2006-2007 Eastern Conference PreviewTraining camp time has arrived and the NBA regular season tips off in less than a month. That can mean only one thing: the much awaited, much anticipated Christian Laettner comeback is beginning. Order your Grizzlies season tickets now before they sell out! I’m sorry—I should let it go, but I just can’t; nothing beats that kind of unintentional comedy. OK, let me start over. With NBA training camps in full swing—and making stops in various European locales--the time has come to post my NBA season previews. First up is the Eastern Conference, home of the defending NBA Champion Miami Heat. Last year in my Eastern Conference preview I picked Miami to finish first in the East by default, though I had my misgivings. Then the performances of Detroit and New Jersey in the regular season caused me to pick against Miami each step of the way after the first round of the playoffs; I guess I should have stuck with my original thought before the season began. The funny thing is, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I feel pretty much the same way about the Heat now that I did a year ago at this time: they look like the best team in the East but it also looks like several teams could topple them by designing the right game plan and employing it consistently; that will be an interesting subject to discuss when Playoff Preview time rolls around. Meanwhile, here is the East as I see it:
1) Miami Heat: Reasons for hope: Miami’s roster returns intact as the Heat attempt to repeat as NBA Champions. Finals MVP Dwyane Wade is young and will continue to get even better—a truly scary proposition for the rest of the league. Pat Riley has a track record as a championship coach; since his formula worked last year even during times of adversity, it seems unlikely that this team will experience chemistry problems even if it hits some rough patches along the way. Reasons to mope: Veterans Shaquillle O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton and Antoine Walker are all past their primes, which raises several questions: (1) How motivated will they be to work hard now after winning the 2006 championship? (2) How much do they have left in the tank physically? (3) Will they be able to avoid injuries? Bottom line: With Pat Riley at the helm, the Heat will not be outcoached and they showed their resilience by overcoming a 2-0 deficit in the NBA Finals. Perhaps injuries or complacency will derail the Heat but at this point they have to be listed as the number one team in the East.
2) New Jersey Nets: Reasons for hope: The Nets had an excellent opportunity to knock off Miami in the playoffs, but an injury to Richard Jefferson and the suspension of Cliff Robinson proved to be very costly. In the offseason, the Nets added rookies Marcus Williams, Josh Boone and Hassan Adams and veterans Eddie House and Mikki Moore. The perimeter trio of Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Jefferson is extremely dynamic and if the draft picks do well then they can provide the depth that this team lacked last year. Reasons to mope: Jason Kidd is the one upper echelon player who has returned to near pre-injury form after microfracture surgery but can he stay healthy and productive? There is a lot of mileage on his odometer. New Jersey is not an overpowering team physically, so it is reasonable to question the Nets’ ability to counter Shaquille O’Neal well enough to beat Miami four times in a seven game series. Bottom line: As long as Kidd, Carter and Jefferson are healthy, this team is very difficult to match up with and a serious Eastern Conference contender.
3) Chicago Bulls: Reasons for hope: The Bulls pulled off the biggest free agent move in the league, signing Ben Wallace. That move strengthens the team’s one weakness while at the same time hurting Detroit, the team that has dominated their division in recent years. Chicago fought valiantly against Miami in last year’s playoffs even without Wallace and the Bulls quite naturally believe that his presence in the middle gives them an excellent chance to defeat Miami this year. Reasons to mope: Wallace is an undersized center who relies on energy and hustle. How long can he continue to play that type of game against taller and heavier opponents? All of the other top Eastern Conference teams have at least one bona fide star. Granted, Wallace is a much decorated player, but that is for his work on the glass and defensively. Who will take over a close game for this team the way Wade, Carter or LeBron do for their squads? Bottom line: Chicago has an excellent chance to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, but how many teams have won an NBA title without having a legitimate superstar? The 2004 Pistons could be considered an example of that, so maybe Wallace will have the same effect in the Windy City.
4) Cleveland Cavaliers: Reasons for hope: LeBron James, LeBron James, LeBron James. During the playoffs didn’t it seem like there were as many LeBrons on the court as in his funny commercials? He scored, he rebounded, he passed—and he believed that the Cavs could beat the Pistons before anyone else did and then convinced his teammates to believe it as well. The Cavaliers are bringing back the same cast that beat the Wizards in the first round and put a real scare into defending Eastern Conference champion Detroit before bowing in seven games. Reasons to mope: A cynic would just repeat the previous sentence. Cleveland did not make significant personnel changes and it is not clear that this team is quite good enough to win an NBA title. Bottom line: The Cavs believe that LeBron is still improving (which is at least as frightening as the idea of Wade still improving) and that if sidekick Larry Hughes stays healthy that this nucleus can indeed contend for the NBA title. Considering how close the Cavs came to eliminating Detroit, that is certainly a reasonable position to take.
5) Detroit Pistons: Reasons for hope: Detroit has All-Stars Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace, plus Tayshaun Prince, who certainly can play at an All-Star level. This team has won a championship and advanced to the NBA Finals, so they know what it takes to win playoff series. Reasons to mope: Ben Wallace was the heart and soul of this team and personified the team’s identity as a hardworking group that focused on defense and played with a chip on its shoulder because so many players on the roster had been let go by other teams. Supposedly, the absence of Wallace will allow Flip Saunders’ “liberation offense” to reach new heights of efficiency. We heard that same story all throughout last season—how much better off Detroit was with Saunders at the helm instead of Larry Brown—but the “liberation offense” was less than impressive during the postseason. Critics say that Wallace can be easily replaced on offense but that ignores the extra possessions he created with his offensive rebounding. Bottom line: That crashing sound you just heard was Detroit’s window of opportunity to win a championship slamming shut.
