2011-2012 Eastern Conference Preview

ATLANTIC DIVISION

 

Boston Celtics

Although NBA veterans are respected by the media, veteran teams get little respect at the start of the season, when the flowering potential of youth is the most intoxicating. The season won’t be kind to an older team with little depth, but the Celtics wouldn’t have cared much about the regular season either way. Ray Allen is a long-range shooter in great shape, Pierce relies on a mid-range shot and his size and strength, and Kevin Garnett is a highly skilled seven-footer – these are not the type to fall off a cliff suddenly.

Expect their veteran trio to be rested early and often until the playoffs, while Rondo could use the trade rumors as motivation to post a career season. Their holes are not as bad as one would think since they signed Pietrus, who will hopefully take minutes away from the awful Pavlovic. Bass will provide scoring off the bench for a surprisingly bad offensive team; he and Garnett will combine to form probably the best midrange jump shooting power forward tandem in the league. There is a hole at center, but if Jermaine O’Neal is halfway healthy he can at least provide them with defense, and Boston will try to use Garnett more at center this year. Keyon Dooling was an underrated pick-up as multiple metrics had him as one of the best guard defenders in the league, but his offense is poor and Rondo is one of the few guards who’s a worse shooter.

Unlike many older teams, they have a favorable cap situation with only Paul Pierce and Rondo, who’s making $10 million with $1 million annual increases, and a couple of draft picks under contract beyond this year. I’ve heard no news about major free agents being targeted by Boston, and with the amnesty clause there will be many teams trying to court Dwight Howard or others. It will be interesting to see if Ray Allen leaves and what kind of money Garnett can receive after making over $21 million this season. This could very well be the last year with this incarnation of the Boston Celtics, and with a title and a few high win seasons already under their belts they have fewer reasons to stay together.

With the Bull’s ascension and the south beach ball club in year two of Lebron, Wade and Bosh, Boston is relegated to a rare underdog status. There will be a lot of stories about the compressed schedule, the reduced minutes, and worries about health, but Boston knows it won’t be able to take a higher seed than Miami or Chicago and will concentrate on keeping their team healthy and sharp before a playoff run. They still have one of the best defenses in the league led by Kevin Garnett, at 35 years-old still a defensive force that changes the game. They could sink down in the standings, but they won’t care about home-court advantage versus teams like Indiana or Orlando.

Prediction: 44-22

Random prediction: The New York-Boston first round match-up ends up being an all-time class, as the relatively disappointing season from the Knicks from their lack of depth is not a problem in the playoffs as they can play Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler huge minutes, and Rondo and Spike Lee become enemies.

New Jersey Nets

There are many rebuilding teams in the NBA, but no one else is actually physically rebuilding – the New Jersey Nets will become the Brooklyn Nets. In the meantime, they’re actively lobbying for Dwight Howard, their own young center broke his foot, they have one of the best point guards in the game in his prime and essentially on a rental contract, and their Russian owner is running for president. It’s a weird season in New Jersey, and it would be a miracle if they made the playoffs. Their New Jersey diehard fans will have an awkward goodbye.

Brook Lopez has never missed an NBA game, and unfortunately he’ll be out 4-6 weeks recovering from the aforementioned broken foot. Last season he was one of the worst rebounders for a center, but some reports said he was suffering through an injury all season that limited his rebounding. In the preseason his rebounding did improve, but we’ll have to wait a couple months. On the bright side, their first round pick will likely improve, which will help in the rebuilding effort and for trade value. They have a couple of solid role players with an excellent sniper in Anthony Morrow, the rebounding/energy guy Kris Humphries, and the three point shooting Turkish center Okur, but beyond that it’s the dregs of the league – Johan Petro, Damion James, and insignificant rookies.

The injury to Brook Lopez knocked down the chance of Dwight Howard being traded, which means their season is less volatile. They’ll likely finish the season without any major changes save for maybe Russian Andrei Kirilenko joining the team. The last season for the Nets will be fairly unremarkable, other than watching the deft playmaking skills of Deron Williams, but it will be followed by earth-moving reforms in the free agency/trade market and the relocation to Brooklyn.

Prediction: 21-45

Random prediction: Kirilenko and Williams rejoin forces, and the Kirilenko-Humphries line-up provides a rare bit of entertainment for the Nets as the AK-47 finally lives out his destiny as a small-ball four.

New York Knicks

New York made a free agent signing that perfectly addressed a need – a defensive minded center who could protect the rim, collect rebounds, and stay out of the way on offense. They predictably overreacted, fans claiming they had their own big three and thinking they could now contend with the Bulls and Heat. However, their stars are far from Miami’s – the difference between Lebron and Amare, for example, is one between a durable forward who can score at will and defend nearly as well as any forward, and an injury-prone forward/center who can score at will but is a terrible defender, the overall effect being a few wins in the standings. Tyson will help immensely, but he’s lost major time to injuries and their first big man off the bench is Jared Jeffries. This is one of the teams for whom a compressed schedule will be a significant negative.

