I’ve always loved previews, especially ones that require me to forecast months and months of the future with some research and instinct.
Please note: rankings are by projected finish in division, with projected finish in conference listed in parenthesis.
- (1) Boston Celtics: No one would blame Kevin Garnett for coasting this year, as his will helped Boston come back against Detroit and thump the Lakers in the Finals, but Boston’s going to be able to replace some of his production with youth. Leon Powe, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, and Kendrick Perkins were playoff revelations for a reason: they’re all good. Should that core of forwards and Tony Allen and Rajon Rondo congeal into a sort of super-sub unit that can take the pressure off of KG, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen during the regular season and give those older, tired legs some rest after a grueling season, this team will be loaded for bear by the time spring rolls around. If not, this will be another good-to-great regular season in Boston, but the playoffs will be much harder, and you can basically forget about a repeat.
- (5) Toronto Raptors: With the Sixers picking up Elton Brand, this team’s key addition will be overlooked. But that’s good, because Jermaine O’Neal, like the guy he’ll be paired with on the front line, Chris Bosh, is better when he’s not in the spotlight. The trade that sent T.J. Ford to Indiana for O’Neal also opened the starting spot for Jose Calderon, and after watching the Olympics, it’s clear that he’s got the skills to be a full-time point guard; in fact, moving the undersized Ford out of Calderon’s might have been just as good for the Raptors as acquiring O’Neal. Jamario Moon may return to Earth this year, and there’s not much depth here, but the starting five of Calderon, Anthony Parker, Moon, Bosh, and O’Neal/Andrea Bargnani will be one of the more formidable quintets in the East.
- (6) Philadelphia 76ers: Look, Elton Brand has been the playoffs, what, once? He’s a very good inside player with some traditional skills and defensive chops, but he’s not a savior. He’s not going to improve Philly by more than ten wins. And he’s not going to make up for the youth of Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young, the inconsistency of Marreese Speights, or the aging of Andre Miller. It’s fine to pick this team as a contender for the Eastern Conference’s berth in the Finals, but remember that it took Allen Iverson being transcendent for an entire playoff season to get them there once, and that basically no one on this team has dealt with the pressure of being on a team with heady expectations before. Then, and only then, set your sights.
- (12) New Jersey Nets: Devin Harris is good and underrated, Chris Douglas-Roberts will be the best second-rounder of this year, Keyon Dooling will be a good glue guard, and Yi Jianlian will be more useful than he was in Milwaukee. That said, Vince Carter is getting hurt and/or traded, the front line of Josh Boone, Yi, and Brook Lopez isn’t scaring anyone, and the idea of these Nets being anything more than a placeholder for the team’s eventual moving-to-Brooklyn-and-making-a-run-at-LeBron iteration bends my brains in ways it shouldn’t.
- (15) New York Knicks: Things will get worse before they get better. I’m a believer in Mike D’Antoni, certainly, and I know there are pieces in New York that will work, like the UF Reunion Tour of David Lee and Anthony Roberson, the feisty Nate Robinson, and the D’Antoni-approved Danilo Gallinari. But the cancers (Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry, and maybe Jamal Crawford) have to be cut out to save the body, Quentin Richardson was so good for D’Antoni in Phoenix that he was traded, and there’s just not much here that flows well with the uptempo attack that will get installed. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but this tunnel is much longer than we even know.
- (2) Cleveland Cavaliers: This will be LeBron’s MVP season. He’s going to be bolstered by his first scoring point guard, Mo Williams, helped through addition-by-subtraction when Zydrunas Ilgauskas, getting even older and slower, eventually gets shipped out of Cleveland, aided by Daniel Gibson finding his form again, and lifted by contributions from Darnell Jackson and J.J. Hickson. But though Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West, and Ben Wallace will be the best player on the floor at times for the Cavs, Bron-Bron’s going to be their best player in every game, something he’s avoided in years past. The early exit last summer and the success of his Olympic campaign left something bittersweet in King James’ mouth. He’s going to erase that feeling by force.
- (4) Detroit Pistons: The Pistons will slip. Someone in particular, Chauncey Billups or Rasheed Wallace, maybe even Rip Hamilton, will get hurt early in the season. There will be a crisis of confidence, a slump around New Year’s that will drop them behind much of the East. And then there’s going to be either one last winning streak and one last run, or Tayshaun Prince will be hearing his name bandied about as trade bait. I’d lean towards the former.
