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Thursday, October 15, 2009

2009-10 Eastern Conference Preview

Last year, I correctly picked six of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams. In 2007-08 I went 5/8 in the East, in 2006-07 I went 7/8 and in 2005-06 I went 6/8, which adds up to 24/32 (75%) overall for the four years that I have posted Eastern Conference previews online.

Barring injuries to key players, the Eastern Conference shapes up to be a three horse race in 2009-10, with 2007 NBA Finalist Cleveland, 2008 NBA Champion Boston and 2009 NBA Finalist Orlando leading the pack. There is a lot of buzz in some quarters about Washington but I do not believe the hype.

Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs; as usual, I have ranked the teams based on the likelihood that they will make it to the NBA Finals (as opposed to how they will be seeded in the playoffs, which is affected by which teams win division titles).

1) Cleveland Cavaliers: Reasons for hope: The Cavaliers posted the best regular season record in the NBA in 2009 and followed up that effort by making a series of personnel moves which essentially resulted in them swapping Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic for Shaquille O'Neal, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon; the Cavaliers also acquired Leon Powe, who is trying to recover from a serious knee injury but may be available in time for the 2010 playoffs.

The Cavaliers have built their success in recent years on three pillars: defense, rebounding and the brilliance of LeBron James, the 2009 regular season MVP. There are no signs of cracks in any of those pillars. A fourth pillar for the Cavaliers is depth; last year, each of the 10 Cavaliers who averaged at least 16.0 mpg during the regular season had been starters at some point during their NBA careers--and the Cavaliers will be even deeper this season with the aforementioned additions.

It may prove difficult for the Cavaliers to match their 2009 win total (66)--few teams win that many games in back to back seasons, for a variety of reasons--but if they stay healthy they will have a great opportunity to win a championship.

Reasons to mope: Mo Williams made the All-Star team but he disappeared during the playoffs, particularly in the Eastern Conference Finals; no matter how well he plays during the regular season there will be pressure on him to perform at a high level during the 2010 postseason. Delonte West is the most versatile player on the roster other than James but his struggles with mental illness/legal issues could affect his performance or even his availability.

After being a starter for virtually his entire career, two-time All-Star center Zydrunas Ilgauskas will have to adjust to coming off of the bench in a reduced role. New starting center Shaquille O'Neal must stay healthy, he must fully commit to Cleveland's defensive schemes and he must accept a secondary or even tertiary role offensively. O'Neal has a long history of feuding with coaches and star teammates if things start to go south, so if the Cavaliers experience any turbulence it will be very interesting to observe his interactions with James and with Coach Mike Brown.

Bottom line: The Cavaliers will win at least 60 games and should be considered the top contender to capture the Eastern Conference title.

2) Boston Celtics: Reasons for hope: Kevin Garnett is back in the fold and the Celtics improved their frontcourt depth by acquiring Rasheed Wallace and Shelden Williams. Before injuries derailed their title hopes, the Celtics started out 27-2 in 2008-09. Point guard Rajon Rondo has improved during each of his first three seasons, while future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are healthy enough and productive enough to continue to play at an All-Star level.

Reasons to mope: Garnett's injury turned out to be more serious than the Celtics initially thought (or, at least more serious than they indicated publicly). Although he has been given a clean bill of health the 14 year veteran must prove that he is still durable enough to withstand the grind of an 82 game season. Wallace has the talent to be an impact player but his health and skills seem to have eroded recently.

Bottom line: It is easy to forget just how well the Celtics were playing in the first third of the 2009 season; they certainly looked poised to repeat as champions. Then the L.A. Lakers rolled into Boston and handed the Celtics just their third loss of the season; that setback seemed to put the Celtics into a brief funk but then they righted themselves and authored a 12 game winning streak before Garnett got hurt. If the Celtics are healthy and motivated they have to be considered serious title contenders.

