This season I predicted the records a little differently. I still used the same process of taking production from the previous 2 seasons and adjusting for things like age and circumstance. The difference is I gave myself more latitude to change records that just looked wrong. I did this because things can change during the season. Last year two trades, one silly the other sensible, changed the balance of power in the West. So while the Cavs may not be as strong as the Pistons and Celtics right now, logic dictates they’re going to use some expiring contracts to make a move to improve and I adjusted their projected record to reflect such. I also tried to factor in things like coaching situations, teams coming off surprising/disappointing seasons and just a general gut feeling I have about each team. So while Chicago finished quite well after the numbers were run, questions about their chemistry compelled me to drop their win total. Likewise Miami’s thin roster had them winning 36 games in this system, but the assumption that such glaring weaknesses would be addressed during the season made the decision to up their total wins easy.
15. New Jersey Nets 23-59: With the East looking strong and competitive this year, a team like the Nets that has just embarked on rebuilding is simply going to get steamrolled. The season will be spent evaluating the young players and hoping for a big score when some big free agents hit the market in 2010. Sometimes such a team can surprise people and make the playoffs with hustle and tight defense. I don’t see these Nets as such a team. In Vince Carter they have a star player who has been both good and healthy for a couple of seasons now. He seems almost certain to be dealt and that’s something I factored into the record.
14. New York Knicks 26-56: I’m tempted to give this team a little more respect and even give them 41 wins and a 8th seed. D’Antoni is a proven winner as a coach and that means a lot. The talent here is decent enough that such a scenario is realistic. Sometimes a team a year removed from the type of ugliness that was the Isiah Thomas era will play with more energy. The negative is the talent here may not be the best fit for D’Antoni’s style. The lazy inside defenders and inefficient mad bombers remain. D’Antoni’s Suns started out as a young team led by a veteran PG. This group is a team of veteran underachievers who already have their big contracts. There’s no Steve Nash to orchestrate things, only Stephon Marbury and Chris Duhon. I’m guessing rather than trying too hard to be competitive, the new brain trust will look to spend this season trying to purge the roster of as many undesirable players as they can and figure out roles for the players they have plans for. That means another long season in NY, but at least the guys running the show seem to know what they’re doing this time.
13. Washington Wizards 33-49: I could be reading this team wrong, but things just look bad even with Arenas returning a month or so into the season. There are just a lot of bad signs here. They overachieved last year and that usually means the reverse happens the following season. They’re going to be without their starting center for a long time, possibly all season. There’s no real PG on the roster. Over the summer they invested a bunch of money in Arenas who’s coming off an injury and Jamison who’s 32. That’s not the pair I want most of my cap space invested in. Getting Arenas back will help, but the fact that this team was nothing special when he was there and healthy in ’07 with basically the same group doesn’t inspire much confidence. There’s also the fact that the East is going to be better than it’s been in a long time in 2008-09 and the Wizards have done little to keep up. I just don’t see good things for this team in 2008-09. I will say this about the Wizards and all the teams I have listed between here and Miami at #5: they could finish in just about any order, things are that close.
12. Indiana Pacers 35-47: Lots of off-season movement. Sometimes this improves a team. Other times it allows a team to move on to move on from an era and rebuild. I like that they finally added some depth to the backcourt and now look like a more balanced team than the Pacers of recent years. They actually have the players to go with a small lineup now and that should help. What bothers me about the Pacers is there’s no real star here. They have some nice players in Ford, Granger and Dunleavy, but no there’s no one player who looks like an all-star. When that’s the case a team has to make up for it by playing strong defense, something these Pacers don’t seem capable of doing with O’Neal having departed. I think they’ll have their moments and will play some good ball. With some breaks they may even get on a nice run and make the playoffs. But this is basically a mediocre team that’s stuck in an ascendant conference. I can’t see them doing much better than last season, if at all.
