Eastern Conference Preview
October 29, 2013
By Bruce Marshall
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Western Conference Preview
ATLANTIC DIVISION: It's been a while, but we can recall a few past doormat Boston Celtics (27 ½) sides. Such as the post-Bill Russell edition with Hank Finkel at C, and the pre-Larry Bird Celts of the late '70s featuring the likes of Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe and coached by Satch Sanders in parts of two seasons. Well, they're not going to be hanging any banners for the 2013-14 version, either. After losing its top scorers and rebounders, and watching HC Doc Rivers bolt town, too, Boston bears little resemblance to the sides we have been used to seeing lately. And while we thought HC Brad Stevens would only leave Butler for a storied job, we expected it to be Duke or Indiana, not the Celts. With G Rajon Rondo still out until perhaps New Year's with knee problems, Stevens is minus the one component he could have badly used at the outset in a transition year. Look "under" in Beantown.
Win totals could be inflated for many Atlantic, Southeast, and Central Division entries simply because the bottom-feeders of the Eastern Conference are going to be so bad. And none of those figures to be any worse than the Philadelphia 76ers (17 ½), who are going to more resemble a college team trying to compete in the NBA. The season-ending knee injury to rookie Kentucky C Nerlens Noel was the final straw and will help prompt season-long comparisons to the 9-73 Sixers of 1972-73. Ex-Spurs assistant Brett Brown might end up wondering why he took the HC job. "Under" at Wells Fargo Center.
Perhaps this is how a maverick Russian billionaire (in this case, Mihkail Prokhorov) decides to run an NBA franchise, in his case the Brooklyn Nets (52 ½). Go out and add a collection of established and decorated NBA talent; in the Nets' case, that meant offseason additions Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry (most of last year's Celtic lineup, really), and Andrei Kirilenko. But not many owners would pick a star player who just finished a Hall-of-Fame career career (in this case Jason Kidd) to be the new head coach with absolutely no experience whatsoever in his new role. Perhaps Prokhorov will prove smarter than the rest, and be rewarded handsomely as Kidd (a consummate "coach on the floor" during his playing career) connects with the vets. By us, however, this seems a bit much of a risk, especially for a team with such a short window to capitalize. Keeping the aging ex-Celtics healthy will be another matter. Maybe Brooklyn is formidable at playoff time, but the adjustment phase, and likely resting those older components to get them ready for the postseason, could suppress the season win total, so it's an "under" for us at Barclays Center.
At least the New York Knicks (49 ½) aren't going to have to spend three weeks on the road early in the season, as did their Madison Square Garden co-tenant New York Rangers, as refurbishments are now complete at their home arena. The Knicks intrigue at least as much as the Rangers, however, as some offseason additions like Metta World Peace (back in his college stomping grounds and who could help the defensive profile greatly), explosive but oft-injured F Andrea Bargnani, Michigan rookie Tim Hardaway Jr., and vet backup PG Beno Udrih give HC Mike Woodson more options and better depth off the bench. We still don't think Amar'e Stoudemire is a proper fit, however, especially since Woodson demands his players work as hard on defense as they do on the attack end, and upgrades elsewhere in the top tier of the East will make it difficult to repeat last year's 54 wins. But a healthy Carmelo Anthony can still score, score, score, compensating for some of the lack of foot speed on the roster, and with the win "total" less than 50, we think the Knicks can clear it...barely. (Are you happy, Spike Lee?) "Over" at MSG.
We saw some signs of life late last season from the Toronto Raptors (35 ½) after Rudy Gay arrived in a midseason trade from Memphis. Gay often thrilled and excited with his offensive explosiveness, but as Grizzlies followers are quick to remind, Gay does not exactly contribute much besides his ability to fill the bucket. Which makes him something of a clone of Toronto's other ball of fire, off-guard Demar DeRozan. So, there will probably be nights those two make Toronto look like a playoff contender. But we have questions about roster depth and negligible offseason upgrades, and we need more convincing about frontliners Amir Johnson & Jonas Valanciunas. Plus, PG Kyle Lowry is hurting (finger injury) to start the season. The Raptors could benefit from the presence of so many punching bags (like the Sixers) in the East, and that could push them into the brink of postseason contention, but there are plenty of ways for Toronto to veer off course, too. We're simply going to pass at Air Canada Centre.
