TheSportsNotebook has been preparing for the Tuesday night opener of the 2013-14 NBA season the past two weeks. We’ve run separate previews for each division that have reviewed the lineup of every team and measured them against the NBA Over/Under win futures posted in Las Vegas. We’ve also looked at the betting odds for winning the championship and considered some options for what numbers make the most sense. Those articles are at the following links…
Now it’s time to toss out the numbers, toss the betting implications and just get down to business of asking, straight up, who’s going to make the playoffs and win the championship. Or at least, who TheSportsNotebook thinks will do so, something that does not often (in fact rarely) comports to reality.
TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary has broken each conference down into four groups. The first are the teams with a legitimate chance to reach the NBA Finals, either in my view or in the view of the general public mainstream. The second group is teams that are virtual locks to make the playoffs, but whom it’s tough to see rising much higher.
The third group is the teams on the playoff bubble–will they or won’t they? And the last group is the also-rans whose fans can start getting psyched for the draft lottery at an early date.
I’ve then picked the playoff teams and ranked them 1 thru 8. At this stage, you can just assume that my projected #1 seed is who I think makes the Finals, the top two make the conference finals, etc. I know it won’t work out that cleanly in the real world, but at this point, there’s no reason to get cute this far out. Then at the end, we wrap it up with a championship pick.
The Contenders: Miami, Indiana, Brooklyn, Chicago The Playoff Teams: New York, Atlanta The Bubble: Detroit, Cleveland, Washington, Milwaukee, Boston The Also-Rans: Toronto, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Orlando Comment: Last season, we knew the eight playoff teams by around February, as well as the fact Miami would hold the pole position. All the races promise some more excitement this time around.
At the top end, Brooklyn made the big splash in bringing in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to augment an already solid core, and Derrick Rose comes back to Chicago. At the bottom end, I think last year’s bottom two playoff seeds–the Celtics and Bucks–are being too quickly dismissed this season. At the same time, Detroit, Cleveland and Washington are all improved.
The Contenders: Oklahoma City, San Antonio, LA Clippers, Memphis, Golden State, Houston Playoff Team: Denver The Bubble Teams: Portland, Dallas, LA Lakers, Minnesota, New Orleans The Also-Rans: Utah, Sacramento, Phoenix Comment: If it were strictly up to me, I’d drop Golden State and Houston down a rung. I don’t see either one making the Finals. Golden State needs one more big-time player, Houston needs more depth and both teams need some more experience. Now, I suppose it is strictly up to me, since it’s my site, but I know I’ve been wrong in the past (many, many times) and there’s strong public sentiment that both teams are contenders, so I’ll grant the Warriors and Rockets top-line status.
However you classify the top teams, the race for #8 promises to be interesting, and I’m not sure why everyone is writing off the Lakers. Kobe will make it back in due time, they still have Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, and look at the teams they’re fighting with–is it unthinkable that the Lakers can be better than Portland, Dallas, Minnesota and New Orleans?
4) San Antonio
2014NBA FINALS PREDICTION
That leaves me with an Indiana-Oklahoma City matchup in the NBA Finals. The first year without David Stern in the playoffs gives us two teams from relatively small markets, undoubtedly leading ABC to pine for the return of the commish who could hotwire a postseason like no one else. But big markets or now, this would make for fantastic basketball.
Both teams have paid their dues, as the NBA requires, and I think Indiana is tougher defensively and on the boards, and I see Paul George ready to come into his own as a star. The Pacers bring home their first NBA crown.
However it plays out, this promises to be an exceptionally exciting season. It’s not often you look at an NBA landscape and see this many teams with viable championship hopes, while still having a singularly great player in LeBron James and a three-peat possibility with Miami. Most leagues, including the NBA, fluctuate between parity rooted in mediocrity, or a dynastic run too preordained to be exciting. The 2013-14 NBA season has the right balance in between and I’m excited for it to begin on Tuesday night.
The NBA season tips off tonight with three games, highlighted by a TNT doubleheader of Boston-Miami (8 PM ET) and Dallas-LA Lakers (10:30 PM ET). TheSportsNotebook ran its NBA previews for the Eastern & Western conferences this past weekend, offering brief thoughts on each team and a projection for how they would fare against the Over/Under win total posted for them in the Las Vegas sportsbooks. Now it’s time for the final preview, with picks for how each conference will stand up and who eventually claims the title in June.
