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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

2010-11 Eastern Conference Preview

The hype surrounding the Miami Heat has already reached suffocatingly nauseous levels and it will surely only become more pronounced, melodramatic and overblown once the season begins. The LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh partnership is neither the most star-studded nor the most accomplished trio in NBA history; I could do a whole article just breaking down that issue alone but I'll keep this short and sweet by providing some brief historical context: the L.A. Lakers' power trio of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor ranked as the top three scorers in NBA playoff history and were arguably the greatest center, guard and forward respectively in the history of the sport. James and Wade may not even be the best players at their positions right now (Kevin Durant is gunning for James, while Kobe Bryant is superior to Wade) and Bosh--who made his sole All-NBA Team appearance in 2007 (on the Second Team)--is not even an elite player by any reasonable definition of that term (side note: Bryant helped transform Pau Gasol from a one-time All-Star into a probable future Hall of Famer, so it will be very interesting to see if Bosh's career is similarly elevated as a result of playing alongside two players who the "stat gurus" have long insisted are each better than Bryant). It is basketball sacrilege to compare the Heat to the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls teams that powered their way to two three-peats in the 1990s. Let's first see the Heat make it through one regular season as a healthy and productive unit and then let's see how the Heat react to the crucible of playoff competition. After all, the Chamberlain-West-Baylor trio combined for exactly zero championships in three seasons (the Lakers won the 1972 title after Baylor retired early during that campaign).

Until we see evidence to the contrary, the Boston Celtics have earned the right to be considered the clear favorite (which is not the same thing as saying "overwhelming favorite") to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2011 NBA Finals. Boston Coach Doc Rivers is perhaps a bit too fond of pointing this out, but it is undeniable that since the Celtics assembled their current nucleus they have never lost a playoff series when their starting five has been healthy and available. Starting center Kendrick Perkins will begin the season on the shelf as a result of the serious knee injury he suffered during the 2010 NBA Finals but the Celtics added Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal to pick up the slack in the early going and then provide depth down the stretch after Perkins returns.

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) Boston Celtics: Reasons for hope: The Celtics have proven that they can beat anybody when they are healthy. Their roster is talented and deep. Last year's run to the NBA Finals demonstrated that their core group is not satisfied with just winning one title. The Celtics have tremendous mental and physical toughness, attributes that enable them to wear down most opponents.

Reasons to mope: Kevin Garnett's knee injury wrecked the Celtics' 2009 title hopes and even though he bounced back to have a solid 2010 season it is apparent that he is not quite the player he was during Boston's 2008 championship run. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have both shown signs of age. Even though Perkins is supposed to return one never knows for sure when/if a player will regain his old form in the wake of such a serious injury. The two O'Neals can both be solid contributors if they are healthy but both of them have had trouble staying healthy in recent years. Teams that can push the ball up the court cause problems for the Celtics, an issue that was even apparent back in 2008 when an otherwise inferior Atlanta team extended the Celtics to seven games; a similarly inferior Chicago team forced the Garnett-less Celtics to seven games in the 2009 playoffs.

Bottom line: If the Celtics are reasonably healthy (meaning no other serious injuries besides Perkins' knee) they could win 60 games but a more likely scenario is that they pace themselves to about 50-54 regular season wins with the goal of peaking during the playoffs, much like they did last season.

2) Orlando Magic: Reasons for hope: Dwight Howard is a dominant defender and rebounder who can also cause matchup problems offensively for teams that do not have a strong post defender. Howard is flanked by an armada of three point shooters who make teams pay for double-teaming Howard. Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson are All-Star caliber players.

Reasons to mope: This is the season in which we will probably find out whether the Magic's trip to the 2009 Finals was the dawning of Dwight Howard's dominance or merely a fluke due to Boston's injuries and some hot three point shooting versus Cleveland; Magic fans may not like the answer that will be revealed during the 2011 playoffs.

The media tends to give Vince Carter a bum rap overall but it is true that for the Magic to make it to the Finals they will need more production and better consistency from Carter during the postseason. I am sure that he will publicly insist that he has nothing to prove to anybody and that he does not feel any pressure but if Carter does not help the Magic to reach the Finals then this will cement in many people's minds the perception that he is not a big game performer.

The worst case scenario for the Magic is that they turn out to not have enough frontcourt depth to deal with the fully loaded Celtics but also lack the perimeter firepower to contain James and Wade.

Bottom line: The perception is that the Magic had a bad 2010 season but the reality is that they matched their 2009 win total and posted a better point differential (7.5 compared to 6.7). They finished second in the conference standings after placing third in 2009. Unfortunately for Orlando, a championship caliber Boston team got healthy at just the right time and proved to be too much to handle in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Magic's collective playoff experience plus Howard's presence in the paint could prove to be decisive advantages over a Miami team that has just been assembled and has no one who can match up with Howard. If injuries deplete the Celtics' frontcourt next spring then the Magic could very well return to the NBA Finals.

3) Miami Heat: Reasons for hope: Pat Riley outsmarted the rest of the league and figured out how to bring together LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh while still retaining enough salary cap flexibility to surround that trio with several good role players.

Reasons to mope: Championships are won in the paint with defense and rebounding. James and Wade will spearhead a frighteningly active perimeter defensive attack but Bosh is hardly a fearsome physical presence in the paint and he is too slender to guard top notch centers. James and Bosh may terrorize suspect ballhandlers but the elite teams will not be so easily rattled and will find ways to get the ball into the paint, collapsing Miami's defense and resulting in dunks, free throw attempts and/or open three point shots after kickout passes.

Bottom line: Forget the media driven storyline that because Wade has been in Miami the longest this is "Wade's team". This is James' team because James is clearly the best player on the roster; there is not one skill set area in which Wade is better than James and James is significantly taller and bigger than Wade, two attributes that do matter in the NBA. The Heat will rise or fall primarily based on how well James performs. That may sound good now but we have already seen two James-led squads fail to even reach the NBA Finals after posting the league's best regular season record.

