NBA Preview 2008-09: Eastern Conference

This felt like one of the quicker off seasons we’ve had and now all of sudden a new NBA season is upon us.  What has changed in these four months since the Celtics beat the Lakers?  Not too much really.  There haven’t been too many changes in roster, Elton Brand being the notable exception.  The real change is in time.  How have four months changed the teams?  Are the Celtics too old to be prohibitive favorites?  Are the Pistons crumbling?  Is LeBron at his peak?  Really, the East boils down to Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Orlando.  Boston and Detroit are the favorites and the other three have an outside hope of surprising.  Most everyone else, is on fringes of a first round exit and the lottery.  Let’s take a look at how the divisions should shake out… 

Atlantic Division

1.  Boston Celtics:  Last year it was clear that the Celtics would be improved but few anticipated that a Doc Rivers team could create the defensive unit that they became.  I had read this team as a 50-55 win team that was good but clearly inferior to the Pistons.  Instead, they had the best defensive team (and the best team period) in the NBA.  Now, the core is still intact but older: Paul Pierce is 31, Kevin Garnett is 32, and Ray Allen is now 33.  Going forward, KG should still be quite good, players of his ilk (tall and athletic) usually age exceedingly well.  Ray Allen, on the other hand, you worry about.  The other big worry is whether the team that is not young can keep up the defensive intensity it flashed in 2007-08.  Defensive is effort and perhaps a team that has met its ultimate goal may not have quite the same effort, particularly with so many players who are older. 

Indeed, it’s hard to take for granted how hard it is to put up 60+ wins.  Of all the teams in NBA history to win 64 games or more (Boston won 66), none equaled or exceeded that win total the next year.  Take a look at the teams and how they followed up: 

-1966-67 76ers 68-13 (followed with 62-20, -6)

-1970-71 Bucks 66-16 (followed with 63-19, -3)

-1971-72 Lakers 69-13 (followed with 60-22, -9)

-1972-73 Celtics 68-14 (followed with 56-26, -12)

-1982-83 76ers 65-17 (followed with 52-30, -13)

-1985-86 Celtics 67-15 (followed with 59-23, -8)

-1986-87 Lakers 65-17 (followed with 62-20, -3)

-1991-92 Bulls 67-15 (followed with 57-25, -10)

-1995-96 Bulls 72-10 (followed with 69-13, -3)

-1996-97 Bulls 69-23 (followed with 62-20, -7) 

-1999-00 Lakers 67-15 (followed with 56-26, -12)

-2006-07 Mavericks 67-15 (followed with 51-31, -16) 

In fact, when you reduce the group to teams who won 60 games or more in NBA history, only 9 teams equaled or bested their record the following season: the Larry Bird Celtics did it from 1979-80 through 1984-85, the Magic Lakers improved on 62 wins after the 1985-86 season (they also have the only “push” when the 1984-85 and 1985-86 teams both won 62 games), the MJ Bulls improved in 1991-92, and the Mavs improved on their 60-win season of 2005-06.  So, unless you are a young dynasty with Larry Bird, it is highly unlikely that your team will improve on a 60-win team.  

This general background combined with the age accumulated by their stars, makes us think that the Celts will regress in 2008-09.  But how much?  On the bright side, very few 60-win teams every really fell apart the next season.  Virtually everyone stayed in the 50-win area with notable exceptions: the 1973-74 Lakers dropped to 47 wins without Wilt Chamberlain (her retired to play/coach in the ABA) and an aging Jerry West, the 1998-99 Bulls, who lost Pippen and Jordan and totally fell apart, the 1998-99 Sonics, who replaced their good Vin Baker with a fatter and drunker version, and the 2004-05 Pacers, who were eviscerated by suspensions after the famous brawl.  

The 2008-09 Celts do not fall into any of these categories.  KG is older but still close to his prime and only Allen is really at elevated risk of losing it, and he’s the least important member of the star core.  I see the Celts as a team in the mid-50s in wins this season.  They are still a titlist and dangerous but not clearly better than Detroit and Boston is more vulnerable in the playoffs to a LeBron James run.  

