30 Teams, 30 Questions: NBA Season Preview Part Two (East Conference)
Miami Heat: What do the Heat have to do to repeat?
• Matt: I think the better question here is what do the Heat have to do to not repeat as champions, because right now, they’re the clear cut favorite. LeBron is coming off one of the greatest seasons in NBA history, and the guy still has room to improve. Wade and Bosh are still solid, and though health concerns will always be an issue, the two will still be steady contributors come playoff time. Added bench depth means a continued reliance on small ball with the acquisitions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, which isn’t a bad thing. The Heat proved last season they can match up with any team despite the lack of traditional low post depth, and now that that monkey is off LeBron’s back, it wouldn’t surprise me to see this team top the 60-win mark.
• Brett: There is a very simple answer to this question: they just have to play basketball. Seriously. They are still the best team in the league after rampaging through it last year and still have the best player on the planet in LeBron James. The bench is much improved with the additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis and oh yeah, they still have Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The NBA needs to be on lookout again because the Heat are more dangerous than last season.
Orlando Magic: Who is the most important player on the Magic now that Dwight Howard is gone?
• Matt: Last season, the Magic were an early favorite for playoff success before Dwightmares and Dwight injuries bogged down what could have been a relatively successful season. If their first-round loss to Pacers was any indication what the Magic could do without Dwight Howard, this season is already shaping up to be a long one. Right now, the most important player on this Magic squad has to be Arron Afflalo. The biggest get in the Dwight Howard trade, Afflalo has the ability to score the ball and defend either guard position, which is invaluable in a league full of defensive switch-ups and faster play on the wing. Sure, having guys like Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson will take some of the pressure off their new Magic teammates, but in the end, it might be weird to say this, but I’d argue Afflalo is the team’s best player now, and needs to play like one.
• Brett: The Magic’s roster looks so bad on paper. Like, No. 1 overall pick worthy. That’s why it’s so hard to pinpoint the player who is most important to the Magic now that Dwight Howard is in LA-LA Land. I guess if I had to choose one, it would be their point guard, Jameer Nelson. He’s a seasoned veteran who has been with the team for a long time, and the only guy that exudes any type of leadership qualities on a consistent basis. There are other names on the roster that could fit, such as Al Harrington or Hedo Turkoglu, but realistically, Nelson is the de facto leader of this team, despite the anonymity.
Atlanta Hawks: What can Atlanta fans put their faith in this year?
• Matt: Losing Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams in the offseason managed to not only clear cap, but keep the Hawks’ youth movement intact. Josh Smith, who now becomes the team’s best player, will need to step it up on both sides of the floor. The guy is a small forward in a power forward’s body, and if he can ever take advantage of his unique skill set without relying on jump shots, the sky’s the limit. Jeff Teague proved last year he’s a serviceable point guard, albeit an inconsistent one. Expect more veteran players like Devin Harris to play decent minutes if Teague were to slip. But the biggest question might have to be the health of Al Horford, the former All-Star center. If Horford can stay healthy, the Hawks have arguably one of the best frontcourts in basketball and should be able to compete in a relatively undersized division after Dwight Howard’s departure. Expect the Hawks to make the playoffs, but nothing more unless one of their big men truly takes that next step.
• Brett: There is some good talent on this Atlanta roster, but the problem is piecing it together to create a playoff team. Josh Smith is a multi-talented player but is not a superstar. People are unsure what to make of Al Horford because he is often injured and has yet to show what he is really capable of. And then at the guard spots, there is a logjam of players such as Jeff Teague, Devin Harris and Lou Williams, who will all fight for minutes. But, as it stands right now, Hawks fans can only place their faith in the belief that this team has a shot at the playoffs. Like those in the northeast dealing with Hurricane Sandy, it’s time to just wait it out in the Dirty South.
Washington Wizards: Can the John Wall/Bradley Beal backcourt duo (eventually) be a game changer for the Wizards?
• Matt: Unlike my colleague, I still have faith in John Wall. With the lack of talent around him, how can you expect a young point guard to flourish? He’s not a big scorer on his own right, and his definite lack of outside game may hurt, but it was Wall’s playmaking abilities coming out of Kentucky that were lauded, not his jump shot. Adding a backcourt player of Bradley Beal’s caliber is sure to take some of the pressure off Wall, and provide a legitimate scoring threat. Beal’s ability to handle the ball and get to the rim made him a top-3 pick in the draft, and he should see some added playing time until Wall’s return as one of the team’s top scoring options. Alongside the arrivals of Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor, and Nene, this is easily the most talented team Wall will have the opportunity to play alongside, and though his health will be a question mark all season long, he’s sure to have a bounce-back season.
