After eliciting a surprisingly venomous response from San Antonio (probably should’ve seen it coming), I’m guessing that my Eastern Conference forecast will be met with less resistance. It’s hard to argue that anyone else in the East has an overwhelming case to replace any one of these eight teams. The order, too, is mostly settled, especially from 1-4. I could envision Hawks and Raps fans feeling jilted, and, fair enough, it wouldn’t shock me to see either replace Washington. But I can’t see Milwaukee, Charlotte, Orlando, or Philly fans shaking their heads in disgust over the omission. I suppose we’ll find out. Here’s how the East will play out:
1. Chicago. I hate to write this, because Rose’s no-nonsense (can we still say that?), fearless approach to the game makes him my favorite of the post-Kobe/Duncan/Garnett class. But I want to punish him for the ridiculous spectacle that was his 2012-2013 non-season. You simply cannot practice for three months and then watch on the sidelines as your more injured teammates duke it out with Miami. (Loved his most recent excuse: “I felt that I could get by the first guy, but I wasn’t ready for the double teams.” What?!!! Just stop talking Derek. )
At some point, stop saying you don’t feel right. Stop being a bitch. Miami was vulnerable, and chances like that often don’t come twice. I’m not giving short shrift to his long-term career concerns. This is a business, and he has every right to protect his best asset, his body. Since we celebrate the likes of Isaiah playing on one foot, Willis Reed coming through that tunnel, and Kobe playing with everything but his Achilles broken, sprained, or torn, it’s only fair that Rose gets the other side of hero worship. He let us all down.
So I could tap Indiana, go safe with Miami, or jump on the Brooklyn bandwagon. Here’s why I won’t. Chicago will presumably have a healthy Rose in the lineup, and despite what I’ve written above, he’s still unquestionably a top-7 player when healthy, which I (finally) expect him to be. They return a team that wasn’t all that bad without him, featuring a top-five coach and center. Add to those centerpieces Luol Deng and the revelation that is Jimmy Butler, and Chicago has more going for it than the Pacers or Brooklyn. And don’t be surprised if we see Chicago move Deng for some backcourt scoring to make room for Butler ascendance. They don’t need to make that move – those two can absolutely play together in smaller lineups and will be hell defensively, but if an opportunity arises to acquire another ball handler and shot-creator (what if Goran Dragic, Marcus Thornton, or even Steve Nash became available) Chicago might be better off going in that direction.
2. Miami. There’s not a whole lot to report here. The Heat will be really good again this year. This isn’t Lebron’s final season in Cleveland, when his impending free agency consumed the Cavs’ season. Unless D-Wade goes from diminished to done, Lebron has no reason to leave. He’s not going to play with Kobe in LA (I really don’t think those guys like each other), and I don’t see a return to Cleveland so soon.
Did the rich get richer? Maybe, but I’m not so sure. Miami’s glaring weakness remains post defense, and relying on Greg Oden to supply that is like relying on Lindsey Lohan to stay sober. Maybe she will this time. The better bet is that Pat Riley can get through to Michael Beasley, and Miami adds a potent scorer to a stacked roster.
This all paints a gloomy picture for the rest of the East. Here’s a few reasons for hope: (1) Miami should’ve been beaten by a smart Spurs team, and could’ve been beaten by a healthy, tough Chicago team; (2) Miami very likely will go into the postseason with the same vulnerabilities it did last season – post defense, aging role players, and an over-reliance on Lebron to do everything; and most importantly (3) Miami’s played in three straight finals. These guys are tired, and will be even more so come Spring. Ask the 2011 Lakers how that worked out.
That’s why the Heat aren’t number one. Remember, this forecasts the regular season standings. My best guess is that a fatigued Heat squad won’t be able to and/or does not care to match Thibideau’s bring-it-every-night tact to the regular season.
3. Indiana. First, the good news: it looks like Paul George will be a Pacer for a long time to come. The bad news? He’s incredibly overrated. And I say that as someone who really likes Paul George, and came away extremely impressed with his potential after watching the Miami series. He’s bound to play at that level more consistently.
The thing is, he hasn’t yet, even though everyone pretends that he has. Consider this: he turned in his best season yet last year, and finished with a PER of 16.84, which was good enough to tie Jason Smith for 87th in the league. Pacers fans: before your head explodes, allow me to add the caveat that while advanced stats are useful, they by no means tell the whole story. So, no, I don’t think George is the league’s 87th best player, or anywhere close to that. But scroll down to my comments about Paul George in this column. A PER of 16.84 in a player’s third season is not a strong indicator of great successes to come.
