The Cleveland Cavaliers are the betting favorites to win the NBA championship as we stand on the brink of a new season next Tuesday night. The Cavs are a 14-5 bet to win it all. San Antonio, in spite of its championship pedigree and amazing offseason where they added Lamarcus Aldridge and David West, are behind Cleveland at 4-1. The reason has to be the weakness of the Eastern Conference.
Five teams from the Western Conference are considered Cleveland’s challengers for the crown. Golden State is a 5-1 shot to repeat. Oklahoma City, with Kevin Durant presumably healthy is 8-1. The Los Angeles Clippers, with the addition of Paul Pierce for some postseason toughness, is 13-1. Houston is at 20-1. Not until we find Chicago at 22-1 is there a team that could block Cleveland’s entry into the 2016 NBA Finals next June.
That’s why, even though I don’t know that I would pick Cleveland in a best-of-seven against the top Western powers individually (I’d definitely pick the Spurs or Warriors), the landscape of the NBA makes the Cavaliers the only logical favorite at this time of year. It’s like betting the presidential race. You might not be sure if Hillary Clinton can beat the Republican nominee, but at least you know Hillary’s going to be in the finals.
So the most pertinent question in the NBA title race right now is whether or not any team in the East can even make Cleveland sweat? The outlook isn’t promising…
*Chicago might have Derrick Rose for now, but at this stage of his career, we know that doesn’t last. I like the Bulls’ offense, especially with Nikola Mirotic’s ability to space the floor, but we also have to see if Fred Hoiberg can coach defense the way Tom Thibodeau did. Nothing against Hoiberg, but I would not be optimistic.
*Atlanta was the 1-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs last year before an injury to DeMarre Carroll took away whatever chance they had against Cleveland. Carroll is now in Toronto and replacement Thabo Sefolosha never fulfilled his potential in Oklahoma City. The Hawks will regress.
*Carroll’s arrival in Toronto makes the Raptors better and this is a team that has been in the East’s top half each of the last two regular seasons. They have a good backcourt in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. But the low post isn’t championship-quality and in the NBA you don’t go from never winning a postseason series (at least with this core group) to upending LeBron James in one year.
*Washington has made a lot of progress and would probably have made the conference finals last year if John Wall’s hand hadn’t been injured in the playoffs. But they lose Pierce and all his clutch shots. This is still a good team and if you want to argue them as the second-best in the East, I can buy it. But if that’s the case, it underscores the huge gap that exists between Cleveland and the rest of this conference.
*Indiana brings Paul George back, but George returns to a team that’s vastly different from the one that made consecutive Eastern Conference finals before running into LeBron’s Miami Heat in 2013-14. West is in San Antonio. Roy Hibbert fell apart and moved on. The interior presence that defined the Pacers in those years is long gone. And we don’t know how healthy George will be after missing last year with that awful leg injury.
*Milwaukee and Boston are playoff teams from last year and have good young talent. They’re the teams to watch for when LeBron starts to show his age, not the ones to beat him this year.
*Now we come to LeBron’s old employer, the Miami Heat. This is the one that’s interesting. The Heat had a disastrous year last season with Dwayne Wade never healthy and Chris Bosh shutting it down with a heart condition. Both are healthy this season. If that holds, Miami has both talent and guys with championship moxie. They also have Luol Deng at small forward and Goran Dragic running the show at point guard, acquired at last season’s trade deadline.
The Heat are slotted as a 40-1 shot, third-best in the East behind Cleveland and Chicago. If they get some punch inside—either from improvement from Hassam Whiteside or consistent health from Amare Stoudamire, or both—they’ll have all the pieces.
If you’re only interest in the NBA is who makes the Finals, then Miami represents your best shot at seeing the East become compelling. But even that’s a longshot at best.
The NBA playoffs get started on Saturday afternoon. To set the tone, TheSportsNotebook is running a Tale of the Tape of all 16 teams in the field. Or, to be more precise, we’re running a concise summation of each team’s tale of the tape, so you can read a summary of what they’re about and who they do it with, rather than wading through statistical data.
