NBA Preview, Part II
By Adam Hoff
Guest Star: Jack Wang
We’re back for Part Two of the NBA Preview. This time we focus on the Eastern Conference. And since the last one easily crested the 3,000-word mark, we are skipping a fancy intro and getting right to it.
Adam: Once again starting with the worst division, so as to clear it quickly and move on.
1. New Jersey
4. New York
The Nets are still a power forward away from being a legit title contender, but they are improved from last year. Kidd finally has help in the form of Marcus Williams, Jefferson is healthy, and Kristic is improving. My only real concern with the Nets is that Vince Carter is in a contract year and, unlike every other NBA player with a pulse, VC reacts strangely when he gets a case of the wandering eye. He needs to have a big year. The rest of the division is sketchy. The Celtics might be decent thanks to the underrated Ryan Gomes and the way he solidifies their frontcourt. With Pierce as the alpha dog, Wally shooting, some young guys developing, and a host of talented guards (Delonte West, Rajon Rondo, and Sebastian Telfair), Boston should be able to assemble something resembling a competitive team. Of course, Doc Rivers will find a way to screw it up, so don't get too excited. The Raptors should be fun to watch, but are at least a year away, maybe a decade. The Knicks will be better than they were last year, by simple virtue of Larry Brown's absence. The Sixers are about to hit whatever is beneath rock bottom.
Your turn. Give me something inspirational to work with. Anything.
Jack: This division may be the worst in the league. I already wrote in a previous blog entry how much I like the Celtics to make a big improvement this year. Conversely, I also expect the Nets to drop. The Nets won the Atlantic Division last year in a landslide, and with none of the teams it beat out making significant moves this offseason, Jersey will probably win it again. But saying the Nets are the best team in their division is like saying Keanu Reeves is a better actor than Pauly Shore. The question is not whether the Nets can reach the playoffs, which they will. The real question is whether the Nets have improved at all, and I don't think they have. The Nets made no significant moves this offseason, preferring to rely on the continued improvement of its young players like Richard Jefferson and Nenad Krstic while hoping that Jason Kidd can continue to ward off Father Time. Free agent acquisition Eddie House will give them a nice scoring punch off the bench and fit in nicely with their fast-paced style, but that is just about the only new face that stands to make an impact this year. Perhaps Bostjan Nachbar will make a huge leap this year, but perhaps I will get that date with Natalie Portman this year too. And though Marcus Williams was a steal, he's still a couple of years away.
The surprise of your rankings is that you see the Knicks overtaking the Sixers in the cellar. It's going to be a real race to the bottom (as they say in corporate law) between these two teams. I think AI, Iggy, and Ashton have enough to just squeak out 4th in this division, but I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't. Basically, what I'm saying is that both those teams should be ashamed of themselves.
Word is the Raptors are unhappy with the improvements they have made in the offseason and now have signed T.J. Ford to a contract starting at $11 million per, locking in their lottery status for the foreseeable future.
Here's my order:
1. New Jersey
5. New York
Adam: I think you are underestimating Sticky Fingers Williams. The only thing preventing him from winning Rookie of the Year is J-Kidd. Aside from perhaps Brandon Roy, Williams is the most NBA-ready guy in this class and I think you will be surprised at how much he contributes. With so many teams going small throughout the NBA, the Nets will find that they can play Kidd and Williams in the backcourt and move Carter and Jefferson up a spot. Williams was a much bigger acquisition than people realize. I still contend that the Nets have improved.
The Knicks can't guard anyone and they can't shoot, but they have low post scoring and guys who can penetrate (and, more importantly, draw a lot of fouls), so I think they could win as many as 35 games. The worst possible scenario for Knicks fans is that they feast on their easy schedule, win 40 games, and save Isiah's job. I mean, can you imagine? He has one foot out the door like those bank robbers in The Nine, but with some luck, he could stick around. We need to pass some handgun laws in New York, ASAP.
The Sixers depress me more than any team, in any sport.
Jack: I said yesterday that I liked the fact that Nash cut his hair. Well, he now looks like KD Lang running the floor. I don't know how I feel about this.
We'll see how much of a contribution Marcus makes. Even still, Kidd is not the same player, and the are exceedingly thin at the other positions. They will no doubt win this division, but probably won't make it out of the first round. And if they don't hang onto Vince after this year, the floor will drop out of this team. Brooklyn, here they come.
Anything more on this sad-sack division?
This should be a fun division. Everyone is writing off the Pistons because they lost Big Ben and looked like crap in the playoffs last year, but I think that is a mistake. They still have outstanding perimeter defense (maybe the most important thing these days), Billups in his prime, and a good regular season coach in Flip Saunders. I don't trust them to do much of anything in the playoffs, but they should win 55-to-60 games. The key guy on that roster is Antonio McDyess. If he steps it up, they will be really good.
I know the Bulls turned back the clock 10 years in their opener, but that game was more an indictment of Miami than anything else. Chicago was a good defensive team last year and now is even better, but the Bulls’ complete lack of any low post scoring will hurt them in the long run. The Cavs will be up and down during the regular season, but I think they are a real threat to win it all. We can get into that later. The Pacers and Bucks are both looking like hard-luck teams this year with all the injuries and, um, gunplay. Plus, they are in a tough division, which will hurt their win totals.
I know that wasn't too deep, but you have to lay out the groundwork. Like Lil Wayne said, "If you think we're too simple, then ya'll don't get the basics."
Take us to the next level, Mr. Wang.
I laid that order out before the Bulls-Miami game on Tuesday night, so I'll stick with it, but I would be lying if I said that the Bulls didn't make me think twice. They have scary potential right now, and if they don't hire Isiah Thomas as GM, they could be good for the next decade. They have a solid group of team guys that play hard-nosed defense, and though you're right that they don't have enough low-post scoring, that could change fairly soon if Tyrus Thomas works out as planned. Thabo Sefolosha looks like a keeper, and they still have the Knicks' first round pick this year! How can one team turn around so well, while so many other teams flounder around for years?
I think the key to the Pistons is going to be Rasheed Wallace. With all the small lineups, Sheed will be playing a lot of center and in charge of patrolling the paint. Without Ben Wallace to sweep up the misses, Sheed will be counted on to stay down low and play closer to the hoop. If he starts drifting outside and popping threes, the Pistons will have a lot of trouble rebounding on offense, and though he's an excellent one-on-one defender, he won't have the benefit of Ben Wallace covering his back. If they bring in Nazr and go big, the Pistons get instantly slower and won't match up well if the other team starts to run. The other factor is shooting: Detroit’s fortunes will rise and fall in accordance with how efficient their guards shoot in the halfcourt. Though they have some of the best shooters in the league, relying on guards can come back to bite you.
Though I have Cleveland second, I think they can reach the Eastern Conference finals this year because of one player. We all know who that guy is: Damon Jones. Oh, and this other guy LeBron. A lot depends on how much Mike Brown has improved as a coach. Last year in the playoffs, the Cavs basically stood around watching LeBron go at it. Brown needs to use the season to prepare his team to play around LeBron when defenses ratchet up their intensity in the playoffs. Hughes, Jones and Marshall need to hit jumpers and keep defenses honest, and Big Z needs to get a little more aggressive. But LeBron's the best player in the league, and it's his time to take advantage of the relative parity between the top Eastern teams.
Indiana is cursed. Either that, or everybody on the team is afraid that if Stephen Jackson doesn't get his shots, he'll pop them. That'll make you miss a few open looks.
What about the Bucks? I really don't find them interesting in the least, so I'll let you break it down if you feel so inclined.
Adam: Way to go deep.
I'll focus on three things in response:
1. Sheed. As a Portland native, let me just tell you something about Rasheed Wallace: when the going gets tough, Sheed flips out. If the Pistons need Wallace to step up in any way to remain good, then they have misfired, because he won't get it done. That is why I think McDyess is so important. He is going to have to do a job on the offensive glass, provide disciplined post defense (he actually does a nice job), and add scoring punch on the block. I agree with you about the guards though - Billups has to hit threes, Rip has to hit 17-footers, and Prince needs to get in the lane. I think I only have the Pistons this high because no one else seems capable of winning more than 55 games (and that goes for the whole conference).
