Friday, October 26, 2007

My one and only NBA preview

ON BASKETBALL

The second-best time of the year (behind March Madness) is here, folks.

Not only is the baseball season at its climax and the football games gaining importance by the weekend, but hoops season is days away.

Here in Durham/Chapel Hill, all the talk is about the Tar Heels and Blue Devils (in fact, I expect Cameron Indoor Stadium to be packed Saturday night for the... blue-white scrimmage).

But outside of this college hoops utopia, the big boys are gearing up for another 82-game slate followed by a ridiculously (yet always-fun-to-watch) playoff stretch run.

With that said, it's time for my prognostications. For every team. And for those playoffs, which still seem light years away.

Please note that the numbers in parentheses after each team indicate where they'll finish in the conference.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Central Division
1. Detroit Pistons 53-29 (1st): With the infusion of talent in Boston, no one wants to talk anymore about the old, boring, stagnant Pistons. Fine. So be it. But they're still the best team in the East when motivated. And I have a feeling they'll come out with a little fire after that embarrassing collapse against LeBron and Co. Expect Jason Maxiell to have a breakout year and Amir Johnson to also make strides up front.

2. Chicago Bulls 48-34 (3rd): Probably the youngest, most hungry team in the East, but — still — they lack an interior scoring threat. Tyrus Thomas is athletic and exciting at times, but he's no post-up threat. Expect another big year from Luol Deng, but this team will still rely to0 heavily on perimeter shooting.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers 46-36 (5th): What a terrible off-season. Yes, last year's postseason run was special, but the group that advanced to the Finals isn't going to pull a repeat performance — especially in a tougher conference. Daniel Gibson's great, but not a true point guard. Larry Hughes is a bust. Zydrunas Ilguauskas is old. LeBron James better save a lot of energy for the playoffs.

4. Milwaukee Bucks 39-43 (9th): This team is going to be better than a lot of people expect if the nucleus can stay healthy. Michael Redd's as good a scorer as the NBA has, and Mo Williams is a versatile point guard who can score and distribute the ball. The questions are up front, where Andrew Bogut and Charlie Villanueva need breakout years.

5. Indiana Pacers 31-51 (12th): How far has this once-proud franchise fallen? Trade rumors continue to surround Jermaine O'Neal. Jamaal Tinsley can't stay out of trouble. Mike Dunleavy and Danny Granger are almost carbon copies of each other — slashers who can score 10-plus points per game, but not guys you can count on in the clutch.

Atlantic Division
1. Boston Celtics 49-33 (2nd): Mark me down as skeptical about how this new arrangement is going to work. The certainties: Kevin Garnett will play his tail off. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen will splash many 3-pointers. The uncertainties: Will all three players older than 30 stay healthy the entire season and into mid-April? Will Rajon Rondo be able to consistently make 3s when he's left wide-open? Will Rondo be able to play 40-plus minutes a game with no backup point guard in site? Will Kendrick Perkins be able to play loose alongside the three All-Stars? Who will replace KG when he has to sit? Plenty of questions, but the ride should be memorable.

2. Toronto Raptors 47-35 (4th): Nobody has said a thing about this team since it finished third in the East a year ago before bowing to the Nets in the first round. I, for one, like a lot of things about the Raptors. Like the Bulls, the Raptors are comprised of a bunch of young players eager to further explore the postseason. And, unlike the Bulls, they have a great post presence in Chris Bosh and another developing big man in Andrea Bargnani.

3. New Jersey Nets 44-38 (7th): Three big questions here: Will Jason Kidd, with his bad back, be able to stay on the court and lead this team? Will Vince Carter, with his new contract, play motivated the entire season? Will Nenad Kristic return to the player he was before an ACL injury sidelined him for most of last season? Plenty of potential, plenty of questions.