Something to note in regards to the terminology used here, is that when we refer to each team’s rankings on offense or defense, the reference is based on efficiency numbers. This adjusts raw point totals for the pace of play and provides a better reflection as to whether a team is really good on offense or defense, rather than the point totals, which are often just a reflection of whether they play fast or slow. On a similar note, rebounding rankings are based on a percentage of overall rebounds, not simply the totals.
1)Indiana Pacers (56-26): The Pacers have a clear distinction between their offense and their defense. They’re 22nd on offense, while having the best defense in the league. The excel at cleaning up the glass with Roy Hibbert and David West down low, and guard Lance Stephenson is one of the best at crashing the boards from his position. I’ll say this though—I believe in defense as the core of a championship team as much as anyone, but being this bad on offense is pushing it.
That’s going to put the onus squarely on Paul George. The Pacers’ star small forward averaged 22 points/7 rebounds/4 assists per game and it’s going to be up to him to deliver at key moments throughout the playoffs. Last year, he wasn’t ready for prime time in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Miami. We need to find out if that has changed, and we need to see Hibbert go for 10-plus rebounds a game, rather than the 6 ½ he averaged in the regular season.
2)Miami Heat (54-28): The question now, as it’s been all year is simply this—does quoting regular season stats matter when it comes to the Heat. If it does, than this is not a championship-quality team anymore. The #11 ranking on defense is worse than either of the previous two championship years. Miami is no longer a top ten team at shooting the three-ball, and their defense outside the arc is suspect. With LeBron James averaging 27/7/6, they’re still a very efficient offensive team, especially in the half-court, but this is not the profile of an NBA champion.
No one really questions this though. What everyone is wondering is whether Miami—specifically Dwayne Wade—still have another gear. D-Wade averaged 19/5/5 in the season and shot 55 percent from the floor, but he got much more regular rest than will be the case going forward. Can his knee hold up? Can Ray Allen and Shane Battier find the range from three again? And can Chris Bosh be the #2 man behind LeBron if Wade falters? Those are the big questions lingering over South Beach.
3)Toronto Raptors (48-34): Toronto has been consistent in the 3-spot most of the regular season and they’re just a very consistent team, ranking 9th on both ends of the floor and 10th in rebounding. The team is built around the guards, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who combine for 41 ppg. Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas are each steady rebounders down low.
The three-point shooting is a microcosm of the team itself. No one is a standout at 40 percent or above from behind the arc. Lowry, at 38 percent, is the top three-point shooter. But collectively, they add up to a top ten team in shooting the three-ball. Toronto has been what we’re supposed to value in a basketball team—consistent and team-oriented. Although we’ve seen quite often that the NBA playoffs value something entirely different.
4)Chicago Bulls (48-34): Chicago’s offense/defense dichotomy is even sharper than Indiana’s. The Bulls are one of the worst teams on the NBA on the offensive end, and certainly the worst in the playoffs. Joakim Noah is an admirable basketball player, a ferocious competitor and I like him. But when he’s your top offensive threat, not just scoring, but also distributing, that underscores the offensive shortcomings.
Noah also hits the board hard though, getting 11 rebounds a game, and Chicago’s defense ranks behind only Indiana’s, and they clean up the misses they force. Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer join Noah in going to the glass. It’s not unusual for NBA playoff games to get ugly, as officials let players play, and the Bulls can win these kinds of games as well as anyone. The two key X-factors are whether Jimmy Butler can have some big offensive games, and 6’0” guard D.J. Augustin, a 41 percent 3-point shooter, can open things up with some shots from downtown.
5)Washington Wizards (44-38): Washington finally made themselves relevant again. John Wall had a splendid year at the point, averaging 19 points/8 assists per game. Trevor Ariza and Bradley Beal were both lights-out from behind the arc—in fact the Wizards’ biggest calling card is that they not only shoot the three, but they defend it very well. Marcin Gortat averaged 13 points/10 rebounds at center, and there’s a lot of depth up front, with Nene Hilario, Trevor Booker and Drew Gooden all hitting the glass.
