1) Are the Celtics legitimate threats to the Miami Heat? Boston had a 3-2 lead on Miami and added depth in the draft and via free agency, but will be a year older.
Mnelik Belilgne: Absolutely. The Celtics have vastly improved the overall dexterity of their offense, added youth, athleticism and expanded their rotation. With a designated sixth man in Jason Terry, a healthy Avery Bradley and Jeff Green, a solid 2 way guard in Courtney Lee and two low risk high reward big man draft picks in Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, The Celtics on paper, are legitimate title contenders.
Diego Quezada: If the Miami Heat are fully healthy, the Boston Celtics don't pose a legitimate threat to the Heat. Chris Bosh was out for much of the series, and Dwyane Wade was at 75 percent then. That's two of Miami's top three players, much more valuable than what Avery Bradley could've give Boston. And I'm not enamored with Boston's moves. Fab Melo likely won't play in a playoff series as a rookie, and Courtney Lee won't play either if Bradley and Jason Terry are healthy. Rajon Rondo will always cause problems for Miami, but Kevin Garnett won't be able to roam defensively as much as he did in the 2012 conference finals if Bosh is healthy. The Celtics and Heat will probably be in some dogfights should they meet in the playoffs, but Miami should come out on top.
Jay Ramos: The Celtics are absolutely a legitimate threat to the Heat, as they improved themselves in the offseason to bridge the gap with the addition of Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Jared Sullinger and a potentially healthy Jeff Green. They also play terrific defense they bring to the table to match the Heat. Miami is still the clear cut favorite, but they have no answer for Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett pick-and-roll's because they're agressive defense can be manipulated by Rondo's savvy play and Garnett's skill set as a pick-and-pop option or a roller. Miami had next to no success trying to front Garnett in the post in last season's ECF, but with a healthy Chris Bosh, can match up better. Expect at least a six game series between these two teams.
Surya Fernandez: Any East team, even the Miami Heat, should respect the Boston Celtics come playoff time and next season won't be an exception. They had a successful offseason and will count on a healthy Jeff Green to finally produce for the team and provide some dividends from the ill-fated Kendrick Perkins trade. The loss of Allen hurts of course, but Terry is a capable replacement. Pierce, Garnett and Rondo will obviously continue to be threats. Can they beat a healthy Miami Heat team in the playoffs? No.
2) The Bulls have gotten the top record in the East for two straight years. Will the team tread water until Derrick Rose returns from his injury in mid-season? In a playoff series with Rose back, do the Bulls stand a decent chance against Miami?
Diego: It'd probably be in the Bulls' best interests to tank the season and pair Derrick Rose with a top draft pick. Even when Rose returns from his ACL tear injury, he likely won't be at 100 percent. Chicago has parted with some of its cogs from last season -- Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, etc. -- so the team may be hoping to tank. But if the Bulls try to make the playoffs and do eventually meet the Heat, we'll see Rose try to beat Miami one-on-five (like what happened in the 2011 conference finals). The Bulls still need a solid second option to challenge Miami in a playoff series. Carlos Boozer isn't the answer. Luol Deng is a good player, but probably a third wheel on a championship team.
Jay: The Bulls have no shot at Miami next season. Even healthy, despite their regular season success, they just couldn't beat Miami in a playoff series as currently constructed. With shortened rotations in a playoff series, Miami's star power predictably was too much in the 2011 playoffs and probably would have been again in 2012. The Bulls need to reload around Rose.
Surya: No chance and quite frankly, never did or will with a healthy Rose but without at least one or preferably two bona fide All-Stars (I'm looking at you, Deng).
Mnelik: No. I think this is the season the Bulls descend. The eastern conference has gotten even more top heavy, with the Knicks, Nets and 76ers emerging and with Rose possibly sidelined until the spring, Chicago will likely see themselves in the lower end of the playoff bracket. Then again maybe I'm just underestimating the value new additions Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson and Marquis Teague can provide.
3) Amar'e Stoudemire has spent the summer working with Hakeem Olajuwon on his post game. Will the Knicks improve from a low playoff seed with a reinvigorated Amar'e and bring back the Heat/Knicks rivalry?
Mnelik: Yes. At the very least we should see a moderate increase in his post presence and IQ but what makes the Knicks much better this season is the experience and determination Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler will bring after winning gold medal for USA. When you also add Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Ronnie Brewer, Marcus Camby, and Pablo Priogoini it should equal a top 4 seed in the east.