Another major change is swapping Billups out for Baron Davis, who may or may not use the limelight of Madison Square Garden for motivation to actually play hard this season. Outside of inexplicably shooting threes even though he’s 32 percent for his career, his remarkable passing skills will be put to use on the D’Antoni offense. He’s 32 years old and perpetually out of shape, though; any good production they get out of him this season is gravy. Beyond Davis at the guard spot, they have Landry Fields, the Stanford shooting guard as the role player who can do a little bit of everything; Toney Douglas, an athletic combo guard who like most of his type isn’t ideal running the offense but is an impressive scorer and defender at either spot; and Mike Bibby, a veteran whose shooting and passing skills are voided by his horrible defense.

As for competing this season, the Knicks will be limited by defense and the patchwork roster filler. Amare and Carmelo’s defense is so poor that they will sometimes entirely negate their offensive value by giving it up on the other end. Given that they’re both forwards, it’s harder to find the right match-up defensively. After Carmelo’s trade last season, the Knicks didn’t play like true contenders; they were 14-14 after gaining the small forward. The Nuggets took off after losing their all-star, indicating that he’s not the superstar that can single-handedly keep a team competitive like Lebron. It would take a surprise season from one of their young players or the Baron Davis of old to move this team to the top three in the east, and it’s obvious from that sentence how unlikely that is.

Instead Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire will score a lot, keep the team over 0.500 but not by much, and will feature in a number of big games on TV. For the economy of the NBA, it’s great to have an exciting Knicks team, but I hope the NYC-area doesn’t count on a deep playoff run. Their best hope is a late pick-up from a player like Kenyon Martin fleeing China; he can give them more of the defense that they need and prevent some terrible frontcourt players from getting time. It won’t be a perfect season, but it’s better than about everything that happened last decade.

Prediction: 36-30

Random prediction: Baron Davis will have a run where he’ll average over 10 assists a game with impressive dishes right to the basket, but an injury will derail his campaign and after he comes back he’s limited and jacks up unwarranted threes.

Philadelphia 76ers

With a shallow field of contenders in the east and the turmoil in Orlando, Philadelphia hopes to improve on their 0.500 basketball least season and secure a better seed. They’ll be one of a few teams gunning for a sixth seed or higher in the conference, hoping to avoid Chicago or Miami, or preferably Boston too, in the first round. Tied to two large contracts for three years in Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand, the rest of the squad is young, fast, and loaded with potential.

The strength of the 76ers lies with athletic players like Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young. They’re a deadly team in transition, and have some of the best finishers in the game. As has been the problem in recent years, they are still a terrible three-point shooting team, and their only long-range shooter, fringe rotation player Jodie Meeks, capitalized on their need with 152 makes. Their inability to space the floor has stunted the growth of their offense, however potent it still is.

No major roster moves helps them with continuity important with a short training camp and preseason, and they’ve retained a mostly young crew of talented players. Their disappointment from last season, a number 2 overall pick in the draft, Evan Turner, has good size for a shooting guard, rebounded extremely well, and showed his passing skills. However, he could not score at all – his outside shooting was abysmal, created few shots with 7 points in 23 minutes, and his lone positive, a free-throw percentage of 81%, was offset by his inability to draw fouls. He’s likely to improve because it’s difficult to imagine how much worse he could have shot. Another player, 21 year-old point guard Jrue Holiday, should also dramatically improve as young point’s often do.

Unlike the west, there is a clear separation between the top teams and the lower bound playoff teams. Other than outside shooting, their weakness is the lack of a center and rim protector. Over the course of a clustered season with young legs the problem won’t surface too often, as one of their best lineups is Brand at center and Thaddeus Young at power forward, but in a playoff series against certain teams like Orlando they’ll be exposed. In fact, they’d rather face Boston, who also has a hole at the 5 spot, than Orlando if they still have Howard. It’s unclear how far this group can go with their nucleus, and it’s likely they’ll mirror the Atlanta Hawks – steady improvement with a couple highlights of reaching the second round, but nothing more without a major overhaul.

Prediction: 35-31

Random prediction: Iguodala finally gets the defensive credit he deserves after impressive games against the top scorers like Lebron on TV games and makes the first team all-defense as a small forward alongside Tony Allen.

Toronto Raptors

Toronto is one of the most pathetic team in the league, diving into the recesses of the league with Charlotte, because of a roster with little potential star power. Their first overall pick a few years ago, Andrea Bargnani, has been disappointing and is probably the worst defensive player who gets major playing time in the NBA, and they rewarded him with a long contract with one million dollar increases each year until 2015, where he’ll make $12 million. He’s a center with tantalizing offensive skills with good long-range shooting numbers, which is how you can forgive people fawning over his potential, but he’s 26 now and was out rebounded last season by Shane Battier, Chase Budinger, and Evan Turner.

