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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

2007-08 Eastern Conference Preview

The NBA preseason is now in full swing and the regular season is only three weeks away. That means it is time for my annual NBA preview. I'll start with the Eastern Conference today and then post my Western Conference preview tomorrow. Last year I correctly picked seven of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams. My one mistake was choosing Indiana instead of Toronto; I understood that the Raptors were a team on the rise, writing, "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"; I simply did not expect the team to jell so quickly.

Listed below are the eight Eastern Conference teams that I expect to make the playoffs this year. They are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the Finals and not necessarily in the order that the teams will be seeded during the playoffs (which is affected by which teams win division championships). At the end are some brief comments about what to expect from the seven Eastern teams that I expect to make the journey to Secaucus for the NBA Draft Lottery.

1) Cleveland Cavaliers: Reasons for hope: Cleveland is a defensive-minded and playoff tested team that represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals last year. Daniel Gibson did not play much during the regular season but he seemingly came out of nowhere to be a strong contributor during the playoffs. If he can carry that success over into this season then Cleveland could win 55-60 games. Of course, the biggest trump in Cleveland's favor is LeBron James, who emerged as the best player in the East down the stretch after getting off to a slow start (for him). Reasons to mope: As Cleveland fans well know, the team did nothing to upgrade the roster and has yet to re-sign free agents Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic, two key members of the rotation. Bottom line: The Spurs' four game sweep took some of the shine off of Cleveland's great season and some observers say that the Cavaliers benefited from some easy playoff matchups but it should not be forgotten that Cleveland had the second best record in the conference (50-32) and beat the team with the best record (Detroit, 53-29) in the Eastern Conference Finals. With James doing his magic and the team playing solid defense night in and night out the Cavaliers have an excellent chance to return to the NBA Finals.

2) Chicago Bulls: Reasons for hope: Like Cleveland, Chicago is a defensive-minded team. The Bulls have a deep roster and Luol Deng seems to be on the verge of blossoming into an All-Star. Ben Wallace may have slowed down a little bit but he still has more than enough left in the tank to anchor a deep playoff run. When/if Tyrus Thomas' mental game catches up with his athletic talent he will be a beast. Reasons to mope: The Bulls have no true superstar--though Deng may change this if he continues to develop--and most championship teams are blessed with a singularly great player who can take over games. The Bulls struggle at times on offense, partially because they lack a great player who can take over for a five or ten minutes stretch and partially because they also do not have a player who can catch the ball on the block and go to work. They rely greatly on dribble penetration leading to layups and open jumpers because they are not able to attack the paint by posting up. Bottom line: Cleveland and Chicago are really 1A and 1B and I expect these two teams to have a closely fought battle in the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals.

3) Toronto Raptors: Reasons for hope: Toronto won a division title and got some playoff experience a year ahead of schedule. Chris Bosh has quietly emerged as one of the 15 best players in the NBA, while second year players Andrea Bargnani and Jorge Garbajosa will presumably be even better--and healthier--this season. Free agent additions Jason Kapono and Carlos Delfino should fit in very well. Reasons to mope: Three things could potentially hold this team back: injuries, inexperience and a lack of attention to detail on defense. The first factor could derail any team and Toronto did a lot to address the second factor by making it to the playoffs last season, so the third factor will likely make or break the Raptors' chances of winning the conference. Bottom line: Toronto will win a playoff series and be a tough out but the Raptors are not quite ready to make a trip to the NBA Finals.

4) Detroit Pistons: Reasons for hope: Detroit has a wealth of playoff experience and still has arguably the best starting lineup in the conference. Barring injuries there is too much talent here to win less than 45-48 games. Reasons to mope: This highly regarded team is annually considered to be a contender but has not made it to the NBA Finals since Larry Brown led the Pistons to a championship in 2004. With each passing season it is becoming increasingly obvious that Flip Saunders is a good coach but not a championship level coach like a Brown, Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich. The core players are not getting any younger or any better and I don't buy the idea that rookie Rodney Stuckey will put this team over the top. Bottom line: Brown is long gone, center Ben Wallace is in Chicago and Detroit's championship window is officially shut (it actually closed when Larry Brown left, as I mentioned at that time, but people have been slow to recognize this).

5) Boston Celtics: Reasons for hope: Paul Pierce now has two All-Star teammates in the form of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. None of those players has won anything of consequence, so they are all hungry and willing to do whatever it takes for the team to be successful. Reasons to mope: The NBA is a five on five game, not a three on three tournament; starting point guard Rajon Rondo must prove that he can run the team, make open shots and play solid defense, while starting center Kendrick Perkins figures to be adequate at best. The bench is a major question mark and it is just as questionable how well this team will play defense. Allen and Pierce missed a lot of time due to injuries last season and all three stars are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Bottom line: It is asking a lot to throw three stars together, mix in a subpar supporting cast and then expect an instant championship to be the result, even though many Boston fans seem to think that is exactly what will happen this year. A more realistic goal is for Boston to win 50 games, advance past the first round and lay the foundation to make a more substantial playoff run in 2008-09--and contrary to what you may hear or read, it is hardly a given that Boston will even be able to do that much.

