Part II of the NBA Preview
By Adam Hoff
Not so long ago I was putting the finishing touches on this NBA preview, wondering whether anyone would read a 5,200-word column, and casually shutting down my laptop for the night. Well, it never came back on. Many documents and programs were lost, and to be honest, I didn’t have the heart to recreate that monster. However, thanks to my new muse, Tobias Fünke, I have been inspired to hammer it out anew (more on that later).
The “Reunion” Group (four teams that just aren’t quite there).
Just like “The North Shore” before it, “Reunion” is one of those shows that has the over promotion and self-importance of a hit show, just with mediocre actors and writing. Likewise, here we have four teams that we’ve been led to believe will be good (or want to believe, in the case of the Sixers for me) but have far too many holes to be a factor this season.
Sacramento Kings. The one thing the Kings have going for them is that they are playing in the suddenly wide open Pacific Division in the suddenly wide open Western Conference. The problem is they have a few things working against them as well: no bench, Peja still moping around on the court despite getting his way at every turn, no shot blocking in the post, a decaying arena, and a stagnant feeling that permeates the franchise. Sounds like the recipe for Mediocre Soup.
Key Player – Bonzi Wells. For the Kings to win the division, Bonzi will have to be their best perimeter defender, best weak side shot blocker, and play 40 minutes a night for at least 75 games. Good luck with that.
Philadelphia 76ers. A precursory glance at the situation in Philly seems to reveal good news. They’ve got a trio of young players in place with Igoudala, Korver, and Dalembert. They have one of the best players in the game in Iverson, who is happier than he’s ever been with former mentor Mo Cheeks as his head coach. Webber looks better than he has in years. A closer look shows some warts: Korver was exposed in the Detroit series, Dalembert is inconsistent when he’s not injured, and Igoudala doesn’t get enough shots while playing with AI and C-Webb to round out his game. Throw in the constant injury risks for the two stars and you are looking at a team that could absolutely implode. Like the Kings, I’ll play it safe and predict mediocrity.
Key Player – Dalembert. I’ve already seen a Sixers game in which AI was scoring and dishing, Webber was playing great, and Igoudala was shutting people down … yet they still lost to the Bucks. This leads me to believe that they need Sammy D’s boards and blocks and they need them ASAP. He must be healthy and he must be consistent for them to have a chance against New Jersey in the Atlantic.
New York Knicks. There might be nothing better than watching The Genius go 35-47 this year. We’ll see how Larry Brown does with a roster devoid of insane toughness and loads of talent. It’s not all that hard to inherit a finely tuned, veteran squad from a good coach (Rick Carlisle). The opposite? Very hard indeed.
Key Player – Quentin Richardson. I was going to say Marbury, but I changed my mind at the last minute. Marbury is going to give you his usual quality effort and at the same time, Brown is going to be in his head too much for the star guard to elevate his game. So expect the usual from Starbury. The guy that needs to come through for New York is Q. In LA, he was a beast on the low block and on the glass while also hitting threes and taking a ton of charges. Last year he became more of a spot up shooter in Phoenix. The Knicks need the Clippers version of Q so that they can count on toughness and an option on the low block from one of their perimeter players.
Los Angeles Clippers. I expect the Clippers to actually move forward – which separates from the other three “Reunion” teams – and they may even make the playoffs. However, when Chris Kaman is your center and you have no real bench to speak of, it is hard to get too excited. Oh yeah, one other thing: they are the Clippers. Look at the roster, project the total number of wins, and then subtract 15 just because of the franchise.
Key Player – Sam Cassell. Brand, Maggette, and Mobley form a great trio and Shaun Livingston is the future, but this team will only go as far as the Nine Time Captain of the All-Alien Team can take them.
The “Prison Break” Group (four teams trying to break through).
