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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

2010-11 Western Conference Preview

Only seven wins separated the top eight teams in the West in two of the past three years (the Lakers lapped the field in 2009 but the other seven playoff teams that year were only separated by six wins) and in each of those seasons at least 48 wins were required to secure the eighth seed. Both of those trends figure to continue this year, so one tweaked ankle of a key player could have a huge effect on the final standings.

Yesterday I posted my Eastern Conference Preview; this preview has the same format, with the following eight teams ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the Finals and not necessarily in the order that the teams will be seeded during the playoffs (which is affected by which teams win division championships).

1) L.A. Lakers: Reasons for hope: The number one reason is the main reason that the Lakers have won back to back championships and have made it to the Finals three straight times: Kobe Bryant. The words that I wrote in last year's Western Conference Preview still apply today (just change 2009 to 2010 in the first sentence):

LeBron James had the most productive regular season of any NBA player in 2009 and deservedly won the MVP but during the playoffs Kobe Bryant demonstrated that he still has the most complete skill set of any player in the league. Bryant's ability to consistently make the midrange jump shot not only opens up driving lanes for him but affects the way opposing teams defend his teammates, enabling the other Lakers to feast on wide open looks because Bryant simply must be trapped in any screen/roll situation (teams can sag off of James because he is not as deadly or consistent from midrange as Bryant is, even though James laudably has improved his three point and free throw percentages).

Bryant was hobbled by knee, ankle and finger injuries during most of the regular season and all of the playoffs, yet his outstanding 2010 postseason numbers (29.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.5 apg, .458 FG%, .374 3FG%, .842 FT%) are not only remarkably consistent with his 2009 and 2008 postseason statistics (30.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg , 5.5 apg, .457 FG%, .349 FG%, .883 FT%; 30.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.6 apg, .479 FG%, .302 3FG%, .809 FT%) but they also stack up well against the numbers Michael Jordan posted during Chicago's second three-peat.

The injuries led to unusual variance in Bryant's numbers from game to game during some portions of the regular season but his final regular season statistics were in line with his production during the past two years, though his three point field goal percentage and free throw percentage both declined a bit--no doubt a byproduct of the avulsion fracture to the index finger of his right (shooting) hand that forced Bryant to alter his shooting stroke.

While Bryant is the focal point of the Lakers' success, the Lakers also benefit from having a marvelous second option (Pau Gasol), a lockdown wing defender (Ron Artest) and a power forward who is an outstanding rebounder (Lamar Odom). Coach Phil Jackson does a masterful job of running the show, knowing who needs a pat on the back and who needs a kick in the butt.

This season the Lakers also have a new reason for hope: their previously lackluster bench has been augmented by offseason acquisitions Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff.

Reasons to mope: The two-time defending champions do not have much to mope about. The biggest immediate issue is that starting center Andrew Bynum--who gamely delayed surgery and played with an injured knee during the playoffs--will not be ready to go at the start of the season. Bynum has played more than 65 games just once in his five season career and Coach Jackson has publicly acknowledged that if Bynum's body breaks down again this season the Lakers will seriously have to consider permanently reducing Bynum's minutes and role. It seems obvious that a young big guy who annually gets hurt is unlikely to suddenly become durable enough to make it through an entire season while logging starter's minutes. The good news for the Lakers is that they have already won two championships with nominal starter Bynum essentially playing a reserve role (11.8 mpg in the 2008 playoffs, 17.3 mpg in the 2009 playoffs). The reality is that in the games that counted the most the Lakers have not really been quite as big a team as some people suggest; during most of the key playoff minutes in the championship runs the Lakers usually put Gasol at center and Odom at power forward while Bynum watched from the bench. It is strange that some people act like the Lakers regularly deploy Bynum, Gasol and Odom at the same time, because those three players are in fact rarely on the court together.

Bryant also had offseason knee surgery and during the preseason it was obvious that while his mind was willing his body was not yet quite able to play at an elite level. The most important thing is that Bryant is healthy. There is no reason to believe that his shooting woes will continue into the season; he maintained his usual shooting percentages last season despite his myriad injuries, so all he has to do now is knock off a little rust that accumulated while he recovered from the knee surgery.

