NBA Preview 2007-08: Eastern Conference

The projected records are based on projected minutes and production from projected starters for each team. Those numbers are then calculated into points and a record. Some of these will be wildly wrong. Some I don’t even agree with, but I’m putting them out there and we’ll see what happens. After the records, I’ll write a little blurb defending or apologizing for the projected record and taking a different angle on how each teams’ season might transpire. The East is very tough to predict this season. I think most would agree that there are six teams that should make the playoffs: Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami and Orlando. Those teams are a notch above the rest, though one or two could have a rough season. Of the other 9 teams, any one of them has the potential to surprise and crash the playoffs. Any 9 of them are capable of crashing the top 6 as a high end. This should make for an interesting, possibly topsy-turvy season in the East, but also a difficult one to predict. These projections are just what my number-crunching says will happen and often that has little resemblance to what happens on the court. I’ll go in reverse order to heighten the drama and throw in some final thoughts and playoff predictions at the end.

15. Milwaukee 27-55: This is the first projection that could be wildly off. The Bucks definitely qualify as a sleeper, with a new coach, a starter returning after missing a season with injury and two young inside players entering their 3rd seasons. On the negative side, they’re losing one of their best players from last year in Ruben Patterson and I doubt the returning Simmons or anyone on the roster can replace his numbers. There are two keys for the Bucks. The first is getting Bogut and Villanueva to step up their production. Both are young players in their 3rd seasons, so if it’s ever going to happen for them this will likely to be the year. The other is to get better defensively and I’m not so optimistic about this one. A new coach often helps in that area, but looking at the team I don’t too much in the way of potentially strong defenders and certainly no dominator. I also don’t like the fact that this is a team whose offense is dominated by an otherwise soft backcourt. The Yi situation could also hurt, because such distractions are magnified when any team struggles. The relationship between fans and top draft choice started poorly this summer and isn’t getting much better as he struggles in exhibition games. At the time of the draft I wrote something along the lines of: Yi is a good prospect if he’s really 19, but not so good if he’s 22. I don’t think that debate has been settled yet, but the smart money seems to be on 22. Even if he really is 19, he’ll struggle through a developmental year. This won’t be an easy thing for fans to stomach when players like Brewer, Noah, Wright and Thornton, all of whom the Bucks passed on for Yi, are all making positive impacts for their teams.

14. Philadelphia 30-52: I like the direction this team is going, but they still have a long road to get back into contention. Their main need right now is a player who can fill the scoring void left by Iverson’s departure. It will probably be Iguodala this year, but he’s more of a role player than a leading scorer type. He’s an all-star caliber role player, but probably not a lead dog. They have a good collection of young talent, including four promising players from the recent draft. Between this quartet and the young vets already on the roster, a decent core should start to develop here in a year or two. But right now they’re in the process of sorting through players and that’s a sometimes necessary process, but rarely results in a playoff team. Top draft pick Thaddeus Young is a year or two away from making an impact and may be in the same boat as Yi as a player drafted with better ones on the board. Andre Miller, Iguodala and a decent defensive presence in Dalembert should keep the team from sub-20 win hell, but this just doesn’t look like a bunch that’s ready to step up at this point in their development.

13. New York 31-51: A decent team is starting to take shape here, but the backcourt is so weak that this is about as high as I can go with them. Picking up Randolph for free was a good move. With a player that good, best to bring him into the mix when he’s available at a bargain rate and worry about fitting him in later. The problem with Randolph is I’m not sure how much he’ll improve things. The Knick frontcourt was decent in ’07. Curry has his flaws, but is one of the better inside scorers in the league and Lee and Balkman were both super-productive role players. Taking minutes away from these players isn’t going to improve things too much and will hurt defensively. The good thing is they do have some flexibility for potential trades to upgrade the backcourt. The same erratic backcourt that has kept this team down for years seems likely to doom them to the lottery again. Marbury and Crawford are both shoot-first, low-efficiency players who add little in the way of defense or other intangibles. As long as these two are getting big minutes and are a large part of the offense, the Knicks are going to struggle to make the playoffs. Any trade that upgrades the backcourt would improve this teams’ playoff outlook immensely. If not, the 2008 draft is looking like a strong one for guards and the Knicks do get to keep their own pick this year.

