It’s that time of year again, when the MLB playoffs are starting, football is in full swing, and you don’t care because the NBA season is a mere month away from starting back up. Just like last year, I’ll be bringing you individual team previews all through the month of October, leading up to the start of the season. If you missed last year’s season preview, or you just want a refresher, check out last year’s Season Preview Primer, which helps explain some of the non-traditional statistics I’ll be using. Today, we’ll be looking at an overview of the Eastern Conference, and tomorrow we’ll deal with the Western Conference.
The Big Three
1: Cleveland Cavaliers – The best team from the regular season just swapped Wally Szczerbiak, Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic for Anthony Parker, Shaquille O’Neal, Jamario Moon and Leon Powe. Also, I know it’s hard to believe, but LeBron James is only 24 years old. The only contributor from last year on the downside of his career is Zydrunas Ilgauskas. I still think this team is the best in the league and should be the title favorites, despite how competitive the top of the East is now.
2: Orlando Magic - I don’t understand how anyone can think that this team got worse. Carter is a definite upgrade over the vastly overrated Turkoglu, they get back their All-Star point guard (Nelson) back, and they add the criminally underrated Brandon Bass. They have massive talent and great depth. If Nelson avoids injury, there’s no reason they can’t win the title.
3: Boston Celtics – I almost put Boston in a tier of their own, because I don’t think they’re on the same level as the Cavs and Magic, who both improved significantly this offseason. At the same time though, they’re miles better than the rest of the East, so I just stuck them here. If KG comes back strong, they’re still title contenders, but 5 of their top 8 guys (KG, Allen, Pierce, Sheed, House) are on the wrong side of 30, and who knows how Rondo is going to respond to the trade talk of this summer. You can only dodge Father Time for so long.
Solid, Not Great
4: Atlanta Hawks – We’ve pretty much figured out the Hawks by now. Joe Johnson is good, but has to carry too big a load. Josh Smith is a stat-stuffer, but he’s too undisciplined to be a solid offensive option. Al Horford rebounds and defends, but isn’t a feature post option. Marvin Williams just shoots a lot of mid-range jumpers. They’re a good team, a solid team, but they’re a piece away from being any kind of serious threat, and that piece is not Jamal Crawford.
5: Chicago Bulls – If any team can make a jump from this tier to the next over the next couple years, it’s the Bulls. I’m not the biggest Derrick Rose fan in the world, but he does have immense physical talent and superstar potential if he puts it all together. They won’t miss Ben Gordon as much as you would think, especially if Luol Deng can stay healthy. There’s definitely upset potential here.
6: Philadelphia 76ers – I’m interested to see what kind of lineup this team uses with Brand healthy again. They were at their best last year with Thaddeus Young at power forward and just running up and down the floor on people. With as bad as Sam Dalembert was last year, I wonder if they’ll play Brand at center, Young at PF, and just run with it. The team isn’t built for a traditional lineup, but they’ve got athletes and talent, and the potential to win quite a few games.
The Wild Cards
7: Miami Heat – Even though the team brings back basically all of their significant players, I can’t put them in the group above. Two of their starters have a less than sterling injury history (Wade and O’Neal), and they just aren’t deep enough to handle Wade going down for any substantial length of time. Coupled with the uncertainty around Beasley, it’s all too much risk to make me feel comfortable picking them higher. If everyone stays healthy and Beasley makes a jump, they can be really, really good.
8: Washington Wizards – This team has some serious balance issues. They’re overloaded with guards, don’t have enough post players, and the big guys they do have are young and need to bulk up. However, they’ve got tons of offensive weapons, and the young big guys have definite talent. They won’t play any defense, but if Arenas is healthy they’ll score enough that it won’t matter most nights.
9: Toronto Raptors – The Raptors are also working off the no-defense, all-offense model. In their efforts to persuade Chris Bosh to stick around, they’ve basically surrounded him by a whole bunch of players who can shoot and pass (and Reggie Evans, who does neither of those things). If it’s gonna work, Bargnani is going to have to give more than we’ve seen so far, and Turkoglu has to return to his 07-08 form, but there is talent here.
10: Indiana Pacers – I hate the way Indiana has built their team. The current roster is basically doomed to finish between 7th and 10th each year. Maybe they’ll have some playoff appearances followed by quick first-round exits, but they aren’t going to draft high enough to get another stud, and they aren’t good enough to win a playoff series unless Danny Granger’s ceiling is way higher than anyone expects (which it is not). They’ll be average, and may get into the playoffs, but they’re nothing to get excited about.
11: Detroit Pistons – So, things did not work out so well for Joe Dumars this offseason. Is there a less exciting team right now than the Pistons? Who scares you on that team? Ben Gordon? Tayshaun Prince? You know what I said about Indiana being doomed to finishing 7th to 10th for the foreseeable future? Apply that to the Pistons too (and the Bobcats, but we’ll get to them in a minute). Also, I find it amusing that they have 4 rookies on the roster this year, and all 4 are small forwards, the position that their best player (Prince) plays.
