THE EAST

Weeks before the Mad Men season premiere this summer, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic engaged in an arms race that recalled the 1960s, when every spring Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics battled Jerry West’s Los Angeles Lakers for the title, and every summer each team vied furiously for additional talent.

The Cavs traded for Shaquille O’Neal. The Magic traded for Vince Carter, signed Brandon Bass and re-signed Marcin Gortat. The Cavaliers added Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon. The Magic signed Matt Barnes. While most NBA teams were trying to find a competent sixth or seventh man, the Cavs and Magic had built teams so deep that their second units are probably better than some starting fives.

It would be thrilling enough if these two teams were engaged in a two-team race for the NBA title, but they have company. The Magic and Cavs are merely battling for Eastern Conference supremacy and the Boston Celtics, if Kevin Garnett is healthy, are almost as good as either of them. And for all of their huffing and puffing, there’s no guarantee that any of these teams are better than the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

The Magic, Cavaliers and Celtics are all so much better than all other Eastern Conference teams that all three could win 60 games. For the other 12 teams, the ceiling is being able to reach the second round of the playoffs and getting swept by one of the big three.

Which of the big three is best? Last season, the Cavaliers broke out of the gate fast. They featured a diversified offense and a suffocating defense. But sometime after the all-star break, their balanced attack disintegrated into LeBron James and the Seven Dwarves. Even though they won 66 games in the regular season, they were an easy mark for the Magic who eliminated them in six in the Eastern Conference finals. Even at this late stage of his career, no one will confuse Shaq for a dwarf; he’s coming off of a very productive (17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game) and surprisingly healthy (75 games at 30 minutes per contest) season for a Phoenix Suns team that missed the playoffs. I don’t like to pretend that I can read minds, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to believe O’Neal has dreams of reaching the finals and defeating Kobe Bryant’s Lakers.

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First, the Cavs will have to beat the Magic, a team that is deeper and better rounded. The Magic’s summer acquisitions make them a much better team than last year’s squad. Carter is an upgrade over Hedo Turkoglu, the additions on the frontline and the bench, and the fact that Dwight Howard is likely to improve. Yes, he’s already the defensive player of the year, but he’s only 23 and has much to hone on offense. If Jameer Nelson returns fully healed from his shoulder injury (in the finals, he was a shadow of his early-season self) then I think the Magic are the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season. The Magic and Cavs are so close, though, that either team could win a seven-game series.

This is how stratified things are in the Eastern Conference: The Boston Celtics won 62 games last season (and 66 the year before) and improved themselves in the offseason with the signing of Rasheed Wallace, yet they are likely to decline a bit in the standings. Age will do that to a team. Paul Pierce is 32, Garnett is 33, Ray Allen is 34, and Wallace is 35. You can count the number of NBA players whose skills didn’t decline in their mid-30s on two hands. Some of the decline will be offset by the improvement of guard Rajon Rondo and forward Glen Davis, but overall the Celts are best off securing their playoff seed then resting their vets and hoping their savvy will yield a playoff upset or three.

Meanwhile, several tiers down in the rest of the Eastern Conference, the Atlanta Hawks should hold off the Miami Heat, Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls for the team with the longest, though least relevant, winning season. All other teams will either pretend that they are planning for the addition of a big name free agent in the summer of 2010 (as if superstars are just chomping at the bit to join 27-55 teams when they could be chasing a title), or they will try to sell their fan bases on the idea that fiscal restraint makes for fun basketball. It will when one of the conference’s big three come to town; otherwise there will be some empty arenas on cold nights in Milwaukee, New Jersey and Indianapolis.

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THE WEST

There’s no mystery about which team will rule the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Lakers aren’t just the best team in the conference; they are the best team by seven to 10 games. Barring a catastrophic injury to Kobe Bryant or a significant Ron Artest meltdown, the reigning NBA champions will return to the finals next June to defend their title.

The case for the Lakers is simple: They won 65 games and a title last season and all their key players are still in their prime. The new addition, Artest, in the short term (and as long as keeps his cool), is an upgrade from Trevor Ariza, who left to take Artest’s place with the Houston Rockets. The Lakers won’t be playing for the No. 1 seed in the conference; rather, like last season, they will be vying for best regular season record which grants home court advantage in the finals. In the 25 seasons since the NBA switched to a 2-3-2 alignment of home games in the finals, the team with home court advantage, home floor in games six and seven, has won 19 times. So Lakers fans will be watching the scoreboard to see how the Eastern Conference powers Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics are doing; it will provide more drama than winning their own conference.

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The second tier in the Western Conference is where things get interesting. The San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers should wage an 82-game battle for the No. 2 seed in the conference. San Antonio is trying to squeeze one more title run from a nucleus that has won three championships this decade. The problem is simple; center Tim Duncan and swingman Manu Ginobili are aging and have been slowed by injuries.

The team smartly added some scoring production in center Antonio McDyess, and forward Richard Jefferson in the off-season, but without a return to good health by Duncan and Ginobili, the Spurs are just another 55-win team. The Denver Nuggets caught fire late last season, winning 14 of their last 17, and they hung tough with the Lakers until the second half of Game 5 of the conference finals. To repeat that feat, however, the Nuggets will need a run of good health from their injury-prone forward Kenyon Martin and center Nene.

The team with the best chance of giving the Lakers a run in the Western Conference is the Portland Trail Blazers. They have a young, powerful nucleus of players; it’s hard not to see the finals—or even a title—in their future. Last season, the team won 54 games and led the league in offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions). Once they improve on defense, and once center Greg Oden gets his NBA sea legs, they will take over the conference. But Oden is only 21 years old and has started only 39 games; it’s the office equivalent of still finding his way to the men’s room. Because centers take longer to adjust to the pro game than players at any other position, it’s still a year or two too early for the Blazers to be thinking about victory parades.

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The teams one level down— the Utah Jazz, the Dallas Mavericks and the New Orleans Hornets—are the best collection of also-rans in sports today. They made a lot of moves, but 50 wins and a first-round-playoff upset is their ceiling. After that, there is one remaining playoff spot, and two small quick teams, the Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets should make a run for it. The dregs of the conference split into two groups. There are teams moving forward like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Clippers, and then there are organizations that are spinning their wheels—the Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies and the Golden State Warriors. For the first group, a breakout success could mean contending for the final playoff spot. For the other, there is always next year to start thinking about.

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter