By Steve Silverman
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It’s finally here.
The start of the winter sports season.
No thanks to Gary Bettman and the NHL, which should have started early in October.
But at least the NBA is here and not letting its fans downs — as was the case a year ago.
The Knicks are going to have a shot at making some noise in the watered down Eastern Conference, and the Brooklyn Nets may very well be a playoff team as well.
But nobody is going to top the Miami Heat.
Here’s a look at the teams that will make the Eastern Conference playoffs, ranked first to eighth.
Both the Knicks and Nets should be there at the end of the year.
1. Miami Heat –– The Heat appear to be in a can’t-miss position for Eastern Conference supremacy. You still have the big three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and now they have Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. When the Heat can make their three-point shots, they are going to be able to run away and hide most nights.
2. Indiana Pacers — The Pacers have plenty of depth and they will come after you defensively. Frank Vogel is the kind of coach who is going to get the most out of his players on an every-night basis. This is often a strategy for regular-season success, but not in the playoffs. They need Paul George to step up and deliver in crunch situations if this team is going to become a postseason factor.
3. Philadelphia 76ers — Don’t sleep on Doug Collins and the Sixers. Ex-Lakers center Andrew Bynum has bad knees, but if he can shake off the pain and give it a full season, he will pay dividends. You have to like improving stars Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner.
4. New York Knicks — The Knicks are going to have to show they can go the distance, and when you are the oldest team in the league — the average age is 31-plus years — there are significant questions. Amar’e Stoudemire always has some kind of problem, and now it’s a cyst behind the knee. Still, they have Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler to carry the load, and they can be dynamic. Can aging geezers like Jason Kidd (39), Kurt Thomas (40), Marcus Camby (38) and Rasheed Wallace (38) make a contribution?
5. Boston Celtics — The Celtics appeared to make their last stand in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat. But while they lost Ray Allen, they should be in the mix once again. Kevin Garnett still has that chip on his shoulder, Paul Pierce can still fire away and Rajon Rondo can tear through any defense. Jason Terry will try to fill the Allen role as the team’s long-distance shooter.
6. Brooklyn Nets — There’s going to be a certain energy in the building every time the Nets take the floor in the Barclays Center that was never there in New Jersey. It still comes down to talent, and adding Joe Johnson is a positive move. He should work well with Deron Williams. The front line of Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace is workable.
7. Chicago Bulls — The Bulls won’t have Derrick Rose until much later in the year as he recovers from knee surgery. There is a chance he won’t return at all this season. Tom Thibodeau may very well be the best coach in the NBA and he will have the Bulls prepared to play. They will have to depend on Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Rip Hamilton and Carlos Boozer along with the bench. They should be good enough to make the playoffs, even if Rose doesn’t play until 2013-14.
8. Atlanta Hawks — Many observers are looking at the Hawks as a potential disaster this year because they no longer have Marvin Williams and Johnson, but former 76er Lou Williams has the quickness and offensive skills to make a contribution and Kyle Korver is going to be able to score from long distance. The Hawks are one of the most unselfish teams in the league, and they know how to share the basketball like few others.
Who has a better chance to make a deep run in the playoffs — the Nets or the Knicks? Sound off with your thoughts in the comments section below…