With camps finally open for the 2009, 2010 season, we can finally get a glimpse of what the top teams look like on the court. The focus is still on the top tier teams, because they were the ones that made the most significant changes. For them, the goal is to win a championship, or the season is a failure.
The Cavaliers probably have as much to lose as anyone. They are banking on Shaq taking them to the promise land that they so desperately seek. If this doesn’t work, they risk losing Lebron James to free agency. Right now Lebron leaving is still a stretch, but if he can’t get the championship he craves in Cleveland, then he has to think hard about it.
Shaq will help some and give them a low post option in the playoffs, but he can be exploited on defense playing the pick and roll, and he can’t be counted on to make foul shots at the end of games. The Cavaliers need athletic big men that are not one-dimentional, like Verejao and Ilgauskas. Leon Powe will add depth and help a little, but depending on who who they match up with in the playoffs, it may not get them over the hump.
I am going on record as saying that this move will not be enough to bring the bling back to Cleveland. They had the best record in the East without Shaq last year, so this move is all about the playoffs. Unless other Eastern Conference contenders fall apart, or have injury issues they will fall short again.
One of the more underrated moves was San Antonio adding Richard Jefferson to the fold. They needed to get younger and more athletic on the wing, and Jefferson is a great fit. Tim Duncan isn’t getting any younger, and Jefferson can run the court with Tony Parker, Roger Mason, and Manu Ginobilli to increase the amount of easy baskets they get.
If Duncan can be fresh come playoff time, they can beat anyone, including the Lakers. Antonio McDyess was a good addition and will add toughness and a steady low post defense. If DeJuan Blair from Pittsburg works out, the Spurs could really be scary good.
He is a beast underneath the basket, and if he can keep his knees healthy, he can really comeplement Duncan and McDyess and make them more physical. Even with Parker, Ginobilli, and Duncan the Spurs bread and butter is on defense. Their ability to get stops in prior years was what won them championships.
Jefferson and McDyess fit that mold, and if the rest of their core stays healthy, the Spurs may emerge as the favorites coming out of the West.
Kudos to the Lakers for recognizing they needed to get better to defend their NBA Championship. Some might consider it risky making an investment in Ron Artest, but he helps L.A. in a lot of ways. He can defend the other teams best player, taking the heat off of Kobe Bryant, and he can still rebound and run the floor.
He can be frustrating to play with on the offensive end, but that will be Kobe’s job to keep him in check. Artest adds much needed toughness to this team as well. When Boston beat them for their championship in 2008 the Lakers were pushed around badly, and out and out right punked by the more physical Celtics.
Artest can help Kobe keep that from happening again. The only thing that is dangerous about this move is if Artest flips out and undermines the team, or undermines Kobe. Then they have a big problem. Artest wants a championship so it is in his best interest to behave, even if his role is not as large as he thinks it should be.
Lamar Odom stepped up in the playoffs, and getting consistent play from him is vital to the Lakers success. He can play more relaxed now that he knows, and has proved that he is an important piece to their puzzle.
All eyes will be on the Boston Celtics this year to see if Kevin Garnett is all the way back from his knee injury that kept Boston from defending their championship last year. Regardless of what anyone says, he is the straw that stirs the drink in Boston.
Garnett is a huge part of their interior defense, as well as being a facilitor and scorer on offense. He scores from the post as well as from the outside. If he is all the way back, (and it might take a quarter of the season for him to get his legs under him) Boston should be the favorites to come out of the East.
Many point to the ages of their core players, but Paul Pierce is just one year removed from being a finals MVP, and Ray Allen probably has at least one more all star calliber year left in him, so I don’t see that being an issue this year. Maybe next season, but not this one.
The big addition for Boston was Rasheed Wallace. No one will deny that he is long in the tooth, but when he is interested, and he will be in Boston, he can bring the opponents center or power forward away from the basket and nail the three pointer, and he still a pretty good post defender and rebounder.
With the improvement of Glen “Big Baby” Davis, and the addition of Wallace, Boston has the best set of big men in the East. Sheldon Williams was also added to sure up the bench, and help back up Kendrick Perkins and their other power forwards. With Garnett back, and Wallace in the fold, the loss of Leon Powe should be inconsequential.
Rajon Rondo will only get better, and he doesn’t have to be a prototype point guard because Garnett and Pierce play that roll from the post sometimes. The Celtics know the clock is ticking on the amount of chances they will get to win championships, so the drive will be there.
As currently constructed, they are physical enough, can hit the outside shot, and can defend. Everything hinges on Garnett. If he returns to form by midway through the season, that is bad news for everyone in the East. I can’t see Wallace not making them better. Boston’s biggest mistake at the beginning of last season was not signing James Posey.
In last years playoffs they craved a 6′7″ sharp-shooter that could defend and run the floor. He was a key part of their championship run and they let him walk. Wallace is not Posey, but bigs that can score from inside and out are hard to find. Just ask the Atlanta Hawks.
