This might be the start of what LeBron James stated in last year's
preseason: "Not one, not two, not three..."

*All images are from the Associated Press.

After suffering from nasty coughing and mild fever, I finally feel well enough to make a micro-preview of the unexpected (at least by me) 2011-2012 NBA season. Before I get into the team-by-team stuff, here are some things we should expect across-the-board:
-       A 66-game regular season negates the age factor somewhat, so teams like Boston and San Antonio should have a better shot at NOT having injured players come playoff time.
-       A 2-game preseason means teams will be experimenting with roster combinations for longer than they’re used to. Most second stringers will probably have inconsistent minutes right through mid-January.
-       Even if the season is abbreviated, the plethora of back-to-back-to-backs might actually have a more adverse effect on the health of some teams. This also means players who’ll miss time will potentially miss more games than they would in an 82-game season and, because it’s a shortened season, each game carries a bit more weight.

After the JUMP:
-       Positives (strengths and/or opportunities) and Negatives (weaknesses and/or threats) for each of the 15 East teams,
-       Each team’s expected Best Player by the end of the season (my own prerogative), and
-       a Projection for each team’s campaign given present personnel and context.

(+): The Hawks will have an intact core and a strong starting unit. The playoff experience last year, especially how they upset the Magic, should help their confidence. I expect Boston and/or Orlando to potentially dip in the playoff rankings, and Atlanta has a good chance to take either team’s spot in the top half.
(-): Despite some flashes of brilliance in the postseason, Jeff Teague is yet to be tested in the regular season grind. Al Horford was 3rd-Team All-NBA last year, but is he really the best go-to-guy here?
Best Player (BP): I think Josh Smith, given his better physique, should be the best Hawk this season. Horford and Johnson will be good, but Smith has something to prove.
Projection (PROJ): 3rd seed at best and 6th seed worst case.

(+): The Big 4 have proven themselves to be among the toughest in the league. The shorter season favors their aging core. Talent-wise, Chris Wilcox should plug the Glen Davis hole.
(-): Losing Big Baby and having no Jeff Green will bite the Cs in the butt. Needless to say, 66 games down the road, the Big Green won’t get any younger.
BP: Rajon Rondo, by virtue of his youth, athleticism and opportunistic nature, should be the most critical Celtic this year.
PROJ: 3rd seed at best and 6th seed worst case.

The last hurrah for Boston's aging threesome?
(+): Coach Paul Silas can relish in the fact he has a host of promising, young talent with great upside. This same thing also makes the Cats a wee bit unpredictable, which can be both a boon and a bane.
(-): Who’ll lead this team? Corey Maggette? Yikes. Charlotte will also suffer from a lot of inconsistency, which will be extra critical in a 66-game season.
BP: I’m going out on a limb and pick Kemba Walker to be this team’s overall best player by season’s end. He probably won’t lead the team in scoring, and surely not in FG%, but he should be the main reason to watch Charlotte play.
PROJ: Bottom 5 in the whole league.

(+): A year after leading the league in wins, D-Rose bagging the MVP, Thib being named COTY, and retaining their solid core, the Bulls seemed prime for a Larry O’Brien run. Adding Rip Hamilton upgrades the SG spot on both ends of the floor, and it should make Chicago’s championship dreams a little more attainable.
(-): The jury’s still out on whether Carlos Boozer can help this team as much as they expected when they got him. He should put up more decent stats this season, but whether it’ll all translate to a generally stronger Bulls squad is quite uncertain. Oh, and Brian Scalabrine.
BP: Derrick Rose as MVP again? Possible.
PROJ: 1st or 2nd seed.

Can Thib and D-Rose overachieve again?

(+): Honestly, there’s nowhere to go but up for Cleveland. They’re a year removed from LeBron dumping them and all signs point northward. Not too far north, though.
(-): No leader (Antawn Jamison? Hell no!) and, frankly speaking, nobody to fear. Well, except Dan Gilbert.
BP: Kyrie Irving should justify his top pick status by season’s end.
PROJ: Bottom 5 in the whole league.

(+): Lawrence Frank will have a young and competitive core paired up with some disgruntled veterans. That’s still a positive, but barely. Austin Daye, Tayshaun Prince, and Rodney Stuckey give Frank flexibility and depth at the wings.
(-): Leadership is a big question for this team. Prince and Ben Wallace are the captains, but they’re both from a bygone era. Signing Rodney Stuckey to a 3-year pact indicates he’ll be the new cornerstone of Motor City. Can you feel the Eastern Conference shake in fear? I don’t.
BP: Stuckey will be great, but watch out for big man Greg Monroe. He’s a potential double-double machine this season.
PROJ: Bottom 5 in the East.