Outside of that most well-known player, the Raptors do have some interesting players in their early 20’s. DeMar DeRozan is the typical athletic wing who can barely harness his talent and is one of the best dunkers in the game; he could be the next Rudy Gay. Ed Davis is a long power forward who can hit varying shots at a high-percentage. The long contract to Amir Johnson was a bit odd, but at least they invested in a young player rather than one entering his thirties like other teams have; he’s also an excellent rebounder and shot blocker who’s reduced his turnovers and is a surprisingly good free-throw shooter, nearly hitting 80 percent. Beyond that, they have a young shoot first point guard in Bayless and a few interesting players who are unfortunately a bit older and mostly from foreign lands.

Their young players still have a tenuous grasp on NBA-level defense, and as a result they’ll be contending for the worst record in the league for the strong upcoming draft. In the meanwhile, the only Canadian city with an NBA team can greet fellow Canadian Jamaal Magloire, and cheer on a ragtag assortment of players such as Jose Calderon, who shook off a disappointing 2009-10 and regained his record breaking free-throw stroke and some of his defense, and the Brazilian Blur Barbosa, coming off an uncharacteristically poor shooting year. They are another team who’s playing for future seasons, and will provide fodder for the rest of the league, but with some young talent, an upcoming likely high pick in the draft, and a good international player, Jonas Valanciunas, overseas for the season they are building toward a brighter tomorrow.

Prediction: 18-48

Random prediction: Recovered from his hamstring injury a couple years ago, Jose Calderon posts a 50-40-90 season with 9 assists a game.

 

CENTRAL DIVISION

 

Chicago Bulls

Chicago broke through last season on one of the best defenses in the league, where Rose carried their mediocre offense and won an MVP for doing so. They return intact with Richard Hamilton their new shooting guard, hoping to boost their anemic scoring. In fact, if they want to win a championship, their offense is where they need to improve, and Rose’s continued improvement along with a decent Boozer season could make the difference they require.

Unlike every team but a small handful, the Bulls have a deep frontcourt where the production barely changes when the subs come into the game. If they do rest their starters more, expect their drop-off to be less than other teams like the Celtics. They will contend with the Heat for the top playoff seed, which is an important advantage to hold if the playoff series is close. The way to beat the Bulls is to have someone who can relatively contain Derrick Rose, likely a long-armed but quick defender similar to Lebron, and to attack their defense at the guard spots, where they have Rose, athletic but not a good defender, and the majority of the time either Hamilton or Kyle Korver at the 2. Wearing Rose down with a speedy point guard may also work well.

Although they’re perceived as one of the up and coming young teams in the league, in reality they’re around the average mark for age. Boozer and Hamilton are in their early 30’s, and even some of their young guys are older than they seem – Omer Asik is 25 and Taj Gibson and Noah are 26. Regardless, with their core group they should be competitive for a while, and they have enough assets to pull off a major trade, i.e. Dwight Howard. Their youth is mostly represented by the MVP Derrick Rose, and paradoxically after winning the top individual award he still has a lot of room to improve his game.

This year will be one of the best chances to win a title, as their best players are either entering their prime or just leaving it. With how good they already are, they really only have one team to worry about – the Heat. Rose will need to find a way to score against Miami, and the Bulls have to find a way to defend both Lebron and Wade at the same time. If they make it to the finals, they should be the favorites against anyone in the west.

Prediction: 49-17

Random prediction: With Lebron and Wade on the same team, Howard stuck in purgatory wondering where he’ll go, and Durant one of the few competitors, Rose nearly wins the MVP again after he improves his outside shooting, but before mirroring Nash’s back-to-back awards he loses in a close vote as the NBA sabermetric community finally has enough sway.

Cleveland Cavaliers

After losing former number one overall draft pick Lebron James, the Cavaliers were terrible enough to win the number one pick again, selecting point guard Kyrie Irving in a weak rookie class. He won’t be the savior King James was, and I don’t think management realizes that Lebron left because of their deficiencies in surrounding him with talent. Owner Dan Gilbert didn’t take any of the blame, as executives normally behave, and instead fired off an insane rant that sounded like something from a heartbroken fan. Rebuilding teams have to understand that not only do they have to redo the roster when they run into trouble; they need to remake the entire organization. However, the guys in charge are unlikely to fire themselves for performing terribly, and Cleveland fans will pray that after a gluttony of prospects they’ll have to start winning games again.

The season is basically one long set of tryouts for Kyrie Irving, who unlike recent point guard prospects is not a fast twitch hyper-athlete like John Wall or Rose but is an efficient guard who can shoot from outside and facilitate an offense. They also have Tristan Thompson as a parting gift from Lebron for the fourth pick; he’s an energy player who won’t give anything offensively but can rebound and block shots at an NBA level. Other than that, they have a veteran scorer trapped on a lottery team in Antawn Jamison, using his poor defense to ensure a higher pick; the valuable Anderson Varejao who could be had by a contender for an expiring contract and a draft pick; and an odd assortment of young misfit toys without much potential. Omri Casspi is the first Israeli player in the league, and is a good three-point shooter for his size at 6’ 9”. Ramon Sessions is a pick and roll master who can’t defend at this level. Christian Eyenga is a high-flying Congolese dunker and shot-blocker, but he’s still working on the very basic facets of the game. Likewise, Ryan Hollins is also an impressive dunker, but he’s outrebounded by a great many small forwards. They also have a three-point sniper in Daniel Gibson; that’s about all he can accomplish, though.

