NBA preview: Eastern reign doesn't end with Heat

David Del Grande, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

It wasn't all that long ago that David Stern found himself defending a playoff system in which a 48-win Golden State team was left watching in the West while a 38-win Miami squad was moving on in the East.
Just a phase, the NBA commissioner confidently assured.
Now, as Stern prepares to walk out the Olympic Tower door one final time, he does so with many reasons to smile. One is that he was right about the balancing of powers.
The run of 10 champions from the West in 13 years is over. And so are so many of the factors that contributed to the regional dominance.
In fact, things have flip-flopped so severely, the NBA's next-man-up, Adam Silver, might soon find himself fielding questions about the Eastern reign.
When the NBA tips off its 2013-14 season Oct. 29, it will do so with a two-time defending champion from the East -- the Heat.
You could argue the teams most likely to prevent a three-peat will come from the East as well. The Pacers (five) have more playoff wins than anyone against the Heat the past two seasons; the Bulls (in 2011-12 with a healthy Derrick Rose) were the last team to beat the Heat in the regular-season standings; and the Nets basically have merged with the Celtics (adding Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry) to easily qualify as the league's most improved 2013 playoff team.
The East also is where you'll find the last five winners of the Most Valuable Player Award (LeBron James and Rose) as well as last season's leading scorer (Carmelo Anthony), top sixth man (J.R. Smith) and most improved player (Paul George).
In the past year, the East also has added the No. 1 overall draft pick (Anthony Bennett) and former Western standouts Rudy Gay, Luis Scola, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Caron Butler, O.J. Mayo, Andrei Kirilenko, Chauncey Billups and Greg Oden. And this season it welcomes back Rose, Danny Granger, Amare Stoudemire, Andrew Bynum and Anderson Varejao from injury.
How has the West countered? Mostly with head-scratching coaching decisions. Three of the top teams (the Grizzlies, Clippers and Nuggets) replaced their leaders, while last season's two biggest disappointments (the Lakers and Mavericks) retained theirs.
And while the East has gotten healthier, the West has weakened. Arguably the top two guards in the West -- Kobe Bryant (Achilles) and Russell Westbrook (knee) - begin the season on the sidelines. Indefinitely, no less.
Here is a division-by-division look at the Eastern Conference, with teams listed in my projected order of finish.

Atlantic Division
1. Brooklyn Nets - Win-now approach has resulted in potentially volatile mix of veteran players, rookie coach and impatient owner. Over-the-top factor: Bench so deep, it could make playoff run on its own.
2. New York Knicks - Only thing less peaceful than Metta World Peace homecoming promises to be Madison Square Garden reaction to Stoudemire's diminishing production at nearly quarter-million per game. Defending division champs can be comforted in knowledge there's no competition for second in division.
3. Toronto Raptors - If ever a team was meant to move to Las Vegas, this is it. Club's core features five long-time friends, led by Rudy Gay, who spend off-seasons together in Nevada, and up-and-comer Jonas Valanciunas clearly plays best ball in Vegas, having won summer-league MVP honors. Oh, moving west also might clear smoother path to playoffs.
4. Boston Celtics - No Garnett. No Pierce. No Doc Rivers. No chance. New coach Brad Stevens and Rookie of the Year candidate Kelly Olynyk are first two steps in turnaround Celtics fans can only hope happens half as fast as one down the street inside Fenway.
5. Philadelphia 76ers - Like overly excited child on first day of school, 76ers already have secured spot at front of line in race for front-row seat at Andrew Wiggins draft lottery. No (rehabbing Nerlens) Noel translates into Merry Christmas for all opponents during season that promises to be no (traded Jrue) Holiday in Philly.

Central Division
1. Chicago Bulls. When last seen with healthy Rose, Bulls were favored to beat Heat in 2012 playoffs. Not all that much has changed since then, although Chicago's chief off-season addition (Mike Dunleavy) trumps anything Miami did.
2. Indiana Pacers. Beat Bulls by four games last season with each missing top gun (Granger and Rose). Difference this year: Rose has returned to MVP discussion, while Paul George-led Pacers treating Granger like stranger.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers - It's hard moving up in rapidly improving division, but 24-win Cavs have nucleus to pull it off. Four recent lottery picks (Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Bennett) join forces with four proven NBA talents (Bynum, Jack, Varejao and Earl Clark) to encapsulate type of makeover East has undertaken in recent years.
4. Detroit Pistons. Up-and-comer bears no semblance to last year's 29-game winner, with imposing size (Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond), flashy athleticism (Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings) and the glue to hold it together (Billups). Playoff hopes fall onto shoulders of four-rookie bench and new coach Mo Cheeks.
5. Milwaukee Bucks. Not everything about East is improved this season. Western disappointments Mayo and Butler immediately become key figures on new-look Bucks squad that's in serious need of high lottery pick - and just might get it.

Southeast Division
1. Miami Heat. No doubt pack is closing on Heat. Newcomers Oden and Michael Beasley add next-to-nothing to two-time champ that arguably enters season no better than third-best in East. Heat's advantage: Cakewalk through division filled with second-rate ping-pong players.
2. Washington Wizards. Club played break-even ball after John Wall returned from knee injury last season, and now surrounds former No. 1 overall pick with best supporting cast of his career. Last two lottery picks (Bradley Beal and Otto Porter) combine with powerful frontcourt duo of Emeka Okafor and Nene to give Wall legitimate shot at first-ever postseason appearance.
3. Atlanta Hawks. Six consecutive years of postseason play wasn't enough, so Hawks shot for moon over summer in hopes of landing Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. They missed - winding up with Millsap, Elton Brand and in a much darker place - the lottery chase.
4. Charlotte Hornets. Memo to all teams believing brighter days lie ahead for teams maximizing losses (for improved draft position) and savings (for free-agent spending): Hornets got nothing better than Cody Zeller and Utah's Jefferson with fourth pick and $41 million last off-season.
5. Orlando Magic. Won only 20 games last season and seem content to max out at about 25 this year, having made one significant addition (No. 2 overall pick Victor Oladipo). Bucks castoff Tobias Harris was team's top player last season, and is projected to be again this year.

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