2009-10 NBA Previewapolooza: Eastern Conference
In the 1980’s, the NBA was ruled by a small group of dominant teams that clashed epically against each other while feasting on the weaker teams in between. As defenses grew more advanced and used the rules of the era to stifle scoring, the parody increased dramatically, culminating in an eighth seed New York, reaching the NBA Finals against San Antonio in the strike-shortened 1998-1999 season.
But since then, the rules have steadily changed in the new century to bolster scoring and give the stars a chance to shine, the game has shifted back to only a few powerhouses vs. a league full of pretenders.
For the Western Conference preview, click here. I dare you.
The balance of power at certain positions has once again shifted back and forth. With Shaq going to Cleveland and Yao Ming’s injuries keeping him on the bench (possibly permanently), the Lakers’ Andrew Bynum now becomes the best pure center in a guard and forward-heavy Western Conference. Richard Jefferson leaving Milwaukee gives the Bucks little firepower past Michael Redd, but gives the San Antonio Spurs new life as a dynamic offensive juggernaut. Ron Artest and Trevor Ariza traded places and both should see a decline in their statistics. Orlando took the gamble that Dwight Howard can cover all defensive sins, as they traded away Courtney Lee, their best wing and point defender, for guard Vince Carter. Carter has never seen a shot he hasn’t liked and is still one of the most athletic wings on the planet. Unfortunately, his focus on offense precludes him from any real effort on the defensive end and leaves Orlando open to attack.
With so much movement, it’s a little hazy to predict who could take the title home in 2010. Luckily for you, I have fog lights on this preview train. Thank you. Ron Artest told me to put that joke in here. Up next are the six divisions, where I will let you know who to watch, who to keep in your periphery and who doesn’t deserve your hard-earned sports time.
Who could win the title? Orlando Magic
Who could make postseason noise? Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat
Which team has something to prove? Washington Wizards
Who needs a new owner and GM? Charlotte Bobcats
The Magic took a HUGE gamble letting forward Hedo Turkuglo go and then trading Rafer Alston and Lee for Carter. Point guard Jameer Nelson now has three mouths to feed and very few points are capable of handling that many egos. Howard, Rashard Lewis and Carter each need 15-20 shots a game to remain effective/ happy, and that leaves very little for the rest of the team. Getting Brandon Bass might be the sleeper bench pick-up of the offseason.
Atlanta knows that their time is now. The core of Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith and Mike Bibby all have several years now together and it’s up to coach Mike Woodson to put up, or let someone else take the reins. Johnson is in a contract year heading into the mythical 2010 free agent class (let’s call it the M2010FAC) and will want to see this team going somewhere special before signing his name on the dotted line again. Smith needs to focus on team success and not his own highlight reel. Williams has another four-year deal to prove his brilliant athleticism isn’t shadowing a mediocre NBA talent level.
The Heat come into this season at the edge of a turning point in the franchise. Dwyane Wade is a free agent after this season and Miami is losing a whopping $50-million off the books, just in time for the M2010FAC. If Miami has a great year and Wade quickly re-signs, the Heat could easily sign another max deal or two deals just below max. President Pat Riley is confident the Miami lifestyle could achieve the latter, but nothing is certain without Wade on board. If getting far in the postseason is season goal No. 1, then getting forward Michael Beasley to the next level is goal No. 1A. Right now, he’s the only real guarantee in 2010.
No one has a clue what’s going to happen in Washington D.C. No one would be surprised if they lost or won 50 games, depending on how healthy they are. With Gilbert Arenas missing most of the last two seasons, the Wizards have been unable to replicate the success of 2007, but all the pieces are in place to do it again. If they all stay healthy, the Wizards will likely have three 20-point scorers (Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler), as well as savvy newcomers, Mike Miller and Randy Foye (both in a trade for the 2009 No. 5 pick). Foye will start with Arenas in the backcourt with Miller becoming the SG/SF super-sub that Washington has long needed. Having Andray Blatche breakout and Fabricio Oberto contribute solid minutes will go a long way towards getting the Wizards back to respectability.
Charlotte thought they had a good thing going when they entered the league. They spent wisely, focused on the draft and looked to build organically instead of looking for quick fixes. Unfortunately, their front office has never had a cogent plan for success, and so you see a team made up of star power and players who are here to replace failed draft guesses. How well they fit together will be up to vagabond legendary coach Larry Brown. Ray Felton and D.J. Augustin will likely form a quick (if suspect shooting) backcourt with the major wrist injury suffered by Raja Bell.
