TheSportsNotebook’s preparation for next Tuesday night’s NBA opener continues with our run of divisional previews. Today’s focus is the NBA Southwest Division, with a look at each team’s personnel, and how they compare to expectations, as defined by the NBA win futures posted in Las Vegas.
San Antonio leads up this division and the team that came within seconds of the 2013 NBA title is just one part of a division that is absolutely stacked. Memphis made the conference finals and is primed for the next step. Houston added Dwight Howard and has championship aspirations.
Even the two non-contenders–Dallas and New Orleans–are going to be tough outs on a nightly basis and have playoff possibilities. Here’s the rundown on each team…
San Antonio: Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are back to key this team’s bid for a fifth NBA crown since 1999. If not for Parker’s tweaked hamstring, the Spurs likely take the championship last season. Kawhi Leonard played well all last year and really began to emerge in the Finals, giving the team a young forward to pair up with Duncan.
Sharpshooting Danny Green is back as Parker’s running mate. Manu Ginobli also returns, but this is one veteran of the championship teams (the last one in 2007) that San Antonio would have been better off without.
I don’t see how this Spurs lineup, with Duncan and Parker getting up there in years, can compete for the championship, but I didn’t see how they could last year either and they did. The pride of the vets, the coaching of Greg Popovich and the depth on the roster will help this team find a way to put itself in the discussion.
But the win prop is 55.5, and while the Spurs won 58 games a year ago, everyone’s got more wear and tear, the conference remains tough and the need for pacing remains strong. I’m going to guess San Antonio comes in a bit Under, with the question being how primed they’ll be come playoff time.
Houston: At this time last year the Rockets made a big splash when the traded for James Harden, and the two-guard showed he was ready to be a go-to star in the NBA, leading Houston into the playoffs. This year’s big acquisition is Dwight Howard, giving the Rockets an inside-outside combo with an All-Star caliber player at each spot.
Jeremy Lin runs the show at the point and Chandler Parsons is an underrated small forward, who can shoot from the outside and help out on the boards. What the Rockets are missing is depth, and it will be important for both Omer Asik and Marcus Camby to play well behind Howard.
I think expectations are running amok a bit, with Houston sitting on 55. A record of 55-27 in the Western Conference should be seen more as a high point, not a middle expectation for a betting number. I’m concerned about the Rockets’ depth, so I’m going Under.
Memphis: This is a tough physical team that knows how to play defense and rebound. The interior tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol can match up with most anyone and the Grizzlies added Kosta Koufous to provide quality depth at center. Tayshaun Prince was acquired in exchange for Rudy Gay last year and Prince enhanced the team’s defensive mentality.
Mike Conley began to emerge as a scorer, as well as a passer, in last year’s playoffs and the point guard is joined by Tony Allen and Jerryd Bayless to run alongside him. And in a move I like, Memphis added Mike Miller, the Miami sharpshooter who was angled out by similar players in Ray Allen and Shane Battier. The Grizzlies need a pure shooter and someone with championship experience. Miller has both.
Memphis has a win prop of 51.5, and I think that’s very reasonable. This is certainly a 50-win team and can reach the mid-to-high 50s, so I’m going Over.
Dallas: It seems like a long time ago that Dallas nailed Miami in South Beach in Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals and won the championship. Most of the key players from that team are long gone, and Dirk Nowitzki just has to work to stay healthy for an entire year.
But a healthy Dirk is still a productive Dirk, and the Mavs had put together a nice trio of guards in Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis and Devin Harris. They’re undersized, but there’s good ballhandling skills and offensive production in that group, particularly Ellis. Dallas has to then hope that Shawn Marion has any gas left in the tank and that DeJuan Blair can get his career jumpstarted in a way the power forward never could in San Antonio.
The win prop is 43.5. I have to take the pessimistic view and go Under, simply because an Over will virtually require Nowitzki to be healthy all year and at this stage of his career, I don’t think that’s a good bet.
New Orleans: This team is similar to Houston, albeit in a smaller scale. It’s another team doing all the right things and putting together a good future. After last year’s draft got them Anthony Davis and they brought in Eric Gordon at the two-guard spot, I loved the trade for Philadelphia point guard Jrue Holiday. The core of talent for the newly-named Pelicans to grow into a contender is here.
But the expectations are running too far out of front. There’s still experience needed, depth has to be added and they play in the tougher conference. A win future of 40.5 demands that New Orleans go .500 just to narrowly make it Over, and that asks too much. The Under is the prudent move here.
TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will have one final preseason overview prior to the October 29 opener, where we’ll tie together all six division previews and make final playoff and championship picks.
TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary has been doing tours of each of the league’s six divisions in anticipation of the October 29 regular season opener. Today we focus in on the NBA Central Division, with a look at each team’s lineup and how they compare to their expectations, as measured by the NBA win futures in Las Vegas.