12. Indiana 32-50: At a quick glance the arrows seem to be pointing down for the Pacers. Their best player, O’Neal, has been rumored to be on the block all summer, they have only one guard on the roster who looks like a real starter and they have a bunch of forwards, none of whom is a big impact player. There’s also a glum feeling about the team, since the trade with Golden State seems to have benefited the Warriors more and memories of the JailPacers still lingering. So things don’t look all that promising, but I still think they might pull a decent season out of this mess. Their new coach, Jim O’Brien, helmed a nice turnaround in Boston after taking over for Rick Pitino in 2000-01. O’Brien’s Celtic teams were mad bombers who lived and died by the 3-point shot. These Pacers do have some snipers at forward in Murphy and Granger, so I could see him going in the same direction here and having similar success. They also still have O’Neal who remains one of the top 5 centers in the league. The backcourt is terrible, but they have enough excess frontcourt players that a trade for an upgrade is possible. Between O’Brien and the talent on hand, there’s no way this team should be written off from the playoff picture.

11. Atlanta 36-46: Much has been made about what a huge mistake it was for Atlanta to pass on Chris Paul or Deron Williams for Marvin Williams in the 2005 draft. That’s why I was mildly surprised when another potentially great PG in Mike Conley was passed on by the Hawks for another inside player in Al Horford in this past draft. The management of this team just doesn’t get it. They’re not at a point where they should be continuing to add big bodies to the mix. This is a team that has a screaming need for a floor general who can bring everything together. Horford should be a fine pro and is a potential all-star, but this team was already decent at PF and center with Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia. At PG they were terrible, probably as bad as any team in the league. They did draft a PG in Acie Law, but he’s always been a shoot-first type and looks like more of a combo in the NBA because his strength is scoring and his assist numbers in college were very low for a PG prospect. The positive thing for Atlanta is eventually a team that accumulates as much good young talent as they have is going to start making some noise. That could happen as early as this season and would almost certainly happen should they make the right trade for the right PG. So while I don’t care much for the way they’re building this team, I can’t deny that the talent here is good enough for this team to finally taste the playoffs.

10. Toronto 37-45: Teams that improve dramatically in one season almost always decline the next, unless the improvement was spurred by the addition of a superstar. There is no superstar on the Raptors and that means their record is likely going south in ’08. With most of the East on the way up, the decline could be even greater than this. This is an interesting group though and they’re always fun to watch. Though they’ve hardly become the Eastern Conference version of the Suns, the effect Bryan Colangelo has is evident in an offense that gets the most out of its PGs. Both Ford and Calderon had their best seasons in ‘07 and that level of play will probably continue, because of the offense. Those two, all-star PF Chris Bosh and a varied collection of wing players should keep this bunch from falling too far. Poor overall rebounding will keep this team from going too far. They were 27th in rebound margin last year and did nothing to address this problem. I can’t help but wonder if drafting Bargnini over Aldridge and Thomas will one day be considered a huge mistake. I like Bargnini, but I have trouble seeing him fitting in as anything other than a supersub in the Toni Kukoc mold. He doesn’t rebound well enough to play PF or C regularly and he may not be quick enough to play SF. He’s a great reserve, but drafting such a player #1 overall seems like a terrible use of assets. But I’ve been way off second guessing Colangelo before and we’ll have to let time tell on Bargnini. For the Raptors, their signs are up in general for the long run, but they’ll be back in the lottery this season.

9. Washington 38-44: The Wizards are a team that’s capable of 50 wins if everything goes right, but I really don’t like the makeup of this team and feel the 38 wins is closer to how things will go. There are several reasons for this. The first is the teams’ stars. Arenas is as good as advertised and Butler is a decent #2, but Jamison has always been overrated, isn’t getting any younger and is a player better utilized off the bench. Brendan Heywood has never developed past the barely usable stage as a starter and is at an age where he’s unlikely to do so. Etan Thomas will likely miss the season and Andray Blatche, his likely replacement, will struggle to match his numbers. They could really use another effective PG or combo to help out Arenas with the ball-distribution. Antonio Daniels was a disappointment in that role last year and he’s 33 now, so it’s not likely he’ll ever get back to where he was. First round draftee Nick Young has the same makings of a bust that Jarvis Hayes brought to the team a few years ago. A coach whose team has hit a plateau in his 5th season and an inability to play defense are two more historically bad signs for this team. I doubt this group can avoid the lottery in a conference that has as many teams on the verge of improvement as this years’ East does.

