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Thursday, December 22, 2011

2011-12 Eastern Conference Preview

The 2011-12 NBA season will be abbreviated, condensed and probably very sloppy, much like the even more abbreviated and condensed 50 game sprint that followed the 1998 NBA lockout. Rosters have been thrown together hastily and players cannot possibly be in game condition; all of this randomness and chaos means that it is even more difficult than usual to make accurate predictions.

The "stat gurus" breathlessly told us prior to last season that the Miami Heat were about to win 90 out of 82 games before cruising to the first of many championships; I predicted that the Heat would have a strong regular season--but fall short of the win totals posted by LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in the previous two seasons--before losing to an elite defensive team in the playoffs. James' superlative play in the Eastern Conference playoffs--and injuries to key opposing players--enabled the Heat to get by Boston and Chicago but in the NBA Finals the one-star Dallas Mavericks outshined the three-star Heat.

As long as the Heat's "Big Three" are healthy and in their primes Miami has to be considered a legitimate championship contender but--after James failed to win a championship with the deepest team in the league (the 2009 and 2010 Cleveland Cavaliers, squads that each boasted at least 10 players who had recently started for playoff teams) and then failed to win a championship despite being part of the league's most talented trio--it is fair to ask what it will take for the league's most productive regular season player to capture his first title.

Derrick Rose does not have a single top 25 player next to him in Chicago but rather than searching for supposedly greener pastures he just signed a contract extension and he seems poised to keep the Bulls at or near the top of the Eastern Conference for the next several seasons. Despite Boston's hopes and New York's fantasies, the Eastern Conference will likely be a two horse race this season and--contrary to what many other commentators may believe--the Bulls have more room to grow than the Heat.

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) Chicago Bulls: Reasons for hope: Derrick Rose became the second youngest MVP in ABA/NBA history (22 years old; Spencer Haywood was just 20 when he won the 1970 ABA MVP) and first year Coach Tom Thibodeau transformed a very good defense into a suffocating defense. The team's one problem last season--other than injuries to key frontcourt players--was a lack of offensive production from the shooting guard spot but newly acquired sharpshooter Richard Hamilton should provide a solid complement to Rose's slashing forays to the hoop.

Reasons to mope: The Bulls, like the 2011 champion Dallas Mavericks, only have one true star, so it is important that their key rotation players remain committed to defense and rebounding and that they stay reasonably healthy; injuries and/or lack of effort from other players could place too big of a burden on Rose.

Bottom line: I did not expect the Bulls to be as good as they were last season but after watching them play I don't think that their success was a fluke: Rose moved his game up a notch and Coach Thibodeau worked wonders with an already solid defense. The Bulls should be fighting for at least the Eastern Conference title for the next several years; while the Heat's best players have likely peaked in terms of their individual skill sets, Rose and several of his young teammates still can improve both individually and collectively.

2) Miami Heat: Reasons for hope: LeBron James has been the most productive regular season player in the NBA for the past three years, Dwyane Wade is one of the NBA's top five or six players and Chris Bosh is one of the NBA's top 15-20 players: no other NBA team has three top 15 players and no NBA team has had two top five players since the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers won three straight championships from 2000-02 and made another NBA Finals appearance in 2004. It has become fashionable to make excuses for the Heat based on the composition of the rest of their roster but in a watered-down 30 team NBA no other squad has the luxury of trotting out three great players who are each in the primes of their careers. Dirk Nowitzki just won a championship without playing alongside a single current All-Star and Kobe Bryant won back to back titles with a sidekick who had previously made just one All-Star team in seven years, so if the Heat fail to win a title the fault lies with their stars and not with their underlings.

Reasons to mope: In the last two postseasons, LeBron James has literally stood passively in the corner while his team lost to squads that had worse regular season records and did not have a single player who could match up with him one on one physically or in terms of regular season productivity; James' supporters whined that he could not win a championship with his supporting cast in Cleveland but James' star-studded Heat just lost in the Finals to a one-star Dallas team so it is legitimate to ask just how much help James needs to win his first NBA title.

The Heat's championship contending window is probably not as large as many people think; each year that the Heat fail to win a title there will be increasing pressure to break up the Big Three and, although their stars are in their primes, it is unlikely that any of them will get appreciably better: we have probably already seen the best individual seasons from James, Wade and Bosh, though Heat fans of course hope that we have yet to see the best collective output from that group.

Wade is the oldest member of the Heat's power trio and he is also the most injury-prone, so he will likely be the first one to decline; that should not happen this season (Wade will turn 30 next month) but his health is hardly a sure thing in a 66 game sprint.

