2012 NBA Preview: Eastern Conference Playoff Projections

It is expected that the Heat and Dark Lord LeBron hold spot #1. But the Hawks' projected strength and the Nets' projected weakness might be a surprise.

I remember where I was when the Dark Lord finally took over. Most of us do. I was at a bar in Eastern Massachusetts, surrounded by hopeless, angry souls who had not seen happiness since 2008. The buzzer sounded. The people inside the TV were elated, but outside the eerie television glow, nothing. There the Dark Lord stood, his hands waiving above his head in jubilation at his long-coming victory. And that night, for the first time in his career, LeBron had his championship.

Whether you view him as the Dark Lord or the Prince of Light depends on where in the country you are, but nobody is denying LeBron James's talent. The Miami Heat have the highest championship odds of any single NBA team this season according to numberFire, coming in at 13.64%. But that championship is not guaranteed, and even in the Eastern Conference, the Dark Lord and his compatriots have plenty of challengers.

2012 NBA Eastern Conference Projections

#1: Miami Heat
Projected Record: 58.4-23.6
Playoff Odds: 97.43%
Championship Odds: 14.64%

Are you hanging out in a Cleveland office right now, hoping and praying that the Heat won't duplicate their 2011-2012 success? I wouldn't hold my breath. There's only a 2.57% chance that the Heat won't make the playoffs this season with their current roster. I guess if there's a bright side, it's that the Heat likely won't break Michael Jordan and the Bull-ettes' 72 win mark. numberFire projections only give that a 0.08% chance of happening.

#2: Chicago Bulls
Projected Record: 53.3-28.7
Playoff Odds: 92.16%
Championship Odds: 7.34%

Let me put this in bold letters, because it's the only way this particular projection makes sense: This is with Derrick Rose in the lineup. Simply put, we don't know what he's going to do. He could be back in March. He could have a full shootaround tomorrow. But for the sake of consistency, we're throwing him in there. With Rose, the Bulls are a championship contender. Without Rose... well, they're still a playoff team since the bottom of the East is terrible, but they wouldn't be up nearly this high.

#3: Atlanta Hawks
Projected Record: 52.2-29.8
Playoff Odds: 90.23%
Championship Odds: 6.54%

No Joe Johnson? No problem! The numberFire projections say the Hawks "reloaded" more than "retooled" this offseason, and this could potentially be the best Hawks team we've seen. Both Al Horford and Josh Smith have had Player Efficiency Ratings (PER) above 19 in each of the past three seasons; for comparison's sake, the league average is 15 and Pau Gasol only put up a 20.5 PER last season. With Johnson and his 24.9% usage rate gone, Horford specifically should become a bigger part of the offense than last year's 17.9% usage rate and lead to big payoffs for Hawks fans.

#4: New York Knicks
Projected Record: 51.1-30.9
Playoff Odds: 84.13%
Championship Odds: 6.18%

Will having Jason Kidd on the roster truly help the Knicks? numberFire is skeptical. Kidd's PER has gone down each of the past three seasons, from an above-average 17.2 in '09-10 to a weak 13.1 in '11-12. His turnover percentage has gone up each of those seasons as well while his assist percentage has gone down. If I'm a Knicks fan, I'm much more excited for Raymond Felton: his PER, turnover rate, and assist rate all outpace Kidd's 2011-2012 totals. Ultimately, having a fully healthy squad for once should help more than anything the team did in the offseason.

#5: Indiana Pacers
Projected Record: 49.3-32.7
Playoff Odds: 91.97%
Championship Odds: 6.92%

The Pacers always seem to be greater than the sum of their parts, but according to numberFire's projections, the sum of their parts is pretty good as well. Despite having a lower projected record, the Pacers actually have a better overall team rating than the Knicks. Their ceiling is much higher: they have the third best championship odds in the entire Eastern Conference (likely second with a non-healthy Derrick Rose). However, their projected record also reveals a darker side: this team's floor. Remember that this is not only a very similar team to last year's dream squad, but many of the same players were also around for '10-11's #8 Eastern Conference seed. This team could be either one.

#6: Boston Celtics
Projected Record: 47.4-34.6
Playoff Odds: 86.92%
Championship Odds: 4.90%

The Celtics are getting up there in years, but they still have the players to easily be able to capture a playoff spot. Newcomer Jason Terry may even be better than Big Three Member Ray Allen this season for the Celtics; his PER was an above-average 15.6 last season, while Allen's declined to a slightly below-average 14.8. However, the East is very top heavy, and the Celtics may be phased out. Their 4.9% championship odds are a substaintial amount lower than the top five teams, and those odds are only the tenth-best in the NBA.

#7: Philadelphia 76ers
Projected Record: 42.5-39.5
Playoff Odds: 74.12%
Championship Odds: 2.61%

There are distinct tiers in the Easter Conference. There is the top tier, comprised of the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls When Derrick Rose Is Healthy. In the next tier are the Hawks, Knicks, Pacers, and Celtics. They could all conceivably finish three through six in some order. The Sixers want to be in that tier. But they aren't there yet. Andrew Bynum had a breakout year last season for the Lakers, with a 22.9 PER and a career-high usage rate of 23.8% of Lakers plays. His usage rate may be even higher on Philadelphia, as he is the undisputed star of this team. The projections don't have an opinion on how he'll respond to that increased role, and that will determine whether the Sixers do make that next tier.

