2012-13 Eastern Conference Preview
The Miami Heat have yet to become the dominant powerhouse that the "stat gurus" predicted that they would be, posting a regular season record of 104-44 (.703) and a playoff record of 30-14 (.682); those numbers are very good but hardly historically significant: during LeBron James' final two Cleveland seasons, the Cavaliers went 127-37 (.774) in the regular season and 16-9 (.640) in the playoffs. Of course, the big difference is that the Heat won the 2012 championship, even though the reality is that the Heat's title run benefited from the convergence of a perfect storm of factors:
1) The Heat, who are weakest at center and point guard, did not have to face the best center in the NBA thanks to Dwight Howard's season-ending back injury.
2) Injuries crippled potential Eastern Conference contenders Chicago and Boston.
3) The Dallas Mavericks voluntarily abdicated their throne, valuing salary cap flexibility over the possibility of defending their championship by keeping their squad together.
4) LeBron James stopped quitting when facing high pressure playoff situations against legitimate contending teams.
The fourth reason is by far the most important; LeBron James is the only player who can stop LeBron James and in the 2012 playoffs he finally decided to not be a "self check," a player who does not have to be guarded because he takes himself out of the game. What else but "self check" can you call it when James did not punish the Mavericks in the 2012 NBA Finals after the Mavericks put Jason Terry--a 6-3 non-defender--on James in the fourth quarter? James' failure to produce in that situation is probably the ultimate "self check" in basketball history--but James' 2012 success has transformed him into what ESPN football analyst Cris Carter would call a "made man" (Carter's description of Eli Manning after the New York Giants beat the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII): the Heat's 2012 title will always be viewed by many people as the ultimate vindication of the "Decision" specifically and of James in general, even though the truth is that Miami's success did not vindicate or justify James' previous failures and poor choices but rather demonstrated that James' sober, objective critics had been correct when they insisted that he must play in the paint more consistently and he must accept the responsibility of being the best player on the court.
The Heat are clearly the best team in the East; only injuries and/or complacency can prevent them from making their third straight trip to the NBA Finals.
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) Miami Heat: Reasons for hope: LeBron James is the best player in the NBA and he proved that he is capable of leading a team to a championship; his next challenge is to join the elite group of players who have been the best player on multiple championship teams, a list of legends that includes George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant. Miami is the only NBA team that has three perennial All-Stars who are each 30 years old or younger, though Dwyane Wade will turn 31 during the season.
Reasons to mope: There are legitimate questions about the health of Dwyane Wade and newly-acquired Ray Allen. The Heat signed former All-Star Rashard Lewis to provide scoring and outside shooting but he averaged just 7.8 ppg last season while shooting .239 from three point range, his worst performances in each category since his second season in the league. The Heat stormed through the playoffs with a small lineup featuring Chris Bosh at center, LeBron James at power forward and a committee of Shane Battier/Mike Miller at small forward; it is far from certain that the Heat can play that way over the course of a full 82 game season nor is it clear that this lineup will be effective against teams with more than one skillful big man (most notably, the L.A. Lakers).
Bottom line: It is difficult to make three straight trips to the NBA Finals; the only teams that have accomplished this since the 1976-77 NBA-ABA merger are the 1982-85 Lakers, the 1984-87 Celtics, the 1987-89 Lakers, the 1988-90 Pistons, the 1991-93 Bulls, the 1996-98 Bulls, the 2000-02 Lakers and the 2008-10 Lakers. Those are all legendary dynasty teams that each won at least two championships and that each sent (or will send) multiple players to the Basketball Hall of Fame (I am assuming that Pau Gasol's FIBA accomplishments combined with the boost Gasol's statistics received while playing alongside Kobe Bryant will convince the voters to enshrine him eventually). The East is so weak now that the Heat have an excellent chance to return to the NBA Finals for the third straight year but the Heat may become the outlier in the aforementioned group by only winning one title; either the rebuilt Lakers or the hungry, improving Thunder will provide a formidable challenge.
2) Boston Celtics: Reasons for hope: Even though the Celtics are aging and declining, the rest of the East (other than the Heat) is crumbling around them and does not possess the talent and/or savvy to defeat the Celtics in a seven game series if the Celtics are even close to full strength. Rajon Rondo has emerged as one of the NBA's best point guards.