• Brett: So far in his young career, John Wall is a bust. Coming out of Kentucky in 2010, he was heralded as the next great point guard because of his ultra-quickness and leadership qualities. But he can’t hit a jump shot to save his life, has been injury-prone (including this season) and hasn’t had true talent around him. But now there’s hope after the Wizards selected Beal with the No. 3 overall pick in last June’s draft. The shooting guard out of Florida is a playmaker and is very athletic, similar to Wall…except that Beal can actually shoot. This is a tandem that can bring some real excitement to the organization and the fan base, and help pave the way for a hoops rejuvenation in the D.C. area.
Charlotte Bobcats: What will the Bobcats record be this year… over or under 20 wins?
• Matt: The Bobcats were historically bad last year, but with the arrival of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, matters look slightly better. Ramon Sessions proved last season he has the ability to be a solid point guard, and backing up Kemba Walker will give the Bobcats a much-needed spark off the bench. If Ben Gordon can channel his days from playing with Chicago (with Michael Jordan in a management role, who knows?), he can provide much-needed scoring on an otherwise dormant offense. Add Bismack Biyombo’s continued growth down low, and it’s not hard to feel confident in some growth following last year’s dismal season. I’m going to go over 20 wins, but barely; 22 wins is still lottery territory, but nobody said improving would be easy.
• Brett: Last season, the Bobcats won 7 games in a shortened 66 game season. With an extra 16 games this year, that number can only go up, right? Correct, but not that much. There is still so much work to be done with this team, mainly in the frontcourt. Charlotte’s youth still needs to mature a lot also if they wish to compete on a steady basis. I’ll go with the UNDER and predict 15 wins. Still, this team will be scrappy and motivated to improve on that dismal season a year ago.
Chicago Bulls: Can Chicago survive until Derrick Rose returns?
For this answer, we turn to NAU graduate student and Bulls fan Stayson Isobe…
• Stayson: Without the services of Rose, the 2011 MVP, until late-February at the earliest, the Bulls will be hard-pressed to claim the East’s number-one seed in the playoffs for the third consecutive season. However, to count the Bulls dead and out would be foolish. After all, they were 18-9 last season without Chi-Town’s finest running the point. Throw in the fact that the Bulls still have one of the conference’s top starting units in Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, Rip Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich, and they should still be a 45-50 win team. Not to mention that the guy running the show is still in charge fresh with a new contract extension, and everyone knows that a Tom Thibodeau coached team will be tenacious as ever on the defensive end. The real question lies with the reserves as the Bench Mob was completely redone with Taj Gibson being the only holdover from a year ago. If the Bulls can hold court through the first three-fourths of the season and Rose can return to close to 100% by the time the playoffs roll around, a return trip to the Eastern Conference finals won’t be so far-fetched.
Indiana Pacers: As of now, can Indiana be considered the second best team in the East?
• Matt: The Indiana Pacers are an interesting team to discuss. Much like the Thunder, they have seemingly built from the ground up through the draft, trades, and free agency to go from lottery dwellers to potential contenders. The young core of George Hill, Paul George, Danny Granger, and Roy Hibbert are entering their primes, and guys like David West provide much needed veteran leadership. But will the Pacers continue to improve, or was last season their ceiling? It’s hard to tell with young teams, especially in a tough Eastern Conference. If the Pacers can learn from their experience in the playoffs the past two seasons and channel that into a successful run, it wouldn’t surprise me. But right now, with how little noise they made in the offseason, I’d have to put the Pacers a tad below the Celtics and Heat in terms of Eastern prominence.
• Brett: Similar to the Grizzlies, I love watching the Pacers play basketball. Also like the Grizzlies, they have perfect fits at each position, with George Hill, Paul George, Danny Granger, David West, and Roy Hibbert as their starters with an underrated bench with the likes of DJ Augustin, the Hansbrough Bros. and Ian Mahinmi filling in when necessary. The Pacers made it to the Eastern Conference Semis last year and took the Heat to six games before bowing out, an experience which can only help them moving forward. There is great quality to this team and with a lack of depth in the East, it’s not a stretch to call this team the second best in the conference, ahead of the Celtics or Bulls for now. Personally, they are my No. 2 after Miami and before Boston because of their youth, capability and bias.
Milwaukee Bucks: Do the Bucks have the most explosive backcourt in the NBA in the form of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings?
For this response, we turn to fellow NAU graduate Trevor Gould, Mr. Fear the Deer himself…
• Trevor Gould: No, but they are definitely up there. Ellis is a scoring machine, able to hit shots from anywhere on the court, while also possessing supreme quickness and athleticism. All those qualities give defenses headaches and when Monta is feeling it, its hard to slow him down. Complemented by Jennings, the two are a formidable duo. Jennings is an athlete in his own right and is coming off a year in which he set career highs in nearly every category. Together, they will form an imposing scoring menace for opposing defenses. Their lack of height is made up for by their athleticism and I fully expect them to serve as the main source power for the Milwaukee Bucks. But, I just don’t think they have the experience to match the likes of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson in Brooklyn or even Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles.
