Monday, March 5, 2007

A BIG, Bright Future for the East

The relative weakness of the Eastern Conference is the most widely discussed topic regarding competitive balance in the NBA. The Western Conference has won six of the eight post-Jordan NBA titles (only two of the past three, however), seven of the eight league MVP awards (Allen Iverson is the lone Eastern Conference player to win the MVP in that span and he now plays in the West as well), and has generally been the deeper and more talented conference by a rather wide margin. Having been home to players like Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Webber in their respective primes, the Western Conference has also had a virtual monopoly on dominant big men for the better part of the past decade as well.

As a result of numerous well-spent draft picks, the Eastern Conference looks poised to challenge, if not overtake, the West’s dominance in the paint. There is an outstanding lineup of big men under sub-25 years of age, both solid bangers as well as potential superstars, who will be vital in winning back some respect for their conference.

First, some bigs that can (and someday will!) carry a team to the Promised Land:

  • Chris Bosh- The forgotten SUPERstar of the 2003 draft, Chris Bosh is the best big man in the Eastern Conference. At just 22 years old, his game already resembles that of Kevin Garnett in his prime, both in terms of style and stats. Toronto has put this year’s 13-18 start completely behind them. Since January 1, Bosh has lifted his game to new heights, averaging over 24 points, nearly 10 free throw attempts and shooting better than 53% from the field. Bosh’s emergence as a legitimate SUPERstar has, not surprisingly, coincided with the Raptors’ 19-8 record in the New Year, the best of any team not from Dallas and Phoenix, as well as their emergence as a legitimate candidate to win the Eastern Conference.
  • Dwight Howard- As great as physical specimen as there is in the NBA. Despite the fact that his offensive game is still pretty raw, Dwight Howard is the best center in the Eastern Conference. A bit more polish on his 8-12-foot game, combined with his athleticism and coordination, will make him absolutely un-guardable. Howard’s defense and rebounding already allow him to play bigger than his 6’11” and 265-lb. size. The improvement in his offense is inevitable, as evidenced by his average of 22.8 points-per-game (on an absurd 70.7% from the floor!) this February, which is by far the best of his career.
  • Emeka Okafor- Physically, as well as with his shot blocking (2.8 per game) and offensive rebounding (4.1 per game, 2nd in NBA), Emeka Okafor looks like the second coming of Moses Malone. More than any player currently in the NBA, including Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett, Okafor looks like he could average 16-18 boards per game one day; it’s already surprising any time he grabs less than 15 rebounds in a game. Like Howard, Okafor’s offensive game could use some polish, but he is also progressing. He is shooting about 58% from the field since January 1, and his season field goal percentage (54.2%) is the best of his career.
  • David Lee- Aside from being far-and-away the best player on the Knicks, David Lee is the best pure rebounder in the NBA, period. Better than Ben Wallace or KG. He’s the best “inch-for-inch” rebounder since Charles Barkley. Lee has a combination of Charles Oakley’s love of high-impact collisions and Dennis Rodman’s radar for the basketball. If anyone needs more proof that Isiah Thomas is only occasionally awake during Knicks games, consider that Lee, who is young (age 24), productive (hitting over 60% of his field goals and 81% of his free throws), and the ONLY bargain on the Knicks’ roster (salary <$1,000,000), can’t crack the starting lineup.
  • Al Jefferson- The Celtics will not be that bad next season…. seriously. In 2007-08, Boston will team a top 5 draft pick, possibly Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, with Paul Pierce, who will be healthy and rested, and Al Jefferson, who in his third season is emerging as a monster down low. Another positive sign is that his numbers are improving as the season goes on; Jefferson averaged 13.4 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.3 bpg before Jan. 1, and he’s averaged 14.8 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 1.6 bpg since. Another thought for Celtics’ fans to consider before taking to the streets to club their players’ knees to ensure the league’s worst record: at just 22 years of age, less than 3 years older than the sought-after Greg Oden, Jefferson’s 2006-07 numbers (14.2 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 1.5 bpg), against superior competition, are comparable to Oden’s Ohio State stats (15.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 3.5 bpg- NBA opposition will bring this down to earth). This is NOT to suggest that a) Jefferson’s upside is equal to Oden’s, or that b) Oden will not develop into a franchise player in the NBA; this is meant to suggest that the area where the Celtics least need help is in the low post. Oden would certainly help, but the cupboard is not bare.
  • Andrea Bargnani- When he was drafted, it was predicted that the selection of Andrea Bargnani would pay off not today but probably two years from now. Not only has he adapted to the NBA in just his first season without looking totally lost, Bargnani’s poised to grow into one of the NBA’s most versatile scoring big men. Since January 1 (when the Raptors’ season came together), Bargnani’s scoring has increased (12.6 ppg since January 1; 9.7 before), as has his field goal percentage (45% vs. 40.2%), 3-point percentage (41.3% vs. 30.4%; over 48% in February!), as well as his already great free throw shooting (87.5% vs. 81.2%). No rookie this side of Brandon Roy is having nearly as successful a season as Bargnani, who is more comfortable in the NBA with each passing game. Don’t be surprised if he averages over 15 point per game over the rest of this season, and more than 18 next year.

