1st - Washington Wizards
The Wizards made the second round last season and have threatened to challenge the best in the East, and this may be their opportunity to do so. Point guard John Wall sits comfortably among the very best in the league, and shooting guard Bradley Beal and small forward Otto Porter complete an elite three guard/forward rotation. Injury and consistency concerns abound but based purely on what they offer this Wizards threesome, backed by Gary Neal, Garrick Temple and Jared Dudley offer is well above most other teams.
The frontcourt is a concern, as Marcin Gortat and Nene are backed by veterans Kris Humphries, Drew Gooden and DeJuan Blair and not much else. Their mix of veterans, strong rebounding, defensive prowess and team chemistry could well find its way into the Eastern Conference Finals if Wall and Beal continue to develop as they should do and they can perhaps bring in another key big man
Likely starters - Wall, Beal, Porter, Humphries, Gortat
Key reserves - Neal, Dudley, Nene, Blair, Gooden
2nd - Miami Heat
The starting five is quite frankly terrifying for opposition teams. If they can manage their veterans, this is a team that no-one (even Cleveland) will want to play in the playoffs. Point guard Goran Dragic is among the most underrated players in the league, as is small forward Luol Deng. Future Hall-of-Famers in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will look to manage their way through a long season but are still elite players. The joker in the pack is Hassan Whiteside. A little loose, Whiteside is as naturally talented as any big man in the league and could well be the difference between Miami sneaking into the playoffs or mounting a serious run.
While the starting five is stacked, there is no shortage of quality depth and the additions of Gerald Green and Amare Stoudamire given the Heat major firepower and the ability to rest some of their starters throughout the season. They will need to shoot well given their very poor rebounding and will be heavily reliant on Green and Mario Chalmers to shoot well from outside, but this is a very dangerous team that could well progress deep into the playoffs if it gels.
Likely starters - Dragic, Wade, Deng, Bosh, Whiteside
Key reserves - Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Green, Stoudamire, Josh McRoberts
3rd - Atlanta Hawks
One of the great stories of last season, the Hawks rode an even team effort and incredible offensive efficiency all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. Heading into this season, they will look very much similar to last season but welcome former Spur Tiago Splitter while bidding farewell to DeMarre Carroll. It remains to be seen which has the bigger impact, as there is very little small forward depth behind Carroll but the addition of Splitter will allow Paul Millsap and Al Horford to play less time as undersized centres.
Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver return as the starting backcourt, and it will be interesting to see how Korver recovers from a major leg injury. The chemistry and efficiency of these two is a key component of the Hawks' success and backup point guard Dennis Schroeder looks set to make a name for himself as a legitimate NBA player and lessen the load on both Teague and Korver.
While their efficiency is outstanding, it needs to be given their lack of rebounding and ability to generate fast break opportunities. The question is not so much how far Atlanta will regress, but more how far the chasing pack will improve as most of the second tier of teams in the East look far better placed to challenge Cleveland than the Hawks.
Likely starters - Teague, Korver, Kent Bazemore, Millsap, Horford,
Key reserves - Schroeder, Splitter, Tim Hardaway, Thabo Sefolosha, Mike Scott
4th - Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets have improved markedly over the off-season but are still well behind the top three teams in the division. The addition of Nicholas Batum, Jeremy Lin, Spencer Hawes and top 10 draft pick Frank Kaminsky are offset by no major losses, however the serious injury to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a telling blow as he is likely to miss the entire season after hurting his shoulder.
Batum will combine with All Jefferson to provide an elite duo in the frontcourt, while Kemba Walker provides consistency at point guard and will benefit from the addition of Lin. They are an above-average defensive unit and while far from flashy, they do most of the fundamental very effectively.
A playoff berth is not beyond the realms of possibility, but the loss of Kidd-Gilchrist could not have come at a worse time. This is a meat and potatoes team who may be best giving the ball to the enigmatic Batum and seeing if he can be the X-factor they need to become relevant again.
Likely starters - Walker, Jeremy Lamb, Batum, Jefferson, Corey Zeller
Key reserves - Lin, Kaminsky, Tyler Hansborough, Hawes, Marvin Williams
5th - Orlando Magic
This was an intriguing young side last season, ranking among the bottom 10 in points scored and conceded and offensive and defensive efficiency and yet there doesn't seem to be too many real concerns that need addressing in the immediate future. Young backcourt Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo are far from efficient at this stage of their careers, but not many teams would be more comfortable with their future than the Magic would be with these two. Centre Nikola Vucevic flies under the radar as an above-average offensive centre, and Tobias Harris has shown glimpses of being a future franchise player.
First round draft pick Mario Hezonja could make an impact immediately as a swingman, but if he falters second-year forward Aaron Gordon looks set to fill the void (if Gordon doesn’t get back from injury in time for the first game, Channing Frye might step into a starting spot but that is unlikely to last). As is often the case with a young team, consistency will be an issue, and the outside shooting looks well below average. Further, their interior defense is mediocre as is their overall defensive efficiency. These are all symptomatic of a young team and will likely lead to another season of building slowly ahead of what is sure to be a bright future.
Likely starters - Payton, Oladipo, Channing Frye, Harris, Vucevic
Key reserves - Hezonja, Evan Fournier, Gordon, Dewayne Dedmon, C.J.Watson