If you believe the stuff that some "stat gurus" have been spouting for the past several years then the Heat should win about 90 games out of 82 (that is sarcasm, not a typo), because James and Wade are both supposedly superior to Bryant (who has merely managed to snag the past two Finals MVP trophies).

The idea that the Heat could seriously threaten the 1996 Bulls' record of 72 wins was a bit of a stretch even before Wade and James each tweaked a hamstring during the preseason. That Bulls team is perhaps the only pro sports team that I have ever seen that literally tried to win every single game, regardless of scheduling (four games in five nights, etc.) or what they had already clinched. There is no evidence to suggest that James, Wade and Bosh have that kind of mentality; it is well documented that James quit at various points during last season's Cleveland-Boston playoff series but most people seem to have forgotten that Wade presided over a Heat championship team that lost in the first round of the 2007 playoffs and then dropped 26 of 28 games at one point during the 2008 season.

If the Heat stay healthy and are sufficiently motivated they should win at least 60 games but 10 years from now no one will remember or care how many regular season wins the Heat amass. The only valid goal for the Heat is to win a championship and anything short of that will rightly be considered a failure but I just don't think that the Heat will be able to topple the Celtics in a seven game series; I consider Magic-Heat to essentially be a toss-up but I give the Magic the slight edge for the reasons noted above in my Orlando preview.

If the Heat do make it to the NBA Finals they will have trouble matching up with the Lakers: Ron Artest will do a reasonable job versus James, Bryant will deal with Wade and the extra attention that Bryant draws at the other end of the court will enable Pau Gasol to have a slight statistical advantage over Bosh (primarily in field goal percentage and offensive rebounding).

4) Milwaukee Bucks: Reasons for hope: The Bucks have assembled a nice young nucleus anchored by center Andrew Bogut and point guard Brandon Jennings. They pushed the Atlanta Hawks to seven games in the first round of the 2010 playoffs and probably would have won that series if the injured Bogut had been available. The Bucks ranked in the top ten in points allowed and defensive field goal percentage.

Reasons to mope: Bogut is a very good player but he has missed 59 games during the past two regular seasons and, as productive as he is, he is just not an elite level player. Legitimate championship contenders generally are led by an elite player who is then flanked by at least one player of roughly Bogut's caliber.

Bottom line: The Bucks will probably win at least 50 regular season games and then lose in the playoffs as soon as they run into Boston, Orlando or Miami.

5) Chicago Bulls: Reasons for hope: Derrick Rose is a dynamic player whose explosiveness makes him very hard to contain, particularly with the rules restricting defensive contact against perimeter players. Once he gets healthy Carlos Boozer should provide solid post scoring and rebounding. Joakim Noah is an excellent rebounder and defender who also is a good passer. The Bulls could be called "Utah West" after adding depth by acquiring former Jazz players Boozer, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver.

Reasons to mope: The Bulls ranked 24th in scoring and 28th in three point field goal percentage last season. They are a good defensive team--and figure to get even better in that department under the guidance of new head coach Tom Thibodeau, who was essentially Boston's defensive coordinator--but they do not have enough offensive firepower to be considered a top contender.

Bottom line: Much like Milwaukee, Chicago is a very solid team that just cannot quite match up with the conference's top three powerhouses over the course of a seven game series.

6) Atlanta Hawks: Reasons for hope: Last season the Hawks increased their win total for the fifth straight year, notching their most victories (53) since 1996-97 (56). Many people assumed that free agent Joe Johnson would depart last summer but the Hawks re-signed their leading scorer. The Hawks' core players are young and athletic.

Reasons to mope: At times, the Hawks look undisciplined and even disinterested. They have a lot of talent on their roster but most of that talent has been together for several years now without accomplishing anything of significance. Meanwhile, teams like Milwaukee and Chicago have bolstered their rosters and seem poised to pass the Hawks in the standings.

Bottom line: As the cliche goes, past performance does not guarantee future results. It seems highly unlikely that the Hawks will again increase their win total; this unit has probably peaked and the roster will have to be tweaked--if not completely overhauled--to really contend for an NBA title.

7) Charlotte Bobcats: Reasons for hope: Coach Larry Brown has long specialized in quickly improving sub-.500 teams and that has again been the case in Charlotte; last season he led the Bobcats to their first playoff berth on the strength of a franchise-best 44 wins. The Bobcats are a quintessential Brown team: hard nosed and defensive-minded.

Reasons to mope: Gerald Wallace and Steven Jackson are the team's best players, which means that the Bobcats will have great difficulty getting past the first round any time soon. The Bobcats have a serious weakness at center.

Bottom line: If everything goes well then Brown may squeeze 50 wins out of this team but 40-45 wins is a more realistic expectation.

8) Cleveland Cavaliers: Reasons for hope: Coach Byron Scott twice led the New Jersey Nets to the NBA Finals and he also guided the 2008 New Orleans Hornets to 56 wins in a stacked Western Conference. Former All-Stars Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison will be eager to demonstrate that LeBron James' departure did not leave the cupboard completely bare for the Cavaliers.

Reasons to mope: In one fateful offseason the Cavs lost the reigning two-time regular season MVP, their top two centers, a versatile guard who paced the squad in playoff minutes in 2009 and a defensive-minded head coach who led the team to the 2007 NBA Finals and to the league's best regular season record two years in a row. At this time last year the Cavaliers were legit championship contenders but now some (misguided) people are saying that they could be the worst team in the league. That is a lot of turmoil in a short period of time.