Oklahoma City made the big splash in the last hours of the preseason when they traded James Harden to Houston for a shooting guard. Kevin Martin, a prospect in Jeremy Lamb, plus a first and second-round draft pick. TheSportsNotebook’s Western Conference preview was already posted when the deal went down, but quite frankly, I doesn’t affect my positive view of the Thunder all that much—if anything it enhances it.
The contract negotiations with Harden were not going well and by all accounts he was headed for free agency next summer. So for the long-term, I haven’t heard any pundit deny that the Thunder did what they needed to do. But even in the short term that is the 2012-13 season, I think this deal might help. Martin is a quality scorer and can fill Harden’s production.
Let’s also not forget that Harden tanked in last year’s Finals, the biggest reason his team lost three consecutive close games to Miami when the series was up for grabs. It’s well possible that he might have come out more battle toughened and improved this year—that was the trajectory followed by Laker legend James Worthy in the 1980s. But it’s also possible that the Finals exposed something about Harden’s ability to play at a high level when the pressure is at its highest.
What it boils down to is that I’m opening with a “no change” policy toward evaluating the Thunder. There are likely to be some early bumps, as Martin gets blended into the offense, but over the next 5 ½ months that is the NBA’s marathon regular season there’s plenty of time to get that worked out.
Now let’s move on to the picks. Below are each team’s predicted final record. One thing to note is that the win total may not line up with what I picked regarding each team’s Over/Under in the conference previews. The reason for that is the latter is a pick made purely in a vacuum—I establish a general range I think the team will fall in, and whatever side offers more room for error (something I provide plenty of in my picks) is where I land. For these record projections, it’s ensured that everything averages out to .500, so hard choices need to be made.
1)Oklahoma City (60-22)
2)LA Lakers (58-24)
4)San Antonio (49-33)—as a division winner Spurs are guaranteed at least a 4-seed
5)LA Clippers (52-30)
(PLAYOFF DIVIDING LINE)
10)Golden State (36-46)
13)New Orleans (31-51)
At this point there’s not much reason to do anything other than pick the chalk to advance in the NBA Finals, which sets up an Oklahoma City-Miami rematch in the Finals. Obviously if I thought one team was going to beat another in the playoffs, I’d pick them to win more games in the regular season.
The one caveat in that is we can expect the Chicago team that makes the playoffs to be much better than its actual seeding, since Derrick Rose comes back in mid-January—just enough missed time for his team to dig a hole, but plenty of recovery team to be firing on all cylinders for the postseason.
Other storylines will be how hard Miami pushes themselves in the regular season—they’ve never done it before and now they’re likely to have some cushion in the push for the #1 seed (something they haven’t had either of the last two years), along with the need for Dwayne Wade to push his knee too hard. The Lakers are another veteran team that has to make similar decisions about the value of seeding versus the value of veterans’ health. Boston does as well, but even though I’m a Celtics fan, I don’t see them impacting the title chase.
This is a big swing year in defining the legacy of LeBron James. At this point, it seems to be accepted as a given that he’ll rack up multiple additional rings. You can certainly see the Heat winning the next couple of championships. But it’s far from a guarantee. The Lakers have made their big moves in getting Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. And Oklahoma City’s loss in the Finals last year is a necessary learning experience that all rising teams have to go through. Is it that hard to imagine the Thunder winning the next two titles and leaving LeBron at a huge crossroads as he gets set to enter free agency again?
I don’t think it is, and in fact I’m picking Oklahoma City to win it all. As mentioned at the top, I’m not deterred by the Harden deal and if anything I am emboldened by it. The Thunder are younger, better defensively, more potent offensively and now have the one missing ingredient that’s proven necessary in the NBA—the pain of failure. This time around, they’ll celebrate in OkC come June.
The NBA season starts on Tuesday night, with Boston-Miami being the opener of a TNT doubleheader, and then Dallas-LA Lakers going in the 10:30 PM ET slot. TheSportsNotebook has already run the Eastern Conference section of its NBA previews, and now we’ll focus on the Western Conference. As we did with the East, each team’s Over/Under win total, as posted in Las Vegas, will be listed and analyzed.
Editor’s Note: This preview was published about an hour prior to the announcement of Oklahoma City trading James Harden to Houston for a package keyed by Kelvin Martin.
THE BIG THREE: OKLAHOMA CITY, LA LAKERS, SAN ANTONIO
Los Angeles has gotten almost all the offseason media attention with the free-agent signing of Steve Nash and the trade acquisition of Dwight Howard, but I’m not yet ready to concede this team the Western title. Let’s start with the fact there’s a significant gap to make up between them and the Spurs and Thunder, who were easily the best two teams in the West a year ago.