What’s more likely for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving…a breakout year or a sophomore slump?
• Matt: I expect big things out of the reigning rookie of the year, and not just because of his improved supporting cast. As the floor general for the Cavaliers, Kyrie Irving now has a new backcourt mate in the form of Dion Waiters, who has been playing well in preseason despite a surprising rise in stock on draft night. If Waiters can take some of that pressure off Irving in the backcourt, his vision will improve and you can expect a rise in those assist numbers. The loss of Antwan Jamison in free agency will only free up more points to be scored, and Irving looks to take advantage on a relatively young team. If he can rise to that challenge and continue to improve as he did throughout last season, expect Irving to have an All-Star caliber year. Whether or not the team actually improves is another question entirely, but assuming each piece falls into place, it wouldn’t be the first time a point guard changes the face of a struggling franchise for the better.
• Brett: Even after playing only a handful of games at Duke his freshman season, Kyrie Irving was still the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Cavaliers, who admired his explosiveness and scoring ability and viewed him as their franchise point guard moving forward. He did not disappoint, putting up 18 points per game to go along with five assists on an average of 30 minutes per game, earning him the moniker of Rookie of the Year. But, realizing that the Cavs still need help alongside Irving, the franchise went out and drafted Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller, resigned Alonzo Gee and still have Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao down low. Those guys will need to get their touches on offense, thus making it almost certain that Irving’s numbers from last season will drop off a bit, but nothing too drastic. I expect a lesser year from him this season but nothing excruciatingly bad. He is still a young guy who defenses will focus on more, and he will have to adjust to the extra attention.
Detroit Pistons: Should the federal government have bailed out the Pistons instead of the banks and auto companies?
• Matt: The economy sucks, plain and simple. So do the Pistons. Would bailout money have made an immediate impact on either side? Probably not, but believe it or not, the economy might be worse off than the Pistons have been the past few years. With the emergence of Greg Monroe, Rodney Stuckey, and Brandon Knight, it’s hard not to see some glimmer of hope in Detroit basketball. The arrival of Andre Drummond will help, potentially creating a formidable frontcourt on both sides of the basketball, but whether this emergence of young talent can put it all together remains to be seen. I will say that things are looking up for Detroit for the first time since everyone jumped on that (sinking) Lions bandwagon.
• Brett: Ever since the Pistons traded Chauncey Billups back in 2009, they have been a cataclysm of failure, sort of like the economy. The federal government decided to loan the auto companies, like GM and Chrysler, hefty sums of cash to help them out, but the Motor City’s own hoops squad didn’t receive any. What a crying shame. Had the government jumped in, maybe they could be competitive with the extra salary they could be offering. But alas, despite some talent on this roster, it looks like another underwhelming year in the D.
New York Knicks: Will the Carmelo/Amare project ever work in New York?
• Matt: Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire are two of the most dominant forwards in basketball. So dominant, in fact, that when they get in each others’ way, not even the New York Knicks can survive the impact. Just ask the 2003-04 Lakers who stocked talent with the likes of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone. But back to Melo and Amare…the two have proven on occasion that both can coexist, but until one chooses to lay way to the other on a nightly basis, the team will struggle. There are only so many times you can run an isolation play on offense before opposing defenses figure out to guard for it. Hell, why do you think Steve Novak led the league in three point percentage last year? Opponents must have been too busy thinking Carmelo or Amare were going to drive to the basket, throw up a weak attempt, and cry for a foul instead of focusing on the awkward white guy in the corner.
• Brett: After Amare Stoudemire left the Suns to pursue big dreams and big money in The Big Apple, he soon began clamoring to have the team add the then-disgruntled Carmelo Anthony from the Nuggets. When that deal actually went through, I immediately claimed that it would be better for Denver, and so far, that prediction has been playing out rather nicely. Melo and Amare are two big egos that always need to be fed a lot of BS while wanting to be “the guy.” They can act friendly on camera, in front of the media and fans, and off the court, but secretly, they each want to be the established presence for the Knicks. Because of that, I don’t ever see this experiment coming to fruition.
Brooklyn Nets: Will a change of scenery (and supporting cast) help the Nets return to relavence?
For this one, we turn to New Jersey-born and current Tucson, AZ resident Chuck Constantino…
• Chuck: As the Brooklyn Nets say goodbye to New Jersey, they welcome several new teammates and the hope of returning to the NBA playoffs. The Nets have added via trade, free agency and draft guards Joe Johnson, C.J. Watson, Tyshawn Taylor, Keith Bogans, and forwards Andray Blatche, Josh Childress and Reggie Evans. A starting lineup with Deron Williams at the point, Johnson at shooting guard is a lethal backcourt. Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez in the front court is where this team will lose games. On paper it looks pretty nice, but none of these players are physical enough. Hopefully, swingman MarShon Brooks can get enough minutes to make a difference. The Nets have a roster that may survive the Atlantic Division, but I don’t see them finishing better than the Boston Celtics. The jury is still out on the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks. I see this team finishing above .500, but not by much. But, in the Eastern Conference that is usually enough to make the playoffs.
