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Eastern Conference preview (statistical analysis replaced by smartass comments)

Using a Bill Simmons trick, I will rank teams based on an overriding theory based on no actual evidence. Seeing the difference that Scott Skiles makes for the Bulls, and the opposite difference that Tim Floyd had, I don't think it's far-fetched to say that coaching can make the difference between the lottery-bound and the playoff-hopeful. In the Eastern Conference there are only a handful of elite teams, and then a bunch of hopefuls. What I'm using to navigate such murky waters of near-averageness is which team has the better coach, because if the talent isn't there, the coach needs to use substitutions and motivation to make up for it. And a lot of these guys just don't have it. Skiles does, as we know, and it's a nice feeling to have as a fan.

Rankings are based on regular season record only, not playoff seedings. I don't want to give the Atlantic Division winner any credit. So...bottom's up!

15. Philadelphia - Webber and Iverson were completely healthy last year, and they still managed to give up and miss the playoffs. I think this year things will completely derail, either by injury or trade of their 'superstars'.  Although in actuality, a Webber injury may actually help this team. Most important reason for pessimism is Maurice Cheeks, who has never proved he can actually coach. He proved in Portland that he couldn't win with that cast of characters, but while the general consensus was that nobody could win with them, it wasn't really questioned properly if Cheeks was the right guy for the job, either.

14. Atlanta - They did manage to get a point guard in the offseason in Speedy Claxton, but he was hurt in the preseason and will likely not be at full-tilt when the season starts. Marvin Williams is out for the first couple months, so the idea of him 'breaking out' this season seems pretty slim. And Shelden Williams will likely give them very little. The two Williamses are a nice case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" in draft 'grading'. When they passed up Chris Paul for Marvin Williams, the Hawks insisted they were going after best available, and were ripped to shreds for it. Then this season they draft based on need and make a big reach for Shelden Williams for his defense and rebounding. And were ripped to shreds again. Granted, if they had better scouting it wouldn't matter as much what 'philosophy' they used, but that always bothered me.

13. Charlotte - Way too young, seems like the team that will be in a lot of games, but will wind up blowing most of them. Okafor is officially 'injury-prone', and I am wary of the second half surge of Raymond Felton, as I am of any players that play great down the stretch on shitty teams that are out of it. And Sean May will always be a useless fatso (go Illini!).

12. New York - There's a difference between a 'bad coach' and 'coach trying to deliberately sabotage the team to try and force a power play between himself and the GM resulting in the GM's firing'. So you may read in a lot of places that the Knicks will be better because Larry Brown is gone. But they still won't be any good, since before he was an awful GM, Isaiah Thomas was a coach of some underachieving Pacers teams. And the words 'Knicks' and 'underachieving' go together like 'Larry Brown' and 'jackass'.

11. Toronto - Toronto had a nice offseason (TJ Ford trade aside), but they are still a team that doesn't defend, has a lot of new pieces to integrate, and a coach that likely can't inspire to do either. I predict the lame-duck season of Sam Mitchell to play out predictably, meaning the Raptors will be bad and he'll get fired, so GM Brian Colangelo can get the coach he wants. And when he does this team will be something to watch, but organizational progress has no use in these rankings, it's about wins!

10. Boston - I read more about the Celtics than any other non-Bulls team, due to them being the sole subject of about 50 blogs. And I can tell you the fans are generally optimistic. But.... it's nice to say you have a ton of young players with room for growth, but the reality is the Celtics would have been better served to thin out the ranks instead of having this season seem like one big tryout. Besides Pierce (and to a lesser extent, Szczerbiak) there are no guarantees at all, just a mess of young guys fighting for spots. In the backcourt there's Telfair, Rondo, West. Frontcourt has Jefferson, Perkins, Gomes. Tony Allen and Gerald Green at the swing positions. The end of the bench is filled with more unproven talent like Leon Powe and Allan Ray. Oh, and they have a coach who is notoriously second-guessed on substitution patterns. Danny Ainge can be happy he's stockpiled young talent, but that doesn't mean they'll actually win games with it.

