Especially since the additions of Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony have suddenly made the Atlantic the most star-studded in all of basketball.
But even with the arrival of big names from the West, the weak link is the 76ers, who have no true superstar, and have made no major changes from last year, their biggest off-season move being the re-signing of Thaddeus Young.
Instead, they’ll try to address their needs for a go-to scorer, a legit starting point guard, and a proven center from within. With Evan Turner, Jrue Holiday, Marreese Speights, and Spencer Hawes on board, they’ve got plenty of potential, but may need a few years before they can make the leap from bottom tier playoff team to competing franchise.
Meanwhile, the primary challenge that the Boston Celtics will face this season is the steadily advancing age of their starting line-up. While Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett are still bona fide stars in the league, neither one is a dominant force any more.
Toss Jermaine O’Neal in at center, and you’ve got Rajon Rondo as the only player on the floor younger than 33. The Celtics are still a playoff team, but their time as a powerhouse in the league is just about up.
Conversely, the New Jersey Nets may be approaching their prime. With Deron Williams on board, Brook Lopez at center, and enough cap space to feed a third world nation, the Nets are already living for next year.
If they can keep those two and add another piece, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with. As is, they’ll have to work hard to make the playoffs.
The Knicks have been busy this off-season, picking up defensive workhorse Tyson Chandler, not to mention Baron Davis and then negating all defensive improvement by signing point guard Mike Bibby.
This is a team that is almost very good. They’ve got superstars in Carmelo Anthony, Davis and Amar’e Stoudemire, a new stopper down the middle in Chandler, and, barring a sophomore set back, a fantastic young guard in Landry Fields. But beyond those five, things look a little grim in the Big Apple.
The Knicks are a playoff team, but unless they can find some serviceable role players, they’ll be lucky to get beyond the first round.
As for the Raptors, even with the schedule shortened to 66 games, they have a long season ahead of them.
Andrea Bargnani, Ed Davis, and DeMar DeRozan are all good young players, but this team still needs a lot of work before they can think about making a playoff push. Their big offseason acquisitions were Rasual Butler, Anthony Carter, and Jamaal Magloire (welcome home, Big Cat!), each of whom will bring experience and toughness, but who are not equipped to lead any team to the post-season.
Drafting well and developing the young players already in their stable is how to bring basketball back to Canada. Eventually.
In the Central Division, one team stands head and shoulders above the rest. After a strong, but still disappointing playoff run last year, Chicago looks primed to take the next step. They’ve upgraded at the shooting guard position by signing Rip Hamilton, and they’re hoping for healthy seasons from big men Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. Meanwhile, they’re expecting Derrick Rose, who is only 23 (!!!), to improve on last year’s MVP campaign and lead them to the championship. Anything less will be a disappointment.
But that isn’t to say that the rest of the Central are pushovers. The Indiana Pacers, in particular, will look to take considerable steps forward this season, having added George Hill and David West to their lineup. They’ve got a great core built around Danny Granger, and young talents like Darren Collison, Paul George and Tyler Hansbrough are all ready to contribute. The Pacers may be the surprise of the Eastern Conference, and have the potential to pull off some serious upsets.
Both the Bucks and the Pistons are difficult to read. The Bucks are hoping that Andrew Bogut can stay healthy, and that Brandon Jennings can shake off last year’s lacklustre performance, while the Pistons will be looking towards young guys like Greg Monroe and Austin Daye to lead them back towards respectability.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, are moving in baby steps as they try to navigate the lingering haze from LeBron’s departure. Their biggest offseason acquisition was number-1-overall-pick Kyrie Irving, and he’ll be the centrepiece in their rebuild.
The Cavs will find wins difficult to come by this season, but should still provide some serious highlights with sky-walkers Christian Eyenga, Alonzo Gee, and Ryan Hollins all set to play some minutes.
Like the Central, the Southeast Division is home to one team that is simply better than the rest. While Orlando and Atlanta will be decent, Miami seems poised to erase any memory of last year’s Finals collapse.
The three-headed hydra of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh likely won’t suffer as many growing pains as they did last season, and the addition of Shane Battier will add defense, consistency, and character to their roster.
Mario Chalmers will be the undisputed starting point guard, a role which he filled more than capably during last year’s playoffs. As long as their bench players can avoid throwing games away, this division is Miami’s for the taking.
Elsewhere in Florida, Orlando is in trouble. Dwight wants out, and he’s been in the middle of trade talks all off-season, with nothing moving forward. Trying to find a trade for Dwight that doesn’t leave the franchise in total shambles will be the big story for the Magic this year, because with the team they’ve got now, they’ll be good, but not title contenders.
The Atlanta Hawks are also at a sort of crossroads. They’ve got a strong nucleus of good players, but haven’t got the ingredients to win a title. A major shakeup is likely on it’s way in the not so distant future (losing Jamal Crawford and signing Tracy McGrady doesn’t count… any more), but for now they’ll get into the playoffs, and give whomever they face a tough, gritty series, before losing valiantly in the first or second round.
Last year’s Southeast bottom feeders, Charlotte and Washington, won’t be able to climb up from ineptitude quite yet. The Wizards have boatloads of young talent, spearheaded by the phenomenal John Wall, but have thus far lacked the cohesion to turn their skill into wins on a consistent basis.
The Bobcats have the opposite problem, playing a good, tough team game, but lacking the individual talent to push them over the top. Expect these two teams to trade places in the standings this season, with the Wizards making a modest push up one spot from last place.
But where once the battle for the Western Conference crown was equivalent to the battle for the overall Championship (the actual Finals being a formality), as the Lakers or Spurs dominated whichever squad of loveable losers emerged from the East, the Eastern Conference has finally pulled level with, and possibly even surpassed, the West.
Miami and Chicago may be the two best teams in the league, and will almost certainly occupy the Conference’s top two spots, while Boston, New York, Atlanta, Indiana, and Orlando (barring the trade of Dwight Howard) should fill five of the last six spots. Expect Philadelphia and New Jersey to be in close competition for the eight seed.