The NBA season tips off tonight and local NBA enthusiast Peter Lancaster breaks down the Eastern Conference.
Last season ended in bittersweet fashion for the Boston Celtics. They took the Miami Heat to the max in their seven game series. Boston’s experience and tremendous effort by Rondo and Garnett gave Miami all they could handle. Boston’s lack of a bench eventually caught up with them and cost them the series. But this off season saw the Celtics benefit from a deep draft with Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo both falling on many draft boards to them late in the first round, both players add immediate depth to the once inept bench. Jared Sullinger should give the Celtics additional help on the offensive end and Fab Melo is an incredible defensive presence. But late in July the Celtic organization was shocked to see veteran and all time three point leader Ray Allen sign with the Miami Heat. Ray had struggled with his position on the Celtics team. Ray was not receptive tocoming off the bench and a move was expected for quite a while and Ray made the move himself. The Celtics quickly replaced him with the signing of former 6th man of the year winner Jason Terry. A perfect replacement part for the loss of Ray Allen, Terry is a savvy veteran that understands his role on the team and will take the last shot if needed. Later in July the Celtics also acquired guard Courtney Lee in a three team trade. This trade will also benefit the remodeled Celtics and possibly creates the back court of the future with Rondo. The Celtics now have a great balance of veterans and young blood. The Celtics clearly took that series with Miami personally and have worked incredibly hard to gather young hungry talent around Rondo, Pierce and Garnett. Also, the Celtics will have Avery Bradley and Jeff Green back from the injury list and both of these players will add depth and versatility. I believe that the Celtics will need some time during the first two months to get all the new pieces to fit together but their veteran leadership will have the team focused and motivated by Christmas time. The Celtics should win the Atlantic division barring any major injuries to Pierce or Garnett. The Atlantic division has improved over the off season but the Celtics have the deepest roster and that should give them the leg up on the other teams.
A new name and a new address have the Nets faithful excited about their upcoming season. The Nets did miss out on the Dwight Howard sweepstakes but they were still busy putting together a fresh product for their new hometown fans of Brooklyn. The work started before the season ended by trading for swingman Gerald Wallace from the Trailblazers. Wallace is a match up nightmare for some teams with smaller guards and small forwards. His versatility in his post-game and his spot up shooting has grown each year and he is a legitimate scoring threat. Once the season was over it becoming priority number one to re-sign their cornerstone, Deron Williams, to a long term contract and surround him with talent. The Nets were successful on both accounts; first they re-signed Williams and then made a blockbuster trade to land Joe Johnson from the Atlanta Hawks. The trade did not take away any key players off the current Nets roster and left them with their Center Brook Lopez still intact. The Nets then went on to sign CJ Watson, Reggie Evans, Andray Blatche and Josh Childress. Those signings give theNets depth on a team that was lacking that very thing last season. If the Nets can get Andray Blatche to buy into their system and have him playing at a high level, he may be a steal thanks to the amnesty clause. But if Andray does not develop into a post scoring threat the Nets will be in trouble with a Division that has low post scoring threats throughout it like Stoudemire, Garnett, Young and Bargnani. The Nets have plenty of reasons to be excited about their new home and roster but their lack of low post scoring will definitely catch up with them. But their owner Prokhorov will surely address this issue by the trade deadline if this team is making waves in the Eastern conference playoff race.