11. Atlanta Hawks 37-45: Like the Pacers, the Hawks start the season as a more balanced team than they’ve been in years now that they have a real PG in Mike Bibby. A player like Bibby can be huge in a situation like this, because his presence turns players like Speedy Claxton and Acie Law into assets off the bench instead of inadequate starting PGs. The frontcourt has some good potential, but they haven’t really come together as a unit just yet. As a group they’ll take a small step back without Childress, but his departure was a reality of league economics. The time to address this situation was two years earlier with a trade or smarter drafting, but I digress. My main concern with the Hawks is coach Mike Woodson. It’s rare that a coach gets to keep his job after 4 consecutive losing seasons. It’s also rare for a team that has experienced such a slow rise to the playoffs to continue on an upward course. The talent is good enough here that if things start to click the team could finish with a win total in the high 40s. It seems to me that the most likely way for the season to play out here is the team struggles in the face of heightened expectations and Woodson takes the fall.
10. Charlotte Bobcats 38-44: The important guy in Charlotte is new coach Larry Brown. Brown has succeeded in improving the lot of teams everywhere he’s gone, with his last stop with the Knicks being the notable exception. He was terrible in NY, but that was a bad fit from the start. Brown works best with unselfish players who can be trained to hustle and play defense. Those Knicks were nothing like that. These Bobcats look like that sort of team. In Okafor and Wallace they have two stars who are capable and willing defenders. The rest of the roster is a young group who can be expected to hustle, scrap and play smart on both ends of the court the way Brown likes. This team has been close to busting out for a couple of seasons now. The talent here is decent enough, but they just never have been able to step it up. In Larry Brown they have a coach with a proven track record of improving such teams. I’d like to push them into the playoffs, but the conference is suddenly much better and they remain a very thin team on the inside.
9. Toronto Raptors 40-42: I was tempted to nudge their record up a bit. They finished around .500 in this system, because the team is so thin. There’s very little depth anywhere on the team and if 33 year-old Anthony Parker starts a serious decline or Jermaine O’Neal continues to miss significant time to injuries, there’s almost nothing in reserve to cover those positions. If everything does hold together, they’ll be better than this by 5-10 wins. The big move was bringing in O’Neal to fill a weakness at center. This could be huge, because it allows Bosh to play his natural PF position full time. O’Neal’s presence should also make Bargnani a more effective player, because he’ll be used on the perimeter more. This is a team with a strong core of Bosh, Calderon and O’Neal. They’ll need all 3 to be healthy and productive all season. For O’Neal that means getting back to where he was before he declined the past couple of seasons. They also need a weak supporting cast to come through. That’s a lot of “ifs” and while I have respect for the job Sam Mitchell has done with previous Raptor teams that just didn’t look right, my feeling is this group will come up a little short in a stronger conference.
8. Milwaukee Bucks 41-41: Scott Skiles also improves teams. As a coach he looks like a Larry Brown type who will come in, improve the team defense and focus while making a team competitive. The Bucks are a group that looks primed for improvement anyways. They added a solid pro in Richard Jefferson while giving up nothing. Losing Mo Williams could become a case of addition by subtraction, as now there should be more shots for some of the inside players. My feeling is Ridnour and Sessions should be able to cover his loss and even be an upgrade defensively. It’s also a good thing that they were able to get Yi Jianlian off the roster, as that situation simply wasn’t working. I might be giving Skiles too much credit here, but he has a good early history of getting teams competitive quickly. The key will be whether this group can play the tough defense that made his Chicago teams such a surprising success. My guess is there’s enough talent here to make it happen and squeeze this team into the playoffs.
7. Orlando Magic 43-39: This record may seem a little harsh, but the conference will be much improved and the Magic simply weren’t as good as their record suggested last season. They won 52 games last year, but my feeling is this was accomplished more by keeping everything together while some of the other East contenders were falling apart and none of the East’s young up-and-coming teams actually came up past .500. In short they benefited from playing in a weak conference. The Magic actually posted the 2nd best in-conference record of any team in basketball last year, 38-14, while posting a losing record against the West. With the East becoming a stronger conference, possibly the superior conference, any team that spent the off-season standing pat is almost certainly going to slide backwards. Add in the fact that this team probably overachieved last year and didn’t do anything to address their lack of depth inside and a sizable drop in record seems to be a likely scenario.