Who could win the title? Cleveland Cavaliers
Which teams will be duking it out for the eighth seed? Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons
What team will still struggle in mediocrity? Indiana Pacers
Who shouldn’t even try? Milwaukee Bucks
Everyone in Cleveland is talking about LeBron James. LeBron this, LeBron that. LeBron’s friend got punched by Braylon Edwards. LeBron just can’t go to New York, etc. But now theBig Journeyman has come to give the Cavs a lift against the reloaded Magic and Celtics and he gives the sheep herders of Ohio something totally different to talk about. Shaquille O’Neal may not have 30 minutes a night in him anymore, and he may not be the freak of nature he used to be, but he can still change the course of any given game and will still be dominant against the majority of bigs in the Eastern Conference. Joining Shaq and LeBron are Mo Williams and Anthony Parker, who is a seriously underrated role player. Leon Powe is a low-cost, potentially high-reward big man who won’t see time until late February. Daniel Gibson and Jamario Moon may be called upon to carry the slack should Delonte West‘s pre-season mental difficulties bleed into the regular season.
Chicago begins life after Ben Gordon. Granted, it’s not quite like beginning life after MJ and Scottie, but it’s still a new chapter for the Bulls. Derrick Rose looks to be the unquestioned man in Chicago, now that Gordon will be hoisting threes in Detroit, but he won’t be alone. Joining him is often overlooked swingman John Salmons, Luol Deng, Tyrus Thomas and the two-headed center rotation of Brad Miller and Joakim Noah. The Bulls are solid up front on defense, but lack scoring punch. For the Bulls to succeed, Deng will have to play like he is finally over his nagging wrist issues. The Bulls are too dependent on Rose for them to go far if Deng can’t score. Chicago will depend on its size all over their lineup, to clamp down on opposing teams and keep scores in the 80’s and 90’s.
Detroit seemed to make a big splash early in the offseason when they signed Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to long-term deals on the same day. But in reality, what are they really gaining with their new pickups? Gordon will almost certainly sit behind Rodney Stuckey and Richard Hamilton, assuming a sixth-man role. Villanueva is a nice player, but hardly commands the same fear and respect on the floor as Rasheed Wallace, his predecessor. The Pistons will also likely start Kwame Brown which is a punchline, inside a joke, inside another punchline, somewhere. The Pistons will struggle mightily just to be in the playoff picture, but they will be, because the East is so top-heavy. Detroit needs a lot of overachieving and some really shoddy play to make the playoffs they so barely made last season.
Indiana has exactly one player to get excited about: Danny Granger. Everyone else is either so non-descript or flawed that they inevitably take away the joy and optimism that exists within the teams with more talent. Roy Hibbert is a big, big body down low, but is too slow for the NBA game. T.J. Ford is only steady when not hurt. Troy Murphy is a big man who shoots a lot of threes he can’t make. Mike Dunleavy has been hampered severely with injuries and will struggle to reclaim his brief renaissance of last season. Newcomer Tyler Hansbrough is the lone new bright spot, however the general consensus outside of Chapel Hill is that he will not be a factor in the NBA except for a few hustle plays every game. Indiana needs to find a complement star to fit with Granger, or they will always be on the bottom looking up.
The Bucks come into this season still hurting from last season’s poor performance, but now missing several key contributors from last season. Gone are Villanueva and Ramon Sessions, who signed with Minnesota this offseason. Gone is All-Star swingman Jefferson, now a member of the Spurs. What remains is a team that has only one true scorer, Michael Redd, who is coming off of an offseason knee surgery. The Bucks will have plenty of minutes for rookie point guard Brandon Jennings, an up-tempo lefty. Milwaukee will also feature two athletic wings, in small forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and power forward Hakim Warrick. Neither can score on their own and both will only contribute when on the break or in hustle plays. Center is also a source of mediocrity, as Andrew Bogut leads an uninspiring group of big men in the land of cheese. The Bucks will be in shock if they can somehow contend for the last playoff spots in the East.
Who could win the title? Boston Celtics
Which team might make the playoffs? Toronto Raptors
What teams are irrelevant? Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets (hey, that’s the rest of the division!)