Bottom line: The "stat gurus" insist that LeBron James accounted for about 99.9% of the Cavaliers' wins but the reality is that any MVP-caliber player is worth about 15-20 wins over the course of an 82 game season. The departures of Shaquille O'Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West are more significant than casual fans probably think but newly acquired guard Ramon Sessions will thrive under Scott. The way I figure it, the Cavs lost about 25-30 wins but then added about 5-10 wins. The main concern is not so much talent--the projected starting lineup is playoff caliber--but rather that the team has instantly gone from being the league's deepest to being quite thin, particularly up front. I expect the Cavaliers to hover right around .500 for most of the season and to manage to hold on to the final playoff spot. The low expectations in some quarters for this team reminds me a bit of how people thought that the 1994 Bulls would collapse after Michael Jordan's sudden and unexpected retirement; that team, led by MVP candidate Scottie Pippen, surprised a lot of people and I think that the Cavs can have similar unexpected success, albeit on a much smaller scale (the 1994 Bulls turned out to be legit contenders, while the Cavs will exceed expectations just by making the playoffs).

The race for the East's eighth playoff berth has been very competitive for the past three seasons and that will almost certainly be the case in 2011. The media will focus a lot of attention on the New York Knicks in the wake of the Amare Stoudemire acquisition and the Carmelo Anthony speculation but the reality is that the Knicks under Mike D'Antoni have not been any better than the Knicks under the much reviled Isiah Thomas. Stoudemire is not much of an upgrade over David Lee. The Knicks will probably be in the mix for the last playoff spot just because the bar is set so low at the bottom of the East but despite the hype I expect the Knicks to fall short.

The Washington Wizards are another team that the mainstream media has inexplicably loved for quite some time (last season the "experts" at the Sporting News tapped Washington as the third best team in the league) and the hype machine is in overdrive with Gilbert Arenas returning to play alongside highly touted rookie John Wall. The Wizards should have won more than 26 games last season, so they certainly have enough talent to jump into the pig pile of teams fighting for the right to get swept in the first round, but I expect them to once again miss the playoffs.

The Indiana Pacers finally have a legit starting point guard (Darren Collison) and that could very well be enough for them to add 8-10 wins to their 2010 total (32) and sneak into the postseason.

Like Larry Brown, Doug Collins typically does a good job of quickly turning teams around, so add the Sixers to the list of East teams that will finish with between 35-40 wins.

It is not clear what Joe Dumars' plan is for Detroit, but the Pistons have gone from 59 wins to 39 wins to 27 wins and they now have a mismatched roster with no stars (former stars don't count) and too many players who play the same position. I'll say now what most people will say looking back in 10 years: it is amazing that under Dumars' watch the Pistons traded Chauncey Billups and then benched Allen Iverson because it was considered vitally important to make Rodney Stuckey a starter.

Even if the New Jersey Nets improve by 25 wins--a substantial amount--that still would likely leave them out of the playoff picture.

The Toronto Raptors sans Bosh may take the Nets' place in the East's basement.

**********

Note:

I correctly picked six of the eight 2009-10 Eastern Conference playoff teams, matching my 2008-09 record. 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 30/40 (75%) overall for the five years that I have posted Eastern Conference previews online.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:55 PM

26 comments

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26 Comments:

At Tuesday, October 19, 2010 11:13:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

Bold but solid picks. We are in the minority, but I would also rank the East's most likely Finals representative in roughly the same order. Assuming health, I agree Celtics-Magic-Heat. But all things considered, I think the Magic are the most likely to avoid injuries to key players (Celtics due to age, and for the Heat an injury to Wade). All three are very close though in my view. Maybe 35%-33%-32% likelihoods (Magic/Celtics/Heat).

For fun, I just checked some online odds, and we are definitely in the minority:
Eastern Conference Champions
Heat: 4/6
Magic: 9/2
Celtics: 11/2
http://sports.williamhill.com/bet/en-gb/betting/e/1375275/NBA---Eastern-Conference-Winner.html

It will definitely be an interesting season -- and playoffs -- to watch unfold. I suspect you agree, but I would not be surprised to see the Heat (like James' Cavs) grab either the League-best record or the best record in the East but still wilt like the Cavs did in the playoffs.

 
At Wednesday, October 20, 2010 1:27:00 AM, Anonymous Efueshe said...

First off I must say that I'm ecstatic that you've written another article; I've been waiting to read your Conference Previews and finally get some sound writing that ESPN and NBA.com so desperately need. I have some questions concerning your preview: How do you think the Celtics will hold up defensively without Tom Thibeadou, and while on that note, do you think that Mr. T was a good choice for the "revamped" Bulls? Do you think that Shaq saying this year that one the reasons behind him choosing to play for the Celtics was for the exposure will have a negative impact on the team? And lastly with the addition of Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews and hopefully soon Carlos Boozer do you think the Chicago can nowkeep the defense honest regarding outside shooting, therefore opening up the inside for Noah and Boozer to freely reign and Rose to penetrate?
Thank you for recognizing the Bucks' drastic improvement and placing them in the fourth playoff spot; if Andrew Bogut stays healthy that have a legitimate second round playoff spot waiting for them. That team may not have the star power big names that casual fans constantly hear about, but they have good role players, a formidable fast break weapon, a developing point guard and a legit 20 and 10 BIG big, something that the many teams especially in the East lack severely. It constantly surprises me how few people seem to remember that defense and rebounding wins championships, until the stats during the playoffs prove that this rings true. Bron, Wade and Bosh are all All-Stars and the former two MVP-caliber players but none of them holds a defensive presence in the paint that time and time again predicts who will win the chip.
I'm excited to see your Western Conference predictions, as many have touted OKC as the team that could give the Lakers the most problems.