8. Charlotte 39-43: I thought the Bobcats might be ready to make the leap last season, but Adam Morrison was worse than I thought and Ray Felton had a poor second season. There’s enough to like here that I feel they’re a good bet to make their first playoff appearance in 2008 though. In Gerald Wallace and Jason Richardson they have one of the better SF-SG combos in the league. Okafor is an excellent inside player to go along with them. Jordan deserves some praise for the Richardson move. He filled a need with a known quantity and is only on the hook for 4 seasons and what should be the prime years of Richardson’s career. It’s not all good though. The team is thin behind their top 3, so any time missed by Richardson, Wallace or Okafor would spell trouble. With May’s injury they’re especially thin inside and that could lead to overworking Okafor and playing Wallace at the PF, which just isn’t a good use of your best player. That said, May is a terrible defender, whose minutes could easily be filled by a veteran retread and Morrison being out for the year will be addition by subtraction. On new coach Sam Vincent, all I have to say is I’d rather a team take a chance on a new coach than recycle a known mediocrity. Teams should change coaches if there’s nothing positive happening after 3 seasons with the current coach and the Bobcats made the right move in bringing someone else in. A new coach in the right situation can work wonders and Charlotte seems like that type of situation, especially when they’re adding a player as good as Richardson to the mix.

7. New Jersey 43-39: The Nets are team that’s stuck in a rut. They’re led by a couple of aging stars, along with another borderline all-star. They’ve been the best team in a weak division for a few years, but don’t seem to have what it takes to get past the second round of the playoffs. The only thing that’s changed about that situation is they’re no longer the best team in their division. Krstic’s return and the addition of Magloire will help some and may even push them toward 50 wins if other things go well. The worst-case scenario would be Kidd and Carter both declining. Kidd is 34, which is a bad age for any player. Carter is 31 and should have a few good years left. However, the fact that he just signed a new contract would worry me if I were a Nets fan, considering he has gone through periods of indifferent play in his past. This team ruled the East for a couple of seasons, but Detroit passed them in 2004 and now Miami, Boston, Chicago and Cleveland have also left the Nets in the dust. Where they’re at now, they’ll remain stuck in this 40-50 win rut with Kidd, Carter and Jefferson getting them into the playoffs but little else.

6. Detroit 44-38: With the Pistons I see a team that was fading to begin with, and is now starting to age. Of the core players, only Prince will be under 30 when the playoffs start. While the others are still young enough to be effective, there should be some slippage and possibly some injuries. That’s going to affect their record some, especially with the other EC teams on the way up. The biggest worries are on the inside. Both Wallace and McDyess are 33, which is generally a bad year for inside players. History suggests that if players don’t start to show their age at 33, they will within a year. Youngster Amir Johnson is a promising player who should become a major contributor this season. But it’s questionable whether or not he can add enough to make up for the expected fade by the old guys. The backcourt has gotten deeper, adding a couple of gunners in Afflalo and Hayes, along with a potential impact player down the road in Rodney Stuckey. They all should help, but with most of the minutes taken by the starters, I can’t see them having a huge impact on the record. The Pistons are a younger version of the Nets. They have in place a good, veteran core that dominated a weak conference for a few seasons. But right now that core isn’t competitive with the emerging teams in the East and that’s going to doom them to playoff also-ran status for this season and the near future.

5. Orlando 45-37: The Rashard Lewis signing is as crazy as advertised, but it should provide enough immediate help to boost the win total and push the Magic safely into the playoffs, but not much more than that. The strangest thing about the Lewis deal is they already employed a decent SF in Hedu Turkoglu. Turkoglu wasn’t a great player, but he was good enough to plug in the 3 spot and say that between him and Trevor Ariza the position was capably manned. The resources used to sign Lewis would have been better spent on some inside help and perimeter shooting. The center position is especially weak, with Tony Battie and Adonal Foyle, two rapidly declining players who are both over 30 and were only part-timers to begin with, along with unproven rookie Marcin Gortat. What the Lewis signing has done is set this team up with a core of Lewis, Howard and Nelson for the next 3 or 4 seasons. As a group they should be good for 45-50 wins and a couple of ventures into the 2nd round of the playoffs. Then Lewis will start to show his age and the contract will really start to look ridiculous. They will be improved for 2008 and 2009 though and if they can find a center who gives them decent production, they’ll push themselves higher than this.

4. Miami 45-37: It hasn’t been the best of pre-seasons. Wade is injured and Walker showed up out of shape and was shipped to Minnesota. But any team that can put a healthy Shaq and Wade on the court together is a threat to win it all. Keeping them healthy has been the problem and with Wade ailing going in and Shaq another year older, the 2007-08 campaign isn’t starting out too promising in that regard. The 45 wins the system came up with seems like a compromise between the two scenarios of a healthy Wade and revitalized Shaq leading the team to 55 wins and contention or everything falling apart because of age and injuries and the team finishes in the lottery. Even going with the most optimistic scenario, I doubt this team can stay with Chicago or Boston. The supporting cast has some holes, though Ricky Davis was a nice pickup. I do think they’re going to miss the dimension Walker gave them as a PF who could hit the trey though. As good as the top two are, the fact that both are prone to injuries can’t be ignored and losing one or the other for any period of time would put this team in a big hole. I’ll acknowledge that with Wade and Shaq around and healthy this team can win another championship. But there are so many question marks around this team that I doubt this season will turn out good for them.