Moving forward, Cleveland can look forward to another high draft pick, and this time it’s a strong draft. If they’re lucky they can move Varejao for some rebuilding pieces. They’ll race to the bottom against Toronto and other terrible teams in full knowledge that they squandered one of the best number one picks in league history and that there’s little chance they’ll acquire another player of equal talent.

Prediction: Eyenga jumps over a small point guard for a dunk and earns a trip to the dunk contest, where he has one amazing dunk and another that kicks him out of contention.

Random prediction: 18-48

Detroit Pistons

A couple years too late, the Pistons finally jettisoned Richard Hamilton, although they still have Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace came back. After the Pistons surprised the NBA with a championship, Joe Dumars was hailed as one of the best architects in the league, but after a few failed experiments their no-stars Cinderella run is looking more inexplicable every month. Decent enough to beat cellar-dwellers but nowhere near a playoff seed, Detroit is neither truly rebuilding nor playing for the present. Before their championship banner fades in Midwest memories, they need clean the roster and plan for the future responsibly.

Most of their roster is seemingly two types of players: combo guards and ultra-thin and long forwards. Between Will Bynum, Ben Gordon, and Rodney Stuckey, they have three guys who love to shoot and hesitate to pass. They’re also old enough that any chance of one of them magically turning into a well-rounded point guard is effectively gone. They also decided to draft another combo guard with Brandon Knight. For the next subset of players, they have the league’s only Swedish player Jonas Jerebko, athletic 6’ 10” forward coming off a torn Achilles. They also have Villanueva, a player known for having no hair on his body (alopecia) – meaning, his game isn’t good enough to warrant much else in attention. There’s the promising Austin Daye listed at 6’ 11” at the impossible weight of 200 lbs; he’s a good outside shooter and a decent rebounder and shot-blocker. Lastly, there’s the patriarch of the group, Tayshaun Prince, who signed a long-term deal to stay with the Pistons for whatever reason.

The Pistons’ most important player, however, is Greg Monroe, a sweet passing big man with enough size for the center position who even as a young rookie scored at a high percentage and frequency. His ceiling is limited by his lack of athleticism, where he’s more likely to get blocked than to block others. He’s a good rebounder, but he’s an under the rim type. He’s playing next to the horizontally expanding Jason Maxiell and the 37 year-old Ben Wallace; the Pistons have to hope he takes major strides forward.

Detroit would be lucky to make the playoffs this year, and if they did it would stall their development as it would put them out of the running for another high draft pick and enable their wayward strategy to play guys like Ben Gordon huge minutes. Thankfully, they’ve changed course and hired defensive guru Lawrence Frank and put in new management, getting a “stats guy” for the first time. It could be a long rebuild. The Pistons were once so loaded they wasted a number two pick on Darko Milicic in one of the deepest drafts ever and still won a championship that year. Now they’re a shell of their former selves, mirroring the desolation in the economic ruin of modern day Detroit.

Prediction: 26-46

Random prediction: Unable to run an offense effectively through their guards, the Pistons often play through Greg Monroe, who nearly posts an impressive 3 assists a game for most of the season and conjures comparisons to Brad Miller.

Indiana Pacers

Most teams would claim a densely packed schedule work hurt them, but Indiana is one of a very few that definitely benefit. They let Josh McRoberts go, as having two white power forwards plus white center Jeff Foster was confusing enough. Thankfully, they found Louis Amundson, but they also signed all-star power forward David West, giving them another credible offensive threat to go along with Danny Granger. Also receiving George Hill, they’re two deep with quality at every position except shooting guard, where they’ll deploy the 6’ 8” Danny Granger at times with 6’ 10” Paul George at the 3 for one of the biggest line-ups in the league. While other teams carefully rest their best players during back-to-back-to-back’s, Indiana won’t miss a beat with one of the best benches in the NBA.

Like the Nuggets in the west, the Pacers have plenty of quality players but only fringe all-star’s. West is a two-time all-star but at 31 is unlikely to repeat, while Granger has only been there once. However, if the Pacers jump out to a stellar record, expect one of those two to make it, although both listed as forwards could be split some votes. Outside of those two, there’s plenty to like about the team. Point guard Darren Collison is one of the fastest players in the league and has added the three-pointer to his repertoire, but at only six feet tall he’s lucky to be backed up by the bigger George Hill, a solid defensive player who can also hit three’s. They have a decent big man rotation with one of the biggest players in the league, the 7’ 2” Roy Hibbert, the scoring pick and pop David West, energy guys in both Tyler Hansbrough and Amundson, the veteran defender Jeff Foster, and they can go small with Paul George or Granger at the 4.