Although the Thunder have made drastic strides last year they were also blessed with amazing health and a meeting with a severely hobbled Lakers headlined by Bryant playing on one knee for the first four games. I have yet to hear one analysis that "remembers" that he and many of the Lakers had an assortment of injuries, many on their hands and fingers, which are clearly one of the more pivotal aspects to shooting. Although I do believe the Thunder have lots of potential, I'm just not believing the hype. Portland won the same amount of games with an embarrassment of injuries that bled into the playoffs. I personally believe that Portland and maybe Dallas or San Antonio are on the second tier right below the Lakers. Lastly, I just want to thank you again for not relying solely on stats for your analysis because I can see that many writers and reporters fail to even watch games; ESPN writers frequently state wrong numbers of games played in playoff series and playoff scores while trying to provide basketball "analysis" and it's really shameful how many times I can read 20 different stories regarding a basketball player's every breath. Their "love" for basketball should really be attributed to the love of statistics.

 
At Wednesday, October 20, 2010 3:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

J:

Odds are based on convincing a pool of bettors to evenly distribute their wagers; they are not really predictions but instead they are reflections of how the oddsmaker thinks that the betting public thinks. I am sure that most casual fans expect the Heat to cruise to the Finals, so therefore the "price" to place a wager on the Heat reflects that perception.

Yes, I would not at all be surprised if the Heat post the best regular season record but fail to advance to the Finals. I see no indication that Boston or Orlando will be chasing the number one seed but the Heat will be highly motivated to attain that distinction. A healthy Boston team can certainly win at least one playoff game in Miami. After what I personally witnessed (pun intended) of LeBron James in games two and five of the Boston-Cleveland series it would be difficult for me to pick his team to win a championship as long as there is at least one veteran, tough-minded team in his path--and right now there are three such teams (Celtics and Magic in the East, Lakers in the West).

 
At Wednesday, October 20, 2010 3:20:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Efueshe:

I think that Coach Thibodeau made a very important contribution to Boston's defense but that the Celtics will still be an excellent defensive team without him. Some people wondered how the Patriots would do after some of Belichick's renowned assistants departed but the Patriots nearly went 19-0 in 2007, they had a good record in 2008 even without Tom Brady, they were a solid playoff team last year while rebuilding their aging defense and they look like at least a solid playoff team this year.

It remains to be seen how well Thibodeau will do as a head coach; he has no such experience at the highest level of the game and there are plenty of outstanding assistant coaches who lack some of the necessities to be good head coaches. I am not saying that Thibodeau falls into that category but we won't know for sure until he has been on the job for a season or two.

Shaq is not the great leader or teammate that the mainstream media make him out to be but he understands that he is near the end of his career and that he does not have much leeway to be a distraction; when you are averaging 30 and 12 you can pretty much say and do whatever you want but when you are a 38 year old role player you better understand your place in the pecking order.

Yes, the Bucks have a nice team but I cannot see them beating any of the East's top three teams unless one of those teams is depleted by injuries.

My Western Conference preview will be posted later today.

 
At Wednesday, October 20, 2010 1:52:00 PM, Anonymous khandor said...

Hi, David.

A solid set of analyses on your part. Two quick points, however:

1. Until the Heat prove how good they are this season, it is prudent to exercise a wait and asee attitude concerning their actual championship-winning aspirations.

2. IMO, this year's Miami team is likely to perform better than you are anticipating at this point in time, if they can in fact remain healthy.

It should be a terrific season in the NBA this year.

 
At Wednesday, October 20, 2010 3:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Khandor:

1) I am taking a "wait and see attitude" regarding the Heat's chances to win a title; the people who are predicting 72 wins this year and multiple titles over the next few seasons are the ones who are jumping to conclusions.

2) I predicted that the Heat, if healthy, would win at least 60 regular season games, have roughly a 50-50 chance to beat Orlando in a playoff series (I slightly favor Orlando) and should not be favored to beat a healthy Boston team. Which of those expectations do you expect Miami to exceed?

 
At Wednesday, October 20, 2010 3:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I think the Heat definitely qualify as championship contenders, I also agree with your assessment, David.

Their fatal weakness is that 5 spot. A lot of people like to point out as a counter argument that Bosh is an excellent player at the 4 and that could make up for the weakness, but as you mention, he is a beanpole and lacks the size/strength to guard the Laker/Celtic/Magic big men. Dwight Howard has absolutely wrecked him in their past matchups (although Bosh clearly played better between the two in the Olympics), and I don't see why that would change now.

Teams like the Celtics and Lakers, who start TWO solid post players (Bynum and Gasol for the Lakers, Garnett and Perkins/either of the O'Neals for Boston) will provide even bigger matchup problems, in my estimation.

While James and Wade as your two wing players is literally frightening, its hard to deal with a team like the Lakers, whose biggest advantage is their size, when your team is a donut.

 
At Wednesday, October 20, 2010 4:27:00 PM, Anonymous khandor said...

David,

The key for Miami will be the continuous good health of James, Wade and ... most importantly? ... Bosh.

If all three are able to play 70+ games, and are healthy entering the playoffs ... which is a a huge question mark, IMO, given the injury history of Wade and Bosh ... then, the Heat should be able to exceed the 63 win plateau and will probably be the "betting favourite" heading into the Eastern Conference Finals ... against either Boston or Orlando.

From the Lakers' perspective, OTOH ... retaining good health throughout the season is going to be equally important, as without home-court advantage this year, or without a 100% Andrew Bynum, they might be lacking some of the quality depth which will be required to three-peat, given the strength and motivation of the other prime contenders in the East.

PS. Depending on the health of the Lakers [i.e. if they are dealing with an injury of any sort to Bryant, Gasol, Odom, Artest, Fisher, Bynum, Walton, Vujacic, Brown, Blake or Barnes], Miami will in all likelihood also be the "betting favourite", if the Heat is able to reach the NBA Finals against them this season.

PPS. On the whole, however, I think your analysis is quite accurate, as is.