New York Knicks
The Knicks made their way into the playoffs after a season full of highs and lows in the Big Apple. Jeremy Lin was the emerging superstar that arose from the ashes of the Knicks roster after key injuries to Anthony and Stoudemire during the regular season. Lin was given the green light by then head coach Mike D’Antoni and the young man became a sensation across the league and started the Linsanity crazy around the world. But just as quickly it arose it just as quickly evaporated with new Head Coach Mike Woodson’s coaching style and by a season endingknee injury. Knicks basketball was on the rise and then it came crashing down with a first round series loss to the Miami Heat. New York had a new unlikely superstar with a league minimum contract and a front office that was struggling with justifying signing him to a big new contract. Jeremy Lin was offered more money and decided to take his skills to Houston with a surprisesigning in July. All that excitement from a proud fan base seemed to vanish in thin air late in March and that weakening excitement was silenced with Lin leaving for Houston. The rest of the off season seemed to follow that same pattern of disappointment. The Knicks were named to be the favorites to land free agent Steve Nash and in a surprising twist Nash lands in Los Angeles with the revamped Lakers. The Knicks then missed out with Deron Williams and before you know it they had struck out on all three players, Lin, Nash and Williams. The Knicks tried to salvage their off season by signing Jason Kidd from the Mavericks and they made two trades that brought both Marcus Camby and Raymond Felton back to the Big Apple.Camby and Kidd are both in their later thirties and do not add much of a spark to a team that desperately needs one. The Knicks are not short on talent but do lack the consistent scoring from the outside. The Knicks will be the oldest team to hit the hardwood this season but that will assist them in some tough games this season and may cost them games too, but it will be interesting to see how this Knicks team will shake out. I do have them heading to the playoffs but not a higher seeding than seventh or eighth place again this season.
The 76ers were a wonderful surprise in the Eastern conference this past season. Coach Collins led his rag tag team to the second round of the playoffs after the Bulls lost Derrick Rose. The 76ers beat the Bulls, the number 1 seed, and then gave the Celtics a tough and physical series that went all the way to a game 7. The 76ers gave their fans a glimpse of where the franchise was heading with Coach Collins at the helm. The off season was a major one for the franchise which saw the 76ers land the highly coveted Andrew Bynum from the Lakers in the blockbuster trade that sent Dwight Howard to Los Angeles and Andrea Iguodala to Denver. It was a major trade that sent fan favorite Iguodala packing but getting a high profile Center noteven in his prime was too good to pass up. The 76ers also signed Nick Young from the Clippers who will replace some of the scoring left by Lou Williams, who signed with Atlanta. The 76ers will definitely miss Iguodala and Williams but with the addition of Bynum it allows this team to build from the inside out. The nucleus of Holiday, Turner, Young and Bynum are all 25 years or younger and gives them a solid foundation for the next five years or more. The 76ers bench will be competitive and tough and will carry the team on the road when the season drags on. I believe the 76ers will make the playoffs with relative ease if Bynum does not miss significant time at the start of the season.
The Raptors have been in a rebuilding phase since losing Chris Bosh two years ago. The Raptors have not made the playoffs since the 2007-2008 season and their current roster does not seem to give them hope for a berth this season either. The Raptors do have some young talent that should help their team grow and make improvements. New players like 1st round pick of two years ago, Jonas Valaciunas from Lithuania and this year’s first round pick Terrence Ross fill immediate holes on the current roster. But to expect them to be impact starters on opening day might be a bit of a stretch. But I believe they are starting on the right track to get this franchise back to a competitive level in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors did make two off season moves that should add some depth to their roster and those players are Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields. They are two tough nosed players who are decent NBA talent and should be key parts of the rebuilding process in Toronto. I do not think the Raptors will make the playoffs this year but the development of Ross and Valaciunas will determine how long that road is to a playoff berth in the future.
The Bulls are coming off one of their best seasons since the Jordan era. They were heading into the playoffs with the best record in the Eastern Conference against an unlikely opponent, the 76ers. Game 1 in the first round was a great start for the Bulls until the unthinkable happens with just minutes left in the game. Derrick Rose goes down with a knee injury and within seconds the Bulls lost their leader and MVP indefinitely. The Bulls did fight back but the 76ers took full advantage of the Bulls misfortune and became the fifth team in league history to upset a number 1 seed in the first round of the playoffs. The Bulls had surround Rose with tons of talent but most of that talent were all in contract years. The Bulls are not certain when Rose might return, or whether he will return at all this season. The Bulls front office had many tough decisions but they made cost cutting measures for a season that might be lost with Rose’s injury. The Bulls did find a familiar face in Kirk Hinrich this year in free agency. The Bulls did lose some depth from their bench, players like Korver, Asik, Brewer, Watson and Lucas. But they did find some replacement pieces that might hold down the ship while Rose recovers from his knee injury. The biggest question this season, can Gibson, Deng, Noah and Boozer hold the team together in Rose’s absence? If they have a chance to make the playoffs this year it totally depends on those four players and how they can gel together while their leader recovers. It could be one of the more inspiring stories of the new NBA season.