The key to beating the Pacers is to vary your approach based on who’s in the game. You can post up Darren Collison, but not against the bigger George Hill. A pick and roll can leave Hibbert exposed, but it’s difficult against one of the best pick and roll defenders in the league with Jeff Foster. Their weakness is the shooting guard, but Dahntay Jones is a good defender; he can also draw fouls and hit his long jumpers at a good rate. However, depth does not always equal quality, and as nice as their players are the top teams in the east all have at least one player who’s better than anyone on the Pacers. Through a bumpy season it will prove useful, but no one in Indiana has realistic championship aspirations.

Last season they sneaked into the playoffs with a dreadful 37-45 record. I’d expect this year they should break 0.500, but it’ll only set them up for a series against a team like the Celtics or the Bulls, who despite any heroics from the underdog Pacers should beat them easily. Their current roster doesn’t have the talent of a future contender, unless the 21 year-old Paul George delivers on his promise and his weird growth spurt in the offseason; but the Pacers have sizable cap space next summer. Players don’t flock to the land of corn like they do to warm beaches, but they’ve shown with David West and the talent surrounding they can build a good team. Orlando is receding, Boston is aging, and Atlanta is stalled. Indiana can capitalize on their descents and move up in the east either this year or the next.

Prediction: 36-30

Random prediction: With a good crop of forwards in the east, some of the media throw a fit when no Pacer is selected to the all-star game, as David West and Granger are edged by guys like Bosh and Stoudemire.

Milwaukee Bucks

While other middle class teams New York (middle class in terms of wins: 42-40 last year) and Indiana added marquee free agents, the Bucks were relegated to the likes of Mike Dunleavy and Beno Udrih. They thrive with one of the best defenses in the league at the same level as Chicago, Boston and Orlando, but without a quality scorer they’re pressed to beat opponents with scores in the 80’s. Nothing has changed last season, trading out Dunleavy from Maggette, but a full season with a healthy Bogut could prove the difference between a playoff berth and the lottery.

Defensive master Scott Skiles and center Andrew Bogut form the basis for any good team on that end of the floor, but they also possess other quality defenders. For example, Mbah a Moute is one of the most overlooked and versatile defenders in the game, but his lack of an offensive game limits his minutes. Bogut, however, is good enough to deserve consideration for defensive player of the year. He’s an excellent shot-blocker and takes a load of charges, two skills that rarely overlap. His advanced defensive numbers have also been exceptional, and he’s also a great rebounder. His problem is that his team is so offensively starved they look to him as a first option even after the bad elbow injury affected his shot. He has a decent post game, but nothing to form an offense around. It appeared he came back too early from the previously mentioned elbow injury, but with a long offseason he should as healthy as he’s been in years.

As good as their defense was last season, their opponents limited them to even worse numbers. I doubt their new small forward will help in this regard, as Milwaukee is the place where small forwards go to decay. Stephen Jackson, who plays a lot of the small forward spot now that his quickness is leaving him, is coming off a year where he shot 41 percent. Corey Maggette last year had his worst season in a decade. His previous skills at drawing fouls at an elite rate were diminished immensely. The year before John Salmons reminded the Bucks about his age and was a disappointment after a trade, losing several points off his field-goal percentage. The year before that they acquired Richard Jefferson, who started a steady decline where he’s now an amnesty candidate in San Antonio. This year the 31 year-old Mike Dunleavy regress after a bounce back year and begin to form his retirement plans, likely away from the frigid winters of Wisconsin.

If there were ever a team for a high volume masterful scorer like Carmelo Anthony, this would be it. Alas, they’re doomed to repeat 0.500 basketball with one of the best defenses in the league while being led offensively by Brandon Jennings, Udrih, Dunleavy, and Stephen Jackson. Their greatest hope, Brandon Jennings, followed a shaky rookie season with a shaky sophomore year, scoring a ton but only because someone had to shoot before the 24 second shot clock expired. His career field-goal percentage is 38, and even after adjusting for threes and free throws his true-shooting percentage is a ghastly 48, destroyed by the worst shooting at the rim out of any player in the league. He’s still young enough to improve, but the Bucks could be first round material for the Heat and Bulls for at least a couple more years.

Prediction: 34-32

Random prediction: With the theatrics in Orlando and voter fatigue in awarding Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut wins the defensive player of the year after his healthiest season yet nearly leading the league in both charges and blocks per game with 11 rebounds.

 

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

 

Atlanta Hawks

Once an up and coming team, the Hawks may have reached their ceiling, cap space absorbed by their trio of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford while the rest of the team declines. Sixth man Jamaal Crawford is gone, replaced by the ghosts of Tracy McGrady and Jerry Stackhouse, who once scored 20 points a game when likely starter Jeff Teague was only 8. The Hawks could be the odd man out after Indiana and New York improved, while the Bucks will have a fully healthy Bogut, and the wild card Nets if they get Dwight Howard. After returning to the second round of the playoffs, they’ll expect more. However, it was more of a fluke – they only finished with 44 wins and were outscored on average each game, meaning they should have won less than 41 games, and beat Orlando because they had Howard’s kryptonite in Jason Collins.