Here’s where I come down on George. He’s overrated if you consider him to be a top 10-15 player, which apparently many a pundit do. George is already a top-ten wing defender, and showed the chops to go toe-toe with Lebron that most players in his generation lack. George was wholly unafraid. I love that about him. And his offensive game is on the rise. It would be negligent, however, to overlook the fact that it remains a work in progress. George needs to add something more than a turn around jumper to his three point shooting and slashing skills, the latter of which he needs to utilize far more frequently. Become a creative, not just an explosive finisher. Develop a mid range game, and a few go-to post moves for smaller defenders to fear. Then, George becomes frightening. But until then, he’s another uber-athlete with amazing potential. We’ve seen a few of those before.
Back to the Pacers. Just as I did with George, I loved the way they competed against Miami. Hibbert was a revelation, but I need to see him play like that more often. West, too, was amazing, but in his case, I’d worry about regression. I’m optimistic about the addition of C.J. Watson, who can form a dynamic backcourt with George Hill when Lance Stephenson doesn’t have it on any given night. Not to be forgotten, Granger’s back. If he plays at the level that he did two years ago, Indiana might just have enough juice to take the next step. Even if he doesn’t, adding a player with his athleticism on the wing can only help a roster with a bear-bones rotation last season. Expect good things again from the Pacers. Unless a few things go their way, however, don’t expect to see them in the Finals.
4. Brooklyn. Even the best laid plans…Ask the 1998 Rockets or 2012 Lakers how this plot usually works out: once were superstars join aging superstars to make one last run. Only this is different. Brooklyn never had a superstar to join. It’s not the additions of Garnett and Pierce I don’t like. It’s Deron Williams. He took the brunt of criticism for the team’s underperformance the last couple of years, but I still can’t get past the fact that he couldn’t will his team through Chicago sans Rose, Noah, and Deng. That’s unforgivable. The Nets weren’t stacked, but the cupboard wasn’t exactly bare either. If you subscribe, as I do, to the theory that you cannot win a title if Deron Williams is your best player, then forecasting the team’s season becomes a far simpler task.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the Nets will be really good. Garnett and Lopez form a formidable duo down low, and Pierce + Johnson = a lot of headaches for teams without the perimeter size to matchup against them. Not to be forgotten, getting Kirilenko quite literally was a heist. Furthermore, the Nets are uniquely positioned to take down Miami. Nobody on the Heat is staying with Williams, and Lebron and Wade will need to expend significant energy guarding Pierce and Johnson. Even more disconcerting for Heat fans, there’s simply no way that the frontcourt matchups are not a significant net minus for Miami. Garnett still has enough juice to out-man Bosh, and the Heat have zero answers for Lopez.
I worry about Brooklyn’s perimeter defense. Once a plus defender, D-Will is no more. Johnson never was, and Pierce lost his lateral movement more than two years ago. These guys won’t be able to stay with most guards, most nights. That leaves them to funnel drivers to Garnett and Lopez, who will help, but the Lakers proved last year that this sort of game plan doesn’t really work – Howard and Gasol couldn’t make up for three awful to subpar defenders in Nash, Bryant, and World Peace. Kirilenko can help on the wing, but he’s not the swiss-army knife defender that he once was.
I’m optimistic that this season will be more fun with a dynamic squad in Brooklyn. They’ll be fun to follow, and promise to make some noise, if nothing else in the playoffs. Title material? I doubt it, based on the D-Will premise above. But you never know.
5. Cleveland. This is where it gets fun. There’s not a whole lot of precedent for the teams comprising slots 5-8 here. Nonetheless, I’m bullish on the Cavs. So much so, in fact, that I’d have no trouble envisioning them finishing a spot or two higher if the injury bug bites one of the teams rated above them. No one will want any part of this team come next spring.
The reason for my confidence? In a word: Kyrie. This kid’s special. Even Kobe says so, and if Kobe says so, well, who am I to disagree? Seriously though, Irving combines the court savvy of Chris Paul with the size and athleticism of Westbrook, and the shooting of Steph Curry, albeit in each case to a lesser degree. Kyrie isn’t there yet, but he looks like he wants to compete on defense too. In other words, he’s the whole package. Flanked by the some of the league’s best young talent, Kyrie’s primed to make an entrance on the big stage this season.