The Wizards really do have all the pieces in place. They just have to mesh better as a unit, as the offense still ranked 16th. But the learning process is on schedule in D.C., and this playoff experience will only further it along.
6)Brooklyn Nets (44-38): Brooklyn has been coming on strong since the New Year, and only a decision to tank a game or two at the end dropped them to the 6-seed (ensuring they would draw inexperienced Toronto, rather than battle-tested Chicago). Joe Johnson and Deron Williams are a veteran backcourt, that collectively give a team everything it could want—ball distribution, scoring and three-point shooting.
Now it’s time for the Nets to see some return on the trade that brought Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in from Boston. Pierce has had a solid year, averaging 14 ppg. Garnett is the one who’s been rested for this moment—he’s only played 54 games and averaged just 20 minutes per in those games. That was still enough for him to get seven rebounds per game and with Brook Lopez out for the year, KG and Andray Blatche need to give their team a chance on the glass.
Brooklyn is a lesser version of Miami in this sense—you can’t look at their regular season profile and be optimistic, but you can’t look at their veteran talent and assume they were putting it all on the table all year. The Nets do have this going for them—it’s they, and not the Heat, they have at least built up a good head of steam going in, and these veteran teams are on a collision course in the second round.
7)Charlotte Bobcats (43-39):Michael Jordan’s new life as an owner starts to see success this year, as the Bobcats turn from league joke into a playoff team. Jordan found a leading actor who at least has his vicious competitiveness—Kemba Walker led UConn to the 2011 national title, and now he’s leading the Bobcats, averaging 18/4/6. Al Jefferson is a beast down low, averaging 22/11, giving Charlotte good inside-out balance.
The Bobcats don’t always look pretty on offense, the team rebounding is shaky, and they do nothing behind the arc. But defensive effort cures a lot of ills, and the team that plays the NBA’s 6th-best defense certainly brings that.
8)Atlanta Hawks (39-43): The Hawks lost center Al Horford for the season right around the New Year. Paul Milsap has been a trooper down low, averaging nine rebounds per game, to go with his 17 points, but he doesn’t have enough help and this is a poor rebounding team.
Atlanta does have a good backcourt, in Jeff Teague at the point, and Kyle Korver, the best three-point shooter in the league, running at the two-spot. But there’s probably three or four teams out of the Western Conference that could have finished ahead of Atlanta in the East.
We’re at about the quarter-pole in the long haul that is the NBA regular season, which paves the way for what can seem like an even longer playoff run. All of which is to say we can’t get too excited about an early results, but the first returns do suggest the NBA Eastern Conference is headed for a historically bad season.
The East has two greats teams, with the two-time defending champion Miami Heat off to a 16-6 start, and the prime challenger, the Indiana Pacers out at 19-3, including a head-to-head win last night over the Heat in the first meeting of the season. Problem is, the Heat and Pacers are the only two teams in the East with a winning record.
Atlanta is at .500 and holding the 3-spot. The Charlotte Bobcats are 10-12, with the Washington Wizards at 9-11. Everyone else is at least four games under the break-even point.
At the start of the season, the question about the Boston Celtics was whether they would tank and go in the lottery. They still might–heck, at 10-14, maybe they’re even trying to, but right now that’s good enough to be leading the Atlantic Division. The final two spots in the Eastern Conference’s top eight are held down by the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls.
The Eastern Conference has been well behind the West for several years now, but this is really out of hand and threatens to jeopardize the credibility of the postseason. We’re going to have teams that miss the playoffs by four rungs in the West able to make reasonable arguments that they’re the #3 team in the East, and perhaps–in spite of an unbalanced schedule–even have a better record.
If the playoff bracket lacks credibility, that ultimately casts aspersions on any championship won out of the East. While the top contenders in the West have to slug it out right from the opening round–after a longer, more grueling regular season–the Pacers and Heat can relax and coast into a conference finals battle with each other.
That’s the current status of the East. Here’s hoping the conference teams, especially disappointments like the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, who have the talent to be much better, can turn it around and start winning some games.
