Last season, the Indiana Pacers squeezed into the playoffs, then gave the emergent Chicago Bulls all they could handle in a five-game loss in the first round. The teams met again on Tuesday night in preseason play and the matchup typified this season's theme in the East: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
David West played for the first time as a member of the Pacers and for the first time since blowing out his knee last April. For Chicago, Rip Hamilton made his debut in a Bulls uniform, hoping to become the final piece of a championship puzzle. The names were a little different, but the result was the same as Chicago won a competitive contest. If Basketball Prospectus' SCHOENE projection system is right, the Bulls and Pacers just might meet again in the playoffs.
If they do, it might not be in the first round. There is plenty of uncertainty in the East, except at the top. Here's how SCHOENE, as detailed in the new "Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12," predicts things will shake out this season in the Eastern Conference (broken down by tiers of the new pecking order):
The favorites: Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls
The Heat return the power trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, which is enough in itself to mark Miami as a title contender. James and Bosh worked to diversify their games during the lockout in an effort to maximize synergy between the three stars. James plans to play some in the post. Bosh has added bulk and improved his back-to-the-basket game.
On the downside, Miami honcho Pat Riley decided to bring back the majority of his so-so supporting cast for last season. The Heat lack speed and athleticism beyond its big three, especially on the wings. Perhaps Riley decided this wasn't the season for major roster reshuffling, and he might be right.
The Bulls exceeded every reasonable expectation by winning 62 games last season, with Derrick Rose breaking out and becoming the league's MVP. The improvement this season will be more subtle, but this is still a young team with room to grow. Hamilton is an upgrade at shooting guard over Keith Bogans, who was the team's Achilles' heel last season. The biggest advance might come from the frontcourt, where Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer are both healthy, which was not often the case in 2010-11.
Miami knocked off the Bulls in an outstanding Eastern Conference finals last spring. A rematch might well be in the offing.
The contenders: Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks
Unlike the last few seasons, when the East has generally featured three top teams, SCHOENE sees a significant drop-off after the Heat and Bulls this time around. Orlando, Boston and New York all have reasons to hope. They also each have real reasons for concern.
Orlando's status as a championship contender is tenuous even before you consider Dwight Howard's trade request -- which, if granted, likely knocks the Magic into the lottery (depending on the return, of course.) That aside, as long as Howard is with Orlando, the Magic will be an elite defensive team. There are questions about the offense, with Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu both getting long in the tooth. Also, Glen "Big Baby" Davis is a downgrade from Brandon Bass and could (should) lose playing time to Ryan Anderson.
The Celtics were thin even before they got the awful news about Jeff Green. Their big four -- Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett -- are going to log heavy minutes. This isn't the season to do that. Bass can help as a midrange shooter, but there isn't any offensive punch on the second unit. Boston's experience and toughness ensure that the Celtics will be a tough out in the postseason, but they might have to overcome a mediocre seed.
The Knicks have collected some big names, but even after bringing in Tyson Chandler, they look shaky on the defensive end. With the vast majority of New York's cap space committed to the team's starting frontline, the Knicks will have to scramble for backcourt production. Toney Douglas, Iman Shumpert and Landry Fields are nice defensively, but Mike Bibby is strictly a 3-point specialist and Baron Davis might weigh 300 pounds by the time he returns from his back injury. The frontcourt has zero quality depth.
Other playoff teams: Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers
It would not be at all surprising if the Sixers and Pacers leapfrog some or all of the higher-profile teams in the tier above them. Frank Vogel has installed a slick new offense in Indiana that will play to the strengths of newly acquired forward David West. Danny Granger will be asked to be more of a playmaker, which is the last facet of the game he needs to improve to become an elite player.
The Sixers have depth, balance and a hard-nosed coach in Doug Collins, who will coax a top-10 defense out of his athletic roster. Philadelphia lacks a clear-cut franchise player, but if Jrue Holiday breaks out as something close to that, the Sixers could win the Atlantic Division. Reports are that Elton Brand looks terrific in camp, which may or may not be the result of a rumor mentioning him and something about an amnesty clause.
Fighting for a playoff spot: Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks
We don't think the Hawks will be as good as you probably do. It's an annual occurrence. It's nothing personal -- the Hawks just never project very well. Last season, Atlanta slid to 20th in Offensive Rating, all the way from third the season before. Coach Larry Drew says the Hawks might run more with Jeff Teague starting at point guard, but the reserve wings are Tracy McGrady and Vladimir Radmanovic, starting 3 Marvin Williams has a balky back and Jamal Crawford is gone to Portland. It's almost time to rebuild around Al Horford.
The Bucks are one of the most polarized teams in recent memory -- terrific on defense, and hide-your-eyes terrible on offense. Milwaukee finished 30th in Offensive Rating and project to repeat the non-performance this season. However, the defense should be in the league's upper crust, which will be enough to put the Bucks in the battle for the last seed or two in the East. Even if the offense is unwatchable, at least we'll get to see Scott Skiles go toe-to-toe with Stephen Jackson a few times.
Headed for the lottery: Charlotte Bobcats, Toronto Raptors, Detroit Pistons, New Jersey Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Washington Wizards
The bottom of the East is made up of four teams in the throes of rebuilding, plus the Pistons and Nets, who ought to be.
Charlotte owner Michael Jordan didn't like the fact that his favorite toy seemed mired in the league's middle, so he peddled his two stars -- Jackson and Gerald Wallace -- and started collecting young pieces while hoping to hit a home run in the lottery somewhere down the line. Meanwhile, Charlotte might start 6-foot-1 rookie Kemba Walker and 6-foot D.J. Augustin together in the backcourt. A backcourt that small is darn near unprecedented.
The Raptors still are building back up from the abrupt end of the Chris Bosh era. New coach Dwane Casey will begin by trying to end Toronto's two-year streak of finishing dead last in Defensive Rating. Another team still trying to bounce back from a key departure is Cleveland, which has top overall pick Kyrie Irving playing alongside a few other guys who seemed decent when LeBron still wore the wine and gold, but since then not so much.
The Wizards are collecting upside athletes to team with second-year point guard John Wall. SCHOENE projects Washington 29th on both offense and defense, but the Wizards should be fun to watch anyway.
Slumming in this last group are Detroit and New Jersey. The Nets keep going after home run acquisition, but so far they've been more like Rob Deer than Mark McGwire. If the Nets aren't able to acquire Howard, they project to have a pretty non-descript season. It could ruin their chances of persuading Deron Williams to spearhead the first edition of the Brooklyn Nets.
As for the Pistons, we're having a hard time figuring out Joe Dumars' plan. He clears cap space, then squanders it on the likes of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. He drafts promising players like Greg Monroe and Austin Daye, then keeps old Pistons like Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince around to get in their way. Brandon Knight might make Detroit worth watching, but he has to coexist with Rodney Stuckey in the backcourt. The pieces don't fit, and our projections reflect the disorder.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.