2010-11 Eastern Conference Preview
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).
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.
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.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:55 PM