You might have noticed (but in all likelihood didn’t) that we haven’t been writing so much as we build up to the season. It isn’t out of negligence, like usual, but rather willful apathy. If you read the first paragraph of this Bill Simmons article, it’s an accurate microcosm of the current state of this NBA off-season. “Might” is a word that is applied to everyone about everything for the past three weeks. Rumors and speculation are rampant because everyone either wants or needs something to discuss and everyone, from Stern to the lowliest bench warmer is reluctant to commit to anything. 95% of what was “reported” turned out to be complete bunk, like Kobe leaving the Lakers, Dwight going anywhere or David West signing with Boston.
The lockout ended over Thanksgiving weekend with the season starting Christmas day, and the news has changed every day with little foundation to most of it, such as you would expect when you condense a three month off-season into a little over three weeks. We are so bombarded with conjecture and opinion that it doesn’t really matter if any of it is legitimate, since everyone is validated or invalidated within hours of making their prognostication. And since we’re actually busy when away from this website, our time doesn’t seem well spent writing posts that simply guess where players might end up and what effect they could have on the teams that could theoretically acquire them.
All that said, now that we’re days away from December 25th, we’re going to post Eastern and Western conference previews, ranking the teams from worst to best with some predictions, fun facts & everything that is resonating as pertinent. One thing to consider when reading this, the NBA is entering a strike shortened season where teams are playing only sixteen fewer games amidst a season shortened by almost an entire two months. That’s about an extra game a week for each team (albeit over a shorter period of time). So do keep that in mind when reading these rankings.
Today, we start with the Eastern Conference.
15) Toronto Raptors
Like every NBA team, the Toronto Raptors have a noticeable amount of talent that should perform better than they inevitably will. But the players comprising this talent have contrasting styles and virtually no chemistry. Their coach Dwayne Casey is a relative no-name, and was given the head coaching job because he was an assistant on the Mavericks, which is in accordance with the annual head coaching job granted to the assistant on the previous year’s championship team by a bottom-feeder.
And while they have talent, a lot of it has been wasted. Bargnanni puts up decent numbers when he’s healthy, but under any reasonable measure he isn’t living up to expectations as a #1 overall pick. Leandro Barbosa doesn’t seem to have improved a lick since he was 19, and operates better in a up-tempo setting (Toronto runs a Larry Brown-like offense). Jose Calderon isn’t as disappointing as Beno Udrih, but he’s close, and while DeMar DeRozen is a pleasant surprise and a scoring machine, he isn’t much better or worse than a Jason Richardson. Also, I’m sitting here looking at their depth chart, and even now I couldn’t tell you who they drafted (note: It’s this guy, and he’s ten years younger than me somehow).
In short, the silver lining is they’re no longer paying Vince Carter & Chris Bosh an obscene amount of money for first round playoff exits. The downside to that is their constantly in transition and if they don’t hold onto the quality players they draft, it’s damn near impossible to attract NBA players to Canada and its high taxes. So we have them as the Eastern Conference’s basement, even if that’s through almost no fault of their own.
14) Washington Wizards
Unlike the Raptors, they have reputable and promising talent in John Wall and Jan Vesely. But just like the Raptors, they have even less cohesion and experience together, and their locker room seems to be constantly in disarray. Since the current NBA landscape requires every team to kowtow to their best players to a comical degree of deference, if the Wizards have any hope of re-signing Wall they’re going to have to do better than Rashard Lewis’ contract, Jordan Crawford and Andrey Blatche. Actually, Wall could have full access to Air Force One and he’s still signing with the Knicks. They’ll at least be entertaining this season. But they brought back the old Bullets uniforms, and that’s really the most important thing.
13) Charlotte Bobcats
They get the nod over Washington & Toronto if only for the Kemba Walker factor. We watched him play on Monday night against the Hawks and he was arguably the best player on the court while out there, and this is in addition to Corey Maggette…Matt Carroll and, uh, Gerald Henderson (What?). Alright, so maybe I don’t have a justifiable reason to have them at 13th instead of 15th, but I do expect them to improve from last season more so than the two teams behind them.