3. Cleveland 48-34: The Cavs remind me a lot of Jordan’s Bulls in the early years. They had the best player in basketball, but he was stuck with a poor supporting cast. Those Bulls had stockpiled some #1 draft picks though and were able to bring in the likes of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant to help get Michael his championships. Cleveland hasn’t done any such stockpiling, so they’re going to have to go looking for bargain free agent and lower round draftees and wait for some bad contracts to expire. The contracts start to expire after the 2009 season, when Marshall, Snow and Jones fall off the books. Because of this, the Cavs of 2007-08 appear to be stuck with pretty much the same roster they played with last season. Where MJ had to be patient waiting for young players to develop, LeBron is going to have to be patient waiting for bad contracts to expire. That likely means a season of treading water in Cleveland.

2. Boston 55-27: This is going to work. Getting a superstar has almost always been a great thing for the team getting the player and this should be no exception. The Celtics have three players who have been to a combined 22 all-star games and no finals. All 3 are generally selfless players who can score when needed, but are also perfectly willing to pass the ball to an open teammate, so I don’t foresee any problems with sharing the ball. All 3 are classy veterans who should be seriously focused on getting to their first ever finals. The supporting cast is full of players who do specific things well. Rondo can pass and play strong defense, Allen is a solid defender, Perkins is a good rebounder, rookie Davis is a good fit because of his ability to pass and rebound. Eddie House is a good sniper and James Posey has experience playing a supporting role with the Heat. Most are young players, so none should have a problem letting the big three do most of the scoring. I doubt the extras will pose much of a problem. Doc Rivers has not been a good coach for most of his NBA career, but I he could be a good fit here. He seems like the type who will let his stars play and that’s probably the best way to deal with this team. He could become basketball’s version of Joe Torre. The playoffs might be a different story for Rivers, but he’ll be fine for the regular season.

1. Chicago 59-23: This seems high, but I’ll try to explain why the Bulls are projected to have the best record in the league. This system I use for projecting players really likes both Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah. FWIW, I agree with the system. Both play PF, which was sort of a hidden weakness on the team last season, since the position was manned mainly by classy, but seriously overmatched veteran PJ Brown. Adding potential impact players like Thomas and Noah to a position that had been a negative should seriously crank up the win total, at least in theory it should. There are other good things happening for the Bulls. Their best players, Deng, Gordon and Hinrich are all just entering their prime years. Top reserve Nocioni is back and healthy after struggling for a season with injuries. Ben Wallace is aging, but is still one of the better centers in the league and might become more effective by playing fewer minutes with Noah and Thomas in more prominent roles. There’s also the Kobe Bryant situation hanging over this team. For now they seem intent on seeing what their current group is capable of and waiting for the price to drop before they make that leap. Needless to say such a move will change the whole look of the East, but I can’t really comment on it good or bad until I know the specifics of any trade. For this group of Bulls and Scott Skiles, their time is now. If they remain stuck at 49 wins, it will be time to either find a new coach or a new mix of players.

Final analysis: I’ll go with my top 8 as the playoff teams. There’s a good chance 1 or 2 of the projected lottery teams will crash the playoffs, with Atlanta and Indiana being the most likely candidates. As for the playoff teams, all have some issues that could be used to argue against them for the conference championship. Boston has Doc Rivers, Chicago has no real superstar, Cleveland and Miami have superstars, but weak supporting casts and Detroit is aging and employs Flip Saunders whose teams always underachieve come playoff time. But one of these teams will get to the finals and possibly win. The system I used for projecting records says Boston and Chicago are the two best teams and that’s pretty much in line with how I feel. The Celtics have brought together 3 title-hungry veteran stars and the Bulls have assembled a young team with a potential all-star at every position. Right now my feeling is Boston will come out on top once the playoff smoke clears. While Doc Rivers has had some issues as a coach, Scott Skiles has had his playoff struggles also. There’s also the fact that teams with superstars and veteran rosters tend to perform better as the season gets into June and that definitely favors Boston. The bottom line here is I believe Garnett, Pierce and Allen will pounce on the 1-2 year window of opportunity they’ve been given here, while the East is still the weaker conference. The Celtics will make their first finals visit since 1987.

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