6. Chicago Bulls 45-37: The Bulls should be back in the playoff mix this year and might even match the 50+ win success many predicted for them last season. The reason I see this happening is the situation just seems ripe for improvement. They’re coming off an extremely disappointing season which featured an interim coach. The team is one of the youngest in the league. They welcome the top pick in the draft. All their key returning players are coming off seasons where their production declined, but are young enough that a return to form isn’t just possible, it’s expected. All these factors suggest improvement is extremely likely, possibly dramatic improvement. A wild card will be the new coach. Vinnie Del Negro has no experience coaching anywhere coming into this season. That can’t be good. If it turns out he’s in way over his head, the Bulls could be back in the lottery. More likely though the young talent comes back with some focus after last season and gets the team back on track.
5. Miami Heat 46-36: Wade and Marion are a formidable 1-2 punch, probably as good as any in the league. This in itself gives the Heat a huge edge on the rest of the East. It’s just easier to build a supporting cast around a pair of superstars than vice-versa. Right now the supporting cast isn’t all that impressive. They’re extremely weak at PG and center. Even though I have high hopes for Mario Chalmers, it’s rare for a 2nd-round rookie to make a huge impact. With a frontline of Marion, Beasley and Haslem the inside defense is going to be very weak. There’s opportunity here though and finding adequate solutions to supporting cast problems just isn’t a big deal. I expect the holes to be filled quickly by either the like of Chalmers or a trade. But the success or failure of this team comes down to Wade. Wade is a player on par with LeBron and Kobe when he’s at his best. He’s also frequently out or slowed by injury and any success Miami has this year will be directly related to Wade being in good health.
4. Philadelphia 76ers 50-32: Normally I’m not a big fan of giving big dollars to a free agent who will be turning 30 the first year of his new contract. It’s even worse if he’s coming off an injury. But Elton Brand and Philadelphia are such a great fit that this is one case where it seems like a worthwhile gamble. Adding a player like Brand should make the job of every Sixer easier. A player who’s an inside force always helps the perimeter players by attracting double teams. With Brand handling most of the inside scoring, center Samuel Dalembert can concentrate on defense which is what he does best. Young inside players Smith and Speights can develop at a slower pace behind Brand. Everything seems to be in place for the Sixers. They have a smart veteran PG, inside scoring and defense and some seriously talented young wing players. The 50 wins should be expected of this bunch. If they get some unexpected help, they could be much better.
3. Detroit Pistons 52-30: One thing I wonder about ex-coach Flip Saunders is whether he was a bad playoff coach, or an excellent regular season coach. Evidence suggests it’s the latter and that doesn’t bode well for rookie coach Michael Curry. The Pistons are solid enough to remain in the mix for at least one more season. The perimeter trio is as strong as ever. Inside regulars Wallace and McDyess are both 34 and can be expected to fade, perhaps dramatically. But the Pistons have stockpiled enough impressive young inside players that I think they’ll be OK. They won 59 games last year and I doubt they’ll match that. They’re an older team coming off a season where their record improved. That in itself strongly suggests a decline is imminent, possibly of 10+ games. I have enough respect for how steady this bunch has been during this run that I won’t drop them too far. As a first year coach Curry is a wild card and could nudge the team either way. No matter what happens, there no scenario I can see where Pistons are serious competition for the Celtics.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers 55-27: Mo Williams will be the best PG LeBron has ever played with. He’s also the only legit NBA starting PG the Cavs have ever put on the court during the LeBron era. This has to be a good thing. Williams isn’t exactly a Pippen or McHale when it comes to being a superstar sidekick, but he should be an improvement on Larry Hughes. The biggest concern here is the inside play. Ilgauskas is 33, which means a serious decline will likely start either this season or next. Ben Wallace has declined to the point that his only use is as a spot defender in the right match up. This team needs something big to happen this season. With rumors rampant that their franchise player is keeping the option of departing after 2010 open, they probably need to do something dramatic to keep him around. The supporting cast is OK, but not great and probably not sufficient to win an NBA championship. What they really need to do is dump the expiring contracts of Szczerbiak and Snow for another team’s unwanted star. The only player who immediately comes to mind is Vince Carter, though others should be there as the season unfolds. This is something that makes too much sense not to happen and for that reason I factored it into their record.