3) Orlando Magic: Reasons for hope: Dwight Howard has established himself as the best center in the NBA and will likely be a top MVP candidate for years to come. Injured All-Star Jameer Nelson should be back at full strength. Two-time All-Star Rashard Lewis stretches the court with his long range bombing. Versatile forward Hedo Turkoglu has been replaced by eight-time All-Star Vince Carter. Carter has been a media whipping boy for years but it is difficult to take seriously the proposition ventured in some quarters that Turkoglu is a better player and/or bigger matchup problem for opposing teams than Carter. Nelson will take over the ballhandling duties that Turkoglu inherited when Nelson got hurt and Carter is able to attack defenses in multiple ways: he certainly can do some of the drive and kick moves that Turkoglu did, he is just as good a three point shooter and--contrary to his "soft" reputation--he has averaged nearly twice as many free throw attempts per game (6.0) during his career as Turkoglu (3.1). Yes, Turkoglu is three to four inches taller but Carter is simply a better all-around player; Carter has averaged at least 20.6 ppg for the past 10 seasons, while Turkoglu has never once averaged 20 ppg in a season--and Carter also boasts better career averages in rebounds, assists, steals and field goal percentage.

The Magic also acquired Brandon Bass and Matt Barnes.

Reasons to mope: The only real reason to mope is the Cavaliers and Celtics made more significant upgrades than the Magic did; Cleveland added an All-Star center who is a future Hall of Famer and also acquired a pair of talented swingmen, while the Celtics regained the services of a future Hall of Famer and added a four-time All-Star who has championship experience.

Bottom line: Essentially, the Magic added two All-Stars--a healthy Nelson plus the newly acquired Carter--to a roster that made it to the NBA Finals; the Magic only lost Courtney Lee and Turkoglu, a player who has never made the All-Star team and who likely peaked in 2008 (his 2009 stats were down across the board). The Magic are better on paper than they were last year--but right now they look like the third best team in the East behind the reloaded Cavaliers and the healthy/reloaded Celtics.

4) Atlanta Hawks: Reasons for hope: The Hawks have been trending upward for several seasons, improving their win totals from 13 in 2005 to 26, 30, 37 and 47 in the next four years. Prior to last season I wondered if they would be satisfied with their 2008 playoff appearance and perhaps slide back into mediocrity but they refuted such concerns with a strong regular season and their first playoff series win since 1999. In the offseason they added explosive scorer Jamal Crawford and did not suffer any serious roster losses.

Reasons to mope: The Hawks ranked 12th in the NBA in scoring differential and 25th in the NBA in rebounding differential; that is not a recipe for an extended playoff run.

Bottom line: The Hawks are just not talented or focused enough to beat any of the top three teams in a seven games series if those teams are at or near full strength.

5) Miami Heat: Reasons for hope: A healthy, rejuvenated Dwyane Wade reestablished himself as an elite player in 2009. Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers experienced growing pains but overall they both had solid rookie seasons. Daequan Cook won the Three Point Shooting Contest during All-Star Weekend and he shot 153-395 (.387) from long range during the regular season, spacing the court so that Wade can slash through opposing defenses. Eric Spoelstra led the Heat to a 28 win increase, the biggest in NBA history for a first year coach; a lot of that improvement had to do simply with Wade being healthy all season but that is still an impressive accomplishment for Spoelstra.

Reasons to mope: The teams ahead of Miami in the standings--and some of the teams behind them--upgraded their rosters while the Heat essentially stood pat, losing Jamario Moon but adding Quentin Richardson.

Bottom line: Wade is tremendous and the young guys figure to continue to improve but this team does not have enough talent to deal with the conference's elite squads.

6) Washington Wizards: Reasons for hope: Three-time All-Star Gilbert Arenas returns to action after missing most of the past two seasons due to knee injuries. Starting center Brendan Haywood has recovered from the wrist injury that caused him to miss 76 games last season. The Wizards believe that they increased their depth by acquiring Mike Miller, Randy Foye and Fabricio Oberto. Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison are each two-time All-Stars.

Reasons to mope: Arenas joined the Wizards in 2003-04. Since that time they have never won more than 45 games in a season and they have made it past the first round of the playoffs just once (2005). Even when Arenas was fully healthy a good case could be made that he was the most overrated All-Star in the NBA. I have repeatedly said that an Arenas-led team will not advance past the second round of the playoffs and I see no reason to modify that statement--assuming that Arenas will even remain healthy enough for an entire season to be considered Washington's best player.