SOUTHEAST DIVISION: For the first time in a few years, the Charlotte Bobcats (26 ½) might look more like an NBA team than an ACC entry. The frontline certainly received a nice overhaul in the offseason when ex-Jazz FA Al Jefferson and Indiana rookie Cody Zeller, perhaps the most-refined offensive talent among the incoming bigs, were added to the mix. Suddenly, the Bobcats have some real scoring presence in the post, and Zeller adds to an exciting young core of talent that already featured Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker from the previous two drafts. While NBA insiders still roll their eyes at the thought of Michael Jordan interjecting himself too much into personnel matters, they are also high on new HC Steve Clifford, recently on Laker staffs. We haven't looked "over" in a while at Time Warner Cable Arena (the "Cable Box"), but we are this season.
After the Nats missed the playoffs, and the Redskins and Caps broke slowly from the gate this fall, not to mention Congress not winning any popularity contests, D.C. fans need something to get excited about. Filling the gap could be the Washington Wizards (39 ½), who sent a signal that they mean business by recently dealing for Suns C Marcin Gortat, who along with a healthy Nene now gives "Da Bullet" a legit NBA frontline. With former top draftee John Wall being healthy from the outset this season and being joined by another former SEC star, ex-Florida G Bradley Beal, to form a dynamite perimeter scoring punch, and Georgetown first-round pick Otto Porter, Jr. potentially adding more firepower, the Wizards for once intrigue. True, the likes of Wall, Nene, and defensive stopper Trevor Ariza have all had injury issues in the past, but a healthy Washington side can make a run at one of the lower East playoff slots. Really. Look "over" at Verizon Center.
After the Dwight Howard watch in L.A. last season, no free-agent-to-be generated as much discussion as did F Josh Smith with the Atlanta Hawks (39 ½). Which prompted a lot of speculation what the Hawks might want to do with Smith at the trade deadline. But the fact there was not an overwhelming amount of interest last February in Josh (perhaps in part due to his pending free-agency) suggests that maybe Atlanta will not be so bad off now that Smith has left the fold and signed with Detroit. Besides, more than a few NBA observers believe the Hawks might have upgraded with replacement Paul Millsap, the relentless ex-Jazz PF who will be nothing if not more consistent in production than was Smith. Meanwhile, vet Elton Brand adds more quality depth to the frontline, which already featured C Al Horford. And while the rest of the roster doesn't terribly excite, Jeff Teague remains a serviceable NBA point guard, and Kyle Korver is the sort of spot-shooter that many teams covet. We'll see if Atlanta embraces the defensive mindset of new HC Mike Budenholzer, who wants to mold Atlanta into a likeness of his former employer Spurs. If Atlanta falls from last year's 44 wins, it won't be far, so clearing that 391/2 looks doable, as does another lower-rung East playoff slot. "Over" at Philips Arena.
There seems to be some excitement brewing with the Orlando Magic (23 ½), who have quickly assembled a promising core of young talent that was augmented in the draft with the first-round selection of Indiana's dynamic Victor Oladipo (second overall pick), who figures to help HC Jacque Vaughn on both ends of the court. Along with versatile C Nikola Vucevic and SF Tobias Harris, one can see the building blocks being put in place by GM Rob Hennigan. And there is patience in the front office, reflected in the support of Vaughn after last year's difficult 20-62 slog. Our concerns are mostly health-oriented with the Magic, at least at the outset of the season, with Harris (ankle) and PF Big Baby Davis (foot; remember how Orlando collapsed after Davis was injured last season?) both sidelined indefinitely, and Vucevic bothered by nagging elbow problems throughout the preseason. With a long-term perspective, Hennigan is also not likely to make too many in-season moves for any quick fix, especially since no one in the Disney area is expecting much this season. We can envision a full-strength Orlando making some improvements, but given those early-season injury concerns, would rather pass at Amway Center.
This could really be the last hurrah for this generation of the Miami Heat (61 ½), looking to become the first three-peater since Phil Jackson's Shaq/Kobe Lakers early in the last decade. Remember, LeBron can opt out at the conclusion of this season (there continues to be more than idle chatter about a possible hero's return to Cleveland), and we doubt Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra are going to be able to squeeze more than one more big season out of key cogs Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen. But with the exception of key reserve Mike Miller (who helped in the playoffs), Riley was able to keep last year's title winners mostly intact, so one more title run could be in the cards. We suspect, however, that getting ready for another playoff charge will become a dominant theme as the season progresses, and for Spoelstra to borrow some of Gregg Popovich's San Antonio regular-season strategy and give his vets proper rest before the postseason. Any hint of physical issues with the Big Three (especially Wade) will likely cause them to rest in the regular season, and keeping Wade, in particular, in working order has become more of a chore in recent seasons. We respect the Heat's talent too much to suggest an "under," but given the three-peat dynamics, we'd rather just pass on Miami in the regular season, and wait for the playoff drama to unfold next spring.