2. Cleveland. The one guy we haven't mentioned that could put them over the top is Shannon Brown. Ever since Tayshaun Prince came out of nowhere in the 2003 Playoffs to lead Detroit to the Eastern Conference Playoffs, I am always trying to find rookies that can eventually crack the rotation and help out. Brown is a fantastic perimeter defender and a good shooter, so he may wind up being the perfect guy to play the fourth quarters. He could be like Flip Murray, except not horrendous. Even if he racks up DNP’s early, he could be a factor later in the season.
3. The Bucks. We have to say something about these guys. I think they actually have a decent roster, thanks mainly to the fact that they were able to trade their second-best point guard (T.J. Ford) for a potential stud at power forward (Charlie "The Seal" Villanueva). The Seal, Andrew Bogut, Mo Williams, and the incredibly underrated Michael Redd make a really nice core. Unfortunately, the Bucks are missing small forward Bobby Simmons (who badly needs a bounce-back year) and versatile sub Charlie Bell, so they could get off to a rough start. The Bucks just need to develop their young players and then get a new coach. By next year, they could be legit.
By the way, I think we can both agree that Bogut either went to see a witch doctor or The Maestro gave him a magical balm (ala Seinfeld), because he went from being out six-to-eight weeks to being ready for the first week. This is a pretty shocking development, yet no one seems to care. Do people often recover from injuries in a third of the time anticipated? Perhaps Bogut borrowed T.O.'s hyperbaric chamber? I want answers!
Jack: It pains me to talk about the Bucks. They're not really that bad, but sometimes I just get in these moods where I don't want to talk about the Bucks.
The choking aspect of Rasheed's game has definitely been forgotten since he went to the Pistons. As a Laker fan, I'll never forget their first championship with Shaq and Kobe back in 2000. The Western Conference Finals, game 7, Lakers down by 17 in the fourth. Sheed was the go-to guy on that Portland team, and he led one of the most epic, sweetest meltdowns I've ever seen. Brian Shaw banked in a three, Kobe ooped it to Shaq, and the Lake-Show won the game and effectively the title right then and there. I am getting a little teary.
That brought me out of my anti-Buck funk. The Bucks, you say? I think Mo Williams is a really underrated point guard, and underowned in fantasy leagues. He'll end up 17/6 with a couple of threes and a steal and a half per game. Actually now that I think about it, they'll be a pretty fun team to watch. Charlie's got the green light to just fire away, and I think he can average 24 points a game. My theory about Bogut is that he's a cyborg, which is half-human, half-machine. His leg replacement got free expedited shipping using Amazon Prime, so he got it a couple weeks earlier than expected.
This division is my guilty pleasure. Between style of play, fantasy implications, and D-Wade, I would make an effort to watch a game involving any of these teams. I've got Orlando making the big move, passing Washington and easily reaching the playoffs. I think Dwight Howard is about to blow up and with Hedo, Nelson, and Grant Hill providing perimeter scoring, Orlando has a nice nucleus. My biggest concern here is that Keyon Dooling will find a way to screw the whole thing up.
A speedy trip through the rest of the division, just to get us going: Miami will waddle through the regular season just like they did last year and will probably barely hold off Orlando and Washington, but they won't care. That team is way too old to repeat though. No chance. The Wizards' big offseason signing was Darius Songaila, so they deserve to drop in the rankings based on sheer principle. Charlotte could be the sleeper playoff team in the East if they can keep everyone healthy, which is no easy task considering Brevin Knight, Gerald Wallace, Emeka Okafor, and Sean May are key players. As for the Hawks, they should have some exciting moments, but will still probably suck.
Take this wherever you want to go, but save the Darko Conspiracy for my next go-round, will ya?