6) Washington Wizards: Reasons for hope: Gilbert Arenas had an outstanding season and apparently will be playing with a chip on his shoulder this year because he feels that he was slighted by Team USA’s coaching staff. The Wizards are bringing back most of the core players who took the team to the playoff last year, losing only Jared Jeffries. Darius Songaila takes his roster spot, so the Wizards did not lose much, if anything. Reasons to mope: This team simply does not get after it defensively the way that championship contending teams do. Gilbert Arenas is not as good as he thinks he is and if he believes that he can carry his team to a title by outdueling LeBron or Wade one-on-one then he will always come up short. LeBron told Arenas before some key free throws that if Arenas missed then he would send him home. Arenas missed and LeBron sent him home. Bottom line: If Washington does not put some more talent around Arenas and ratchet up the defensive intensity, Arenas’ playoff career will resemble Dominique Wilkins’—lots of points and highlights and no conference finals appearances.
I feel pretty comfortable with the first six picks, provided that none of these teams suffer significant injuries. The rest of the Eastern Conference picture is a little murkier. Let’s get rid of the easy part first: Charlotte and Atlanta still figure to be pretty terrible, for obvious reasons. Philadelphia missed the playoffs and basically stood pat. Allen Iverson had one of his best seasons ever and will be hard pressed to duplicate such a performance at his age; Chris Webber is likewise not going to get younger or better. The 76ers’ only hope to make the playoffs is to hang around .500 and hope that the teams battling for the eighth spot self destruct or suffer injuries. Boston did a lot of shuffling around but I’m less than impressed. I will be surprised if Sebastian Telfair is ever the starting point guard on a playoff team. Toronto added a European GM and a bunch of talented players who have excelled in FIBA competition—but, to paraphrase Jerry Glanville, this is the NBA. I actually like Toronto’s moves and think that the Raptors will be much improved. If everything breaks right the Raptors could grab the eighth playoff spot but I expect that Toronto’s breakthrough season will be in 2007-08. Unlike a lot of people, I actually think that Isiah Thomas is a good coach. The problem is, he has to coach the team put together by Isiah Thomas the GM. Thomas would argue that during his tenure as GM he has upgraded the talent level of the Knicks by bringing in Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis and others. This is true, on paper—but, as Kenny Mayne might say, NBA games aren’t played on paper, they are played inside TV sets. Thomas would actually be better off dumping Marbury and Francis, putting anybody else at the point—Jalen Rose, Mardy Collins—and getting the rest of the team to play hard, scrap and hustle. Thomas' draft picks through the years have tended to turn out well; Knicks fans will enjoy watching Channing Frye, Nate Robinson, Renaldo Balkman and Mardy Collins but be frustrated by the predictable failures (and complaints) of Marbury, Francis, Eddy Curry and Jamal Crawford.
That leaves us with three teams contending for two playoff spots: Indiana, Milwaukee and Orlando. Indiana and Milwaukee made the playoffs last year and both did some offseason roster shuffling. Orlando finished the season strongly but missed the playoffs. I usually don’t read much into finishing the season strongly. We all saw how much good that did for Golden State last year—but in this particular case, I like Orlando. Indiana and Milwaukee are a toss-up in my book. I’m picking Indiana but would not be shocked if Milwaukee (or even Toronto) grabs the eighth spot.
7) Orlando Magic: Reasons for hope: Dwight Howard is a stud. If/when he develops a go-to offensive move on the block, watch out. Grant Hill is healthy (so far). Darko Milicic can play and has a good on court rapport with Howard; their games complement each other very nicely. Reasons to mope: Grant Hill has not shown an ability to stay healthy for a full season ever since he suffered the original ankle injury that has cause him so much misery. Orlando spent a lottery pick on J.J. Redick, who will not be able to create his own shot and will struggle on defense. Check back here in 3-5 years for the article about how many guys who were drafted after Redick end up having better careers. Bottom line: Howard is an excellent big man and that is a rare, valuable commodity. Now that he and Milicic will have a full training camp together, that tandem will wreak a lot of havoc. This team is not a championship contender but should make the playoffs.
8) Indiana Pacers: Reasons for hope: It’s always something in Indiana—injuries, the infamous brawl in the Palace and the resulting suspensions—but through it all Coach Rick Carlisle somehow shepherds this team to the playoffs. When healthy, Jermaine O’Neal is capable of playing at an All-NBA level. Al Harrington figures to be very productive and, now that he has seen how the other, non-playoff half lives in Atlanta, he should be less apt to complain about his role. Reasons to mope: Ron Artest is one of the best players in the league and the Pacers in essence lost him for nothing because Peja Stojakovic signed with the Hornets. Bringing Harrington back helps but this team is no longer a legitimate championship contender. The departed Anthony Johnson will be missed. Bottom line: The Pacers will have to scratch and claw all year for the opportunity to be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:04 AM