Diego: Even if Amar'e Stoudemire is able to compensate from his lost explosiveness with a better post game, the Knicks still need to figure out how Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony can play well together to improve from a bottom-of-the-pack playoff team. Anthony didn't do a lot of "ball-stopping" in the Olympics and was mainly content to take shots that came to him. We have to see how good Stoudemire's post game is, but it's incumbent upon Mike Woodson to figure out how Stoudemire and Anthony can play together.
Surya: Not really. They won't be as evenly matched as the old teams. The Heat are simply too strong of a team and seem to truly enjoy playing at Madison Square Garden. It was an enjoyable series to watch and I look forward to future playoff match-ups but they do not pose any threat to the Heat's title defense.
Jay: For Amar'e, it's more about his back and legs being healthy than it is about an improved post game. A healthy Amar'e is arguably the Knicks best player, and he has been underused since Carmelo Anthony arrived. The Knicks will be a middle seed in the Eastern Conference if healthy, but aren't a conference contender and won't play Miami unless they get out of the first round of the playoffs, which is questionable.
4) Which East team made the biggest strides this free agency? Did the Sixers do enough to become a legitimate top team in the East?
Mnelik: The Nets with honorable mentions to the Celtics, 76ers, Knicks and Heat. Translation: the NBA is top heavy even by top heavy standards. Signing Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries & Brook Lopez back while trading for Joe Johnson and adding Mirza Teletovic, Reggie Evans and Andray Blatch transformed the Nets from a bottom tier slot filler to a formidable playoff team. The 76ers also did well by adding Bynum and Nick Young, but also lost Iguodala, Louis Williams and Elton Brand. I expect the 76ers to hover between the 4th and 6th seed.
Diego: The Brooklyn Nets risked opening a new stadium with no one of importance if Deron Williams didn't re-sign, so the Nets made the biggest strides in free agency. Making a giant risk in 2011 after failing to acquire Carmelo Anthony, the Nets now move from obscurity to a playoff team. The Sixers did add Andrew Bynum, the league's second-best center. But Philly also won't have Lou Williams, Elton Brand, Jrue Holiday and Andre Igoudala, all of whom played significant roles on the Sixers. Bynum needs to become better at passing out of the post to find his 3-point shooters and play with more consistent effort, but the team will go as far as Evan Turner takes them. He and Bynum need to be the one-two punch if the team wants to challenge Boston as the second-best East team. We'll see what he's made of.
Surya: In terms of a quantum leap from where they were last season, I might say the Brooklyn Nets. The Sixers did a great job of snagging Bynum but they lost some important players from their core and must first establish the kind of team chemistry that the Heat already enjoy without nearly as much talent. They are certainly deserving of a top seed, at least on paper.
Jay: The 76ers made the biggest stride, not plural, but singular stride buy acquiring Andrew Bynum. They we're a middling team that was stuck in the worst place to be for an NBA team, capped out in mediocrity, so acquiring an All-Star center with superstar potential is a boom for them. They are not, however, a legit threat in the Eastern Conference this season. Depending on Jrue Holliday, Evan Turner and Thad Young's development and a move or two, they can be a factor in 2013-14.
5) Which East team had the worst offseason and why?
Surya: The Magic, going from a top East team all those years with Dwight and now what looks to be a lottery team without much in terms of marketability on their roster. The trade might makes more sense down the road but they waited around for so long to ultimately settle for what they received, and lost another All-Star center to the Lakers, has to hurt for Magic fans.
Diego: The Magic and Hawks won't have good records this year, but they're rebuilding. Dwight Howard was leaving Orlando anyway, and the Hawks have seemingly had the same team for the last four years. The Pacers possibly set themselves back with their moves, though. The team gave Roy Hibbert a max offer. The Heat ran too fast for Hibbert at times during the playoffs, and Miami was able to confound him with its gimmicky style of fronting the post. The Pacers still will make the playoffs, but will need to retool the roster if they want more than just playoff berths.
Jay: The Orlando Magic. For some absurd reason they signed Jameer Nelson to a long term contract, and turned down what seemed like a better package from the Houston Rockets for Dwight Howard, watching him end up on the Lakers instead for a slew of projected late first round picks. They have a few assets who could be good players in the future, but the situation post-Howard could have been much brighter.
Mnelik: The Magic, with an asterisk next to it. The goal was to trade Dwight Howard, dump as much salary as possible, acquire draft picks and rebuild for the future. The result, rookie Moe Harkless, 3 "protected" 1st round picks that will likely yield little return if any, $20 million in cap space for 2014 and absorption of Al Harrington and Arron Afflaio's contract until 2015. So without question, the Magic have had the "worst" offseason but if in 3 years after tanking marathon, the end up drafting Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins surrounded by a plethora of young talent this could the "best" offseason. But for now, it's clearly the worst.