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Thursday, October 27, 2005

NBA Overkill -- Eastern Conference Preview

Epth Nation 2005-2006 NBA Preview

By Michael D. Pape

If you read as many NBA previews as I do (what does that say about me?), you start to notice things that tip you off to the fact that the previewer you’re reading may not exactly know what they’re talking about. The most obvious case of stupidity I’ve seen so far this year is Charley Rosen of forgetting to realize that #1 draft pick Andrew Bogut was even in the league. He previewed the Bucks without even mentioning him. This is the kind of thing that happens when you do your NBA preview 2 months before the start of the season. There are 100 new developments a day in between then and the start of the regular season! What do you hope to accomplish by this? Failure!

The bottom line is that most people, when they look at the upcoming NBA season, will take last year’s standings, add or subtract a little from each team because of player movement and the draft and so on, and then present them as if they had been pouring over each team’s rosters for days. I’m on to you, national sports prognosticators.

As you will soon see, I actually have thought a lot about this upcoming NBA season. Probably too much, in fact. These thoughts trouble me, but I must put them on paper. With much trepidation and excitement I therefore advance my:


Twenty-eight months ago, the Eastern Conference was considered the punk-butt junior league of the NBA. Everybody knew the top 4 or so teams in the West were better than everybody in the East, and whenever Eastern teams would claim to be good the national media would just roll their eyes and talk some more about how Shaq just poked Kobe in the head with a stick. Then, three things happened: 1) The 2003 draft, which gave LeBron, Wade, Hinrich, TJ Ford, etc. to their respective Eastern teams; 2) The ascendancy and championship season of the Detroit Pistons; 3) The Shaq trade, which gave Detroit another great team to play with over on the Eastern side of things. Today the two conferences are like mirror images of each other. The West might have one or two more “ok” teams as opposed to bad, but by and large they’re the same animal. How quickly things change in the salary-cap world of pro basketball.

The East features 3 great teams, 3 good teams, 5 “ok” teams, and 4 bad teams. These are their stories (dun dun).


15) Atlanta Hawks

The best thing you can say about the Hawks is that they’ll be better than last year, and that they appear to have a plan in place to be pretty good in three years. Hey, I like a bunch of the players they brought in: Joe Johnson, Zaza Pachulia, even Salim “The Dream” Stouadamire. But the best players on the team (Johnson, Harrington) can only be considered good role players, not top-of-the-line talent. If they can play together and maximize things they could end up as high as 12th, but I highly doubt that will happen. No. 2 pick Marvin Williams is at least a year from becoming a star, but when he’s ready, the Hawks will have the pieces in place to help him out. Just you wait.

14) Toronto Raptors

The Raptors are a collection of interesting little players for which the whole somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts. I don’t know if they’re cursed because they’re in Canada or what, but everything that could be good for this team turns bad before very long. The highest-profile case of this was Vince “I rather be in Jersey than Canada” Carter, but there have been others. So you just know something’s going to happen with Chris Bosh to make him less effective – an injury, insanity, a suspension, a case of ball-hogitis. Whatever it is, it won’t be pretty. Besides the wonderful Mr. Bosh, this team is an older, more spare version of Atlanta. I mean, preseason returns indicate that Charlie Villanueva is a serious playa (although after seeing him in college I wonder how that’s possible), but after him there’s just Jalen Rose and Mike James and a bunch of crap. There is no hope in Toronto, and the weight of that hopelessness will drive this team toward a higher draft pick, whether or not Chris Bosh goes insane.

13) Boston Celtics

Give this team a point guard and a center, and they immediately jump up to the “ok” level and are battling for that last Eastern playoff spot. Give this team a point guard tandem of Delonte West and Dan Dickau, and a center tandem of Raef Lafrentz and a bunch of little kids, and you get 13th. I mean, they’ve gotta trade Paul Pierce off this sinking ship, don’t they? In full-on rebuilding mode, they’re going to need superior performances every night from Pierce and Ricky Davis and serious consistency from Al Jefferson in order to compete. There’s just too much room for error here. They’ve also got a buttload of young, inexperienced, and inconsistent bench players who may or may not become real NBA players this year. Hey, if it all goes well this team could make the playoffs. It won’t, and they won’t.

12) Charlotte Bobcats

I really like what they’re doing in Charlotte, a city that deserves a good team as soon as possible to shove it in Hornets owner George Shinn’s double-dealin’ face. Anyway, Rookie of the Year Emeka Okafor will get better and cement the inside for this young team, and Ray Felton and Sean May will both get serious consideration for Rookie of This Year. In one sense, I’m just picking them here to mock Atlanta, Boston, and Toronto, because their rosters are still better than this collection of nobodies. But this team was decidedly not that bad last year, and with the addition of the speedy Felton and the moosey May, both of whom should be ready to contribute right away, they’ll be even better. Now, don’t get excited, because they have no chance to win more than 30 games. But it will be fun to watch them try.


11) Orlando Magic

This team will be ok because Dwight Howard, last year’s #1 pick, is a mensch. He’s going to have a breakout year – maybe not an Amare Stoudamire-type breakout year, but close. Unfortunately for the Magic, he’s the only thing on this team that isn’t a question mark. This team should trade in their uniforms for Riddler costumes. For example, Hedo Turboglue has been in the league for like 5 years and I still have no idea if he’s any good. Out of how many games will Steve Francis shoot them? Can Grant Hill still play? Can they’re group of veteran role guys do anything to keep Francis from shooting them out of games? See? Nobody knows. I have the feeling they’ll be ok, but I don’t have any more confidence than that. Three years ago, the presence of Dwight Howard on an Eastern team would have been enough to get them a playoff spot. Orlando, meet the new East. Different from the old East.

10) Philadelphia 76ers

Yes, this is the year the 76ers finally fall out of the playoff picture, although they’re probably as good a pick as any for the final playoff spot. The problem with the 76ers is they’ve done a horrible job filling out the roster. It’s like they don’t know what talent is. Iverson is great, I mean super great, but he can’t do it alone. I know, they’ve got Webber too, but he’s 3 years and 2 injuries removed from being meaningfully great. He’s still pretty good, and if Jamal Mash-you were able to play, this could still be a very good team. But he’s retiring, so that leaves them with a pretty good center combo of Samuel Dalembert and Steven Hunter (even though it’s pretty clear from the playoffs last year that he’s overrated), and Andre Iguodala. Then what? I mean, those guys aren’t even that good. Their replacements are worse. Poor Allen Iverson. Not only does he now have to dress like a white person, he won’t even have a good team to keep him warm at night. I’d hate to be his do-rag – he’s going to be throwing that thing on the floor 10 times a game.

9) New York Knicks

The Knicks have looked horrible in the pre-season, mainly because they’re an ill-conceived collection of knuckleheads. Knickleheads, we’ll call them. What’s going to happen this year is that Stephon Marbury’s inability to be on a good team will clash with Larry Brown’s inability to coach a bad one, and they’ll end up terribly average. As always, the roster is filled with guys who were good somewhere else – Penny Hardaway, Antonio Davis, Malik Rose, Maurice Taylor, Jamal Crawford. All these guys now suck, but you get the feeling that under the tutelage of Mr. Brown they could be restored to a little of their former glory. Quentin Robinson is now there as well, and one must wonder if he’s going to start to suck too. All this means is we have no freakin’ clue how good the Knicks are going to be. Oh, and btw, Eddy Curry’s a pretty nice player who’s been living off the fact that Shaq called him the “second best center in basketball” a couple of years ago. If that’s true, the gap between #1 (Shaq himself) and #2 is so big as to render #2 indistinguishable from #3-20. In other words, Curry ain’t that great. He’s an average defender, a bad rebounder, and is about 2 Dennyburgers away from eating himself out of those vaunted post moves that scored him 16.7 points a game last year. Oh, and he may die at any time. On top of that, they gave up promising young forward Mike Sweetney to get him. The one saving grace for the Knicks is they got a steal in rookie Nate Robinson, who looks like a serious point guard. Of course, you can’t play him and Marbury together, but never mind that. Also, he’ll never get off the bench if Brown’s coaching, but never mind that either.

8) Washington Wizards

The weirdest non-bad team ever last season, Washington somehow parlayed two talented ball-handling shooting guards (Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes) and a freaky slasher with no post moves who somehow scored 20 a game (Antawn Jameson) into a playoff berth. Hughes went to Cleveland, so the whole question about this team becomes, “Did they do enough to replace him?” I think the answer to that question is, “almost.” Antonio Daniels is at least a poor man’s Hughes, and they also added Caron Butler and Sucky Atkins to the mix. Adding to their troubles is the fact that Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Indiana have gotten a lot better, and everyone above them has stayed good. Treading water isn’t good enough in today’s East. They will still be weird, though, and will probably outlast the Knicks for the last playoff spot.

7) New Jersey Nets

I’ve seen these guys predicted to be as high as No. 3, which is insane (unless they meant they would win the Atlantic and get the three seed, which is correct. I hate the three-division system). Somebody needs to remind these people that Kenyon Martin is no longer with the team. This is a classic doughnut team if I’ve ever seen one. They have a “Run-JVR” situation going on with Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, and Richie Jefferson. After that, it’s a CBA team with marginally better uniforms. If they can get some productivity out of that front line, they could go as high as no. 5 – but that will never happen. Add that to the fact that the three stars each come with questions of their own – Is Jason Kidd getting old? Is Vince Carter guaranteed to try this year? Is Richard Jefferson really even that good? They will run bad teams off the court and look good doing it, but get them against a good or great team and they won’t have enough inside power to compete. They may get the 3-seed in the East because they play in that crappy Atlantic, but they won’t ever be the 3rd best team.


6) Chicago Bulls

In 2001, the Bulls pursued then-free-agent Tim Thomas, offering him a max contract. The Bucks then sadly beat their offer, and the Bulls were never the same. That was the greatest moment in the history of the post-Jordan franchise – T.T. signing with another team. He turned out to be the worst max-out player ever. Now he’s back, and he’s going to demand playing time from Luol Deng and other members of the collegiate all-start team they’ve put together. What does this mean? Well, their midget backcourt (Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon) was finishing games out with absolute impunity last year, which means they were winning. Eddy Curry is gone but has been replaced by a slightly worse guy with a much better contract. Of course, they now have no real backup to center Tyson Chandler, which could be a problem. However, if Gordon and Hinrich continue being awesome, the Bulls will continue their resurgence. If they wake up one day and realize they’re midgets, the Bulls will crash like an old computer running Windows 3.1. I don’t think that will happen, though. The key to this team is Mr. Deng, who should come “into his own” as they say this year. If he can keep T.T. on the bench, everything will be ok. Just remember, every time a guy blows past T.T. like he’s stuck to the court, an angel gets signed to a max contract and immediately tears his ACL.

5) Milwaukee Bucks

Surprised? I’m the same guy who picked them to be in approximately the same spot last year, so don’t be. I’ve got much better reasoning this year. The consensus seems to put them at about #11, which is a couple of spots up from last year. How boring is that? Let’s see, what were the Bucks’ three needs going into this year…get a real small forward, one that can shoot outside (Bobby Simmons, free agent)…get a NBA-quality point guard and get Mo Williams back on the bench where he belongs (TJ Ford came back from injury)…get a center with some post moves (#1 pick Andrew Bogut and now Jamaaaaaal Magloire, they filled this need twice). They will be much improved, as evidenced by the fact that GM Larry Harris scrapped the “basketball on the cheap” plan when they got the #1 pick, and went for broke. The team is pretty much locked in for the next 5 years, and they are confident that they can be successful. From early reports, Bogut looks ok (but now probably won’t even have to start this year), Simmons looks good, and TJ Ford looks sensational. He seems to have developed a jump shot! He’s headed for 15 points and 9 assists/game, Michael Redd is headed back to the All-Startgame, and the Bucks are headed for the no. 5 spot in the East. And I haven’t even mentioned Gadzuric or Kukoc or Charlie Bell yet. Wowza.

4) Cleveland Cavaliers

The media on the coasts is convinced LeBron James is going to bolt out of Cleveland ASAP and jump to New York or LA, which would be a shame. I personally doubt that’s going to happen, but either way that won’t affect the team this year. This year, they have given King James something to work with. Ilgauskus (as always, if healthy) is a great post player. Larry Hughes is a great complementary scorer and wingman for LeBron. Damon Jones is solid and just runs offenses. Donyell Marshall can fill it up. Drew Gooden’s still around. The only potential problem I see here is defense, which shouldn’t hurt so much in the regular season when they can overwhelm teams in the half-court. Oh, and LeBron? Proving quite deserving of all the hype, thank you very much. Man, he’s fun to watch – and he makes the other players on the team better. This is his third season, so we should be seeing an accurate picture of what he’s going to be for the rest of his career, wherever he spends it. The good news for the NBA is these guys are too good to fall apart in the second half again. We’ll get to see LeBron’s first taste of the playoffs, and that sound you hear is David Stern’s gleeful girlish giggling.