Bottom line: Some people insist--despite all visible contradictory evidence--that the Heat are Dwyane Wade's team, so it is worth noting that James led the Heat in minutes played, scoring, assists and steals while placing second in rebounding. James shot better than Wade from the field, from three point range and even from the free throw line (barely). When James was dominant the Heat looked unbeatable, even when Wade performed poorly (i.e., in the Chicago series); when James hid in the corner (i.e., in the Finals), Wade could not save the day and the Heat lost. The Heat have three stars but there is no question who is the biggest star.

The above critiques of James are not meant to suggest that he is incapable of winning a championship--that would be a foolish contention to make about such a talented player and I am not a fool. James is the best regular season player in the NBA and he has had some great playoff moments but in order to get over the championship hump he must address the few remaining--but glaring--weaknesses in his game: he still struggles to score outside of the paint against elite defenses and when he is challenged mentally and physically by elite teams in a playoff series he has shown a stunning tendency to quit and to place the burden on his teammates, which is exactly the opposite of what we have seen from Pantheon-level players. James does not necessarily have to win a championship to join the Pantheon--Elgin Baylor is an all-time great despite being ringless--but if James is fortunate enough to make it back to the Finals he must play a lot more effectively and a lot more aggressively than he did in his first two appearances on the NBA's biggest stage.

3) Boston Celtics: Reasons for hope: While the Heat easily have the league's best trio, the Celtics probably sport the league's best quartet: aging future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen plus young All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo. The defensive-minded former champions probably are capable of making one more deep playoff run if they can stay reasonably healthy.

Reasons to mope: Due to various moves plus Jeff Green's recently discovered heart ailment, in the past year or so the Celtics have essentially lost Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, Nenad Krstic and Delonte West in exchange for Brandon Bass, Keyon Dooling and two rookies who likely will not contribute very much this season. There will be a lot of pressure on Rondo plus the Geriatric Three to log heavy minutes night after night.

Bottom line: If the Celtics somehow stay healthy while Chicago and Miami each suffer a key injury then the Celtics could steal the Eastern Conference crown. Danny Ainge's avid pursuit of Chris Paul--even at the expense of Rondo, a younger and healthier All-Star point guard--indicates that the Celtics do not consider the above scenario to be highly likely to happen.

4) Philadelphia 76ers: Reasons for hope: The 76ers recovered from a 3-13 start to qualify for the playoffs and even win a playoff game against the eventual Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat. Coach Doug Collins got the most out of his young, starless roster and several of his players figure to be even better this season.

Reasons to mope: Championship teams generally must have at least one All-NBA caliber player; such a player is either not on this roster or has not emerged so far. The pattern during Collins' coaching career is that he is excellent at turning a team around quickly but not necessarily capable of taking a team all the way to the top.

Bottom line: After the top three spots, the rest of the Eastern Conference is up for grabs and I think that Collins' coaching will lift the 76ers slightly above some of the more highly touted squads who will be battling for home court advantage in the first round.

5) Indiana Pacers: Reasons for hope: David West and George Hill are excellent additions to a team that made the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and that already has a solid nucleus of young players.

Reasons to mope: Like the 76ers, the Pacers do not have an All-NBA caliber performer, although West was on the fringe of that status a couple years ago. The Pacers are the "anti-Heat": the Heat have three All-NBA caliber players but are trying to add depth, while the Pacers have a deep rotation of good players but no true star power (West and Danny Granger each would be best suited to being the second or third best player on a championship contending team).

Bottom line: The Knicks have more star power than the Pacers and the Magic have the best center in the league but the Knicks are weak defensively while the Magic will likely be Denver/Utah East this season because of the Dwight Howard drama; in a 66 game sprint, the Pacers' depth and stability should move them past the Knicks and the Magic in the Eastern Conference standings.

6) New York Knicks: Reasons for hope: The Knicks may have cornered the market on high powered offensive players who cannot/will not play defense: Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Baron Davis (if healthy) will make sure that both sides of the scoreboard read triple digits on a nearly nightly basis. Tyson Chandler, who just served as the defensive anchor for the 2011 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, will have to deal with the small forwards, power forwards and point guards who blow by New York's shoot first (and second and third) headliners.

Reasons to mope: Most of the Knicks think "defense" is what surrounds their mansions. Anthony and Stoudemire have enough PR savvy to realize that they have to talk about focusing on defense but they each have been in the league a long time--and won many individual honors and accolades--without playing much defense. Baron "my back only hurt while I was in Cleveland" Davis can be very productive when he is healthy and motivated but he has bad wheels and intermittent motivation.

