Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reading Between The Lines - Hardwood Hype's 2011-12 Eastern Conference "Preview"

Would it be a Hardwood Hype “preview” if its completion arrived before the season’s second week?

In my defense, the last eight days have consisted of four airports, three cities (one being Las Vegas) and roughly three dozen friends and relatives. Please cut me some slack. Thanks.

In keeping with the theme of last week’s Western Conference preview, in which my predictions were made relative to the gaming market’s expectations for each team’s performance in the coming season, I have, mentally at least, headed back East. Despite the belated arrival of this post, be assured that none of what you are about to read benefits from hindsight, as each over-under call was made no later than December 22 and has not been altered.

Atlanta Hawks UNDER 34.5 wins. In the summer of 2010, on the heels of the Hawks’ best regular season record in 13 years, a third straight playoff appearance (they’d previously been absent from the postseason since 1999) and consecutive trips to the conference semifinals, in the name of continuity, management bestowed upon Joe Johnson a contract worth~$126 million over six years- the largest allowed under the then-collective bargaining agreement. The consensus at the time was that the team had broken the bank to lock in a ceiling of mediocrity. One season and a nine-game regression later, that seems a tad optimistic.

Boston Celtics UNDER 39.5 wins. With all due respect to Ray Allen, I don’t think “ego” is what drove David West to steer clear of the C’s.

For all the talk of the Lakers’ imminent demise, the situation in Boston is not much rosier. The Big Three are getting perilously close to AARP membership and biggest positive development of the offseason- upgrading from Big Baby to Brandon Bass- has been steamrolled by a) the loss of Jeff Green for the season after heart surgery and b) management alienating an already mercurial Rajon Rondo by including him in one trade offer after another. This is still a playoff team (one that I think has another series win left in it) but, like the San Antonio Spurs, no longer one built to run at maximum intensity on nightly basis.

Charlotte Bobcats UNDER 15.5 wins. For what felt like an eternity (about half an hour) I stared at this roster, not debating its chances of producing 16+ victories in the coming season (pretty low), but trying to recall where I’d encountered it previously.

An undersized combo guard (a Rookie of the Year and my Rookie of the Year), a well-traveled (or soon to be) looter in a riot, a former frontcourt blue-chipper in the midst of a better career than history will remember and not a true center to be found… and then it hit me- the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats are the 1996-97 Philadelphia 76ers.

Those Sixers posted a record of 22-60. And Kemba- as awesome as he is- is no A.I.

Chicago Bulls OVER 47.5 wins. Built around an unrelenting defense and a superstar playmaker, this is a team designed to win every game it plays.

As they did a year ago, the Bulls will rank among the league’s elite at the defensive end, and look for yet another monster year from Derrick Rose, who, regardless of your thoughts on last season’s MVP voting, is not only the one of the toughest one-on-one covers in the league, but perhaps the perfect superstar for this particular team.

Though they still lack an interior scoring threat, it’s tough to imagine these Bulls losing even a third of their games, especially in an increasingly top heavy Eastern Conference.

Cleveland Cavaliers OVER 16.5 wins. The Cavaliers finished the 2010-11 season, the most brutal in franchise history, with 19 victories. That’s better you were thinking, huh? Adjusted for a 66-games schedule, that’s roughly 15 wins. To expect that the Cavs will improve on the performance of a year ago is not unreasonable. They’ve added two of the first four picks in the draft, including a potential star at the point who should thrive under Byron Scott (I keep saying, Jason Kidd and Chris Paul each enjoyed their best seasons under Scott) and another multi-talented “glue guy” in Omri Casspi to line up alongside Anderson Varejao.

Make no mistake, a team that trots a front line prominently featuring the likes of Antawn Jamison and Samardo Samuels is hardly one we’d classify as “good,” but look for these Cavs, no longer defined by LeBron’s departure, to outperform their (admittedly, virtually non-existent) expectations.

Detroit Pistons OVER 20.5 wins. There is a plan here, right??

Why, exactly, would a team entrenched in the league’s bottom third, one rebuilding around an excellent young center, a versatile young duo (Austin Daye and Jonas Jerebko) up front, and a top-ten pick at the point, one already committed to Ben Gordon (look for bounce back year) and Charlie Villanueva (not here) for roughly $60 million over the next three years, commit an additional $52 million to Rodney Stuckey and Tayshaun Prince? I must be missing something.