Then let’s move to the question of how much the addition of Howard will really help, given LA had to trade Andrew Bynum to get him. The Lakers were already second in the NBA in rebound rate. How much better is Dwight going to make them? Nash is a fabulous addition to any team’s offense, but he’s a big defensive liability, something that can also be said of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
This is where Howard is going to have to bail his team out frequently. Their Over/ Under number on wins is 58, and that’s a little higher from where I’m prepared to go. Los Angles is improved and a legitimate title contender, but I don’t see the Super Team that everyone else seems to.
Oklahoma City still has the highest win total projection in the West, clocking in at 60.5 and coming in as a team hungry to show that last year’s losing experience in the NBA Finals was what they needed to take the final step. You know about how good Kevin Durant is, and how the same goes for Russell Westbrook. What I want to see is Kendrick Perkins increase his dominance on the boards. Perkins has been a good rebounder since he was acquired from Boston in February 2011, but he hasn’t been great. And he’s capable of being great.
James Harden is a question mark—he’s going through a contract dispute with the front office, and while he’ll be on the floor, this is the kind of thing that disrupts a player’s focus and ultimately team chemistry. It’s also a question mark about how badly he disappeared in the Finals, but the meaning of that can wait until spring for further analysis. If Harden struggles, the Thunder may need some more offense from athletic defender Thabo Sefolosha and power forward Serge Ibaka, a shotblocker supreme, but not a scorer. I’ll go Under on the win total.
San Antonio isn’t getting the same kind of respect as the other two teams are, and frankly I think that’s probably accurate. But the Spurs did lead the league in wins last year and they had ripped off ten straight playoff victories before OkC suddenly turned the tables on them in the conference finals. Given the season-long performance and the track record of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker, San Antonio deserves to be kept in the upper tier of teams until they play their way out.
But I think they will play their way out. The age of their core players is showing and while head coach Greg Popovich does an extraordinary job in getting production from 10-11 players, that’s just enough to be a championship level team. San Antonio’s win number is 55.5 and while that sounds about right, I’m going to give slight benefit to the Under.
So I’ve gone Under on all three teams in the West’s upper-crust. That must mean teams down lower are going to outperform expectations, even if they don’t alter the structure of the conference race. Let’s move on to the top challengers.
THE CHALLENGERS: MEMPHIS, LA CLIPPERS, DENVER
Chris Paul gave the Clippers a new sense of identity and a player who could take control of the game at key moments. He’s the best point guard in the game right now and the two-guard spot alongside him looks stronger with Jamal Crawford, and if Chauncey Billups can come back from his Achilles injury as expected, it will give the Clips a nice veteran presence with some championship experience (2004 Detroit).
Blake Griffin needs to be more consistent to move into true superstar territory, but there’s no denying his ability to put up points and get rebounds. DeAndre Jordan provides a quality defensive presence in the middle, with Caron Butler being a good subordinate scorer on the wing. Los Angeles took a risk in bringing in Lamar Odom—the former Laker has been a key part of championship runs in 2009-10, but he also, by all accounts, quit on Dallas last season. We’ll see how he feels about his new team. The Clips have a win number of 49.5, and while I’ve got my question marks I think they’re a good bet to win 50 games, so I’ll take the Over.
Memphis lost a seven-game series to the Clips in the playoffs last spring. It was disheartening, because the Grizzlies blew a 27-point lead in Game 1 at home and then lost the finale at home. It’s tough to lose a Game 7 in your own building and the fact Memphis did has to make you wonder about their killer instinct.
From a personnel standpoint, you have to wonder about their backcourt. Mike Conley does a good job running the show and he kicks in some scoring, but the two-guard spot needs to produce, with O.J. Mayo having left via free agency. The frontcourt is well-balanced across with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph on the interior and Rudy Gay at small forward. Their projected at 49 wins, and like LA, I think Memphis is a good bet to win 50, with further psycho-evaluation of their intangibles to be done at playoff time.
Denver has done a terrific job re-tooling after they shipped out Carmelo Anthony to New York. The Nuggets are team that hits the boards hard, led by Javale McGee at center. Danilo Galinari is a high-quality scorer at small forward, and Kenneth Faried is solid at power forward.
