Belated NBA Predictions 2008/09 Part One: Eastern Conference
With all that went right for the NBA during the '07-'08 campaign, the playoffs came and went without much thrill or excitement. Sure, the Celtics were taken to the brink of elimination in consecutive rounds by Atlanta and Cleveland, but that was basically it.
The Hornets-Spurs series went seven but ended in standard fashion, with San Antonio coming out on top. Boring.
The league is looking to ride the wave of optimism that was created last year on the shoulders of a huge crop of young superstars, the ultra-competitive Western Conference, as well as the respective resurrections of the Celtics and Lakers.
The '08-'09 season will be one to remember, so here is how it all should shake out.
1. Boston Celtics
Outside of a scenario in which both Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett miss significant time due to injury, there's absolutely no way I see the Celtics finishing anywhere other than first place in this division, as well as first in the Eastern Conference. Their only significant loss was F James Posey (signed by NO), but the team already has players that can step in and fill that void. Tony Allen should play a bigger role this season, and Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins should continue to develop into respectable players after making huge leaps last season. They drafted two athletic swing players in JR Giddens and Bill Walker, and, although they may not see much floor time early on, should have what it takes to play in the league for a long time. They should win 60+ games again this year, and I can see them going to the Eastern Conference Finals, at minimum.
2. Toronto Raptors
The acquisition of Jermaine O'Neal could be huge for the Raptors, barring injury. He gives them a perfect complement to Chris Bosh in the low post on the offensive end as well as another great shot-blocker and rebounder. However, they lack a real offensive playmaker/scorer at the two or three positions, starting Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon. Jose Calderon is now the unrivaled starting point guard, and he should be able to continue his high-level play with the added minutes this season. Jason Kapono gives them a nice deep threat off the bench, but really doesn't provide much else. If O'Neal remains healthy for the majority of the season, I feel like they're good enough to advance through at least the second round of the playoffs.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
With Elton Brand on board, I feel like the Sixers are right on the border between being good and being really good. Thaddeus Young is a huge talent that should only improve this season going into his second year. Brand gives them the punch down low that they've been lacking for years, and that should be a huge relief to Andre Iguodala. They still sorely lack a real outside shooting threat, and do not have much depth coming off the bench. Lou Williams emerged last year as a great scorer and will continue to improve as well. I think they have what it takes to get to the second round as well, but not much further unless they address their outside scoring.
4. New York Knicks
Just last night the Knicks looked like a completely different team, scoring 120 points and knocking off the Heat in the season opener. As far as for the entire season, this team is a total wild card. They have enough talent to be at the top of the conference, but it's really just a matter of the personalities and players gelling into a cohesive unit that can share the ball enough and do enough of the small things to win. Jamal Crawford should thrive in the running D'Antoni system, and Zach Randolph is the perfect big man for it as well, given his ability to knock down the outside shot. Eddy Curry not being in the rotation should be to nobody's surprise. He's fat and unathletic, how is he supposed to run up and down the floor with the tempo that D'Antoni requires? I'll hold off on putting them into the playoffs this season, but they won't be nearly as bad as the Isiah teams were.
5. New Jersey Nets
This team seems to be in total rebuilding mode. How is Lawrence Frank still the coach there? They've had a core of mediocre talent for a few years now, and are just now starting to get some solid players in there. They completely mugged the Mavericks in the trade that landed them Devin Harris, got a steal in drafting Brook Lopez from Stanford, a player that was supposed to be drafted higher. They got Richard Jefferson out of there, a positive move considering there was no room for both he and Vince Carter. Only problem with keeping Carter is, if the Nets are as bad as it looks like they will be, expect him to quit on the team, start mailing in games, and perhaps even spend the second half of the season on Fake Injured Reserve.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
I think this will be the year that the Cavs finally overtake Detroit for the division crown. Mo Williams is a great pickup for LeBron, giving him a player to complement him that can actually score almost as well as he can. He's not a real point guard, but the Cavs don't really need him to be, given LeBron's talents. Z will still be good for 12-15 a night, and they've amassed a nice group around James with guys like "Batman" Gibson and Williams. I think they'll be good for #2 in the East with a trip to at least the conference finals.
2. Detroit Pistons
The core of players remains, despite Joe Dumars threats to break up the team. They do have a new coach, however, in Michael Curry. Whether or not this ends up being a good hire remains to be seen, but I'm leaning towards negative. The core of Billups-Hamilton-Prince-Sheed is old and tired, and they probably should have done some things to shake it up. Amir Johnson and Rodney Stuckey do give the Pistons hope for the future, though, and each of them should see more minutes this season. Detroit is still a very good team, but I don't think they'll be making their eighth consecutive trip to the conference finals. They did add Kwame Brown though!
3. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers have two great wing scorers in Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy, but they don't really have a whole lot of help. TJ Ford is an upgrade over Jamaal Tinsley, but he has yet to prove that he can stay healthy enough to make a positive impact. They did well in the draft, getting C Roy Hibbert and G Brandon Rush to fill some spots. Rush could make a bit of an impact this year, whereas Hibbert may be more of a threat down the road. Key reserves include guards Jarrett Jack and Marquis Daniels...Jim O'Brien should love having Jack/Daniels handy at all times.
