Boston Celtics: Complete Eastern Conference Preview

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Mar 3, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) shoots the ball against Chicago Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy (34) during the first quarter at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Wizards

The Wizards handled Toronto easily in the playoffs last season before falling to Atlanta in the second round. I see them being more capable of maintaining their position in the conference than the Raptors, despite the loss of Paul Pierce, who turned things on in the postseason and gave Washington an edge they hadn’t had before. The Wizards already had a potential replacement on the roster in small forward Otto Porter and they added Jared Dudley this offseason as well.

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The latter will provide some of the same grit and leadership Pierce did a year ago and Porter should benefit from what will likely be a significant increase in his time on the floor. He averaged just 6 points and 3 rebounds in 19.4 minutes per game last season, but the 3rd pick from the 2013 draft ramped up his performance in the postseason. In 10 playoff games Porter averaged 10 points and 8 rebounds in 33 minutes per. If he continues to build on that improvement Washington should be in good shape at the small forward position.

Of course, the Wizards’ success hinges most on the play of their backcourt. Point guard John Wall has improved every year he’s been in the league, as evidenced by two straight All-Star appearances. He finished second in the NBA in assists last season and is clearly the engine that makes Washington go. His running mate Bradley Beal missed 19 games last season with injuries, but at full strength has the potential to be a consistent 20-point scorer.

The roster is solid upfront with center Marcin Gortat, power forward Nene, and Kris Humphries coming off the bench. The Wizards finished third in the league in rebounding differential and ninth in opponents point per game last season. They’ll keep things close in the fourth quarter and grind out wins. Losing a future Hall of Famer like Pierce no doubt hurts in the locker room, but Porter’s improvement should make it less of an issue on the court. It’s Wall’s time to lead. He’s lived up to all the expectations that come with being a number one pick and grown into one of league’s best point guards. With him leading the charge Washington should be capable of at least matching the 46 wins of a year ago.

Chicago Bulls

Chicago has been holding steady near the top of the conference for years. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to make it over the hump while enduring Derrick Rose‘s injury saga. Coach Tom Thibodeau, who went 255-139 in five seasons, is out and 43-year-old Fred Hoiberg is in, landing his first NBA head coaching gig this offseason after manning the sidelines at Iowa State. We’ll see what he can do with a talent-laden team that enjoys an unusual amount of roster continuity.

The core of Rose, Joakim Noah, and Jimmy Butler have all been with Chicago their entire careers, as has key reserve Taj Gibson. They’ve spent the majority of their time in the league playing for Thibodeau. In Butler’s case, Thibodeau is the only pro coach he’s had. Adjusting to Hoiberg could take some time, but the Bulls’ familiarity with one another should be enough to get them through. They have a strong supporting cast, with longtime pros Mike Dunveavy and Kirk Hinrich, as well as Nikola Mirotic, who finished second a year ago in Rookie of the Year voting. Center Pau Gasol thrived in his first year in Chicago, averaging a double-double and making the All-NBA team for the first time since 2011.

Still, Rose remains the face of the franchise and the key to Chicago’s Finals hopes. He’s played just 100 games the past four years, including missing all of 2012-13. Before that, he appeared in all but six games in his first three seasons. He could play 20 games this year or 80, regardless the Bulls will be a very good team. If they don’t at least match the 50 wins from a season ago they’ll have underperformed.

But getting past LeBron, whose teams have eliminated Chicago in four of the past six postseasons, will take Rose returning to his MVP form of 2010-11. It may be too much to ask of a player who’s already endured so much wear and tear. Gasol and Butler can carry the Bulls towards the top of the Eastern Conference standings. It must be Rose, however, who’s gets them back to Jordan territory. Once again, James will be standing in their way.

Next: The King and His Court