The Kyle Irving era officially kicked off last year and gave the Cavs a new cornerstone for their franchise. Irving had a wonderful season that was capped off with the Rookie of the Year award. The rebuilding effort will still take time but two first round draft picks from this summer will add needed depth and talent to a team and town that is hungry to get back to the top of the Eastern Conference. The first pick was Dion Waiters and later in the draft was the pick of Tyler Zeller, Waiters is a pure scorer who will blend with Irving and Zeller adds moreheight to go alongside Varejao in the post. The Cavs do not have enough veteran talent to make a big run this season but the development of Irving and Waiters in the backcourt and Thompson and Zeller in the post will direct the future of this franchise. The Cavs have a talented young nucleus and time will tell if this is the correct combination of talent.
The Pistons have been trying to find that right combination of talent that gave them so much success, with seven straight appearances in the Eastern Conference finals. Joe Dumars has made some questionable trades and free agent signings over the past four seasons. The Pistons have started fresh with three great draft picks in a row. Two years ago, Greg Monroe fell to them in the 1st round and a surprising star emerged from their second round pick, Jonas Jerebko. Both players have incredible versatility and play great defense. Last year, Brandon Knight was a solid pick in the middle of the Lottery and showed flashes of promise. The Pistons had another solid draft this past summer with Andre Drummond falling to them late in the lottery. Drummond and Monroe should prove to be a fierce front court of the future but they still have plenty of questions for their backcourt. Will Knight emerge as the leader or will Stuckey ever live up to his potential? If Knight and Stuckey learn to work together and mold as a cohesive unit, the Pistons will finally take that giant step in the right direction. Scoring will be the downfall of the current Pistons roster. They will need someone to step up and be the go-to player in the clutch. If that player emerges this season then the Pistons might surprise some people but if that does not happen the Pistons will be back in the lottery.
The Pacers took the NBA world by surprise last year with a great season that had them finishing 3rd in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers had been accumulating talent for years and the pieces fit just right last year with the free agent signing of David West. West became the team leader and was the right person to step up on a team full of young talent. West and Granger are the perfect complementary teammates to one another. Granger has a great spot up game and West can score in the post with the best of them. The Pacers did make one interesting move this off season with the trade of Darren Collison but this does free up George Hill to be the point guard for this rising team. The front court of the Pacers gives them a chance to fight for the Eastern Conference title. The Pacers will finish in the top 3 of the Eastern Conference and will push the Celtics and Heat for the crown.
The Bucks were just five games away from making the playoffs last year. The improvement from the year before was created by the trade they made that acquired Monta Ellis at the trade deadline. The trade now pairs Ellis with Brandon Jennings and that makes them one of the most dangerous scoring backcourts in the league. But it also creates mismatches for them on the defensive end of the court with each player standing at 6’3. The Bucks have been accumulating talented big men now for three years and this year should be the measuring stick of their improvement. Udoh and Harris have tons of potential but one of them must emerge and create a low post presence they have lost since Bogut was traded for Ellis. This year’s draft pick John Henson was a solid pick and should be an impact player for the Bucks in the near future. This team has plenty of scoring options in the back court but their success lies solely on how the front court develops during the season. Jennings and Ellis are incredible scorers and should fill it up on a nightly basis. But this team’s lack of a low post threat will be its Achilles heel. The Bucks should be an interesting team to watch throughout the season. I don’t have them making the playoffs but they will be a team to watch in the future.