LA Lakers. Everything I’ve read about the Lakers is that they don’t have enough talent to make the playoffs. I’m not sure how this is possible. They’ve got Kobe and Odom. They are in the Pacific division. And they have a point guard named Smush! Even though they botched the draft (Danny Granger would look pretty good in gold right now), I think Year One of the Phil and Kobe Reunion Tour will go quite well. Give them the division crown!
Key Player – Smush Parker. If he can give them 35 minutes a night of solid handles, tough defense (ball pressure, namely), and the occasional three, the Lakers will be much better than anyone is anticipating.
Cleveland Cavaliers. I think they did a nice job surrounding LeBron with shooters (Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones) and giving him a sidekick in Larry Hughes, but it won’t be enough. The Cavs will definitely make the playoffs this year, but do you see them beating Indiana or Detroit?
Key Player – Drew Gooden. I really think they know what they are getting from everyone else. Perhaps Hughes could be a wild card, but Gooden seems like the make-or-break guy. If he regresses or plays inconsistent basketball, they will lack the athleticism they need in the front court.
Denver Nuggets. I’m not sold. Let’s just leave it at that.
Key Player – Melo. He needs to have a monster year for the Nuggets to overcome the Nene injury and the lack of shooting. Good luck, Carmelo.
Utah Jazz. I think the Jazz can and will challenge for the Northwest Division crown. Deron Williams will be the point guard before too long and the frontcourt of Kirilenko-Boozer-Okur should be terrific. The Jazz block shots, rebound, and pass the ball, which should add up to enough victories to easily make the playoffs.
Key Player – Williams. He has to be terrific, because otherwise the backcourt will be a problem.
The “OC” Group (three good teams).
Last year, this was the Fox show reserved for the elite squads, which shows you how good the show that passed it – Arrested Development – is. However, while The OC has been knocked into second place on the Fox network, that doesn’t mean that on a given week, it can’t momentarily regain the top spot. After all, it is twice as long as AD, has more absurd sex scandals, and is probably a better guide to hot fashion trends. I guess the point is: don’t count these teams out.
Dallas Mavericks. Last year I predicted that “less would be more” in Big D and it turned out to be true … for the most part. If they could have gotten anything from Erik Dampier, they might have topped the Suns in the Western Conference semis. This year Josh Howard will take a big step forward and team with Dirk and Jason Terry to form a new Big Three of sorts, while the rest of the pieces fall into place.
Key Player – Marquis Daniels. When it is all said and done, they will need this matchup nightmare to emerge as a legit option in order to compete in the West.
Houston Rockets. A few weeks ago I was ready to anoint Houston as the Best in the West, but something doesn’t feel right. T-Back is, well, back, unfortunately and for some bizarre reason Juwan Howard is starting over Stromile Swift. Double trouble. Throw in some age concerns, Rafer Alston’s temper tantrums, and the fact that the NBA refs now have it out for Beetle Juice and you could have some issues. I’m taking a wait and see approach.
Key Player – Yao. He has to take another step forward. More to the point, he has to stop trying to take charges and start swatting shots.
New Jersey Nets. If they had held on to Shareef, I’d feel even better about their chances, but as it is, the Nets should roll to the Atlantic Division title. However, Vince-Kidd-Jefferson won’t get them past the top three teams.
Key Player – Kidd. He has to stay healthy.
The “Arrested Development” Group (the four elite teams).
Here’s how good the show is: after the two new episodes last night, I was so inspired by the genius comedy of Tobias the Mole that I immediately vowed to rewrite this preview column. I don’t know if you have ever had your hard drive crash, but let me just assure you that there is nothing more frustrating than recreating documents that you’ve lost. However, merely getting the chance to mention my favorite show was more than enough of a reason to fire this thing up again. If you don’t watch this brilliant comedy, do yourself a favor and get season one and two on DVD, watch them all, and then start tuning in on Monday nights at 8/7. It’s worth toggling back and forth with Monday Night Football to see G.O.B. throwing coins to the sounds of “Final Countdown.” Anyway, this is not only the elite show on Fox, it’s the best thing on TV.
