NBA East preview 2011-12

MIKE GANTER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:15 AM ET

In predicted order of finish with last year’s record and standing in the Eastern Conference

1. Chicago Bulls

(62-20) 1st

Can the Bulls get past the Heat this year?

In the heavyweight battle of the conference it’s the young defensive-minded Bulls against the star-stacked Miami Heat. The Heat last season won Round 1, taking out the Bulls in the Eastern final in five games. The suspicion is that had the Bulls been healthy — both Carlos Boozer and Omar Asik were nicked up — it might have been a different story. The biggest reason Chicago should give Miami a better run this year is the addition of veteran shooting guard Rip Hamilton. If nothing else, he should free up space for Derrick Rose. There’s also an expectation that Boozer will bounce back from a mediocre season.

Changing Faces: In — G Richard Hamilton, G Jimmy Butler; Out — G Keith Bogans

2. Miami Heat

(58-24) 2nd

Close last year, can they go all the way?

While change seems to be the order of the day in the NBA everywhere else, in Miami they have pretty much stayed the course. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Big Three — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — finally did work out their roles after their much-heralded coming-together in Miami. No, they didn’t close out the year but, with Dallas’ defence playing like it was, few would have. The addition of Shane Battier is significant in that it gives the Heat an experienced and well thought-out voice in the room for when things do start to get squirrelly.

Changing Faces: In — PF Shane Battier, C Eddy Curry; Out — PG Mike Bibby, Zydrunas Ilgauskas

3. New York Knicks

(42-40) 6th

Can they defend enough to be a contender?

The addition of Tyson Chandler is a defenite start in the right direction. He is a one-man game-changer under the basket but he’s going to need some help and that’s where some sort of buy-in from the rest of the roster is necessary. Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony aren’t exactly known for their defensive exploits, but those two and the rest of the run-and-gun Knicks are going to need to pay at least a modicum of attention to that other end of the court if they want to go far in the playoffs.

Changing Faces: In — C Tyson Chandler, PG Baron Davis, PG Mike Bibby, F Steve Novak; Out — G Chauncey Billups, C Ronny Turiaf, G Roger Mason Jr.

4. Boston Celtics

(56-26) 3rd

Do they still have the talent to contend?

They may have the talent as the season begins, but the question is: Will that talent still be healthy come the end. Doc Rivers has a tough job in front of him managing minutes. The task could have been manageable had David West come aboard as was expected. Even when he didn’t, it wasn’t quite the chore it became until Jeff Green underwent season-ending heart surgery. That means next to no margin for injury on a team that includes greybeards Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.

Changing Faces: In — F Brandon Bass, G Keyon Dooling, G/F Sasha Pavlovic, F/C Chris Wilcox; Out — F Glen Davis, F Troy Murphy, G Delonte West.

5. Indiana Pacers

(37-45) 8th

How high can these fortified Pacers rise?

The Pacers were a young team a year ago that thrived under Frank Vogel. Things should continue to improve in Indiana with the signing of power forward David West. West reunites with former Hornets teammate and point guard Darren Collison. It was the coaching change from Jim O’Brien to Vogel that jump- started this bunch last year and earned them a playoff berth. An improving Paul George at shooting guard and less pressure on Danny Granger to carry the scoring load should push the Pacers to heights they haven’t seen since Reggie Miller.

Changing Faces: In — F David West, G George Hill; Out — F Mike Dunleavy, F Brandon Rush, G T.J. Ford.

6. Philadelphia 76ers

(41-41) 7th

Why should they improve over last season?

Doug Collins’ Sixers return basically the entire roster from a year ago with few exceptions. It was a horrible start to the year that kept them from reaching new heights last season. But this young athletic team should revel in the compact schedule that will bring other teams to their knees. If Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand can stay healthy, this group should be set up to take advantage of tired legs on opposing teams. Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner are both just beginning to scratch the surface.

Changing Faces: In — Draft pick Nickola Vucevic Out — None worth mentioning

7. Orlando Magic

(52-30) 4th

What becomes of Dwight Howard?

Publicly, the Magic is saying it has taken its franchise player off the trade market, but that can’t last. The Magic has to get something in return and Dwight Howard certainly looks determined to leave. That said, the potential destination appears to be down to the Lakers after the Nets lost key trade chip Brook Lopez. And you have to figure the Lakers will do something to match the Clippers’ signing of Chris Paul. They didn’t just give Lamar Odom to the conference rival Mavs without a plan in mind, did they? We’ll go out on a limb and say Howard winds up a Laker.

Changing Faces: In — C/F Glenn Davis, G Von Wafer; Out — F Brandon Bass

8. Atlanta Hawks

(44-38) 5th

Will Hawks ever make that next big jump?

Atlanta has had a treasure chest of talent for some time now, but it’s beginning to look like it’s never going to maximize its potential. The Hawks roster took a hit when super-sub Jamal Crawford bailed on them and headed to Portland. Jeff Teague is a decent replacement for Kirk Hinrich, who will miss six weeks following shoulder surgery. But the fact remains the trio of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams should have amounted to more by now. Losing Crawford puts even more pressure on that trio, who will now be asked to assume even more of the scoring load.