2.    Philadelphia 76ers:  Last year, against all odds, the Sixers put together a playoff team in what should’ve been a rebuilding year.  On top of all that, they managed to use cap space for a free agent in Elton Brand, who should fit in quite nicely.  The Sixers were a slowdown team (20th in pace), with below average offense (18th) and nice defense (8th).  One would think that Brand, a deadly half court scorer, would fit in like a glove and he will, assuming he is healthy.  They also have some good young players who should improve (Thaddeus Young and Louis Williams).  But this does not mean that Philly has become a great team instantly.  First, Brand has to be healthy and same player as he was pre-injury.  I think that’s possible, though he might not quite match his peak 2005-06 season.  

The more dicey question is whether Andre Miller will be quite as good as he was last season.  Miller was an All-Star performer but he’s now 32 and the improvement last year was almost exclusively in his shooting (he shot .492% versus, best in his career, where his average is .458% and his previous best was .477%).  In short, Miller improved by scoring more efficiently and that is not likely to hold up.  Brand may defray some of this but we can expect less from Miller.  The other point with Miller is that it may make sense to trade him since he is going to be a free agent and will be looking for a contract for ages 33-36.  While it would cost a few wins in 2008-09, getting a real shooting guard for Miller and letting Williams run the point is the better long term plan. 

The other issue here is what is to be done with Young.  He showed nice scoring skills for a 19-year old and has some upside as a scorer.  Some are very high on Young and I think he’ll be good but he does not quite project into a bona fide power forward (his rebounding numbers are not impressive and he blocks no shots).  What we have here is a nice scoring small forward, who could double as a power depending upon match ups.  In 2008-09, Young can be a useful scorer off the bench but if the team is really committed to Andre Iguodala and Brand (which they are via huge contracts) looking to trade Young when his value is highest should definitely be on the agenda.  

In all, the Sixers are an improving young team but they have some big decisions to make. They could play it safe and just keep Miller and let the young players develop but hopefully the organization will be more forward thinking.  Assuming they play if safe, the Sixers are looking at 4 through 8 seed in the East and an outside shot of a second round playoff series and the best team they’ve had since Larry Brown was the coach. 

3.    Toronto Raptors:    The Raptors are in the same boat as the Sixers.  This is a good young team with a good core but some questions as to whether they can make the jump to the 50-win plateau.  Last season, the Raptors struggled to 41-41 but had the point differential of a 49-win team, which is more consistent with their 2006-07 division winning performance.  But it’s not quite so simple.  The Raptors are a funny team.  They shoot well but they draw the fewest free throws in the NBA (besides Chris Bosh’s 8.3 free throw attempts per/36 minutes, no other player was above 2.5 per/36 minutes, a truly awful number).  They get very few boards but the team did well on the defensive glass (but was putrid on the offensive boards).  Overall, this is a highly efficient jump shooting team that defends competently.  With some improvement in free throws, the Raptors could be tough.    

On the plus side, I don’t see much fall off likely in the Raptors best players.  Bosh is entering his prime and looks like the best power forward in the East.  The other star here is Jose Calderon, who should look better with more minutes (though he probably won’t have the same awesomely low turnover rate).  The hope is that Jermaine O’Neal can make the team better defensively and get more free throws.  I’m not quite so sure that O’Neal is that player anymore.  His scoring, rebounding, and free throw shooting numbers have all gone straight downhill the last four years.  On top of that, he has missed plenty of time with injuries (and a suspension in 2004-05).  In all, O’Neal has averaged only 52 games per season since 2004-05.  So, I don’t think it’s fair to think that he’ll turn back the clock for the Raptors and make them contenders.  Assuming he can stay healthy, O’Neal should still be an improvement over Rasho Nesterovic and put Toronto near or around the 50-win mark. 