#8: Milwaukee Bucks
Projected Record: 42.4-39.6
Playoff Odds: 54.98%
Championship Odds: 0.91%

Brandon Jennings + bunches of castoffs = playoff team? Sure seems that way. I absolutely loved the Dalembert pickup as a Bogut replacement; he had a 16.9 PER and an 18.3% rebound percentage when on the floor for Houston last season. Monta Ellis struggled after coming to Milwaukee a bit, but if he can regain his Golden State form, he should be dangerous. Before coming to Milwaukee, his effective field goal percentage (that is, a FG% taking into account the difference in expected payoff between two-point and three-point shots) had not been below .460 since '05-06.

#9: Orlando Magic
Projected Record: 40.1-41.9
Playoff Odds: 54.98%
Championship Odds: 0.97%

Even with Superman leaving Disney World for Disneyland, the Magic still should be a playoff contender this season. Along with the usual cast of characters - especially Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson - bringing Al Harrington and Aaron Afflalo on board should keep this team afloat. Harrington had an above-average 15.3 PER last season and has been above the 15-mark in three of the past four years. Afflalo, meanwhile, had a career-high 14.6 PER last season while posting his highest usage rate ever at 19.1% of Nuggets plays.

#10: Toronto Raptors
Projected Record: 36.7-45.3
Playoff Odds: 26.42%
Championship Odds: 0.14%

And there goes the cliff. After trying, and failing, to bring in Steve Nash, the Raptors are left with a mediocre team. According the numberFire projections, they're not bad enough to slum with the dregs of the East, but they also don't have more than a one-quarter chance of making the playoffs this season. That's a tough place to be. The Lowry pickup was excellent; he posted a 18.9 PER last season with a career-high usage rate of 22%. However, without a star in the fold, it likely won't be enough to push this team over the edge.

#11: Brooklyn Nets
Projected Record: 33.1-48.9
Playoff Odds: 9.44%
Championship Odds: 0.04%

Who would be angrier that the Nets are down this low: Hova or Prokorov? The Nets have established their own, lite-sized version of the "Big Three", but the numberFire projections do not see them going anywhere despite the hype. Last year, Joe Johnson had his lowest assist percentage since 2005 and rebound percentage since 2007 to go along with his highest turnover percentage since 2009. Gerald Wallace was good, but not great, last season with a 15.9 PER. And we don't know what we're getting with a healthy Brook Lopez: his rebound and block percentages both dipped from '09-10 to '10-11.

#12: Washington Wizards
Projected Record: 33.1-48.9
Playoff Odds: 12.99%
Championship Odds: 0.02%

John Wall's something, but he won't be enough to push the Wizards much higher than a low lottery spot this season. Can we call it The Curse of Billy Ray Bates? Since the 1982-83 season when Bates joined the Bullets, the Washington franchise has only won a single playoff series, back in the '04-05 season. Wizards fans likely won't have to worry about that this season; they're still a bit away.

#13: Detroit Pistons
Projected Record: 29.6-54.2
Playoff Odds: 22.66%
Championship Odds: 0.12%

Want a very long shot playoff sleeper? Try the Pistons. Despite having the third-to-worst projected record in the entire NBA this season, the Pistons have better playoff odds than either the Nets or the Wizards. How does that happen, you may ask? Through the wonder of math... and an easy division. The Nets are projected to be the worst team in their division, and the Wizards have two of the top three in the Heat and Hawks to contend with. Meanwhile, only two teams in the Central are bonafide playoff contenders, and one of those teams has its key player starring in Adidas commercials about how he's not playing.

#14: Cleveland Cavaliers
Projected Record: 24.0-58.0
Playoff Odds: 2.19%
Championship Odds: 0.00%

Dan Gilbert personally guaranteed a championship before LeBron had his in Miami. Well, that failed. There's no worse fail than a fail that occurs in Comic Sans. And the comedy keeps continuing in Cleveland this summer, as the Flying Kyries are projected to have the second-worst record in the NBA. A healthy Varejao will help - he had his career-high PER in 25 games last year - but the rest of the team is still way too young. Both Luke Walton and Daniel Gibson put up incredibly poor single-digit PERs last year, and both are expected to be key contributors on this team.

#15: Charlotte Bobcats
Projected Record: 18.5-63.5
Playoff Odds: 0.17%
Championship Odds: 0.00%

There is a greater chance that either the Raptors or Pistons win the entire NBA title than there is of the Charlotte Bobcats simply making the playoffs. To make the playoffs, the Bobcats would just need to beat out the Magic, Bucks, and assorted other Eastern Conference teams. But nope, that's too hard. Lay down your Vegas bets of either the Pistons or Raptors beating out the Heat, Lakers, and Thunder first. I'm sorry for what Michael Jordan has done to you, Bobcats fans. I'm so, so sorry.