12) Detroit Pistons
Those Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva contracts are going to absolutely cripple this team until they’re in their last two years, and someone thinks they can make a finals push with either an aging perimeter scoring threat or a power forward who shoots threes. In other words, the Pistons are a long ways removed from relevancy. On the bright side, Greg Monroe looks like a beast in the making, and Teyshaun Prince will likely retire as a Piston. Anytime you can retain the worst player from a title-caliber starting five, I think you have to do it.
11) Philadelphia 76ers
They’re arguably better coached than anyone else, but too much of their talent is concentrated at the small-forward between Andre Iguodala and Evan Turner. That’s too much of the same thing to expect wins to amount from it. How they haven’t managed to move either of them for an actual two-guard (currently Turner starts at the 2, and he’s somewhat ill-equipped for it) or a big man with who’s at least a shadow of a scoring threat. They made the playoffs last year as the 7th seed but failed to add any significant pieces. Considering virtually every other team in the Eastern conference did just that, we expect this deceptively aging team to struggle mightily this season.
10) Cleveland Cavaliers
Putting the Cavs just outside of the playoffs might seem like a home pick on my part, and there might be a semblance of truth to it (though I root for Cleveland much more now than I did when they had LeBron). But Byron Scott is the most underrated coach in the league this side of Rick Adelman, Kyrie Irving looks like he’ll be effective in the short-term( despite what we may have already written),. though we can’t say the same for Tristan Thompson, which is why they should (and will) regret passing on Derrick Williams and Kemba Walker with their 1st and 4th picks in June (and even if he stays healthy Kyrie Irving is never going to re-sign there), and they weren’t nearly as bad as that losing streak last season would indicate. Yes, their roster was thin, and when your roster is that thin you can’t afford injuries to arguably your three best players (Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao & Antwan Jamison).
I could write an entire dissertation about the problems with Cavs ownership (mis)management, personnel, LeBron and their recent history/prospects going forward. But we’ll spare to you just say that we expect them to improve on last year by a considerable degree, but no one can expect more than a 32 win season with this roster. Right now, Cleveland is probably the least naturally gifted team in the league, but coaching, tenacity and low expectations should be enough to offset their genetic shortcomings.
9) New Jersey Nets
The only reason they aren’t lower is they’re one of the few teams in the league still in flux. If they didn’t have Deron Williams they’d be down about three spots, and if they also didn’t still have a shot at Dwight Howard they’d be 15th. One more off-season of disappointment and I think Prokorhov might start looking to cut his losses and focus on his Russian presidential run and wave running videos. When I say disappointment, I mean Dwight Howard doesn’t head north, as a result Deron Williams leaves and their two best players are Brook Lopez (an over-praised big man whose numbers would shrivel up competely on a contender) and Kris Humphries (a utility big man with no offensive talent). Mind you, this team amnestied Travis Outlaw one year after signing him, erraticism is somewhat in their owners nature. It would surprise me to see Prokorhov sell this team if he thought he was embarrassing himself.
A starting five of Bogut, Jennings, Gooden, Dunleavy and Stephen Jackson should be good enough for a playoff appearance. Additionally, a bench consisting of Mbah A Moute (who we suspect will log more minutes than Gooden), Iluasova, Delfino & Udrih should be a solid enough rotation to secure a couple post-season wins. The Bucks are a smartly ran for how indifferent everyone in Milwaukee seems to professional basketball. Health is always an issue with this team, we suspect they’re deep enough with marginal talent to sneak into the post-season. Going forward, they aren’t crippled by any Rashard Lewis like contracts, so they have some promise. It’s just, that indifference and their location seem to be their two biggest barriers.
7) Orlando Magic
Speaking of teams in flux, this Orlando team is on pins and needles waiting to see where Howard goes and what they will get in return. Unfortunately for Howard, no one believed for even a minute that he might want to stay in central Florida, and for good reason. It’s like he rolled out of bed that morning and decided he might want to save face so he isn’t villified like Lebron was/is. I can understand the compulsion to carry out such a ruse because Howard doesn’t want to be hated much like Lebron doesn’t, but I’m not dumb enough to fall for it. No matter how much I wish he was being sincere.