About that young talent…I’m an unabashed Dion Waiters fan (love the Cuse Orange). Color this analysis somewhat less sober if you will then, but his ability to get to the rim, finish, and score in bunches from almost anywhere on the court is an almost unfair compliment to Irving’s more refined game. This guy’s an insane athlete. Of course, if that were the whole story, we’d know more about Dion by now. It’s not. I wouldn’t quibble with dubbing him an irrationally confidence guy, except that Dion has more rational reasons to be confident than most of those guys (e.g., Nate Robinson and Lance Stephenson). J.R. Smith is actually quite a reasonable comparison for Waiters, both athletically and in terms of offensive skill-set. To Dion’s credit, he hasn’t given us good reason to suspect that he’s as stupid as J.R. To date, it appears he’s just cocky. So what if Dion is J.R. Smith without some of the baggage? That’s a hell of a player.
I’m less excited about Tristian Thompson, who possesses the raw ability to become a real asset defensively, but hasn’t shown enough to instill confidence that he’ll realize his considerable potential. Nonetheless, you have to give some measure of respect to anyone who’s willing to change shooting hands to improve his game. Of course, Cleveland also had the number one pick in last year’s draft, which brought them Anthony Bennett. No, he’s not the caliber of player that pick can sometimes bring, but there’s no reason not to like Bennett. He’s a bruiser with considerable skills all over the court on offense. Thompson’s versatility on defense should keep him out of troublesome matchups on that side of the court until the Cavs learn exactly what they have in him there. (Can he defend 4s? Quick 3s?) . What we do know is that Bennett can score. With Irving and Waiters, this could easily be a top five offense.
I’ve spilled a lot of ink without getting to Cleveland’s biggest offseason acquisition, both literally and figuratively. Andrew Bynum brings his fro, immaturity, and unsurpassed low post game to one of the league’s most dynamic backcourts. With Bynum, there’s always the caveat, “if he stays healthy.” Well, let me break the news: he won’t. But if Bynum can give them, say, 60 games and show up for the playoffs at around 80% or better, Cleveland’s ceiling becomes a whole lot higher. No one in the East can matchup with him down low, and when he’s engaged, Bynum’s one of the best basket protectors and rebounders in the game. He’s one of the few players who could truly propel an upstart squad into an immediate contender.
There’s still more to like in the land that Lebron left behind. Varejao remains a destructive defensive force, although he brings injury concerns on a scale that rivals Bynum’s. More importantly, the Cavs brought in Jarrett Jack, who’s coming off a career year in Golden State. Jack’s the type of steady veteran presence who should make a real impression on this young squad. Fill out this team with Zeller, Clark, and change, and there’s real reason for optimism in Cleveland.
6. Detroit. Joe Dumars delivered my favorite offseason, just ahead of New Orleans and Cleveland (each of which is also at the top of my watchable leaguepass team rankings). After a string of bad to awful moves that started with Darko and continued through to his attempt to revive Iverson (in between he shelled out insane money to Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva), Dumars, who I still believe is a shrewd personnel guy, is due for some good luck.
I think he got it. It started with Greg “Moose” Monroe, who’s as underrated as any big man in the league. Monroe’s already turned in a PER of 20+, and is just scratching the surface. His skill on offensive is the perfect contrast to Drummond’s raw, imposing brand of basketball. Speaking of Drummond, no big man, save maybe Cousins, has more potential. That’s the upshot. The downside is that probably no one can match the breadth of his gap between current performance and potential performance. He’s already an alley-oop machine, but so is DeAndre Jordan. Detroit needs more from Drummond to develop the league’s most imposing front-court, which its fully capable of wielding to its opponents dismay.
Back to Dumars apparent hot-streak: after drafting two stud big men outside the top 5, he turned Brandon Knight into Brandon Jennings, which is akin to getting $1.75 on the dollar. I’ve long been a Jennings admirer, all the while recognizing that his wild brand of basketball became entirely untethered when paired with Monta Ellis. Harness that potential, however, and Jennings is one the game’s most dynamic guards. Assuming that Billups can do more than hold a clip-board for instance, and Detroit could begin to see Jennings realize his considerable potential. And while he likely makes Stuckey expendable, if Rodney sticks around that makes for a highly intriguing, if combustible backcourt. Oh, and by all accounts, KCP is the real deal two with good size and a sweet shooting stroke.