1. Boston Celtics 59-23: The same group is back and they’ll probably be somewhat improved, though that won’t be reflected in the record. The supporting cast should be better than last year. It’s a young group that has another year of experience and should continue to excel at doing the dirty work that makes life easier for the superstars. There are two ways to look at this bunch. Like the ’83 Sixers who brought in Moses Malone to team with an already elite core and blew the league away, won one championship and then faded while the Lakers and Celtics took over the rest of the decade. Then there are the ’96 Bulls who put together a superstar trio of players over thirty and dominated the league for 3 seasons like no team before or since. I’m not really sure why those Sixers faded after their terrific season. The core of that team should have been in their prime with Doc the oldest player at 32. The Bulls trio of Jordan, Pippen and Rodman were older at the start of the ’96 season, 32, 31 and 35 respectively, than Garnett, Pierce and Allen who checked in at 31, 29 and 32 before the 2007-08 season. I can’t see age getting in the way of a repeat. As for the intangibles, I really have very little idea about such things. The team seems to be intent on talking about how serious they are going into the season. What worries me was how beatable they looked during their run to the finals against some very weak playoff teams. I’m concerned that a step up in prominence by any of the other East stalwarts like Chicago, Miami, Detroit, Cleveland or Philadelphia could give the Celtics all sorts of grief come playoff time.
For my conference winner, I’m going to take the Cavs. Consider the circumstances: They have the expiring contracts available to make a big move and there will be teams looking to dump bad contracts at some point during the season. They have the best player in the league. LeBron is a player who has a history of stepping up his game in the playoffs. The Celtics are a defending champion who struggled in their run to glory against some pretty weak teams and are coached by a guy who doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, the great job he did last season notwithstanding. I feel if the conference finals come down to an improved Cavs team against these same Celtics, the Cavs will prevail.
15. Memphis Grizzlies 16-66: The Grizzlies look like the worst team in the league right now. They have some promising young PGs and some athletic, but inefficient wing players. There is nothing in the way of inside play and the coach looked like he was in a little over his head last year. Management has been of little help, dealing the core away and getting very little in return. They should be an entertaining group to watch at times. Gay and Mayo are both athletic players who will work well in a fast-paced offense. Between Conley, Lowry and Crittenden, they do have as much value at PG as any team in the league and should be able to deal 1 or 2 of those players for help elsewhere. But honestly, this is a mess that’s going to take some time and probably a different GM to sort out.
14. Sacramento Kings 22-60: The Kings are one of the few teams that appear to be passing on putting a competitive team on the court for the 2008-09 season. I’m sure they’ll compete and try hard, but this is a team with an eye to the future and such teams get buried in a league that’s as competitive as 2008-09 should be. The young players here aren’t wildly impressive either. Other than Kevin Martin, every recent draft pick has been shaky and I expect Jason Thompson to join that group. Trades of Artest and Bibby brought nothing in the way of immediate help. It’s even questionable how much help the likes of Williams and Greene can provide down the line. But that’s what their going to spend the season figuring out, which means very few wins.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves 29-53: I liked their off-season a lot. I’m not sure any team added as much overall talent. I’m not ready to move them out of the lottery yet. I like Love as a player and a prospect, but getting him on the court at the same time as Jefferson is obviously a problem and might be unworkable defensively. Miller, McCants and Brewer should form a solid wing rotation. Randy Foye and Sebastian Telfair are shaky at PG. I don’t think that will change much as neither has ever shown much in the way of promise. There’s talent, but some sorting out of it that needs to take place. I’d like them better with a different coach. Wittman has a .333 winning pct. in 4 seasons and hasn’t shown he’s the type who can make a working team out of the situation he has. I understand he wasn’t always I in the best of situations, but this doesn’t inspire much confidence that he can bust a team out of their doldrums.