9. Milwaukee - Losing Bogut hurts, as Dan Gadzuric is a long-time statistical darling but hasn't translated his great per-minute numbers into more production when getting minutes. Not playing TJ Ford (and the same for likewise-jettisoned Jamaal Magloire...the Bucks had a nice offseason actually) will help overall, but Mo Williams and Steve Blake aren't exactly top-flight point guards, either. I don't have as strong an opinion on Terry Stots as a coach as I do some of the other coaches in the bottom of the conference, but I've read enough to assume he's no good either :-).

8. Orlando - A bandwagon pick to make the leap, but I'll cap the excitement at merely getting the 8th seed. Like I said about Ray Felton, I try not to  get too excited over the finish of a lost season, but that doesn't really apply to Dwight Howard, who is a budding superstar. They have surprising depth at certain positions if they stay healthy, with Arroyo as a decent backup point and Hill/Turkoglu/Ariza a great bunch at the 3. Orlando could use more bodies up front though, because if 'Tony Battie' is the answer, you're asking the wrong question. I've been a long-time Darko apologist, so this year should be fun to watch, as even at his worst Darko is a great shotblocker. But with a thin frontcourt he'll have to show real progress and be depended on for a lot of minutes, too many for Orlando to be that good this season.  

7. New Jersey - Yet another season where the Nets try to assemble the worst bench in the league. It didn't help that Eddie House and Josh Boone got hurt, but even considering that they are relying a ton on their starting lineup, yet again. If it wasn't for Lawrence Frank I'd say they're a key injury away from disaster, but he's a good coach so they'll likely be just good enough to win the putrid Atlantic division, injuries or not.

6. Indiana - A candidate to fall from their usual spot in the East playoffs, but I think they'll be just average enough to stay in. They have a solid rotation who have been together for a while, and despite the combustibility that exists off the court, on the court they have veterans and a great coach.

5. Washington - Likely still won't be able to play defense, but the Wiz have a true star, and decent surrounding talent.  Another team like Indiana that has consistency in their coach and their rotation, which kindof gets lost when discussing all the flashy offseason movement of other teams. If they stay healthy (my guy Songaila's hurt, and Jarvis Hayes averages about 12 games a season) and defend a little better they can be the surprise team in the conference. 

4. Detroit - I don't think Flip Saunders is a bad coach, but it sure seems like he's having trouble handling his Pistons. I'm sure they feel the loss of Wallace is a chance to bind together and 'prove the hat0rz wrong', etc., but easier said than done. Replacing Wallace with Nazr Mohammed is a hit for the entire defense, not just at one position. Mohammed is not a feared shotblocker like Wallace and perhaps more importantly won't have as much an influence with the officials, and that means a tougher job is ahead for the rest of the lineup. They've been remarkably healthy the past few seasons, and I don't think their bench is good enough to hold up if one of their starters goes down.

3. Miami - May be the best team in the Spring, but this veteran team coming off a championship is primed for a regular season letdown. They have no depth at the point guard spot with Jason Williams hurt, and the obvious age concerns exist with Zo and Gary Payton, two guys who I wouldn't mind seeing get hit by a car.

2. Chicago - I won't say right now that they'll be the second-best team in the conference come playoff time. But the Bulls are deep and will give an effort every night, and they are going to bludgeon the lower-half of the league with their physical defense. And Skiles is the freaking man.

1. Cleveland - They had a lot of injuries and underperformers (some of which will come back to form, but sorry: not Damon Jones, he just plain sucks) last season, and still won 50 games. Very deep in the frontcourt with Z/Gooden/Varejao/Marshall, which will be a problem for a lot of teams, compounded with the inherent problem of stopping LeBron. And while they still haven't successfully gotten a point guard, with LeBron handling the ball many possessions it doesn't really matter as much as it would for other teams. He's the best player in the conference and will get the Cavs the #1 seed.