 
At Wednesday, October 20, 2010 5:59:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I don't think that comparing the Heat with the 1968-71 Lakers is a good comparison. For one thing, Miami's stars are all in their primes, while those Lakers (especially Baylor) were all over the hill. Secondly, having teams stacked with hall-of-famers was more common in the 60s and 70s than it is now. Basically, today's Heat are younger and face less star-studded competition than the Lakers you compared them to. Pat Riley is also ready to step in if things aren't working out. He's much more competent than Butch van Breda Kolff was.

I would agree that a healthy Boston team playing as well as they did in the 2010 playoffs should be favored against the Heat. However, I think it is very likely that Boston will be dealing with some key injuries come playoff time. Also, most key players on Boston's roster are at ages where it's common to experience very steep declines from one year to the next. We saw that with Garnett already. There's a decent chance that some of their players will be much less effective this year than they were last year. Taking into account the likelihood of issues with injuries and aging, I give Miami a better chance to make it to the Finals.

As for Orlando, I think Carter is past his prime, and Lewis and Nelson are not the kind of players who are good enough to take over big games for extended periods. If Dwight Howard makes a big leap offensively, they could contend. However, I think it is unlikely that we will witness more than a marginal improvement from Howard. But you are right that interior defense may be Miami's Achilles heal, and perhaps Howard can exploit that, even with all of the limitations we've seen in his game.


I predict the Lakers will defeat the Heat in the 2011 Finals. Afterwards, Michael Jordan will tell us that Kobe Bryant is one of the top 50 basketball players born in the 1970s.

 
At Wednesday, October 20, 2010 10:44:00 PM, Blogger Michael said...

David, Kobe quit against the Celtics in 08 but came back to win in 09 and 10 so don't be surprised with Lebron.

 
At Thursday, October 21, 2010 2:26:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

We agree overall but it should be noted that performance in the Olympics/other FIBA events has nothing to do with the NBA game; the rules are different, the styles of play are different and the levels of competition are different.

 
At Thursday, October 21, 2010 2:36:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Khandor:

It would not surprise me if the Heat win 63-plus games.

I am not particularly concerned with who the "betting favorites" are because that has a lot to do with bookmakers trying to adjust the betting lines according to how they view public perceptions. I consider the Celtics as presently constituted to be a better playoff team than the Heat as presently constituted. After an 82 game regular season plus a round or two of playoff play (it is doubtful that the teams would meet early in the playoffs) a lot could happen to change my opinion.

I don't think that the Lakers' championship hopes would be derailed by injuries to Walton, Vujacic, Brown, Blake or Barnes. Maybe if all of those guys got hurt and the Lakers simply had no bench that would be a problem but in the playoffs the Lakers will be most dependent on Bryant, Gasol, Odom and Artest--they have demonstrated that even Bynum's presence is not essential, though it obviously makes things easier (as noted in my Western Conference Preview, Bynum did not play heavy minutes in either of the last two postseasons).

 
At Thursday, October 21, 2010 3:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

The Lakers-Heat comparison that I made is not a perfect comparison--there is no such thing--but it is a good, valid comparison in the sense that assembling a power trio in any era does not automatically guarantee winning a championship. Also, while the Lakers' stars were past their primes (particularly Baylor), Chamberlain and West were still outstanding players: West finished second in regular season MVP voting each year from 1969-71 and Chamberlain won four rebounding titles and three field goal percentage titles as a Laker.

Another example of a power trio that did not win an NBA title is Erving-McGinnis-Collins--two ABA MVPs who had each led teams to at least one championship prior to coming to the Sixers plus a perennial All-Star guard. All I am saying is that the Heat should not be considered favorites until they show that they can make it through a season as a healthy and productive unit.

I agree that the Celtics will probably have some injury problems this season but they had injury problems last season and still knocked off the number one overall seed before pushing the defending champions to seven games. It is also worth remembering that when the going got tough against Boston LeBron James quit in games two and five. LeBron James has yet to lead a team to victory in playoff competition against an elite quality defensive team (he has lost to the 2007 Spurs, 2008 Celtics and 2010 Celtics in such scenarios).

Carter is certainly past his prime but he is still a productive player. The way Orlando plays they are not dependent on any one single wing/perimeter player to be dominant; they rely on Howard drawing double teams and then whoever is open making the resulting shot. The Heat will have to double team Howard, which will provide easy opportunities for Carter, Nelson and/or Lewis. The Celtics and Lakers do not have to double team Howard and that is one reason that those teams defeated Orlando in the last two postseasons.

I think that the Lakers will beat the Celtics, claiming best two out of three bragging rights for this era, placing Kobe two championships ahead of Shaq and tying MJ's six championships. As your humorous final remark suggests, I don't think that MJ is thrilled about the prospect of Kobe owning as many rings as he does but I think that Kobe wisely took the high road with his response to MJ's comments. Kobe previously said that he learned from the infamous Shaq-Kobe situation that answering publicly only makes things worse and I think that Kobe is right that, taken in the proper context (i.e., there have been many great guards, including MJ, Magic, Oscar and West), it is not insulting for MJ to say that Kobe is a top 10 all-time guard--top 10 could mean 10th, fifth or first.

 
At Thursday, October 21, 2010 3:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Michael:

Kobe certainly did not quit versus the Celtics in the 2008 Finals. There are a lot of ways to refute your contention but the simplest is to point out that the Celtics frequently sent two or even three defenders at Kobe, a tactic that certainly would not be necessary against a player who quit. The Lakers lost to the Celtics that year because Gasol had a very soft series and the Lakers had a matchup problem with whichever wing player (Pierce or Allen) Kobe was not guarding, much like what happened to the Lakers in the 2004 Finals when Billups and Hamilton took turns eating Gary Payton's lunch.

In contrast, LeBron spent significant portions of games two and five versus the Celtics passively located well behind the three point line; he did not drive to the hoop aggressively and he looked disinterested in general.