Reasons to mope: Jason Terry is an excellent player and a good clutch performer; at this stage of their respective careers, he is better than Ray Allen--but the Celtics may still miss Allen's quiet leadership and professionalism (which is not to say that Terry is unprofessional or a bad leader). Kevin Garnett anchors the Celtics' defense, while Paul Pierce is the focal point of the offense; do those veterans have enough left in the tank to be healthy and productive for an 82 game season plus an extended playoff run?
Bottom line: In the best case scenario, the Celtics stay healthy enough to grab the number two seed and thus avoid facing the Heat until the Eastern Conference Finals; then, injuries and/or complacency strike the Heat, enabling the Celtics to reach the NBA Finals for the third time since 2008. In the worst case scenario, injuries and the aging process hit the Celtics hard, they fail to obtain homecourt advantage in the first round and a younger, hungrier, healthier team takes them out. I expect the Celtics to overcome some adversity and gallantly fight their way to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the Heat in a competitive series.
3) Chicago Bulls: Reasons for hope: Tom Thibodeau is one of the best coaches in the NBA; even if Derrick Rose misses most or all of the season, the Bulls will rank in the top five in points allowed and defensive field goal percentage and that commitment to defense will enable the Bulls to stay ahead of most of the teams in the East.
Reasons to mope: The Heat have the best player in the NBA plus two perennial All-Stars, while the Celtics have several savvy All-Star veterans with championship experience. Derrick Rose is the only elite player on Chicago's roster and he will miss most if not all of the regular season; even if he comes back in time for the playoffs, he will likely be rusty and thus unable to perform at an MVP level.
Bottom line: The Bulls will play hard and they will play smart but it just does not look like they will have quite enough firepower to take down Miami or Boston unless those teams are hit by injuries and/or Derrick Rose makes a remarkably fast return to form.
4) Indiana Pacers: Reasons for hope: The Pacers posted their best regular season winning percentage since 2003-04, when Indiana led the league in wins (61) before losing to eventual champion Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals; the Pacers appear to be a team on the rise because other than the 32 year old David West--who showed that he can still be a productive performer--the Pacers' core players are all younger than 30.
Reasons to mope: Unlike Miami and Chicago (once Derrick Rose returns), the Pacers do not have a game-changing, dominant elite player nor do they have some experienced future Hall of Famers who are not in their primes but who possess valuable championship experience (i.e., Boston's Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce). In the 1980s, the Milwaukee Bucks had a nice, solid team that always fell short against either Boston or Philadelphia, while in the early 2000s the Portland Trail Blazers could not get past the L.A. Lakers. The Pacers may become the Bucks/Trail Blazers of this decade.
Bottom line: Unless the Pacers add an elite player to their roster (or one of their talented youngsters develops into an elite player), they likely will not make it to the NBA Finals as currently constructed.
5) Philadelphia 76ers: Reasons for hope: The 76ers gained valuable playoff experience last season and then they made a move to fix their glaring weakness in the post, acquiring Andrew Bynum as part of the massive, multi-team Dwight Howard deal. If Bynum stays healthy and establishes himself as the best center in the East then the 76ers will be quite formidable.
Reasons to mope: There is a big difference between being a member of a championship team and being the leader of a championship team; Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to back to back championships in 2009 and 2010, while Bynum put up Luc Longley-like numbers during those playoff runs.When the Lakers lost a game or faced any kind of adversity during those seasons, the media went to Kobe Bryant for quotes/explanations, not Bynum; now Bynum must accept the responsibility to play hard every night at both ends of the court, he must prove that he can average 20 ppg/10 rpg while being double-teamed every night (as opposed to being praised for putting up smaller numbers than that while benefiting from the double-teams that Bryant attracted) and he must prove that he can handle being the focal point of the media's attention over the course of an entire season.
Bottom line: Bynum's size and his scoring ability in the post make the 76ers a better team on paper but I think that Bynum will discover that being "the man" is not quite as glamorous as he expected. If Bynum takes a random three pointer outside of the context of the offense or if he is slow on a defensive rotation or if he "trots" (Jeff Van Gundy's favorite term) instead of sprinting then Coach Doug Collins will be in his face and the Philadelphia media will be on his case. This season will be a tough test for Bynum both physically and mentally; he has never been a durable player physically and some of his actions during the past few seasons bring into question his mental toughness/focus.