4.    New Jersey Nets:     There is really very little to say here.  The Nets correctly surmised that the run was over and got maximum return for Jason Kidd.  Trading Richard Jefferson’s contract for Yi Jianlian isn’t exactly a steal but is consistent with the rebuilding goal.  Now the hope is that Brook Lopez, Devin Harris and the other young players develop.  As for Vince Carter, a trade makes sense but he should not be dumped solely for cap room.  Even though 2008-09 means nothing to management long term, you have to survive the present to get to the future.  Any time a GM totally punts a season to get cap room and draft picks, they run into problems with job security.  Now, the Nets may lose 60 games but Carter will keep them from being one of those teams where the fans lose so much faith that long term plans go out the window.  Indeed, the famous example is the 1997-98 Nuggets, who made no pretense of trying and had a ton of cap room, but they went 11-71 and that was just too bad for ownership to let management survive and GM Allen Bristow and coach Bill Hanzlik were fired. Ditto for John Lucas, who gave up on the 2002-03 season to get LeBron James in the draft but was canned anyway for going 17-65.  The Nets have enough talent to avoid being that bad and may even be in the race for the eight seed if the East is bad enough and the players develop rapidly.  But the best case here is 35 wins and you’re probably looking closely to 25 wins. 

5.    New York Knicks:    Yes, the Knicks are still pretty gross but they now do seem to have a plan.  In pre-season they’ve looked like a decent team and a potentially fun team to watch.  The personnel does not fit Mike D’Antoni’s desires in any way (he already does not like Jamal Crawford or Eddy Curry too much). This year, all you can watch for is D’Antoni to get his system installed and watch for ways to dump the expensive extraneous parts of the Isiah Thomas Era.   Here’s a look at the millstones from the Isiah Era and their contract situations: 

-Stephon Marbury (one year $22 million left):  He was the most toxic player the last few years but the Knicks have done a good job so far of trying to get some value at of him.  His expiring contract could definitely be used for cap room or part of a package deal with a bad contract (of which the Knicks have many) to get aggregate cap relief.

-Zach Randolph (three years and $48 million left):  I know he can still score 20 ppg and 10 rpg but if the Knicks really could’ve traded him for a second rounder to the Clippers then Donnie Walsh missed the boat.  Randolph is a very poor defender (16 blocks last year!) and I would think cap relief is much better than having him around.  Apparently, the Knicks want to get actual talent for him but with $50 million left on the contract, that’s a bit naive to think.

-Eddy Curry (three years $31.5 million):  Yuck.  Between the lack of insurance and Curry’s being overpaid, he’s not moveable unless you take something bad back.  Curry would be helpful to a good team in the right spot but it’s hard to see that happen at this point, perhaps in a year or two when his contract obligation shrinks a bit.
-Quentin Richardson (two years and $18 million):  Again, no insurance on his bad back and he had the worst season of his career (which was almost identical to his miserable 2005-06 season).  If Q-Rich were potentially healthy and insured, he could be traded but now he is just a salary slot to be exchanged for other ugly contracts.

-Jerome James (two years and $12.8 million):  Just cut him already! 

Walsh will look to move some of these guys if possible.  The only way to do so and get into a better cap situation is by packaging them with potential assets.  Marbury, Malik Rose (one year and $7.5 million) are quite movable because of their contracts.  Jamal Crawford (two years and $18 million) and David Lee are talented enough to be traded and really aren’t long term solutions.  So, I would look to package them with one of the gross contracts.  In the meantime, just hope the Knicks are more watchable than they were, which seems a pretty easy bar to reach in the short term, even if the team still isn’t actually very good. 

Central Division

1.    Detroit Pistons:    The mission in Detroit is clear.  Continue trying for another title.  At the end of last year, Joe Dumars seemed particularly frustrated with losing three straight Conference Final series.  The fact is that the Pistons were a very good but just not as good as the Celtics were.  The team is also aging (Chauncey Billups is 32, Rasheed Wallace is 34, and Antonio McDyess is 34) but no one irreplaceable is in danger of totally losing his ability.  While Dumars was amenable to making a deal he wisely backed off, recognizing that the core is still competitive.  That’s not to say that a trade wasn’t a bad idea or that a trade is not coming in the future but there was no reason to break up the core because of frustration to losing to a better team two times in the last three playoffs (the one loss was to LeBron James when he went crazy and was totally unstoppable).  