San Antonio Spurs. Raise your hand if you are tired of the Spurs. So am I. Let’s just acknowledge that they are extremely good and move on.
Key Player – Tim Duncan. Personally, I think Duncan has been a bit overrated the past two years and that Robert Horry bailed him out last year in the Finals. To me, this is the big year for TD. He has to become dominant again to keep guys like LeBron and Wade from passing him in the “most important to his team” debate.
Detroit Pistons. Everyone is talking about Miami and Indiana (as I will be doing in a few minutes), but the East still goes through Detroit. They have the best starting lineup in the game, the bench is improved now that Flip Saunders is giving guys like Darko and Delfino confidence and pairing them with the solid group of McDyess, Carlos Arroyo, and Maurice Evans, and they have a chip on their collective shoulder to prove that it was the players, not the coach, that took this franchise to back-to-back Finals. I actually don’t think they have to prove anything, because it appeared that Detroit reached the Finals last year in spite of Larry Brown and his ridiculous antics, not because of him. That said, the Piston players feel like they have something to prove and that’s really all that matters, because it will be what fuels them to another Eastern Conference title.
Key Player – Ben Wallace. Whether it was the brawl or not, he seemed to sleepwalk through the season last year and then lose his edge in the playoffs. It was weird. I’m betting he’s back this year.
Indiana Pacers. Believe the hype. The only reason I’m not more confident about tabbing the Pistons as runaway winners of the East is that the Pacers got A LOT better in the offseason. They got Artest back, they move Stephen Jackson – a superior defender – into Reggie Miller’s shooting guard spot, they establish Jermaine O’Neal as the go-to guy down the stretch, and they have Jamal Tinsley healthy. Throw in a ridiculously deep bench and there’s no reason to think Indiana can’t win the whole thing. You can bet this is the one team that the Spurs wouldn’t want to see in the Finals.
Key Player – Tinsley. They have a bunch of key guys, including Artest for all the obvious reasons, but I’m going subtle here. Tinsley really makes this team go with this ballhandling, penetration, and confidence, and his health is a huge key to the season.
Miami Heat. I’m still not sure what Pat Riley was doing. They were a D-Wade injury from winning it all last year and instead of simply adding Payton and Wayne Simien, booting Keyon Dooling, and bringing everyone else back (a sure recipe for a title), they dumped their best three-point shooters (Jones and Jones), crowded their forward rotation, inserted several malcontents into roles that they are unlikely to embrace, and created a coaching controversy. I’m taking Riles out of the running for Exec of the Year right about now. All of that said, they still have Shaq and they still have Wade, which means they still have a legitimate shot.
Key Player – Shaq. I wanted to be more creative, but there’s no one in the league more valuable to his team than Shaq. Perhaps there has never been a player in league history that supercedes the Big Aristotle in that regard.
There you have it, 30 teams in all. Now for the predictions.
Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions:
#1 Detroit Pistons over #8 Chicago Bulls in 5. The Pistons will win at least 60 games this year and cruise comfortably into the playoffs as the top seed. The Bulls have no chance here, but they are part of history as all five Central division teams reach the playoffs. (I haven’t done the math here – is that even possible?)
#2 Miami Heat over #7 Milwaukee Bucks in 5. Welcome to a nightmare: Andrew Bogut and Jamal Magloire trying to stop Shaquille O’Neal in a playoff series. The Heat are the beneficiaries of the seeding rules as they get the #2 seed despite the Pacers posting the second-best record in the East.
#6 Cleveland Cavaliers over #3 New Jersey Nets in 6. The Cavs gel late and surge past a tired Nets team.
#4 Indiana Pacers over #5 Washington Wizards in 6. Despite winning 60 games, the Pacers lose the Central title to the Pistons and drop to the #4 seed. They take care of Gilbert and the Wizards, setting up a titanic clash in round two.
#1 Detroit over #4 Indiana in 7. I know the Pacers are legit this year, but I think the Pistons have even more to prove than the Brawlers. What a series this would be.
