The top five in the East, according to ESPN, goes as follows: the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks.
It's the same teams that finished in top five a season ago, except teams 2-5 are scrambled up. In 2012, the Knicks finished second in the Eastern Conference, followed by the Pacers, Nets and Chicago.
Miami remains in the top spot, and rightfully so, as no one should be able to knock off the two-time defending champs before the season begins.
Shifting Chicago into the No. 2 spot in place of the Knicks is largely due to the return of Derrick Rose, who has been proclaimed as 100 percent healthy. But should one All Star account this large of a rise in the standings?
First off, Rose has yet to take the court in a game-type situation since tearing his ACL during the 2011-12 season. And the Bulls, like any other NBA squad, are not a one-man team.
The team is banking on Jimmy Butler making great strides as he takes on the full-time shooting guard gig. Luol Deng is just weeks removed from a life-threatening spinal injury, and Carlos Boozer is another year older. And overall, the Bulls lack serious depth, especially given their wealth of injury concerns.
Onto the Pacers, projected to be third in the East, just where they finished a year ago.
The team remained pretty much the same, plus it will now have another offensive weapon in Danny Granger back on the court. Granger is expected to come off the bench and provide a scoring boost, much like J.R. Smith's role for the Knicks.
Overall, the Pacers projection makes sense. It's hard to argue too much about the team that knocked off New York in the second round of the playoffs.
In the fourth spot is the talk of New York, the Nets, who acquired veterans Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry this off-season in a trade with the Boston Celtics.
Brooklyn's win total is expected to increase by four games, according to ESPN, which the additions of Pierce and Garnett could easily account for. Even as aging superstars, Pierce and Garnett can be valued for at least four or five close wins.
With the new faces in the lineup, the Nets sport a starting five of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Perce, Garnett and Brook Lopez, with a weapon like Terry as the first man off the bench. While the starting five is pretty legit, depth is not a luxury for the Nets. But overall, the No. 4 spot in the East is certainly justified.
And now the Knicks, the No. 2 seed in the East last year and now projected to drop down three spots and win six less games in the coming season.
The shift down to the No. 5 spot is largely a product of the rest of the Eastern Conference contenders making splashes in the offseason rather than the Knicks' roster deteriorating. Because in actuality, the 2013 edition of the Knicks looks to be superior.
The key cogs remain in place; Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler will all start this season, plus Andrea Bargnani fitting into a true power forward position.
Smith will return as the Knicks' scoring threat off of the bench, while free-agent addition Metta World Peace gives the Knicks and Mike Woodson a strong defensive presence when facing marquee superstars.
Beno Udrih replaces Jason Kidd as a veteran presence in the backcourt, while Amare Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin provide much-needed depth in the frontcourt.
Not only do the Knicks have one of the most formidable offensive units in the league, it now has more capable defenders and perhaps the deepest rotation in the East.
So while the Nets added a handful of aging superstars and the Bulls return their best player, the Knicks added quality players to fill its glaring holes. Being projected to finish fifth in the East is almost an insult, as this roster is more deserving of at least the No. 3 spot behind the defending champs and the squad that eliminated them from the postseason last year.
Rounding out the top 10 spots in the ESPN ranking are the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors. Playoff teams from a year ago, including the Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, are expected to take major steps back.
The Hawks at No. 6 is generous, especially given the loss of Josh Smith. Conversely, the Pistons, now with Smith in addition to Brandon Jennings, deserve to be in the playoff conversation.
Again, it's hard to argue against the Cavs taking a major step forward this season, as long as Kyrie Irving is able to remain on the court. The team could be formidable if Andrew Bynum and/or first-round pick Anthony Bennett have an impact.
And while it may be bold to include the Raptors or Wizards in the top 10, it's more of a product of the rest of the Conference regressing. The majority of the East's talent resides in the top seven teams.
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