It's NBA Week at Puddles of Myself, and Matt Domino starts things off with Part 1 of his massive 2012-2013 NBA Season Preview.
I love the NBA. I’ve started many, many blog posts with that sentence, but you know what, I’m going to do it again. If you have enough time, you can feel free to go back and browse through this blog (God knows I need to pad those pageview stats for my big board meeting with The Investors that’s rapidly approaching) and figure out how many times I have actually used that sentence to start a post. However, for now, let’s just set the line at 12. I’m going to take the over.
After missing out on previewing the 2011-2012 Season last year—due to providing you greedy people with the comprehensive perfection of the World’s Coolest Dude 1911-2011 List—I am going to undertake an exhaustive team-by-team preview for the 2012-2013 NBA Season; a season that promises to be one of the best NBA seasons of all-time. We are coming off an insane NBA off-season, the hated Heat winning the NBA Title, Lebron finally being coronated as the actual king of basketball, as well as Team U.S.A. winning the gold medal at the London Olympics. Now, that team certainly had a great amount of camaraderie and you know that the players formed bonds with each other; but at the same time, when you are the best (or near best, sorry, Iguodala) at what you do and are surrounded by others who are the best at what they do, a certain competitive fire has to seep in. So, hopefully, for each secret handshake performed, each goofy picture posed for, each bus prank pulled-off, each of those guys were scheming and thinking how great it would be to beat the others when the season rolled around.
There is talent on every team (yes, I’m going to even talk you into Charlotte!); there are storylines on top of subplots and digressions on top of post-modern references (what?); Dwight and Nash are in L.A.; Ray Allen is in Miami; the Thunder are loaded again; the Celtics are re-tooled; the Knicks are looking to make good; there’s a team in Brooklyn! ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!!!
Let’s get to it!
Prediction: 1st Place Atlantic Division; #2 Seed Eastern Conference
When I saw this team photo of the Boston Celtics earlier this month, it finally dawned on me that their roster had the potential for outstanding team chemistry. The Celtics didn’t just fill some roster holes or “re-tool”—they fully reloaded. Like, we are talking this kind of reloaded. Sure, they lost Ray Allen and the Boston fans (hell, all NBA fans) will miss seeing Ray make a corner three, followed by the entire TD North Garden exploding like no other arena in the league. But, I think they will quickly get used to watching Jason Terry make clutch three pointers off the bench. You could argue that Terry seeks out the big moment just as much as Ray Allen. Sure, he’s not arguably the best shooter of all-time or the career leader in three-pointers made, but Terry has made 1,788 three-pointers out of the 4,706 he has attempted for a 38% career average. When you compare that to Ray Allen’s 2,718/6,788 for a 40% career average, it’s not a huge drop-off. Plus at 34, Terry probably has more miles left on his legs than Ray does at 37.
The Celtics also added Courtney Lee, another shooting guard, to their backcourt and he’ll keep the defensive intensity high while Avery Bradley recovers from his shoulder surgery. Once Bradley returns (approximately mid to late January), Lee should be able to flourish when Doc uses him as a bonus defender to really press opposing teams in the backcourt. Lee is a heady, tough player who the Celtics faithful will love.
In the frontcourt, Jeff Green is expected to return to form (and he better or the Boston fans will turn on him fast), while Jared Sullinger should provide a rich man’s (read: better-adjusted) version of Big Baby to help back-up Brandon Bass and Paul Pierce. And, in the middle, the Celtics just added the much-maligned Darko Milicic to spell Garnett. After just a few weeks in the presence of Garnett, Darko has already muttered proclamations that he will “kill” people if he needs to. That’s right, the Celtics’ sneakiest signing of this off-season may have been Darko Milicic who, if he does what he needs to, can help keep Garnett’s legs as fresh as they need to be heading into what is bound to be a deep Playoff run.
Plus, Paul Pierce still likes doing this.