Bottom line: In the four seasons prior to last year's 19-63 debacle, the Wizards won between 41 and 45 games. It is certainly reasonable to assume that if their key players stay healthy that they can return to that neighborhood--but the hype about the Wizards being a legitimate contender is absurd (the Sporting News placed the Wizards seventh in the NBA--and third in the East--in their "Preseason Power Poll"). Last year, the Wizards ranked 24th in rebounding differential and 29th in defensive field goal percentage; Arenas' return does not figure to boost Washington's performance in either area, though a healthy Haywood should help to improve those numbers to some degree. The Wizards do not rebound or defend nearly well enough to be considered an elite team. Arenas has pledged to cut down on his off the court activities and focus on basketball but it remains to be seen how thoroughly he will follow up on that commitment.

7) Toronto Raptors: Reasons for hope: Chris Bosh has made the All-Star team four years in a row and has emerged as one of the NBA's top power forwards. Newly acquired Hedo Turkoglu will add playmaking, three point shooting and someone the Raptors can go to for fourth quarter scoring if Bosh is double teamed. Jose Calderon is a very solid point guard. The Raptors have rebuilt their roster and look like a team that can be very productive offensively.

Reasons to mope: Like the Wizards, the Raptors do not rebound or defend very well; Bosh will have to hold down the fort in both departments and hope that he gets more help than he did last year.

Bottom line: The Bosh-Turkoglu-Calderon trio should be enough to lead this team to the playoffs, where they will be first round cannon fodder for one of the elite teams.

8) Charlotte Bobcats: Reasons for hope: Coach Larry Brown has a track record of turning losing teams around in a hurry (his failure in New York notwithstanding). The Bobcats have made incremental progress the past few years--climbing from 26 wins in 2006 to 33, 32 and 35 the next three years--and if Brown can squeeze just five or six more wins out of this roster the Bobcats can grab the final playoff spot.

Reasons to mope: The Bobcats did not do much to upgrade their roster in the offseason, acquiring Tyson Chandler but losing Emeka Okafor and Sean May.

Bottom line: The midseason acquisitions of Raja Bell and Boris Diaw provided a real boost--the Bobcats went 23-21 when both of those players were in the starting lineup. This year, the Bobcats will likely start Bell, Diaw, Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton and Gerald Wallace; that lineup will not strike fear in the hearts of the Eastern elite but should be good enough--with Brown's excellent teaching/coaching--to provide the Bobcats with their first 40-plus win season.

The race for the eighth playoff spot figures to be as tightly contested as it was in 2009 and 2008. The Chicago Bulls had an exciting first round playoff series versus the injury-depleted Celtics but they lost streak shooter Ben Gordon while getting nothing in return. They are a poor rebounding team and a mediocre defensive team, so it is hard to picture them winning more than 40-42 games.

The Detroit Pistons added Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva but they lost Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Allen Iverson; I understand that part of Joe Dumars' plan was to rebuild by letting Wallace, McDyess and Iverson go in order to create enough salary cap room to sign younger free agents but I don't think that you can build a championship team around Gordon and Villanueva, neither of whom has made the All-Star team. I have yet to figure out why Dumars is so enthralled with Rodney Stuckey that he traded Chauncey Billups and then cut loose Iverson just to hand Stuckey the starting job.

The Indiana Pacers have narrowly missed the playoffs the past few years and certainly could make a run for the eighth spot if everything breaks well for them.

The 76ers lost heady point guard Andre Miller for nothing, so it is difficult to picture them improving on last year's 41-41 record.

Last year, an illiterate Knicks fan went apoplectic when I correctly noted that--despite all of the positive media buzz about Mike D'Antoni--the Knicks had not in fact improved much overall and, in a disturbing omen, faded markedly down the stretch. The Knicks are horrible defensively and on the glass and they did nothing in the offseason to improve in either of those areas. It seems as if they have placed all of their eggs in the "LeBron James basket"; there are two problems with that approach:

(1) Just adding James to this roster would not be enough to make them championship contenders because the Knicks would still be below average defensively and on the glass.

(2) Even if James decides to leave Cleveland why on Earth would he want to go to a team that does not rebound or defend?

If there is one thing that James has learned during his time in Cleveland--and on Team USA--it is that rebounding and defense are vitally important ingredients in any championship equation. James fully understands that endorsement dollars will be available to him wherever he plays but that his ultimate legacy will be shaped by how many championships he wins. The Knicks will not make the playoffs this year and it will be interesting to see what their fans think of the wasted 2008 and 2009 seasons after James does not sign with New York in 2010.

The Milwaukee Bucks and New Jersey Nets simply do not have enough firepower to make the playoffs unless several of the teams in front of them are depleted by injuries.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:00 AM

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