 
At Thursday, October 21, 2010 5:21:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

It's true that the Celtics came extremely close to winning the title last year despite injuries. However, it should be noted that one of the reasons the Celtics were able to defeat Cleveland and Orlando but came up short against the Lakers was that Kevin Garnett was much more productive in the Eastern playoffs than in the Finals. I'm sure age and injuries were big factors in preventing KG from maintaining a high level of play throughout Boston's playoff run.

Anyway, there's also a chance some of Boston's key players will suffer dramatic drop-offs from their 2009-10 production. It's something that often happens to players in their mid-30s. That's what happened to KG after 2008. Maybe this year, Pierce or Allen will no longer be able to play like stars. Maybe Shaq or JO will be much less valuable as role players than their 2009-10 performances suggest. Maybe we'll witness a further decline in KG's game.

All I'm saying is that aging teams are susceptible to to sudden, steep decline. That is why I'm hesitant to predict Boston to defend their Eastern Conference title despite their impressive 2010 playoff run.


Although Miami probably cannot single-cover Dwight Howard as successfully as some other teams, I still think they can get away with single-covering him. I don't think Howard is good enough offensively to make most teams pay for not doubling him.


You wrote: "LeBron James has yet to lead a team to victory in playoff competition against an elite quality defensive team." You don't think the 2007 Pistons count?

Anyway, even if LeBron is somehow incapable of rising to the occasion in playoff competition against elite teams (which I doubt, considering his performances in 2007 and, even in defeat, in 2009), Dwyane Wade showed how great he could be in 2006 when things got tough. Other than Kobe, I can't think of a superstar today who has a clearly superior record than Wade or James when it comes to performing in big playoff games (I omitted Shaq and Tim Duncan because they are clearly past their primes).

I'm not ready to declare that the Heat will win multiple titles, as some others have. But talent is still a big deal, and I think Boston is too old and Orlando too flawed to favor them against Miami.

 
At Friday, October 22, 2010 6:20:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I think that matchups had a lot to do with KG's varying productivity; Jamison really struggled to guard KG and I think that the Cavs were reluctant to put Varejao on KG because Varejao was somewhat hobbled by a leg injury that he suffered in the Chicago series (Varejao's real injury, as opposed to LeBron's overhyped elbow situation, had a bigger effect on the Boston series than most people realize, though even a healthy Varejao could not have overcome the impact of LeBron quitting).

In contrast, Gasol did a much more effective job versus KG this time around than he did in 2008. Yes, KG is not the same player that he was two years ago but Gasol played tougher and smarter than he did before.

Of course you are right that there is a chance that injuries/age will derail the Celtics--but the Celtics have made it to the Finals two of the past three years and they have significantly upgraded their depth, meaning that they can better withstand injuries.

I am not convinced that the Heat can get away with single covering Howard. Who are you nominating for that assignment? Z? Magliore? Joel Anthony? Howard will abuse any of those guys because they are not strong enough and/or quick enough to keep Howard out of dunking range. Maybe Miami will use some form of the "Hack a Howard" strategy but if that is the case the Heat may not show their hand in that regard until the playoffs.

No, I do not count the 2007 Pistons as an elite defensive team; the 2004 and 2005 Pistons under Larry Brown were an elite defensive team but the Pistons experienced serious slippage under Flip Saunders. You may recall that prior to the 2007 playoffs I correctly predicted that the Cavs would make it to the Finals at a time when most self-proclaimed experts were picking the Pistons, claiming that Saunders had installed a "liberation offense" while retaining the team's defensive intensity--two claims that proved to be quite fraudulent at crunch time.

I am not saying that LeBron has not put up good playoff numbers; I am saying that he has yet to prove that he can lead his team to victory in a playoff series against an elite defensive team: he has had three opportunities to do so thus far. That does not mean that he will never accomplish this; it simply means exactly what I said: he has yet to prove that he can do this.

LeBron has certainly put up gaudy playoff numbers but after watching him for several years (including seeing the vast majority of his home playoff games in person) I feel like something is missing; he was on the best, deepest team in the league the past two seasons and yet he did not lead them to the Finals.

 
At Friday, October 22, 2010 6:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

The LeBron-Wade dynamic will be very interesting to watch when the Heat are involved in close playoff games. Despite what many people say, LeBron is clearly the superior player and I therefore find it very hard to believe that LeBron is going to simply give up the ball to Wade down the stretch. LeBron is a very ball dominant player and he is going to want the ball in his hands down the stretch, even if he just chooses to dribble around aimlessly before firing perimeter jumpers. That leads me to another issue: I do not agree with the LeBron-Magic comparisons, as I mentioned in my review of the most recent Pluto-Windhorst book about James; Magic was truly a pass first player and he seemed to intuitively sense exactly what his team needed for him to do, while LeBron is one of the great scorers in NBA history but he seems to be a little more interested in his stat line than in winning. LeBron is a very good passer but I don't believe that he is going to reduce his scoring this year, at least not to the extent that is commonly expected; LeBron will lead the Heat in scoring (and probably still contend for the scoring title) simply because he scores more easily/efficiently than Wade and because he is bigger, stronger and more durable than Wade.