Oh, and then there’s Rondo, who is still an alien, might only be matched athletically by Lebron and Westbrook, and is coming off a postseason where he emphatically took the mantle as “the man” in Boston. And he did GQ in a way that Brady never did.
The only thing standing in this team is, well, I think you know where this is going. More, later.
Prediction: 2nd Place Atlantic Division; #4 Seed in the East
I’m going to get the drama out of the way right now: I picked the Nets to Finish above the Knicks in the Atlantic Division. Here’s a quick list to explain my reasoning:
- I love Brooklyn as a borough and have no Knicks loyalties. I want to jump on this “new” franchise as a first generation member.
- I don’t really love Deron Williams, but he’s a great player whose legacy is riding on how he handles this inaugural season. I think he is going to perform up to expectations and really lead this Nets team. If not, then he learned nothing from being on two Olympic gold medal squads and really doesn’t have a “winner’s” gene, which will keep him from ever being great or being remembered as one of the five best point guards of his era.
- I live right up the street from the Barclays Center and am going to go to plenty of Nets games just in the hope of befriending Reggie Evans.
- This Nets team is actually constructed nicely and has a surprising amount of depth. Look, Humphries and Lopez aren’t the best defensive front court you could trot out, but Gerald Wallace is still a solid defender at small forward and the Nets are going to bring hustle guys like Reggie Evans and C.J. Watson off the bench whereas last year they could only go to second unit stalwarts such as Anthony Morrow and the atrocious Shelden Williams. Plus, they have the wild card offensive potential of MarShon Brooks.
- I actually like the Andre Blatche signing. He would have been better off in Miami or Boston, but Avery Johnson is a strict coach and he should fall in line under veterans like Williams, Johnson and Wallace and provide some quality minutes off the bench.
- The Nets starting five of Williams, Johnson, Wallace, Humphries and Lopez makes a lot more sense than the Knicks’ starting five.
New York Knicks
Prediction: 3rd Place Atlantic Division; #5 Seed in the East
Last season, like everyone else, I completely bought into the Knicks. I remember going to see one of the Yo La Tengo Hanukkah shows at Maxwell’s in Hoboken with a friend of mine, and we walked the streets of Hoboken just fantasizing over the Knicks’ frontline of Stoudemire, Chandler and Anthony. Yet, when it came time for those three to step on the court together, it was a disaster. Last year’s Knicks team reminded me of an underrated John Cusack movie from the early ’00’s, Identity. Why? Because you never knew who the bad guy was. First it was Carmelo, then it was D’Antoni, then it was Carmelo, then it was Woodson, then it was Lin (JK! I will not besmirch the name of St. Jeremy), then it was Shumpert’s knee injury, then it was Amar’e and his hand, then it was Carmelo again, when really all along it was Amar’e’s knees!
The bright side is that last year’s Knicks could not have been a bigger mess and they still made the Playoffs after having about five different team personalities during the season. However, they do remain a bit of mess and face the specter of Linsanity hovering over the team and the city after Jim Dolan basically let him walk in free agency. However, I’m a perennial optimist, so I do feel like this Knicks team could easily swap places with the Nets and land the #4 seed going into the Playoffs. They have stability at head coach with Mike Woodson (Carmelo’s boy); as Zach Lowe pointed out, they actually played very good defense last year and should do the same again this year; Felton played fantastic for the Knicks when he was on their roster in the 2010-2011 season and only went into his shame-eating spiral after he got traded—he should be completely motivated heading into this season as the team’s starting point guard and I see him fitting right in with letting ‘Melo be the man. Also, Novak can still shoot and even though their bench is very ancient overall with the additions of Camby, Kurt Thomas and Jason Kidd, it is still an improvement over last season. Plus they added a nice hustle guy in Ronnie Brewer who can swing one or two games for you during the dog days of February and they get a built-in boost when Shumpert comes back from injury in January.
