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Monday, October 14, 2013

2013-14 Eastern Conference Preview

During LeBron James' first two seasons in Miami, the Heat's regular season winning percentage hovered around the .700 mark--not bad, but not even as good as the record posted by the Cavaliers during James' final two seasons in Cleveland (127-37, .774). In 2012-13, the Heat became dominant, winning 27 straight games--the second best such streak of all-time, trailing only the 33 game run enjoyed by the 1971-72 Lakers--en route to posting a league-best 66-16 record.

Life proved to be more difficult during the playoffs, as both Indiana and San Antonio extended the Heat to seven games, but the Heat won both of those series and successfully defended their 2012 championship. James may never fulfill his vow to lead the Heat to six or seven championships but he has already more than matched reasonable expectations, winning two titles in three Finals appearances since he left Cleveland.

James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are now seeking their third straight championship; only George Mikan's Lakers, Bill Russell's Celtics, the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen Bulls and the Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers won at least three NBA titles in a row.

The Heat face two key questions:

1) Is Dwyane Wade a declining player or was his postseason swoon purely a result of an injury that could be completely healed/rehabilitated during the 2013 offseason?

2) Will it be possible to continue to overcome the lack of a dominant post presence?

Several Eastern teams have improved on paper but the Heat are still clearly the best team in the conference. 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 in the prime of one of the greatest careers in pro basketball history. He has eliminated virtually all of his skill set weaknesses, including the most prominent one: his odd tendency to be passive in clutch situations against elite teams during the playoffs (most notably against Boston in the 2010 playoffs and against Dallas in the 2011 Finals). Chris Bosh is an underrated, versatile performer whose agility and length are invaluable defensively and whose shooting touch spreads the floor. Bosh should have a bigger role in Miami's half court offense but even as a glorified Horace Grant-style jump shooter he still has an impact. When Dwyane Wade is even close to being healthy he and James wreak havoc at both ends of the court thanks to their speed and explosiveness.

Reasons to mope: Wade's body seems to be breaking down and it is not likely that he can play at an All-NBA level for an entire regular season plus an extended playoff run. Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra may have to consider resting Wade San Antonio Spurs-style in an attempt to reduce the wear and tear on Wade's balky knees.

The Heat have no post presence defensively and their only post presence offensively is provided by James (Bosh can play in the post but the Heat's offensive system primarily relegates him to a jump shooting role). They survived tough playoff challenges by big Indiana and San Antonio teams mainly because of James' all-around greatness but it will not be easy to win a third straight title if the Heat do not get some productive minutes out of their traditional centers. Perhaps Greg Oden can provide some solid post defense during the playoffs, enabling Bosh to shift back to his natural power forward position.

Bottom line: The Heat's strengths and weaknesses have not changed much in the past several years; they have made it to three straight Finals, they have won back to back championships and, barring injury, they have to be considered the favorites to win the East.

2) Indiana Pacers: Reasons for hope: The Pacers have a nice mixture of youth and experience and size and speed. Paul George is emerging as a star and Frank Vogel has established himself as an excellent coach. The Pacers pushed the Heat to seven games and if Danny Granger can get healthy perhaps the Pacers can end Miami's run.

Reasons to mope: George is an All-Star but he is not an All-NBA First Team caliber player--at least not yet. Most championship teams have at least one such player, someone who can take over the game in clutch situations.

Bottom line: The Pacers have the necessary size and tenacity to pose a formidable challenge to the Heat. It will be interesting to see if the Pacers rest on their laurels or if they take the next step and advance to the NBA Finals.

3) Chicago Bulls: Reasons for hope: Derrick Rose's return will provide a huge lift for one of the league's most anemic offenses. Coach Tom Thibodeau is a defensive mastermind (the Bulls have ranked first, second and ninth in defensive field goal percentage during his three seasons in Chicago) and the boost that Rose provides offensively will enable the Bulls to set up their half court defense after made field goals as opposed to having to defend so often in transition after missed shots (the Bulls ranked 25th in field goal percentage last season after ranking 13th in that category during the 2010-11 campaign, Rose's last healthy season).

