The NBA East’s Christmas Four

The NBA tips off Christmas Day, and the Notebook will start easing into the 66-game schedule by taking a look at four top teams from the East, all of whom will be in action Sunday…

Miami: The Heat were championship-or-bust a year ago after the big signings of LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwayne Wade, and it was there for them on their home floor at the end, before they lost to Dallas in Game 6. Miami is a well-balanced team in the sense that they play defense with the same level of intensity they play offense, and they do go after the glass. It’s depth that’s the problem. Beyond The Big Three, Miami gets good work from point guard from Mario Challmes who can not only make plays, but knock down the three-pointer. They need more consistency down low from Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem if they’re going to get the top seed in the East. Miami didn’t need it last year,  as James, Wade and Bosh came up big against Chicago in the conference finals, but with a team that has young legs in a compressed schedule, the Heat surely want to get every advantage going into the postseason.

Chicago: I really like way the Bulls are put together. They play suffocating defense, the best in the NBA and hit the boards hard. This is a big team, with players ranging from 6’7” to 6”11” occupying every position except point guard and off the bench. And the point guard himself would be Derrick Rose, last year’s MVP and the man who got an additional five years of $94 million on the contract this week. The concern with the Bulls is that if Rose slides to being merely very good instead of the best player in the league, someone else has to pick up the slack. Joakim Noah, the 6’11” center, along with Luol Deng and veteran Carlos Boozer up front are the candidates.

Boston: It was a disappointing end to the season for the Celtics, who were at the top of the conference until mid-February when trading Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City blew up in GM Danny Ainge’s face. The aging Celtics had circles run around them against the Heat in the second round of the playoffs and depth is a big problem this year. Kevin Garnett’s body won’t hold out much longer and Paul Pierce is often hobbled. It’s imperative that Jermaine O’Neal step up at center and there are a lot of nights when the backcourt of Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen are going to have to carry them. More realistically, a compressed schedule and its demands on veteran legs means head coach Doc Rivers is going to have to pace this team and settle for a lower seed in the playoffs.

New York: This is the year for the Knicks. With Boston vulnerable, the Atlantic Division is there for the Knicks to take. After the midseason trade for Carmelo Anthony, they’ve got a full season to get chemistry going for the playoffs, but somewhere along the line some defense is going to have to be a priority. New York gave up more points than anyone in the Eastern Conference last year, and to those who would argue that it’s the fast pace of head coach Mike D’Antonini that creates that, I would point out that New York was still close to the bottom in defensive efficiency, which factors in the pace of a game. The team brought in center Tyson Chandler from Dallas, who plays D and hit the boards, to help out Amare Stoudamire up front. Along with Anthony, the frontline is solid, but the backcourt is what will decide this team’s fate.

There are other contenders in the East, notably Orlando who still has Dwight Howard in town, at least for now, and Atlanta has to be respected. As these teams start to make their own TV appearances, the Notebook will take a look at them. For now, I’m picking the Bulls to win the Eastern Conference and to win their first post-Jordan NBA title in June, thanks to their defense.

Editor’s Correction (12/25): Orlando does play today, a 8 PM ET against Oklahoma City. Apologies for the mistake.