The trendy pick to win the 2010 NBA title, the Boston Celtics look to this season as their chance to finally defend their title, after losing Kevin Garnett to injuries for most of last season. The Celtics were still able to win a playoff series and put up a great effort against the Magic, but this team unquestionably needs Garnett to play all season and lead like he did while winning the title in 2008. Joining the Big Three of Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen is Rasheed Wallace, one of the most high-profile signings of this past off-season. Wallace will never start as long as Garnett and Kendrick Perkins are healthy, but he can be a great component in the second team offense and in crunch time. Rajon Rondo is a top five point guard in the league already, and sets up the offense as potentially the best starting five in the NBA. Their soft spot is a very shallow bench, with only Eddie House, Wallace and Glen Davis as the only real contributors. For a team that is as old as this one, they can little afford injury. However, if they can stay healthy, they are a strong bet to make the NBA Finals.
If it seemed like the Raptors were a part of every transaction in the postseason, it might be because they were. Involved in the long labored four-way trade that sent Shawn Marion to the Dallas Mavericks, the Raptors went out this summer and tried to create a team that would satisfy center/ forward Chris Bosh enough to sign a long-term extension with the club. The Raptors traded or lost ten players this offseason, but are better this upcoming year for the players they got back. Hedo Turkoglu will be a matchup mismatch at the two-three-four positions, DeMar DeRozan out of USC looks to be an absolute stud already in the pre-season and Reggie Evans will provide interior grit that was missing from this club the last few seasons. Jose Calderon is a terrific ballhandler and distributor and will be spelled nicely or even joined by Jarrett Jack at times. The real tough loss in free agency is the departure of Anthony Parker (brother to Candice), who had really come on as an underrated role player the last couple of years. It would not shock me to see Toronto as a four-six seed in the East.
It’s hard to describe just what I don’t like about Philadelphia this season. I could start with, “everything” but that wouldn’t be true. I could say, “Elton Brand” but then that wouldn’tcover it all. Alright, time to get some dirt in the finger nails. First, because of all the money being spent elsewhere, the Sixers let Andre Miller – their only true point guard – sign with Portland and replaced him with a raw combo guard prospect (Jrue Holiday) and a shoot first shooting guard in Lou Williams. As of now, Williams is being tapped to be the playmaker with Holiday learning behind him. This will be a challenge for new coach Eddie Jordan to try to work with. His wings, Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young are immensely athletic and can contribute just with their nose for the basket. However, neither player can really shoot the ball, which is a must in the Princeton offense that Jordan runs. So the 76ers paid $6.2-million this year for Jason Kapono to get significant minutes (which he hasn’t in several seasons) running around screens in this new offense. There is no doubt that he will contribute, but it will be at the expense of Young and sometimes Williams. Brand is washing up fast, and while Sam Dalembert is one of the more athletic bigs, he will be lost in the Princeton offense. This has all the makings of a giant car crash.
Can you remember a time when one team pinned not one, not two, but almost three seasons worth of hopes on a free agent signing that might or might not occur? But that is precisely what the New York Knicks have done the last few seasons. After Isaiah Thomas was shown the door, president Donnie Walsh has geared his whole team’s direction toward the M2010FAC, and his job will rest on whether he can get King James to sign on the dotted line, or enough talent to warrant the misery Knicks fans have gone through. Point guard Chris Duhon is barely serviceable as a starter, seeing decent stats because of coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. Nate Robinson and David Lee couldn’t get money anywhere else, so they settled for one-year deals and are essentially auditioning this season for a multi-year deal in 2010. Darko Milicic joins this team and might actually do something in the most Euro-style team he’ll play for while in the NBA. If not here, then nowhere. Al Harrington, Larry Hughes, and Wilson Chandler combined, might make one pretty decent player. On their own, they are all very one-dimensional and their true worth will be inflated in the uptempo system in place (think Paul Westhead at Loyola Maramount in the early 1990’s).
New Jersey made a great trade for its future, but not a good one for the present, when they shipped Vince Carter to Orlando for Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee. Alston figures to be traded this season or unhappily ride the pine, so the focus here is Lee. Showing a nice touch from behind the arc as well as a bulldog mentality on defense, Lee is the shooting guard that coach Lawrence Frank has prayed his whole life to find. Though the Nets will severely miss Carter’s scoring for now, the lure of a Devin Harris/ Courtney Lee backcourt for years to come, was rightfully deemed too good to be true. Unfortunately, the Nets are short on impact players after that. Yi Jianlian has been a major bust, despite small flashes of talent at the power forward position and Brook Lopez is a banger, if not necessarily a dynamic inside presence. Terrence Williams from Louisville will man the swing position and get a chance to contribute immediately as a rookie. New Jersey’s bench is nearly non-existant. An easy choice for the bottom third of the standings this season.