After the Big Six, there is another crop of up-and-coming big men in the East. It certainly a step down, but this crew has the potential to make a big impact on the NBA in the coming years. A few big men, all 25 and under, to keep an eye on:

  • Andrew Bogut- Still something of a role player, but in just his second season, Bogut has improved both his scoring (12.2 ppg, up from 9.4) and rebounding (8.8 rpg, up from 7.0). Size (a legit 7 feet) and skill (18-20 foot range), along with Michael Redd, Charlie Villanueva and Mo Williams (for now) keeping defenses honest from outside, will allow Bogut to grow into one of the East’s best big men.
  • Anderson Varejao- The Cavaliers’ best rebounder and defender, averaging 6.7 rebounds in less than 24 minutes per game. He is foul prone (3.4 per game), but simply does not turn the ball over (.8 TO/game). Varejao’s non-stop, high-energy play makes him the most valuable player on the Cavs not named LeBron James. Just how valuable? We’ll see- he’s a free agent after the season. Look for him to get a deal in the neighborhood of $8-10 million a year.
  • Zaza Pachulia- Maybe the best center in the East that no one’s ever heard of. In addition to his productive offensive game (11.7 ppg on 45%+ from the field), Pachulia is an outstanding rebounder (2.8 off. rebounds/game, 6.7 total in just 27 min/game) and foul shooter (79%; 82% since Jan. 1). He does need to improve his defense; he’s averaging 3.7 fouls and just .5 blocks per game. The Hawks are improving, and while Joe Johnson is clearly their best player, Zaza Pachulia will be vital in getting them back into the playoffs.
  • Eddy Curry- He’s developed into a legitimate scorer and will end the season averaging more than 20 a night (currently at 19.6 ppg). Sadly, there’s nothing else on a basketball court that he does well; he’s a bad foul shooter (under 62%), turnover-prone (3.4 TO/game) and, at 6”11” and 300 pounds, Curry is averaging a sad 7.1 rebounds and .5 blocked shots per game.
  • Nenad Krstic- Not known for doing anything noteworthy on defense, but he’s a developed into a very good offensive weapon. Before blowing out his knee in December, Krstic was averaging more than 16 points and 6.8 rebounds (2 of them on the offensive glass), and occupying the attention of opposing big men both on the inside and the outside.
  • Samuel Dalembert- In his sixth year, still just 25 years old, Dalembert, is one of the most valuable players on the 76ers. Despite his unrefined offensive game, he’s averaging a career best 10.6 points and 9.1 rebounds (3 of them offensive!) and more than 2 blocks; in the month of February his rebounding average shot up to 12 per game!

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