Heat aside, teams battle for No. 2 in East

One thing we can all agree on when it comes to the Miami Heat: They are the world champs.
We can agree that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh return, and that the Heat added super-shooter Ray Allen in free agency.
And we can likely agree that the Heat are, at the very least, the favorites in the East.
So that leads to the obvious question: Who’s No. 2?
Is it Boston, which lost the aging and sometimes injury-plagued Allen, but added Jason Terry and Courtney Lee?
Is it Indiana, which gave the Heat fits in the second round of the playoffs and is likely to be even more astute?
Is it Philadelphia, which tacked on All-Star center Andrew Bynum to give itself a go-to big man with something to prove?
Or maybe it’s someone else. Maybe a Deron Williams-Joe Johnson backcourt will lift Brooklyn to secondary status. Maybe this is the year Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and New York finally get it right.
Lots of questions, lots of maybes. All we really know is that after the Heat, the Eastern Conference race appears to be as wide open as the low post in Orlando without Dwight Howard.
Let’s take a quick look at the contenders:
Most of the key parts are back, and yes, that includes the subtraction of Allen. Not that Allen failed to make an impact in Boston’s noble run through the playoffs (which ended one game shy of the Finals). It’s just that coach Doc Rivers figured out a way to replace Allen during that run.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, young and defensive-minded guard Avery Bradley got injured, forcing Rivers to insert Allen back into the starting lineup and lose a little bit of an edge when it came to bending the knees and shuffling the feet.
But along with the return of Bradley, the Celtics added the sniper-like Terry and underrated Lee to assist Rajon Rondo in what has become perhaps the league’s deepest and most versatile backcourt.
All this and we haven’t even mentioned Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce — the two most important chunks from the Celtics’ title-winning season of 2008.
Also returning is forward Jeff Green (following heart surgery) and big man Chris Wilcox (ditto), as well as pick-and-pop specialist Brandon Bass and potentially fast-rising rookie Jared Sullinger, to the Celtics’ frontcourt.
The major factor, of course, will be good health. It’s an area in which the Celtics have struggled during recent seasons, with Garnett (36), Terry (35 when the season starts) and Pierce (ditto) getting up there in years.
Still, the Celtics have the experience, confidence and aptitude to make another serious run. They know it could be their last, and time and desperation tend to be powerful motivators.
There’s a lot to be said for utter toughness. That’s the Pacers, who went from being the Danny Granger Show to a well-rounded and physical unit in a little more than a season.
Now, instead of getting the ball to Granger and running the other way, the Pacers make opponents earn every basket on defense and pass, cut, pick and roll on offense. They find the open man and take great pride in finding someone new to lead them in scoring on a night-to-night basis.
Maybe it’s Granger, maybe it’s power forward David West, maybe it’s shot-blocking and elbow-throwing center Roy Hibbert.
And that’s just the frontcourt.
Paul George and George Hill are equally capable of filing it up, making the Pacers a hungry team on the rise that is very similar to the Celtics — in that the Pacers believe they can beat you, if not tonight, then in a seven-game series.
It’s starting to look like they might be right.
It’s true that the Sixers have a new look, a new strategy even, after advancing to the second round last season.
Gone are mainstays Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Elton Brand and Jodie Meeks. In are Jason Richardson, Nick Young, Kwame Brown … and oh yeah, that Bynum dude. And Bynum makes his new teammates contenders all by himself.
After winning two rings next to Kobe Bryant with the Lakers, Bynum is said to be itching to add to his status as a champion, to carry his own team to the Finals. When he’s motivated, which is often enough, there’s little doubt he can do it, too.
It doesn’t hurt that he has Doug Collins, a master of basketball persuasion, on the bench, and up-and-comer Jrue Holiday manning the point.
That makes the Sixers old-school in a sense, an inside-out team with a true center and crafty point guard to get him the ball. No longer are they a mostly perimeter-oriented outfit, hoping to ride the fickle wave in which gunning from beyond the 3-point arc often results.
Oh, they still have plenty of shooters, with Evan Turner, Young, Richardson and Dorell Wright (also a newcomer) capable of stretching the floor. That will force opponents to hesitate when it comes to double-teaming Bynum — and as often as he’ll possess the ball, well, there’s no telling what could happen.
But if the Sixers are right, the payoff will be large returns.
The final season in New Jersey likely wouldn’t have been nearly as rotten had everyone been healthy and happy.
The fact the Nets enter their first season in Brooklyn with point guard Deron Williams owning a new contract and center Brook Lopez owning two good feet already would’ve been a reason for optimism. The fact they obtained shooting guard Joe Johnson in a trade (with Atlanta) for a bunch of spare parts makes everything seem that much sweeter.
Lopez is a true back-to-the-basket kind of guy that’s nearing extinction in the NBA, and his presence will create even more opportunities for the likes of Williams and Johnson — who ain’t too shabby at getting it done on their own, by the way.
That gives the Nets their own version of a Big Three. It’s not as good as the Heat’s, but it can be argued the Nets are a little more skilled at the supporting spots. Power forward Kris Humphries and small forward Gerald Wallace fill out the starting lineup, with scorer MarShon Brooks, rebounder Reggie Evans and celebrated European newcomer Mirza Teletovic coming off the bench.
In the postseason, that type of depth can count for a lot.
It’s hard to see the Knicks as anything more than Anthony squaring up and scoring, Tyson Chandler rebounding and blocking shots, and Stoudemire running the floor and finishing. Last season, that didn’t get them very far.
So the Knicks went out and landed a couple of been-there-before veterans in point guard Jason Kidd and center Marcus Camby, two players who lead by example, if not sprightly legs.
Then again, as far as actual production, point guard Raymond Felton and swingman Ronnie Brewer may prove to be the most important additions. Neither is likely to ever be an All-Star, but both are the type of fill-in-the-blanks sort of guys who may help Anthony, Stoudemire and the Knicks be all they can be.
If that proves to be the case, the idea of the Knicks challenging for the East’s second seed is certainly plausible.
Everything is riding on the return of Derrick Rose. OK, maybe not everything — as the Bulls proved to be a fairly strong team during the regular season, when they spent an unfortunate amount of time without their star point guard and one-time NBA MVP.
Still, they were bounced from the first round of the playoffs by the driven Sixers after Rose went down with a knee injury. The bad news is, the Sixers improved. So did the Nets, and perhaps the Pacers and Knicks.
On paper, the Bulls got worse.
But if Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, newcomer Kirk Hinrich and some of the others can hold down the fort until Rose’s scheduled return (most likely in early April), the Bulls just might become No. 2 in the East when it means the most.
And based on seasons past, with a healthy Rose, No. 1 isn’t out of the question, either.

Follow Sam Amico on Twitter @SamAmicoFSO