6) New Jersey Nets: Reasons for hope: Jason Kidd is still one of the top point guards--and players--in the NBA. Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson are a dynamic scoring tandem and Nenad Krstic will be back in the mix after missing most of last season due to injury. Reasons to mope: The Nets always look great on paper and occasionally even look great on the court but something always seems to go wrong come playoff time. Though this statement would have been unimaginable prior to last season, the loss of free agent Mikki Moore could really hurt this team; Jamaal Magloire must step up and contribute in his place. Bottom line: The Nets look like a team that may go on an impressive run at some point in the season before ultimately losing in the first round of the playoffs.

7) Orlando Magic: Reasons for hope: Dwight Howard may be on the verge of winning many rebounding titles in a row. All he needs now is an offensive game with his back to the basket. Free agent Rashard Lewis should average 20-plus ppg and probably lead the team in scoring. New Coach Stan Van Gundy will probably get a little bit more out of this group as a whole than Brian Hill did last season. Reasons to mope: As I wrote in last season's preview, "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." Orlando should not be in the Draft Lottery again any time soon and will long rue the day that it wasted that pick on Redick. Orlando needs to commit fewer turnovers on offense and focus more attention on playing good defense in order to move up in the standings. Bottom line: Orlando will make the playoffs but either needs to add one more really good player or have Howard emerge as a legit MVP-level player in order to truly be a contender.

8) Miami Heat: Reasons for hope: There is always at least a little hope when you have Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal on the roster and Pat Riley running the show. Reasons to mope: Wade is rehabbing shoulder and knee injuries and will not be back until November; it is impossible to predict how long it will take for him to truly be at full strength. Shaquille O'Neal is obviously declining and it is legitimate to wonder how hungry he is to win another title; in his mind he one-upped Kobe Bryant and the Lakers by winning a ring in 2006 and he may be satisfied with that. Sometimes teams speak of "addition by subtraction"--cutting a disgruntled player to improve team chemistry--but the signing of Smush Parker can be considered "subtraction by addition." Seriously, if Parker plays major minutes he will be worth five more losses in the standings. He spent most of last season sniping at Hall of Famer Phil Jackson, who has gotten along with a wide range of players, so it will be interesting to see how much Parker enjoys Riley's marathon practice sessions. Bottom line: The Heat turned in the most complacent, lackluster and disgraceful title defense in recent memory, starting with a blowout loss to Chicago on opening night and concluding with being swept by Chicago in the first round of the playoffs. It is possible that Wade will quickly regain his health, O'Neal will at least feign interest in the regular season and the Heat will finish higher than this but I honestly would not be shocked if Miami misses the playoffs altogether.

Other than the Boston Celtics--who will obviously be much improved this season after having the conference's worst record last year--the non-playoff teams in the East in 2007 had between 28 and 35 wins. I expect this year's Draft Lottery candidates in the East to be similarly bunched together. Here are some brief thoughts on each of these teams.

I'm sure that the first thought many of you had after scanning my eight playoff teams is "What about Agent Zero and the Washington Wizards?" Washington has three All-Star caliber players on offense but plays poor defense and lacks a consistent post up game. People like to talk about how the Wizards were briefly in first place in the East last year but you can rest assured that will not happen this season. It took a perfect storm of injuries to key players on other teams and sluggish stretches by Cleveland and Chicago for Washington to briefly occupy the top spot. The Wizards could grab the eighth spot if Miami completely implodes--a definite possibility--but they simply are not better than the first seven teams listed above.

I hate to use the term "sleeper" but if Emeka Okafor stays healthy then Charlotte could be a dangerous team; the combination of Gerald Wallace and Jason Richardson will likely be dynamic offensively.

Since the infamous "Malice at the Palace" the Indiana Pacers have almost completely redone their roster. Now they also have a new coach, Jim O'Brien, who will no doubt speed up the offense and make greater use of the three point shot. The Pacers may need to make a couple more personnel changes to return to the playoffs.

Milwaukee will presumably have a healthy Michael Redd for the entire season but lottery pick Yi Jianlian will not likely be a significant contributor this season and may very well be a distraction if it is true that he has been promised a certain amount of playing time regardless of his production. This team does not rebound or defend well enough to make the playoffs.

In Philadelphia it is out with the old A.I. and in with the new A.I.; Allen Iverson departed for Denver in the middle of last season and we finally found out what Andre Iguodala could do if he got more touches. Expect Iguodala to make the All-Star team this year but the Sixers will again miss the playoffs.

It has certainly been an eventful offseason for the Knicks, hasn't it? In case you forgot, Isiah Thomas got rid of Steve Francis and brought in a legit 20-10 player in Zach Randolph. It will be interesting to see how the all offense, no defense twin towers tandem of Randolph and Eddy Curry fares. I have a hard time predicting success for any team that starts Stephon Marbury at point guard; if Thomas finds a way to get rid of Marbury then the Knicks could grab the last playoff spot.

Atlanta has stockpiled a lot of young, athletic players but they don't play well together.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:49 AM

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At Wednesday, October 10, 2007 10:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

the cavs will probably repeat boston has a very good chance of winning it detroit is dead toronto one year wonder nj done. miami if shaq and wade healthy could make it 5 for shaq but i doubt it . chicago right there clearly it's out of them and cleveland possibly boston can get involved but they defense is shaky. i like the cavs to win the title next year but it will be tough to get out the east agian chicago is right there.

 

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