Boston Celtics: How much will Boston miss Ray Allen?
• Matt: At first, it was hard to imagine Boston’s original big three being dismantled, but as they aged, it became inevitable. It did not, however, seem as if Ray Allen would jump ship to a heated rival, but alas, that’s the world we live in. Believe it or not, though, Boston just might have improved in Ray’s departure, adding not one, not two, but three sharpshooters in the form Jason Terry, Leandro Barbosa, and Courtney Lee. Factor in the returning Jeff Green, and it’s hard to imagine the Celtics scoring at the low rates they’ve been known to the past few years. Their defense, on the other hand, should be just as dominating. With Avery Bradley in the starting lineup last year, the Celtics finished fourth in the conference and rode momentum all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the eventual champion Miami Heat.
• Brett: It will certainly be weird when the Celtics take the floor without their sharpshooter for the past few years, Ray Allen, no longer wearing the green and white. But Boston fans should not fret about his departure to South Beach, because the Celtics did well in making up for his departure. They added Jason Terry, Leandro Barbosa and still have Avery Bradley coming back from injury, who one of my Facebook friends called “this year’s Eastern dark horse.” I do think Rajon Rondo will need to step up a bit more to also make up for the loss of Allen, but they still have Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and are a quality team top to bottom, one that is looking to make one last run to the Finals.
Philadelphia 76ers: Can Andrew Bynum stay healthy enough to improve on the 76ers record and compete for the Atlantic Division?
• Matt: As a Lakers fan, I can attest to Andrew Bynum’s dominance at times last year. Sure, he was sometimes a head case, but the guy easily took advantage of his minutes, earning his first All-Star selection and becoming the best center in the Western Conference. While Spencer Hawes and Elton Brand were doing work in the frontcourt, they can’t compare to Bynum’s length and diversity, making the trade a no-brainer. Iguodala had fallen out of grace with Doug Collins, and the 76ers needed a new identity. They found one in a 7-footer who was desperate to carve his own niche outside the shadow of Hollywood. It was mutually beneficial, and assuming Bynum comes back healthy, almost a steal. Combine Bynum with Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner, and you have one of the best all-around squads in basketball from one to five. Sure, Bynum’s health will always pose a risk, but seeing as he had his first dominant season just one year ago, it’s hard to not take a chance and hope that knee holds up. I don’t see them challenging the Celtics in the early outset, but if Bynum emerges and the 76ers’ new additions click, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the 76ers in the top half of the Eastern Conference.
• Brett: I drafted Andrew Bynum in the second round of my fantasy basketball draft even though I know he’d be out for a little bit of time after recovering from off-season knee surgery. But that is not to say that the 76ers are finished after acquiring the All-Star center in the summer’s four-team blockbuster that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers, Andre Iguodala to the Nuggets and absolutely nothing to the Magic. Philadelphia has heaps of talent on their team, and they are only getting better, and in an unproven, weaker division, the title of Atlantic Division champions is certainly up for grabs. If Bynum is healthy this season and plays like he did as a Laker, there’s no reason to think the 76ers can’t be Atlantic Champs this season.
Can the Toronto Raptors turn all the young talent they have into a playoff berth this year?
• Matt: The Raptors have been the laughing stock of the Atlantic Division since Chris Bosh left a few years back, but with a few smart trades, signings and draft picks, look to be reemerging in a rather weak conference. Kyle Lowry will immediately make dividends for the likes of Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan, who were in need of a point guard who could not only set up his teammates, but also score at will. Opening up the floor will especially be helpful for Bargnani, one of the league’s deadliest shooters, and Jonas Valanciunas, an unproven rookie who is expected to make an impact down low. Whether or not the team remains relevant through the long haul remains to be seen, but for now, it’s a step in the right direction.
• Brett: Surprisingly enough, there are a lot of pundits out there who are making out this year’s version of the Toronto Raptors as a playoff-caliber squad. The oldest player on their roster is Jose Calderon, only 31 years old, and the rest of the roster boasts some decent names in Andrea Bargnani, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and rookie Jonas Valanciunas. There’s a lot to like about this young club, and the race for the last few spots in the Eastern Conference playoffs is going to be wide open. As long as Dwane Casey can coach his young players the right way, I don’t see how the Raptors aren’t going to be in the thick of the race for a playoff berth. Oh…and **** Canada.