Bulls, Heat no surprise as East's best

Evaluating the new pecking order in the Eastern Conference

Updated: December 23, 2011, 4:43 PM ET
By Bradford Doolittle | Basketball Prospectus
Derrick RoseJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesD-Rose and LeBron still have their teams on top of the East.

Last season, the Indiana Pacers squeezed into the playoffs, then gave the emergent Chicago Bulls all they could handle in a five-game loss in the first round. The teams met again on Tuesday night in preseason play and the matchup typified this season's theme in the East: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

David West played for the first time as a member of the Pacers and for the first time since blowing out his knee last April. For Chicago, Rip Hamilton made his debut in a Bulls uniform, hoping to become the final piece of a championship puzzle. The names were a little different, but the result was the same as Chicago won a competitive contest. If Basketball Prospectus' SCHOENE projection system is right, the Bulls and Pacers just might meet again in the playoffs.

If they do, it might not be in the first round. There is plenty of uncertainty in the East, except at the top. Here's how SCHOENE, as detailed in the new "Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12," predicts things will shake out this season in the Eastern Conference (broken down by tiers of the new pecking order):

The favorites: Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls