Eastern Conference Title Contenders
Well, that’s it for me. For many, Orlando isn’t a contender for a title. I disagree. Why? Here are Dwight Howard's numbers since the All-Star break:
- Sacramento: 31 points, 14 rebounds
- Oklahoma City: 40 points, 15 rebounds
- Charlotte: 20 points 10 rebounds
- New York: 30 points, 16 rebounds
- Miami: 14 points, 18 rebounds
- Chicago: 20 points, 10 rebounds
Those numbers speak to me. I can see Howard looking at the East and seeing Miami with Chris Bosh, Chicago with Joakim Noah and Boston with the big man pupu platter of Glen Davis/Shaq/Jermaine O’Neal/Nenad Kristic and thinking ”I could decide the East this season." I could envision Dwight putting Orlando on his back, not only to get to his second title appearance in four seasons, but to impress and flex his skills for his 2012 suitors. If Howard goes back to being a passive, foul prone guy who misses free throws? No chance Orlando wins.
Miami comes in third for me, but they could very easily be first. Adding Mike Bibby is an interesting touch on their team, mainly because he can shoot the basketball in a limited role. I predicted 66 wins for this team going into the season. They won’t reach 66, but 58 isn’t far off. Wade has quietly had a great season (25 pts 7 assists 5 rebounds per game) while LeBron has overshadowed that with his own MVP-type season (26 pts 7 assists 7 rebounds per game). Along with their numbers, both Wade and James have been capable of sharing the basketball and knowing who’s getting the last shot late. Chris Bosh (18-8) has been effective as a third banana and his 12-foot jumper has been a staple in Miami comebacks all season.
Another little wrinkle I noticed about Miami is they are the best team in the NBA at chipping away at leads. When Miami plays Boston, you see Boston get a strong double-digit lead and every time Miami finds away to slash that lead. LeBron and Wade’s slashing ability and ability to get to the line will save Miami from a couple of games come playoff time. I have my doubts about LeBron being the late-game shooter, but late-game slasher? I’m cool with that. If the deficit is three points, and you need the three? I would much rather have Wade shoot the ball then James.
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I placed Chicago number two for one reason: Luol Deng. In the offseason, remember the Deng/Noah for Melo rumors? I honestly believe this ticked Deng off. Ticked him off to the point where he came into the season focused, to the point where he’s arguably their best perimeter defender. Another little nudge for Deng was the addition of Carlos Boozer. This meant Deng didn’t have to be Chicago's second best rebounding starter, which gave MVP-candidate Derrick Rose another runner with him on the fast break.
This is how much I trust Chicago and feel their title chances are real: I’m worrying about their third scorer on the team. I trust Rose, Boozer and Noah enough to feel like the title chances for the windy city are real. If the Bulls had one problem, it would be the Ronnie Brewer/Keith Bogans combo.
Rasual Butler is a decent player, I wouldn't call him an upgrade. However, he can defend and play both shooting guard and small forward, which should give Chicago another dimension on both sides of the ball. Chicago has enough defensive pieces to remain in any game they play, but can be knocked out if Wade or even Ray Allen explodes for a big game.
Regardless of Boston fans being IRATE over the Perkins for Green swap, I still think the Celtics are the best team in the East. The Perkins trade did hurt Boston a bit, but I like Jeff Green. My thought was exactly what Bill Simmons thought: Green has been playing undersized in Oklahoma City, so moving to his natural position, we don’t truly know his game. I believe he can have a Lamar Odom-like effect for Boston. Green can score, he’s a solid rebounder and he can pass well, not as well as Odom, but well enough to prevent turnovers. This gives Pierce some rest and allows Boston to move Kevin Garnett to the center position and potentially Glen “Big Baby” Davis to the starting position.
It doesn’t sound like the greatest frontcourt, but I know both Garnett and Davis will hustle and defend. Both should be solid and it all relies on the backups. Both Jermaine and Shaquille O’ Neal haven’t been healthy this season, but both will be the key to whether Boston makes the Finals or not.
Another factor is the buyout players Boston added. I really love the addition of Murphy, only because he's another big that can stretch the court. Carlos Arroyo is big for a couple reasons. For one, he gives Rondo some rest and allows Bradley to develop slowly, and he also gives them a look into Miami's playbook (remember, Doc Rivers ran all of Miami's plays in the All-Star Game practices and could use Arroyo as a teacher to some more of Miami's plays).