Why am I pessimistic? Because they signed fucking Rasheed “I Was Washed Up in 2010 and Retired For Two Years” Wallace for some unknown reason. And, perhaps most of all, we still don’t know if Carmelo actually wants to do the things necessary to be a true winner. Crazy offensive heroics like his game against the Bulls last spring and the one win against the Heat in the Playoffs are exciting and just fine when they happen, but being a leader and a winner is something completely different.
If you’re a Knicks fan, you better just hope ‘Melo learned that from his buddy Lebron in London this summer.
Prediction: 4th Place Atlantic Division; #7 Seed Eastern Conference
I know it’s crazy, but I really do think the Atlantic Division is going to contribute four teams to the Playoffs just like it did in 1984 when the Celtics, Knicks, Sixers and Nets all made they Playoffs as well.
The Sixers actually made the biggest off-season splash in the division when they landed Andrew Bynum as part of the Dwight Howard trade to Los Angeles. If Bynum is healthy, he’s going to give the Sixers a go-to post presence that they have not had since the days of Barkley and Moses Malone. Besides health, the other worry with Bynum is also his “immature” attitude. One would like to think that a move to Philly, which is close to his hometown in South Jersey, as well as being treated like “the man” would cure that issue. However, thus far over his career, Bynum has never given us any indication to take either his health or his mental focus as givens.
Still, there is more upside than downside to Bynum’s presence and opposing teams are going to have to account for and game-plan around him, which is not something the Sixers brought to the table last year. Plus, by trading away Iguodala to get Bynum, the team relieved itself of a bit of a redundancy at the wing with Turner and Iguodala. The team sacrificed Iggy’s stellar defense for Turner’s offensive upside as well as perhaps the relief of the well-covered tension between Iguodala and coach Doug Collins.
Look, this team is going to struggle finding its chemistry in the early part of the season. However, they have a nice mix of youth and experience; I think Hawes and Bynum will play well together underneath; I also think Jason Richardson is going to have a bounce back year and give them a lot of value at shooting guard and I honestly think their bench is better than people realize*. This team just screams #7 seed with a chance to give the Celtics another scare in the first round when late April rolls around.
*Editor’s Note: On second thought, I might regret that prediction when Nick Young is jacking up long three pointers and Kwame Brown is bobbling the ball out of bounds as the Sixers fans boo and throw their Michael Vick jerseys at him. What? They aren’t going to need those jerseys since Nick Foles will be the quarterback of the Eagles by the end of this month. I don’t want to be a typical Eagles fan, but….GET RID OF FAT ANDY! GET RID OF VICK!
Prediction: 5th Place Atlantic Division; 11th Place Eastern Conference
In recent years, one of the givens in any NBA season other than the fact that Reggie Evans will have the best Twitter account, that Barkley will say at least five controversial things on TV, that the Hawks will be the 4th or 5th seed in the Eastern Conference, and that Rondo will come up with some kind of move or shot we’ve never seen before, is that the Toronto Raptors will be a boring team to watch. However, this season I think that trend will end.
This season, the Raptors will trot out a young, but promising lineup with Kyle Lowry (a tough, ballsy, experienced point guard), Terrence Ross (rookie out of Washington who has a nice stroke [37% from three last season], is long and plays good defense), Demar DeRozan (still developing, explosive swingman, could be a poor man’s Iguodala this season), Andrea Bargnani (the poor man’s Dirk, which is actually a compliment), and of course…the much hyped Jonas Valanciunas. The Lithuanian is supposed to be a game-changer for the Raptors on the inside. He has had an impressive preseason so far, but, as always, it’s the preseason, so you never know.
Plus, the Raptors are surprisingly deep. Ed Davis can give them 7 points and 7 rebounds off the bench along with excellent defense and is still a young, improving player; Linus Kleiza is reliable for 10 points and for 2-3 explosive offensive games; plus they have a respectable backup backcourt of Jose Calderon and overpaid free agent pickup, ex-Knick, Landry Fields.
The Raptors still won’t make the Playoffs, but this year they might actually be enjoyable to watch.
Prediction: 2nd Place Atlantic Division; #8 Seed Eastern Conference
The Joe Johnson Era is over!