4. New York Knicks 41-41 (9th): Oh, the pain that will be felt in the Big Apple when the Knicks just miss the playoffs by a hair. We all know the talent is there, especially with the acquisition of Zach Randolph, but how will the pieces fit together? How will Randolph and Eddie Curry coexist down low? So far, not great. This team will have many winning streaks, but also many losing streaks. It lacks that veteran presence to keep everybody cool regardless of which way the momentum is flowing.

5. Philadelphia 76ers 26-56 (15th): I like the Andre Miller-Andre Iguodala combination, and when he's healthy, Samuel Dalembert is a very serviceable center. However, he's not a big scorer, which can also be said about new power forward Reggie Evans. And Willie Green is one of the worst shooting guards in the league. Plenty of rebuilding left to do in Philly.

Southeast Division
1. Washington Wizards 45-37 (6th): The Big Three — Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison — must stay healthy for this team to have a chance of doing big things. And even with them, it's going to be hard to post one of the East's best records with close to nothing at center. Brendan Haywood will have to play monster minutes with his nemesis Etan Thomas shelved and no decent backup in sight.

2. Miami Heat 43-39 (8th): As encouraging as Shaquille O'Neal's off-season training regimen was, the fortunes of the Heat revolve around Dwyane Wade, who will miss the beginning of the season still recovering from shoulder and knee surgeries. And then the period will begin where we'll find out if D-Wade can regain his 2006 championship form. If he can, and O'Neal stays healthy, this team is a championship contender. If he can't, the Heat will scramble to make the playoffs.

3. Orlando Magic 40-42 (10th): Same record, no playoffs. That's the difference this time around in a tougher Eastern Conference. One might think the Magic would be vastly improved after the acquisition of Rashard Lewis to take some of the scoring load off Dwight Howard's broad shoulders, but I'm not convinced. Lewis, to me, is a one-dimensional player — just a scorer. Also, I'm not sold on undersized J.J. Redick at shooting guard. Opposing guards will be able to post him and Jameer Nelson up all day. And Grant Hill will be missed.

4. Atlanta Hawks 32-50 (13th): The pieces are starting to come together. I like shooting guard Joe Johnson. Marvin Williams will have a breakout year. Josh Smith has developed into a solid all-around player. And Zaza Pachulia is an underrated, although weak (just 6.9 rpg), center. Add Al Horford and Acie Law to the mix, and the nucleus is there. But where's the chemistry? Speedy Claxton is one of the league's worst starting PGs, and the rookies still have to prove themselves.

5. Charlotte Bobcats 30-52 (14th): The season hasn't even begun, and youngsters Sean May and Adam Morrison are already decked for the season. Ouch! But this team retains plenty of scoring potential. It will be interesting to see how Jason Richardson and Gerald Wallace split up the shots, and don't forget about Emeka Okafor. PG Raymond Felton could boost himself into the upper echelon of point guards with a stellar season. But the other young guys will be sitting. That hurts.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Southwest Division
1. San Antonio Spurs 58-24 (1st): The Spurs didn't change anything because they didn't need to. The great thing about this group is that you never worry about complacency setting in. If not for a Dirk Nowitzki three-point play in 2006, we could easily be talking about the three-time defending champs right now. And there's plenty to play for, as in the Spurs' first back-to-back titles. Expect nothing less.

2. Dallas Mavericks 57-25 (2nd): The regular season is an afterthought for this talented squad. We know they'll cruise to one of the West's best records. The question is how they'll fair in the playoffs. Will Nowitzki be able to score from the post? He'll be helped by a breakout season from point guard Devin Harris, who will be all over the court. The center position — like usual — is Dallas' weakness.

3. Houston Rockets 51-31 (4th): The acquisitions of point guard Mike James and shooting guard Steve Francis give the Rockets the needed depth in the backcourt along with sharp-shooter Luther Head. But the fact remains that Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady need to remain healthy and motivated to get this team out of the first round of the playoffs. One of them needs to step up and grab control of this bunch, because it has too much talent to be a first-round exit once again.