With Hinrich out for the first part of the season, the Hawks have to use Johnson and McGrady as point guards, indicating their depth will be a problem. Johnson is heading into his 30’s and has shown signs of declining. His stupidly large contract is already a problem because they didn’t have any money to sign free agents. He’s set to make about $25 million in five years. Even in his best season he didn’t deserve anywhere near that kind of money, but in the weird financial world of the NBA veteran players who everyone knows will diminish in value still get raises each year. They could be saving their amnesty weapon for him, but they also have the albatross contract of Marvin Williams, a fringe starter who’s set to make $8 million next year with a player option he’ll be sure to use for $7.5. Luckily, they have smart contracts for Josh Smith at $12 to $13 million the next two years, and their 25 year-old all-star center an even $12 every year for the next five.

Atlanta is once again without a point guard, while Chris Paul enjoys a loaded Clippers team the second pick in that draft Marvin Williams has stalled as a combo forward who can’t hit threes but will hit a few open jumpers without much else. The Hawks are a warning against rebuilding gone wrong: they stocked up on young players through the draft not with scouting talent but repeated trips to the lottery; they got a big free agent to sign with them but ended up overpaying him and destroying their cap space for years; and now that their young studs have grown up with bigger salaries they have no room or the smarts to fill out a bench or the hole at point guard. At least Atlanta fans can watch one of the most interesting frontcourts in the league with the high-flying Josh Smith, who recently lost 20 lbs and could win his first all-star trip, and well-rounded Horford.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Atlanta made the playoffs, but the middle class of the east with Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, and Indiana is playing musical chairs and one team has to sit out the playoffs. It could be Orlando if they trade Dwight Howard, but that’s looking unlikely right now. They don’t have any room next year to sign Deron Williams or someone of his caliber, and the Johnson contract will be eating up nearly a third of their salary space for five years. Without any rookies and the only young player of note Jeff Teague, the Hawks are hoping for things like Tracy McGrady regaining his game. In other words, they’ll be disappointed.

Prediction: 33-33

Random prediction: Despite a career year, Smith once again misses a trip to the all-star game and watches Horford return again because of the lack of centers and Joe Johnson just missing out because the back-up guard slots go to point guards and their disappointing record precludes anyone from taking two Hawks.

Charlotte Bobcats

It’s the awkward stage in an NBA franchise where people have waited patiently for the expansion team to develop, and instead the highlight of seven years is 2010 where they went to the first round of the playoffs and had Gerald Wallace represent them in an all-star team. Soon after they traded him and finished tenth in the east. Luckily, they could be bad enough this year they could snag one of the top picks in a loaded draft. Boris Diaw is their starting center, the offensively stunted Bucks cast aside Maggette as their scorer but on the Bobcats he’ll be their best weapon, Tyrus Thomas is their most talented player, and the rest of their rotation – Diop is their back-up center, Matt Carroll their bench shooter, etc. — is mainly players who wouldn’t be employed in the NBA if it weren’t for the Bobcats.

Last season they were surprisingly decent, and that’s the only compliment you could give their organization. They’ve been unable to find star power; Okafor and Gerald Wallace were the best players they ever had. Bismack Biyombo doesn’t look like an all-star, but his defensive ability could be significant in a couple years, similar to Ibaka’s rise in Oklahoma City. Kemba Walker is the other player to watch. He’s a scorer trapped in a point guard’s body, but on the Bobcats they won’t mind if he can be productive. Another bright spot is ace defender Gerald Henderson, who also has a decent midrange game. Next year they’ll be awarded another lottery treasure, but unfortunately owner Michael Jordan, the biggest name on the team, is the same guy who took Kwame Brown with the first pick. They’re also one of the worst free agent destinations in the league. If your only good offer is from Charlotte, you have to reconsider your basketball skills.

I can’t imagine what Dwight Howard or big teams like the Grizzlies will do against the Bobcats, whose best countermove is giving Diop and Byron Mullens huge minutes. Causal fans still know little about the team, and most are faintly aware of even their existence. They’ve wasted years in the league to build to very little, and it’s disappointing Charlotte will have to suffer through at least two more years of major rebuilding.

Prediction: 20-46

Random prediction: Diaw ties Lebron for the lead in triple doubles with four on the season largely because the Bobcats have no choice but to run a good portion of the offense through him with major minutes.

Miami Heat

The most important fact about this year’s incarnation of the Miami Heat isn’t the addition of aging perimeter stopper Shane Battier or even a healthy year from Haslem; it’s that they’re going for a full force transition led offense fed by an energetic defense. Any basketball fan should be excited just for that. They’re also the favorites to win the title, a year after they reached the finals and were shocked by the Mavericks. The partnership of Lebron, Wade and Bosh was enough of a talent surge that a near 60 win season and a finals trip were a disappointment, but they weren’t far from a title and will have another shot at it, the elusive ring for King James as he looks to redeem himself.