Watching LeBron in the playoffs the past two years, I really started to wonder just how much help--and what specific kind of help--he needs to win a championship. Kobe Bryant twice led teams to the playoffs in the West with Smush Parker as his point guard and Kwame Brown as his center. After the addition of a one-time All-Star to the lineup the Lakers reeled off three straight Finals appearances and two championships despite receiving minimal contributions from the starting center, despite having the worst starting point guard among any of the contending teams and despite having a bench that is so thin that the main reserve was the 13th man on the Cavs' 2007 Finalists and he received no interest around the league this offseason as a free agent (I count Shannon Brown as the Lakers' top reserve because Odom plays de facto starter's minutes in the postseason as a result of Bynum's injuries). The Lakers have far from a perfect roster; they have some good parts that look a lot better playing alongside Bryant--but for the past two years the Cavs had a roster that was at least 10 deep with players who had started playoff games either for the Cavs or for other franchises, they had a defensive-minded coach who had transformed them into one of the league's best defensive squads, they coasted to the best record with plenty of room to spare and yet something always went wrong when push came to shove against elite teams in the playoffs. There is a lot more to leading a team to a championship than just putting up gaudy individual numbers; a championship team's leader has to set a tone in practice, on offense and on defense. With Kobe Bryant setting the tone, the Lakers do not experience much slippage for very long in any of those areas. Does LeBron have that kind of impact?

 
At Friday, October 22, 2010 10:56:00 AM, Anonymous khandor said...

If the Heat are going to do as well as expected this season, they will need to have two distinct things happen:

1. Each of Wade, James and Bosh will need to remain healthy;

and,

2. D-Wade will NEED to keep his place as THE "Leader" of their team.

If either one of these two things fails to materialize this season ... then, IMO, there's a fairly good chance that Miami will NOT be able to win the NBA Title this year.

 
At Friday, October 22, 2010 3:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Khandor:

LeBron has been very durable thus far in his career. Wade has been relatively healthy the past couple years but in three of his seven seasons he has missed at least 21 games. Bosh has missed at least 12 games in four of his seven seasons.

In most cases, THE "Leader" of a team is that team's best player (veterans like Derek Fisher can be leaders but a role player cannot be THE "Leader"). LeBron is clearly the best player on the Heat and, for better or worse, he will be the team's leader not just statistically but in terms of setting the tone for how the team practices and how the team performs.

Can a LeBron-led team win a championship? I guess we will find out, because now that he has teamed up with the two most coveted free agents (other than himself) and boldly declared that Miami will win multiple titles he really has no excuses--but don't be surprised to see him rubbing his elbow again if things get tight during the playoffs.

 
At Friday, October 22, 2010 9:51:00 PM, Anonymous khandor said...

David,

Unlike you, perhaps ... as well as scores of others ... it is not a foregone conclusion for me that L-James is ... or, should be considered to be ... a superior basketball player, in comparison with D-Wade.

e.g. 1. Each player is unique with a specific set of strengths and weaknesses. 2. Although L-James is generally thought to have the more diverse skill-set, and to be more prolific at what it is he does on the court, in terms of his "production numbers" ... this alone does not mean that he is actually THE superior basketball player when compared to either Kobe Bryant [with which I know you happen to agree] or D-Wade [with which I know you happen to disagree].

I will stand by my earlier comment.

i.e. If D-Wade is capable of retaining his former role as THE "Leader" of the Heat, then, IMO, there's a fairly good chance that Miami will be able to meet the expectations they will be playing under this season. However, should it come to pass that L-James ascends to this position for their team this season, then, IMO, there's a fairly good chance that Miami will NOT be able to meet the expectations they will be playing under this year.

 
At Saturday, October 23, 2010 2:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Khandor:

There is not one skill set area in which Wade is superior to James--and James has a pronounced advantage in size and strength. James is the best player on the Heat. We will soon find out what that means for the Heat and for the league in general. Whether or not factions in the media anoint Wade as the leader, James will set the tone for the team.

 
At Saturday, October 23, 2010 1:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel


i think knicks got chance to make playoffs nets do as well and also pacers might too. cavs not convinced they will lebron was alot of what they do they looked nice in pre season but i dont think will be great prob 35 wins or so.

charlotte first round exit so will 6th seed milwaukee 4 or 5 atlanta chi will be second round exit.


the three real teams i think miami has good shot to win east. question can boston duplicate 2009-2010 playoff run i dont think so personally 3 players mid thirties then shaq oneal mid thirties i think age will catch up with them. miami got hole in middle no doubt but there perimeter with wade and james is a big advantage james has owned pierce and wade plays well vs boston. kg wont have advantage vs bosh at this stage of career shaq and perk not big off threats, the heat got good bench well see how it works out.

orlando has advantage with howard in middle but james this time isnt by himself he got wade to do what mo willams struggled to do in 09 playoffs. plus howard is not good enough offensively to make you pay for singleing him. and heat have big advantage on peremiter with wade james combo over carter lewis.

i like heat to get to finals if lakers healthy i like lakers the size of odom bynum gasol might be too much wade kobe would be even james has advantage over artest if it is not big lakers okay it will depend how miller house howard etc play as well.

true durant gunning for james but i dont see durant ever being better than james in james prime durant is better version of carmelo anthony he is super great scorer who does not do much else his rebounding got to improve 2 assists a game james get 8 the vision passing ability and defense not close he never be better than james to he get old so james is def best player at his position and prob best in league.

 
At Sunday, October 24, 2010 1:04:00 PM, Anonymous khandor said...

David,

I am not claiming that D-Wade has any particular skill, or a skill-set, in general, which is superior to that of L-James.

IMO, the best individual basketball players in the NBA today are, in order:

1. Kobe Bryant;
2. Dwyane Wade; and,
3. LeBron James.

Others are certainly entitled to hold a different opinion than mine.

In addition, the specific observation/claim which I am making in this thread involves the concept of "Leadership", and my personal belief that D-Wade is a superior leader compared to L-James.

If D-Wade is capable of holding onto his former role as THE Leader for the Heat, then, IMO, this year's team is quite capable of reaching the expectations others have placed on them.

If, however, D-Wade is not capable of retaining his former role as THE Leader for the Heat, then, IMO, this year's team may well fall prey to a similar fate which has befallen the Cleveland Cavaliers for the last few seasons, while working under the questionable "leadership skills" of L-James.