We’re not yet halfway through the regular season, but to look at the standings in the NBA Eastern Conference playoff race, one might conclude it’s already over. Oh, there are battles for seedings to fight over and in the homecourt-friendly NBA that can never be overlooked. But when it comes to the eight teams that qualify for the postseason, there’s a sharp line drawn between the haves and have-nots. Milwaukee is 19-18 and the only teams in shouting distance are Philadelphia, Detroit, Toronto and Orlando. Let’s run through those latter four teams and see if any of them can make the race for the final spot(s) interesting over the next couple months.
Philadelphia (16-23): The conversation has to start here, and not just because the 76ers are in ninth place right now. The reports are that Andrew Bynum will be back by the All-Star break and if he’s healthy it immediately transforms the Sixers. Right now this is a team that can’t rebound and plays mediocre defense.
Jrue Holiday has to carry the offense scoring-wise, while distributing the ball. He’s doing a great job, at 19 points/8 assists per night, but how healthy of an approach is that for an offense? Lavoy Allen has been woefully overpowered underneath and Spencer Hawes’ six rebounds per game are inadequate given his seven-foot frame. This is a team with a nice wing scorer in Evan Turner, but because they lack three-point shooting, Philly needs to be tough underneath. Right now, they’re anything but, so the only hope is for Bynum to be healthy.
Detroit (14-24): I like the Pistons the most of any chasing team right now—well, at least as much as you can like any team that’s lost 24 of 38 basketball games. But Detroit’s got a good backcourt in Tayshaun Prince and Brandon Knight, and can bring Rodney Stuckey off the bench. The Pistons get excellent work in the post from Greg Monroe.
The issue is a complete lack of production at the forward positions, although given we’re only talking about trying to get to eighth in the conference, that’s not an unmanageable problem. Detroit’s got home games with New York and Boston, and a difficult road sequence follows soon after. If they survive and get to the All-Star break with a shot, I can see Detroit making a run.
Toronto (14-24): The backcourt matches up with Detroit, with Jose Calderon, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. The Raptors get ball distribution and three-point shooting from Calderon, raw point production from DeRozan and consistent scoring and passing from Lowry. Unlike Detroit, they have nothing down low and the Raptors don’t even pretend to play defense, ranking 25th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. This was a team I thought had a dark-horse chance at the playoffs when the season began. I can’t see it the way they’re playing right now.
Orlando (13-24): Wouldn’t it be something if Orlando scraped its way into the playoffs and the Los Angeles Lakers missed, after the way the whole Dwight Howard saga played out. The Magic are still an above-average rebounding team, even without Howard. They’re getting good boardwork from Glen Davis and Nikola Vucevic, and all three guards—Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo and J.J. Redick are pretty good scorers. With a three-game home swing of Indiana, Charlotte and Dallas starting tonight, Orlando has a chance to make up some ground.
We didn’t focus on Milwaukee in this article, though the Bucks are the team in the top eight most likely to be displaced. I’d bet on Detroit getting back in the discussion and give Orlando a puncher’s chance. With Philadelphia, it’s all about Bynum. If he gets healthy, the Sixers are going to make it and if they avoid Miami in the first round, could be trouble for a favorite.
The NBA Eastern Conference is muddled by injuries right now, as the middle class tries to sort itself out. Three teams—Chicago, Philadelphia and Indiana—have hopes of eventually emerging as the pre-eminent challenger to the Miami Heat by springtime, but all three have their signature player on the bench. TheSportsNotebook will take a brief look at each team so far this season, who’s stepping up, and what the prospects are for their injured stars.
Chicago (11-8): Why is it that the Bulls seem to have such a hard time getting any respect as the top challenger? They’ve been the #1 seed in this conference for two straight years and might have won it all last year if Derrick Rose hadn’t blown out his knee in the first playoff game. We were told at the start of the season that Rose would be back in either late January or around the All-Star break and every report coming from the Windy City since has confirmed that timetable. The point guard is working on his cuts, starting to run sprints and he’ll have several weeks to play his way into playoff shape. So what’s the problem with considering the Bulls a real contender?