3) Miami Heat

First of all, let me say that the Heat were the best team in basketball last year, and would have beaten both Detroit and San Antonio in the playoffs if not for injuries. This year, their off-season moves would have me concerned if I were a Heat fan. Did I say concerned? I meant scared to death every time Jason Williams, Antione Walker, or Gary Payton has the ball in his hands. Seriously, has Pat Riley forgotten how to put together a basketball team? Whatever happened to the “all-for-one, one-for-all” attitude his Miami Heat teams always displayed when he was coach? Was signing all those shoot-first ball-hogs just a secret plot to get his coach fired? If so, why didn’t he just fire him? They got rid of the Jones brothers (Damon and Eddie), who were perfect pieces in the Miami scheme. They were good shooters who complemented the immense Shaq and the powerful but volatile Wade. Now, you’ve got three guys who demand to have the ball in their hands and who can’t shoot. You want the ball in the hands of Wade and Shaq! How is this going to work? Yes, Williams and Walker are talented (Payton no longer is), but they aren’t role players. The big question is when will Stan Van Gundy realize this and start playing Udonis Haslem, James Posey, and (TBD unsigned free-agent spare small forward) 40 minutes a game with Wade and Shaq? And will that make Pat Riley, Williams, Walker, and Payton freak out? The good news for Heat fans is that I don’t think Shaq and Wade and especially Alonzo Mourning (remember him?) will stand for massive amounts of hooliganism and horseplay from the new additions. If they start out 10-9 or something, Shaq will put his foot down, and you will see either unhappy players on the bench or mass trades happen. In any case, this is going to be a wild season for the Heat.

2) Indiana Pacers

These Pacers are good, and athletic, and deep, and should be challenging the Pistons for the top spot in the conference all season long. Last year, they got the 6th spot in the East despite the craziness of and injuries to their three top players – Ron Artest, Jermaine O’ Neal, and Stephen Jackson. In the playoffs, this team got to the second round led by Jackson and other players like Jeff Foster, Anthony Johnson, Jamaal Tinsley, and the broken human body of O’ Neal. This year, they’ve traded that broken body for a healthy body, plus added young phenom Danny Granger and best Euro available Šarūnas Jasikevičius, who all the pundits say is awesome. But the most important guy on the team remains Ron Artest. You get the feeling he could just up and quit at any moment. He is totally in his own world. When he’s focused on the court and not getting suspended or distracted, he’s an overall top 15 player in the league. With him in the game, they can defend with Detroit. All those guys who played last year are just providing quality depth now. Oh, and their coach, Rick Carlysle, is super-solid. The combination of all these factors should get them past dysfunctional Miami and possibly past the Pistons as well.

1) Detroit Pistons

Everybody, and I do mean everybody, is picking the Pistons to fail this year, despite the fact that they won the East the last two seasons. Well guess what – last year, they weren’t even motivated. They must have been tired of the Larry Brown rumors or something, because they only really played “Pistons Basketball” 3 out of every 5 games in the 2005 playoffs. The rest of the time, they were not themselves for some reason. This year, the sleeping giant will awaken again, this time with improved focus. They don’t like the fact that everyone is writing them off, and they want their respect back. The core of the team that won two years ago is still intact, so there’s no reason to suggest a focused Pistons team won’t be as good as it was two years ago. They were scary two years ago, man. They play the best defense in the league – even better than San Antonio, because they’re more physical and beefy. They have great role-players on offense. Chauncy Billups has discovered how to play, and I don’t think he’s going to revert back into Stupid Chauncy just because Flip Saunders is now his coach. Oh, and most importantly, Rasheed is embarrassed about last year and has his game face on. This team may not lose more than 10 games all year. The rest of the league, and the media, won’t know what hit them.

PLAYOFFS (keep in mind the division champs would get slots 1-3)

1 Pistons over 8 Wizards

4 Pacers over 5 Cavaliers

6 Bucks over 3 Nets

2 Heat over 7 Bulls

Pistons over Pacers

Heat over Bucks

Pistons over Heat

And that’s all I have to say about that…

(Western Conference Preview coming Saturday)


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