4. Chicago Bulls
Last year I thought this team would challenge to get to the Finals. Then every Bulls player decided to have a terrible individual year and try for the #1 pick. It worked! They weren't even close to being the worst team, but they managed to get Derrick Rose out of it, and things are starting to look up again. If Joakim Noah can stop being an idiot, Tyrus Thomas can continue to improve his offensive game, and Luol Deng and Ben Gordon can get back on track after last year, the Bulls could be a surprise this season. Terrible coaching hire, though.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
Not a whole lot to like about this team. Unlikeable coach. Not too many players that jump out at you. Andrew Bogut is a respectable player, but not good enough to warrant having been selected first overall. Michael Redd is a great scorer and defender, but can't do everything himself. Charlie Villanueva has shown signs so far but hasn't turned the corner completely yet. The PG situation is a mess. Any time Luke Ridnour is starting, you know you're in bad shape. The guy wasn't even good enough to be on the Sonics last year. How is he an option to start for you? Ramon Sessions did have 24 assists in a game last year, give him a try. Not a whole lot to play for this year. Richard Jefferson will probably demand a trade at some point. Joe Alexander could be a bright spot, but he's a white swing man, not too much to be excited about there.
1. Orlando Magic
Despite getting beaten handily on the home floor by Atlanta last night, Orlando is still the best team in this bad division, and they should be able to easily win it. Dwight Howard appears to be every bit the freak he turned into last season, going for 22-15-5 blocks all over Al Horford last night. A couple quite large issues with them, however, is the lack of a real point guard or a power forward. They have Rashard Lewis starting at the four. He is a 6-10 shooting guard. He appears to have none of the necessary skills to play NBA power forward, yet there he is, because they have no better options. Hedo Turkoglu was a huge surprise last year, and there isn't much reason to believe he won't be there again. Additions of Mickael Pietrus and Courtney Lee are worth noting, but once again, the second round may be where the Magic finish.
2. Atlanta Hawks
Returning most of the players from the team last year that somehow took the eventual champion Celtics to the brink in the first round of the playoffs. Childress is gone, but he wasn't much more than a sixth man anyway. It will be interesting to see if Josh Smith can develop more of an offensive game. He can jump out of the roof and will rebound and block shots, but he needs to become more of a dependable scoring option. Joe Johnson continues to be one of the most underrated players in the league, as he can fill it up with the best of them. Al Horford was runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting last season, and should continue to grow as well. A full year of having Mike Bibby at the point should be helpful, as point guard has been an area the Hawks have sorely lacked since Mookie. They should be able to make the playoffs again.
3. Miami Heat
This is one of the most interesting teams in the league to me. They have a big three that nobody has really said much about in Wade-Beasley-Marion, but they are pretty much as dangerous as anyone. With those players, the Heat should be able to run all over teams and score in bunches. Huge question marks at point guard and center, however. Mario Chalmers played very well in his debut last night in New York, but remains to be seen if he will be capable of running the team all year long. There is a chance that Marion ends up being traded as well. No matter what they trade him for, if they do trade him, I think Miami should be good enough to at least challenge for one of the final playoff spots. Wade is back and looks as good as he did two years ago when he was a top-five player in the league. They could surprise people as well.
4. Washington Wizards
This is one of the more stagnant teams in the league. They never really seem to get better, just kind of cycle through players that don't make much more of a difference than the players before them. Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison were very good last year, but without Gilbert Arenas for a while, this team may struggle to stay afloat. They are in a relatively weak division, but considering they're a major part of why the division is so weak, I see no reason for them to be able to hang with any of the powers in the conference. Nick Young, Dominic McGuire, and Andray Blatche are intriguing young players who should continue to improve, but I don't think they'll have enough to make the playoffs unless Gilbert comes back at 100% right away, which does not seem likely.
5. Charlotte Bobcats
The Bobcats are amassing an impressive roster full of college all-stars. Emeka Okafor. Adam Morrison. Sean May. Raymond Felton. DJ Augustin. Only problem is, the only player that has done anything at all is Okafor. I believe in Augustin, I think he is the answer for them over Felton, but this team obviously can't really contend this year. Their athletic wingers Jason Richardson and Gerald Wallace do make them a fun team to watch, however. Adam Morrison did cut his hair, so maybe his career can be resurrected now that he no longer appears to be homeless. Problem with that is, I don't see how he can get much playing time behind Richardson and Wallace. Maybe this team will be better than the Wizards, but that's pretty much all they can hope for this year. Larry Brown needs to prove that he can still control and coach a team well after the debacle that was his brief stint with the Knicks. He's not off to a good start though, already having to publicly call out bust-to-this-point and team chef Sean May for being too fat and out of shape to move up and down the court. Bad news. Maybe MJ will suit up for them.
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