It’s an interesting division, with both Chicago and Indiana seeing themselves as title contenders and having legitimate basis for that belief. Cleveland and Detroit see themselves as a ready to make the playoffs, and they also have reason for confidence. Milwaukee probably doesn’t know what to think of themselves after an offseason of change, but as we’ll see, they have enough talent to be interesting.
Chicago: The return of Derrick Rose makes the Bulls the favorite in this division and reminds us all that this was the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the 2012 NBA playoffs, before Rose blew out his knee in the first game of that postseason.
Rose pairs up with Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler, each of whom make competent two-guards and provide different skill sets, with Hinrich being a shooter and Butler able to take defenders off the dribble. The frontcourt is going to be very strong, with Joakim Noah anchoring the middle and flanked by Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer at the forward spots. The opportunity for Deng to play an enhanced role over the last year-plus will end up as a long-term positive that comes out of the Rose injury.
Chicago’s expectations are hefty, at 56.5, and it’s lot to ask of a team to go 57-25 when I’m sure their best player is still going to be monitored carefully. I mean no aspersions on Chicago’s championship hopes when I say the safe bet is the Under.
Indiana: The Pacers took Miami to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2013 NBA playoffs and with that experience under their belt, Indiana meets the classic definition of an NBA team that has bided its time and is ready to take their turn. But they have to make sure the backcourt is up to snuff.
I’m surprised the Pacers didn’t do more with their guards. They’re still going with the George Hill-Lance Stephenson combo and C.J. Watson backing them up. It’s not bad, but against the top teams–which now include Chicago again, as well as Miami–it’s not a strength.
The good news is up front, where Roy Hibbert had a breakout showing in the Miami series and demonstrated he can dominate the middle. David West is a very consistent at power forward and Paul George gave the team legitimate star power at small forward. George had a meltdown in Game 7 in Miami, but that simply makes him a microcosm of the team–took his lumps this year, and now stronger for the experience.
Indiana has added Luis Scola to provide even more depth. The health of Danny Granger is an issue. If he can get on the court he’s a great scorer and possible trade chip. But he missed almost all of last year and is struggling with a calf issue right now.
I’m seriously considering making the Pacers my championship pick next week, but even given that I don’t like to go Over on big numbers like 55.5. I’m making an exception in this case–I don’t see them going any lower than 53 wins and I think a 58-60 win season is possible. That means more room on the Over.
Detroit: After a few years out of the postseason, the Pistons made a free-agent splash when they signed power forward Josh Smith away from Atlanta. Smith can score inside and outside, and can also rebound. The key for Detroit will be making sure Smith understands that the outside has to flow from the interior game and not vice-versa. That’s a long-winded of saying he can’t sit around on the three-point line.
Greg Monroe joins Smith to make a good forward tandem . The guards are the question mark right now–Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Jennings are going to miss some time to start the year, though it appears not a lot. Jennings, just acquired from Milwaukee still has to mesh with the offense. The minor injuries might end up working out for the best, since it means more playing time for first-round pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Detroit’s expectations are at 40. I can see them as a .500 team, but not a lot better. The playoffs are very much in play, but in the East, it has not always required 40 wins to get there. I’m leaning to the Under.
Cleveland: This is one team with no guards issues. Not when Kyrie Irving is in the house, Dion Waiters is developing and Jarrett Jack has been brought in from Golden State to provide a little depth. What the Cavs needs is for the frontcourt to come through.
To that end, Cleveland took a prudent risk of Andrew Bynum’s health and attitude. The temperamental center is not yet ready to play, but doesn’t appear far from it. I love the top overall draft pick of Anthony Bennett, a physical power forward and I still think Tristan Thompson can be a decent NBA starter.
In spite of that, Cleveland is still an Under pick for me. Their win prop is the same 40 that Detroit is, and my reasons are basically the same–the Cavaliers can meet their goals without necessarily winning 40 games, even in a best-case scenario they aren’t going much higher and if anything goes wrong, they could end up in the low 30s.
Milwaukee: With Jennings gone, and Monta Ellis shipped out, the Bucks high scoring backcourt that led them to the playoffs last year is gone and the expectations have tanked, down to a 28.5 win prop.
That’s a little harsh. Milwaukee brought in O.J. Mayo, Caron Butler and Gary Neal to man the perimeter. Brandon Knight isn’t ideal at point guard, but he’s manageable, and Larry Sanders superb defensive skills at center will wipe away mistakes on the perimeter. Sanders is also a maturing offensive player, and Ersan Ilyasova can help with points from the forward spot.
A key X-factor will be if John Henson is ready to help up front. The third-year player was a first-round pick out of North Carolina, but his rail-thin frame meant he needed some time to physically develop. The Bucks need him to produce now, and if he does, Henson will be another shotblocking threat.
