(Very) Early Conference Standings Predictions

A disclaimer before anyone gets on my case for doing predictions in July- I am doing so solely because of my incredibly nerdy interest in the NBA and my excitement for the upcoming season, which seems like it will be one of the most exciting in a few years. That said, I am fully aware that multiple trades and signings will happen before the season even starts, let alone before the trade deadline. For instance, just looking at last year, the James Harden trade and even the Chris Andersen signings had credible impacts on the balance of power in their respective conferences. Even so, I wanted to put all of my thoughts on free agency and trade season down on paper in the form of a standings prediction.

Eastern Conference-

1. Miami Heat- As much as it does bug me that sports analysts refuse to debate or deride the Champions from the past season, this Miami Heat team is one that supports these analysts' decision to do so. While there are many arguments to be made against the Heat, whether it be increasing age, lack of rebounding or health issues, it is hard to argue too much against a team that had its best season of the Big Three- era. Better yet, they did so while Dwyane Wade battled lingering knee issues, Chris Bosh had his worst statistical season in years, and their former crunch time lockdown defender, Shane Battier, struggled with his shot to the point that he was phased out of the rotation at points during the season. The X Factor here will always be LeBron James and the system that Erik Spoelstra has expertly crafted around LeBron's skill set.

2. Brooklyn Nets- This is not an overreaction to one specific trade, nor to a specific signing. Brooklyn has put together a roster that is deep enough and versatile enough to dominate the league in the regular season. Similar to what the Denver Nuggets did last season, the Nets have many players who can play multiple positions and do well on both ends of the floor. Their starting rotation is one of the best in the league on paper, and with a bench capable of playing big minutes, they can make up for the relatively high age of the starting lineup. Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry are both starting- caliber players who understand their niches and have maximized their potential in the league. Shaun Livingston and Reggie Evans should be very solid in small bursts, and Andray Blatche was a Sixth Man of the Year candidate last year. Garnett and Lopez' skill sets are a perfect match, and if Deron Williams can repeat his second- half production from a year ago, the team will be finely tuned in time for the playoffs, where the real test of health and chemistry will begin, and depth will matter less.

3. Indiana Pacers- The Pacers made the minor moves necessary to fine- tune contender they showed last season. They are also an example of a team that will get better simply by regression to the mean, both in terms of health and statistics. Roy Hibbert seems like a good bet to play more like the dominant post player we saw in the playoffs and less like the inefficient defense- only behemoth we saw in the first half of last season. Getting Danny Granger back for more than five games will be an incredible boost to a team that saw Lance Stephenson develop into a starting- caliber scorer and defender while Granger was out. Whether it is Granger or Stephenson coming off the bench, it will be a necessary boost for what proved to be an awful bench in last year's playoffs. The additions of Chris Copeland, CJ Watson, and Solomon Hill will further bolster a bench that seemed to be a main factor in the loss to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.

4. New York Knicks- I can't help but feel bad for the Knicks. They are tied to the contract that made them relevant again three years ago but now eats up cap room and provides no production in Amar'e Stoudemire, as well as the now- constant comparisons to their borough-ly rivals in the Brooklyn Nets. The Knicks have become the laughingstock of the offseason because of their pathetic answers to the Nets' extraordinary offseason. They traded for Andrea Bargnani, a joke of a player coming off two terrible years in Toronto, to answer the Nets' trade for two future hall of famers. They then signed Metta World Peace, a washed up veteran, to answer the Nets' signing of Andrei Kirilenko, a box score stuffer who is a dogged defender and intelligent offensive weapon. Whether or not these acquisitions intentionally mirrored those of their New York counterparts, it is hard not to assume they did. Either way, the Knicks will see a drop in the standings solely because of the betterment of the teams surrounding them. However, if they can get healthy, productive seasons from in- their- prime players such as Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and JR Smith, the Knicks will be a force yet again in the playoffs.

5. Chicago Bulls- Before I get to my opinions on the Bulls this season, it is worth noting that a potential Knicks- Bulls first round series will be must- watch TV. I will be rooting for this to happen all season, and truly think it will happen. The Bulls continued their almost unfair trend of making low- profile deals for players that will end up making a world of difference for the team come April. Mike Dunleavy was one of the best two- way shooters on the market this year, and the Bulls snatched him up for a deal that is dwarfed by those his counterparts such as former Bull Kyle Korver signed. Dunleavy will be a great floor spacer and potential crunch time player for this year's Bulls team. A Rose- Butler- Dunleavy- Boozer- Noah closing lineup would be great at both ends, meaning that this deal also makes Luol Deng even more expendable. The Bulls carry multiple unreasonable assumptions heading into this season as well. The first is that Carlos Boozer is becoming unproductive as he ages. That is a completely unfair assessment, as Boozer had one of his best seasons in years as one of the primary scorers with Rose out last year. The second main assumption about this team is that Rose will come back and not be himself right away. If there is anything that his unnecessarily long absence proved, it's that he will be as close to 100% as he can be to start this season.

6. Atlanta Hawks- The perpetual sixth seed does it again. The Hawks, who seemed to have great direction under Danny Ferry heading into this offseason, signed multiple short- term contracts this offseason that will again make them "just competitive enough" this year. A starting five of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Al Horford, along with Lou Williams, Dennis Schroeder, John Jenkins and Elton Brand off the bench will be a very competitive team in a top- heavy Eastern Conference next year. I am excited to see the continued development of Horford and Teague now that Smith is gone and more touches will open up for them. It seems that they will be running a ball- sharing, floor- spacing system that maximizes the talents of their passing- minded bigs and great wing shooters. If nothing else, they will be a very fun team to watch, and an almost surefire playoff team.

7. Cleveland Cavaliers- This is the year the Cavs finally break back into the territory that LeBron made them so familiar with- the playoffs. They won't be facing Gilbert Arenas' Wizards this year though, but a playoff appearance is just what this organization needs to show their fans the progress that has been made. The offseason acquisitions of Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and Andrew Bynum are fairly risky moves but have excellent upside. The best- case scenario for Cleveland this year is continued progress and health from Tristan Thompson, Kyrie Irving, and Dion Waiters, solid contribution from Anthony Bennett, and healthy seasons from Bynum and Anderson Varejao. The two factors that put the Cavs ahead of the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls are Kyrie Irving and versatility. Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark added to the versatility that players such as Waiters, Thompson, Varejao and Bennett already brought to the table. Experiments with three- guard lineups, Bennett and Clark tandems, and Varejao moving back to his natural position of power forward will eventually lead to a well- coached, athletic team in which players understand their roles.

8. Washington Wizards- If they had been able to be more of a player in free agency, they might have had a chance to finish ahead of the Cavaliers. However, they completed their goals and look to expand upon the playoff- level performance they showed off in the second half of last season. Their defense was tremendous during that stretch, and a full season of Bradley Beal, Nene and John Wall should catapult their offense to where it needs to be. The additions of Otto Porter and Eric Maynor, as well as the retaining of Martell Webster, solidified the backup point guard and small forward positions, the two rotation pieces that the Wizards lacked production from last year. Thekey will be frontcourt health, as Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and Nene have all been injured for large portions of their time as Wizards since being brought to Washington in deadline deals two seasons ago. John Wall can make up for a lot of the youth and inexperience of this team if he can keep up the level of play he showed post- injury last season. Expect many more games this season like last year's 47 point, 7 rebound, 8 assist gem, and he can turn Washington into a playoff team capable of making much more noise against the Heat than Milwaukee did last year.

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