IMO, what D-Wade has needed in order to be able to win HIS 2nd NBA Championship are supporting teammates that possess the qualities and skill-sets of players like C-Bosh, L-James, U-Haslem, E-House, M-Miller, J-Stackhouse, Big Z, J-Howard, J-Anthony, C-Arroyo, M-Chalmers, D-Pittman, etc., and a coach E-Spoelstra. Now that HE has those things in place with the Heat, it will be interesting to see if HE is as good as I have always perceived him to be, as a first-class leader and a championship-winning player.

Cheers

 
At Monday, October 25, 2010 3:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Khandor:

It will indeed be interesting to see who emerges as THE Leader (to use your terminology) in Miami but I will be surprised if it is not LeBron. LeBron is the best player on the team and he is also the most vocal player; he is going to dominate the ball, he is going to dominate verbally and everyone else is going to fall in line behind him (for better or worse).

I do agree with you that LeBron's leadership skills are somewhat lacking; watching him over the years, I thought that he had developed a lot in that regard but either he had me (and a lot of other people) fooled or he really regressed last season, because his performance (on the court and off the court in press conferences, etc.) during last season's playoffs was disgraceful and his handling of his free agency "Decision" was ridiculous (not so much the decision itself--though I think that he should have stayed in Cleveland--but all of the hoopla that he generated around it).

The most interesting piece of information about LeBron that came out--and has never been challenged or refuted, to the best of my knowledge--is Adrian Wojnarowki's report that LeBron was such a high maintenance person (i.e., a poor leader, among other things) with Team USA that USA Basketball seriously considered leaving him off of the roster entirely before deciding to essentially have Jason Kidd babysit LeBron and teach him how to act like an adult. Think about that: LeBron is clearly the most gifted athlete in the NBA and arguably the best player (depending on which season we are talking about and whether we are talking regular season or playoffs) and yet USA Basketball basically thought of him in the same light as Gilbert Arenas (who was an All-NBA player at the time that USA Basketball essentially told him, "Don't call us, we'll call you"). In contrast, Kobe's leadership and his focus on defense transformed Team USA into a championship team. Nowhere is the real difference between Kobe and LeBron more evident than the last few minutes of the gold medal game in 2008 or the contrast between how those two players (and their teams) performed against the Celtics, Magic and Spurs in the playoffs since 2007.

 
At Tuesday, October 26, 2010 2:39:00 AM, Anonymous Jase said...

Ok, you can take your pick who is better between LeBron and Wade, but I can't allow you to get away with propagating the notion that LeBron is superior in every skill department.

Wade is a better ball handler, penetrator, help defender, and a more versatile scorer (LeBron has scored more because he's shot more-- pay attention to HOW they both score). Historically, he's also been a better midrange shooter and FT shooter, although not last season.

LeBron has many areas in which he is superior too. Saying he is a better basketball player than Wade is a defensible position. Saying he is better than Wade at everything is not.

Wade has become very underappreciated in the years he has been carrying severely under-talented teams to consecutive playoff appearances (just as Kobe Bryant did). But, that ends this season.

 
At Tuesday, October 26, 2010 5:29:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jase:

Contrary to what you wrote, I never said that LeBron is superior to Wade "in every skill department." My exact comment was "There is not one skill set area in which Wade is superior to James--and James has a pronounced advantage in size and strength." In other words, Wade may be equal (or close to equal) to LeBron in a few areas but he is not superior to LeBron in anything.

LeBron and Wade may be roughly equal in terms of their ballhandling and penetrating skills, though I would give LeBron the edge in those areas. Numbers rarely tell the whole story but LeBron averages more assists and fewer turnovers than Wade; I do not rely heavily on either of those statistics but I would say that Wade is a bit more careless with the ball than LeBron is and also that LeBron's height/strength advantages enable him to make plays that Wade simply cannot make (or, at the very least, LeBron can make such plays more consistently).

LeBron is a better and more versatile defender than Wade. Again, size is a factor here as well, because LeBron can guard virtually any position on the court except center. As I have repeatedly mentioned, even if LeBron and Wade were equally skilled--which they are not--I would take LeBron simply because he is so much bigger.

Wade is not a more versatile scorer; Wade's main go-to scoring move is to drive full speed to the hoop, which is part of the reason he gets hurt so much. When Wade goes left he will sometimes shoot a step back jumper. Wade is a career .289 three point shooter who has shot .300 or better from behind the arc just three times in his seven year career. He has little to no post up game and his midrange game is inconsistent other than the aforementioned step back jumper when he drives to the left (he rarely shoots that jumper going to the right, in contrast to a player like Kobe Bryant who can attack defenses from virtually anywhere on the court). LeBron is not as versatile offensively as he could and should be but he is more versatile than Wade.

Wade's free throw shooting is only marginally better than LeBron's and LeBron has improved in this area whereas Wade has regressed a bit.

In each of the past two years, Wade has been in the top five in MVP voting, made the All-NBA First Team and made the All-Defensive Second Team, so I don't see how anyone could reasonably suggest that he is underrated. If anything, he is overrated in some quarters--namely, by anyone who truly believes that Wade is on the same level as Kobe and LeBron. Wade's teams have not won a playoff series since 2006 and under his watch the Heat's championship team imploded in a fashion that is rare--if not unprecedented--for a titlist whose roster was not either broken up or decimated by injuries; the 2007 Heat flamed out in the first round and then the 2008 Heat lost 26 of 28 games at one point. You could give Kobe the worst starting point guard in the NBA and the worst starting center in the NBA and he would not go 2-26; that is not speculation, either, because he pushed, pulled and dragged the Smush Parker/Kwame Brown pg/c duo to the playoffs. While Wade did not have a championship caliber supporting cast the past two seasons he unquestionably had more help around him than Kobe had in 2006 and 2007.

 

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