4. New Orleans Hornets 44-38 (8th): The time has finally come. The Hornets will stay healthy and — boosted by the pickup of veteran guard Morris Peterson — sneak into the playoffs. Tyson Chandler brought a great defensive presence to the lineup last year, but no one noticed his contribution because of injuries to Chris Paul, David West and Peja Stojakovic. If those three can stay healthy, this team won't have a problem getting into the playoffs and may just scare the Spurs in the first round.

5. Memphis Grizzlies 34-48 (13th): The future of this team revolves around the point guard position. How will Mike Conley Jr. develop? Will he become a quality PG quickly, or will it take time? Pau Gasol, I'm sure, is hoping Conley will learn the ropes fast, because Gasol — encouraged by the pickup of Juan Carlos Navarro — wants to win now. Rudy Gay, Stromile Swift and Hakim Warrick are all still raw players. Darko Millicic gets a new home to prove himself.

Northwest Division
1. Utah Jazz 50-32 (5th): Forget that Andrei Kirilenko is unhappy in Salt Lake City. Just the return of precocious point guard Deron Williams and beastly power forward Carlos Boozer gives this team a chance to do big things in the powerful West. The player who needs to develop more is Mehmet Okur. He needs to toughen up around the basket and rebound better. Also, losing Derek Fisher and his clutch shooting will hurt. But in the end, the second coming of Stockton and Malone will win the division for the Jazz.

2. Denver Nuggets 48-34 (6th): Who really knows what to make of this team? Kenyon Martin is back after missing most of last season, and we'll just have to see how he progresses. Hopefully for the team's sake, he'll be content to play good defense, rebound and score second-chance points. I don't like Allen Iverson as a point guard. That's why losing Steve Blake will hurt more than people anticipate. Chucky Atkins shoots too much to get along with Iverson and Carmelo Anthony.

3. Seattle Supersonics 37-45 (11th): Too many questions to ask. Of course the main one is how Kevin Durant will perform as the vocal point of the team's offense. Then there's the question of how much longer this team will remain in Seattle, and how that will affect the players. And then there's the issue of who, besides Durant, will score. I like the pickup of Wally Szczerbiak in the Ray Allen trade to the Celtics because he can score. He'll give them a lift. Point guard Luke Ridnour needs to prove that he can consistently knock down the mid-range jumper. Seattle's still soft inside.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves 33-49 (14th): Forgive me for being an optimist, but I don't think it will be long before this team is back in the postseason. I like Minnesota's young nucleus of Randy Foye, Corey Brewer, Ryan Gomes, Al Jefferson and Gerald Green. Theo Ratliff may be old, but you can count on him to play hard and play good defense (1.5 bpg last season). Antoine Walker is the big question. Will he dedicate himself to helping this team improve, or will he cry his way through the season? Either way, this team is headed in the right direction.

5. Portland Trailblazers 30-52 (15th): Could it be? Could the Trail Blazers get the No. 1 pick for the second straight year? Greg Oden and O.J. Mayo together? It's possible. Some might call this a wasted year with Oden out, but it's a year for PG Jarrett Jack, SG Brandon Roy and PF LaMarcus Aldridge to really improve so that when Oden joins them in a year, they can make up for his rookie hiccups. Channing Frye should also make great strides.

Pacific Division
1. Phoenix Suns 56-26 (3rd): The only reason the Suns finish behind the Mavericks and Spurs is the dissent of power forward Shawn Marion who, for some ludicrous reason, wants to leave the team led by Steve Nash (makes no sense to me). The player who needs to reestablish himself is Boris Diaw, who had a huge down year last season after winning the Most Improved Player award in 2006. Also, with every passing season there's the possibility that Nash will sustain a major injury, and Phoenix fans don't want to even consider LWN (Life Without Nash).