12. LA Clippers 32-50: I’ll say this about the 2009 Clippers: If I’m playing for one season, I’ll make the trade of Brand and Maggette for Davis and Camby. The latter two play tougher positions and would seem to offer more to teammates both offensively and defensively. While both have had their injury woes in the past, they only missed 3 games between them last year. Davis won’t be 30 until April and seems like he has a few very good years left. Camby will be 35 in March, but is coming off his best rebounding season ever and remains one of the league’s best shot blockers. He could start to slide at any time because of his age, but he has shown no sign of slippage until this point. The problem for the Clippers will be filling in around these two. The group of Mobley, Gordon, Davis, Thornton, Thomas and Kaman are an intriguing mix of veterans and youth. All should benefit from the presence of Davis, but they’re all either fading, inexperienced or have a history of losing. I could see it working, possibly surprisingly well. I’d like them a lot better if there was a better wing player around and a coach with a history of success running things.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder 33-49: This is a tough group to figure. Last year I thought they might surprise and make a run at the playoffs. But last year the franchise had other things on their agenda and it seems as if they used 2007-08 to adjust star rookie Kevin Durant to a new position, shooting guard. I don’t question the long term wisdom of this position switch. Kevin Durant strikes me as a rare talent whose combination of natural ability, positive focus and work ethic makes him an almost certain superstar whether he’s at SG, SF or even PF. But adjusting to a new position did hurt his production and efficiency last year and this in turn prevented the 2008 Sonics from becoming anything other than a league doormat. With a lot of the same elements back from last year, I’m wondering if my prediction of this group breaking out was a year early. They still have the coach who knows how to improve team defense. They still have a reasonably productive combo at PF. The center position has been a problem, but there are some tall young bodies on the roster and it’s always possible that one will suddenly become somewhat useful. More than anything it’s time for this team to start making some noise. If Durant is the budding superstar I think he is, this team will win at least 30 games and probably more.
10. Denver Nuggets 35-47: There are too many negatives here to think this season will be anything but a downer in Denver. They lost Marcus Camby who was at the very least their most valuable supporting player. Other than Anthony and Iverson the team is a mixed bag of reserve-level players. It looks to me like they’ve decided to cash the season in, perhaps end the Iverson experiment and use cap space to rebuild around Anthony after the season. That means the record is going to dive by as much as 20 games.
9. Golden State 40-42: When a team loses their best player to free agency and an emerging star for 30 games to start the season, that’s never going to be a good thing. There are enough scorers left in Jackson, Maggette and Harrington that the offense should be OK. In Biedrins and the young PFs, they probably have enough bulk to do an adequate job covering the inside. The PGs are untested CJ Watson and Marcus Williams and that could be a problem. My feeling is that there’s enough talent here that Nelson should be able to keep things from falling completely apart until Ellis returns. Even with Ellis this isn’t much more than a 45-win team.
8. Phoenix Suns 41-41: This team looks like they’re on course for a quick, ugly fade into oblivion. This was a team built for Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense. Steve Nash went from being a good PG to an MVP in this offense. Raja Bell and Boris Diaw went from journeymen to rotation regulars. Amare Stoudemire became a superstar. Doesn’t it seem logical that all will decline in a more conventional offense? I suspect Stoudemire will continue to be a force, but he’s all the team has inside. Shaq is still reasonably productive, but counting on him for much more than 1500 minutes is wishful thinking. The roster is aging and is being asked to change styles. That just isn’t going to work. Stoudemire should be enough to keep them around .500, but with so many negatives here and so many changes for the worse, I can’t see this team being competitive.
7. San Antonio Spurs 46-36: They’re going to struggle without Ginobili to start the season. The supporting cast was old last year and is older this year. They’ll play the first 2 months of the year with 3 weak players in the starting lineup. That’s going to make it tough to compete. Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen are usable players when all they’re asked to do is hit some 3-pointers and don’t turn the ball over. They’re not capable of much more though and certainly won’t come near to replacing Ginobili’s production. As slowly as I expect this team to break out of the gates, I doubt they’ll recover enough to get to 50 wins. The team was in decline anyways and wasn’t going to return to prominence without some fresh blood in the supporting cast.
6. Portland Trailblazers 49-33: I believe this team is ready to step up, perhaps not quite to elite status, but enough that people are going to take notice. There’s just too much talent here for this bunch to not make some sort of move up in the standings. This team finished .500 in a strong conference last season. The core is young and should improve anyway. They’re adding two premier scorers and an elite center to their mix. Honestly, I don’t see how this bunch doesn’t win close to 50 games. There are some worries here. They need to find the right rotation, Oden needs to stay healthy and an upgrade from Steve Blake at PG wouldn’t hurt. Perhaps they can talk to Memphis about Mike Conley. In the final analysis the talent here is too good and deep to fail.