Reasons to mope: The Bulls are a gritty, defensive-minded team with enough frontcourt size and versatility to match up with any team in the league but Rose is the team's only All-NBA caliber player. It is not clear if the Bulls' discipline and physicality will be enough to overcome Miami's talent during a seven game series.

Bottom line: If Rose stays healthy the Bulls will challenge for the best record in the East but they have yet to prove that they can beat an elite team in a seven game series.

4) Brooklyn Nets: Reasons for hope: The Nets added Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to a roster that went 49-33 last season. They are stacked with talent at every position: a three-time All-Star point guard (Deron Williams), a six-time All-Star shooting guard (Joe Johnson), a 10-time All-Star small forward (Pierce), a 15-time All-Star power forward (Garnett) and one of the top young centers in the league (2013 All-Star Brook Lopez).

Reasons to mope: Garnett, Pierce and Terry are well past their primes. Williams has performed sporadically since joining the Nets. Johnson has not averaged 20 ppg or shot better than .450 from the field since the 2009-10 season. Coach Jason Kidd, who replaced P.J. Carlesimo, has an incredibly high basketball IQ but he will inevitably suffer some growing pains in his first season as the bench boss.

Bottom line: Miami's Big Three joined forces in their respective primes and LeBron James is clearly the best player in the league but the Heat still did not win the title in their first year together; the Nets' star-studded lineup does not include a player who is even close to James' level and it is questionable how good this aging team will be defensively. On paper--or five years ago on the court--this looks like a championship team but on the court in 2013-14 the Nets are not better than Miami, Indiana or Chicago.

5) New York Knicks: Reasons for hope: The Knicks jumped out to a 20-7 start last season before finishing with a 54-28 record, second best in the East and New York's first 50 win season since 1999-00. Carmelo Anthony finished third in MVP voting, J.R. Smith won the Sixth Man award and Coach Mike Woodson did a remarkable job with a roster not known for having disciplined players: the Knicks led the league in fewest turnovers committed and they ranked seventh in points allowed.

Reasons to mope: Despite having homecourt advantage, the Knicks fell apart against Indiana in the Eastern Conference semifinals. During most of the regular season, veteran point guard Jason Kidd served as a steadying influence, counterbalancing the team's significant knucklehead factor, but Kidd slowed down physically in the second half of the season, forcing Woodson to reduce his role. Kidd retired and is now the Nets' coach; the Knicks will greatly miss Kidd's veteran savvy.

Bottom line: The Knicks have a roster that Phil Jackson called "clumsy". Many members of the national media hype up the team's potential and overrate the impact of the one-dimensional Anthony but the Knicks will once again fail to advance past the second round of the playoffs.

6) Atlanta Hawks: Reasons for hope: After annually making the playoffs but not being quite good enough to fight for the brass ring, the Hawks have a new look. The Hawks finished sixth in the East last season but General Manager Danny Ferry hit the reset button and almost completely remade the roster; Ferry knew that the team's old nucleus had maximized its potential and would never reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

Reasons to mope: In order to challenge the Miami Heat and fight for the Eastern Conference title, a team must have a defensive mindset, a post presence at both ends of the court and, ideally, at least one elite level player. New coach Mike Budenholzer, a Gregg Popovich disciple, will try to instill that defensive mindset, but the Hawks do not have enough size or talent to be a serious contender this season.

Bottom line: The Hawks are not a championship level team but the foundation is in place to build in that direction if Ferry is able to acquire a star player and if Budenholzer can instill the San Antonio philosophy that he learned while serving under Popovich.

