For the first time in recent memory, the Eastern Conference has more title contenders than the Western Conference. In the East, you have the two time defending World Champion Miami Heat along with other top contenders like the Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls. The Pacers were just one game away from knocking the Heat out and advancing to the NBA Finals. The Bulls get former MVP Derrick Rose back,and the Nets went out and acquired Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry from the Boston Celtics and also signed Andrei Kirilenko.
All of these teams will be looking to make a statement during the regular season when they play Miami. Not only is beating Miami in the regular season important for these teams, but they also will be looking to get the No. 1 seed in the East. Miami won two Game 7s last year, both at home, and have had one of the best records at home in the NBA since the “Big 3″ got together.
Bottom feeders like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Washington Wizards and Detroit Pistons have all improved this year as well. Cleveland drafted Anthony Bennett No. 1 overall and signed Andrew Bynum. Washington drafted Otto Porter Jr. No. 3 overall and just traded for Marcin Gortat as well as three other role players. Detroit spent big this offseason by signing Josh Smith and trading for Brandon Jennings. These teams may not be title contenders, but they will make the regular season more difficult for Miami.
After signing Michael Beasley, Greg Oden and Roger Mason, the depth the Heat has may allow them to go on a maintenance program throughout the year. They almost lost last year in the Finals because of a knee injury to Dwyane Wade and obvious fatigue from some of the older players. This may be the year that LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Wade all sit 10-15 games in hopes of keeping them healthy in the postseason.
The Heat have also played more games than any team in the NBA by a wide margin over the last three years. These extra games take a toll, especially for players like James and Wade that play over 36 minutes per game and cover the other team’s best player. It would be in the best interest of the team to look at the regular season as an 82 game preseason and focus on the playoffs. With the “Big 3″ being limited in games, the Heat will still be one of the best teams in the East. They should also limit the amount of back-to-back games Wade plays to make sure they limit the soreness in his knee.
My prediction is that Miami finishes 53-29 and gets the third seed in the East. Chicago will be No. 1 and Indiana will be No. 2. The Heat have beaten both of these teams twice in the last three postseasons and should feel confident whether they are at home or on the road.