#2 Miami over #6 Cleveland in 7. After an amazing MVP season, LeBron cements his legend as he goes 34-10-7 for the series and almost pulls off the upset. However, Shaq and Wade march on as the American Airlines arena “surges toward the court” in Game Seven.
Eastern Conference Finals
# 1 Pistons over #2 Miami in 6. It’s the Pistons again. As the guy said at the beginning of that Wu-Tang song, “Again and again!” They have size, toughness, leadership, and better depth and a more prolific offense than last year. Go time.
Western Conference Play-off Predictions:
#1 San Antonio Spurs over #8 Sacramento Kings in 4. The Kings hold off the Clippers to make the playoffs, but get annihilated by the San Antonio Spurs, aka “The team that is impervious to foul calls.”
#7 Phoenix Suns over #2 Utah Jazz in 5. A great season for the Jazz ends badly as Amare finally returns and turns Phoenix back into a force.
#6 Houston Rockets over #3 Los Angeles Lakers in 6. Yao and T-Mac are too much for Kobe. The Rockets benefit greatly from early season injury troubles as they sink to the #6 seed and avoid the Mavs in the first round.
#4 Dallas Mavericks over #5 Minnesota Timberwolves #5 in 7. After a terrific rebound year, the Wolves get a tough draw against the versatile Mavs and succumb in the first round.
#1 San Antonio over #4 Dallas in 6. The Spurs keep rolling. Ginobili flops 417 times in six games. Yawn.
#6 Houston over #7 Phoenix in 7. T-Mac comes through in the clutch to help Houston win a wild series between two teams catching fire at the right time.
Western Conference Finals
#1 San Antonio over #6 Houston in 6. I don’t know what to do. I really don’t like the Spurs and don’t want to go along with everyone else in picking them, but unless I actually predict a catastrophic injury, I don’t see Houston beating them.
NBA Finals Prediction:
Detroit over San Antonio in 7. New Aruba Jam Sprite … Rematch! Oh wait, it’s “remix,” my bad. Either way, the Pistons exact their revenge in another series with low ratings. Stern and Co. finally realize they have to do whatever it takes to get LeBron in the Finals.
And – because we’re really on a roll here – let’s hand out some awards:
Rookie of the Year
Chris Paul, OK City. Deron Williams might be slightly more valuable, but Paul should have the numbers and get a nice jump start on his voyage to becoming The Next Isiah Thomas (as a player, obviously, not an exec).
Defensive Player of the Year
Andre Kirilenko, Utah. It shouldn’t even be close. No offense to Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Bruce Bowen, Andre Igoudala, Ron Artest, or anyone else that could make a claim, but AK-47 is a freak on the defensive end. Two years ago he was the first player since David Robinson in 1990-1991 to rank in the top five in both steals and blocks. He might just block 300 shots this year.
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers. Bombs away.
Kevin Garnett. How can you pick anyone else?
Steve Nash, Phoenix. See above.
Blocked Shots Leader
Andrei Kirilenko, Utah. Joel Przybilla will make a run (while also shattering the league record for most goal tending calls), but AK-47 should take this one.
Allen Iverson, Philly. If he plays the full season, he’ll be the guy. Baron Davis, Paul, Igoudala, and Wade should challenge.
Comeback Player of the Year
Darius Miles, Portland. People usually go with a guy coming back from injury here, but you can also come back from being “an enormous jerk” and “a waste of talent,” and I think Miles may just do that.
Most Improved Player
J.R. Smith. There are plenty of candidates here, but Smith has talent and opportunity and that’s always a good start.
Coach of the Year
Jerry Sloan, Utah. I’ve got the Jazz projected as a #2 seed (2!) in the West, and since voters are always eager to applaud the old school, Sloan should get the hardware.
Kevin Garnett, Minnesota. LeBron is right there, and Kobe, Duncan, and Jermaine O’Neal make good cases, but KG regains the hardware after leading the Wolves to a nice turnaround season.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.