The four-letter network is at it already. Twenty-five of ESPN’s writers, editors and contributors offered their outlook on the upcoming NBA season.
I probably won’t make any predictions until the start of the season, so I thought I’d take some time to poke holes in ESPN’s observations while making no hard-line predictions of my own. It was that or write about whether or not Monta Ellis injured himself playing basketball. Aw, the joys of NBA blogging in September.
Not surprisingly, ESPN has Boston ranked number one in the East and Los Angeles ranked number one in the West.
Boston had one of the finest team defenses in NBA history last year. But I don’t know if they have the drive that it takes to repeat. I’ll never question KG’s intensity. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I think Paul Pierce will regress next season.
The Celtics are trailed by Detroit, Cleveland, Orlando, Philadelphia, Toronto, Washington, and Miami rounds out the top eight.
I was surprised to see the Pistons back as the second seed, but the Eastern Conference is marked with a lot of uncertainty heading into the 2008-2009 season.
Cleveland appears primed for a run at the championship after taking the Celtics to seven games last year. But they’re still one prolonged LeBron James injury from the lottery. Mo Williams is a solid addition, but he’s not a legitimate second option. And that’s why I won’t be categorizing the Cavs as championship contenders at the beginning of next season. Championship contenders are still playoff teams without their star player. The Cavs are terrible without James.
If Cleveland advances to the Finals, it will be due to an extraordinary effort from the King.
I think Philadelphia — with newly acquired Elton Brand — will leap frog Orlando. Toronto could surprise if Jermaine O’Neal remains healthy.
Washington and Miami are going to play a similar helter-skelter style. Both teams are dominated by three guards/forwards who are perimeter oriented. The Wizards possess a slight advantage at the five and two spots with Brendon Haywood patrolling the paint and ballhawker DeShawn Stevenson defending perimeter scorers, but all things being equal, the Heat have Dwyane Wade.
Wade even received a vote as the 2008-2009 MVP. I was impressed with Wade’s explosiveness in the Olympics, and he’s obviously put on some muscle since last season. (I recall a play against Greece where Wade drove to the basket and was met in midair by Sofoklis ‘Baby Shaq’ Schortsanitis and Schortsanitis took the brunt of the impact.) But I didn’t see Wade score in ways I haven’t seen before. And he’ll need to score in different ways with NBA defenses focusing on stopping him from getting to the basket. Shaq may have been a shell of his former self in Miami, but opposing defenses still game planned to stop him. I think Wade is going to have a great individual season — but the MVP isn’t an individual award — it’s a team award. It requires a 50-win season — which isn’t happening in Miami.
Missing the playoff cut in the East is Chicago and Atlanta in ninth and tenth place. I think the Bulls and Hawks will push for a playoff birth. And let’s be honest — it won’t take a super-human effort for them to make it. Two of the Eastern Conference’s playoff teams last year possessed sub .500 records.
In the West, the Lakers are trailed by New Orleans, Houston, Utah, San Antonio, Phoenix, Dallas, and Portland.
Andrew Bynum’s return makes the Lakers the team to beat in 2009. Bynum was averaging a career-high in points and rebounds and was leading the league in field goal percentage before he went down with a season ending injury. And yet the Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals without him.
New Orleans is going to be a force and will remain a force as long as they have Chris Paul. Paul’s court awareness is off the charts. He has an inate sense of the game that is impossible to teach and a joy to watch. I stand by my assertion that the Hornets overpaid for James Posey. But he will undoutebly pay dividends come playoff time.
Houston has a triumvirate that’s as good as any in the league. But as always, the health of their two injury prone superstars (McGrady & Ming) will determine their fate.
The Jazz were the second best team in the West last year and will return all of their key players. San Antonio isn’t going anywhere. Although the Spurs are going to need an All-Star season from Tony Parker and consistent effort from Tim Duncan to remain afloat until Manu Ginobili returns to action.
Phoenix and Dallas are the two biggest question marks in the West.
New coach Terry Porter will emphasize defense in the Valley of the Sun. But defense is about effort and will power — two qualities that are foreign to Shaq, Nash, and Stoudemire on that end of the floor. I love Phoenix’s acquisition of Matt Barnes. Barnes slid under the free agent radar because of a subpar showing in 2007-2008. But he displayed the ability to excel in pressure situations in Golden State’s first round upset of the Mavericks in 2007.
Much has been made of Jason Kidd’s decline in skills. Kidd has clearly lost a step and was unable to contain Chris Paul in Dallas’ first round loss to the Hornets last year. But who can contain Chris Paul? Bruce Bowen and the Spurs couldn’t. And Bowen was a first team All-NBA defender last season. Kidd remains one of the NBA’s finest playmakers. Like most point guards, he needs to be utilized in a system that can benefit from his strengths and hide his weaknesses. I think Rick Carlisle will provide him with an opportunity to extend his career for a few more seasons. At the very least, Kidd will remain productive until he joins up with good friend LeBron James — wherever that may be.
The team I’m most excited to watch next season is the Portland Trailblazers. Portland finished the 2007-2008 season with a surprising 41-41 record. That record would have tied them with Toronto for the sixth seed in the East, but kept them out of the playoffs in the West. I know I said I wasn’t going to make any hard-line predictions — I lied. Greg Oden is my pick as Rookie of the Year. Beasley is the odds-on favorite for the award. And with good reason, the kid can put the ball in the hole and his scoring ability will be needed in Miami. But I think Oden’s impact on the defensive end will be immediate. In fact, I expect him to contend for Defensive Player of the Year too.
Oden’s shot blocking is enhanced by his ability to block shots with either hand. This gives him a tremendous advantage because he rarely has to turn his body to protect the basket.
Rounding out the top ten in the West are Golden State and Denver. I understand the pessisism for the Nuggets after the departure of Marcus Camby. But Camby was extremely overrated defensively. Blocks are a terrible measure of defensive prowess. Unfortunately, they’re one of the few defensive statistics we have. The Nuggets are going to experience some growing pains without Camby, but I think they will actually improve defensively as long as Kenyon Martin and Nene remain healthy. Why? Because Carmelo and company won’t play defense with the mentality that a shot blocker will erase their mistakes.
Well that was fun. Let’s do this again next month.