Even without Rose, Chicago’s signature of stingy defense remains, as they’re tied with Memphis as the NBA’s best at defensive efficiency, and they’re also the best in the game at hitting the boards. Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer continue to own the glass, and small forward Luol Deng has emerged as the top scorer, at 18 ppg.
There are big problems with the offense—Noah, and veteran two-guard Kirk Hinrich are the leaders in assists, suggesting that Nate Robinson has not adequately filled Rose’s shows. But if we look at this team in light of a healthy Rose, and suddenly they look pretty good. For my money, this is still the second-best team in the East and with Rose, quite possibly the best.
Philadelphia (11-9): It was with much hype that the Sixers acquired center Andrew Bynum as part of the multi-team Dwight Howard trade, but a knee injury has Bynum sidelined until at least early January and we’re even starting to hear reports he may not return at all. For the time being let’s assume he comes back next month—because if he doesn’t, this whole section of the article is pointless and the Sixers are, at best, a borderline playoff team.
But with Bynum it’s a different story. Point guard Jrue Holiday is having an excellent season both scoring and distributing and Evan Turner has made a similar elevation of his game. Thaddeus Young is providing both scoring and rebounding help at the small forward spot. What Philadelphia is not doing very well right now is rebounding the ball, and it should be self-evident that a healthy Bynum goes a long way to fixing that problem.
I’m not as sold on a best-case Philadelphia team as I am with Chicago—Bynum’s noted immaturity still remains an issue, but the Sixers could at least be a top-four team, win a playoff round and if they meet Miami in the spring, the Heat’s biggest nightmare is a team built around a high-quality center.
Indiana (10-11): The Pacers lost small forward Danny Granger, their best offensive threat, to a knee injury. Granger is off crutches and the team hopes for him to be back by February, but of the three injured stars we’re focused on, Granger is the biggest question mark.
Granger’s also the biggest question mark when he’s healthy, because the Pacers are exactly the kind of team that can—indeed, should have beaten Miami in last year’s playoffs, with the presence of Roy Hibbert in the post and David West at power forward. West is stepping up this season, with 18 points/9 rebounds per game, but Hibbert, at 10/8, needs to elevate his game whether Granger comes back or not.
Indiana’s depth on the perimeter is also not what it was a year ago, and there’s considerable pressure on George Hill to maintain his strong start. Right now I’m still down on Indiana because of how unready-for-prime-time they looked in last year’s playoffs, and Granger was as big a culprit as anyone. That’s why I find them the least interesting team of this trio right now.
The NBA season starts up Tuesday night with the Miami Heat getting their rings and hoisting a championship banner in a game against the Boston Celtics. That means it’s time for TheSportsNotebook to run its NBA previews. Unlike baseball or football, where we give each team a complete a preview all its own, pro hoops will just split into conferences.
The league, like hockey, is more postseason-oriented, and we’ll use between now and Christmas Day—a now-traditional showcase day for the NBA—to dig deeper into the strengths and weaknesses of each contender. For now, we’ll start with a basic overview of each conference race, and an Over/Under pick on each team’s projected regular season win total by the Las Vegas sportsbooks. This post focuses on the Eastern Conference.
THE TOP DOG: MIAMI
I won’t try and break any new ground and argue anything other than that Miami is clearly the team to beat. Everyone of consequence is back from last year’s championship run and they’ve added Ray Allen into the mix. While the former Celtic guard is 37-years-old and his ankles are suspect, he’s a perfect sharpshooter to line up opposite LeBron James at the three-point stripe, and give the league’s reigning MVP an option to either work the post or reverse the ball to Allen for a trey. Between Allen, Mario Challmes and Mike Miller off the bench, the Heat can open up an opposing defense from the outside.
Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade are back, though the condition of Wade’s knee is likely to be an ongoing issue through the season and I’m sure the veteran will have to pace himself. The Heat’s vulnerability is still center. Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony were subpar last year and I see no reason to expect improvement.
Miami’s win number is 61.5, a full eleven games higher than anyone else in the East. The Heat have a tendency to coast even in the best of times and Wade’s need to pace himself will add to that. That’s why I’m going Under, but that’s in no way suggesting they are anything but a clear frontrunner.