The Pistons are still what they were, a very good but slow paced team (6th in offense, 4th in defense, and 30th in pace).  This should continue under Michael Curry, who we can only assume, based upon his playing style, will be defensively oriented.  Curry’s real challenge will be to keep the offense efficient, something Flip Saunders did not get enough credit for doing (the Pistons were below average in offensive efficiency under Larry Brown but have been a top six team each year under Saunders).  The other interesting thing to see is how the young guys (Rodney Stuckey, Amir Johnson, and Jason Maxiell) progress to potentially replace Rip Hamilton, Rasheed and McDyess.  If a major trade doesn’t happen, the Pistons will win 50-something games and probably make it to at least the Conference Finals.  

Finally, keep your eyes on teams that that suddenly and disappointingly fall apart (like Denver), Dumars may swoop in and, in most unsentimental fashion (see the Jerry Stackhouse trade and the firings of Rick Carlisle, Larry Brown, and Flip Saunders),  jettison an established fixture to pick up another star player.  Long term, the Pistons are also in good shape (they have very few long term deals and few contract obligations after 2010).  So, it should continue to be fun to be a Piston fan for a while. 

2.    Cleveland Cavaliers:    Three things here: (1) LeBron James is the best player in the NBA, (2) LeBron might be leaving soon, (3) It’s not clear how good the team is around LeBron right now.  As for point one, it’s hard to describe how good James is at this point.  Suffice it to say the Cavs are a threat to win any playoff series where he plays at his very best.  Point two doesn’t really matter in practical terms but it is clear that the city of Cleveland will be preoccupied with this issue and GM Danny Ferry has attempted to acquire win-now players to make James happy.  This segues quite nicely to point three because despite the win-now moves, the Cavs are not that good.  Some of the bad contracts will expire by the time LeBron’s contract does in the summer of 2010 but, for now, James will be going to war with a good center (Zydrunas Ilgauskas), a decent point guard (Maurice Williams), and some okay bench players.  The Williams addition is the only notable off-season move and it is a definite upgrade, though Williams (as a shoot first guard), is not an ideal fit with LeBron.  The combination is sufficient to win 45-50 games but there is no real title contention here.  

3.    Chicago Bulls:    Very rarely do you see a young team that is steadily improving totally fall apart like the Bulls did last year.  The scary thing is that the implosion was not really injury related (except Luol Deng).  Instead, this was just a general team meltdown.  They are still young and have cap room and now they have a shiny new point guard in Derrick Rose, who should eventually be very good.  In 2008-09, however, this is a team in transition.  We know Rose and Deng are foundation pieces but it’s less clear that Kirk Hinrich, who fell off big time in 2007-08, and Ben Gordon (pending free agent) will be around.  The front court is also jumbled with potentially useful big men (Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah, Drew Gooden).  Throw in a rookie coach in Vinny Del Negro and the Bulls are a team that could be pretty good playoff team or visiting the lottery again.  Since I’m a big believer in Rose, I think the Bulls should be around .500 and a playoff spot.  

But the larger story is that the Bulls have missed opportunities to acquire the star scorer/big man that their talent base could yield.  Both Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett were available last summer and John Paxson failed to pounce.  Going forward, his goal has to be to add that available star to the core.  Unfortunately, Hinrich and Deng don’t quite have the value he had and Gordon really can’t be traded as a pending free agent.  This can be turned into a good team but the ball is in Paxson’s court. 