Changing Faces: In — G/F Tracy McGrady, F Vladimir Radmanovich, G/F Jerry Stackhouse; Out — G Jamal Crawford

9. Milwaukee Bucks

(35-47) 9th

Is Stephen Jackson the answer?

The Bucks are a solid team defensively but just couldn’t find a way to put the ball in the basket last season. Injuries certainly contributed, but Stephen Jackson’s arrival gives them a guy who thrives on scoring when his team needs it most. His addition and the anticipated return to form of Brandon Jennings, who slipped last year, may be enough to boost this team into playoff contention. A healthy Andrew Bogut for the entire season is a must for that to happen, but he’s healthy to begin and it’s not as if the Bucks aren’t due a season where the roster isn’t ravaged by injury.

Changing Faces: In — G Stephen Jackson, G Beno Udrih, F Mike Dunleavy; Out — G Cory Maggette, G John Salmons

10. New Jersey Nets

(23-59) 12th

Are you staying or going, Deron Williams?

Deron Williams holds the short-term future of this franchise in his hands. If he sees some promise of future team success here, there is every chance he will stay. The way it stands right now, we can’t see Williams having rosy thoughts about the Nets’ future. The two- to three-month loss of Brook Lopez is a huge blow. It likely means the end of the Dwight Howard trade talks which will definitely impact on Williams’ decision to re-sign or bolt. The Nets do not want to open their new home next year without at least one star piece.

Changing Faces: In — G Shawne Williams, G Sheldon Williams; Out — F Travis Outlaw, G Sasha Vujacic

11. Washington Wizards

(23-59) 13th

Can John Wall boost the Wiz by himself?

There’s no denying John Wall is a special talent and word this past off-season was that he played most of 2010-11 at well below 100%. The word now is Wall is ready to take Washington by storm and there are few who doubt be can do so. The problem for Wall is that he’s surrounded by young starters without a real veteran there to steady things. Rashard Lewis could be that guy, but he’s always be a complementary player, not a leader. Wall’s maturity will be seriously tested this year as he tries to put this franchise on his back.

Changing Faces: In — F Ronny Turiaf, G Roger Mason, rookie Jan Vesely; Out — F Josh Howard, F Yi Jianlian

12. Charlotte Bobcats

(34-48) 10th

How far off are they from respectability?

Well, it’s not going to be a quick rebuild, but the Bobcats appear to have acquired two nice pieces in draft picks Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo. Those two will obvisouly need time to grow into the NBA, leaving the likes of Gerald Henderson, Corey Maggette and Boris Diaw to hold down the fort until they’re ready. The 2011-12 season could be ugly for the Bobcats, but if they see the kind of progress they’re hoping for from their two big draft picks, the search for respectability won’t be too much longer.

Changing Faces: In — Maggette, G Reggie Williams, F Melvin Ely; Out — C Kwame Brown, G Stephen Jackson

13. Toronto Raptors

(22-60) 14th

How bad will it get for the Raps this year?

Oh, it will be plenty bad as a young team comes to grips with its new defensive identity while trying to come close to the offensive production of a year ago. It’s going to be a trying year but with some patience from within and probably more from the fan base, a solid foundation may not be far off. They will have money to spend next season, Lithuanian wonderboy Jonas Valanciunas and likely a high draft pick in a deep draft. The tough part is going to be surviving this season.

Changing Faces: In — F Gary Forbes, C Jamaal Magloire, C Aaron Gray, F Rasual Butler, G Anthony Carter; Out — PF Reggie Evans, G Sonny Weems.

14. Detroit Pistons

(30-52) 11th

What has Lawrence Frank gotten himself into?

The Pistons shed an unhappy camper in Rip Hamilton and that could be a benefit, but finding another one could be tough. The Pistons do have some nice young players in F’s Jonas Jerebko, Greg Monroe, and Austin Daye but other than Rodney Stuckey, no player really stands out. For the Pistons, based solely on a new head coach and with the bickering Hamilton elsewhere, things have to be a little better than they were a year ago, but they’re likely still to be on the outside looking in at playoff time. At least Frank shouldn’t be facing a team revolt as his predecessor did.

Changing Faces: In — G Damien Wilkens, G Brandon Knight (rookie); Out — Hamilton, F Chris Wilcox, G Tracy McGrady.

15. Cleveland Cavaliers

(19-63) 15th

How quickly can that youth kick arrive?

The Cavs are all in on a youth kick with Kyrie Irving and Brampton’s own Tristan Thompson both coming via last June’s draft. It looks like Irving will start right away while Thompson will at least begin the year coming off the bench. The concern is that Irving played only 11 games in his one and only season with Duke so growing pains are expected. The Cavs gave up on promising forward J.J. Hickson but have added the under-appreciated Omri Casspi. With another high pick in next year’s NBA draft, the LeBron hangover will be gone and he will soon be just a distant memory for Cleveland fans.

Changing Faces: In — Irving and Thompson, F Omri Casspi; Out — J.J. Hickson, G Baron Davis.


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