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Predicted Standings for Eastern Conference: 2010-11
CONF TEAM W L PCT 10 W 10 L 10 PCT
Miami Heat 61 21 .744 47 35 .573
Meet the Miami Globetrotters -- with the rest of the East playing the part of the Washington Generals. Our panel says the Super Friends should run circles around the rest of the conference, except perhaps for Orlando. Then again, Boston eliminated both D-Wade and King James a year ago, so that's why they play the postseason …
Orlando Magic 56 26 .683 59 23 .720
The Magic stumbled vs. the Celtics in the East finals, but this is much the same team that won five series the past two postseasons. Orlando might have some magical maneuvers left, perhaps shipping out Vince Carter and/or finding a way to get Chris Paul. Until then, given Miami's summer, Orlando reverts to dangerous sleeper status.
Boston Celtics 51 31 .622 50 32 .610
The C's showed the regular season means nothing to them, beating the Cavs and Magic despite starting on the road, and almost doing the same to the Lakers. So it matters little that Boston is projected to win "only" 51 games, as long as it can get KG, Perk and the other Men in Green healthy for April, May and June.
Chicago Bulls 50 32 .610 41 41 .500
The East's second tier welcomes a new member: Chicago. The Bulls swung and missed on LeBron, D-Wade and CB4, but they did get Carlos Boozer, a deeper bench and a new coach, Tom Thibodeau. That and the sharp ascent of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah mean that Chicago's sellout crowds finally have something to see.
Atlanta Hawks 48 34 .585 53 29 .646
Amazingly, Atlanta has improved for five straight seasons, but our panel says the streak ends here. The Hawks are a solid team that seems stuck in no man's land, having failed to make the conference finals for 40 years -- since the Lakers swept them in the 1970 Western Division finals -- and that probably won't change in 2011.
Milwaukee Bucks 46 36 .561 46 36 .561
The East seems to have six sure playoff teams, and for the first time in years, Milwaukee is a member of that echelon. Our panel remains in a prove-it-to-me posture regarding whether the Bucks can crack the East's upper crust, but if Brandon Jennings progresses and Andrew Bogut's arm is OK, the pieces are in place.
Charlotte Bobcats 39 43 .476 44 38 .537
Have they peaked? Fresh off of its best season in franchise history, Charlotte's roster looks weaker, its division looks stronger, and Larry Brown -- naturally -- looks like he's itching to leave. Still, with two spots up for grabs, they'll likely earn back-to-back playoff appearances and, in this scenario, a first-round rematch with the Magic.
New York Knicks 37 45 .451 29 53 .354
Knicks in the playoffs! But NY fans had more than an eight-game improvement in mind when the team entered the offseason with the ability to sign two superstars. The Amare addition should help, and Mike D'Antoni finally gets some horses to run his system, but the future remains murky. Still, Spike Lee has something to cheer about.
Washington Wizards 32 50 .390 26 56 .317
Excited about John Wall? So is our panel, which forecasts the Wizards finishing five spots higher. That says a lot about the uncertainty at the bottom of the East, but it also reflects the renewed hope expected in Washington's locker room after the gun incident that cost the team Gilbert Arenas -- now the other half of the Wiz backcourt.
*Indiana Pacers 31 51 .378 32 50 .390
The Pacers essentially stood pat and might miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season. But there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel -- Indy is armed with expiring contracts and on track to have cap space next summer. Meanwhile, the Pacers hope to build on last season's 10-4 finish and avoid the East cellar.
*Philadelphia 76ers 31 51 .378 27 55 .329
Even a new coach (Doug Collins) and the No. 2 pick (Evan Turner) didn't give Philly much of a boost in our forecast. While the Sixers have the raw materials to emerge as a surprise team in the East, our panel fears their roster of bad contracts, mismatched pieces and redundant talent will render them mediocre at best.
*Detroit Pistons 31 51 .378 27 55 .329
The Pistons haven't missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 1994 and 1995, back when Joe Dumars was still playing. To avoid back-to-back lottery visits, they'll need better health and perhaps some bold moves from Joe D in the coming months. Only re-signing Ben Wallace and Will Bynum? That just won't cut it in Detroit.
Cleveland Cavaliers 30 52 .366 61 21 .744
Get used to scrolling down this far to find the Cavs in the standings, sad to say. With a certain King taking his talents to South Beach, we're forecasting a 31-game drop in Cleveland. In other words, unless Christian Eyenga is the second coming of LeBron James, Dan Gilbert may want to back off his championship guarantee.
*New Jersey Nets 27 55 .329 12 70 .146
Speaking of owners with lofty goals … Mikhail Prokhorov expects the Nets to make the playoffs in 2010-11 despite finishing with the NBA's worst record last season. Our panel isn't as optimistic, not after New Jersey struck out in free agency. Still, a 15-game jump in the standings under new coach Avery Johnson would be a good start.
*Toronto Raptors 27 55 .329 40 42 .488
After the ugly departures of Chris Bosh and Hedo Turkoglu, the Raptors are basically starting over with a roster more random than designed. Given the significant dollars tied up in the likes of Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani, Leandro Barbosa and Amir Johnson, don't expect a lot of defense -- or a lot of wins anytime soon, either.