Jun 9, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) dunks the ball against the Boston Celtics during the second quarter in game seven of the 2012 NBA Eastern Conference finals at the American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-US PRESSWIRE

2012-13 Eastern Conference playoff contenders

While not all rosters are set in stone just yet, most teams have chosen a direction and formed their respective core of players during the off-season. Some teams took a leap forward towards playoff contention, while others took a step back in order to rebuild. Let’s take an early look at which teams should be playoff contenders this upcoming season.

(The seeding of the last 2 seasons in parenthesis)

June 5, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade (3) and small forward LeBron James (6) during the first half in game five of the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics of the 2012 NBA playoffs at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Seed 1 – Miami Heat (2011 – 2, 2012- 2)

The NBA champions should undoubtedly be the favorites to finish as the first seed in the East. Regular season is all about depth and consistency, and while the Heat have a tendency to go through tough stretches during the course of the regular season, this year could be different. With the additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, Miami will be even more versatile than before. If the Heat really want that first seed, it’s theirs for the taking, but that isn’t the ultimate goal for this team. With Bulls practically out of the picture this year, and considering the off-season moves, Miami should cruise into the playoffs as the number 1 seed.

June 9, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Boston Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett (5) warms-up prior to facing the Boston Celtics in game seven of the 2012 NBA Eastern Conference finals at the American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Seed 2 – Boston Celtics (2011- 3, 2012- 4)

While everyone expected the Celtics to split up and rebuild, the organization was clearly inspired by the great play of Kevin Garnett, as the team fell one game short of the NBA finals last year. While the team lost Allen to the Heat, Garnett was resigned to a 3-year contract, and the fans of the Celtics have a thrilling season to look forward to. The team added interesting rookies to the team in Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, and replaced Allen with Jason Terry. Jeff Green, who underwent heart surgery last season, will also be returning, and should have a decent impact on the team. A healthy Avery Bradley will be crucial to Boston’s success, and overall the Celtics are more than capable of a top 2 seed this year.

May 24, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers center Roy HIbbert (55) drives to the basket against the Miami Heat during game six of the Eastern Conference semifinals of the 2012 NBA playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Miam defeated Indiana 105-93. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

Seed 3 – Indiana Pacers (2011 – 8, 2012 – 3)

The Pacers made a huge leap last season, but failed to improve in this off-season. They brought in Ian Mahinmi as a big body down low, but gave up a decent point guard in Darren Collison for him. George Hill will surely do a good job at the point, and D.J Augustin is going to be his backup. Pacers managed to retain Roy Hibbert, which was the number 1 priority this off-season. While Indiana didn’t get that much better, they are still a very solid team, capable of finishing as a high seed in the East.

July 13, 2012; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams and guard Joe Johnson pose for photos at a press conference at Brooklyn Borough Hall. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE

Seed 4 – Brooklyn Nets (2011 – 12, 2012- 12)

There is no doubt that the Brooklyn Nets will be the most improved team this season. The goal was to build a championship contender, but I don’t really think the Nets are a serious threat to the Heat or Celtics just yet. The starting five got signed for over $300 million, as the team re-signed Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries. They also went on to take Joe Johnson’s contract off Atlanta’s hands and should have a decent season. C.J Watson was signed in the off-season as well, and MarShon Brooks will build on his successful rookie season. While I think the Nets will take a huge step forward this year, compared to last year, the 4th seed is probably as high as they will go, as the health of Brook Lopez is never a certainty.

May 9, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; New York Knicks power forward Amare Stoudemire (left) with small forward Carmelo Anthony (right) after Stoudemire fouls out of the game during the second half of game five in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Miami Heat of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Seed 5 – New York Knicks (2011 – 6, 2012- 7)

With Orlando and Atlanta taking a few steps back, Knicks should finish a little higher this season. The loss of Jeremy Lin stings, and the shape of Raymond Felton remains a question mark. Stoudemire has been working with Hakeem Olajuwon in the off-season, and should come back with an improved post game. The Knicks signed Ronnie Brewer and Marcus Camby, which should help their defense. Stoudemire and Anthony still don’t seem to be able to find an efficient way to co-exist, which is hindering the team, but they should be able to get a top 5 seed.

May 10, 2012; Boston, MA, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith (5) reacts to being defeated by the Boston Celtics 83-80 in game six in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE

Seed 6 – Atlanta Hawks (2011 – 5, 2012 – 5)

For the past few years the Hawks have been a solid playoff team, but not really a contender. Getting rid of Joe Johnson was a good long term move, giving the Hawks come salary cap flexibility moving forward. While the Hawks will miss their all-star guard, they have filled the gap with decent players. Devin Harris, Kyle Korver and Louis Williams are the biggest acquisitions in this off-season, and the Hawks will have Al Horford back who missed most of the last season with an injury. Hawks could just as well finish higher as they are quite deep, but will quite likely struggle to make it past the 1st round of the playoffs.

Apr 28, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls injured point guard Derrick Rose (1) is helped off the court by medical staff during the fourth quarter in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers at the United Center. The Bulls won 103-91. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-US PRESSWIRE

Seed 7 – Chicago Bulls (2011 – 1, 2012 – 1)

When Derrick Rose went down with torn ligaments in the first game of last year’s playoffs, it was clear that the 2012-13 season would be a lot different for the team that has been a dominant force in the East. Rose is not rushing back and is set to miss out the majority of the season. The Bulls have also gotten rid of a lot the supporting cast that made them the deepest team in the NBA last year. Kyle Korver, Omer Asik, C.J Watson and Ronnie Brewer all played an important role in Bulls’ regular season success, despite missing Rose for a huge chunk of the season. Nate Robinson, Vladimir Radmanovic, Nazr Mohammed, Kirk Hinrich and Marco Belinelli have been brought in to fill up the holes. With Rose in recovery, Chicago is in for a tough year.

May 14, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum (17) takes a shot against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second half in game one of the Western Conference semifinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-US PRESSWIRE

Seed 8 – Philadelphia 76ers (2011- 7, 2012-8)

The team lost Iguodala and Williams in pursuit of a superstar, and found one in Andrew Bynum. With Bynum flirting with the possibility of signing a long-term contract, Philadelphia could build around Bynum and eventually become a contender. The Sixers also acquired Jason Richardson in the Dwight Howard trade, and added players like Dorell Wright, Nick Young and Kwame Brown. Not a great team yet, but if Bynum stays healthy the Sixers could have an interesting season.

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