NBA EASTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW- While not as strong as the West, the East has definitely strengthened itself in the offseason. Like two years ago when the first two picks went to the West, the East got the first two draft picks this year. There were also some key free agent and trade moves that have made the East much improved. However, the chasm between the good teams and the bad teams is much deeper than it is in the West. Again, an asterik denotes a projected playoff berth.
Atlantic Division– Boston and Philadelphia will entertain and rack up wins, Toronto will at least compete, but the bottom of this division is so bad James Naismith is spinning in his grave.
• *Boston Celtics- The reigning NBA champs are poised to make another run. They lost their sixth man James Posey to free agency, a great shooter and defender, but other than that they have their core together. They are clearly the team to beat in the East. What I love most about this team is the intensity Garnett brings that really seems to translate for the whole team. They play amazing team defense and are really a joy to watch on that end of the court. I don’t expect the same dominance as last year as there’s always the issue of post-title apathy (but if anyone can prevent that it’s Garnett) and age is going to become an issue as Garnett is 33, Pierce is 31, and Allen is 33. They can’t expect to have another year without significant injuries (they aren’t that deep) and Ray Allen (a.k.a. Jesus Shuttlesworth of He Got Game fame) didn’t really look good until the NBA Finals. His age and health have to be a major concern, but I expect them to be more cautious with minutes and not worry so much about piling up a big win total.
• *Philadelphia 76ers- They were mediocre most of last year but then seemed to come together towards the end of the year. What they seemed to be missing though was a scoring threat in the post. Then they went out and signed Elton Brand. The scoring and rebounding of Brand coupled the defense of Samuel Dalembert give them a formidable front line, one of the most balanced in the conference. If Andre Iguodala can further develop as an outside shooter (he’s already shown to be explosive to the basket) this team will be a major contender in the East. The biggest question mark is if Andre Miller can have the same kind of year he did last year, but I expect the addition of Elton Brand and an improving Iguodala will make this year just as successful for him.
• *Toronto Raptors- For some reason, I’m not totally sold on this team. They have a great player in Chris Bosh and Jose Calderon is ready to make the next step at point guard. They dealt T.J. Ford (expendable due to Calderon) for Jermaine O’Neal to strengthen their front line. Seems good, right? Problem is O’Neal is constantly hurt and seems to be on the downturn of his career. However, if he’s healthy they will be incredibly tough to deal with inside. Andrea Bargnani had a solid rookie year, but took a big step back last year so it will be interesting to see how he performs. The bench is thin, so they will need to rely a lot on their starters for scoring and to stay healthy. They are going to be battling for one of the final playoff spots in the East come April.
• New York Knicks- Despite Isiah Thomas’ best efforts he was not able to run this historic franchise into the ground. Any non-Knick fan should miss him deeply because whenever your favorite team had an overpaid player with a bunch of years left crippling your salary cap, you could always say, “Hey, maybe the Knicks will take him.” Chances were they probably would too. They have a new coach in Mike D’Antoni but no one besides Jamal Crawford and David Lee on this team will really go with his running style of “7 Seconds or Less” on offense (the only thing Eddy Curry does in under 7 seconds is eat a cheeseburger). D’Antoni’s system does work for Zach Randolph too because it asks for a lot of shots and little to no defense in return. This is a team that’s just waiting for the summer of 2010 when Dwayne Wade and LeBron James both become free agents (it’s no secret they want as much cap space as possible to make a run at LeBron). So Knicks fans have to wait a little longer before they really get something to cheer about. They’ll win a little more games, but they still won’t come close to the playoffs.
• New Jersey Nets- Similar to the Knicks, all this team is doing is waiting for the summer of 2010 so they can try to get LeBron. They traded Richard Jefferson for who already looks like a bust in Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons in a transparent move to make salary cap space. All they seem to be doing is waiting for that move to Brooklyn and hope partial owner Jay-Z can convince LeBron to make the move to his favorite borough. Expectations are low for this team and I wouldn’t be surprised if they managed to play below them.
Central Division– The Pistons have ruled this division for quite some time now. Can they continue their run or has their time passed?
• *Cleveland Cavaliers- This team is clearly built around one man and it’s LeBron James. He has been an unstoppable force since he came into the league. LeBron has lacked a reliable number two, but that changed when they traded for Mo Williams. He’s a solid point guard that will take the pressure off LeBron to do it all. Not only will it help now, but the Cavaliers also have to be thinking this will show LeBron their committed to winning and he won’t bolt for the Knicks or the Nets come 2010. Believe it or not, I expect LeBron to be even better this year. This team pushed the Celtics to their toughest series last year and all they have done is improve their roster. Zydrunas Ilguaskas is getting a little long in the tooth, but if he can remain healthy he should be a solid inside presence. Expect a lot of wins for this team and a deep playoff run.
• *Detroit Pistons- This team has been on the top tier of the East for years now and for the last couple years, people have been saying the Pistons need to retool because their championship window has closed. They got what they could out of Chauncey, ‘Sheed, Rip and Tayshaun and were rumored to be working on a deal for McGrady over the summer that never materialized. On yet another coach in first year Michael Curry, a lot of people are curious about this team. If Rasheed Wallace ignored Flip Saunders, why would he listen to a rookie coach? They lost out to the Celtics last year and their big acquisition over the summer was…Kwame Brown? You mean the same Kwame Brown that Michael Jordan famously reduced to tears? This is who’s going to put you over the top? Eww. Sorry, but I just don’t see it. They’ll still finish in the top portion of the East but count me among those who consider their title days over.
