We are now into the nitty gritty of the post season…Round Two. Before we consider some pretty interesting battles , some of the fun is to look back at the teams that were left behind and we can look to see where their playoff losses leave them. This our annual First Round Fallout column. And there is quite a bit of fallout in a few places, particularly San Antonio and Orlando. Let’s take a look at the losers in the East…
1. Indiana Pacers: The Pacers played a pretty competitive series with the Bulls. They won a game against the one seed and were in most of the games. That’s about as much as most eight seeds can reasonably expect (with the notable exception of the Grizzlies of course). Indiana also has some nice young players (Paul George, Josh McRoberts, Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough, and Darren Collison) and significant cap room. Fans deserve to be a bit excited coming off a season like this. Now allow me to be the wet blanket here. I’m not super optimistic about the future here for a variety of reasons. None of the young players really project as more than useful starters. The only player who can be considered a star is Danny Granger, who is already 27 and the Pacers aren’t likely going to be able to persuade a mega free-agent to come to town to turn this nice roster into a formidable one. Rather, the hope is that some of the good young players can be packaged in a trade. It’s a tough situation. This is a nice franchise but they were still last in attendance in the NBA and actually lost fans from last year (hopefully, that the several year trend attendance decline finally reverses itself next season since the team played better in the second half after years of floundering). So I’m a little more bearish on the Pacers the most but, at the very least, they should have a solid but low rung playoff team next year and Frank Vogel sounds like he’ll be back too. Now Pacers fans have to hope that one more star falls into their laps by draft, trade, or supreme luck. Otherwise, they will be stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity.
2. Philadelphia 76ers: The first year of Doug Collins pretty much went exactly as expected in Philly. Plucky overachievers improved and fought their way into the playoffs. Philly also has ample young players too. Thaddeus Young, Jrue Holiday, and Louis Williams all continued to develop. Obviously, those young players are the core but the 76ers have to decide what to do with Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala, who both played well but are way overpaid. Brand and AI will make a combined $30 million next year, which is over 55% of next year’s payroll. With Young around, the 76ers can afford to trade one of these two vets. But any trade will have to be at a discount given the salarys the other team will have to absorb. Iguodala is younger and probably movable, so expect the Sixers to go that route. The other two issues to watch our (1) Evan Turner, who didn’t do as much as expected, and (2) the inevitable Doug Collins fatigue that sets in on most of his teams. Turner has had some moments the last few months to indicate he has some ability but the overall package, stat-wise, leaves a lot to be desired. Small forwards who rebound well but don’t shoot or score don’t project well. It’s too early to write off Turner but certainly there are some red flags here. Certainly, you want more than George Lynch from a second overall pick. As for Collins, his high strung style has worn out quickly in most of his previous tenures. Collins is older now so we can’t assume it’ll happen again but past history tends to repeat itself (almost every Don Nelson or Larry Brown ends the same way). For next year, though, this team will probably be the same .500ish hard playing team we saw this year, unless Rod Thorn can pull off a big move.
3. New York Knicks: Despite all the hand wringing about New York, the playoffs ended up pretty much exactly how we should’ve expected. Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire did great (when healthy) and the team was killed by having to rely to heavily on fringers like Toney Douglas, Jared Jeffries, and Bill Walker. But there is no point worrying about depth issues. This was the price of Melo. Punting any shot of doing anything in the 2010-11 season seemed to be understood by management. When the team was healthy, the Knicks still did a credible job against the Celts too but losing Chauncey Billups ended that thought. Billups will also be back since he is still pretty good and the cost of buying him out ($4 million) plus the cost of signing a decent point guard to replace him is still pretty close to his 2011-12 salary anyway. Similarly, it rightfully appears that Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni will be back. Walsh has his work cut out to fill the gaps between Melo and Amare, since they need a starting two guard and more size up front very badly. In all, though, the future is pointing up. With a competent off-season, the Knicks should be somewhere between decent and pretty good.
4. Orlando Magic: This is the true bitter loss of the first round. It’s not that Orlando had an argument that they were better than Atlanta. No, they played tough but lost to a better team and the loss confirmed that Orlando was merely a good team that has been seriously slipping as a team for a few years in a row. Despite another great season by Dwight Howard, the offense regressed so much that they weren’t an elite team anymore. The frustrating part for the Magic was that they recognized the offensive drain and tried to replace Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis to inject some offense but the replacements were worse. Jason Richardson put up a 13.2 PER, Hedo Turkoglu a 13.5 PER, and Gilbert Arenas an awful 8.6 PER. Of course, there is no indication that team was any better with VC (who crapped out in Phoenix) or Lewis (who was slightly better when healthy with the Wiz). The problem was that the moves were never designed to address the major offensive problems but, instead, were minor tweaks. Sure, the Magic hoped Arenas would rediscover his pre-knee injury form but there was little evidence that was going to happen. Now, the lost opportunity means Howard may be out the door soon, which brings back painful memories of Shaq and later T-Mac skipping town. Losing Howard might be inevitable but the Magic failed to maximize his time with the franchise. In theory, they can take one more shot in 2011-12 but this feels like the end. The risk of losing Howard for nothing is too large for Orlando to hold onto him and see what happens in the next off-season (unless the new CBA changes the rules and limits Howard to a restricted free agent). A true gut punch of a season for the Magic.