Believe it or not, most teams are approximately 1/4 of the way through their NBA season, and many teams have already distinguished themselves as playoff contenders or pretenders. Because of the shortened season, more teams have an opportunity to sneak into a playoff spot than in a typical year. The length of the season favors teams with deep benches who have the ability to withstand nagging injuries. The teams that have struggled early (New York and Boston) lack bench depth and have dealt with injury issues already this year. The question is, however, who will make it through the season and position themselves for a playoff run.
1 Chicago- Miami still probably has the better team, but Chicago has the greater motivation to win in the regular season. They should win the 1 seed by several games because Miami won't push Wade and James to play if their health is questionable.
8 Orlando- This projection assumes Dwight Howard will be traded at some point to another team (New Jersey could take this spot if he went there). If he were to stay, Orlando could grab as high as a 3 seed this year. If they trade Howard halfway through the season to a Western conference team, however, Orlando should already have enough wins and secure enough pieces in return to still make the playoffs.
4 Indiana- This team is young and deep, which are two terrific traits for success this year. 7 players average double-digit points and they can certainly withstand a few players missing games at times throughout the season.
5 Atlanta- The injury to their best player Al Horford (no one even mention Joe Johnson here) ends the Hawks chances for a high seed, but they still have enough talent to make the playoffs comfortably. If Horford comes back healthy and near full strength for the playoffs, the Hawks could easily make a run for the NBA title given their success against Miami and Chicago before his injury.
3 Philadelphia- Philly looks like the favorite to win the Atlantic division at this point with Boston and New York floundering to start the year. Like Indiana, this team is remarkably deep, with 8 players averaging 8.8 points/game or more. They also play fantastic defense leading the NBA in defensive efficiency.
6 New York- Obviously, New York has struggled to start the year, mainly due to losing key players to injuries. Even with all the issues they've encountered, the Knicks would be in if the playoffs started today. The defense should continue to improve and they should get healthier as the season progresses.
2 Miami- Their purpose for this regular season is to stay healthy and gain chemistry. They are by far the best team in the NBA and will prove themselves in the playoffs.
7 Boston- If the playoffs started today, Boston would be out and Cleveland would be in! They should continue to struggle this regular season with the frequent back-to-back games because of their aging roster and lack of quality depth. It's conceivable they could miss the playoffs this year altogether, especially of Howard moves to New Jersey, but I still believe they'll pull it together enough to make the playoffs and make one last attempt at a title.