The biggest move the Hawks made this off-season was getting rid of Joe Johnson and his onerous contract (GM genius, Danny Ferry!) and freeing up the franchise’s finances going forward. It also put an end to a staggering run of mediocrity (now I’m using vague oxymorons?) from the Johnson-Horford-Smith-(Williams) Hawks teams. From 2005 (the year Johnson was traded to the Hawks) through this past June, the Hawks won 50 or more games in only one season. They made the Playoffs 5 out of Johnson’s 7 seasons in Atlanta, only once finishing higher than the #4 seed (during the 2009-2010 Season when they were the #3 seed and pushed to the limit by the memorable “Fear the Deer” Milwaukee Bucks). They made the Eastern Conference Semifinals twice, but oddly, the peak of their run was probably during the 2007-2008 Season when, as the 8 seed, they pushed the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in the first round of the Playoffs. Each year the Hawks had a talented roster on paper, yet each year they managed to underwhelm.
All that is over now, and the Hawks actually intrigue me for the first time in years. They are still solid up front with Josh Smith and Al Horford anchoring the front line. Jeff Teague is an underrated point guard who made strides last season in his first year as a starter after he played Derrick Rose tough in the 2011 Playoffs. He should take a step forward as the engine (he’s very fast) that gets this team moving. Other than that, it’s hard to say what the Hawks are actually going to get. They have plenty of outside shooting with Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow; Lou Williams was a nice pick-up in free agency for instant offense as their sixth man; and DeShawn Stevenson, Anthony Tolliver, Ivan Johnson and the immortal Zaza Pachulia give them a formidable stable of hustle/glue guys.
They won’t miss Joe as much as everyone thinks, but I still see them as an eight seed.
Prediction: 5th Place Southeast Division; 15th Place Eastern Conference
Ah, now we’re talking.
No, now hear me out. We’ll get the obvious stuff out of the way first. They are going to be bad. There will be quite a few nights when they will be unwatchable. I know that at points in January and February people will start wondering if Ben Gordon is even breathing or blinking. They are definitely the worst team in the Eastern Conference. However, this year, they may not be the worst team in the entire NBA.
Why? Well, mainly its because the Bobcats actually made a few decent off-season moves. Brendan Haywood is overpaid and very, very past his questionable prime. However, he is a starting-caliber center in the modern NBA and the Bobcats did not have anything approaching that on their roster last season. During his stint with the Lakers during the second half of last season, it became evident that Ramon Sessions was not meant to be the point guard on a contender. That being said, he is a solid, journeyman point guard who can start in the NBA and provide some guidance for Kemba Walker—guidance that Walker sorely could have used last year to go along with his confidence. Tyrus Thomas was never meant to be a starter, but he is a good energy guy to bring off the bench behind Bismack Biyombo, who is an energy guy that still actually has a tangible "upside." (aka Tyrus Thomas in 2007, but maybe better?). Ben Gordon can still shoot and score when he actually pays attention to a game; Gerald Henderson is not a terrible sixth man to have; and Jeffrey Taylor and Byron Mullens both looked very promising in the Summer League, Taylor especially (I know, I know).
And then, of course, there's MKG!! I was definitely skeptical while he was at Kentucky, but from what I have seen since April, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is everything he was advertised to be. He has a great personality, he’s humble, he hustles, plays way above his experience and age (again, in the little Summer League time he had and in pre-draft workouts), and genuinely seems to care about nothing else but winning basketball games. For a franchise that has seen only terrible contracts and awful players over the past…forever (except 2009-2010 when they put a little scare into the Magic in the first round of the Playoffs), that kind of attitude can really have a transformative effect, even from a rookie.
Plus, I have a good feeling about their coach Mike Dunlap. I liked everything he said during an interview I saw with him in Summer League. Yes, including the fact that he wants to commit to the full court press all season. For some reason, I feel like the entire franchise needs that.
Prediction: 1st Place Southeast Division; #1 Seed Eastern Conference
The defending NBA Champions. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have been a Heat supporter since the day they drafted Dwyane Wade and was always in support of the “Big 3” experiment. As a Heat supporter, I firmly expect Miami to win the NBA Championship this season. Why? Because they are better this season than they were last season.
Everyone that watched the NBA Finals in June saw what happened to Miami as that series progressed: the Heat reincorporated an effective Bosh (whose confidence was bolstered by a solid performance against Garnett and the Celtics), figured out that they played better when they played small ball, and (just a small development) Lebron decided to utilize the post more frequently and ended up taking his game to an entirely different level. Sure, Mike Miller had the game of his life in Game 5, but Battier was solid all series and Haslem seemed to chip in key plays whenever they needed him to. Even the much-maligned Mario “Rio” Chalmers came up clutch in Game 4 when he scored 25 points (12 coming in the fourth quarter). The Heat seemed to figure everything out en route to their second championship in franchise history.
This season, they have Ray Allen (the exceedingly rich man’s Mike Miller) coming off the bench to shoot open threes and create offense; they have Rashard Lewis (who may still be dead, we don’t know) who just has to give them 8-10 points a game to be considered a success; Chris Bosh playing with perhaps more confidence than at any other time in his career; an actual understanding of team chemistry; a small (sizewise) bench that is deep and experienced nonetheless; oh, and they have the best player on the planet who is playing without “bottom of the ocean” levels of pressure on his shoulders for the first time in his NBA career, which has just happened to coincide with him playing the best basketball of his life.
The only true question for this team is the health of Dwyane Wade’s knee. From all accounts, he has looked healthy and even explosive in the preseason so far. If Spolestra can manage Wade’s minutes as well as Lebron’s (has LBJ even stopped playing basketball since June?) to ensure that they are both healthy heading into the Playoffs, we could be heading for championship “…not 2…”
Prediction: 4th Place Southeast Division; 14th Place Eastern Conference
I just want to use this space to convey my sympathies to Arron Afflalo. Arron, look, it may not be my fault that you were involved in one of the biggest trades in NBA history and that your old coach (George Karl) and your old, savvy general manager (Masai Ujiri) decided that you were expendable and could be thrown into the deal in order to land Andre Iguodala, but this is not the fate that you deserve—and for that I apologize. I apologize on behalf of the die-hard basketball fan who knows that, sure, Andre Iguodala is better than you, but, really, is he?
Alright, fine, Igoudala’s career averages of 15.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists are better than I originally anticipated, but he doesn’t shoot 40% from three point range does he? That’s all you Arron. You’ve turned yourself from an underwhelming pro prospect coming out of UCLA into one of the premier perimeter defenders, three point shooters and teammates in the league. You’re not Russell Westbrook or Kevin Love, but you make the modern day UCLA faithful proud.
And, yes, Iguodala is probably slightly better than you as a wing-defender (but, that’s still saying something about you; Iguodala is the best perimeter defender in the league!), but that doesn’t mean you needed to be sent to Orlando! You have a great contract (5 years/38.56 million) and did I mention that you’re a really, really good guy? It’s just a shame that you will be starting for the 2012-2013 Orlando Magic—that first “Post-Dwight” team that is going to start a lineup of Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Glen “Big Baby Davis,” Gustavo Ayon and you. That’s not right, that’s not just and most of all—that’s not good.
Plus, you have to spend time with Josh McRoberts. That’s also not very good.
God speed, Arron Afflalo.
Prediction: 3rd Place Southeast Division; 12th Place Eastern Conference
Thus far, in his pro career, John Wall has been a bit of an enigma. In college, he was part of a cocky, confident Kentucky team that featured fellow superstar Demarcus Cousins as well as Eric Bledsoe, who is not a superstar, but a notable NBA professional who has the potential to be a solid pick as Sixth Man of The Year for the next decade or so. Wall was electric at Kentucky; faster than everyone except maybe Bledsoe, but certainly more athletic, graceful and freakish than any other player in the country during his one year of academia.
In the NBA, it’s been a bit up and down. He was drafted to a team looking to rebuild itself from the ruins of the Gilbert Arenas era and thus had to play alongside the likes of Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, Yi Jianlian, the corpses of Rashard Lewis and Josh Howard with “RIP 2006” stamped on their foreheads, and of course “Run and Gun” Nick Young. Needless to say, that sort of supporting cast is not the type of environment in which to effectively nurture a young point guard with otherworldly athleticism.
However, Wall, for all the fanfare he’s received over the years, and all the flashes of brilliance he has shown, has been somewhat of a disappointment. The numbers aren’t bad. His two-year career averages are 16.3 points, 8.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals. Those figures are actually very comparable to some of the NBA’s most elite point guards after two seasons (Chris Paul: 16.2 points, 8.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 2 steals; Isiah Thomas: 19.9 points, 7.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds, 2.3 steals (!)). Yet, when you watch Wall, you never get the same sense of control and understanding that you had with Paul and Thomas after only two seasons. Now, Isiah and Chris Paul might be the two best pure point guards in the last 35 years and Wall is more athletic freak than the epitome of floor general. But from the moment he entered the national consciousness with his slow grin, swooping drives and his patience in teaching us how to “Dougie,” we have expected more. Sure, this vague sense of disappointment could be due to his supporting casts, but it feels like a talent as unique as Wall should have made more of a difference on even teams as bad as the Wizards.
This year is a big one for Wall. He just injured his knee, so he won’t be in the starting lineup until the end of November, but he has solid veterans on this team in Nene, Emeka Okafaor and Trevor Ariza, who should provide hustle and play respectable defense. He has a young backcourt partner in Bradley Beal whose shooting prowess promises, on paper, to help draw defensive attention away from Wall (Nene should help with that as well). And the Wizards have a deep, young bench with character guys like Trevor Booker and Chris Singleton; a commodity with huge upside in Jan Vesely; and instant (but perhaps not efficient) offense in Jordan Crawford.
The pieces are moving into place—Wall just has to be the one to make them even greater than they are.
Prediction: 2nd Place Central Division; #6 Seed Eastern Conference
The 2012-2013 Bulls don’t require much explanation or analysis. In fact, they can be summed up in two words, in the same way you could have summed up the 2010-2011 Chicago Bulls and the 2011-2012 Chicago Bulls with two words. And, obviously, those two words are: Derrick Rose.
Rose’s eagerness will loom over this team the entire season. Many athletes say they can’t wait to get back onto the court, field or ice, but no one makes you feel that desire, that restlessness to play again more than Derrick Rose does. He talks with a near-shut jaw, but his wide eyes betray his sharp Zen face and you can fathom how far basketball penetrates the depths of his soul.
Rose is the leader, but Thibodeau is the coach, and as long as he is on the sidelines, drawing up plays with the inflection of a 1930’s gangster, the Bulls will be all right. They are going to be aggressive each night with Boozer and Noah down low. If Thibodeau doesn’t wear Deng’s legs out again this year, they may not miss Rose very much at all. However, there are worries in the backcourt. Worries such as, does Richard Hamilton still know how to play basketball or is Kirk Hinrich ready to handle starters minutes again?
Those questions as well as the loss of quality role players like Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson are disturbing. However, they still have Gibson off the bench to give them a weapon that perhaps no one else in the league has; Belinelli could give them production at the two guard; and Marquis Teague is a promising rookie who could help fill the hole at point guard until Rose returns.
All they have to do is stay above water until March or April when that haunted soul returns to the hardwood, looking to exercise the demons of sitting on the sidelines.
Prediction: 4th Place Central Division; 10th Place Eastern Conference
There are mixed opinions on the fate of the 2012-2013 Cleveland Cavaliers. Two weeks ago, great basketball minds Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe both agreed that this year’s Cavaliers team wasn’t going to be very good, with Simmons going so far as to say that the Cavs may have botched all of their draft picks from the past two years not named Kyrie Irving.
Without a doubt, this team starts and ends with their supremely talented second-year point guard. Irving was the obvious choice for Rookie of the Year last season, putting up some truly eye-opening numbers. Irving only played in 11 games during his one year at Duke, so no one was really sure what to expect from him in the NBA. Now, despite his shoulder injury last season and the fact that he broke his hand over the off-season, many, including Lowe, believe that Irving will be one of the Top-15 players in the NBA after this season.
I like this Cavaliers team. Tristan Thompson, who the Cavs selected after Irving with 4th pick of the 2011 Draft, had an erratic rookie season, but he actually improved as the year went along. I’m inclined to take an overly optimistic opinion of most young players, but this season, as the starting power forward, I do expect him to have much steadier production. I’ll even go so far as to say that Thompson will average a low-end double double of 11 points and 10 rebounds. The Cavs still have the always-productive Anderson Varejo at center to pester opposing teams and they landed Tyler Zeller in this year’s draft to provide solid minutes when Varejo needs a break.
The Cavs are deep in the backcourt after with combo guards and shooters like Cleveland stalwart Daniel “Boobie Gibson,” journeyman C.J. Miles, and energy guy Jeremy Pargo playing opposite and behind Irving. And, perhaps the team’s biggest question mark is their rookie shooting guard, Dion Waiters, who has been very inconsistent so far in the preseason, but was brought in to provide a scoring counter punch to Irving’s overall brilliance.
The Cavs won’t be great (I mean, Samardo Samuels? Alonzo Gee? Luke Walton?), but they should be improved enough to finish better than a lot of the Eastern Conference bottom feeders. I mean, they have “Uncle Drew” after all.
Prediction: 5th Place Central Division; 13th Place Eastern Conference
I don’t know what to make of the Detroit Pistons, but this is the first time they have had an interesting team since the 2007-2008 season, which served as the final run for that 2004 championship core.
Their starting lineup looks like this: Brandon Knight (PG), Rodney Stuckey (SG), Tayshaun Prince (SF), Jason Maxiell (PF) and Greg Monroe (C). And that’s actually a very intriguing starting five. Monroe is a legitimate All-Star level player and Knight, as Zach Lowe pointed out, actually had a sneakily successful rookie year last season, especially as a three-point shooter. Stuckey was mistakenly pegged as a franchise player back in 2008-2009, but should serve just fine as a starting off-guard. Prince is not the player he once was and Maxiell is always productive, but is not truly the answer as a starting four in the NBA. The bench is a bit worrisome with terrible team presences and contracts such as Corey Maggette and Charlie Villanueva lurking, but Jonas Jerebko and Austin Daye are both still promising young players.
The big question is: how does first round draft pick, Andre Drummond, fit into this team? Thus far in the preseason, Drummond has shown glimpses of the potential that made a lot of scouts rank him as perhaps the best player in the 2012 Draft. Just those few flashes have been enough for any NBA fan to fantasize over. If Drummond develops faster than many expect, that will allow the Pistons to experiment with a lineup that has Monroe playing power forward (his natural position) and Drummond playing at center. If that scenario plays out and the Pistons are able to actually log consistent minutes using that combination, then this season will be a success in Detroit and their future will look very, very promising (not to mention terrifying to the rest of the league).
Prediction: 1st Place Central Division; #3 Seed Eastern Conference
The Pacers made a few curious decisions during the off-season. The most notable decision was allowing Larry Bird to walk as Team President. The owner of the Indiana Pacers, Herb Simon, actually owns the parent company I work for and I had the opportunity to meet him this past June. It took every ounce of restraint in my body to keep from asking him how he was going to let Larry Legend just walk away. After the Pacers franchise was nearly destroyed by the Malice at the Palace, Bird oversaw a slow, steady and smart rebuilding process that, with last season’s success, showed could have been considered one of the greatest achievements of his nearly peerless career.
However, Bird walked in June and former long-time team president Donnie Walsh returned. The Pacers traded away Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones for backup big man Ian Mahinmi, let Louis Amundsun and Leandro Barbosa leave in free agency, signed D.J. Augustin (hmm?) and Gerald Green (intriguing) and, most baffling of all, drafted Miles Plumlee. I know that the Indiana faithful have an affinity for white players and maybe the drafting of Plumlee was some kind of odd ode to the departing Larry Bird, however, its MILES FUCKING PLUMLEE! He’s absolutely terrible. He was barely the fifth best player on a bad Duke team last year…AND HE WAS A SENIOR!!
The Pacers still start a formidable lineup. David West, Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert form one of the best frontlines in the NBA and George Hill remains a smart, solid player at point guard. However, Paul George is still a mystery. Is he going to be that explosive franchise player that they expect him to be, or is he just going to be a more athletic, but less polished version of Danny Granger?
With the Mahinmi trade and the Plumlee signing, its obvious the Pacers are taking the approach that since the rest of the league is going to go small after the Heat and Thunder played that way in the Finals, they are going to stay “big” and try to imitate the success they had in the first half of the Eastern Conference Semifinals last spring—before the Heat figured out how to keep Roy Hibbert off the floor. That strategy may work. But the Pacers and their fantastic head coach, Frank Vogel, prided themselves on being tough guys last year. The team lost a little of that toughness by getting rid of Amundsun and Dahntay Jones, but maybe the incoming size makes up for it. If it doesn’t, there is a chance these Pacers could have peaked last year. In that case, they may just be the upper middle class man’s Joe Johnson-era Atlanta Hawks.
That’s not a compliment.
Prediction: 3rd Place Central Division; 9th Place Eastern Conference
Every year I pick the Bucks to be the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and every year, except for the Fear the Deer Season, they wind up finishing as the ninth seed*.
(*Editor’s Note: Don’t look that fact up. That’s just how it feels, alright? It might not actually be true.)
This year, I’m going to pick them ninth, with the hopes that they sneak into the Playoffs somehow. I don’t know who they would knock out, but things are always better when the Bucks and the Milwaukee fans get to host playoff games. Do I have to mention the fact that they had a season called the “Fear the Deer Season” for a second time?
The Bucks’ problem for the past few seasons has been their lack of scoring. To remedy that problem, during last season, they traded for Monta Ellis and, as Zach Lowe once again points out, their scoring rate rapidly improved. Ellis should be even more comfortable with the team this year and that scoring rate should remain constant. However, nothing with the Bucks is a given. They won’t be getting fantastic offensive contributions from a frontline of Drew Gooden, Samuel Dalembert and Mike Dunleavy, but Ilyasova provides scoring punch off the bench as does Beno Udrih and rookie sharpshooter Dorn Lamb. And you know that Milwaukee will play good defense when they bring athletes like Larry Sanders, Ekpe “He’s Improving” Udoh, “Mr. Versatile” Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and the very promising (UNC ALUM!) rookie forward/center John Henson off the bench. Plus, Scott Skiles is a solid, if slightly overbearing coach, and he will make sure that this team is sound all the way through.
However, as always, it is only when we discuss Brandon Jennings that the Bucks actually become interesting. Jennings has been a frustrating talent during his three seasons in the league. He is not an efficient scorer, but he is streaky (19.1 points per game last year); statistically—and to my eye at least—he’s a good defender (1.4 steals per game for his career); and with a career average of 5.4 assists per game, he should be a better passer. However, like John Wall, is a freakish athlete who always manages to entice you each time you watch him play (except for when he plays absolutely terrible). Jennings is in the last year of his rookie contract and is at a crossroads. If he wants a max deal from the Bucks or any other team, he needs to perform at a high level all year.
There may be teams willing to overpay for Jennings next summer, but unless he uses a serviceable supporting cast to dispel some of the uncertainties around his ability, he may find it harder to get the money he wants.
Whoo! That wraps up the Eastern Conference. Come back on Friday when we tackle the entire Western Conference!