1. Los Angeles Lakers
The defending world champions added Ron Artest into the starting lineup, and center Andrew Bynum will return soon from an Achilles injury. But the Lakers have been sluggish closing out the season, and Kobe Bryant has been banged up for most of the season. With many potentially dangerous roadblocks, it will be tough for Los Angeles to reach the NBA Finals for the third straight year. They still have the best chance to do so.
2. Dallas Mavericks
Dallas was one of the best teams in the NBA after acquiring guard Caron Butler and center Brendan Haywood from Washington. Even though the Mavs have Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki as the cornerstones of their team, they ended up with the San Antonio Spurs in the first round, a team nobody wants to play in the playoffs. If they get out of the first round, Dallas has a shot at the NBA Finals.
3. Phoenix Suns
This Phoenix team is very different from the one from five years ago, but it is still all about the high-tempo offense of Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, a superstar duo. But their flash has not yielded great playoff success, as the Suns have given up the most points of any playoff team. If Nash and Stoudemire stay hot, the Suns can make a lot of noise in the later rounds out West.
4. Denver Nuggets
Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups remain one of the best duos out West, and Denver’s forwards are excellent rebounders. But they have struggled as coach George Karl has undergone treatment for throat cancer, and the Nuggets’ road record is one of the worst among playoff teams. With Karl most likely out for the first round, Denver will need to dig deep against Utah. If they do, they can get a rematch with the Lakers.
5. Utah Jazz
A team stacked with big men, the sky is the limit for the Jazz. With the leadership and playmaking abilities of point guard Deron Williams, the Jazz have big men and 3-point shooters. What they lack is a pure shooter who can hit the mid-range jump shot on a regular basis when Williams gets in trouble and cannot dish it off to one of his big men.
6. Portland Trail Blazers
A young team on the rise, the Blazers have nothing to lose and everything to gain from this experience. Unfortunately, they will be without All-star and leader Brandon Roy in the first series due to a torn meniscus in his right knee that needs surgery. An injury plagued season, first losing Greg Oden and now Roy, they hope to upset the Phoenix Suns in the first round.
7. San Antonio Spurs
Experience, experience, experience. That’s what the Spurs have, but maybe too much experience. With the great Tim Duncan, age might hinder the Spurs’ run if he cannot carry the team on his back like he did in his wonder years. This is where they hope superstar sixth man Manu Ginobili can keep up his hot streak and lead the team to another title. With the off-season acquisition of Richard Jefferson and the solid point guard play of Tony Parker, the Spurs are still a team to reckon with in the playoffs.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder
Though it’s the Thunder’s first playoff appearance since moving to OKC, scoring champion Kevin Durant hopes to not make it a short tenure. Even though they are young and hungry, they lack size and 3-point shooters. To top it off, they are matched up with last year’s NBA Champion Lakers in the first round. But gaining experience and seeing how far they can make it will only better the young squad for future seasons to come.
-Tim Bielik and Michael Willis
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James. Enough said. Aside from showcasing arguably the best player in the league, the Cavs are second in 3-point percentage and third in overall field goal percentage, making them one of the most potent offenses in all of basketball.
While there don’t seem to be many soft spots in Cleveland’s game, center Shaquille O’Neal has not seen action since suffering a thumb injury in late February, which could cause a weakened post presence.
Finishing four games better than the defending champion Lakers, it is hard to not have Cleveland as a favorite to win the east if not the whole thing.
2. Orlando Magic
The Magic have one of the best big men in the game in Dwight Howard, who proved to be too much for anyone else in the east to handle last postseason, including Cleveland, and could provide Orlando with a slight edge in the east once again.
Orlando has been inconsistent at times this season. Both Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis have struggled at points, which could spell disaster in crunch time.
If Carter and Lewis can find their shooter’s touch and Howard maintains his dominating presence in the post, the Magic could give the Cavs a run for their money come conference finals time.
3. Atlanta Hawks
In his first year in Atlanta, sharp shooter Jamal Crawford has been a huge boost off the bench for the Hawks, providing what could be just the spark they need to get over the hump in the east.
Mustering just one playoff series victory in the last 10 years, the Hawks lack the postseason experience that the other top tier teams will benefit from.
Atlanta has come a long way in the last 3 years, but they will have to come much further, much quicker if they want to get past Orlando and Cleveland.
4. Boston Celtics
The nod for most experienced team in the east would have to go to the Celtics whose starting five that won the NBA title in ’08 remains intact.
Boston struggled down the stretch, posting a 3-7 record over their last ten games, and age remains a factor with the ‘Big 3′ all approaching their mid 30’s.
The Celtics shined in ’08 but, despite the starting line-up remaining the same, their lack of youth is a big challenge in challenging for the Eastern Conference title.
5. Miami Heat
On a hot streak, winning 12 of its last 13 games, and guard Dwayne Wade has the ability to take over a game.
Not much talent behind Wade, especially in the front court. Miami was 0-3 against Boston in the regular season.
Although the Heat has the best chance at an upset in the East going against the aging Celtics, Miami’s weak front court will not be able to handle Boston’s big men.
6. Milwaukee Bucks
Midseason acquisition John Salmons has averaged 19.9 points per game since joining the Bucks, and point guard Brandon Jennings is a contender for Rookie of the Year.
Milwaukee lost its best player, forward Andrew Bogut, to injury near the end of the season. Can others step up?
With Bogut, the Bucks could have made a deep run in the playoffs. Without him, they will be lucky to win two games against Atlanta.
7. Charlotte Bobcats
Bobcats are very good defensively, allowing the fewest points in the NBA at 93.8 per game. Guard Stephen Jackson can score from anywhere.
Charlotte has also scored the fewest points of any team at 95.3 per game. The Bobcats have no answer for Orlando’s Dwight Howard in the post, especially if Tyson Chandler’s recent injuries linger.
Charlotte’s defense will keep them in games, but the team lacks the inside presence to win more than a few games against the Magic.
8. Chicago Bulls
Derrick Rose is an explosive point guard and averaged 17 points and 9.3 assists against Cleveland this season.
The Bulls allowed more points than they scored this season. They simply don’t have the talent to give the Cavs much of a problem.
Although the Bulls split the season series against Cleveland, the most recent victory came with LeBron James on the sideline. James will not be resting during the playoffs.
-Travis Kozek and Matt Skrajner