The backcourt is tremendously upgraded, with Andre Iguodala brought in from Philadelphia to run with Ty Lawson and Andre Miller, the point guard duo who do an exceptional job running the offense. Corey Brewer provides quality depth. I was thinking Denver might slide under the radar after coming in as a 6-seed and losing a seven-game series to the Lakers in the first round a year ago, but no such luck. Their win total is posted at 51.5, but even given that, I’m still going to the Over.
THE BOTTOM OF THE BRACKET: DALLAS, UTAH
Based on win projection numbers, the Mavericks and Jazz are expected to have room to spare in filling out the final two spots in the Western Conference playoffs. Dallas will be without Dirk Nowitzki into November, but as long as they have cushion for making the playoffs, that might not be a bad thing, At this stage in his career, Dirk doesn’t need to start too early.
And even while Dallas said goodbye to Jason Terry, they brought in Darren Collison from Indiana and Memphis’ Mayo to be their new backcourt, and in both cases I like the additions. Vince Carter and Shawn Marion are good enough at the small forward slot and when Dirk is back this will be a pretty decent team, even without a center. Certainly good enough to have a winning record and with a win total of 41.5, that’s all they need to go Over.
Utah is tough on the front line, with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap leading up a team that finished third in the NBA in rebound rate. Derrick Favors is effective in the rotation and Marvin Williams can chip in from scoring from the wing, as can two-guard Gordon Hayward. Utah has changed out the point guard spot. Devin Harris is gone to Atlanta and veteran Mo Williams is in.
The win total is at 44. That’s another number that sounds right, but given the uncertainty in the backcourt, I’m going to get a little bit under. I’m not persuaded that Utah is better than Dallas.
PLAYOFF CHALLENGERS: PHOENIX, PORTLAND, GOLDEN STATE
Phoenix lost Steve Nash and their win total is a meager 33—the same number of games they won last year in a season shortened by 16 due to the lockout. But the Suns added Luis Scola at power forward, and have a quality center in Marcin Gortatt and decent scoring options from the wings in Michael Beasley and Jared Dudley.
So can they get a point guard? No one will ever run an offense like Nash, but the combo of veteran Goran Dragic and an exciting rookie in Kendall Marshall—whose injury probably cost North Carolina a spot in the NCAA final (at least) a year ago—will make up for some of what was lost in Nash. And a point about Nash from above needs to be reiterated—he does not play defense, so perhaps the Suns can make up lost ground in this area. Suffice it to say I’m going Over 33 on the wins.
Portland has a couple good forwards in Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge, while Wesley Mathews can score from the two-guard spot. The Blazers badly need both a point guard and center though. I give them an outside shot at the playoffs and go Over on their 33-win projection, but it’s probably still not enough to play deep into the spring.
My inclusion of Golden State as a possible playoff team might raise some eyebrows. And maybe I am crazy, given this is a franchise where the fans booed the owner lustily on a night they were retiring Chris Mullin’s number. But the Warriors have a quality player at every spot—Andrew Bogut at center, David Lee at power forward, the potentially explosive rookie Harrison Barnes at small forward and Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry at the guards. T
The problem is that last year this was the worst defensive team in the NBA. If they can upgrade to merely terrible, rather than mind-numbingly brutal, the Bay Area could sniff the 8-seed. Either way, they’ll win more than the 36.5 the sportsbooks say.
THE REST: MINNESOTA, HOUSTON, NEW ORLEANS, SACRAMENTO
Each team’s win number is in parentheses…
Minnesota (38.5)—If they had Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio healthy, this team would be right in the mix of the playoff conversation. But Love’s out at least 10-15 games, and Rubio might not be back until the first of the year after that terrible ACL injury that derailed this team a year ago. It’s a sad situation for a franchise that can’t seem to get a break, but I’ve got to go Under.
Houston (28): The Rockets were in the playoff mix to the bitter end a year ago, with Kevin McHale doing a solid coaching job. But the backcourt’s been changed out, Scola’s gone to Phoenix and I’m not convinced that Jeremy Lin is going to be the answer at the point. Having said that, do I think they can go at least 29-53 after finishing over .500 a year ago? Yeah, and that would put them Over.
New Orleans (26): Anthony Davis is in the house and with him the excitement. The Hornets have productive two-guard Eric Gordon and another high draft choice in Duke’s Austin Rivers. They’re way too young, though I’ll still say they scrape out the Over.
Sacramento (31): I like Demarcus Cousins in the post. I like the draft choice of Thomas Robinson to help out down low even more. But I like nothing else and there is no way this team wins 31 games. I go Under and by at least five games.
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.