Bottom line: There are two plausible theories pertaining to the Lakers this season: one suggests that because Bryant is getting older and Bynum is constantly hurt the marathon season will wear the Lakers down and prevent them from winning a third straight title; another suggests that the Lakers--and Bryant in particular--know how to pace themselves so that they finish with an excellent regular season record and yet maintain enough energy to sustain themselves over two dozen or more playoff games. I am inclined to believe that the second theory is more valid. Bryant does not like to dwell on--or even acknowledge--his injuries but after the Finals were over he provided a brief glimpse into his thought process when he said with some exasperation that age did not affect him last year nearly as much as some critics contended; Bryant asserted that his occasional struggles merely reflected just how serious his injuries really were. In this context it is interesting to recall that four years ago Bryant had offseason surgery on the same knee, got off to a slow start and Coach Jackson said something to the effect that the days of Bryant regularly scoring 50 or 60 points were over--but Bryant ended up scoring 50 or more points in 10 games, including four straight (a streak only exceeded by Wilt Chamberlain). Bryant is unlikely to go on that kind of a scoring binge simply because the Lakers rarely need such pyrotechnics now but I suspect that even if Bryant starts slowly he will still end up averaging 26-27 ppg.

Since Bill Russell retired, six teams have tried to three-peat: the 1989 Lakers lost to the Pistons in the Finals after hamstring injuries felled their starting backcourt of Magic Johnson and Byron Scott, the 1991 Pistons were swept by the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, the 1993 Bulls three-peated, the 1996 Rockets were swept by the Sonics in the Western Conference semifinals, the 1998 Bulls three-peated and the 2002 Lakers three-peated. That adds up to a 50% success rate but it is worth noting that Phil Jackson has a 100% success rate (1993 and 1998 Bulls, 2002 Lakers).

2) San Antonio Spurs: Reasons for hope: As long as the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili is reasonably healthy the Spurs have to be viewed as a contender. Richard Jefferson struggled at times during his first season with the team but now he has a new contract and will likely be more comfortable in his role. The Spurs have high hopes for rookie big man Tiago Splitter, the Spanish League standout who they drafted back in 2007. DeJuan Blair and George Hill are young players who are already key members of the rotation and who both figure to have expanded roles as Coach Gregg Popovich carefully monitors the Big Three's minutes.

Reasons to mope: The Spurs have been slowly but inexorably declining in recent years, with their win totals dropping from 63 to 58 to 56 to 54 to 50. Some of that is because Coach Popovich has rested key players to keep them fresh for the postseason but that plan has not really worked the past two years: after winning the 2007 championship and reaching the 2008 Western Conference Finals the Spurs were eliminated in the first round in 2009 and the second round last year.

Bottom line: This may be the last season as a legit contender for the Spurs as they are currently constituted but if the veterans stay healthy and the youthful trio of Splitter, Blair and Hill is productive then the Spurs have a puncher's chance to dethrone the Lakers.

3) Oklahoma City Thunder: Reasons for hope: The Thunder have a marvelous nucleus of young players led by Kevin Durant, whose 30.2 ppg average last season enabled him to become the youngest scoring champion in league history. Explosive third year point guard Russell Westbrook looks like a star in the making. Coach Scott Brooks is not a screamer or an attention grabber but all you need to know about his coaching acumen is that his young team ranked seventh in the league in defensive field goal percentage despite not having a dominant shot blocker or ball thief; that means that he has persuaded the entire squad to buy into the idea of playing good, fundamentally sound defense.

Reasons to mope: The Thunder lack a dominant big man and that leads to matchup problems in slower paced, grind it out playoff games. Durant's production and efficiency dropped dramatically in the playoffs versus the Lakers' Ron Artest. This year Durant needs to prove that he can perform at an elite level in postseason play against physical defenders.

Bottom line: The Thunder are a rising team. They are probably too inexperienced and too small to survive the entire Western Conference playoff gauntlet but they are a threat to knock off anyone.

4) Dallas Mavericks: Reasons for hope: Dirk Nowitzki is still performing at an MVP caliber level; last season he averaged more points and shot better from both the three point line and the free throw line than he did during his 2007 MVP campaign. Fellow future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd is still a very productive player, while former All-Stars Caron Butler and Shawn Marion provide depth at small forward (Marion can also play power forward when the Mavericks go small).