12: Charlotte Bobcats - And, completing the trifecta of teams going nowhere, the Bobcats! Is there a single player on the roster who you look at and say “he could be the second option on a championship team”? Gerald Wallace could maybe be the 3rd best player on a title contender, but even that is probably stretching it. At the same time though, they have enough average players that they don’t end up at the bottom of the league and get a good draft pick. They’re stuck in no-man’s land, and show no signs of a plan to get out.
13: Milwaukee Bucks – Unlike the last 3 teams, the Bucks at least appear to have a plan. That plan is “shed as much salary as possible”, but hey, it’s still a plan. Even so, there’s a team with some potential here. Bogut is a legit talent, Alexander is an athletic freak, and Jennings has serious potential. I think you’re probably going to see them try to move Redd by midseason, and if they can get some cap relief and a good young player for him, they won’t be in terrible shape going forward.
Summer 2010, Here We Come!
14: New York Knicks – There are maybe 2 starting caliber players on this team, but they don’t particularly care. It’s all about 2010 for these guys, LeBron or bust! Still, Mike D’Antoni is kind of a genius, and he managed to get some solid performances last year out of guys who were just not good players. This year we’ll see if a healthy Gallinari and the newcomers Hill and Douglas can show enough potential to entice big free agents to join them next year.
15: New Jersey Nets – The supporting veterans on this team are awful. However, you could do worse than a nucleus of Harris, Lopez, Lee, Terrence Williams and CDR. That’s a group you can build on. They won’t be very good this year, but there’s talent there for the future. Depending on what they do with their cap space next summer, there could be some hope for this team yet.
(This is replacing my usual list of the best player at each position because, frankly, that list is boring)
3 Players Who Are Better Than You Think
1) Troy Murphy, IND – Quick, name every player who has ever finished in the top ten in both rebounding percentage and 3-point FG% for a season. Finished? Well, if the list has more than one name on it, you’re wrong. When Murphy finished last year 3rd in 3FG% and 4th in RB%, it was the first time anyone had ever accomplished that feat. The closest anyone else has come is Larry Bird, who finished 3rd in 3FG% and 11th in RB% in his rookie year. Big guys who can rebound at a high level don’t grow on trees, but ones that can shoot the lights out too? Let’s just say that Murphy deserves a bit more recognition for his play.
2) Jose Calderon, TOR – If taking care of the ball is the name of the game for point guards, Calderon has got you covered. For the second straight year, he led the league in A/T ratio by a large margin. Last year though, he also decided that he just wasn’t going to miss free throws anymore, missing only 3 of his 154 free throw attempts all year. The Raptors haven’t been very good lately, but Calderon has been consistently brilliant for the last 3 years. He creates shots, knocks down shots, and more importantly, never kills the team with mistakes.
3) Brandon Bass, ORL – Time for a quick game of “Guess That Statline!”
Which two players do these 08-09 statlines belong to?
18.1 Usg%, 107 ORtg, 106 DRtg, 14.2 RB%, 52.2 True Shooting %
20.0 Usg%, 113 ORtg, 108 DRtg, 13.4 RB%, 57.1 TS%
The bottom line is, of course, our good Mr. Bass, who is getting $4 mil a year in Orlando. The top line is his replacement in Dallas, Shawn Marion, who makes double what Bass does. I, like Orlando, prefer the cheaper, more effective forward over the guy with name recognition.
2 Low Profile Pickups Who Could Make an Impact
1) Leon Powe, CLE – I think Powe’s move from one Eastern powerhouse to another was one of the most overlooked personnel moves this summer. Yes, he’s recovering from injury, but he should be back around the all-star break. This is a guy who, despite being undersized, has been one of the best backup power forwards in the league the past two years. Remember, this is a guy who was a McDonald’s All-American in high school and a second-team All-American in college, so it’s not like he doesn’t have talent or he came out of nowhere. Great move for the Cavs to get him for the veteran’s minimum.
2) Amir Johnson, TOR – I’d go with Bass here, but I’ve already talked about him. Instead, I bring Johnson to your attention. I have no idea why a rebuilding Detroit team didn’t hang onto this guy. He’s a freakish athlete who just hasn’t gotten the playing time he needed in Detroit. The kid is only 22, and has put up fantastic numbers in the D-League and in limited NBA minutes. If nothing else, he’ll bring rebounding and shot-blocking to a Toronto frontline that desperately needs them.
1 Player Ready to Make “The Jump”
Louis Williams, PHI – Everything is in place for Williams to have a monster year (take note fantasy enthusiasts). He’s an extremely talented speedster who has had to sit behind Andre Miller for the past two years. His playing time is going to blow up this year, and more importantly he’s going to be playing point guard full time. Too often last year, he was forced to play off-guard alongside Miller, and he was much worse in that role (check his position splits at 82games). Entering his 5th season at only 23, he’s ready to make a big-time impact as a starter.
BallerBlogger contributing writer ‘xphoenix87′ is a college student who dreams of one day writing about sports for a living. Since that’s not gonna happen, he’ll do this instead.