However, despite my confusion at Joe Dumars’ apparent lack of a long-term vision, this team is not a disaster. There is NBA-caliber talent at every spot on this roster. This crew will manage 25 wins on raw ability alone, and with a few breaks, could make a run at .500.

Indiana Pacers OVER 36.5 wins. I have no plans to apologize for trashing either the acquisitions of the grossly overpaid “Trike Dunurphy” a few years ago or the franchise cornerstone contract granted to a very-good-but-decidedly-not-franchise-cornerstone Danny Granger. I would, however, like to extend an apology to Larry Bird for questioning his ability to not only built a viable NBA roster, but to a) salvage a seemingly doomed roster without having to hit rock bottom and b) do so in a manner that resulted in not only a burgeoning power in the Eastern Conference, but one of the most cap-friendly rosters in the NBA.

Led by Granger (who, like I said, is a hell of a player) and new arrival David West (who, at $2 years and $20 million was a brilliant signing), with Darren Collison, Roy Hibbert and Paul George alongside, the Pacers are poised to build on an encouraging 2010-11, which saw them flirt with .500 and give the top-seeded Bulls all they wanted in the opening round of the playoffs. Look for Indy to make a leap into the East’s top half, a tier below Miami and Chicago.

Miami Heat OVER 50.5 wins. Remember the weeks leading up to last season, when in the mad scramble to construct a narrative in which “dynasty in a box” would not be an instant success, many took comfort in proclaiming that Year 2 is when things would come together for the Heat?

Well… we’re here. And Year 1 ended two wins shy of a championship after a 58-win regular season.

Milwaukee Bucks UNDER 30.5 wins. I am hard pressed to say a negative word bout any front line built on a foundation of Andrew Bogut, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova. If Bogut’s blood-curdling elbow injury from the 2010 playoffs is definitively in the rearview- hell, even if it’s just mostly there- he will rejoin 2005 draft classmate (and, interestingly, the only other “Andrew B” in NBA history), the Lakers’ Bynum, in the “best center not named Dwight Howard” conversation. Meanwhile, though no one man stands apart from the rest, the trio that will man the “4” spot beside him offers an outstanding combination of athleticism, toughness, defensive intensity and (in Ilyasova’s case) versatility on offense.

Sadly, however, the remainder of this roster makes Joe Dumars look like Sam Presti.

At the 2-3, the Bucks will rely heavily on Carlos Delfino, a talented and efficient wing, but also one attempting to recover from concussion issues that cost him 33 games last season, a talented-but-often-injured Mike Dunleavy and the aging and increasingly banged-up Stephen Jackson.

And finally, at the point we have the always entertaining, but sometimes delusionally self-assured Brandon Jennings. Though off to an awesome start in 2011-12, averaging 22.7 points and shooting 46% from the field through three games, sustainability is vital if Jennings’ criminally inefficient form from his first two NBA campaigns is to be forgotten. He has admittedly had to shoulder a disproportionate load (25.8 career USG) for the offensively-challenged Bucks, but his 15 PER, sub-38% career field goal percentage (20 times in 145 games as a pro, or 13.8% of the time, has he shot 50%+ in a game), and 63 career games (43.4% of his total) with four assists or fewer suggest that he is not yet a front line lead guard.

I love Bogut and Bucks’ trio of “4s,” but the combination of question marks on the wings and (yeah, I’ll say it) incompetence at the point make the thought of a .500 record for this crew seem unattainable.

New Jersey Nets OVER 21.5 wins. You realize that even if these guys only win one out of every three games this is a winning bet?

Brook Lopez or no, on behalf of Deron Williams, I take great offense to this line. Williams is a legitimate superstar- perennially one of the NBA’s ten best players, top-three at his position, and, barring a catastrophe, a Hall of Famer. Greatness doesn’t lose two out of every three games.

New York Knicks UNDER 41.5 wins. Prior to the start of the season, I felt like the only person saying this- and may ultimately be proven dead wrong in the coming months- but I’d look for this season to be pretty brutal. Now, let’s be clear, I’m not talking Isiah bad, but disappointing relative to expectations.

I can’t imagine this is what Donnie Walsh had in mind. During all those sleepless nights, toiling tirelessly to extricate the most relevant franchise not to have won anything in four decades from perhaps the greatest financial quagmire in league history, you really think his plan was to commit 95% of the cap to Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony, while feature a backcourt that will rely on 2010 second round surprise Landry Fields to be something more than a heady role player and may prominently feature the decaying duo of Mike Bibby and Baron Davis?

On any given night, this crew will be capable of conjuring a performance that will lay waste to the league’s elite and lend credence to the opinion that this is a true contender in the East. More frequently, however, Stoudemire, a elite offensive weapon, will be frustratingly rendered redundant by the, well, stylistically redundant ‘Melo, while Chandler shoulders the entire defensive load and the island of misfit backcourt toys struggles to keep pace with even mediocre competition.

Orlando Magic UNDER 38.5 wins. Are people really expecting this team to win three out of every five games? Last season, with a happy (happier, at least) Dwight Howard and an uncharacteristically healthy Jameer Nelson, the Magic racked up 52 wins, or 41-42 over a 66-game sched.

While Dwight is still Dwight, it’s unlikely that he’ll be Dwight in Central Florida by season’s end. On the front line he’s joined by Ryan Anderson (no longer allowed to thrive under the radar), Big Baby Davis (frankly not a front line NBAer), Hedo Turkoglu (now possibly a hair underrated, but no longer a starter on a playoff team) and Quentin Richardson (be honest- did you also have no idea where he was these days?), while Nelson is backed up at the point by Chris Duhon (!!) and…

Is it just me, or does that feel more like a squad bound for the lottery than home court in a playoff series?

Philadelphia 76ers OVER 38.5 wins. It’s tough to imagine this team finding enough to challenge for a conference title, and this number may ultimately prove a bit optimistic, but this team is nicely positioned for an upside surprise. With the Celtics’ grip on elite status looking a bit tenuous and the Magic about to have a harsh rebuild foisted upon them, the Sixers, are prime candidates to step into a new-look second tier (along with Indiana, behind Miami and Chicago) in the East.

Not exactly the franchise players they’re paid to be, Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand make for a nice veteran foundation. Iggy, when he lays off the perimeter shot, still shy of his 28th birthday, ranks among the league’s elite slashers and perimeter defenders, and handles the ball as well as virtually anyone at his position, while a finally-healthy Elton Brand has regained much of the efficiency (18.5 PER, 51%/78% FG/FT, 9.4 Win Shares and 8th in the NBA in offensive rebounds in 2010-11) on which his excellence of the past decade was built. At 32 years of age, Brand may be on the back nine of his career, but should have some good ball left.

Meanwhile, 22 year-old Jrue Holiday, already one of the NBA’s better young point guards, should continue his journey toward becoming one of the league’s best and Thaddeus Young, still only 23 and coming off of a 2010-11 season in which he shot 54% from the field, posted an 18.4 PER and had 6.2 Win Shares (third on the team), round out what promises to be one of the league’s best quartets.

Toronto Raptors UNDER 15.5 wins. A year from now, the Raptors will have cause for some serious optimism. The arrival of June’s fifth overall pick Jonas Valanciunas, a more experienced Ed Davis (a Hype favorite), an elite scorer in DeMar DeRozan (look for 25+/game this season), more than $10 million worth of Jose Calderon ready to come off the books, a top-10 pick from a loaded 2012 draft, and, despite a cataclysmic contract that will still have three years and $33 million left on it, a prolific scorer with size on the perimeter in Andrea Bargnani- or the eight figures of cap space that the amnesty clause would liberate.

This season, however… not so much. Look for the Raps to struggle early and often, en route to the league’s worst record.

Washington Wizards UNDER 19.5 wins. John Wall is a virtual lock to become a superstar… but still needs an outside shot. JaVale McGee cuts the figure of a young Tyson Chandler… once he looks like the older version, he’ll be a force. Rashard Lewis represents almost $24 million in cap relief in the summer… of 2013. Chris Singleton will one day become one of the East’s best perimeter defenders… and maybe one day become a serviceable offensively. One day.

Like the Raptors, the Wizards are a “next year story.”

Oh! I almost forgot Andray Blatche! This is exciting…

Nah, I got nothin’. Andray Blatche is, and sadly will forever be, Andray Blatche.

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