5. Dallas Mavericks 50-32: First thought is whether Carlisle is a fit here. He’s a tough coach, sort of a control freak. That doesn’t always play well on a veteran team like the Mavs. Jason Kidd has had some issues with coaches in the past and I’d say this is a situation to watch. I just wonder if a steady, veteran hand like Paul Silas or Flip Saunders would have been a better fit. The coach is important here, because that’s the only real change from last season. I guess the fact that Kidd will be around for training camp is important too. In assessing the talent, they still look good for 50 wins. Kidd is no longer a dominant defender, but remains an above average PG. The core of Nowitzki, Terry and Howard are solid enough to get to 50 wins. They’re a fading team though and are going to need some help to climb back into the elite group.
4. New Orleans Hornets 50-32: Teams that experience massive improvement, like the Hornets gain of 19 games last year, usually decline the following season. This is just a fact of sports and is the main reason I have this team fading back a little to 50 wins. I still expect them to become a force in the league for the next several seasons, as they have a true superstar in Chris Paul and a talented core surrounding him. The addition of Posey will help, especially come playoff time, but he’s not the type who’s going to add a bunch of wins. I also would like them a little more if they had been more impressive in the playoffs last year. Great teams generally overachieve at playoff time. It’s just one year and getting knocked out by the defending champs hardly makes them chokers on the level of say the McGrady-led Rockets. But I’d like them a little more if they had advanced at least as far as a 2-seed would be expected to.
3. Utah Jazz 53-29: This Jazz team is a lot like the Jazz of previous seasons. They’re led by an all-star PG-PF combo. The supporting cast is a solid, diverse group. They finish anywhere from 2nd to 6th in the West every year, depending more on the strength of the conference than anything. And they never close the deal with a championship, because there’s always a better team somewhere in the league. One thing I should note about the 2007-08 Jazz is after they acquired Kyle Korver they went on a 38-12 run to finish the season, which is a 62-win pace. I’m not sure what to make of that. While Korver did add the perimeter shooting the team lacked, it defies common sense to think that he improved the team by 20 games. More likely it was a case of a team that had been underachieving getting some focus and going on a run. That the run stopped in the playoffs against a Lakers team that was well short of legendary reinforces my feeling that this was just a hot streak and not the sign of a team with a championship in their near future. I don’t see these Jazz being much different from the Jazz of the past 20 years. They’re a solid 50+ win team that comes up short again in the playoffs.
2. Houston Rockets 54-28: Ok they’re definitely a championship contender. The move for Artest was slick. The team got tougher and deeper. An injury to McGrady will no longer devastate the team. There are still too many issues here to think they can get past Utah, LA and Boston to win it all. McGrady declined last year to the point where he wasn’t even near the superstar class any longer. He’ll need to get back to that level. Yao has had injury problems. There are two recent centers, Ilgauskas and Camby, who also struggled with injures before going on strong, healthy runs after age 28. This doesn’t mean Yao is over his injury woes, just that centers have overcome such problems before. Artest has also declined from his peak years, but like McGrady is young enough that getting something back isn’t out of the question. The main issue though is none of the main players here, including the coach, have ever done anything but disappoint in the playoffs. While I like the talent and the mix is intriguing, I just can’t imagine a scenario where this group keeps things together for a long championship run based on their history.
1. LA Lakers 57-25: I really believe this championship is the Lakers’ to lose, as long as Bynum returns in good health. They have a real superstar in Kobe. There’s a solid #2 in Gasol and a nice supporting player in Odom. Bynum is emerging as one of the top centers in the league and the rest of the supporting cast is strong. The West is declining while the Lakers remain strong. What killed them against the Celtics was poor rebounding and inside defense that should be fixed with the return of Bynum. Figure close to 60 wins. There isn’t a team out there who can challenge them. These Lakers beat the Jazz last year without Bynum. San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix are clearly fading. Portland isn’t ready yet and Houston is too flaky to believe in. I have them at 57 wins, but it could be much more.
I believe the Lakers will win the 2008-09 championship and I think this is about as obvious a pick as I’ve ever made. This is a team that made the finals last year. The return of Bynum corrects the weakness that possibly cost them the championship. They have a superstar who is a ferocious competitor who clearly wants another champion badly. They’re led by the NBA’s greatest coach ever who clearly wants a record 10th championship badly. I just can see how any team keeps up with them. LeBron v. Kobe will make for an entertaining championship. Look for the Lakers to take it in 6 games.