Reasons to mope: In the four seasons since Dallas' heartbreaking loss in the 2006 NBA Finals, the Mavericks have advanced past the first round of the playoffs only once. They are a team that reliably wins 50 or more regular season games yet makes little postseason noise.

Bottom line: The addition of Tyson Chandler should boost the team's rebounding and interior defense but there is little reason to believe that the Mavs will win more than one playoff series.

5) Utah Jazz: Reasons for hope: Deron Williams has arguably emerged as the league's best point guard. Carlos Boozer departed in free agency but Al Jefferson should be able to at least duplicate Boozer's scoring and rebounding. The Jazz won 53 games last season, their second best total of the post Stockton-Malone era.

Reasons to mope: Coach Jerry Sloan's teams usually play with toughness and execute well but recently the Jazz have been a poor road team, a fault that makes it difficult to advance very far in the postseason.

Bottom line: Pencil the Jazz in for 50 wins but if they don't solve their road woes they will be eliminated in the first round.

6) Portland Trail Blazers: Reasons for hope: Brandon Roy has made the All-Star team three straight years and has earned consecutive All-NBA Team selections (Second Team in 2009, Third Team in an injury-riddled 2010). If Greg Oden can finally stay healthy he should provide the inside presence that this team has been lacking.

Reasons to mope: The Blazers seem to be jogging in place while some other Western Conference teams have upgraded their personnel.

Bottom line: If Oden does not have a very significant impact then the Blazers are probably headed for a third straight first round exit.

7) Phoenix Suns: Reasons for hope: Steve Nash is still performing his passing and shooting wizardry. Grant Hill has apparently found the Fountain of Youth in the Valley of the Sun. Coach Alvin Gentry discovered a happy medium between the "Seven Seconds or Less" offense and the minimal level of team defense that is necessary to win playoff games.

Reasons to mope: The committee of Hedo Turkoglu, Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress is not likely to make anyone forget Amare Stoudemire.

Bottom line: The Suns' trip to the Western Conference Finals looks very much like a one year wonder, a la Denver's similar journey in 2009.

8) Houston Rockets: Reasons for hope: Yao Ming is slated to return for limited duty and his unique combination of size and skill is just what the undersized Rockets need. Aaron Brooks, the 2010 Most Improved Player, is the kind of speedy guard who thrives under the NBA rules that limit contact by perimeter defenders.

Reasons to mope: How far can a team go if its best player is on a strict 24 mpg limitation?

Bottom line: The gritty Rockets are capable of beating any team on a given night but in a seven game series they will ultimately prove to be nothing but cannon fodder against any of the top Western teams.

The Denver Nuggets' window of opportunity has seemingly been slammed shut and boarded up. Carmelo Anthony has made it clear that he does not intend to stay in Denver, Chauncey Billups had very good numbers overall but looked like he was aging in dog years down the stretch, J.R. Smith did not let his plummeting shooting percentages discourage him from firing at will and Coach George Karl is returning from a grueling second battle with cancer. In the tough and improving Western Conference it is difficult to see how the Nuggets will win the 48-50 games that will probably be necessary to snag a playoff berth.

The Memphis Grizzlies are a young team on the rise but I think that they will barely miss the playoffs.

Chris Paul's healthy return will provide a boost to the New Orleans Hornets but they just don't have enough talent to compete with the best in the West on a nightly basis--and Paul's not so thinly veiled desire to leave town could be disruptive, particularly if the team gets off to a slow start.

The Sacramento Kings and L.A. Clippers are both taking baby steps in the right direction--but baby steps won't get you a ticket to the playoffs in the man's world that is the Wild West.

The Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves both have too many flaws to even think about qualifying for postseason play. In the immortal words of former Colts Coach Jim Mora, "Playoffs? Playoffs? Are you kidding me?"

**********

Note:

Last season, I correctly picked seven of the eight Western Conference playoff teams, matching my 2008-09 accuracy. I also went 7/8 in 2007-08; I went 6/8 in both 2006-07 and 2005-06, putting my five year percentage at .825 (33/40).

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:35 PM

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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.

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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

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