• *Chicago Bulls- Many people had this team winning the East last year. They opened the season poorly and never recovered and missed out on the playoffs. They did manage one big victory last year when they lucked out and won the lottery, netting them Derrick Rose with the first pick. The question is which team is going to show up. If it’s the one from two years ago they will contend for the top seed in the East. If it’s the one from last year they will contend for the last spot in the playoffs. When I look at the roster, I see no reason why Rose paired with Kirk Heinrich and Luol Deng can’t make a playoff run. Joakim Noah also showed some flashes last year that had Chicago fans optimistic about this season. The only problem for this team is that they have a logjam at the guard position so there could be some problems with whoever loses minutes and is left out of the rotation.
• Indiana Pacers- Never as a franchise been hurt by one moment as the Pacers. Ready to make a title run in the 2004-2005 season, that all changed when Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson charged into the stands and they have never been the same. They had to get rid of Jermaine O’Neal and were able to get a good point guard in T.J. Ford. The problem is Ford has missed significant time in the past with serious injuries and as much as I hate to say it, I don’t see him staying healthy all season. Danny Granger has looked very good but the only problem is he doesn’t seem like a “franchise” guy. Until they add a superstar, this team is going to be in the bottom half of the East. I expect more wins but another visit to the lottery.
• Milwaukee Bucks-This is a team that has some potential to grow. While they grossly overpaid Andrew Bogut last summer, they have two solid players in Richard Jefferson and the sharp shooting Michael Redd. Given how open the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoffs are, they should be able to contend for a playoff spot. The main concern for this team has to be point guard as Luke Rindour and Ramon Sessions are not NBA quality starters. New coach Scott Skiles is a defensive guru so expect this team to play a lot tougher.
Southeast Division– Probably the weakest division in the East, mainly because they are lacking that elite team that looks like it could make a title run.
• *Orlando Magic- This team is very intriguing. Hedo Turkoglu was so impressive he won the Most Improved Player Award last season, Rashard Lewis can fill a stat sheet, and Dwight Howard is not a man, he’s a beast (or Superman if you go by the Dunk Contest). While they didn’t really do much to improve, I think this team can still contend for the division title again and one of the upper seeds in the East. They are more relying on the fact Howard is a year older and this team has had a full season playing together. They have three good pieces in the above mentioned players and a serviceable point guard in Jameer Nelson. Dwight Howard is going to keep getting better so look for him to be a mainstay as the starting center in the All-Star Game for about the next 10 years.
• *Miami Heat- Going from a NBA title to a dismal 15-win season two years later, this team should be able to make another playoff push. Dwayne Wade looked like his old self in the Olympics and if he can stay healthy, putting him with Shawn Marion and 2nd overall pick Michael Beasley has the looks of a team that should be competitive in the East. Many thought of Beasley as the most NBA ready rookie coming out of the ’08 draft. While Beasley is not going to be known for his defensive prowess, this team is going to put up a ton of points and run some teams off the court. This year is going to be a major rebound for the Heat. If I hadn’t been able to see Wade play this summer I would not have nearly as much faith in this team. I like bold predictions, so expect the Heat to have a huge rebound from last year.
• Atlanta Hawks- This is the only franchise that could have a young team that gets into the playoffs and pushes the eventual champion Celtics to a 7th game powered by an energized home crowd and completely throw away all that goodwill. They were served well by their sixth man Josh Childress last year and said it was a top priority to bring him back. They were the only team really contending for his services in the NBA since they could match any offer so they low-balled him an dragged their feet and thought his return was a formality. Shockingly though he left. Not for another NBA team, no, he left for Greece. They are rivaled in front office ineptitude only by the Los Angeles Clippers. This is still an exciting team to watch, however. Al Horford is the next Carlos Boozer, and Josh Smith is a star in the making. Marvin Williams is going to have to step up big time to replace the loss of Childress, but I don’t think it will be enough and that is what will keep this team from making the playoffs.
• Washington Wizards- They have a lot of exciting individual players in Arenas, Butler, and Jamison, but have never really seemed to mesh fully, partly because of injuries. This team has been able to succeed by just standing pat and relying on the weakness of the Eastern Conference to slide into the playoffs. The problem is the teams behind them have improved and they have pretty much stayed the same. They’re going to have to fight to make the playoffs and as entertaining as Agent Zero is, I don’t know if it will be enough. I see them barely missing out on the postseason but the good news is DeShawn Stevenson won’t have to be the Soulja Boy to Lebron’s Jay-Z this season.
• Charlotte Bobcats- Never like a team who’s biggest acquisition is a new coach and in his last job he won under 30 games. Larry Brown is known (or at least before the Knicks debacle he was known) for turning struggling teams around, but I just don’t see it. There’s really not much to like about this team, and as much as it pains me to say about the legend, Michael Jordan has been a huge flop as an executive. Bad drafts make it nearly impossible to get an expansion team to succeed. This team will either need to sign a major free agent or hit it big in the draft before anyone gives them a second thought.
Finals: Los Angeles Lakers v. Cleveland Cavaliers (Lakers in 6)
MVP: LeBron James
Rookie of the Year: Michael Beasley
Defensive Player of the Year: Ron Artest
–M. Night Crawler