7) Cleveland Cavaliers: Reasons for hope: The Cavaliers foolishly fired Coach Mike Brown during the summer of 2010 at the height of the LeBron James Decision fiasco but they have rectified that mistake, bringing Brown back to mentor a young, talented roster that needs to learn the defensive mindset that Brown consistently emphasizes.

Reasons to mope: The Cavaliers are relying heavily on several injury-prone players, most notably Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao and Andrew Bynum. If one of those players misses significant playing time then the Cavaliers could once again be headed for the Draft Lottery.

Bottom line: Mike Brown is one of the top coaches in the NBA, Irving has the talent to be an All-NBA player and this team will be markedly improved defensively. Much depends on the health of players who have yet to prove that they can avoid injury but Cleveland's long post-Decision nightmare appears to be over.

8) Washington Wizards: Reasons for hope: If they can both stay healthy, John Wall and Bradley Beal could emerge as one of the league's most dynamic backcourts. The Wizards went 6-4 when both Wall and Beal were in the starting lineup, an outstanding record--albeit in a very small sample size--for a team that went 29-53 overall. The Wizards ranked fifth in defensive field goal percentage; in recent years the team has gotten rid of several young knuckleheads and is heading in the right direction.

Reasons to mope: The Wizards have not made the playoffs since the 2007-08 season and have been one of the league's most dysfunctional franchises for quite some time. It remains to be seen if the team's young nucleus can stay healthy and be consistent enough to lift the team out of Lottery land.

Bottom line: I am tapping the Wizards for the eighth playoff spot partially because I believe in their young backcourt and partially because I have little faith that any of the remaining East teams will scrape together 40 wins.

The Eastern Conference is still weak and a record in the vicinity of .500 will probably be good enough to grab the final two playoff spots. While I expect Cleveland and Washington to barely emerge from the pack, several Eastern bottom feeders could potentially get hot at the end of the season and sneak into the playoffs. The Toronto Raptors showed some signs of life after trading for Rudy Gay and they closed the season by winning seven of their last eight games, though those results have to be taken with a grain of salt because not all of their opponents were at full strength in those contests; new General Manager Masai Ujiri did a great job rebuilding the post-Carmelo Anthony Denver Nuggets and it will not be long before he turns Toronto into a playoff team, though it probably will not happen in 2013-14. The Charlotte Bobcats finally have a legitimate low post scoring threat (Al Jefferson) but even a 10 win improvement will still leave them short of qualifying for postseason play. The Orlando Magic have some nice young pieces--including Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo and rookie Victor Oladipo--and could be a dark horse contender for the eighth seed but it is more likely that they need to add some more talent before returning to postseason play. O.J. Mayo figures to be Milwaukee's leading scorer this season--and the Bucks figure to win fewer than 35 games. The Detroit Pistons have won between 25 and 30 games in each of the past four seasons. Joe Dumars' bizarre and inexplicable belief in Rodney Stuckey stalled the Pistons and bringing back an aging Chauncey Billups will hardly be enough to restore the franchise's faded glory. The Boston Celtics's Big Three plus Rajon Rondo now solely consists of Rondo; rookie Coach Brad Stevens will probably have a rough adjustment to pro basketball and the Celtics do not look like a playoff team even in the watered down East. Last season, the 76ers traded an All-Star caliber wing (Andre Iguodala) to acquire a center who did not play a single game for them (Andrew Bynum) before heading to Cleveland as a free agent; this season the 76ers traded an All-Star point guard (Jrue Holiday) for rookie center Nerlens Noel, who is still recovering from an ACL injury. It is safe to assume that Philadelphia will not be printing any 2014 playoff tickets.

**********
Note:

I correctly picked seven of the eight 2012-13 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2012: 8/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 6/8
2009: 6/8
2008: 5/8
2007: 7/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2013 Total: 50/64 (.781)

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:23 PM

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1 Comments:

At Tuesday, October 15, 2013 7:46:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

I believe the Pistons could potentially get the eighth seed. They added Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith.

 

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