THE CHALLENGERS: BOSTON, CHICAGO, INDIANA
I’m including the Bulls in this group, even though most outlets are ignoring them because Derrick Rose won’t be back until mid-January and after he was injured in the first game of the playoffs, Chicago promptly lost four of five to 8-seed Philadelphia. But with Rose—the team that will presumably exist well in advance of the playoffs—Chicago was the best team in the East, including Miami.
You can argue that even with Rose, Chicago doesn’t have the kind of signature star that can match up with the Heat, and I’m okay with that argument. But you can’t deny that the team always plays hard on defense and that a frontline of Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson is still solid and deep. Their number is only 47, and I think Tom Thibodeau keeps them competitive early, they surge late and go Over.
I’m a Celtics fan, so obviously biased on that topic. I think adding Jason Terry to replace Ray Allen in the backcourt is an upgrade and makes the team more versatile. Allen fits well in Miami where he can be a role player as a pure shooter. But Boston needs its guards to do more and Terry, along with newly acquired Courtney Lee and emerging second-year man Avery Bradley, all provide more complete skill sets than does an aging Allen.
Rajon Rondo should have a big year running the show and Brandon Bass is a solid niche player at forward, either starting or getting significant minutes off the bench. The issue is going to be how healthy Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce can stay. Las Vegas says healthy enough to have a posted number of 50.5. I’m not making a pick here since it’s my own team, but that number looks razor-sharp.
Indiana has the talent base best suited to dethrone Miami. The Pacers have an elite defensive center in Roy Hibbert, whose growing as a low-post scorer. In a league where quality centers are at a minimum, HIbbert gives Indiana an exploitable edge against most anyone. David West is a solid scorer at power forward and Danny Granger has the ability to be something special at small forward.
The backcourt could use a clear leader, but they make up for it in depth. The real issue I have with this team is that Granger disappeared in the playoffs against Miami and they team resorted to chucking three-pointers rather than pounding the Heat down low. It suggests to me that something intangible is missing, which is why they have to show me they aren’t just the NBA equivalent of the Atlanta Falcons. But that means regular season success and I think Indiana beats it’s 50.5 Over/Under number.
DEPTH IN THE ATLANTIC: PHILADELPHIA, BROOKLYN, NEW YORK
I’m just keeping these three teams as a group, because they’re all in the Atlantic Division and all three have a very reasonable chance of knocking off the Celtics and at least claiming homecourt advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
The Sixers were rolling atop the Atlantic for much of last year until they tanked at the end. They caught a break with the Rose injury and knocked Chicago out of the playoffs, then stretched Boston to seven games and were in position to win that series until Rondo improbably started burying three-pointers in the fourth quarter of Game 7. Who are the real 76ers?
Doug Collins’ team made some significant moves in the offseason, bringing in Andrew Bynum from the Lakers and shipping out Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams, who provided a lot of scoring from the wing. Bynum and Spencer Hawes are going to make Philly tough to handle in the post, especially on the defensive end. Jrue Holiday is a high-quality point guard. Can Evan Turner step up and fill the void on the wing positions? Whether he does so, and whether Bynum stays healthy and motivated decide whether the Sixers can beat a win total of 47. It’s Bynum’s year-long motivation that concern me, so I’m going slightly under.
If nothing else, New York should be less of a soap opera this season, with hard-nosed Mike Woodson entrenched as the head coach. The Knicks played pretty good defense a year ago, ranking fifth in the NBA in defensive efficiency (a stat that adjusts points for tempo). We know the Amare Stoudamire-Carmelo Anthony forward tandem will have nights of looking unstoppable and other nights of looking dysfunctional. We know Tyson Chandler will rebound and play defense at the center position.
We have no idea what to expect from the backcourt, where Jason Kidd is a steady hand on the wheel, but needs Raymond Felton play consistently and provide some depth. The two-guard spot is a mess and overall depth is poor. The Knicks’ number is 45.5 and that looks pretty tight, but I’m still going to lean under.