2. Golden State Warriors 45-37 (7th): Man, is this team fun to watch, or what? It also can be the most frustrating team in the league. I'm sure the Warriors will provide their fans with both of their sides at different times throughout the season. The key is team chemistry, which begins with Baron Davis. When the point guard is distributing the ball to open shooters and running the break unselfishly, everyone feeds off him. When he's not? Well, things get ugly. I don't think losing Richardson will hurt that much because there are plenty of shooters and high-flyers to fill his void. Rookie big man Brandan Wright will fit nicely into the run-and-gun system.

3. Los Angeles Lakers 41-41 (9th): Something tells me this team won't finish 41-41. It will either be much better or much worse, with the indicating factor being Kobe Bryant's presence or lack thereof. If he stays and is happy, that probably means the Lakers will pull the string on a deal to bring Jermaine O'Neal or someone else to L.A. If Bryant remains unhappy and is eventually dealt, then the Lakers become a cellar dweller. Should make for great theater in L.A.

4. Los Angeles Clippers 37-45 (10th): No team will miss a single player more than the Clippers will mourn Elton Brand for at least half the season. Sans Brand, this will become a perimeter-oriented squad full of slashers such as Corey Maggette, Cuttino Mobley and rookie Al Thornton. They should be fun to watch, but they'll also commit loads of turnovers and not be as reliable as Brand is in late-game situations.

5. Sacramento Kings 35-47 (12th): Reggie Theus needs to turn over this dilapidated roster. Ditch either Mike Bibby or Ron Artest, because they don't seem to work well together. Build around underrated shooting guard Kevin Martin. And go from there. Brad Miller is nearing the end. Ditto Kenny Thomas and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. This team appears old and rather boring — a complete reversal of the outfit that lit up Arco Arena six years ago.

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
First Round
No. 1 Detroit def. No. 8 Miami 4-2.
No. 2 Boston def. No. 7 New Jersey 4-2.
No. 3 Chicago def. No. 6 Cleveland 4-3.
No. 5 Toronto def. No. 4 Washington 4-3.

Second round
No. 1 Detroit def. No. 5 Toronto 4-2.
No. 3 Chicago def. No. 2 Boston 4-3.

Eastern Conference Finals
No. 1 Detroit def. No. 3 Chicago 4-3: Pistons don't overlook opposing team in the conference finals this time. Chauncey Billups has a huge series, as does Rasheed Wallace, who deftly posts up Chicago's inexperienced big man while a hurting Ben Wallace sits on the bench.

WESTERN CONFERENCE
First Round
No. 1 San Antonio def. No. 8 New Orleans 4-1.
No. 2 Dallas def. No. 7 Golden State 4-3.
No. 3 Phoenix def. No. 6 Denver 4-3.
No. 5 Houston def. No. 4 Utah 4-3.

Second Round
No. 1 San Antonio def. No. 5 Houston 4-1.
No. 2 Dallas def. No. 3 Phoenix 4-3.

Western Conference Finals
No. 1 San Antonio def. No. 2 Dallas 4-2: No huge surprise here. The Spurs are the better team all-around. Tony Parker outplays Harris. Tim Duncan outplays Nowitzki. And the role players do their jobs. The Spurs get payback for that tough Game 7 loss in 2006.

NBA Finals
San Antonio def. Detroit 4-2: Another competitive series, but the Spurs put any leftover doubters to rest that they are the team of this decade, winning their fifth title in the past nine years. This time Manu Ginobili is the MVP, as he frustrates the Pistons with his ability to get to the basket and knock down the open 3-pointers. Robert Horry finally calls it a career with his eighth — eighth! — NBA championship ring. Eva Longoria plasters her husbands with thousands of smooches.

Enjoy the season everyone. I think the refs are clean. I think the Celtics are good. And I know Rasheed Wallace will pick up a technical.

Should be a ball.

3 comments:

J-bo said...

Nice analysis, I pretty much agree with everything. I do wonder about the Pistons though, I'm not so sure that their implosion against the Cavs will bring them back to their former glory. They've made no cast changes and are only getting older. I think somebody else is going to take the East, perhaps the Celtics if their chemistry comes together, but likely someone more unexpected (the Bulls?).

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