NBA's East taking shape

JOHN MCMULLEN, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 4:15 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- LeBron James' exodus from Cleveland was going to reshape the Eastern Conference in some form, even if it just meant Miami would replace the Cavs as one of the true contenders chasing Boston and Orlando.

As the calendar turns over to 2011, after a surprisingly competent start the Cavaliers were caught from behind by the cold harsh hand of reality and are a conference-worst 8-24. Meanwhile the Heat have found their stride after a disappointing 9-8 mark out of the blocks, setting a franchise record for wins in a month by going 15-1 during December.

So, while the Heat have arrived as expected, James' arrival in South Beach to play alongside fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh has also had a profound effect on other clubs, most notably their division rivals in the Southeast, the Magic, along with the defending conference champion Celtics.

The panic in central Florida took form two weeks ago when it became clear that Orlando general manager Otis Smith, despite piloting an organization that boasts three straight division crowns, two consecutive conference finals appearances and a trip to the 2008-09 NBA Finals, remade his entire club with a pair of blockbuster deals that brought Hedo Turkoglu back to Disney along with Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson.

"I give the management and the ownership group here in Orlando a lot of credit because it's tough to accept that you're not doing as well as you should," Former Phoenix Suns GM Steve Kerr said. "It's tough to admit you were wrong with some things and move forward, but they went for it. They took on long-term money with (Hedo) Turkoglu, added a lot of offence, but the question is do they have any defence and rebounding?"

The King's impact in Beantown has been a little less noticeable but just as clear to those with a discerning eye. The Celtics still think they have the best "team" in the East but they are treating the 82-game regular season like a mega-preseason with the intent of keeping all their key cogs, be it veterans like Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O'Neal or prized young point guard Rajon Rondo, ready for a possible showdown with LeBron and Company come spring.

Garnett was recently shut down by the C's for a couple of weeks due to a right calf strain, while the team has been extremely cautious dealing with Rondo's sprained ankle and has been sure to rest O'Neal a ton, especially when the club is playing on back-to-back nights.

"The top four teams in the East are already set in some order. Orlando, Miami, Boston and Chicago," TNT analyst and NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley recently said. "They are the four best teams in the East by far. Really, it's just a matter of playoff positioning. But if you're going to win the championship you're going to have to win on the road, but in the big picture [Garnett's injury] is no big deal."

New York and Chicago are also feeling the repercussions of James' "Decision" even though both clubs are much improved.

James' spurning of the Knicks has the Madison Square Garden faithful thinking "What if?" After all, Amar'e Stoudemire has certainly revitalized the Knickerbockers to the point that a postseason berth is now all but a foregone conclusion, not exactly a minor step for a team that hasn't toiled in a playoff game since bowing out to its rivals across the Hudson, the New Jersey Nets, in the conference quarterfinals back in 2004. Imagine if Amar'e and Raymond Felton were LeBron's new running mates instead of D-Wade and Bosh.

"[Stoudemire) is an amazing success story, when you look at what he's been through, for him to have so much success," Kerr said. "I spent the last few years in Phoenix as the general manager and he was an incredibly hard worker. The thing for Amar'e is he had to mature, he had to become a better teammate and a better leader. He did that and I think this is the perfect team for him to lead."

Chicago also thought they has a chance to lure James away from the Forest City but had to settle for Plan B, signing underrated Carlos Boozer away from Utah. A broken hand delayed the former Duke star's debut in the Second City but since he has been back, the Bulls have taken off and seized control of the Central, something that had become the birthright of Cleveland with LBJ on hand.

The rest of the East seems like an afterthought. Atlanta changed coaches but largely remains the same, a good team looking up at a number of far better ones.

Things then fall off the table from there with Indiana, Milwaukee and Philadelphia looking like solid contenders for seventh and eighth seeds that will likely be decided by the war of attrition with injuries telling the tale.

If the Nets are able to pull off a blockbuster with Denver and convince Carmelo Anthony to give up on his dream of playing in MSG for the Knicks, they will also enter an equation that is still weighted heavily if favor of James and his biggest hurdle, the Celtics.


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