- (8) Chicago Bulls: The Bulls underperformed last year, torpedoed by a poor start and internal conflict. This is basically the same cast of characters as it was at the outset of last season, minus Ben Wallace and plus Larry Hughes and Derrick Rose; it’s nowhere near the talent the Bulls would need to compete for a title, and when Hughes is your oldest player, you’re going to have youthful exuberance turn into crunch-time jitters. But there’s enough scoring here from Ben Gordon, Rose, Hughes, and Luol Deng to keep the team in games, and this team will play gritty, athletic defense. Tyrus Thomas is going to play more minutes, too, and that’s going to help this team return to the playoffs.
- (11) Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks turned Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons into Richard Jefferson, added Joe Alexander in the draft, and signed Damon Jones. That means Michael Redd will continue to carry this team, but with some scoring help, and it’s up to Andrew Bogut to prove he can be the franchise center the Bucks wanted they took him with the #1 pick in 2005. The biggest question mark is point guard, where Luke Ridnour, Jones, Ramon Sessions, and Tyronn Lue will all try to fail at being an NBA floor general less spectacularly than the others.
- (13) Indiana Pacers: Swapping Jermaine O’Neal for some value was a good idea. But did that value really have to be T.J. Ford? The team’s best player is Danny Granger, who’s certainly not a terrible guy, but won’t take over many games and would be better as a complement to a better team. These Pacers are really young, with Jamaal Tinsley, 30, and Eddie Jones, 37, the only players over 28 likely to see any playing time. With clutter at the guard spots (Ford, Jarrett Jack, Tinsley, Jones, Marquis Daniels, Travis Diener, and Brandon Rush will compete for time), and a front line that will be dominated nightly (Roy Hibbert? Rasho Nesterovic) there’s nothing to stop them from being one of the worst teams in the league.
- (3) Orlando Magic: I gave up on this team as a sort-of fan last year. (Read about that here.) Dwight Howard’s a great, great player, but is he Hakeem Olajuwon or Patrick Ewing? Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis are essentially the same dead-eye shooters, and there’s got to be some friction if one gets off to a great start while the other languishes. Jameer Nelson needs to grow and/or get sharper with the ball to be more than a mediocre NBA point guard. Mickael Pietrus is the defensive specialist you bring in to take you to the next level? Really? Basically, I won’t be sold on the Magic, ever. Or at least until they make it to a Finals or something. But this is a really good team that will get solid backup play from Courtney Lee and might finally turn J.J. Redick into something of value this year, and Howard is going to have enough 25-20 nights against the weak front lines of the East to help them win this division again.
- (7) Miami Heat: It’s unfair that a team that loses a superstar, one of the five best players in the NBA, to injury, can add another superstar-in-training to a young team. But that’s what Dwyane Wade’s injury troubles meant, and Michael Beasley makes the Heat a strong contender for a lower seed. Wade, Beasley, and Shawn Marion will be a terror as a trio on the floor, and Mario Chalmers, Daequan Cook, and the underrated and overlooked Jason Richards will have impacts, too. Udonis Haslem is basically it up front, unless you talk yourself into Mark Blount, but, oh, what a backcourt. (If Shaun Livingston’s healthy enough to do anything, this team gets even scarier as a run-and-gun squad.)
- (9) Atlanta Hawks: I really like the core of this team, with Al Horford as a Karl Malone-type, Josh Smith as some freakish mix of Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, Joe Johnson as the go-to player, Mike Bibby as the steady hand, and Acie Law and Marvin Williams as the bench players who turn into spot scorers. But the Hawks lost Josh Childress to Greece and didn’t add anyone of substance, instead relying on their team’s natural upward arc for enough firepower to make the playoffs. With other teams improving more, I don’t see that happening.
- (10) Washington Wizards: This is the year the no-defense style the Wizards play with Gilbert Arenas and the good defense they play without him clash and turn a team with talent into a morass that doesn’t know what it wants to be. There are too many scoring options for this team not to score with anyone, but there’s going to be a problem when Agent Zero isn’t quite the starburst he’s been in the past, and the Wizards are going to realize that extension wasn’t the greatest idea. And for a team that seems to miss one player for two months or so every year, Antawn Jamison being 32 isn’t a good thing. They start hot and go ice-cold for a while, then can’t keep up with the new blood down the stretch and miss the playoffs.
- (14) Charlotte Bobcats: With D.J. Augustin, Raymond Felton, Adam Morrison, Emeka Okafor, and Sean May, I feel good about this team heading into the NCAA Tournament. Add Jason Richardson and Gerald Wallace to the mix and you still have a team that will struggle in the NBA.
- Boston Celtics
- Cleveland Cavaliers
- Orlando Magic
- Detroit Pistons
- Toronto Raptors
- Philadelphia 76ers
- Miami Heat
- Chicago Bulls
- Atlanta Hawks
- Washington Wizards
- Milwaukee Bucks
- New Jersey Nets
- Indiana Pacers
- Charlotte Bobcats
- New York Knicks