Brooklyn got the hype in the offseason, with their move from New Jersey and then their prominence in the Dwight Howard drama before he ended up with the Lakers. The Nets also signed potent two-guard Joe Johnson, one of the best scorers in the league at that spot, have a good forward tandem in Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries and a nice center in Brook Lopez. They’ve got Deron Williams, still a top point guard, running the show.
If it all clicks, I give Brooklyn the best chance of beating Boston in the Atlantic. But “if it all clicks” means playing defense and that’s something the Nets did precious little of last year. Why should that change this time around? That’s why I’m going Under 46.
POTENTIAL CHALLENGER: ATLANTA
The Hawks lost Johnson to free agency, but they still went 40-26 in the strike-shortened season a year ago and in a first-round playoff loss to Boston they came within a possession of getting the series to a Game 7 on their home floor. They added Lou Williams from Philly, Devin Harris from Utah and drafted John Jenkins to make up the backcourt void.
I like this team—I like the forward combo of Al Horford and Josh Smith and I like the way they play defense. It’s for that reason I’m going solidly Over on the win number of 43 and think we’ll end up discussing them along with Chicago, Boston and Indiana during the regular season. The Hawks will come up short in the postseason, because it’s what professional sports franchises in Atlanta do, but they’ll have a nice year, even without Johnson.
PLAYOFF DARKHORSES: MILWAUKEE, DETROIT, TORONTO
The eight teams already discussed look like solid playoff teams to me, but there’s always at least one surprise and the Bucks, Pistons and Raptors have the best shot.
Milwaukee will produce points in the backcourt, with Monta Williams and Brandon Jennings, and I like new draft pick Doron Lamb’s ability to shoot the three-ball. The forwards are tolerable with Ersan Ilyasova and Drew Gooden. Whether they make the playoffs or not depends on how quickly lanky post man John Henson develops as a rookie. The postseason is probably a stretch, but give them a slight lean to the Over on 37.5.
Detroit came on at the end of last year and at the very least has a nice point guard-center combo with Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe. Tayshaun Prince leads the group that fills in around them. There’s certainly plenty of flaws, but they’re better than the 32-win team Vegas projects.
Toronto has some talented scorers on the front line with Andrea Barghai and DeMar DeRosen, while Amir Johnson can rebound, and the team plays respectable defense overall, at 12th in the league in efficiency. It’s for those reasons that I put the Raptors over the 33.5 posted number and rank them the challenger with the best chance to make the playoffs if any of the above eight stumble.
THE REST: CLEVELAND, WASHINGTON, ORLANDO, CHARLOTTE
Each team’s Over/Under number is listed in parentheses…
Cleveland (31.5): Kyrie Irving is a terrific talent, but like LeBron James before him he has no viable supporting cast. I won’t blame Kyrie in the least if he wants to blow town someday and trumpet his decision for national television. I’m going Under.
Washington (28.5): A decent frontline, with Nene and Emeka Okafor, and the Wizards have brought in Trevor Ariza, who’s got some championship experience at small forward. John Wall is out for a month, but he’ll return to a respectable backcourt. I don’t think the Wizards will be as bad as the number suggests, and they’re the best of this grouping of teams—the cream of the crap, if you will.
Orlando (24.5): The backcourt has talent, with Jameer Nelson, a veteran of the 2009 team that went to the Finals running the show, sharpshooting J.J. Redick and Arron Afflalo. The forwards aren’t bad with Nikola Vucevic, Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu. There’s no center, but that’s not unusual among even contending teams, much less at this level. So what’s the problem? It’s about attitude. How fired up is anyone going to be after Howard was shipped out of town. I think the Magic are better than their number, but not by a lot.
Charlotte (18.5): The Bobcats brought in Ramon Sessions at point and Ben Gordon in the backcourt, both of whom are at least viable NBA players, something that could not be said of last year’s 7-59 atrocity. I love the draft pick of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, my personal favorite on the board. It’s still the worst team in the East, but can they scale the heights and go at least 19-63 and cash an Over. Yeah, I think they can.
The Western Conference preview will be posted later this evening and on Tuesday morning we’ll have a final preview, complete with predictions on playoff seeding and an eventual champion.