I’m going Over on Milwaukee.
TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will have a final preseason overview just prior to next Tuesday’s opener, where we’ll tie together all six divisional previews, and make some playoff predictions.
TheSportsNotebook’s march to the October 29 opening of the NBA season continues with a venture into the home neighborhood of the two-time defending champs and the game’s best player. The Southeast Division is home to the Miami Heat and LeBron James, along with playoff regular Atlanta and a hopeful in Washington.
Let’s take a look at the basic personnel of all five teams in the NBA Southeast Division and compare them to Las Vegas expectations, as measured in the Over/Under NBA win futures.
Miami: There are almost no changes in the key personnel of the Heat, from the starting lineup to the bench. Beyond LeBron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, you still have Mario Challmes and Udonis Haslem filling out the starting five, young Norris Cole providing minutes at the point and Ray Allen and Shane Battier to provide veteran leadership and three-point shooting.
The big X-factor for this season is the decision to give Greg Oden a chance to redeem his career. The top overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft has been hampered physically by bad legs and has struggled with alcohol abuse. What no one doubts is that if he’s healthy in all aspects he can be a great player, and he fills a potential need for Miami.
Miami won 65 games last year, but was taken to the wire by Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals and barely survived San Antonio in the NBA Finals. They have to improve if they’re going to keep their throne, and there’s no reason among the regular returnees to expect improvement, and every reason (namely Dwayne Wade’s knee) to think some decline might set in. Oden is the one person who can decisively alter that dynamic.
I don’t mean to get carried away and call Oden the key to the Heat season–as long as a guy who wears #6 is still around, he’s always and everywhere the key. But it’s going to be tough for Miami to beat its win prop of 61.5, and if going 62-20 requires pushing Wade too hard prior to the playoffs, it wouldn’t even be smart. If the Oden bet pans out, they’ll do it, but I think 58-60 wins and a narrow Under is a little more realistic.
Atlanta: With Josh Smith having left for Detroit the expectations are way down for this year’s Atlanta Hawks, with a win future of just 39.5. I don’t see why the outlook is so gloomy. This team still has a physical rebounder in Al Horford and they brought in Paul Millsap from Utah who can do his share of pounding the glass.
The backcourt isn’t great, but Kyle Korver can hit the three, and Jeff Teague is competent at the point. If Lou Williams can get his knee healthy, this can be a nice playoff team around the 5-6 spots in the Eastern bracket. In either case, they can get to a 40-42 record and in the soft East, even winning 45 games or so is not out of the question. That adds up to an Over.
Washington: The Wizards played good basketball at the end of last season, way too late to become relevant in the playoff race, but for long enough to have hopes of postseason play be alive and well on the Beltway. The backcourt is in good hands, with John Wall at the point, and I like Bradley Beal at the two-guard spot.
Washington has Nene up front to do some rebounding, and a big key to this team’s success will be Emeka Okafor. The center has to get himself healthy from a herniated disk and then show he can anchor the defense and rebounding efforts.
The 38.5 win prop looks right to me. I have to take a stand though, and I’m going to lean to the Under. The Wizards are very heavily dependent on Wall, and he’s yet to prove he can carry a team through a full season. So on that basis, 36 wins looks more likely than 41 wins, which provides a little more maneuvering room on the Under.
Charlotte: Michael Jordan is collecting himself some young talent, as rookie post player Cody Zeller joins Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker. Whether this trio coalesces into a good NBA team is another question, but it’s quite a combined college pedigree–the latter two were key parts of national title runs (Walker for 2011 UConn and Kidd-Gilchrist for 2012 Kentucky), while Zeller was the cornerstone of Indiana’s return to prominence the last couple years.
Expectations are low, as they should be, but given how much the Bobcats have struggled in recent years, a 26.5 win prop seems almost absurdly high. These kids, the rookie Zeller in particular, still have a lot to learn about life in the NBA. I think they’ll win 24 or 25 games, but I’m an optimist and that still puts them Under.
Orlando: Jameer Nelson is no longer the player who helped key a 2009 run to the NBA Finals when Dwight Howard was still in Orlando, but the veteran Nelson pairs up with Arron Afflalo and makes for a respectable backcourt. I like the two young forwards in Moe Harkless and Tobias Harris, though they have growing pains to go through. Glen Davis showed with the Boston Celtics that he can be a contributing member to a championship-caliber team.
There’s a hole at center, but I don’t see why the Magic are seen as worse than the Bobcats, and not even in the same league as the Wizards, as a 23.5 win future suggests. That’s why I’ll go Over.
TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will have one final preseason overview prior to the October 29 opener, tying together all six division previews and making playoff predictions.
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.