Speaking of the Hawks, they have been up and coming for the last two years now and coming off a season where they were the fourth seed in the playoffs and knocked off the Heat to make it to the second round. They didn’t make any huge additions, but head coach Mike Woodson is hoping that his team will continue to get better each year as a unit. That is the only way will be able to get into the upper echalon of the league.
The key to that will be the continued development of Marvin Williams. In order for the Hawks to get to the next level, Williams will have to make the jump and be an all-star calliber player. That’s what they envisioned when they drafted him out of Duke after his first season there.
Right now Joe Johnson carries the teams scoring load, with help from Mike Bibby and Josh Smith. If Williams can step up, the Hawks can really be good. Josh Smith is somewhat of an enigma. At times he seems uncoachable and at odds with coach Woodson, and at other times he looks like the best player on the court and a difference maker on both ends.
Josh Smith can be as good as he wants to be. He just needs to work on his low post and mid range game, and not try to be a point or shooting guard. Turnovers and bad shot selection make him look like a rookie, when he is really one of the most talented forwards in the game.
The Hawks bolstered their bench scoring in the back-court by adding Jamal Crawford. Crawford can score the ball, but he is basically a one way player. He can definitely get his own shot and is spectacular sometimes, but the lack of defense and the fact that every team he has played on has lost most of their games scares me. There is no problem with his attitude or willingness, I am leery of players who have never been in a winning environment (see Stephon Marbury).
The biggest area of concern for the Hawks is up front. They are just not big enough to consistently beat the top teams in the East. Al Horford has been great, but Zaza Pachulia and Jason Collins scare no one. They did add Joe Smith, but he is a journyman.
Atlanta has guys that can score in bunches, but they don’t have a bruiser that can consistently score and command attention in the paint. That would take the heat off their perimetter players, ala Dwight Howard. I think the Hawks will be good, just not good enough. Smith and Williams will not improve enough to get them to the next level. They are also at risk of losing Joe Johnson in 2010, as he is also a member of that big class.
I wonder about the Orlando Magic. Maybe they know something I don’t know. Hedo Turkoglu was allowed to walk, even though he fit their style of play, and had a great playoff run. He proved extremely difficult to match up with on the pick and roll and proved pretty reliable, in the clutch.
Vince Carter was brought in to replace him and has created a lot of buzz in Orlando. They now feel they have a championship caliber team primed to win this year. With Carter they are mort athletic, and he is an excellent finisher, but he is also injury prone.
Neither player is going to make the all defensive team, but my thinking was that Turkoglu was more versatile as he took over some of the ball handling duties when Jameer Nelson was injured. The Magic do have reason to be optimistic. They are solid up front with stud center Dwight Howard, and have depth with Marcin Gortat and Adonal Foyle, who they signed as a free agent.
They also signed Matt Barnes, who will be an asset to their up tempo game and defense. He thrives in an up tempo offense from his days with the Warriors. Orlando now has a bunch of thorough breds that can get beat you up the court and get a lot of easy baskets.
With a healthy Jameer Nelson running and gunning with Michael Pietrus, Carter, Rashard Lewis, Barnes, and yes, Dwight Howard, they should score more. The question is will they be able to get stops. Howard owns the glass, but their ultimate success will depend on their team defense. If they stay healthy they will be dangerous, and I would give them a slight edge over Cleveland, but not over Boston. Not yet.
The Portland Trailblazers are a wild card in the West, and could upset the current power structure. The addition of Andre Miller was huge, and will make it easier for Brandon Roy to focus on scoring. Steve Blake could start at the point on a lot of teams, so they won’t lose anything when he comes in the game.
They have depth up front with the addition of Juwan Howard, as he will complement Greg Oden and Lamarcus Aldridge. If Oden is healthy and makes it through three quarters of the season this team could be special. Portland has more young talent than any team in the league.
Jerryd Bayless and Martell Webster are young guns that will find it hard pressed to find minutes on this team because they are loaded. They are my sleeper pick to come out of the West.
Now that Denver has gotten past the first round in the playoff’s and have seen what it takes mentally and physically to compete, do they have enough to break through? The core of their team is intact, but Carmelo Anthony will have to put this team on his back in order to be a championship contender.
He must raise his game to the Wade, Kobe, Lebron level in order for the Nuggets to contend. They have some nice pieces such as Chauncey Billups, and Ty Lawson from North Carolina should fit in nicely in their fun and gun style offense.
The formula for winning championships these days seems to be bringing multiple all stars together, ala Boston and Los Angeles. That is why this season is so important. If a team with a top tier free agent doesn’t do well, that free agent may decide to leave and get their championship somewhere else, especially if they can be teamed with another all star.
The team with the most cap space may be a bigger winner than the NBA champion. Who is going to play where next season is just as big a story as the season itself.