4.    Indiana Pacers:     This is a team in transition.  They’ve cleared out the core of the Pacers old core and now are looking for an identity for the next decade.  Right now, the Pacers are fast-paced three-point chucking team, though they aren’t particularly efficient offensively or defensively.  A bigger problem here is that the Pacers’ popularity is down quite a bit too.  The Pacers were last in the NBA in attendance (501,092 fans) and down over 250,000 fans from the peak of 1999-00.  Indiana will come to see a good team but the Pacers are neither good nor interesting at this point.  While the team is good enough to contend for a lower echelon playoff spots, there aren’t too many keepers here.  Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy have been useful to Jim O’Brien’s offense but are stopgaps for a team at this point.  Some think that T.J. Ford (brought over for Jermaine O’Neal) will make this team formidable. I don’t see it.  Ford is too injury prone and is precisely the type of point guard that O’Brien doesn’t typically love because Ford can’t shoot the three (nor will he improve the team’s defense).  It’s possible that O’Brien will urge Ford to shoot more a la Anthony Carter in Denver but ultimately this is just another also run in the East hoping to build something in future and get out of the malaise that has engulfed the team since the brawl in Detroit in 2004. 

5.    Milwaukee Bucks:    The worst defense in the NBA.  That is what the Bucks were remembered for last year.  They have hired the right coach in Scott Skiles to try to reverse the trend.  While Skiles presence should get the Bucks out of the cellar, this still won’t be a good defensive team because the personnel doesn’t lend itself to Skiles’ slowdown bruising teams.  A backcourt of Luke Ridnour and Michael Redd can’t really defend.  Nor will Charlie Villanueva.  The hope is that Richard Jefferson, a member of some good Nets defensive teams, can change the tenor on the court.  RJ will definitely be an improvement over Desmond Mason and Bobby Simmons offensively without really losing anything defensively.  Still, the team has no point guard or power forward and little in the way players who can defend (I’m not a huge fan of their draft pick Joe Alexander).  Improvement will be measured in very small increments this year. 

Southeast Division

1.    Orlando Magic:    This is a good team but with some significant question marks.  You can lock in Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis for great and good seasons respectively.  The hope here is that Hedo Turkoglu will also have another good season.  I don’t see that as a problem.  Turkoglu has usually been a good player when he gets the requisite minutes (his 2005-06 season is very similar to the breakout 2007-08 season on a per-minute basis).  I think the real questions in Orlando revolve around whether they can fill some glaring holes at the point guard and up front.  The Magic were a poor passing team, stealing team, and had no boarders and shot blockers outside of Howard and Adonal Foyle (who is such a bad offensive player that he can’t do more than fill in).  Up front the return of Tony Battie won’t be enough to swing the rebounding tide Orlando’s way.  Moreover, a Jameer Nelson/Anthony Johnson platoon also doesn’t really cut it at the point either.  

Despite all this, the Magic are the class of the worst division in the Eastern Conference.  That should keep Orlando near the 50-win number and a likely second round playoff appearance.  Unfortunately, the team is near the cap limits (primarily because Lewis was given such a huge contract) and will have trouble finding the point guard or power forward they need unless they get a very favorable trade offer.  The future may also be tough as the large contract to Lewis runs through 2012-13.  In the here and now, however, the Magic have a nice team, with enough talent to compete with everyone but Boston and Detroit. 

2.    Miami Heat:    There is something about Pat Riley led teams.  There is a violence to them in all respects.  They play tough and when changes are made, they are abrupt.  Coaches quit or are fired in a blink off an eye. When Riles is looking to rebuild, he does so with equal force.  He pulled the plug on the most recent vintage of Heat team so abruptly last year that they went from aging team to minor league franchise.  But the whirlwind decision making has transformed Miami into a useful team.  Somehow, Riley got out from under Shaquille O’Neal’s miserable contract and even returned a good player in Shawn Marion.  Then Riley shut down Dwyane Wade (and also Marion) and made it pretty clear that the highest draft pick possible was the goal.  

Now, the Heat have a core of Wade, Michael Beasley, and Marion to play with.  Wade is probably the best guard in the NBA when healthy.  It’s not quite clear what the Heat have in Beasley yet but certainly he looks like he’ll be a nice scorer.  As for Marion, the Heat must decide if they want to commit big money to him for his 30s or let him walk after the season and take the $18 million in cap room he represents.  For 2008-09, the Heat should be an improved team, again, if Wade is healthy.  While he did look great in the Olympics, Wade has missed 31 games each of the last two years and 21 as a rookie.  So, the injury history is established.  Obviously, if Wade misses any amount of time this team is cooked.  A healthy Wade, however, should mean a .500 team.  Meanwhile, Riley will look to clear the dead wood on the roster (Mark Blount) and possibly Marion if he can yield a nice player.  