Last year's NBA playoffs were a little like the Major League Baseball playoffs. Usually, the best NBA team winds up the champ. The game is just so much more predictable. Players play to around their abilities, there are many more opportunities to compensate for mistakes, and random events don't really effect the ultimate result. But in baseball, you can have a couple of guys get hot, a crucial error here and there, and a few tightened sphincters and a team that limps through the regular season can become champion. AhemCardinalsCoughcough. Last year, it felt like any of four to five teams could have won the championship, and somehow the Heat wound up on top. They were never dominant in the regular season, and Dallas could have easily beaten the Heat if they hadn't played right into the Heat's strengths and ran a faster-paced attack.
By the way, I don't buy what everyone says about the Heat coasting through the regular season and waiting until the playoffs to flip the switch. They are not a dominating team, especially with Shaq hardly able to get up and down the court anymore. These guys are professional athletes who compete for a living. There is no way that Shaq and Wade are going around in the middle of games thinking "Well, this team we're playing is tough and we're waiting until the playoffs to flip it (flip it for real) anyway, so I'm just going to chill, get a few buckets, then go sit on the bench and order a pina colada and some garlic fries." These guys get in a game and they want to win. Their record and stats reflect how good they really are. The season before Shaq left the Lakers, they said the Lakers were resting for the playoffs as they went on to win 49 games in the regular season. It's no coincidence that the Lakers didn't make it past the second round that year.
So I think Miami has a lot to worry about. The Bulls looked like the Harlem Globetrotters to their Washington Generals in the first game. Though they will be fine, they need some youth and athleticism badly. I wouldn't count on Miami repeating, and I expect the offseason grumblings about Shaq's decline and $593 katrillion dollar salary tying Miami's hands to grow louder.
I like Washington to outpace Orlando, but I love what Orlando has done with their team. Dwight Howard is going to emasculate large grown men all year. Jameer Nelson is a real solid point guard who shoots for a good percentage. Grant Hill is supposedly healthy. And Darko ... well, I'll leave him to you. I like Charlotte's core, but they are like the Hawks - a lot of talent, but no concept of how to put it together and win games consistently.
Adam: Good call on Miami's MLB-like title. I agree with you on all counts. I wonder if Miami will try to initiate the Dorrell Wright Experience ahead of schedule, given their need for some athleticism?
As for Darko, here is my theory: I think teams often are very sneaky about manipulating player value during a contract year. The Magic are trying to make a run at Vince Carter next summer but also went to re-sign Darko to an extension. They will have something like $20 million to work with once Grant Hill's contract comes off the books and since Carter will command close to the max, that means they will have somewhere around seven million per year to throw at Darko. They were offering this over the summer, but Darko and his agent were holding out for more. They know how much centers get paid in this market and figured that if the big man shows anything at all this year, he can probably go out and get $10 mil per as a free agent. That is an amount Orlando can't pay, yet they want to keep him. So what can they do? Well, they can abandon hope of getting Carter. Or they can let Darko walk. Or they can limit his minutes and thereby limit his stats and thereby lower his market value. Don't think it can't happen. I expect a lot of "he's not quite ready" stories to come out of Orlando and for Darko to be averaging 24 minutes, 8 points, 6 boards, and 2 blocks a game for the first half of the season until people start wondering, "Hey, wait a minute, he's pretty good - why is he splitting time and coming off the bench behind Tony Battie?" You'll already know the answer to that one.
Since the season is already two days old, we should probably wrap this up. You got anything else?
Jack: Interesting take on Darko. I can see that sort of gamesmanship going on. It makes sense if they see Darko as someone they consider expendable, especially if they could get a Vince instead. The risk they run with such a ploy is that Darko will spurn them out of spite, perhaps even taking less money to stick it to them for driving down his value. The market for big men is crazy, and Darko should command a nice salary no matter what happens, but getting sat behind Tony Battie could definitely raise some eyebrows.
That's it from me. A ton of intriguing storylines to follow this year. I haven't been this psyched for an NBA season in a while, and so far the Lakers are on pace for an 82-0 record. We'll see if they can keep it up!
(Final note: be sure to check out the the blog for our playoff and award predictions. Here's a hint: unlike the rest of the boring sports media, we don't like the Spurs or the Heat.)