6) New York Knicks: Reasons for hope: Throughout his career, teams that Jason Kidd joins tend to improve (Phoenix, New Jersey, Team USA, Dallas) while teams that he leaves tend to regress. Kidd is clearly no longer an elite player and he cannot singlehandedly turn a franchise around but his basketball IQ and his toughness should help a team that has been seriously lacking in both of those departments.
Reasons to mope: Carmelo Anthony has advanced past the first round of the playoffs once in his nine NBA seasons. The Knicks are 1-8 in the playoffs during his two seasons with the team. He is the Stephon Marbury of small forwards, a guy who puts up big boxscore numbers but is not an elite player. Amare Stoudemire was once on the verge of being an elite player, earning one All-NBA First Team selection and four All-NBA Second Team selections, but he is injury prone, defense averse and about to turn 30; in other words, he never quite made it to elite status and it is highly unlikely that he will do so now.
Bottom line: The Knicks' .545 winning percentage last season is equivalent to a 45-37 record in an 82 game season. I could try to come up with something original to say about this overrated team but the reality is that everything I have been saying about the Knicks for the past several years has been proven correct so I can simply quote from the bottom line statement that I made in my 2011-2012 Eastern Conference preview:
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) Brooklyn Nets: Reasons for hope: The Deron Williams-Joe Johnson backcourt is arguably the best in the league. A healthy Brook Lopez could be the third best center in the East. Gerald Wallace is a former All-Star and former All-Defensive Team member.
Reasons to mope: The Nets were horrible defensively last season (ranking 24th in points allowed and 28th in defensive field goal percentage) and unless they improve significantly at that end of the court they will miss the playoffs even if Williams and Johnson each average more than 20 ppg. Also, even though the Nets now have a very good starting lineup they still lack depth.
Bottom line: The Nets have not made the playoffs since 2006-07. Moving from New Jersey to Brooklyn causes a lot of media excitement but the Nets need more than a change of venue: they need a change of culture, eliminating losing habits and replacing them with winning habits. That is hard to do in just one season but the East is so weak that based on raw talent alone the Nets should be able to grab a playoff spot.
8) Atlanta Hawks: Reasons for hope: The Hawks made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons but never advanced past the second round, so new General Manager Danny Ferry traded six-time All-Star Joe Johnson to Brooklyn for five players (including Devin Harris and Anthony Morrow, who both figure to be in the eight man rotation) plus a 2013 first round draft pick. Ferry also signed free agent Lou Williams. Ferry thus cleared salary cap space without necessarily making the team much worse in the short term.
Reasons to mope: The Hawks will once again be, at best, a low playoff seed that loses in the first or second round of the playoffs. Josh Smith is talented but there is no reason to believe that he will ever be an elite player--and until the Hawks find and/or develop an elite player they will not be a serious Eastern Conference contender.
Bottom line: Right now the Hawks are likely not much better than they were the previous several seasons but they should still be able to make the playoffs while preparing to use their salary cap room to improve the roster next summer.
The Eastern Conference is pretty weak, though the collective mediocrity could produce an exciting--or, perhaps it would be more precise to say "competitive"--battle for the final playoff spot. Perhaps Monta Ellis will average 25 ppg and volume-shoot the Milwaukee Bucks to a 41-41 record and the opportunity to get swept by the Miami Heat. If Greg Monroe keeps improving and Andre Drummond makes a big splash as a rookie then the Detroit Pistons may overcome Joe Dumars' bizarre infatuation with Rodney Stuckey. Kyrie Irving looks like he will become a perennial All-Star but in order for the Cavaliers to approach .500 Anderson Varejao must stay healthy for the entire season. The Washington Wizards added some veterans to their kiddie corps but they are at least one season away from making the playoffs; likewise, the Toronto Raptors are improving but they are also at least one season away from making the playoffs. No Dwight Howard plus a rookie head coach equals a lot of losses for the Orlando Magic. It is more likely that Michael Jordan will come back and lead the NBA in scoring than it is that the Charlotte team he has built will make the playoffs; last season the Bobcats had perhaps the worst roster in NBA history and, not surprisingly, they posted the worst winning percentage in NBA history. They will be better this season--it would be difficult to be much worse--but they could hire Jim Mora as their spokesman: "Playoffs? You kidding me? I just hope we can win a game."
I correctly picked all eight of the eight 2011-12 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:
2006-2012 Total: 43/56 (.768)
posted by David Friedman @ 4:32 PM