2008-09 Eastern Conference PreviewLast year, I correctly picked five of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams. Admittedly, that is not a great percentage but I don't think that too many people foresaw the complete collapses that took place in Chicago and Miami. My other miss was choosing New Jersey; Washington, Philadelphia and Atlanta were the three teams that made the playoffs instead of the ill fated Chicago/Miami/New Jersey trio that I favored. All that I can say in my defense is that four teams finished within five games of the eighth seeded Hawks--who were only 37-45--so there were a lot of mediocre (or worse) teams in the East, which made it hard to figure out the final finishing order (and easy for a team to move up or down in the standings as a result of an injury or a player going into a slump).
Several Eastern Conference teams clearly improved in the offseason--most notably the Philadelphia 76ers, who acquired Elton Brand. The Cleveland Cavaliers hope that Mo Williams will not only solidify the point guard position but that he will also be the best second scoring option that they have had in the LeBron James era; no James sidekick has averaged 17 ppg, a mark that Williams has exceeded each of the past two seasons. The Miami Heat not only added second overall pick Michael Beasley but they look forward to having a healthy and explosive Dwyane Wade for a full season.
Without further ado, here are the eight Eastern Conference teams that I expect to make the playoffs this season. They are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the NBA 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). I have also included some brief observations about the seven Eastern teams that I don't think will qualify for postseason play.
1) Boston Celtics: Reasons for hope: Any team that plays suffocating defense and has three future Hall of Famers has plenty of reasons for hope. The Celtics stormed through the 2007-08 regular season with the best record in the league and showed a lot of mental toughness while surviving some challenging situations in the playoffs. I'll admit that before last season I was skeptical of the Celtics' bench, point guard play and commitment to defense. Then I saw the Celtics play in person versus the Pacers and I was very impressed, declaring, "Call it tenacity, heart or will to win, the great teams have it and that is how they win even when they are not at their best. The Celtics provided a glimpse of this against Indiana and it will be interesting to see if they can replicate such efforts at playoff time against the very best teams." The Celtics played hard on virtually every possession last season. It is difficult to win back to back championships and I realize that a lot of people expect the Celtics to fall off this year but I don't think that Boston's commitment to defense was a one year fling. I doubt that the Celtics will win 66 games this year but they have to be considered the Eastern Conference favorites until further notice. Reasons to mope: Injuries, complacency and personnel changes are the three biggest obstacles in the path of teams trying to win repeat titles. The Celtics enjoyed good health last season but it is obviously impossible to predict if that will be the case this year. I don't think that complacency will be a serious problem for this group. The Celtics lost James Posey to New Orleans but otherwise their nucleus remains intact. There just are not that many reasons to mope for Celtics fans. Bottom line: There is every reason to believe that the Celtics will win at least 55-60 games and be a serious title contender.
2) Cleveland Cavaliers: Reasons for hope: LeBron James, defense and rebounding. If James is not already the NBA's best player then he is clearly the heir apparent to Kobe Bryant. The Cavaliers' focus on defense and rebounding enables them to annually confound the "experts" who expect them to drop in the standings. Reasons to mope: Newly acquired point guard Mo Williams should help to improve the offense but will he buy into the team's defensive mentality? Also, other than James and Williams the team does not have a lot of players who can create their own shots and/or create shots for others. If big men Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace do not stay healthy then the team will lose a lot of size and strength in the paint. Bottom line: The Cavaliers are capable of winning 55 games and challenging Boston for the best record in the East.
3) Detroit Pistons: Reasons for hope: New Head Coach Michael Curry will command the respect in the locker room that the departed Flip Saunders never did. The Pistons have a nice group of young players who seem to be ready to play more minutes and assume greater responsibilities. Reasons to mope: The attitude and professionalism of the team will improve under Curry's direction but what should have been the prime years for this team's top players were squandered with Saunders at the helm. Bottom line: Paradoxically, Detroit could field a better organized team than last season but have a worse record in a more competitive Eastern Conference. When the Pistons got rid of Larry Brown, I said that their championship window had closed and, so far, that assessment has proven to be quite correct.
4) Orlando Magic: Reasons for hope: Dwight Howard won his first rebounding title while also posting career highs in scoring and blocked shots as the Magic posted their best record since 1995-96. Hedo Turkoglu had a career year and won the Most Improved Player award. Rashard Lewis may not be quite worth the huge contract Orlando gave him but he was a very productive third scoring option whose three point shooting helped to space the floor. Reasons to mope: Other than Howard, this team is not strong in the paint. Turkoglu and Lewis are both good players but neither is a true power forward; the Magic will not reach their full potential until Orlando acquires another big body to help Howard in the paint. Orlando also is still looking for a top notch shooting guard; the Magic wasted a lottery pick on J.J. Redick and since they don't figure to be in the lottery any time soon they will long rue that mistake. Jameer Nelson is a solid point guard but it is not certain that he is a championship level point guard.
Bottom line: Orlando will again be one of the top four teams in the East but the Magic are not quite strong enough--literally--to make it to the Conference Finals.