Remember, Riley almost always tries dramatic moves to jump start a rebuild.  In his first year in Miami (1995-96), Riley made a couple of big trades to bring in Tim Hardaway, Rex Chapman, Walt Williams, and Chris Gatling all at the trading deadline.  When he felt this team was fading after painful playoff losses to the Knicsk, in 2000, Riley signed Eddie Jones and Brian Grant and traded for Anthony Mason.  In 2005-06, Riley made a flurry of moves to try to put the Shaq-Wade team over the top (Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, Jason Williams, and James Posey).  While the moves haven’t always worked, it’s a guarantee that Riley will try something big either this season or during the summer. 

3.    Atlanta Hawks:    Having finally tasted some playoff success for the first time in almost a decade, can the Hawks continue to improve?  On the plus side, Josh Smith is still very young (23) and very good (17.2 ppg, .457 FG%, 8.2 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.5 spg, 2.8 bpg, 19.0 PER) and some other nice pieces in Al Horford and Joe Johnson. Still, this is a very thin team.  Point guard is an aging Mike Bibby and the only other players of note are Marvin Williams and Maurice Evans.  Smith may be a shot blocking fiend and Horford has promise but there is absolutely no evidence that the rest of the team is strong defensively.  Nor does Mike Woodson’s system look particularly scary either (18th in defense last season).  Putting this together, the Hawks should still be hovering slightly below .500 and the eight seed. 

4.    Washington Wizards:      While experts disagree how good the Wiz will be this year (estimates range from the lottery to lower seeded playoff team), they all seem to agree that the Wiz are not in a great place.  They have million invested in a core that is both aging and really not that great to begin with.  This is the perfect example why teams decide to scrap it and rebuild.  Fans don’t want to see a team aspire to 44 wins a quick first round exit, particularly when the key players are locked in and potentially unmovable until the middle of next decade.  For now, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler add up to points at the forward slot in the half court.  But the slow pace hid a poor defense that was 24th in the NBA in points allowed per possession and allowed the most three pointers in the NBA, as well as the highest percentage.  I’m also pessimistic that, after a third knee surgery, Gilbert Arenas will be the same explosive player.  Unfortunately, there is little upside here and plenty of downside.  At best, the Wiz will be in playoff hunt with the scores of .500 teams. 

5.    Charlotte Bobcats:    It’s not clear what kind of progress is going on in Charlotte.  If Larry Brown holds true to non-Knick form, the Bobcats could be in for some improvement defensively but he surely will want to gut this roster.  While there is enough here to lump the Bobcats with all the other quasi-playoff teams like Washington, Atlanta, Indiana, and Chicago, this will probably be regression season.  Brown is notoriously tough on young point guards and non-defenders.  This means Matt Carroll, Raymond Felton, D.J. Augustin, and Adam Morrison.  Brown always identified his hustling non-offensive players to give plenty of playing time (George Lynch and Raja Bell in Philly, Derrick McKey and Haywoode Workman in Indiana, David Wingate in San Antonio).  Also, Brown will have to deal with management’s proclivity towards players he isn’t likely to want to play.  This didn’t work out so well in New York with Isiah Thomas but Michael Jordan seems sufficiently disengaged that it might not be as big a problem here.  Even so, the turmoil of Brownifying a team will create too much upheaval for the Bobcats to compete for a playoff spot yet.

Playoff Teams

1.  Detroit Pistons

2.  Boston Celtics

3.  Orlando Magic

4.  Cleveland Cavaliers

5.  Philadelphia 76ers

6.  Toronto Raptors

7.  Chicago Bulls

8.  Miami Heat 

Conference Finals

Detroit over Boston

All-Conference Team

PG:  Chauncey Billups

SG:  Dwyane Wade

SF:  LeBron James

PF: Chris Bosh

C:  Dwight Howard

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