How many perennial All-Stars who are defensively challenged transform themselves into good defenders? Knicks' fans can fantasize by making comparisons of Anthony and Stoudemire to Boston's Paul Pierce and Ray Allen but (1) there is no Kevin Garnett on New York's roster, (2) there is no Doc Rivers on New York's bench (Mike D'Antoni is a good coach but not a defensive-minded coach) and (3) Pierce and Allen were never as bad defensively as Anthony and Stoudemire are.

Bottom line: Are we past the point of blaming Isiah Thomas for everything that goes wrong in New York? For better or worse, most of the players Thomas acquired are no longer on the roster but--despite all of the breathless hype and despite two seasons of clearing cap space in a futile attempt to lure LeBron James to the Big Apple--the 2011 Knicks won exactly nine more games than the 2007 Knicks did during Thomas' first season as their coach. As much as some people rave about the Knicks you would never guess that three full seasons after Thomas' departure--and despite the additions of Anthony and Stoudemire--the Knicks improved less in four years than the starless 76ers did in one year. Much to the chagrin of some Knicks fans/"stat gurus," nearly three years ago I expressed serious skepticism about the Knicks' rebuilding plan and I remain far from convinced that the Anthony-Stoudemire duo will ever accomplish much more than provide ESPN's talking heads a lot of fodder for unfounded predictions of greatness that never quite become reality.

Yes, Chandler's defense helped a squad not previously known for playing good defense to win a title but the Mavericks have a defensive-minded coach and several other defensive-minded players (including Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion). That foundation simply does not exist in New York, so the Knicks will have trouble doing much damage in the playoffs, though I predict that for the next several years the "experts" will annually dub them the "team no one wants to face."

7) Orlando Magic: Reasons for hope: Dwight Howard is the best center in the league and, as he showed last season, he can carry a strangely constructed, defensively challenged roster to 50-plus wins.

Reasons to mope: Dwight Howard has made it clear that he intends to leave Orlando when he becomes a free agent next summer, which means that Orlando's 2012 season will be much like Denver's 2011 season--a distraction-filled slog during which a team tries to get something for their best player instead of losing him for nothing.

Bottom line: It is impossible to predict how Orlando will do this season; if Howard ultimately commits to Orlando and stays for the whole season then the Magic could realistically contend for the fourth seed but if the Magic trade Howard fairly early in the season then they could miss the playoffs entirely. I suspect that Howard plays in the All-Star Game in Orlando as a member of the Magic and is traded shortly thereafter. The Magic will probably be hanging around the fifth seed prior to Howard's departure and then they will limp into the playoffs before being swept in the first round.

8) Atlanta Hawks: Reasons for hope: Joe Johnson, Al Horford and Josh Smith form a solid trio that has led the Hawks to the playoffs for four straight seasons, including three consecutive trips to the second round.

Reasons to mope: Johnson has been an All-Star for each of the past five seasons but he is miscast as a franchise player; he is perfectly suited to being the second best player on a championship-contending squad. Horford has been an All-Star for each of the past two seasons but he is undersized for a center and would be better suited to playing power forward. Josh Smith is one of the most athletically gifted players in the NBA but he lacks the inner drive to transform himself into a truly great player. Thus, the Hawks' three best players are each, to some degree, not well suited for their roles--and the rest of the roster is hardly championship quality.

Bottom line: The Hawks are stuck in NBA purgatory--not good enough to truly contend for a title yet not bad enough to get enough top draft picks to significantly improve their talent base.

The Hawks figure to finish around the .500 mark and the Magic will likely not be too far above that level (assuming that Howard is traded), so if the Milwaukee Bucks stay reasonably healthy and find a way to manufacture some offense then they could sneak into the playoffs. The Charlotte Bobcats only missed the playoffs by three games last season so they have a chance in the weak East but I think that they will fall short again. The Detroit Pistons hired a defensive-minded coach (Lawrence Frank) and added some youth but Joe Dumars' peculiar fascination with Rodney Stuckey will likely result in a third straight trip to the Draft Lottery. Deron Williams talked his way out of Utah but he could barely lead the New Jersey Nets out of the Atlantic Division basement; the Nets will only make the playoffs if they pull off a trade for Dwight Howard. The Cleveland Cavaliers should not have been as bad as they were last season and an infusion of young talent plus a return to health for Anderson Varejao will lead to much better results but will not be quite enough to reach the .500 mark. The young, athletic Washington Wizards will be exciting to watch as they fight the Toronto Raptors for last place in the East.

**********

Note:

I correctly picked five of the eight 2010-11 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2010: 6/8
2009: 6/8
2008: 5/8
2007: 7/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2011 Total: 35/48 (.729)

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 PM

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