The Hawks fought and clawed their way through last season, with injuries to their all-star center Al Horford. The Hawks were a tough matchup for many teams with their athletic ability and versatility. This off season was a busy one for the Hawks. They made two huge trades that saw them move Marvin Williams and their leading scorer Joe Johnson. Johnson and his contract truly hand tied the Hawks and their future salary cap decisions. The trade of Johnson gave them flexibility to keep Smith and Horford as their foundation. The rising star of Teague gives them a true threat at the point guard position and with the free agent signing of Lou Williams; their back court is young and ready to become household names. The Hawks will be one of the most dangerous teams from the 3 point line this season. They now have Korver and Stevenson coming off the bench and each man is a solid threat from downtown. The Hawks still did not find another low post scoring threat to complement Horford but they do have some blue collar post players who will continue to fight and claw their way to the playoffs. The Hawks will be in the middle of the playoffs standings by All-Star break and depending on injuries across the league I do not see them higher than a fourth or fifth seed.
The Bobcats were a mess last year with no clear cut leader or advantage in any matchup throughout the season. The Bobcats had no clear vision of their identity last year but this off seasonstarted a change. The Bobcat’s first round draft pick might have been the most complete player in this year’s draft. They drafted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who will be their franchise’s building block and eventually leader. The Bobcats next off season moves were right in line with what got them in the mess they are currently in. First, they traded for Ben Gordon and took on his bloated contract from the Pistons even though they have the same time of player and size in Kemba Walker. Later in the off season they signed Ramon Sessions, who is an under sized guard very similar to Walker and Gordon. The Bobcats never addressed the issue that plagued them last year, which is no low post scoring. Thomas and Haywood do not scare any teams in the NBA at the post. But no one expected the Bobcats to cure all their ills in just one draft and free agent class. But this franchise will still be one of the worst teams in the league with no real chance of improving their standing.
The rich get richer but who can blame those veterans across the league for wanting to latch on to a true championship contender. The Miami Heat have so many weapons who on any given night can step up and be the team’s best player. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh had a goal and accomplished it in grand fashion last season. LeBron put that team on his back many times last year and he finally earned his first title. The Heat also had some great veterans that played vital roles during various games in the playoffs. Veterans like Battier, Miller and Haslam had monster games that gave the Heat a spark during the playoffs. It was a true team win for the Heat and they deserved the championship last season. This off season saw the rich getting richer with the free agent signings of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. Both of these players have been in the finals and give them another dimension coming off the bench. The Heat are definitely the most talented team in the Eastern conference and should be the 1st seed going into the playoffs.
The Dwight Howard saga is finally over in Orlando and now the rebuilding process begins. The Magic will look like a completely different team this season but they did get some great assets in the Howard trade. Harrington and Afflalo arriving from Denver will give the fan base in Orlando some blue collar players who will earn their respect and admiration. The Magic will not have enough fire power to make the playoffs this season but they will definitely be a competitive team. The Magic fans deserve better than the product they were given last year. The Howard saga dragged on throughout the whole season and it eventually cost Coach Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith their jobs. But with such a mess a total house cleaning was in order. This season will be one that allows the team to build on one another and find that bond to rebuild a franchise with an jadedfan base and torn image.
The Wizards started ridding themselves of their troubled superstars at the end of last season. The Wizards had a toxic culture there for years but now they have cleaned house and created a team that is within years of becoming a playoff contending team. The trade that started it all was acquiring Nene from the Nuggets hours before the trade deadline ended. Nene gives the Wizards a solid veteran to complement John Wall. Nene is a scoring option that relieves pressure from the budding superstar. Later in the off season they traded for Okafor and Ariza and drafted Bradley Beal in the first round of the NBA draft. Beal adds immediate offense to the shooting guard position, Ariza steps right into the small forward position and Okafor gives them the defensive anchor in the post. The Wizards in one off season completed their starting five withoutgiving up any major part of their team. The rebuilding process was jump started by this off season but they do not have enough fire power coming off the bench. The Wizards have plenty to build on and might have a chance to fight for the last playoff spot if they can make some roster moves during the season to strengthen that bench. If that does not happen look for the Wizards to just miss out on the playoffs this year.
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