6) New York Knicks
This feels kind of high for a team with the worst backcourt in the Eastern Conference and second only to the Lakers, but they’re supposed to get Baron Davis back by the end of January and since they have the best front court to compensate for arguably the worst backcourt, it’s tough for me to pick them much lower than this. Still, they’re not exactly deep and all these games so closely condensed are quickly going to catch up to the precious few regulars in their rotation, most notably Stoudamire. All the same, if this team goes into the playoffs as the third seed, it isn’t exactly going to be surprising.
5) Boston Celtics
This is probably too high. Rajon Rondo, their best player at this point, is somewhat fragile. And he probably isn’t taking too well to months and months of trade rumors for Chris Paul. In addition to being the oldest team in the league, they also lost Jeff Green for the season and they didn’t have any major acquisitions, though I guess that depends on your assessment of Brandon Bass.
4) Atlanta Hawks
Again, this feels too high for a team that’s a constant disappointment, is always sporting disgruntled all-stars and whose apathy seemingly reflects that of their fan base. But man, I just can’t ignore the talent on this roster. I feel like if Phil Jackson could tolerate living in Atlanta (he’s very particular) this team would handily be in the eastern conference finals this season.
3) Indiana Pacers
I might end up regretting this one, but as far as good to very good talent is concerned, Indiana is the deepest team in the conference. Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, David West, Tyler Hansbrough, Paul George, Darren Collison, George Hill & Dahntay Jones gives them enough firepower to compete with anyone in the conference. I can’t pick them to beat Chicago or Miami, but they don’t have the same various flaws with them that the Knicks, Hawks & Celtics all seem to possess.
2) Chicago Bulls
They still lack the offensive prowess for me to catapult them over the Heat, but they were also mismanaged in the conference finals last season. Joakim Noah will be as efficient as ever on one side of the court and a complete liability on the other, Carlos Boozer’s age has finally caught up to his physical limitations, they still don’t have any real size along the front line outside of Noah, and I’m not sure you can win a title anymore with a point guard being your leading scorer.
I hope I’m wrong since this team is actually a blast to watch, but when Miami can simply throw James or Wade on Rose and it completely shuts down their entire offense, well, that’s a lot of pressure of Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver & Boozer. Yes, I know they got Rip Hamilton and he is an inarguable upgrade at shooting guard, but it’s about three years too late to acquire Hamilton and expect him to be a difference maker. So yeah, losing again in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight year sounds about right.
1) Miami Heat
Sorry, everyone. But this is an inevitability. No one wants to see it, or rather, everyone wants to see them lose, preferably in a similarly dramatic fashion to last season, but if they’re making it to the Finals it seems unlikely that with newly acquired Shane Battier, a healthy Udonis Haslem, a year of experience together and whatever other pieces they may pick up, Miami won’t lose to whoever the West produces. It would be hilarious if they did because the circumstances would have to be similar, but with LeBron developing a post-game with Hakeem Olajuwon during the lockout, he should be able to handle the likes of JJ Barea in the paint.
Either way, Miami will yet again be the center of attention and it’s probably warranted. They have a penchant for the dramatic unlike not only any other NBA team, but any other collection of twenty-something guys I’ve ever seen. The shortened season definitely plays into their favor because every team we’ve considered title threats on a regular basis for the past five years (Dallas, San Antonio, Lakers & Celtics) are suddenly over-the hill, and most suspect will not respond well to the average weekly workload. If you’re one too cheer ardently against the Heat, the good news is they’re always one LeBron or Wade injury away from being irrevocably crippled, so hope for that if you’re not worried about any sort of karmic retribution.
But that seems pointless, what makes the NBA (or any competitive league) entertaining is seeing the best, be them either vilified or heroic from your perspective, strive for perfection. Watching the Heat lose with a half team isn’t going to be gratifying since they would always have that excuse, and the same principal applies across the league. The East is top-heavy, but the best six teams in this conference have really high ceilings and unlikely low basements. If you find the regular season dull, the playoffs will rectify your boredom almost immediately. And hey, they spared you sixteen games.
Western Conference preview tomorrow night.