(+): Coach Frank Vogel is giddy. He knows he has talent in all 5 positions, and last season’s playoff appearance will do wonders for the Pacers’ confidence. Danny Granger is still the helmsman of Hoosier state, but Paul George and Ty Hansbrough should see elevated play. David West adds depth to the offense, but Hansbrough should still be the top option on the low block.
(-): Granger is the undisputed captain, but he has yet to prove true, franchise-player-worthy leadership. Indiana also suffers from inconsistency, which should be checked as soon as possible.
BP: Danny Granger remains to be Indiana’s top do-it-all man.
PROJ: 6th-8th seed.

(+): Say what you want about the Miami Hate, they still have 2 of the top 5 players in the world (sorry, Chris Bosh, you’re not one of them). Losing in the Finals makes them the hungriest team out there and landing Shane Battier is making other teams’ wing scorers (D-Rose and Melo) shaking in their seats.
(-): Bosh, please play like the third part of the Big 3. Despite the commendable offseason, coach Spo is still looking for consistency at the PG and C positions.
BP: Dwayne Wade will be awesome, but LBJ will put up the best numbers.
PROJ: 1st or 2nd seed.

(+): Andrew Bogut seems leaner and meaner to start the season, which might propel him just behind Dwight and Pau as the league’s top centers. Stephen Jackson was a good pick-up in the offseason, and his shooting and leadership should light a fire in the Bucks’ bellies.
(-): Health has always been an issue for Scott Skiles’s squad, and a 66-game season will make things tougher if anyone gets hampered with injuries. Brandon Jennings will probably continue his boom-bust cycle.
BP: When he’s booming, Brandon Jennings can be the East’s best Monta Ellis impersonation, but at his worst, Beno Udrih might actually be the better choice at PG.
PROJ: 8th-10th spot in the East.

(+): Deron Williams continues to be an all-world PG, but this could be his last season as a Net unless someone big, say someone the size of Dwight Howard, comes this way. Mehmet Okur isn’t Dwight Howard. He’s also no Brook Lopez, but he’ll have to do.
(-): Dwight Howard isn’t coming anytime soon. Damion James is starting at SF and Lopez is out indefinitely. Merry Christmas New Jersey.
BP: Deron Williams will have another good season, numbers-wise, but he might not lead the Nets to any semblance of playoff promise.
PROJ: 8th-10th in the East.

(+): Landing Tyson and Baron plugs some holes, though it’s still too early to say if they can break into the elite tier. Playoff experience last season should help them be more mentally ready this time around. The expected decline of Boston and/or Orlando should free up a top 4 spot in the East for the Knicks.
(-): Even with the arrival of BD, the PG spot seems to be the most vulnerable for New York. Now that the Knicks look primed for the big time, can they actually deliver amidst the growing pressure?
BP: Melo should have an MVP-worthy season.
PROJ: 3rd or 4th seed.

This is why Tyson Chandler matters. You got punked, Dallas.

(+): Glen Davis moving in was a big plus, and he should be cemented at the starting PF position for at least most of the season. After everything is said and done, Orlando managed to keep Dwight by the start of the season, but all indications point to him drifting to a different zip code by March’s trading deadline.
(-): Dwight Howard is the league’s best center, but he wants out. Hedo will never be the Hedo that took Orlando to the Finals. And Jameer Nelson just isn’t built to be this team’s #2 guy.
BP: Dwight Howard till March. Jameer Nelson after that.
PROJ: So many intervening factors, but a 3rd seed isn’t far off if they have a good start. In reality, though, either 5th or 6th seed seems more plausible.

(+): Coach Doug Collins retains a solid core with an impressive backcourt and a good all-around contributor in Andre Iguodala. Their playoff experience should do wonders for their confidence, and their young legs should really help them be legitimate threats in a shortened season.
(-): Despite being the best all-arounder in the team, Iggy is still a frustratingly inconsistent player. He’s not exactly the go-to-guy type during endgame scenarios, and he won’t fill the sheets like LeBron or Kobe. He’s good, but the Sixers need great. The interior defense also leaves a lot to be desired for Philly fans.
BP: Andre Iguodala is still the King Sixer, but he won’t do anything we haven’t seen.
PROJ: 8th-10th in the East.

(+): Potentially, DeMar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani could be a world-shocking 20-20 combo that can make Canadians salivate.
(-): Realistically, DeRozan will probably try too hard and Bargnani will continue grabbing too few rebounds for his size. This isn’t the deepest roster anywhere, and it’ll show.
BP: DeMar DeRozan averaged around 20ppg in the last half of last season, and he should continue impressing this year.
PROJ: Bottom 5 in the whole league.

(+): John Wall got taller, Nick Young re-signed and Andray Blatche seems poised to lead. This could be a good year for Washington, but, wait, they have Rashard Lewis.
(-): Wall is turnover-heavy, Young and starting SG Jordan Crawford are shot-hogs, Blatche is notorious for losing focus, Javale McGee doesn’t have good fundamentals, and Rashard Lewis is the most overpaid bloke on the planet. This could be a good year for Washington. Bleh.
BP: I have a feeling John Wall is going to make a big leap this year.
PROJ: Bottom 5 in the East.

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