with anyone on the roster. Snipers Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis make double-teaming the Heat at any given time a lethal decision. Mike Miller is still available when needed. Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, James Jones and Joel Anthony provide the grit on a team loaded with star talent. The depth of the Heat will be the story of their season, making them good enough for another championship run.

2. Atlanta Hawks – All hope isn’t lost for the Hawks — who traded away Joe Johnson and his $90 million contract as part of Danny Ferry’s reconstruction of the team. Will power forward Josh Smith remain in Atlanta or will he be traded at some point? The return of Al Horford couldn’t come fast enough. The fifth year center was shut down in January with a shoulder injury. Backup Zaza Pachulia filled in nicely before a foot injury cut his season short.

The backcourt of Jeff Teague and former Utah Jazz point guard Devin Harris is a nice combination. Their quickness will allow the Hawks to continue their open floor attack. The team cut ties with Marvin Williams — who never played to his full potential. That Chris Paul was still on the board when Williams was selected still has to sting. Plenty of shooters are coming to the ATL. Lou Williams was the leading scorer in Philadelphia and one of the league’s premier scoring reserves. Kyle Korver is one of the best spot up shooters, but don’t look for much on defense. First-round pick John Jenkins from Vanderbilt is a sharpshooter that can fill in at the two. Anthony Morrow is another shooter who should fit in well.

3. Washington Wizards – The time is now for John Wall; the Wizards third year guard has enough scoring around him to increase his assist total. Rookie Bradley Beal from Florida averaged 18 points in the summer league, raising expectations of an explosive backcourt with Wall. Nene will be moved to power forward where he could become an All-Star. Last season, he averaged 14 points and 7 rebounds at center. The Wizards got a big boost defensively when they acquired Emeka Okafor. Okafor and Nene should give the Wizards one of the NBA’s best defensive frontcourts. Trevor Ariza is another veteran who should add leadership and experience to a very young team. Trevor Booker is a scrapper who is only going to get better. Jordan Crawford, A.J. Price and Kevin Seraphin are talented scorers who add additonal depth.

4. Orlando Magic – The executives of the Orlando Magic can still hear the laughter. The Magic’s compensation for trading the #1 overall pick in the 2004 Draft was nothing worthy of a player who led his team to the NBA Finals and was a three-time defensive player of the year. Of the players Orlando received back no one was selected higher than #15, the picks in return are from perennial playoff teams, so there will be no lottery picks in the bunch. Jameer Nelson signed with the Magic with hopes of making one last run with Howard. Instead, he’s on a roster filled with young players and trade throw-ins. The Magic still have Glen Davis, J.J. Redick and Hedu Turkoglu. Newcomer Al Harrington will get a chance to start in a rotation thin on scorers. Rookie Mo Harkless obtained from Philadelphia will have a chance to contribute. The knock on Harkless is his age (19). Nikola Vucevic is a big man with an outside touch who somehow fell out of favor with Doug Collins. He will get an opportunity to play a key role in Orlando. Kyle O’Quinn and Andrew Nicholson are rookies who will replace some aging veterans.

5. Charlotte Bobcats – The only thing the Bobcats can do is put last season behind them and move forward. When you can add a player like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist the transition becomes easier. The Bobcats posted the worst winning percentage in NBA History (.106) and failed to win the #1 pick in the NBA Lottery. Gilchrist isn’t a bad consolation prize — in fact, he should begin to pay instant dividends. Kemba Walker will move to the point, Ramon Sessions will give the backcourt another shooter. New acquisition Ben Gordon will back up starter Gerald Henderson at the two. Underachiever Tyrus Thomas is going to be dealt at some point. For a player with his athletic gifts a scoring average of 5.6 points is inexcusable. Brendan Haywood gives the Bobcats a rock in the middle with double-double potential. Bismack Biyombo, who averaged nearly two blocks a game as a rookie is a defensive talent to build on.

Playoff Seedings:

1. Miami Heat

2. Boston Celtics

3. Indiana Pacers

4. Philadelphia 76ers

5. Brooklyn Nets

6. New York Knicks

7. Chicago Bulls

8. Milwaukee Bucks

Eastern Conference Champions: Miami Heat

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