The supporting cast of their top three players is a testament to how great those three are. Last season they tried out a center rotation of Ilgauskas, Joel Anthony, Juwan Howard, and Jamaal Magloire with Eddy Curry added this year because apparently they have no idea what a good center looks like. At the point guard spot, they pressed the young Mario Chalmers into a starting job he somehow lost despite having no competition. Norris Cole, a nice late-round pick, could very well steal his job this year by only playing marginally better than people expect despite being picked nearly in the second round. Their center spot didn’t improve either. Dalembert decided playing for the country’s largest contingent of fellow Hatians and a good chance at a ring wasn’t enough for the allure of 0.500 basketball in Houston. Joel Anthony will start, but thankfully the coach has hinted Chris Bosh will spend a huge portion of his time at the 5 to press the other team in a fast, skilled line-up. Anthony is definitely a good defender, but he’s one of the worst offensive players in the league and a terrible rebounder; they’re better off without him in most circumstances, the exception being Dexter Pittman and Eddy Curry would be the back-ups.

While the support cast is indeed weak, Miami’s a top team because of the basically unprecedented duo of Wade and Lebron, and they also have an all-star power forward if they run out of options. Wade and Lebron have overlapping skill-sets, and that can translate into lost production, but they can also terrorize teams because they’re both supremely athletic, nimble exploding through defenders to the rim, excellent finishers, and wreak havoc defensively. Few teams have someone to defend either superstar; no one has two. They are both also great passers, making a fast break with those two nigh unstoppable. When Miami goes small with Bosh or Haslem at the 5 spot, their ability to rebound at a high level can make up for any loss, and both have the strength and athleticism to guard players larger. Miami’s two superstar wings give them the versatility they need to cover their weaknesses.

Perhaps their fourth best player, Haslem will back-up Bosh and fill in at center, hopefully stopping Eddy Curry from receiving major playing time. Haslem is a tough big man who plays defense well and can hit a midrange jumper, essentially staying out of the way on offense but enough of a threat to keep some attention on him. The Heat’s major free agent signing was Shane Battier, formerly one of the best defenders in the game but still good enough to impact the game. Like Haslem, he’ll stay out of the way on offense, but can set up at the three point line to spread the floor; he also has a decent post game he can use against smaller wings. James Jones is their last capable rotation player: he’s a good defender with lots of length, and at the other end of the court will literally only take outside shots. Some of their best line-ups usually included Jones because he’s a plus defender and drives from James or Wade could often end in a kick-out to Jones.

Even with a weak bench, the Miami Heat are the favorites to win the title, and short of anything out of left field like Dwight Howard going to Chicago they should be able to claim the championship. The only games that matter are the playoffs, but the big three will use the criticism thrown at the team after losing to the Mavericks to storm the regular season and contend for a top seed. The only teams who match up well are the Grizzlies because they have Tony Allen to guard Wade and Rudy Gay for James with enough size inside to exploit their lack of a good center, and possibly the Lakers if Bynum is playing well. However, both teams lost frontcourt depth and may take a backseat this season to the Thunder. With Bosh adding a three point shot and vowing to rebound more after his worst season in seven years, and James finally adding a post-game, the Heat are set to bring the championship back to the south beach in Florida.

Prediction: 50-16

Random prediction: James will post a field-goal percentage of 53 and one of his best years while Wade loses a few games due to injury; Lebron uses the NBA’s best record to claim another MVP.

Orlando Magic

The Magic are the latest team to be overshadowed by the potential move of a star player. The Hornets waited until the Clippers included both a draft pick and Eric Gordon, the Nuggets unloaded Anthony onto the Knicks, and the Jazz sent out Deron Williams before anyone had any clue it was going to happen. Orlando meanwhile is following a disappointing playoff berth when Howard was made mortal against the Hawks. However, his team had no one else to bail him out because after a flurry of trades the past couple seasons the talent surrounding him is still subpar. If he stays they’ll be good again this season because Howard single-handedly makes them a great defensive team and distorts defensive attention like a black hole to a gravitation field.

The latest reports indicate that Orlando is specifically looking for not a better young package of players but one with veteran talent because the ownership doesn’t want to suffer through a rebuilding process. The management behind Orlando makes one consider how the people in charge ever rose to a position of power because they clearly have no idea what they’re doing. Even with Howard the team is still not a true contender, and if they were to ship him out in a trade there’s no possible way they can better themselves. Who’s going to send out equal present value for Howard? The only team with that remote possibility is the Bulls, who can offer a combination of Boozer, Noah, Gibson or Asik, all superb big men. When losing a star, however, the best course of action is to reload with young guys laden with potential and draft picks, bottoming out for a couple seasons, and waiting for the talent to blossom. Owners and managers who think otherwise don’t understand the NBA and should give the responsibility to an adult.

If the Magic keep Howard, they will be a very good team with a respectable seed in the playoffs. However, I can’t see keeping him past the trade deadline because they could lose him for absolutely nothing and management apparently wants to keep contending after he leaves. There’s no way they’ll get back the same value in return, and as such they should see a decline in winning percentage compared to last season. They also traded Brandon Bass for Glen Davis, an overrated player they’ll trot out at center despite his inability to cover the position.

