Early handicap for the Eastern Conference

Getty Images/DayLifeThe sweat has barely dried on the floor at the O2 Arena (can I call it that now, or is it still North Greenwich Arena for the Paralympic Games?) and the NBA has reached its August doldrums. So, of course, we need to start wonderously predicting what will happen during the 2012-13 season.

The super teams are beginning to align in Miami, Los Angeles and Oklahoma City for what should be a Clash of the Titans-style or Godzilla versus Mothra battle that will leave the rest of the NBA in shambles. Ah, but you still have 82 games and lots of other intrigue to get to before June's NBA Finals and crowning of a championship.

And it is never too early to do that.

ESPN got a jump by asking more than 100 of its writers from its office, TrueHoop and the TrueHoop Network to begin handicapping the Eastern Conference. Predictably, Miami is the runaway favorite and Orlando and Charlotte are the two teams lagging behind.

As has been noted though on this site, the middle is what really interests us and where the real intrigue of the season in the Eastern Conference is going to be.

There is going to be a lot of change in the topsy-turvy Eastern Conference. The Celtics broke up the Big Three by letting Ray Allen go to the Heat. The Magic will fade to the bottom of the standings by design after the Dwight Howard trade. The Hawks traded away their most consistent offensive option in Joe Johnson to the Nets. The Bulls will be without Derrick Rose for the majority of the season.

Yes, there are big changes coming to the Eastern Conference. And this is where numerous teams see a ton of opportunity.

Brandon Jennings believes his Bucks can make a move and get into the Playoffs this season. The 76ers, thanks to the Andrew Bynum acquisition, might be in line for a run at the Atlantic Division title. Indiana is fairly confident of its position in the East's pecking order. And, of course, Jason Terry continues to say outlandish things about Boston's chances to win the title outright.

Getty Images/DayLifeReally, everyone is talking about how great their team is going to be. It is all theory and everyone is excited for the season to start. There is a ton of opportunity out there.

So what will the East look like?

Clearly Miami is the top dog. The defending champions should be the favorite to win the East and by a long shot. Of all the top contenders in the East, the Heat have the most continuity and the most confidence. It is just tough to see any of the teams in the next tier being able to compete consistently with them. Of course, the Pacers took the Heat to six games and had a 2-1 lead in that series before waking the giants.

The ESPN poll reflects that.

The second tier is where the East gets interesting. Boston and Indiana are pretty clearly the next two teams you have to mention. Chicago should remain in there once Rose is healthy, but that will not be until January. The Nets certainly are better with the return of Deron Williams and Brook Lopez along with the acquisition of Joe Johnson.  The 76ers too are intriguing with Andrew Bynum in the middle as the centerpiece for the first time in his career and the collection of team-first players on the perimeter.

AP Photo/DayLifeIt is just difficult to see how these five teams will sort themselves out. This is where the real intrigue in the Eastern Conference will be born and should keep fans pretty focused on the action on the court throughout January, February, March and April.

Even the bottom of the East figures to be intriguing.

Where do the Knicks fit in with the rest of the East? They certainly could climb into that group of five that will likely fill in spots 2-6 in the standings, but they could also struggle like they did last year and only show spurts of the talent they so clearly have.

And who gets that eighth seed? Milwaukee is in the running with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. Atlanta took a step back in trading Joe Johnson, but the team still picked up Devin Harris in a potentially underrated move. The Hawks still have Josh Smith and Al Horford too.

Then what about the upstarts? Cleveland may be ready to take their next step with Kyrie Irving entering his second year. Toronto seems optimistic about its chances too.

The East does have al ot of intrigue. But I think we all know how this story ends. For all the moving around and new faces near the top of the standings, this is still Miami's to lose.

Just enjoy the story until we get there. The beginning cannot come soon enough.

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily