Thursday, August 2, 2007
Is It Only August? Mid-Summer Eastern Conference Preview
With all the movings and shakings going down on the Eastern side of the map, most notably a certain future Hall of Famer migrating to Boston this week, how does the Leastern Conference shake up? Who's in the playoffs? Who's out? Who's going to the Finals? Who's back in the lottery?
The recent trade of Kevin Garnett to the Celtics (along with Ray Allen being traded to Boston in June) has not only transformed the identity of the Celtic franchise, its added another team into the realm of NBA competitive squads. The league has suffered for years (since Michael Jordan's retirement - the Chicago one; Washington never happened) because a lack of real competition from the East (save for 2004 champion Detroit Pistons). Boston (KG, Allen), New York (Zach Randolph), Charlotte (Jason Richardson), and New Jersey (Jamaal Magloire) have made significant improvements to their roster since the end of last season.
I know it's early August but it wouldn't hurt to give an early Eastern Conference preview.
Let's start with a profile of each team:
-Atlanta: GM Billy King was blessed with the almighty gift of common sense this summer, finally realizing that having a good point guard usually improves the status of your team. The Hawks took Texas A&M senior Acie Law IV with the 11th pick after taking Florida forward Al Horford with the 3rd pick. That gives the Hawks two of the best players in a really good draft. Atlanta features a lot of young talent along with veteran star Joe Johnson. Young swingman Josh Smith has blossomed into one of the league's most promising (and exciting) players. Expect the Hawks to make a late playoff push in 2008.
-Boston: Even those living under a rock know about the huge, 7 for 1 player, blockbuster deal that brought Garnett to Beantown. What everybody doesn't know is what GM Danny Ainge will do about the rest of the Celtics roster, which features much of nothing. Tony Allen (an athletic fourth-year swingman) is coming off major ACL surgery; Second-round picks Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Gabe Pruitt aren't ready to contribute on a conference finals favorite; and the recent signing of Eddie House isn't really Rasheed Wallace coming to Motown a few years back. Ainge and co. will have to fill out the roster with some cheap veteran help with no more trade assets outside of KG/Allen/Pierce.
-Charlotte: Michael Jordan (Bobcats President) made a bold move during June's draft, bringing in Warriors swingman Jason Richardson in exchange for the number 8 pick (Brandon Wright). But it was exactly the bold move that transforms a team from a young, promising playoff hopeful to a young, dangerous playoff sleeper. The Cats are already loaded with proven young winners in guard Raymond Felton, forward Sean May (who were teammates on North Carolina's 2005 championship team) and center Emeka Okafor (MOP of the 2004 Final Four while at Connecticut), and the addition of Richardson's proven scoring will only elevate the status of the squad. An improved Adam Morrison could make Charlotte that much more potent.
-Chicago: The Bulls bring back the exact same team as last year's second-round exit group, which could be a good and bad thing. Chi-town will benefit from the continuity of having the same proven young players with center Ben Wallace in his second season with the team. But the Bulls missed out on adding a low-post scorer to go along with their tough, scrappy defense. They did add Joakim Noah (Tyrus Thomas 2.0?) and Aaron Gray through the draft, but Zach Randolph or Garnett would have helped a lot more.
-Cleveland: The Lebrons made a surprising trip to the Finals last year, but now find the Eastern Conference road a tad bit (re: very, very much) tougher. The Cavs have been dangling forward Drew Gooden as trade bait, hopefully trying to find a point guard (Mike Bibby?). There's also the issue of restricted free agent Anderson Varaejo, who might be let go if his salary demands grow too high.
-Detroit: Last year's Eastern Conference finalists are a year older (and maybe still a little shook from Lebron's Game 5 shallacking). Yes, this veteran squad is experienced, but they can only hold off the younger, hungrier Bulls for so long. The Pistons should benefit from an invigoration of young bench talent (Ronald Stuckey, Jason Maxiell, Amir Johnson, Aaron Afflalo).
-Indiana: With so many teams improving in the East, somebody has to go backwards. Ladies and gentleman: meet your backwards team. The Pacers have made no significant changes (save for Jim O'Brien replacing Rick Carlisle), did nothing in the draft, and even threw their best player in multiple trade rumors. Another season with Jamaal Tinsley at the point is a bad one. Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh need to blow this thing up like, yesterday.
-Miami: The '06 champs suffered from a lack of health and youth last year, losing center Shaquille O'Neal for most of the season. Pat Riley and co. are somewhere in between veteran-laced playoff squad and transition team that needs blow things up a bit. One thing is for sure (besides the fact that the Heat are capped out), whatever Miami does, it needs to be done around superstar Dwyane Wade. The Heat grabbed Ohio State freshman Daquean Cook in the draft, and will hope he can develop into a contributing player by mid-season. And they also lost out on big-name free agent pgs this summer (Mo Williams, Steve Francis, Steve Blake). Might be a tough season on South Beach.
-Milwaukee: Lots of good news in Wisconsin: Free agent point guard Maurice Williams spurned offers to play in warmer, big-name cities and re-signed with the Bucks, and guard Michael Redd is now healthy. That's about it as far as positives go. First round pick Yi Jianlian's people are vehemently trying to get him to another city and the situation is publicly playing out in ugly fashion. Also, the conference in which they barely made the playoffs in back in 2006 now may be too-filled up come April to include them.
-New Jersey: The Nets are another team walking the veteran-early-round-flame-out/blow-it-up line very closely. The team re-signed Vince Carter this summer and added free agent big man Jamaal Magloire, who won't make them great, but will make them better than they were last year. Jason Kidd, who I still think is the best point guard in the NBA, is getting older and would have benefitted from GM Rod Thorn taking a risk on trading for Pacers forward/center Jermaine O'neal, who would/could have transformed the Nets into a Finals contender.
-New York: The NBA's real-life version of a fantasy league team made some moves to mixed results. Isiah Thomas traded for double-double machine Zach Randolph (getting rid of Steve Francis' massive contract and Channing Frye) during the draft. The move would've been received better if Randolph and Knicks center Eddy Curry didn't play the same exact style (along with the porous inside defense). Thomas also grabbed in the first round Depaul forward Wilson Chandler, who may or may not be the same person as last season's first-rounder Renaldo Balkman. Should be another entertaining, up-and-down chemistry mess in the Big Apple.
-Orlando: If you consider greatly overpaying for a second-rate player, losing an asset that you gave up a first-rounder for for nothing, then having a high-profile college coach leave his school for your team than change his mind within a day a good offseason, then the Orlando Magic had a great summer. The Magic might have temporarily improved their team while almost permanently killing their future. Rashard Lewis for $126 million? Horrible. Darko for nothing? Stupid. They still have a good shot at the postseason, but without any assets to add on to Lewis/Dwight Howard, the team you see today will probably be the same team you see underachieve the next few years.
-Philadelphia: Philly has been relatively quiet this summer outside of the draft. Well, maybe that's good considering GM Billy King hasn't overpaid any role players or destroyed the Sixers' cap even more. So, hey, you can't complain. Philly did pick up the uber-athletic Thaddeous Young out of Georgia Tech with the 12th pick, but he'll need a little time (and a few Andre Igoudala injuries) before he'll be ready to contribute. The Sixers need a big splash. Either a big trade that brings some impact players in or a high draft pick to be used on an exciting rookie. The team seems like it is going nowhere, and that's never good.
-Toronto: The Raptors were a surprise playoff team last season, thanks to franchise forward Chris Bosh and point guard T.J. Ford. Of course, they're lack of a halfcourt offense was their downfall in the playoffs. The Raps added Miami Heat shooter Jason Kapono this summer to complete the Phoenix Suns imitation. Toronto is still a playoff lock, they just need more muscle and defensive intensity to take the step to serious contender.
-Washington: The run-and-gun Wiz had probably the worst luck of anyone not involved with the Celtics franchise in 2007. They lost their top 3 players for extended periods throughout the season and promptly got swept in the first round by Cleveland, despite the false hope the lack of urgency the Cavs provided in all four games. The Wizards drafted guard Nick Young out of USC to go along with the three-headed scoring monster of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antawn Jamison. If they can all stay healthy, and get so much needed defensive presence, the Wizards should join the already crowded East playoff picture.
Detroit, Cleveland, Boston, Chicago, Toronto, Miami, New Jersey, Charlotte
Tomorrow, we take on the Western Conference.