The Magic have been one of the better teams in the east for a while principally because of their defense. Last year they were third in defensive efficiency, and with an average offense this led them to a four seed in the playoffs. It’s surprising they were a better defensive team than Miami, Milwaukee, LA Lakers, and the champions Dallas especially when you consider outside of Dwight Howard they have no plus defenders. On the wings they used six foot Jameer Nelson, aging dunk-smith Jason Richardson who was never known for his defense, plodding Turkoglu, JJ Redick, Gilbert freakin’ Arenas, and a bit of Vince Carter. Out of that group it’s arguable JJ Redick is the best defender or maybe Nelson. Howard’s ability to cover the ground quickly and contest any shot in the area protects the basket and bails out his “help” in the backcourt. He also controls the boards as well as anyone and rarely misses a game. Some of the defensive credit should go to Van Gundy, but coaching only goes so far.

Outside of Dwight Howard, the Magic do have a couple of interesting pieces. Ryan Anderson is a young phenom scorer, combining excellent three point shooting with a knack inside for rebounding and finishing. It goes without saying he’s a poor defender, but with more playing time he could average something like 18 points and 9 boards. Turkoglu is a point forward who uses his size to get off his shot against anyone, and although he’s disappointing for his contract his ability to pass and connect from distance should hold up well enough before his mobility declines enough with age he’s forced off the court. Redick had a good year shooting where he makes up for his small stature with effort, and Jason Richardson adds yet another three point threat with over two makes a game for a team that led the league last season in field point field goals and holds the record for a single season from two years ago. However, outside of Turkoglu they have no creators and depend on Howard drawing attention to free them up.

Even though talks have stalled, I expect Howard to leave Orlando, where the legacy of the organization is to squander the talent of the big center of his respective generation. Since they won’t rebuild, they’ll face one of the largest drop-offs in defense with a cast of three point snipers and veterans, talented enough to compete for the playoffs but nothing more. Some will blame Howard’s unrefined post-game, but few players in the last ten years have done more for a team than the center. The Magic will only realize what they had when he’s gone.

Prediction: 37-29

Random prediction: Ryan Anderson has a breakout season with over 200 three pointers made, contending for the league lead.

Washington Wizards

The Wizards will be content to watch their young talent grow and a win a few games to ride into the lottery. They feature one of the best point guards in the game, John Wall, a hyper athletic player with enough size for the 2 spot. They also have one of the most intriguing players in the game with JaVale McGee, who combines circus-freak long arms on a seven foot frame with great athleticism. Washington will win a few more games because their young kids are learning each day how to play NBA level basketball, but they’re still a year away from slipping into the eight seed. However, they have one of the best rebuilding projects in the league and fans will be patient because they get to watch John Wall.

Washington is largely the same team except for their draft pick, dunking Euro wizard Jan Vesely, who has the size at 6’ 11” and 240 lbs to play but still needs more development to be a rotation piece. He’s normally described as a small forward, but without an outside shot and with his size it won’t last long. Nick Young turned into a good jump shooter, but like most of his team has a lot to go on the defensive end.  Andray Blatche is a decent midrange power forward; however, if the offense is relying on him too heavily the team is probably in trouble. Outside of their core group of young players, they have mostly journey-men and veterans like Rashard Lewis, who escaped the amnesty axe because the team wanted to get some production for their $21 million, although I would argue they’re playing for the lottery anyway and they could save money when teams bid on him since the new contract is subtracted from what the Wizards would pay.

The surrounding talent is decent for a lottery team, but the future is John Wall. Not only is he as athletic as any other guard in the league, but he picked up over eight assists a game with a meager cast. He had too many turnovers and his shooting percentages were too low, but most superstar wings had the same problem their rookie years. A combination of size, speed, finishing ability, and passing makes him a lock for an all-star game soon; he’s like Baron Davis but already looks like a better decision maker when running the offense. The Wizards are lucky to have potential studs at point guard and center, the two hardest positions to pin down, because McGee has such a high reach with his wingspan and seven foot frame that he doesn’t have to jump much to contest shots; with his jumping ability he can do things like dunk two balls at baskets far apart. If he ever figures out how to play he could lead the league in blocks with over three a game and use his length to put up decent scoring numbers assisted with numerous John Wall-thrown alley-oops.

Maybe in the future games like Wizards-Bulls will be must-see TV – Wall versus Rose is already a treat – but it’s another year in the lottery for the young team. Both Wall and McGee are breakout candidates, however, and in transition the team could be as fun to watch as anyone. Next summer they’re positioned to have one of the largest troves of cap space since their young guys are still on rookie contracts and Rashard Lewis’s nearly $24 can be written off to cut the salary hold in half (seriously, more than half) from where it stands now. They’ll be sitting at around $22.5 million, but Nick Young is not included and they’d still need a qualifying offer for McGee. Quietly building a nice roster, Washington will use this season as practice and eye the next one for the major improvements.

Prediction: 24-42

Random prediction: McGee will attempt to dunk from the three-point line. Or he may try to dunk from the foul line again in a game and make it this time.

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