CENTRAL DIVISION: Go ahead and turn back the calendar to April of 2012, when we last saw Derrick Rose playing for the Chicago Bulls (56 ½). He's finally back from knee problems and looked like his old self in preseason. Without Rose, the Bulls still gutted their way into the East semis last spring before bowing honorably to Miami. While Rose was out, Jimmy Butler developed into a useful complementary weapon, and big things could be expected from Luol Deng, now in a contract year. If the Bulls stay healthy (maybe a big if, as Rose, Deng, and Joakim Noah have all been sidelined extensively in recent times), they might be the biggest threat to a Miami three-peat. Look "over" at United Center.
The heat is on GM Joe Dumars, who is in win-now mode for his Detroit Pistons (40 ½). Offseason moves suggested as much, enlisting Mo Cheeks as the new head coach and adding some intriguing pieces to the personnel mix such as ex-Hawks F Josh Smith, ex-Bucks PG Brandon Jennings, and Georgia rookie G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The pressure will be on Cheeks to make the combos work; Jennings has been hurting in preseason, and how shots will be divvied up between him, Smith, and holdover frontliners Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond upon his return might require Henry Kissinger-type diplomacy. We also wonder if the hot-and-cold Smith can handle full-time duties at the "3," as Cheeks envisions. Nonetheless, we like how Detroit has altered its culture; for the first time in a while, the organization looks hungry. That's enough to make us look "over" at the Palace.
The Cleveland Cavaliers (40 ½) don't look much like the team HC Mike Brown left behind when he was dismissed after the 2009-10 season. That was also just before LeBron James' much-ballyhooed "decision" to leave for Miami. Proving that he holds no grudges, owner Dan Gilbert has brought back Brown to oversee a different-looking group of Cavs, of which Brown might only recognize frontliner Anderson Varejao from his last stint in town. Varejao's availablility, however, is important for Cleveland after recent injury woes, and is part of a much-improved bench that Brown predecessor Byron Scott did not have the luxury of experiencing the past two seasons. Included in that mix are top draft pick F Anthony Bennett from UNLV and useful vet handyman Jarrett Jack, who proved a real plus to Golden State's fortunes a year ago. It's also interesting to note that Brown was not scared off enough by his experience with Andrew Bynum in L.A. to bring the big man to Cleveland to revive his career. But there is now depth to absorb the injury woes of Bynum (still not activated for the season), and the young backcourt of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters oozes upside. With the bottom few playoff spots in the East likely a free-for-all, the Cavs can get into the mix; it's an "over" for us at "The Q," as the will-LeBron-return chatter heats up as the season progresses.
There is likely to be a collection of a few have-nots that will provide cannon fodder for the contenders of the Eastern Conference this season; unfortunately for Milwaukee Bucks (28 ½) fans, their team is included in the former. The personnel mix might not be what new HC Larry Drew envisioned when he signed up after spending the past two years in Atlanta; with both Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis having departed town, the engine room of the recent Bucks offense has departed with them. Drew has lots of choices from the collection of possible new combinations; perhaps too many, as the roster has gone through a significant overhaul, including a brand-new backcourt where Brandon Knight and O.J. Mayo are likely the new guard combo. With four of the top five scorers gone from last season, the adjustment phase for Drew and the new roster likely extends to the All-Star break and beyond. The Bucks will probably prop up the rest of the Central; it's an "under" for us in Brewtown.
The Indiana Pacers (54 ½) have served notice the past two seasons that they are ready to capitalize upon any slippage by the Heat or other top contenders. What most impressed many NBA insiders last season was how the Pacers seamlessly adapted to the near season-long absence of high-scoring F Danny Granger (who, by the way, is on the shelf again with calf problems). Emerging as the unquestioned star in Granger's absence was the explosive Paul George, who has also signed a contract extension since the conclusion of last season. The pieces all remain in place, including C Roy Hibbert, who could threaten superstardom, and no-nonsense frontline mate David West, who provided the rugged presence Indiana lacked before his arrival. Offseason pickups like F Luis Scola and G C.J. Watson add to Frank Vogel's options off the bench. And if Granger can return healthy, he adds a lot more firepower to the mix. So take your pick of Chicago or Indiana as the teams with the best chance of knocking off Miami in the East. It's a definite "over" for us at the wonderful Bankers Life Fieldhouse, a sort of Oz among newer hoops palaces.
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