5) Philadelphia 76ers: Reasons for hope: Newly acquired power forward Elton Brand gives the 76ers the inside presence that they sorely needed. Andre Iguodala is on the verge of being an All-Star, Andre Miller is a very underrated point guard and the team has several young players who are rapidly improving. Reasons to mope: Brand missed virtually an entire season due to a serious leg injury (ruptured left Achilles tendon). It remains to be seen how healthy and productive he will be. Also, the 76ers still need to add some outside shooting help to open up the middle for Brand's postups and Iguodala's drives. Bottom line: The Sixers should definitely move up in the standings but probably not quite as much as their more optimistic fans assumed in the wake of the Brand deal.
6) Toronto Raptors: Reasons for hope: Chris Bosh is one of the top power forwards in the NBA. If newly acquired Jermaine O'Neal can stay healthy, Toronto will have a very good frontcourt, although in the past O'Neal has not liked playing center. Jose Calderon emerged as a top flight point guard, which enabled Toronto to trade T.J. Ford for O'Neal. Reasons to mope: This team lacks toughness and that weakness shows up on the boards and on defense. Teams that lack toughness do not advance very far in the NBA playoffs. Bottom line: The Raptors just are not quite as good as the Eastern Conference's elite teams.
7) Miami Heat: Reasons for hope: If you saw Dwyane Wade play during the Olympics then you already know the primary reason that Miami fans cannot wait for the season to start. Having Shawn Marion for a full season can only be a positive and rookie Michael Beasley looks like he can step right in and be a solid 15 ppg scorer. Reasons to mope: No matter how good a coach Erik Spoelstra is or will be, there will inevitably be a drop off in terms of strategy/preparation when you go from a Hall of Fame Coach (Pat Riley) to someone who has never been an NBA head coach. Wade's pell-mell style makes it unlikely that he can go though a season unscathed. Marion is a productive player but can mope at times when he thinks that he is unappreciated. Bottom line: Even with the injuries to Wade and others and with Shaquille O'Neal mailing in the first half of the season before being traded, there still is no reason that the Heat should have become the worst team in the East--eight games behind the Knicks! On paper, they will probably be the "most improved" team this season because they figure to win at least 40 games.
8) Washington Wizards: Reasons for hope: Caron Butler has emerged as the best player on the team, a versatile All-Star who excels at both ends of the court. Antawn Jamison is a steady scorer and rebounder. This team has proven that it can be very competitive without Gilbert Arenas, who will miss the first couple months of the season due to recurring knee problems.
Reasons to mope: The upside for this team simply is not as good as their rabid fans believe. With Gilbert Arenas they are a 41-45 win team and without him they are a 41-45 win team. When Arenas is out, they play a steadier, more methodical game; when Arenas plays, the Wizards may be more exciting but they are also more erratic. A rash of injuries in addition to Arenas' knee woes--Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood and Antonio Daniels are all out of action at the moment--has left the team looking very ragged during the preseason. Bottom line: This team is just not a serious contender--with or without Arenas. They will not miss Arenas as much as some people think and once Jamison and Daniels get back on the court the Wizards will resume being a team capable of winning 41-45 games.
Atlanta surprised a lot of people by making the playoffs last year and then they shocked even more people by pushing the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in the first round. However, they lost Josh Childress for nothing in the offseason and did not make any significant roster upgrades. It also remains to be seen if their young players will react to last season's success by being complacent or by being hungry to get even better. While it is certainly possible that the Hawks will grab one of the last two playoff berths, I think that they will fall just short this year, even if they win a few more games than they did in 2007-08.
Most people seem to expect Indiana to be terrible this year but the Pacers only missed the playoffs by one game. They sent Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto in exchange for T.J. Ford, a point guard who will be able to push the ball up the court and feed the team's many three point shooters. I think that the Pacers will surprise a lot of people but in the end they will probably once again fall just short of the playoffs.
Last year, I thought that the Charlotte Bobcats could surprise some people. They finished 32-50, just five games away from qualifying for the playoffs. There is a lot of raw talent on this roster and new Coach Larry Brown has a history of getting the most out of such teams. They are probably a year away from making the playoffs but if they stay healthy and buy into Brown's "play the right way" mantra they could move up to 40-42 wins and grab a playoff berth.
The Chicago Bulls are the East's "mystery guest." Last year almost everyone expected them to be a very good team and they stunk. Coach Scott Skiles got the ax at Christmas and midway through the season they swapped Ben Wallace and Joe Smith for Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes. After the season, they hired Vinny Del Negro to be the new Coach and then they selected Derrick Rose with the number one overall pick. In the best case scenario--Rose plays very well immediately while the veterans stay healthy and perform up to their abilities--this team could certainly win 45 games. Realistically, it will take a season for all of the new parts to mesh together and the Bulls will end up in that Eastern mosh pit of 30-40 win teams that just miss the playoffs.
The New York Knicks will almost certainly improve now that Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni are running the show but there is no reason to believe that even in the Eastern Conference they can leap frog enough teams to make the playoffs.
In the past few months the Nets hit the "reboot" button, jettisoning Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson in order to start over with a group of young players surrounding All-Star Vince Carter. I just don't see enough talent--or defensive focus--for this team to make the playoffs.
The Milwaukee Bucks were a horrible defensive team last year. New Coach Scott Skiles will do his best to change that but he will not be able to completely transform this team's identity in one year.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:29 PM