Detroit overpaid for Josh Smith. That does not mean that they shouldn’t have. The Pistons have the young nucleus on cheap contracts that allowed it to take a swing this year. Smith was it’s best option, and they got their man. I’m not as high on J. Smoove as some, but it’s impossible not to get excited about Detroit’s flexibility on the frontline. Can they play all three (Smith, Monroe, and Drummond)? In spells, perhaps, but Smith’s shaky shooting could make that unpalatable. More likely, I suspect, is Smith becomes something of Lamar Odom to Monroe’s Gasol and Drummond’s Bynum. That is to say that Smith will play 35 minutes, and spend most of his time at power forward alongside Monroe or Drummond. That worked out pretty well for the Lakers. Good things are coming, Pistons fans.
7. New York. This is the year it all crumbles for the Knicks. There’s just not enough there there. Carmelo can’t carry a team the same way Lebron, Durant, and Kobe have, even if he can match or surpass all three in terms of offensive explosion. Chandler’s a great defensive anchor, and he catches alley-oops. Just don’t expect anything else from him. (Okay, occasionally you can expect the fake tough guy routine.) Beyond those two, what’s to like?
J.R. is what he is at this stage of his career, and we know that’s not enough to push those two centerpieces into contention. Amare’s ailing more often than not, and can’t mesh with Carmelo or defend anyone to save his life. Bargnani should help shoulder the scoring burden, but will compound defensive problems. Metta and Carmelo form an interesting SF/PF combo that will create matchup problems, but most teams simply will elect to allow Metta to be the matchup problem, and if you’ve watched the Lakers the past three seasons, you understand why that’s a bad thing. Kidd took his leadership and poor shooting to Brooklyn, which paves the way for more Felton. If you have enough around him and he doesn’t overeat, Felton’s a good point guard. But the Knicks don’t, and New York has really good food.
This is to say that the Knicks are going nowhere this season. I’ll go ahead and go where many have already gone: Carmelo’s going to LA. He’s at the stage in his career where he no longer harbors the illusion that he can do it be himself, and he and Kobe are tight. And remember, Carmelo’s from Baltimore, not New York, which people seem to confuse with some frequency. Lala can act in LA, and Carmelo will leave Dolan behind for the only slightly greener pastures managed by Jim Buss.
8. Washington. I’m on record dissenting from the Wizards’ selection of Otto Porter. Maybe he’ll prove me wrong, but I just find it difficult to believe that he’s a huge upgrade over Trevor Ariza. That’s okay, since teams could always use another athletic wing with ball-handling skills, and Porter’s floor is pretty high. I’d have preferred a “ceiling pick,” like Noel, since as much as I appreciate Wall’s ebulance, the Wizards are absolutely not contending this year.
On a more positive note, I think Wall’s close to getting it, and when he does, he’s a special player. To give a compliment and then sort of ruin it, in Wall’s case being a special player doesn’t mean being a truly elite point guard. That much, I think we’ve seen through the past several seasons. Maybe he’s Billups or Nash, and needs only a few years to marinate or a change of scenery to succeed. More likely, he’s not among the group of point guards who flash signs of dominance early on in their path to the top (e.g., Rose, Westbrook, Irving, Curry, Rondo, etc.).
Bradley Beal might render that a moot point. I saw enough from him last season to be confident that he’s a rich man’s Eric Gordon (pre-injuries), and glowing reports emerged from his performance at Team USA camps this summer. In a league short on elite two-guards, I think Beal, not Wall, is the guy to watch on this team.
That’s a great backcourt, and adding Webster and Porter makes for nothing less than slightly above average play on the wings. So what gives? The frontcourt. Nene was a tease in Denver. As a Denver resident I can attest to the expectations he fueled through remarkable displays of athleticism and skill in the low post. He’s not a tease in D.C. He just is what he is: a perpetually injured, skilled post player and strong rebounder who doesn’t love basketball. That’s okay if he’s your second best big man, but in D.C., he’s not. That’s where it all comes apart. Fortunately, whereas in the West a weak-link means a trip to the lottery, in the East it means a fighting chance in the playoffs.